Kristine raises some interesting points in her discussion of modesty. The comments (which have been very interesting so far) have made me reflect on an argument I often hear raised by church members:
Women shouldn’t wear revealing clothes, because that will make men think unchaste thoughts about them.
(This particular argument isn’t in the comments to Kristine’s thread; Ben Huff comes somewhat close, when he argues that women have a heavier modesty burden than men, due to the sinful nature of the world).
As I’ve suggested before in comments on this blog, I don’t find this reasoning to be particularly convincing.
An initial problem is that it is entirely possible — quite easy, unfortunately — to think unchaste thoughts about women who aren’t wearing revealing clothes. If someone feels like having unchaste thoughts about a woman, it probabl doesn’t matter much what she’s wearing. There may be a way to so disguise the female form that it becomes all but impossible to entertain sexualized thoughts (such as a burka). But short of that extreme (and hopefully no one is advocating that), it’s pretty easy to see women as sexual objects, and to notice their attractiveness and sexual potential, no matter what they’re wearing. Sorry to burst everyone’s bubble on that matter.
(I know, this is a more-or-less empirical argument in an area where empirical evidence is hard to muster. I’ll invoke fuzzy data here, and say that this comes from personal experience and observation, and discussion with friends. In addition, a few possible supporting points might be (1) the fact that comely sister missionaries (who dress very modestly) inspire unchaste thoughts in others (per my own mission experiences — including conversations with lots of mission comps — a large number of elders have crushes on sisters, and they aren’t all based on the sister’s personality and testimony); (2) the success of movie stars who were viewed as sex symbols at times when censors kept skin off of the screen. Any other ideas?)
Second and more importantly, this attitude is a cop-out. Women are responsible for men’s sins, it tells us. Men can’t keep their minds out of the gutter, and it’s all the women’s fault. Slap some clothes on, lady, you wouldn’t want to cause someone to lust after you!
This strikes me as precisely the wrong attitude about sin. Men are adults, they are independent actors with minds of their own. They know right from wrong, they know the commandments and their responsibilities, and they have a duty not to sin. If they fail in this duty, the fault is theirs. Placing the burden on the women strikes me as the sort of “blame everyone except the actor” attitude that conservatives so often accuse liberals of. “It’s not my fault that I had bad thoughts, judge — she had a skimpy top on!”
The ridiculousness of this approach is obvious when we compare it to our attitudes about other sins. After all, we don’t tell people, “Don’t accumulate property, after all, you might cause someone to covet.” We don’t say, “Don’t drive a fancy car, after all you might cause someone to steal it.” And we don’t say, “Don’t guard that bank vault, you might cause someont to murder you.”
Don’t charge someone for a purchase, you might cause him not to pay his tithing. Don’t score that touchdown, you might cause the other team’s player to use a bad word. Don’t drive too fast, or too slow, or too in-between, because you might cause someone to get angry. Could it be any more ridiculous?
The idea of blaming women for men’s lust seems to be a gender-specific way to collectively pass the buck. Women — a group historically powerless and underrepresented — are held responsible for sexual sin; men — often the instigators of sin — are blameless.
And I don’t buy that. I believe too strongly in personal responsibility to accept such reasoning. If I have bad thoughts about a woman, I need to recognize that those thoughts are my fault — however she is dressed.
This argument is not to say that there are not important reasons to be modest. Kristine discusses this well in her post. Modesty is a good thing — it teaches self-respect, it honors our bodies, it follows the commandments.
But I don’t think that modesty needs to be taught “because it will stop men from having unchaste thoughts (about the woman in question).” The place to stop men’s unchaste thoughts is with the men who are having such thoughts.