A few weeks ago an Indiana mother wrote a letter to the Notre Dame University school newspaper, asking women not to wear leggings to Catholic mass. After sitting behind a group of girls in church with her four sons she wrote:
I was ashamed for the young women at Mass. I thought of all the other men around and behind us who couldn’t help but see their behinds. My sons know better than to ogle a woman’s body — certainly when I’m around (and hopefully, also when I’m not). They didn’t stare, and they didn’t comment afterwards. But you couldn’t help but see those blackly naked rear ends. I didn’t want to see them — but they were unavoidable. How much more difficult for young guys to ignore them.
Predictably, Twitter went nuts. Comments like these poured in:
Maryann, I’m so sorry that leggings have made it so “difficult” for you to teach your sons that women are people before they are bodies. Maybe you need to be lectured on proper parenting instead of lecturing us about our clothing choices.
If you raise boys that can only treat women as people when they are dressed a certain way, something has gone terribly wrong. This reminds me of the “if you’re wearing a skirt you’re asking to be raped” mentality.
I’m sorry if my leggings are making men ogle me. Maybe they should have some restraint and the brainpower to realize I’m more than a body part.
Women, including myself, my nieces, my 75-year-old mother, should wear whatever the heck they want. We should wear what makes us feel good, strong, smart or pretty. Anyone else’s “discomfort” is not our problem.
Many Christian women share these attitudes. Any suggestion that they dress modestly is seen as oppression, body shaming or victim blaming. Drew Brown writes in Relevant magazine:
You’d also hear…how women are temptations to men, and should be crossing their own legs to help temper the male sex drive. You’d think women held responsibility for keeping men pure. Turtlenecks and chastity belts and all that.
When women are made responsible for the sex drives of men, they are conditioned to feel responsible for sexual abuse, often defaulting to silence for fear of the retribution they will receive for their perceived role in that abuse. Women don’t come forward because they think they were wrong for having been in the situation in the first place. Or they shouldn’t have been wearing those clothes. Or drinking that much. The shame and false responsibility flows out of this broken view of a woman’s sexual responsibilities.
These tweets and comments are built on a set of flawed assumptions about men. As a man, I’d like to set the record straight.
First, men don’t choose to have sexual thoughts, so you can’t teach a man not to look at a woman’s body. Men won’t necessarily lust, but they will look. Men’s sexual interest in women is driven primarily by testosterone – not poor parenting. Young men have twenty times as much T coursing through their bodies as young women do.
Shaunti Feldhan asked four hundred men this hypothetical question: “Imagine you were sitting alone in a train station and a woman with a great body walks by and stands in a nearby line. What is your reaction to the woman?” Ninety-eight percent of men admitted they would look. (I think the other two percent were either gay or lying.) Feldhan summarizes her findings this way: “Men can’t not want to look at a beautiful woman.” The desire itself rises unbidden. Men cannot stop it. All they can hope to do is control their response.
Second, most Christian men really do want to see women as people and not merely bodies. But society makes this very difficult for us.
We live in the most sexually stimulating society in history. Images of beautiful, airbrushed, surgically enhanced women are everywhere. On the web. In our e-mails. On TV. At the mall. Lining the grocery store check stand. Companies use sexy images of women to sell their products to both genders – and there’s nowhere to go to escape these images.
No generation of men has ever been exposed to this level of constant sexual stimulation and visual temptation. It’s completely unprecedented. This nonstop parade of gorgeous women trains our brains to seek out more attractive women.
Third, women and their clothing are not responsible for “making men ogle” them. If a man has lustful thoughts toward a woman, it’s 100% the man’s fault. It’s up to men to control their thoughts. Which leads us to our next point:
Fourth, men can control their desires. Women don’t have to do it for them. Truth is, men control their desires every day. Every hour of every day. From the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep.
Fifth, men are not trying to control, oppress, blame or objectify women by hoping they would dress modestly at church. We just want a break from the nonstop sexual imagery and temptation that bombards us every day. Church should be a sanctuary, a safe place for us to focus on God and nothing else.
Sixth, no one is blaming the victim. Men (and their mothers) are just asking for women’s help dealing with a very strong, testosterone-driven temptation that’s common to all men.
Seventh, comments and tweets like the ones above discourage men. There’s a modern tendency to take a simple request and re-interpret it in the worst possible light. By imagining all sorts of impure motives and absurd consequences (such as chastity belts) we justify our refusal to help. To illustrate this, here’s the story of two roommates, Juanita and Rebecca.
One day Rebecca brings home a fifth of whiskey, cracks it open and leaves it on the kitchen counter. Juanita comes to Rebecca and admits past struggles with alcoholism. Rebecca can respond two ways:
Response #1: “Juanita, I don’t understand your problem, but I’m going to do what I can to help. I’ll keep this stuff locked in the liquor cabinet so you won’t have to think about it.”
Response #2: “Juanita, this is your problem, not mine. This is my apartment and I have every right to keep a legal substance here. Why are you blaming me for your weakness? Are you trying to shame me for having a drink after work? Who made me responsible for your sobriety?”
With Response #1, Rebecca offers understanding. With Response #2, Rebecca offers judgment, interpreting her roommate’s request in the worst possible light. By putting words in Juanita’s mouth, dismissing her concerns and questioning her motives Rebecca frees herself from having to care about her friend’s predicament.
When men read tweets and articles like the ones I quoted above, they hear Response #2.
Men have admitted a weakness. They’ve asked for help. But instead of compassion, their request is met with anger and defiance. On top of this, the person they’ve asked for help dismisses, disparages and ridicules them for making the request.
Men have no desire to control, shame or blame women for their choice of wardrobe. Men are not holding women responsible for male chastity. Nor are they casting women in the role of temptress or telling them to be ashamed of their bodies.
Men are simply admitting a weakness and asking for help. Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do?