“Christian Cleavage” Probably Isn’t the Problem

BurkaIt was the last and final interview. I’d sat through two discussions with this women already, and I knew that, not only was she going to be an incredible fit in the company, she was going to be an unbelievable asset to my team. As I was sure she would, she nailed the interview.

I thanked and escorted her out, and came back into the room to debrief. I was completely flabbergasted when the first words out of his mouth where, “Does she always dress so provocatively?” Her outfit was, in my estimation, professional and complimentary. But depending how the top fell, there was the slightest bit of cleavage. I was surprised that he saw it that way . . . I hadn’t.

As I stammered out a response I don’t even remember, I thought, “If she could hear this conversation, she’d be completely crushed and demoralized.”

The threat of ‘Christian cleavage’

There was a bit of outrage last week when a prominent Christian blogger published a post entitled The Problem with Christian Cleavage. He has since pulled it, edited it, and republished it with a different title, . . . and then yanked it again.

It isn’t my intention to beat up the author; I’m sure he was probably surprised at the response. I mean, he was only saying the same stuff that evangelical youth groups have heard for years. It really offered no new thoughts or interesting perspectives.

The gist of the admonishment goes like this:

  • A man is a visual animal
  • If he can see the wrong kind of flesh on a woman he has sexual thoughts
  • Women are responsible to dress in a way that doesn’t “cause them to stumble”

It’s one of those teachings we’ve heard so often, and it comes so replete with Scripture, that we don’t really question it. But is it really biblical?

Are men simply beasts?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that everything this teaching says about men and women is true. Men are naturally wired to see and respond sexually to women and are also driven by a need to possess and subdue the objects of their desire.

Do women bear the responsibility to adjust their behavior in order to help them? Many would give an emphatic, “YES! They should never give men a reason to stumble.” Seems reasonable, right? Women throughout history have carried the weight of that belief. It’s not just Some forms of Islam that make women wear burkas; Christianity has a history of many types of modesty teachings aimed at women: no makeup, hair must be up, you can only wear dresses, and skirts must match a prescribed length.

In what other area do we place the burden of our purity on another person?

But think about that for a minute. In what other area do we place the burden of our purity on another person? Do we blame someone eating around us for our gluttony? I asked a similar question in a parody post I wrote entitled How the Rich Can Make Church a Safe Place for the GreedyCan I, in good faith, blame my avarice on others who own nice things?

Now, I am in no way saying that we are not responsible for each other. If you’re an alcoholic, I definitely would not want to do things that would contribute to your addiction. But should it be a teaching of the church that God expects half the population to limit their freedom for the sake of people struggling with naturally tendencies?

Still some would say yes, but let me tell you why I find that difficult to swallow.

There is no standard that even makes sense

Human sexuality is a weird thing, and there’s simply no telling what is going to send someone into a dither. The author of the cleavage post makes this argument quite well when he says, “The reality is that men are visual creatures who can see a woman’s kneecap and get revved up.” [It’s interesting that this sentence reduces men to creatures—I think that this reductive aspect of this teaching that should annoy men more than it seems to.]

What if you’re a guy who gets turned on by a modestly dressed female?

I am sure there are men out there with kneecap fetishes, just like there are men who have a weird fixation with feet. I have always love the curve of a neck. I mean quite honestly what is a woman to do? It is impossible for women to hide everything that might make a man sexualize them. I mean really . . .  if it is their responsibility, a burka is really the only thing that makes sense. It’s the only way to cover up everything that can make a man have bad thoughts. Well . . . except their eyes . . . and their shape . . . and the fact that there’s a woman under that black shape.

And this may sound silly, but what if you’re a guy who gets turned on by a modestly dressed female? It is, quite literally, a no-win situation.

The problem with this teaching is that it helps reinforce the idea that women are responsible for what goes on in the mind of men and that their wardrobe (and not the self control of a man) can be a contributing factor in a sexual assault.

Looking on women with lust

One of the verses that drives this teaching is when Jesus says, “but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:28)

The interpretation basically goes like this: If I see a woman and have a sexual thought I have already sinned, and I might as well commit adultery with her. It’s the exact same thing. Right!? But is that what Jesus is really teaching here?

I think that this breaks down at the point where we teach men that every moment their mind flits into a sexual thought, they have committed a grave sin. I would say that a momentary sexual thought is not lust. Some translations translate Jesus’ words “ . . .everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery . . .”

That battle happens within your mind and is your responsibility.

You might see some cleavage and have a sexual thought, but you might see a woman tying her shoe and have a sexual thought. It’s at that moment that you are faced with the choice to “take that thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5) or to indulge it. That battle happens within your mind and is your responsibility.

You might walk by a bank and think, “I wonder what it would be like to rob a bank.” You have not necessarily done anything wrong. You haven’t necessarily committed a heist in your mind.

Jesus calls us to be responsible for our lives with this hugely hyperbolic teaching, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. . .” (Matt. 5:29–30) Whose responsibility does it seem like God places the weight of our purity on? Someone else? Or us as the owner and operators of our minds?

I have had some huge failures in this area, and they have all been lost at that moment of choice to indulge and should never be laid at the feet of any one else. I can’t imagine ever standing before God and saying, “I did what I could, but, you know how it is—tank top.” It’s really the same buck-passing argument that Adam tried to pull on God in the garden, “The woman you made me gave me the fruit and I ate.” It’s just now, “That women wore yoga pants, and I lusted.”

Contributing to the problem

I have raised a wonderful, modest daughter. I didn’t do it by laying the responsibility for the bad thoughts of half the population on her. I did it by reaffirming to her that she is responsible for how she presents herself and how the decisions we all make communicates to others who we are and what we value. . . and then I trusted her.

We’ve shamed women from even being able to feed their children in public—the most natural and beautiful act in the world.

See . . . she’s way more mindful about this than I am. While we’re laying our concerns that we may have bad thoughts on them, women like my daughter are worried they’re going to get assaulted or raped. My daughter is WAY more mindful of the clothing choices she makes. Why would I lay more shame, guilt, and fear (fear that already feeds into her main fear that she is always in danger of being assaulted) on her?

The church’s teaching in many way reinforces some of these fears. We tell both men and women that:

  • Men can’t be responsible for their behavior. This seems like it ramps up the distrust and disharmony between the genders. And, on a scarier note, it offers a way out to men to act out, “Hey, I can’t control myself. I am a victim of my drives.” One has to wonder if we have not helped create this problem by constantly reinforcing it.
  • There’s something shameful about women’s bodies. No one would say that this is what they’re trying to communicate, but it is. We tell women that they need to be careful to cover up their bodies because their bodies lead men to think bad things. We’ve shamed women from even being able to feed their children in public—the most natural and beautiful act in the world.
  • Sexuality is the most important issue in the world.  I sincerely think we contribute to the problem of sexualizing our children by the constant harping on it. We help infuse sexuality with this allure and mystery creating a mystique that contributes to the problem instead of fixing it. We tell boys that all they think about is sin. We mistakenly communicate to them that if they think it, they might as well do it. We tell women that they’re sexuality is a secret power they wield over boys.
    It’s not that we need to hide it or ignore it. It’s that there are ways we can deal with sexuality that doesn’t stigmatize it and inadvertently make it the issue we’re trying to avoid. It’s like we’re constantly saying, “Don’t think about sex. Don’t think about sex. You want to look at women as sexual beings . . . you want to but don’t.” The whole time we’re working with the culture to create stigma surrounding sex.

Men, maybe the issue isn’t so much about “Christian cleavage” (whatever that is). In my experience, so many ills could be avoided if we were to “treat younger women like sisters, with absolute purity . . . ”(1 Tim. 5:2). That seems like the best possible scenario.

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