The Not Modesty Talk

I was asked once if I was ever going to do a modesty talk. As a leader of a youth ministry in a big white church, it wasn’t an unexpected query. I answered, “No, I don’t believe in those” and received the strangest look. “Wait, you don’t believe in modesty?”

“I said I don’t believe in modesty talks.”

“But what about standards? What about pool parties? Aren’t you going to give any rules or guidelines for those?”

I thought a moment, then answered. “No, I’m not going to do that.”

I didn’t take the time to answer why, at the time. But since then, I’ve had many discussions with students, parents, and women and men, that have allowed me to hone my view on modesty talks.

Modesty talks have the potential to hinder love-based relationships.

One summer, we were having a pool party and one of my high school students asked me about the rules for bathing suits. I knew this student was accustomed to wearing bikinis. As I talked with her, it became obvious that she wanted me to give her rules. She wanted me to tell her just how modest her suit had to be. She wanted me to tell her “only tankinis” or “wear shorts over your bathing suit.”

She was safer with rules.

To be honest, so was I.

After an hour-long conversation, this student decided on her own that she wanted to wear a tankini. Her reasoning: she wanted to love her brothers in the youth ministry and just didn’t think a church event was the appropriate place for a bikini.

I could have told her not to wear a bikini and the outward result would have been the same.

But the inward result would have been two people who walked away with the comfort of rules but without any idea of why those rules were in place. I would have dodged a potentially painful conversation and saved myself an hour of time. She would have walked away and robotically complied with my rule without ever thinking it through for herself.

I realize this conversation could have gone the other way. She could have responded, “Hallelujah! I get to wear a thong to a church event!” I knew this was a possibility, and had decided beforehand that what she chose wasn’t going to be an occasion for bringing down the hammer and shaming her into my standard for clothing. I would not have been disappointed if she’d made a different decision, as long as she’d wrestled with it and come to a conclusion motivated in the same way.

By the grace of God, her decision was motivated by love for others.

That’s the first reason for not giving modesty talks. Often these talks eliminate the opportunity for relationship and tend to err on the side of shaming and blaming and placing all the responsibility for sexual purity on the shoulders of very young women who are just beginning to process what their body is meant for.

Modesty talks place responsibility in the wrong place.

I once had a seminary professor suggest that talks about sex in youth groups be done in mixed company. He suggested that the very idea of separating boys from girls for purity and sex discussions sends a silent but very clear message: Your counterpart is an enemy. Boys are icky predators who only look at a woman in order to get laid. Girls are seductresses who are one strapless dress away from luring men to their downfall.

It also sends a message that sex is a subject that is off the table in male-female relationships in the church. Which often leads sex to be a subject that is off the table altogether. Considering how broken our society and our churches are in terms of sexuality, this culture that deems sex a subject for avoidance only perpetuates an already colossal problem.

While I grew up in a well-meaning church culture that over-emphasized modesty, I also grew up thinking my body was something to be ashamed of. I once discovered the reason boys at a church camp wouldn’t look at me or even talk to me wasn’t just the side effect of the awkward shyness of most teenage boys. They wouldn’t speak to me because I had above average sized breasts that were impossible to hide with even the baggiest of clothing. Their culture-infused fear of lust caused them to ignore and avoid me for something completely beyond my control. This culturally-infused fear of lust led to hindered relationships and a world where healthy male-female friendships were frightfully rare.

And the fear of my own body, and fear of men, grew exponentially.

Modesty talks create gender-based sexual problems.

Separating genders for sex talks and emphasizing modesty for girls and lust for boys also leads to his and hers sexual issues. “Lust” becomes a male issue. Loose living and flirtation become female issues. Girls are ill equipped to process sexual thoughts and male-certified issues like pornography. Hopefully, girls will eventually find other women who are willing to be vulnerable about their sexual struggles and discover a community where they are safe to talk about their sexuality, but this is not always the case. Modesty talks can lead to girls thinking there is only one aspect to their sexuality: their body is for pleasing their husband and must be covered and hidden until that time. Any discussion beyond this in terms of their sexuality is sometimes met with scorn or shock.

For me personally, this discrepancy lead to me suppressing any desire for sex. As a result, I had suppressed my sexuality so much that I almost never had sexual desires. I killed that part of my humanity so thoroughly that it appeared non-existent. Gratefully, I had a number of close friends who were very vulnerable about their sexual struggles—both single women and women who struggled sexually in their marriages. As I began to experience healing in other areas of my life, sexual healing began to follow. We are holistic beings and we cannot expect our sexuality to not suffer the effects of the fall, simply because we try to silence its presence. We are holistic beings and cannot expect for sexual issues to only exist for men.

I’ve never done a modesty talk. If I ever do, I’d like to think it’d be something other than a critique of Christian fashion. I’d like to think it’d focus less on bikinis (which I wear in certain contexts) or leggings (which I also wear regularly), and more about pondering before wearing. I’d like to think it’d be less about covering up and hiding and more about moving towards others and engaging in loving friendships. I’d like to think it’d be about how the fall affects our sexuality and how Christ redeems even this thing we often view as icky.

Jesus makes icky things beautiful. Jesus was a sexual being and was unafraid of loose women. Jesus loves women and is the creator of women’s bodies.

That thought jars me. Does it jar you?