Imagine that every single talk you ever heard about missionary work was given by someone who had not served a mission or every single talk about fasting was from someone who (let’s say for health reasons) had never fasted. It is reasonable to suspect that our rhetoric about missionary work or fasting would, in these circumstances, sound very, very different. Currently, we define modesty as being (almost) solely applicable to females, and yet the discourse is (almost) entirely shaped by people who are not female. I think this has led us to several problems.
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Women Are Not Objects
If you were asked to, say, give a talk about tithing, it would be very natural to think, “hm, how has the law of tithing impacted my life?” and use your answers to that question as the basis for your talk. The problem comes when a male speaker asks himself, “hm, how has modesty impacted my life?” Because he is a male person, the most likely impact is his memory of that one time when he saw an immodestly dressed woman and desired her sexually. And so his talk ends up focusing on how women should not dress immodestly because it turns men on.
Let me stipulate a few things here to save you time in the comments: yes, I realize that, on average, men are more responsive to visual stimulus than women are. Yes, I realize that most men really do have sexual thoughts when they see attractive female flesh. But these two facts do not automatically result in a justification for telling women that they should dress modestly so men will not have sexual thoughts.
I actually wouldn’t have a problem with a speaker giving a talk called “25 Reasons to Be Modest” and reason #22 being “immodest dress can prompt lustful thoughts in others and we should try to avoid that.” But that isn’t what I am seeing in (some) current LDS rhetoric. What I am criticizing here is not 4% of a modesty talk–but 90-100% of it–focused on the effect that women have on men. This is a problem; let me try to explain why with an analogy.
One day, the long-hoped-for letter arrives announcing that Harold has been accepted at the college of his dreams. He follows the instructions in the letter and shows up at the appropriate time and place and says, “I’m Harold. I’m so excited to be here! What happens now? How do I register for classes?” The clerk smirks and says, “You don’t register. You are here to be an assistant to John. He registers. You accompany him to his classes to carry his books, take notes, clean his lab equipment, proofread his papers, and that sort of thing. Of course, you’ll do his laundry, sharpen his pencils, be sure he has snacks, and that he doesn’t forget deadlines. Welcome to the university!”
Harold had thought that he was the subject of his college experience–that attending was about his education. But he found out that he was to be the object of someone else’s experience–that attending was about making things as easy as possible for someone else. This is what current LDS modesty discourse does to women. It doesn’t focus on modesty as something that is important to the woman herself, but rather as something that is important to other people in her life. We don’t do this with any other commandment or for any other audience. We don’t tell the young men to serve missions solely because there is a young woman out there who deserves to marry an RM. We don’t tell people to study the scriptures solely because it will make it possible for them to explain doctrine to other people. But LDS modesty rhetoric tells women that they, of themselves, do not matter. Their only value is in the impact that they have on other people.
LDS modesty discourse contributes to the objectification of women. An LDS modesty discourse that treated women as subjects and not objects would focus primarily on the impact that modesty and immodesty has on the woman herself, just like our discussion of every single other commandment focuses on the impact that (not) following that commandment has on the person him/her-self.
Standards Are Impossible and Contradictory
At least Harold’s duties were clearly set out! But LDS women are told–sometimes subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly–that they need to be attractive to men so that they can marry in the temple and have children, which are Very, Very, Important. They are placed on a knife’s edge: be attractive but not too attractive. Imagine this scenario: I take 100 pictures of the same woman, showing her in a spectrum of clothing ranging from picture #1, extremely modest, to picture #100, extremely immodest. I show this set of photos to 1,000 stake presidents and I ask them to tell me which pictures show a modestly-dressed woman and which show an immodestly-dressed woman. We’d get 100% agreement on picture #1 and picture #100, but pictures #30-70 would get a mixture of responses. We next ask the stake presidents which of the pictures would be the of the type that the righteous single men of their stake would consider dating. Righteous men would not date immodest women, but some would draw the line at #95 and others at #55 or #45. But some on the other end of the spectrum would not be considered datable material either: from #1 to some number between #10 and #40, depending on the respondent, would be considered too frumpy and unappealing. What this means is that an LDS woman told to dress modestly but attractively–to wear clothing that, like a good talk, is “long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting,” as at least one authority has put it–are put in an impossible position.
You’ll notice in my example that there is not a single picture that a woman could emulate that would put her in everyone’s “modest but attractive” category. LDS women are told that they sin if they do not meet an inconsistent and unknowable standard.
Women Don’t Solely Dress for Men
Next, our modesty rhetoric implies that female dress is solely determined by a consideration of men’s needs. But women often dress for other women, not (usually) with the goal of attracting them sexually, but with the goal of showing affiliation (I’m dressed just like you! Accept me as one of your own!), showing sartorial competence (Look how clever I was to match this blazer with this scarf!), showing wealth (Yes, this is the brand you think it is!), showing respect (I dressed up for this funeral/dinner party/etc. because I know it is important to you), etc. Women also dress for themselves, usually to bolster confidence or more easily adopt a certain persona (I am hot/powerful/skinny/clever/smart/cute/competent in this).
Sometimes, they even dress a certain way with virtually no thought to how the clothing looks, but because it is comfortable, inexpensive, and easy to launder (that would be me). But LDS modesty rhetoric presumes that women do–and should–dress for men. This is a male perspective, not a female one. (I hope it is clear that many of the rationales for dressing a certain way that I suggest in this paragraph are not consistent with being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and I think it would be super-productive to begin a modesty discussion with YW by saying, “Think about the last time you took extra effort in your appearance. What was motivating you? Were those good motivations?”)
Women Are Attracted to Men
But current LDS modesty rhetoric denies that women have sexual desires by almost never discussing the need for a similar level of male modesty to thwart female sexual desire.
The only desires that are mentioned are men’s. But I’m a Very Happily Married, Temple-Attending, 38-Year-Old Housewife, and on more than one occasion, I have had to reluctantly convince myself to click away from a picture posted on Facebook and, um, maybe even hum my favorite hymn for a while. The fact that men are (on average) more visually stimulated than women does not imply that women are not visually stimulated. The sight of a muscular chest, tight and tanned abs, a firm chin, a charming smile . . .
Wait . . . sorry, I lost my train of thought . . . where was I? Oh, right, yes. Women can be sexually attracted to visual depictions of attractive men.
But we never talk about this. We never tell men that maybe posting shirtless pictures on Facebook (even when the context is that they are at the beach with their children) isn’t the most helpful thing they can do for their sisters. Why is that? Is it because we recognize that making men responsible for an unpredictable response by women is not fair to them?
What if we told the 15-year-old YM: “Pairing off at your age is a sin. So don’t do or say anything that would cause a YW to fall in love with you.” Is that reasonable counsel to give them? Is it possible for them to actually follow that counsel?
We also recognize that the men’s intentions matter: a married LDS dad posting beach pictures isn’t trying to turn on bored housewives; he’s just sharing his family’s vacation memories. We understand that his intentions are more important than other people’s varied responses to him. But we don’t afford women the same leeway.
Lack of Mature Reflection
Next, because LDS modesty rhetoric starts and stops with “don’t tempt the boys,” it hasn’t developed the theological sophistication that it needs to actually grapple with the real world. (I compare this to the incredible reception that Elder Holland’s talk “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments” received as the first chastity talk not delivered to an audience presumed to have the spiritual maturity of 15-year-olds but rather of adults.) Two thoughts for what an effective modesty rhetoric needs to reckon with:
1. Situationality. Why is it OK for the Laurels to have not one inch of their thighs or shoulders covered at an official church event if that event is a swim party? Why is it OK for the BYU Cougarettes to dress like this for an official photograph?
If it were true that women should not dress in a certain way because men will have a certain reaction, then how are these things justified?
2. Historical change. You can have some good fun reading, for example, Joseph F. Smith’s impassioned plea against immodesty from the October 1913 Conference. But if you do, you have to think about the fact that what he is criticizing as “obscene, uncleanly, [and] impure” is clothing like this:
A mature discussion of modesty needs to grapple with its dual nature as both an eternal principle and a highly historically-determined one.
So “don’t tempt the boys” might be enough to get the YW to cower and cover, but when they go to college and start thinking about #1 and #2, what can you tell them that will help them to still desire to dress modestly?
The Importance of Agency
When we tell women that they are responsible for men’s reaction to their clothing, we tell women and men that men’s agency is limited and contingent on women’s choices. This does violence to the doctrine of agency and the idea of, as our young women value it, choice and accountability.
It also perpetuates rape culture. Let me back up for a minute and say that I have no evidence of any LDS speaker intending to suggest that a man is not responsible for a rape he commits or that a woman is responsible for being the victim of rape because of the way that she was dressed. (I suspect that most would be horrified by the thought.) But when you posit that a woman’s clothing choice determines a man’s response, then you are more than halfway to pinning the blame for the man’s response on the woman. You have actually already done so. This is an abomination and it must stop.
An Overemphasis on Sexuality
Thought experiment time: imagine a woman with a facial deformity so severe that we can be 100% sure that no man will find her sexually attractive. Should she still dress modestly? The answer is a resounding yes! Modesty is about–or, at least, should be about–her relationship to God, not her relationship to men. But this is not the impression you’d get from most of the current LDS rhetoric. Let’s start talking about why modesty would be important even in a universe lacking the male gaze. Let’s talk about women’s bodies as unique creations of an eternal creator who wants them to emphasize that body’s ability to dance, sing, serve, ski, generate life, laugh, and cry and not that body’s ability to conform to cultural notions of beauty or advertise the wearer’s wealth or attract sexual attention from males and envy from females.
The Scriptural Case
It is striking to me how very different from the scriptures most of our current modesty rhetoric is.
1. Most canonical discussions of women’s clothing focus on economics, not sexuality, and make the case that using one’s clothing to showcase wealth is a sin.
2. Jesus’ thoughts on the male gaze were made fairly clear in Matthew 5:28: “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” You will notice that he did not mention the women’s clothing choices or her subsequent responsibility for the man’s looking with lust; he focuses only on the man’s looking.