Modesty and Hating Oneself: The Darker Side

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“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5;28 (NRSV) “I hate myself every time I look at a woman's ass, which is hard not to do sometimes.” – A commenter on this post.

It’s that time of year again – time to discuss the idea of modesty, responsibility, and lust. A fellow writer, Emily Maynard (no, not that Emily Maynard), wrote an article that appeared on ChurchLeaders.com discussing the concept of modesty and lust. She talks eloquently about how lust is different from sexual attraction, and how reducing lust to being exclusively sexual in nature removes it from the idea that lust is about control, not attraction.

It’s a good article; you should go read it. But, I’d advise you not to read the comments.

The above quote was left on another article about the controversy raised by Maynard’s article. The line stuck out to me because it struck me as “the other side of the coin,” so to speak, of the modesty issues.

Heteronormative modesty codes not only objectify women by making them responsible for the thought life of every man they encounter, but make men feel weak, guilty, and vulnerable for experiencing basic sexual attraction.*

And this, too, is a major problem. Modesty codes not only negatively affect women by informing them that their bodies are public objects to be commented upon and used at will, but they also create an attitude within men that is twofold. First, they abdicate responsibility for a problem with lust to that which exists outside themselves , perpetuating an immature “blame others” attitude. Second, the lack of definition around lust makes men hate themselves when they cannot control a perfectly normal reaction.

This second is the problem I’d like to focus on here. We’ve so perverted the definition of lust – narrowing it and broadening it at the same time - that we have created a paradigm under which no human being could function and come out as healthy. We’ve narrowed lust to be solely about sexual issues, ignoring that one can lust after a person’s car, a person’s position, or marriage. Lust is not about sexuality, but about power and control, as Maynard so eloquently points out.

And we’ve broadened it so that any sexual thought, any sexual inclination is “lust” and therefore sinful and to be avoided. As Libby Anne points out over on Love, Joy, Feminism, this sort of thinking creates an atmosphere of repression and inability to understand sexual attraction within a relationship, as good little Christians are told to flee from it in order to remain pure. Many, as Libby Anne points out, end up fleeing from anyone they are sexually attracted to, figuring that this is the best way to avoid the temptation prior to marriage.**

Modesty codes – and the wrong thinking about lust that surrounds them – is harmful to both men and women (and that doesn’t even touch on the erasure of people who do not identify within a gender binary or heterosexuality). When we demonize biological functions, we set people up for failure. Instead of creating a world in which lust is understood as wanting to control another human being and that basic sexual attraction is healthy for romantic relationships*, we create a world in which people are mentally separated from their own bodies, and each interaction is fraught with the possibility that one’s spiritual walk could be derailed by the sight of cleavage.

I cannot repeat this enough: modesty codes set people up for failure. In the heteronormative, anti-woman way that they are taught, women are taught that being modest and asexual is the best they can be, while men are taught that they are unable to control themselves and are blameless for this inability, while also taught that they should hate themselves for it.

We, as a church, need to change the conversation. We need to first teach men that blaming women for boners is not a healthy way to go through life, and that sexual attraction and not feeling sexual attraction are natural and acceptable identities. We need to broaden the conversation to talk about control and objectification rather than how one person is sinful for having a perfectly normal sexual reaction to attractiveness. We need to talk about how this thinking fuels a culture of rape.

We need a better conversation because men should not be hating themselves every time a woman walks by.

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*Note: not all people experience sexual attraction, which is also damaging as those who don’t feel like they’re fighting lust all the time are made to feel like they are abnormal, when asexuality is a perfectly valid identity.

**This is not to say that love does not exist in these relationships or that these relationships should not happen, but that these relationships are missing a crucial element of compatibility, undiscovered until it is far too late to leave.