What Boys Become: Modesty Culture and Learned Irresponsibility


“Y’know, I’m a man, and I want a chance to play the field before I settle down.”

My thoughts raced about which part of his break-up speech to respond to first. The gender essentialism about our different desires for the relationship? The fact that our ages (my 27, his 24) probably played more of a role than our gender identity? Or the fact that he knows I’m a feminist who is literally writing a book about how gender roles are bunk and seems to have ignored it entirely?

I’d been dating this man for only a month, but I enjoyed spending time with him and wanted to explore something further. He, on the other hand, did not. It’s a story that plays out in thousands of hearts every day, and I was prepared for that – but not for his reasons. Everything he told me about why he couldn’t be in a relationship with me – culminating in “I don’t think I could stop myself from cheating on you” – was related back to his sense of his gender identity. He’s a virile man, don’t you see? And he wants to explore and see everything he can before deciding to settle! Getting into a relationship with me would be denying his sense of his manliness!

It seemed, by the end of the 30 minute drive back to my apartment and the end of the date, that “I’m a man” was a convenient excuse for him, a way for him not to take responsibility for his own actions and feelings. And that meant he was a relationship prospect I could walk away from without guilt. I felt bad for an evening, then realized I shouldn’t be in a relationship with someone who couldn’t take responsibility for his own feelings and actions.

And after all, this young man lived in a culture that told him his role as a man meant treating women like objects, so was I really that surprised that he couldn’t take responsibility for himself?

When I read this post, I couldn’t help but see the boy I’d dated in these teenage sons. It was like looking into the future – those Hall boys, on a date, telling a girl that they were men and couldn’t help themselves. Those Hall boys, telling women that immodest clothing makes them worth less as a person. Those Hall boys, failing to take responsibility for their basic feelings, because they’ve been taught that a woman’s body is public property for their consumption, to delete with a judgmental click.

This is the primary sin of modesty culture – it teaches irresponsibility and blaming others, but masks it as sexual purity. It teaches men to dispose of women who don’t fit their mold, under the guise of “keeping themselves pure.” It teaches men that women exist on a spectrum of worth determined by their clothing and that it is their right as men to determine which women are worth more – and yet, modesty culture masks it as “keeping away from sexual sin.” It teaches men irresponsibility and plays it off as “integrity.”

Modesty doctrine, at its rancid core, teaches men that sitting around judging women, treating them as objects because they’re immodest, is appropriate – because they’re men and they need protecting. It teaches them to blame others first and look at their own feelings later. It doesn’t equip men to treat women with respect, but instead teaches them to literally flee, disregarding the humanity of one’s neighbor. It teaches boys that being creepy – sitting around judging facebook photos for modesty! – is okay as long as it’s in the service of “protecting yourself from immodesty.”

It teaches men to be blind to themselves, to their desires, and their feelings.

Church leaders complain of emotionally stunted men, of extended adolescence, of men who won’t take responsibility – and then they tell young boys that it’s all women’s fault that they’re lusting?

No wonder there's a "man crisis" - but it's not coming from the outside. It's being perpetuated right here, inside the walls of the church.