Believing in a Better Modesty Movement
Respect is at the heart of God's intention for sexual expression. The Old Testament uses the word yada for sex. It means "to know, to be known, to be deeply respected." God's very definition of sex transcends the physical act and emphasizes emotional knowing and an exchange of respect. Respect of others, and even of ourselves, requires self-control. This is one, though not the only reason, that our sexual lives must be characterized by self-control.
A holistic view of the Scriptures reveals that both men and women are called to this standard, and I have devoted my life to this message. At times I enjoy speaking to a mixed audience of men and women, but the great body of my work has been directed at women simply because I am one.
Morality aside, sex thrives in an atmosphere of control and respect. A study referenced in Sex in America found those having both the hottest and most frequent sex were not college co-eds with a variety of sexual partners but middle-aged people who embraced mutual lifetime monogamy out of respect for themselves and their partners. Another study concluded having more partners in their lifetime actually predicted less sexual satisfaction for men. Sexual self-control makes sense for both moral and practical reasons.
I have taught that the deepest sexual beauty of a woman is for just one man, as opposed to many. At times this has been taken out of context as if the purpose of her sexual beauty is to both attract and please a man. That is not true. The ultimate purpose of respecting yourself is not for a man. It is for God.
As an insider of the evangelical modesty and purity movement, I see two ways we can communicate our message more carefully.
Communicate clearly that a woman's body is a masterpiece created by God.
I have two Barbies in my office. The American Barbie wears a mini-skirt and a low, cut tight bodice that pushes her breasts upward. (Incidentally, some psychologists say that girls who play with dolls like this tend to confine role-playing to "seducing the boy," placing them on a "conveyor belt to an early sexualization.") The other, a Muslim Barbie named Fulla, is dressed in a burqa. The only flesh you can see surrounds her eyes.
These dolls create the same end result: a hyper-focused obsession on female sexuality. Both raise awareness of a woman's sexual nature and reduce her to being a mere body.
In some Christian settings, women might as well wear burqas. (It should also be noted that I often see Muslim women who find a way to honor their faith in adorably modest attire that is not repressive.) In those settings where the female body is hidden in shame, men seem uncomfortable. I do not find this same sense of discomfort in environments where women demonstrate a healthy expression of their feminine beauty.
I started Secret Keeper Girl, my ministry to tween girls, with one core message: you are a masterpiece created by God. My research led me to believe that when we teach girls to celebrate their beauty while we teach them the self-control of modesty, it enables them to embrace self-respect free of hyper-focus on their bodies.
A healthy message of modesty can allow—and in fact, encourage—women to celebrate their beauty.
Make authentic intimacy—not marriage— the goal of purity.
The shallow end of the purity and modesty movement often offers a girl the false promise of a guy in exchange for her purity ring or modest attire. We have convinced girls they can make a deal with God: a purity pledge now and a wedding ring later. Purity is not something you use to bargain with God. It is something you do to obey him. When you put the focus on God and respect for the inner qualities of worth he has planted in each of us, the outside stuff—our beauty and power of allure— isn't that big a deal and is easily brought under the control of our inner character.
Frankly, I find this challenge to be much more difficult to address, complicated by the fact that God himself tells us that marriage is a picture of the love of Christ and the Church. We must take care never to underemphasize the value of marriage, but we also should not overplay it. It is not the goal of purity. Authentic intimacy should be the goal.
Genesis 2:18 says "It is not good for man to be alone." This isn't to say that singleness is not good. It says it's not good to be alone. Our desire for sex is not just a drive for a physical release but a force meant to propel us to seek intimacy. God created us to function in community whether single or married. This is what makes our human sexuality so drastically different from the rest of the animal world.
While the evangelical and purity movement must tread carefully in these two areas, the dialogue of self-control achieved through modesty and purity is worth having. Recently, critics have been saying that teaching women modesty and purity places undue responsibility on my gender for the sexual integrity of both men and women. Others run with that thought and sensationalize it to claim that modesty promotes rape culture. Such sensationalized messages fail to take into account that God calls us to modesty and purity, and leave us unable to dialogue our way to good solutions.
Teaching modesty and purity to women does not make them responsible for the way men behave. The Apostle Paul says quite the opposite. Ephesians 5 calls men to "present her a pure and spotless bride," referencing a husband presenting his wife to God. While men and women are both charged to express self-control for their own individual purity, only men are charged specifically with being responsible for the sexual wholeness of the opposite gender. According to God, it's the man's responsibility to act in integrity regardless of how a woman acts or dresses. This seems to place the ultimate responsibility for respecting human sexuality squarely on the shoulders of men not woman. Protecting a sister's sexual integrity is one of the highest forms of respect that a man can show to a woman. We don't have to earn that respect, but we can be worthy of it. That's why it is so important that women have good conversations with one another about modesty and purity, and why it's especially important that we celebrate our daughter's beauty while we teach them self-control.
Dannah Gresh's faith-based books on sexuality, including And The Bride Wore White, have sold over one million copies. What Are You Waiting For: The One Thing No One Ever Tells You About Sex traces the word yada from Genesis to its Greek counterpart in Revelation. Her most recent release, Get Lost: A Guide To Finding True Love, examines the language of love.