How Not to Talk about Purity and Modesty


I’ve been reading a lot the last couple of years about how emphasizing purity can actually be a problem. Listen, I’m one of those crazy people who thinks that sex should be saved for marriage, but I also empathize with those who heard some weird stuff about purity, modesty, and sexuality growing up in the church. (But the problems are not just in the church; public schools across the continent have been called out lately for “slut shaming” and being unequally harsh towards girls for breaching dress codes.)

I’m not a parent. I’m not a youth leader, a church leader, or anyone with formal training in theology or any other -ology. However, I am a girl, who grew up in the church, and I call myself a Christ-follower. These are my only credentials to give a heads-up to those leaders and parents out there who do get to teach young-ens about purity, modesty, and sexuality. And thus here, in the same vein as How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, I’m hoping we can learn what to do by talking about what not to do.

1. Do not assume modesty is just about hemlines and strap thicknesses.

Modesty has a lot more to with your attitude than it does with the length of your dress. As one blogger pointed out recently on “Bunkers Down”, modesty with your clothes is great, but we also should be modest in how we talk, in how we spend our money, and in how we act. Narrowing this fabulous virtue down to a few numbers in a rule book do nothing for the other areas we need to address (like bragging and narcissism on *ahem* social media).

However, I do totally respect church and other leaders’ need to lay down rules. Don’t get me wrong. I’m going to be a lawyer, so I absolutely appreciate the value of a written code. Just don’t forget to mention that just because your shorts are long enough doesn’t mean you’re nailing the whole “modesty” thing. There are other battles to be won.

2. Do not tell girls they have to be modest for the purpose of protecting their Christian brothers.

Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. This was probably the worst one for me growing up. This is bad for boys and for girls. It’s bad for girls because we feel guilty about finally being confident as who God made us because some creepy guy can’t take his eyes off of us. It’s creepy and gross and does not help our self-esteem. At all. I was literally told once that I needed to stop shaking my hips because some guys were uncomfortable with it. I have curves. That’s just the way my body moves. You boys prefer me to be a slender double-zero with a run-way look (aka lack of any curves at all)? Me too. I”m fourteen, we all prefer that. But this is who I am. (I’m not kidding. That happened.)

And it’s also bad for boys because it’s a cop-out. We don’t give thieves an excuse when they steal, saying that the stolen goods were left unattended, so what do they expect?! How about instead of telling girls that it is our responsibility to keep boy’s minds pure, we teach boys that they need to keep their thoughts pure. Philippians 4:8 says”Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” It doesn’t say, “Take away every distraction, ladies, so the guys can think about pure things.” Lust is a sin, and I am not responsible for your individual sins.

That said, we should dress modestly for our own good and the good of our brothers and sisters. If you dress in a distracting way, you are going to cause a distraction. If you would like to be ogled and objectified, you can easily accomplish that with your outfits (men AND women). While you are not responsible for another’s ultimate actions and thoughts, what you do or don’t do can have an effect on others. And out of respect for yourself and others, it is best to be dress appropriately.

3. Do not use creepy analogies that equate virginity with value.

Chewed up gum? A ripped-open package? A torn up paper heart? Not only are these graphically violent, but they also tend to equate value with virginity, which is just not true. My value comes from my being created in God’s image. And while I do agree that sex should be saved for marriage, these analogies just don’t hold up after the wedding night. Nor do they help any victim of sexual assault.

How about instead of telling our teens they are only good if they are virgins, we let them know that while mistakes we’ve made (just like any) can be forgiven and we may be made pure in His sight, we will always have to live with the consequences of our actions.

4. Do not assume that men are the only ones who struggle with lust and porn.

The sin of lust is not gender-specific, and the number of women who are addicted to porn is on the rise. Could we just put aside stereotypes and talk about the real issues: that porn is harmful to everyone (the viewer, the family, the church, the company, the community, and the nation), and that lust is not something we can blame on low-cut shirts, it’s a sin. If we take away distracting stereo types, we can have a  much more constructive dialogue and, hopefully, actual progress towards a pron-free society.

I’ve heard so often that “men are more visual than women,” Please don’t say that. I don’t even know what this means, really, but I do know that lust plagues both sexes, and that both men and women can be negatively affected by visual images. (That’s why we talk about the negative body image problem being caused, in part, by models and magazine covers.)

5. Do not quote the old “men think about sex every seven seconds,” “fact.”

How would you even know that? I just refuse to believe this is true, and while quoting it is more or less a joke now, the message is that men like/think about/need sex more than women. And that’s just a lie! Please don’t use lies in your presentation on the “Truth about Modesty and Purity”. Thank you.

6. Do not under any circumstances say that a man will “go as far as you let him, ladies.”

Women are not the gatekeepers to sexual impurity. And men are not speeding trains that will only stop at any time if the women pulls the brakes. Men need to take responsibility for their own actions, and blaming it on her for,”Not saying anything,” is just a cop-out. A healthy physical relationship involves communication, trust, respect, and self-control; not locks and keys.

Somehow we got into this pattern of talking about sex as male-centered, which is harmful to men and women. As Kat on the blog “culture war reporters” wrote, “I’ve read many a Christian marriage book that primarily focused on the husband’s sexuality vs. the wife’s emotionality. While you can maybe argue that men lean more towards the physical and women towards the emotional, by reducing men and women to one characteristic we limit both genders. It tells men they aren’t allowed to be emotional, but it also tells the woman that sex is for the man. This male-centric aspect of purity culture automatically bases sex around a man’s pleasure. It also tells women their sexuality doesn’t matter as much as their husbands’.”

And once again – this does nothing to help relieve the guilt and shame for victims of sexual assault. (Are we sensing a theme here?)

7. Do not assume purity is just a physical line.

Jesus was very clear that both impure thoughts and impure actions violate God’s law. Similarly, purity is not accomplished by being able to say, “I didn’t do this or that.”  Purity is a state of your heart, which manifests itself in your physical actions. And don’t forget that God knows the deeper condition of your heart. You may be able to keep the rules that you’ve laid down, but your heart is what matters to God. “All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.” Proverbs 16:2.

8. Do not give girls thirty-seven rules for “modesty,” while giving the guys none.

If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times: in handbooks, lessons, devotionals, and rules, girls have a list as long as their shorts ought to be about what they can’t wear, while men may not have any rules at all. And it’s not just in Christian circles.

And while I understand that girl’s clothes in our society tend to be tighter and show off more skin than guy’s clothes, it can feel like being handed a straightjacket to try to conform to all those rules, especially when the guys have none. Go ahead, make rules, but please make them fair, and at least put some boundaries on the men. (For example, I don’t want to see your underwear under any circumstances, guys, and I don’t need to see inappropriate or sexist messages on your t-shirts. But no matter how hot it is, please keep your shirt on, as we are not at the beach, and do remember to take a shower, and keep the Axe to a minimum. Thank you.)


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