Modesty Won't Help Lust

The reason we misunderstand modesty is because we misunderstand lust.

If you grew up in the church, you were probably ingrained with two messages: men struggle with lust and women struggle with modesty. Even the joke at Moody was that the topics of the annual men's and women's chapels were always pornography and dress codes (the punchline being that most upperclassmen saved their chapel cuts for these events).

Of course, it's no laughing matter that porn is so rampant, even in the church. And the reason these two things get emphasized is because together they place equal responsibility on both men and women. But what none of them seem to be addressing is whether modesty actually combats lust.

Initially, it makes sense that by reducing the opportunity for temptation, we can reduce the opportunity for sin. But apart from the practical impossibility of such a task, the bigger issue is the way we've reduced our definition of the terms as the aforementioned chapels made clear. Because when we talk about modesty and lust in the church, we're really talking about dress codes combating pornography.

This, too, doesn't sound unreasonable on the surface. If we can agree that porn is something that Christians should avoid, then anything that contributes to its usage should be restricted. But not only does this ignore that lust existed long before porn, it assumes that changing dress codes prompted the rise of porn and not the other way around.

Pornography is just a symptom--one of the many places lust can take us. And treating a symptom does more than miss the root issue; it allows the symptom to prescribe the treatment. In this case, it means treating the exhibition of naked ladies with frocked women. That's the reason modesty means little more than covering skin today: because porn has made lust about looking at it. Not only have we over-simplified lust into porn, we've allowed porn to redefine modesty.

Part of the problem is that we think pornography is just women without clothing. But if men only wanted to stare at round things all day, you'd see a lot more teenage boys hanging around the cantaloupes in the grocery store. Porn isn't about the amount of skin, it's about conjuring a fantasy. And watching porn is imagining yourself with another person, not studying shapes.

That also explains why so many married men look at it. If skin was what satisfied, then marriage should be the answer. But the real allure of pornography is how easy it is. Intimacy is hard. It's not like a love scene from Twilight, it's real work. Which means that some moments are satisfying and some moments are frustrating. Porn is just packaged intimacy that promises 100% satisfaction.

But unlike what many people think, porn isn't changing how men view women; it's revealing how they already do. In fact, if men knew how to look at women without lusting, porn wouldn't be such a problem. Furthermore, I doubt we'd be talking about modesty if not for porn.

Modern Christian standards of modesty are built on a misunderstanding of lust, not a good reading of Scripture. Jesus never said that women commit adultery by dressing provocatively because he made it clear that men looking was the problem. And by focusing on pornography instead of lust, we've made the solution fixing what men look at, not how they look at it.

As a man who grew up in this way of thinking, I'll be the first to admit that I have no idea how to do that. That's on you, church. It's time we all, men and women, took responsibility for leaving men unarmed by solely blaming women.

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