Committing pornography with your life {how modesty rules hurt women AND men}

"When you dress and behave in a way that is designed primarily to arouse sexual desire in men, you are committing pornography with your life." --Joshua Harris, Sex is Not the Problem (Lust Is)

I was sitting on the couch wearing a long, loose, modest dress. It was the end of a long day of church meetings and we were gathered at my parents' home for a fellowship. I was exhausted. I yawned and leaned back a little on the cushions, resting my back.

Several church members sat in other seats, talking. Suddenly, a middle-aged man sitting across the room stood up and stalked out of the room, clearly agitated. I saw him leave but had no idea what had just happened.

A moment later, someone tapped me on the shoulder and told me to sit upright. I straightened up, confused.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"You're leaning against the couch cushions in a suggestive manner. Brother So-and-So thinks you're intentionally trying to seduce him and he refuses to come back into the room until you're sitting completely upright."

"What?! I'm not trying to seduce anyone, I'm just sitting here trying to rest!"

I received no answer. I was simply expected to comply.

I felt a rush of shame spread over my entire body. I started shaking. I was mortified that anyone--much less a man twice my age!--would think I was intentionally trying to seduce him by...resting my back against the couch cushions. How was that even possible?

It was possible because women were held responsible for the sexual thought lives of men. If a man was aroused--no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched the perceived "immodesty"--women were blamed.

I fled the room and could never look at that older man in the eyes again. I felt violated, somehow.

It was disconcerting and sickening to feel like no matter how modestly I dressed, every inch of my being from how I sat, to how I walked, to how I wore my purse (never across the chest! only over the shoulder!), to how I spoke to how I moved--every bit of me was scrutinized for ANY POSSIBLE indication of being sexually suggestive.

This kind of thing doesn't just happen in very conservative, fundamentalist churches. This goes on in mainline, popular, evangelical churches, too.

For example, last week I received an email from a reader named Julia:

One day at college youth group, I left in the middle of the sermon to visit the restroom.  The closest one was occupied so I went across the church (a mega church in Portland, Oregon... so it was far) to the other bathrooms.  A man followed me and sexually assaulted me by knife point. When I was talking with my pastor about it (which took a long time, and I was basically blackmailed into telling him as I was on speaker phone talking about it and he was there listening in)  the first thing he said was "Well, why were you over there?"

That one line affected me so deeply, on a spiritual and emotional level.  He was a father figure to me, and he blamed me for what happened.

Why were you over there? THAT was the question Julia was asked. It was a question that perniciously assigned blame to the victim. It was a question that added insult to injury. It was a question that devastated Julia's emotional and spiritual life.

I know my story and Julia's story are not the only ones. I know there are women reading these words right now who have their own similar stories. I agree with Dianna Anderson that we, as a church, need to change the conversation:

We need to first teach men that blaming women for boners is not a healthy way to go through life, and that sexual attraction and not feeling sexual attraction are natural and acceptable identities. We need to broaden the conversation to talk about control and objectification rather than how one person is sinful for having a perfectly normal sexual reaction to attractiveness. We need to talk about how this thinking fuels a culture of rape.

Because, here's the thing: modesty rules hurt women AND men. It is harmful to shame women for arousing sexual desire in men and it is harmful to shame men for experiencing normal, sexual attraction. 

Worst of all, by trying to control and codify modesty, we unwittingly fuel a culture of rape in our churches. What? Yes. A culture of rape. Libby Anne explains that rape culture is:

The idea that a woman who is raped must have been asking for it, that women who dress scantily are asking for it, that somehow, when a woman is raped,it’s her own fault. This idea that men can’t control themselves, that they can’t help it, that they are innocent victims of seductress females. The idea that when men express their sexuality inappropriately it must have been some woman’s fault for leading him on with her revealing clothing or demeanor.

We must find a way to change this. I'm raising daughters. I'm raising sons. I want both my sons AND daughters to embrace their sexuality free from shame, free from blame and free from this pernicious culture of rape that only grows when we refuse to talk about it.

Have you experienced anything similar? (Anon. comments OK) How can we change this?