Today’s guest post is from frequent commenter Martin.

I’ve read a lot of articles lately that reject the idea that women should be expected to dress modestly.  I don’t think it’s necessary to link to any — anybody who’s likely to read this post has undoubtedly read several, but the one that set me off most recently was this one.  Every time I read one of them, my feelings seem disproportionately negative considering I usually agree with 70-95% of what they write. If I reduce these posts to what I consider to be their primary point, it is that requiring women to dress modestly in order to protect men suggests that men are unable to control themselves, which is not only untrue, but leads to

  1. men justifying their bad behavior (all the way up to rape) by blaming it on women (eg., “she asked for it by how she dressed”)
  2. women feeling responsible for things truly outside their control, being ashamed of their bodies, and excusing boorish behavior by men (“boys will be boys”)

There are other secondary themes, such as

  1. the patriarchy controlling women for the benefit of men
  2. how women are told to be modest but men aren’t [1]
  3. how fetishizing modesty actually objectifies women
  4. how naked bodies aren’t intrinsically sexual [2]
  5. whether modest dress makes any difference in how men see women [3]

I don’t entirely agree with all of them (see footnotes), but in the end, these secondary themes are secondary. The primary issue boils down to women’s safety and freedom.  Instead of women being told to govern their behavior, they want men to govern theirs.

I whole-heartedly and unreservedly embrace the idea that men can control themselves and must be expected to treat women with decency and respect regardless how they dress.  There is no circumstance or act of any other person that can be used to justify sexual assault.  I know a lot of people haven’t yet come to this realization, which is probably why these articles keep getting written, but I am not one of them.

And yet… I object mightily to the conclusion, implied or explicit, that women shouldn’t be expected to dress modestly.

I feel I’m rapidly becoming an old man, and I’ve watched what’s considered normal and acceptable with respect to human sexuality change dramatically over the course of my lifetime.  You can argue about what’s been good and what’s been bad, but there’s no question that entertainment and advertising have pushed the boundaries of “edgy” far from where they were.  Titillation sells.  Nothing is more titillating than sex, and nothing can spice up the mundane like sexual tension in the background.  But what’s exciting in one decade doesn’t have enough kick for the next, so the envelope has been pushed to the point that mainstream popular shows hire porn actors for their orgy scenes.  Society has moved with the media.  A bikini just isn’t sexy enough any more so girls wear thongs.  It’s ironic that some of the same women decrying the idea that women should dress modestly are the same ones arguing for women to accept themselves with their varying body types, as though putting them on display side-by-side like that works to anybody’s advantage other than those most closely matching society’s ideal.  But that’s beside the point.  I just can’t see how the steady desensitization to sex is healthy.  I’ve read several variations of “It’s just a body.  There’s nothing sexual about it” in these articles.  Ask yourself, do you want your spouse de-sensitized?  Or do you want your spouse turned on by your normal, average, everyday self?

Besides, I think the primary reason we ought to teach girls to dress modestly is about them, not about boys.  It’s about what’s going to form the basis of their self-esteem, and making sure that basis is healthy, in spite of all the images and messages they see around them. [4]

But, as I said, that’s actually beside the point, so let me get to it.  At a recent high school graduation (for my nephew), the students’ elected “favorite teacher” gave a little speech, the highlight of which was essentially “Your future is yours and yours alone.  You are your own person.  You don’t owe anything to anybody.  Don’t let anybody tell you what you can and cannot do.”  I was dumbfounded.  Don’t owe anything to anybody?!  These kids, some of the most privileged in the history of the world, are being told by someone they look up to that they had no debt to society, no duty to their community, no obligation to those who came before and to those who were coming after?  That everything was truly about them?  To me, that kind of thinking is opposite to everything virtuous, honorable, or praiseworthy.  The leader of any drug cartel in the Americas could have told them the same stuff.

I feel that some of the sentiments expressed in articles decrying modesty expectations are very similar.  We have very few words directly attributable to Jesus Christ, but among the few we have, He was quoted as saying “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”  There are a lot of ways to interpret this scripture, but as one who believes sex is a gift of God to bind husbands and wives in love and tenderness, I cannot interpret it as meaning that sexual attraction is a bad thing.  But turning another person into a sexual object and the subject of sexual fantasies is.  This is a temptation that many men (and women) have.  In fact, I would argue that our society and our media train them to do exactly that.  Yes, they can control themselves and should.  I completely agree that men should be able to treat women with respect and dignity regardless how they’re dressed or whether they’re dressed at all.  But to suggest that women shouldn’t dress modestly or that they have no obligation to their fellow beings is contrary to the ideas of common decency.  And that IS the point.  Everything we do affects someone else, and therefore, should figure into whether we choose to do it.

I’m not defending the creepy guy who takes it upon himself to let a woman know her skirt is too short [5].  Nor am I interested in debating skirt lengths or acceptable amounts of cleavage.  I’m not even debating standards of sexuality at this point.  It’s the self-centered, not-responsible-to-anybody way of thinking that I object to, and which I believe promotes all sorts of uncivil and uncivilized behavior.  I’m arguing that as women continue to throw off their shackles, that they don’t get to entirely abdicate responsibilities they didn’t choose and still remain decent members of society.


[1] Women’s and men’s dress is not symmetric in our society — for example, when men and women dress up, men put on more cloth and women put on less.  Also, there appears to be some difference in how men and women are sexually aroused, judging by how the market for porn is dominated men and the market for romance novels is dominated by women.  That doesn’t mean that men shouldn’t also be taught to dress modestly, it’s just that the emphasis toward women can be justified.

[2] Context does matter, but the eye of the beholder probably matters more.  That doesn’t imply that it’s completely subjective, though.  Nudity most definitely is associated with sexuality.

[3] For example, cultures in which women are most expected to dress modestly are often those in which women are most likely to be assaulted.  It’s also been argued that since men can get still get aroused and objectify a woman in a hijab, it doesn’t matter what women wear.  Valid observations, but it’s also undeniable that the way women dress can significantly affect the likelihood of a man becoming sexually interested/aroused, so those observations are somewhat beside the point

[4] True story — years ago when my early-teen daughter and I were doing dishes, the topic of Britney Spears’ mental meltdown came up.  She’d loved Britney when she was younger.  I asked her what she thought had happened to Britney, and after a pause, she said “I think it started when she started dressing immodestly.”  I’d already been influenced the anti-modesty messages from Mormon feminist bloggers, so my first reaction was that my daughter had been drinking too much of the YW KoolAid.  But I just asked why she thought that.  “Well,” she answered, “they told her that if she wanted to be a star, she needed to dress that way, so she did, because she wanted the attention, and then they asked her to dance that way,  and then they asked her to do more and more stuff that wasn’t good, and she did, because she wanted people to like her, and then nothing she did was good enough anymore, and… and now she’s lost herself and is very sad, and I feel bad for her.”  She’d thought about this stuff a lot, and she concluded it was because Britney only liked herself when other people liked her.

[5] Though I have been tempted to ask my kids’ classmates, “Do you know your butt cheeks are hanging out of your shorts?  Really…the bottom of your buttocks are hanging right out!  Wanted to make sure you knew.  I’d hope you’d say something if my fly were unzipped or if I’d forgotten to wear pants.”  But I never would.  Somebody would charge me with sexual harassment or something.