I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing . . . with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.
—1 Timothy 2:8–10
In June 2019, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) released a fifty-two-page report on sexual abuse in their own denomination in anticipation of their annual gathering in Birmingham, Alabama, that same month. The report claimed, among other things, that a key reason there was so much sexual abuse in their ranks was because of something it referred to as “theological misapplications.” In other words, the theology itself was not the problem but merely the misapplication of it by sinful people. “Theological misapplications”—what a turn of phrase. In two words, the SBC shifted the blame off of their own shoulders and onto those who were criticizing them. Can’t their critics see—if we could stop being so biased and emotional for just a moment—that it’s merely a few bad actors who have taken good theology and applied it inappropriately? The theology itself could never be at fault—that would be heresy.
And while my book #ChurchToo is predicated on the assertion that, contra the SBC’s report, there is no such thing as “theological misapplication”—good theology bears good fruit, bad theology bears bad fruit, especially when it comes to purity culture and abuse—I think it’s especially apparent when it comes to this first theological teaching I’ll be exploring: modesty.
Every man is staring at you. When you wear those tight little shorts, every man is staring at your butt. When you wear the tight, revealing shirt, every guy is looking at your breasts. Think about that the next time you get dressed. Think about your grandfather, because all of his old friends are looking at your breasts when you wear that stuff. Eww! I know it’s gross, but that’s the truth. If you dress like a piece of meat, you’re gonna get thrown on the BBQ. It’s that simple.
—Justin Lookadoo and Hayley Morgan, Dateable
The idea that Christians need to be “modest” comes from a few different verses in the bible, but 1 Timothy 9 (which I quoted at the start of this chapter) is specifically weaponized by evangelical Christians against women and young girls to control what they wear. Because of the way this verse is popularly interpreted, the importance of modesty, pretty much exclusively for women, is a near universal in purity culture. What’s less universal, however, is the definition of what exactly constitutes “modest.”
Growing up, “modesty” was defined in my house according to the latest book my mother had read. One summer, it would be OK for us girls to wear tank tops outside. The next summer—no tank tops, only T-shirts. The summer after that, tank tops were OK again as long as we wore two at a time to make the straps appear wider and cover the oh-so-scandalous errant bra strap. Some conservative Christian communities take it as far as mandating that women only wear skirts in public, whereas communities more to the center of the spectrum tend to grapple with questions like whether yoga pants or bikinis are acceptable for women to wear. In addition, you’ll notice vastly different communal understandings of what it means to be “modest” in a church in the desert of Arizona in July, for example, versus a church in central Illinois.
But regardless of how a community defines modesty, the moral imperative for women to dress a certain way in order to avoid leading the men in the community into sinful behavior is ubiquitous. Almost without fail, the reasoning given for modest dressing is as follows: When you show too much skin, men, who are “visual creatures,” can’t help but start thinking sexual thoughts about you and may even become physically aroused. It’s in their God-given nature to do this, because they’re visually stimulated in a way that women aren’t. Once you’ve been made aware of this as a woman, if you continue to dress in a way that provokes sexual thoughts in men, you are morally culpable and part of the problem, since men should only be thinking sexual thoughts about their wives.
Now, it’s a very small hop, skip, and a jump from this line of reasoning to blaming a woman for her own assault because of what she was wearing (or not wearing) when it occurred. The quote from Dateable that I opened this section with makes that exquisitely clear. But that’s why I chose it, right? Because it perfectly illustrates my point? Surely I just picked the worst quote I could find to make conservative Christians look bad for trying to help women value themselves and resist our sex-saturated culture, as they say.
I wish I was being histrionic. Head over to Twitter and spend a few minutes perusing the #ChurchToo hashtag. You’ll find plenty of stories of women who, upon reporting their assault at the hands of a pastor or youth pastor, were asked, “Well, what were you wearing?” The barbecue quote is an extreme example, sure. But without using the same language, modesty teachings are telling Christian women every day that they’re in danger of being thrown on the barbecue if they don’t dress exactly right—and that if they do end up on the barbecue, it was at least a little bit their fault. (Never mind how problematic it is to compare human women to steaks or burgers or anything else that’s for consumption.) Theologies of female modesty are the primary evangelical Christian vehicle for victim-blaming in our churches today. And as we will see with each theology I explore in this book, this is a feature of the theology, not a bug or a glitch. This is how it is designed.
But modesty isn’t applied equally to everybody. While it’s rarely applied to men, it sometimes is, especially when church leaders want to pay lip service to the idea that they are not singling out women specifically with their modesty rules. Men also tend to suffer in communities with a heavy emphasis on modesty theology because the phrase “visual creatures” acts as a euphemism for “out-of-control sex monsters,” and I’ve talked to many men who grew up in purity culture who struggled with self-hatred and low self-esteem for years because they believed that their very normal sexuality was fundamentally evil and broken. Additionally, not all women experience the teachings of modesty in the same way. It’s difficult to enforce consistently because of things like climate, changing fashion norms, and the ever-evolving landscape of the Christian publishing industry that launches one book into fame and then another. But it’s also difficult to enforce because no two bodies are the same, and different bodies experience different degrees of privilege, even—and perhaps especially—in church.
By now, it should be fairly obvious that “Dress modestly so you don’t cause your brother in Christ to sin” is one side of the coin, and “She was asking for it because she was dressed immodestly” is the other. And while many modesty proponents would probably reject that characterization, the fact that they would reject it in name doesn’t mean it’s not true. My aim here isn’t to make people comfortable; it’s to hold up a mirror. Moreover, I’m less interested in what people claim to believe and more interested in what they actually do. As we’ll see with this and so many of the other doctrines in the chapters that follow, there is often a vast chasm between those two.
When you look at the popular literature of modesty theology in the evangelical church today, scary barbecue metaphors from misogynists with frosted tips aside, it’s often framed in terms of female empowerment. In fact, many writers even co-opt the language of feminist theory to claim that what they are doing actually fights objectification, presumably because if you are modestly covered, nobody can objectify you. They claim that secular (read non-Christian) culture is “obsessed with sex,” and by dressing modestly, women can opt out of that game and focus on letting men get to know them for their characters rather than their bodies.
In Every Young Woman’s Battle: Guarding Your Mind, Heart, and Body in a Sex-Saturated World (one book in a series that frames sexuality as warfare—Every Woman’s Battle, Every Man’s Battle, and Every Young Man’s Battle are some of the other titles), authors Shannon Ethridge and Stephen Arterburn state, “If you want to be a young woman of sexual integrity, you will be different. Smarter. You will teach your guy friends how to treat you with dignity and respect rather than teaching them that you are eye candy or a toy for their sexual jollies.” Integrity. Smarter. Dignity. Respect. Look at all that empowering language!
Flip back a few pages in Every Young Woman’s Battle, however, and you’ll see Ethridge and Arterburn sharing the story of a young woman who was a camp counselor for girls at a Christian camp. The woman relays the story of how, in an attempt to connect with her young campers and make them think she was cool, she pushed the limit on what was considered acceptable, “modest” dress for camp employees.
She says, “[Male colleagues] chased me around with water guns, gave me piggyback rides to the cafeteria, slipped ice down the back of my shirt, and fun stuff like that. I kept asking them to please leave me alone so I could concentrate on my girls, but they rarely respected my requests, no matter how firm I was. I complained to one of the other counselors about how the guys were distracting me from what I came to do. She put her hand on mine and sweetly said, ‘Christi, your actions speak louder than your words. . . . If you dress like a cute little plaything and present yourself as a toy, then boys will be boys and try to play with that toy!’”
So, um. *taps mic* Is this thing on? That is sexual harassment. If you put ice cubes down the back of a woman’s shirt, and she firmly asks you to stop, and then you keep doing it anyway . . . that’s sexual harassment. But instead of this tale being a lesson in the way that sexual harassment often goes underreported and underprosecuted in religious environments, it’s presented as a lesson of “Well? What did you expect? You were dressed like a plaything, after all.” Only people aren’t toys, and sexual harassment isn’t a game. So much for female empowerment in a “sex-saturated world.” Where’s all that dignity talk now?
While many of the modesty gurus of purity culture claim that “the world” is “obsessed with sex,” I would argue that purity culture in general and modesty theology specifically betray an equally fierce yet complementary obsession with sex compared with what is found in broader, non-Christian society. Obviously, many secular institutions are wildly exploitative of women’s sexuality in the opposite direction—whittling women’s worth down to how hot and sexy their bodies are, how young and youthful they can appear, or how well they can approximate the aesthetic values of whiteness and heterosexuality. But whittling women’s worth down to how modest and covered they are is not the answer and is equally objectifying and exploitative.
There are those who, when confronted with all of this information about the fallout of modesty theology, will still claim that teachings about modesty have nothing to do with the problem of sexual assault and harassment in the church. To that I would say that only those with vested financial and social interest in the propagation of purity culture seem to be mysteriously unable to connect the dots. Christian modesty theology actively, demonstrably plays a part in blaming survivors for their own harassment, abuse, and assault—by definition. There is no way to teach that women must obligatorily dress “modestly” (however each individual community defines that) for the sake of men without also implying the inherent guiltiness of women who do not comply or who fail to meet the standard. The way that modesty theology has played a part in hundreds and thousands of survivors’ stories should put to shame anyone who ever promoted it to their daughters, wives, congregants, or youth group students. As Jessica Valenti points out in her seminal work The Purity Myth, “So long as women are supposed to be ‘pure,’ and so long as our morality is defined by our sexuality, sexualized violence against us will continue to be both accepted and expected.”
It was 2011, and my family had come to visit me in Chicago for the weekend while I was a junior at Moody Bible Institute. On Sunday morning, I took them to my church with me—a reformed, neo-Calvinist Acts 29 church on the north side I had only started attending to flirt with a boy who had long since chosen someone else. But I had other friends who went there, and I got sucked in by the community, and I didn’t want to be that person that only went to a church for a boy, so I stayed. (I also had a brief love affair with Calvinism as a Moody student. What can I say? Certainty is a hell of a drug, and they were writing prescriptions for it left and right at bible college.) We sat in the balcony that morning, in two rows to accommodate our large group. The worship band wandered onto the stage and began to pick up their instruments and plug in their microphones, as the service was about to begin.
As the first song started, my mother suddenly whipped her head around from the row in front of me and tried to speak just loud enough to be heard over the music: “Who is that?” she asked. My eyes darted toward the stage, and I immediately knew who she was talking about: the lead female singer, standing just to the left of center stage. She was wearing a bright pink skirt that fell just above her knees and a bright yellow top that hugged her body’s curves and showed a sliver of belly and cleavage, with velvety, knee-high boots completing the outfit. Her radiant colors were in stark contrast to the men in the worship band all around her, dressed in neutral T-shirts and blue jeans. I could tell from my mother’s face that this was not a positive question. I panicked.
“I—uh,” I stammered. “I think she’s a new Christian.” This seemed to satisfy her. “Hmm,” she said, the corners of her mouth turning down in a shrug. “She better be.” She turned back around and sang along with the song, mollified for the time being.
My mother may have been satisfied, but I was anything but. I could barely concentrate the rest of the service. I have never forgotten the way I threw that other woman under the bus to my mother for the sake of upholding modesty theology, and I have never stopped being sorry for it. The thing is, I think she had just become a Christian. But it shouldn’t have mattered. There was nothing wrong with what she was wearing because there was nothing wrong with her body. Her outfit made perfect sense for a balmy spring morning in Chicago in a gathering full of young millennials in a repurposed theater. But she didn’t meet the criteria in at least one person’s mind, so instead, her choices had to be explained away as those of a “baby Christian.” Why else would someone be so reckless and immodest? Hopefully as she grows and matures in Christ, she’ll learn not to dress so sluttily, for the sake of the men in the room.
You see how it goes.
The reason I started my analysis of purity culture and #ChurchToo with modesty is because it’s the most surface-level doctrine—but it’s also the most insidious. It worms its way into the minds of women and men alike, convincing them that anything a woman might wear could affect her value, worth, and dignity. It is the first way we learn in Christian community to blame victims—and the first way Christian women learn to blame themselves. It’s an outward signifier that Christian leaders believe they can point to that supposedly indicates a woman’s purity and virtue. It is the very currency of rape apologism in churches.
Modesty doesn’t work alone.