How modesty culture blinds us to the problem of male violence

Friday 9th June 2023

Modesty/Purity culture is a terrible thing for a number of reasons. It is controlling, telling women what they can and can’t wear, where they can and can’t go, who they can be friends with, who they can talk to when, what they can do. This isn’t the freedom Christ came to bring us. It heaps guilt and shame on women, making us feel ashamed of our bodies, of our natural desires, sometimes even just of being women. It objectifies women, turning us into nothing more than boobs and bums and legs, objects of male lust, worse, as Sheila Gregoire of Bare Marriage has pointed out recently, it sexualises little girls, telling them that their bodies are “intoxicating” to adult men. Creepy huh?! It’s also idolatry, it teaches women and girls that their worth lies in their virginity, when the gospel is that our worth lies in Christ and Christ alone.

Crucially, it also absolves men of responsibility for their lust and for any behaviour towards women that they choose to blame on their lust: Men don’t need to learn any self control, women simply need to stop being “temptresses” by flaunting their ankles, or smiling at men, or whatever ridiculous thing they’re saying is leading them astray this week. Purity culture is rape culture.

But here’s the other thing it does: it doesn’t just justify male sexual violence, it hides it. It pushes it away into the shadows, it turns it into the thing that happens to “those” women, it convinces us we are safe, that there is no problem, that we don’t need to worry about male violence, that we don’t need to do anything about it. And, since the news is FULL of stories of sexual abuse within the church, since 1 in 4 churchgoers will experience abusive behaviour in a relationship, we know this is a big fat lie! Purity culture is a liar, it comes from the father of lies.

‘Modesty’ teaching tells us we can control men’s lust with what we wear, that if we wear skimpy clothes they won’t be able to help but lust. So if they become a bit leery, or their hands wander a bit, if they make innappropriate sexual comments, if they grope us, assault us or rape us….. Well that’s all we can expect if we flaunt our bodies, we are asking for male attention and we got it right? It’s our own fault.

It’s a comforting thought. Why? Because it puts us in control and it makes us feel safe. By ‘othering’ victims of abuse and sexual assault, by teaching that our clothing makes a difference to our chances of getting raped, we feel we can control the situation: if we wear the right clothes, or act in the right way: if we are demure, pious virtuous Christian women we will be safe, our daughters will be safe. This then extends to domestic abuse. If we are good Proverbs 31 women, if we don’t nag, if we submit, we will be safe. Because male violence, we tell ourselves, happens only to “those” women. And we are not “those women.”

The fact is though, that rape does not happen because of lust and domestic abuse does not happen because of anger. It doesn’t matter what we wear or whether we nag, we can still be victims of sexual or domestic abuse. Women have absolutely no control over male violence. Men rape because they want to, they abuse because they want to. It is a choice, it is their choice and at the heart of that choice is a desire to use power to control others, not lust, not anger, not temptation. That’s not as comforting as convincing ourselves we are safe, but it is the truth. The truth is that women are not safe. They are not safe in clubs or walking home at night, they are not safe on the beach or on the city streets, they are not safe even with the police, or at work, and they especially are not safe at home or in the church.

And until we stop accepting the blame, stop telling each other what to wear or how to submit, and start holding men accountable, we never will be.