Today I have a guest contributor, Laura Hercher, one of my students, talking about something that has certainly been in the news—rape culture. Her thoughts address the intersection of rape culture and what churches teach teens about modesty and personal responsibility.
As someone in a ministry position and involved in a church, I find there are many ways I could work to combat rape culture. But the biggest way is to prevent it from continuing into the next generation by teaching youth how to think about these issues. I think one of the most powerful ways we can do this is by changing the way we teach youth about modesty. Often, well-intentioned youth leaders say or imply that girls need to dress modestly because if they don’t, they are “making” the boys lust after them. Such thinking is rape culture in a slightly less severe package. It communicates the idea that “boys will be boys” and it is girls’ job to keep them from misbehaving; if the boys do misbehave, it’s the girl’s fault because she “asked for it.”
In teaching about modesty, we must be careful to avoid saying or implying that girls are somehow responsible for boys being distracted or lusting because of what females wear. We should still teach about modesty, but teach girls that modesty is about the heart—they should dress modestly in order to honor the Lord and respect themselves.
If girls do desire to dress in revealing clothes, I wouldn’t just tell them “don’t do that because it will make the boys stumble.” Instead, we would talk about how to honor the Lord with how to present one’s self to the world, what messages we send with the way we present ourselves, and what heart issues could be behind a desire to dress in revealing outfits. Do we just like the clothes, or are we looking for attention or affirmation or love—or even trying to fit in with a certain crowd or meet a certain “standard”?
With the guys, I (or better, a male leader) would teach them that it is inevitable in this world that they will sometimes see women who are attractive and scantily clad, and it is their own choice and responsibility how they respond to that situation. I would talk about the difference between attraction and lust—that it is fine and normal to find someone attractive, but lust is a choice to objectify and desire the person in a way that removes that person’s humanity. And objectifying another person, using her as an object (whether physically or just in one’s own mind), dishonors the image of God in her.
Finally, any time I was going to be talking to youth about such a charged subject, I would want to also talk to their parents about what I’m teaching. This would be an opportunity to have a dialogue with parents as well, and possibly challenge unhelpful ideas that they may have been taught about girls and modesty.