I have been reading a lot of responses–some pro and some con– to Elder Callister’s article in the March Ensign. Some things came out of the objections that I had not considered. If you are plugged into the ongoing conversation, I would love to get your take.
The objections that have been expressed have not been about teaching modesty, but rather about the way we teach modesty. It is controversial to teach modesty as pertaining largely to how a woman’s dress is responsible for the thoughts of men, because this not only removes responsibility from men for their thoughts and actions, but also leads women to blame themselves when they are victims of heinous acts. Consider a 12 year old girl who has many trusted associations with men in her life. All too often, one of these men, acting on pure, wanton evil violates that trust and abuses her, sometimes for years. A culture that would even allow for her to ask the question, “What did I do to bring this on?” is at best, dysfunctional and at worst, evil. We must not contribute to the notion that the perpetrator is the victim and vice versa, yet that is the result of our current modest lesson delivery and content.
Like many other non-gospel concepts that have crept into the culture, teaching that modesty is primarily about a woman’s attempts to put thoughts in a man’s head through her dress is destructive. When we teach that the girl is at fault for a man’s thoughts, rather than the man for thinking them, we have taken away one of the greatest gifts we have been given, our agency, and taken away accountability from the man to control his thoughts and actions.
Elder Holland addressed this very thing when he said,
“I have heard all my life that it is the young woman who has to assume the responsibility for controlling the limits of intimacy in courtship because a young man cannot. What an unacceptable response to such a serious issue! What kind of man is he, what priesthood or power or strength or self-control does this man have that lets him develop in society, grow to the age of mature accountability, perhaps even pursue a university education and prepare to affect the future of colleagues and kingdoms and the course of the world, but yet does not have the mental capacity or the moral will to say, ‘I will not do that thing?’ No, this sorry drugstore psychology would have us say, ‘He just can’t help himself. His glands have complete control over his life–his mind, his will, his entire future.’… I refuse to buy some young man’s feigned innocence who wants to sin and call it psychology.”
Christ teaches in Matthew 18:8-9 that “if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee:” He does not say to approach that which offends you and to tell them to cover up. He asks us to take responsibility to cast sin far from us, even if it comes at great cost.
A more effective way to teach modesty is to present it in a way that helps us respect our bodies and hold them sacred. We have been told, “Know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, which ye have of God and ye are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19). We do not cover up our bodies because we are ashamed of them, rather we cover them out of respect for the sacredness of our bodies as gifts of God and for our bodies’ importance to our life’s work. This idea of bodies as temples of God should then extend to how we teach chastity. We would not violate a temple of God, and should treat others and their bodies with the same respect and sacredness.
When we make modesty largely about hemlines, we miss the spirit of the law. Modesty should be grounded in our knowledge of a loving Father, whom we wish to respect and worship with humility and a willingness to sacrifice. Though we largely talk about modesty in terms of a woman’s dress, it is a much more encompassing principle than that. We send a mixed message when we criticize a person for her dress, but praise another for his tailored suit, fancy car, and excessively large house.
Modesty is an important principle that should be taught, but it should be taught in a way that empowers and inspires. Like all things in the gospel, it should point to Christ. Our teaching needs to reflect a proper understanding of agency, accountability, atonement, love, bodies, temples, sacrifice and spirit. Instead of teaching that the body is something sinful, or something to be ashamed of, we should embrace it as a sacred gift from God and treat it accordingly.
Said another way, we can and should do far better than to emulate the societal dysfunction around us which objectifies women, cheapens sex, confuses beauty, reduces bodies to biological functions, implies that men are powerless animals who have no control, and where we confuse victim and perpetrator by launching blame in the wrong direction. Modesty is much more than fashion. It is an expression of the Christ-like attribute of humility that can be shown in all we do and say. Without this understanding, we will gravitate to the world’s paradigms and perpetuate the problem.