Modesty: Asking Not Telling
I like Shane Blackshear.
He’s smart, funny, and his beardedness makes me feel right at home, because I’m from Portland and beards are kind of a big deal here. So when he asked me a few months ago if I wanted to have a public discussion of sorts about Modesty, I agreed. In fact, I’m pretty much took the first half of his post and pinned it above my kitchen table/frequent desk, because he says some really nice things about my writing.
Contrary to what you’d find on my Twitter feed, I don’t like talking about Modesty.
But I do think talking about Modesty is important, because it’s been a significant force in my own story. It's the topic heading for so many chapters in my life. And I know I’m not alone. The whirlwind around all sides of the Modesty tells me it's really important to a lot of us. And I think this force is headed towards the end of Modesty Rules. More and more of us are speaking up.
The Modesty Rules are on their last hemlines, my friends, and I think that’s reason to celebrate.
Not because everybody will go nude. But because freedom to make intimate decisions – like what clothes you put on in the morning in the morning, and how you feel about your human body, and how you learn to relate to other human bodies not your own, matters.
The Modesty Rules are keeping us constricted, ashamed of ourselves, and afraid of others.
Shane Blackshear doesn’t quite agree with me on this one. And that’s cool. Sometimes the claws come out (snikt snikt) when we’re processing and navigating and arguing new and very personal things. I don’t mind when things get a little scrappy, even in the Christian blogging world. I’m a belt it out kind of singer.
But Shane doesn’t do that; he models gentleness, and tough but open disagreement. I admire that.
It’s taken me a long time to respond because a. I’m lazy and b. I wanted to do more research and thinking. I didn't want to take Shane's thoughtful response for granted.
This is a big deal to me, and as a woman, what my culture says about Modesty (because when we’re talking about Modesty as a cultural force, we’re always talking about women) affects me daily. I wanted to listen to more stories (thank you to all of you who submitted them!), trace my ideas a little deeper, and make sure I had something to say that I actually wanted to say.
And now I do.
I’ll start with Shane’s main points, today, because they mirror the most significant pushback I get from people when I critique Modesty Rules. On Wednesday, I’ll address the more specific examples Shane brings up, of a lace shirt, leading people on, and pornography addiction.
Shane closed with this, but I’d like to open with it, because he brings up a fantastic point about Legalism and Modesty.
Please understand that I’m not interested in charts and graphs to find out exactly what is modest and what isn’t, I think that’s where the efforts to control others come in. I think legalism has no place here. I think what I’m asking is for people to just be conscious when choosing attire, and remember that others are fighting a hard battle.
First of all, I don’t think there’s a difference between "legalistic" and "non-legalistic" foundation of The Modesty Rules. This false dichotomy distracts us from the real issues, and we end up debating the lines of “legalism” rather than addressing Modesty Rules as a cultural force. We pretend like if all the really awful rules went away, Modesty Rules would be okay, but I don't think so. We can't discuss Modesty Rules without considering them as a part of, and force for, culture.
Secondly, Modesty Rules always involve specifics. Maybe it’s “That shirt is too tight for her,” or “That skirt is too short,” or “Ew, nobody wants to see that,” but this cultural force in our daily lives always shows up like this. We’re always talking about specifics. Specific items of fabric on specific human bodies in specific social situations.
I often hear the critique that my energy should be redirected to only the “legalistic” appropriation of these rules or that "modesty is important as long as it's not legalistic" but I'm calling foul. There’s no such thing as a non-legalistic approach to Modesty Rules, and that’s not the point. Applications vary, but the root of the Modesty Rules is controlling women.
The goal of every argument for Modesty Rules is to get women to change for men.
No matter what reasoning or religious or emotional appeal is used, the desired outcome is that women change. Even if it includes caveats that men are responsible for their own lust, as many Modesty proponents like Shane do, they use this to insist that women also “be responsible” for their part in "causing lust."
As many other Modesty Rules critics have pointed out, there is simply no way to be modest enough if you have a female body, because your very presence in a female body in the world is consider a threat.
I don’t think Shane is advocating for the subjugation of women or women’s bodies. But to me, what he is advocating for cannot be separated from this in any meaningful way. The desired result is too similar. We talk in generalities occasionally, but we want specific humans to cover their bodies in specific ways, and we make it known when they don't.
The shame is inherent in Modesty Rules, not just in the application.
Shane offered this summary of his response:
I would say that I would ask not tell women to please be conscious of their dress, not because they are culpable for a man lusting after them, but because he is culpable, because there’s distance in his relationship with God when he lusts, and if you love him like a brother and you love God, then you would want to protect it.
Shane is asking that women change for men, even if it's in a benevolent, relational way, with the goal being celebrating humanity.
The problem is, it doesn’t work like that.
We cannot celebrate our full, equal humanity if a certain group of humans need to hide their human bodies in order to be accepted.
We cannot be a community of people who learn to love God and love others when it comes on the condition that one half of the community is a threat to the whole.
We cannot mature as individual people, with uniquely beautiful bodies and biological attractions, with common hope for God’s Kingdom, when we ask other people to consider our needs before theirs.
We cannot continue to place the distance in our unique, personal relationship with God on other people outside that unique, personal relationship.
Shane’s argument requests a certain section of the community: women (with bodies deemed sexually attractive to the straight men in that community) to change themselves for another section of the community: (straight) men (who are attracted to those bodies). He claims that men are responsible for themselves, but then asks women to "protect" men by hiding their bodies properly. And in this language is an undercurrent of female responsibility for male actions, which sounds a lot like Rape Culture.
Though Shane wisely acknowledges his privilege and says he puts the responsibility for female lust on straight men in his post, he still is asking women at large to change for men at large. He’s still operating from a straight male paradigm, and his arguments reflect those assumptions. He’s polite and reasonable and kind, but at the end of his piece, he still advocates that women exist in a particular modest space that a certain segment of men create for them.
In his piece, women only have agency in order to fulfill men’s desires, in this case, his desire that women “help” the male ability to see them as fully human. Women aren’t fully human on their own.
And that’s sexism.