Modesty talks — sure, they don’t happen as much now as they did at the height of the purity movement in the 90’s and early 2000’s. But they do still happen.
I’m in my thirties now, and modesty talks left a major and mostly negative impact on my life. Even though my modesty talk experiences were negative, they have also caused thoughtful reflection and turned into something positive.
In both youth groups and camp ministry, I received the modesty talk on countless occasions. They all had the same basic outline:
- Our bodies are a temple; we need to keep the temple pure.
- Anything sexual outside of marriage will dirty the temple.
- Men are lustful and visual creatures, so women need to make sure they cover their boobs.
- Women are not as visual and do not deal with lust, so men do not have to worry as much about modesty.
I accepted this teaching wholesale. I knew that I was visual, saw my sexuality as a dirty thing, and kept on trying to fight back lust.
But I began to notice some problems with modesty talks.
God’s Grace, Not Sheer Will
The first big problem with modesty talks is that it is up to us to keep our temples pure.
I need to nuance this, because there is some truth in this teaching. The Apostle Paul talks about sexual sin in the Corinthian church when he says:
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NIV)
Paul is not saying it’s up to us to clean our temples and make it pure by sheer willpower; he is saying that we belong to someone else. We are not completely autonomous creatures, and our decisions should be ones that please God.
At the foundation of this teaching is that Jesus bought us, Jesus did the cleaning, and the Holy Spirit is changing us. We do not do this by sheer will.
Modesty talks were stressful because they did not emphasize the redemptive work of Christ.
We are cleansed by the blood of Christ. Our sexual experiences are not so great to make that work void. And the Holy Spirit is changing us to reflect Christ more; we are not changing our own hearts.
Sanctification requires work, yes, but the Spirit is working with us.
Men are More than Lust Machines
The second problem with modesty talks is that they downgrade men.
I knew I was gay early on; my attractions have only been toward men. I knew in sixth grade and began coming out to people in ninth grade. I was really nervous when I worked at camp, because I believed men had no self-control and were visual creatures.
With that teaching in mind, I lived with a bunch of guys at camp — many of whom I was very attracted to. My first thought was how unfair this was. The straight guys were protected because the women had to cover up, while I was seeing guys walk around naked all the time.
There was no way for me to be pure.
I realized, however, that as I got to know these guys and became friends with them, I couldn’t think about them in a dishonoring way.
The core of lust is using people in a selfish way. And I was always taught not to be selfish.
In many ways, it was more natural for me to serve my friends than to think about them in selfish ways; soon, it didn’t matter to me if I saw attractive guys naked or not. They were my friends.
Lust is much more difficult to resist if I do not know the people I am lusting over.
I learned that men are not uncontrollable lust machines, that it is possible for them to see skin and not go into selfish thoughts.
But these modesty talks were teaching us that the moment we see skin, we cannot control ourselves — and that is dangerous. It creates a downward spiral where men begin to see people as sexual objects instead of people, and it causes so much harm to others.
Because I was placed in a situation where I could become close friends with people I was attracted to, and people were not always modest, I learned to distinguish between attraction and lust, selfishness and caring.
Lack of clothing does not cause me to stumble.
Women are Sexual Beings with Beautiful Bodies
The third problem with modesty talks is their assumption that women do not have sex drives. They definitely do, and our female readership can attest to that. Sure, their sexual expressiveness can look differently than how we men express ourselves, but sexual expressiveness is still there.
Modesty talks tend to place all the pressure on women to dress a certain way; as a result, women can develop a negative view of their bodies.
Men tend to view their bodies in more positive ways: they are always taught about the power of their bodies and never have to deal with heavy clothing restrictions. It is generally easier for men to love their bodies.
Contrastingly, women are always taught their bodies can be a source of sin for other people, that men are constantly undressing them in their heads. It is hard to view your body in a positive light if you are always taught these ideas.
There is one slight positive, though more of an unintended consequence to this reality. Since men can walk around on a hot summer day without their shirt, women have had to learn to distinguish between attraction and lust, how not to be selfish but caring — a lesson many men have not learned.
I think that is one possible reason why men can cause so much harm concerning sexuality, and women tend to have a much healthier understanding: they’ve been put in situations to help them grow in their understanding of sexuality.
Clothing is More than Just Covering the Body
A fourth problem with modesty talks is that it turns clothing into sexual objects. It makes the purpose of clothing just something to cover genitalia. While clothing does do that, it is also so much more.
I didn’t really care about clothing and fashion until recently. But I love how clothing showcases my personality and what I care about. I love color patterns and designs and different fits. I take so much joy in picking my outfit each day.
Clothing doesn’t just cover my body; it is an extension of my body. Clothing unveils our creativity.
Sadly, clothing that can be the most creative is also more expensive. It creates social problems.
Clothing that is more affordable tends to push the sexual side. Those of lower income, especially women, are forced to wear clothes that teach their body is just sexual.
Everyone should be able to have access to a beautiful, well-functioning wardrobe. I think it is a good investment if people can make the investment.
It’s also important to learn about different types of fabric and different ethical standards. If clothing is just related to sexuality, those things do not matter. But since clothing involves our entire being, it’s important to understand our fabrics better.
We need to reclaim clothing from the modesty talk culture.
Did you receive modesty talks in your youth? How have modesty talks impacted your views of men, women, clothing, temptation, and sex?
I have been talking about this with different people lately as the culture around these topics has come up with the fall of different faith leaders. And one thing that I have found interesting is that guys I know who regularly have sex outside of God’s parameters and have friends outside of faith circles who believe Christian sex ideals to be archaic at best, agree with these problems. They find the way men in the church approach this subject super creepy. Like for a people group who are supposedly modest/chaste they find us much more obsessed with sex than they are. They also don’t like the assumption that church men have that they have the same sexual problems/obsessions they have.
Case in point, my church announced a men’s supper and said, “invite your guy friends and family, lets all hang out and fellowship and we’ll have a small message as well.” Having been to many of them my dad and brothers assumed it would be a dinner and an evangelistic message so my brother brought one of his friends who did not go to church nor had grown up in that culture. They get there and they got like sneak attacked with a purity message, and then they all broke into smaller groups (or the people they were sitting at their table with, I don’t remember) where they started like talking about sexual temptations. Needless to say, my brother’s friend was officially weirded out and fully convinced that these church people have some weird sexual issues.
This was so good, Will. Gives me more insight into much of the culture around my upbringing. I never received any sort of sex talks from home to church to school, so in many ways I’m almost jealous that you got something to work with as opposed to nothing, haha. But I do see the damage in all the points you outlined so well. Here’s hoping today’s generation has a different outcome with sex than ours!
What a well thought out and nuanced blog! I never had any real modesty talks from my parents growing up, but I guess what ideas got in my mind were from society. Like I talked about in my last blog, this seems like one of those weird issues that has a liberal or conservative perspective with nothing in between. One side says flaunt your body because sex is awesome while the other says cover your body up because its sinful.