Howdy, everyone! Another week, another Brigham Young University Honor Code scandal, another incident of young Mormon women being gender-profiled and publicly disciplined by total strangers for their alleged immodesty in dress. This time, it wasn’t skinny jeans. It was a dress over leggings. And a blistering note: “What you’re wearing has a negative effect on men (and women) around you . . .”
Sigh. Back when I was at BYU, when we got worked up about immorality, it was about the first GULF WAR. Someone even organized an anti-war teach-in at the Varsity Theater, and the great Hugh Nibley hobbled up to the podium and weighed in on what a total immoral crock the war was and how everyone should read the Book of Mormon instead. Saw it with my own eyes.
Fast forward twenty years, and modesty—narrowly defined as observance of conservative dress standards—has assumed an entirely unprecedented value in Mormon culture. Which brings us to this week’s question:
What is the appropriate way for progressive Mormon men to respond to immodesty? It seems to me that if men validate immodesty with attention, we’re lewd pigs. If we object to immodesty, we’re patriarchal chauvinists. Does that mean we should just “get over it already?” If that’s true, then it seems the expected response for males is to not be provoked by the provocateur. I find that hard to swallow.
I don’t want to paint a picture of men as victims of immodesty. I find that mentality silly at best and dangerous at worst, since it limits the culpability of people who do disgusting things. But that makes finding the appropriate response all the more perplexing. Perhaps I’m being sophomoric, but I sincerely want to navigate a viable path between pig and prude.
First, as a feminist, I’d like to gently object to the way you dichotomize paths of manly response into “pig” and “prude.” It reminds me of the old “virgin” / “whore” dichotomy that’s gotten us women, well, NOWHERE for the last several millennia. The logic is the same—all or nothing—leaving very little room for healthy human sexuality. And we all deserve space for that—men and women. Stop beating yourself up, brother. You’re okay with me.
Now, I think we all know by now that the appropriate response to seeing a stranger wearing skinny jeans or a short dress with leggings is not to assume the prerogative to pass her a chastising note or to issue a public humiliation.
What you should do is a question I farmed out to Ask Mormon Girl’s pro-feminist Mormon male allies. Their answers were so lovely, I’m giving you several here, as food for thought:
“I think it all changes when you start viewing women as more complicated than what appears to your eyes. Modesty is as much a responsibility of the viewer as the viewed.”
“I’d say silence is the best option. Men have had far too much authority over female bodies throughout history, so silence is really the best way to go.”
“Sexual attraction is an unavoidable part of who you are. Try to recognize that and make peace with that.”
“Learn to appreciate and focus on people’s faces.”
“My friend Betsy said it best, ‘One should always look upon a woman as if she is looking you in the eyes. If that feels okay, then you’re probably okay.’ People’s bodies can be, and often are, lovely to behold. The problem comes from wanting to have sex with every beautiful person you see. From my perspective, the core of the issues is not with what you see, but in sexualizing that experience. I learned this lesson from my wife, who sculpted in college (at BYU) and loves the human form as a subject. She often speaks of the shapes and contours of the human body, and it is completely independent of wanting to get it on.”
“Look elsewhere if it’s going to be a problem for you, and try not to let it be a problem for you. All the bad advice [about sexual morality and modesty] and thinking patterns the advice engenders don’t just disappear overnight, either. We should acknowledge that too, I think.”
“Could you take the opportunity to examine yourself? When you see a woman dressed in a way that triggers you, ask yourself, what past messages you’ve heard that impact how you respond internally and externally? Use this knowledge to change yourself and your responses.”
I’m gathering that modesty is as much a mode of seeing and being as it is a mode of dressing. It means acknowledging that sexual attraction is an essential part of being human and learning how to conduct one’s sexuality in a way that is affirming to all involved. That kind of learning takes time. It involves reflecting on and unlearning patterns of seeing that are deep-cooked into our visual culture and into us—men and women—from the time we are children. It involves forgiving oneself (use humor as necessary) for the way the body may unthinkingly respond to visual cues. But it also involves consciously and reflectively trying to rewire habits of seeing so that encountering a beautiful woman ceases to incite anxiety, guilt, or shame. I can’t believe that’s how God wants any of us to experience the miracle of human beings and our bodies.
Readers, what do you say? Other tips on modest seeing? Can you reframe the modesty question from a progressive male p.o.v.? (Thank you to all the wonderful men who contributed to this post.)