Why Do the Modesty Wars Have to Pit Men Against Women?

Modesty is a touchy subject for many Christians. Women don’t like being told what to wear by men. Men don’t like being told that they can’t speak to the issue because they aren’t a woman. Women don’t like being made to feel like it’s their fault that men lust. Men don’t like being made to feel like there’s something uniquely wrong with them because they do struggle with lust. Pitting men against women, the modesty wars foster a spirit of disunity within the body of Christ.

Like all things, when Christians are discussing modesty, we must first remember that we are called to love each other. That means surrendering our rights and preferring those around us. That’s not easy to do because all of us are born worshipping ourselves. Furthermore, individuality is one of the gods that our society values the most. However, Jesus clearly said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Being a follower of Jesus means loving other disciples of Jesus. For men, this means, among other things, that we are not allowed to lust after women. Period.

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again: when a man tells me that he does not struggle with lust, I don’t believe him. There is not a stage of my life when the guys I knew or merely casually interacted with didn’t struggle with lust; in fact, many of them didn’t “struggle” with lust, they embraced it. As a student at a strict Christian school, I heard and, sadly, participated in conversations about the bodies of our female classmates. We would swap trade secrets, so to speak, of the best times and places to catch glimpses of forbidden flesh.

In the Christian college I attended the conversations were more muted, but still there. More obvious were the ways in which the male students eyeballed certain female students. After college, as an atheist working in small theatres while bartending on the side, the lustful talk and actions of the men around me became more overt and explicit. Gone were the moral restraints of the fundamentalist Christian subculture I grew up in.

As a middle-aged Christian man, I frequently hear confessions from brothers in Christ about their struggle with lust. As a father who desires to not lust, I sit on park benches while my kids play on the playground and I watch men watch women. I do this to help keep me from being tempted to watch women. This practice has confirmed my experience over the decades. Almost all of the men on the playgrounds — old, young, white, black, well-dressed, poorly dressed — almost all of them leer at the women. And you know what? The less a woman is wearing, the more likely she is to be leered at.

That last point is further demonstrated by the fact that Sports Illustrated’s largest selling issue every year is the Swimsuit Issue. Men like looking at the bodies of women, and the more of the body we can see, the better the worse.

However, that fact is no excuse for the sin of lust. Men, it doesn’t matter what the woman is wearing or not wearing, you are solely responsible before God for your sinful lust. Jesus unequivocally told us that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

Ladies, you are not responsible for the lust of men. The truth is that men are prone to lust no matter what a woman wears. However, you are commanded by Jesus to love your brothers in Christ.

Many, if not most, of your brothers in Christ struggle with lust. Many of the Christian men that I’ve known over the years have confessed to me that they don’t like going to the beach. I frequently receive text messages from friends who are battling lust while at the pool, or the playground, or simply walking through a store. And many of them are afraid to talk about it because they’re frequently shamed for doing so. But your fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons are living in a world that flaunts sexuality. Every day, walking through this world, your brothers in Christ are bombarded with the temptation and encouragement to lust.

Loving your brothers in Christ means surrendering your rights and being aware of how men often struggle more with the temptation to lust when confronted with certain states of undress. Loving your brothers in Christ means being mindful of how you dress.

Do you know why most Christian men remain silent about their struggle with lust? Because the modesty wars have placed the entire onus on them. The modesty wars within the American church say that men who struggle with lust are outliers, are perverts.

Because of sin, there is a tension that is probably outside of our paygrade — men are solely responsible before God for their lust, yet women are responsible before God for how they demonstrate love in the ways in which they dress. And all Christians, men and women, have a responsibility to deal with this issue together.

By God’s grace, my wife and I are teaching our daughter that she has a responsibility to love God and love men by being mindful of how she’s dressed. And, my wife and I are teaching our son that he has a responsibility to love God and love women by not lusting after women. We’re teaching him that his responsibility to love his female neighbors by not lusting after them is not diminished in any way by what they wear or don’t wear. Our prayer is that through our teaching, our kids will learn to love God and also love their brothers and sisters in Christ in self-sacrificing, counter-cultural ways.

Christians should never shy away from discussing issues just because they’re tough and require nuance. The issue of modesty is no exception.