Men, Women, and Modesty

Imagine that every single talk you ever heard about missionary work was given by someone who had not served a mission or every single talk about fasting was from someone who (let’s say for health reasons) had never fasted. It is reasonable to suspect that our rhetoric about missionary work or fasting would, in these circumstances, sound very, very different. Currently, we define modesty as being (almost) solely applicable to females, and yet the discourse is (almost) entirely shaped by people who are not female. I think this has led us to several problems.

Update: I removed all the photos (replacing them with links) because the site was loading so slowly and erratically. Please click the links!

Women Are Not Objects

If you were asked to, say, give a talk about tithing, it would be very natural to think, “hm, how has the law of tithing impacted my life?” and use your answers to that question as the basis for your talk. The problem comes when a male speaker asks himself, “hm, how has modesty impacted my life?” Because he is a male person, the most likely impact is his memory of that one time when he saw an immodestly dressed woman and desired her sexually. And so his talk ends up focusing on how women should not dress immodestly because it turns men on.

Let me stipulate a few things here to save you time in the comments: yes, I realize that, on average, men are more responsive to visual stimulus than women are. Yes, I realize that most men really do have sexual thoughts when they see attractive female flesh. But these two facts do not automatically result in a justification for telling women that they should dress modestly so men will not have sexual thoughts.

I actually wouldn’t have a problem with a speaker giving a talk called “25 Reasons to Be Modest” and reason #22 being “immodest dress can prompt lustful thoughts in others and we should try to avoid that.” But that isn’t what I am seeing in (some) current LDS rhetoric. What I am criticizing here is not 4% of a modesty talk–but 90-100% of it–focused on the effect that women have on men. This is a problem; let me try to explain why with an analogy.

One day, the long-hoped-for letter arrives announcing that Harold has been accepted at the college of his dreams. He follows the instructions in the letter and shows up at the appropriate time and place and says, “I’m Harold. I’m so excited to be here! What happens now? How do I register for classes?” The clerk smirks and says, “You don’t register. You are here to be an assistant to John. He registers. You accompany him to his classes to carry his books, take notes, clean his lab equipment, proofread his papers, and that sort of thing. Of course, you’ll do his laundry, sharpen his pencils, be sure he has snacks, and that he doesn’t forget deadlines. Welcome to the university!”

Harold had thought that he was the subject of his college experience–that attending was about his education. But he found out that he was to be the object of someone else’s experience–that attending was about making things as easy as possible for someone else. This is what current LDS modesty discourse does to women. It doesn’t focus on modesty as something that is important to the woman herself, but rather as something that is important to other people in her life. We don’t do this with any other commandment or for any other audience. We don’t tell the young men to serve missions solely because there is a young woman out there who deserves to marry an RM. We don’t tell people to study the scriptures solely because it will make it possible for them to explain doctrine to other people. But LDS modesty rhetoric tells women that they, of themselves, do not matter. Their only value is in the impact that they have on other people.

Comic: What a woman in a burka and in a bikini think of each other.

LDS modesty discourse contributes to the objectification of women. An LDS modesty discourse that treated women as subjects and not objects would focus primarily on the impact that modesty and immodesty has on the woman herself, just like our discussion of every single other commandment focuses on the impact that (not) following that commandment has on the person him/her-self.

Standards Are Impossible and Contradictory

At least Harold’s duties were clearly set out! But LDS women are told–sometimes subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly–that they need to be attractive to men so that they can marry in the temple and have children, which are Very, Very, Important. They are placed on a knife’s edge: be attractive but not too attractive. Imagine this scenario: I take 100 pictures of the same woman, showing her in a spectrum of clothing ranging from picture #1, extremely modest, to picture #100, extremely immodest. I show this set of photos to 1,000 stake presidents and I ask them to tell me which pictures show a modestly-dressed woman and which show an immodestly-dressed woman. We’d get 100% agreement on picture #1 and picture #100, but pictures #30-70 would get a mixture of responses. We next ask the stake presidents which of the pictures would be the of the type that the righteous single men of their stake would consider dating. Righteous men would not date immodest women, but some would draw the line at #95 and others at #55 or #45. But some on the other end of the spectrum would not be considered datable material either: from #1 to some number between #10 and #40, depending on the respondent, would be considered too frumpy and unappealing. What this means is that an LDS woman told to dress modestly but attractively–to wear clothing that, like a good talk, is “long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting,” as at least one authority has put it–are put in an impossible position.

A picture of men leering at the ankle of a woman wearing a burka.

You’ll notice in my example that there is not a single picture that a woman could emulate that would put her in everyone’s “modest but attractive” category. LDS women are told that they sin if they do not meet an inconsistent and unknowable standard.

Women Don’t Solely Dress for Men

Next, our modesty rhetoric implies that female dress is solely determined by a consideration of men’s needs. But women often dress for other women, not (usually) with the goal of attracting them sexually, but with the goal of showing affiliation (I’m dressed just like you! Accept me as one of your own!), showing sartorial competence (Look how clever I was to match this blazer with this scarf!), showing wealth (Yes, this is the brand you think it is!), showing respect (I dressed up for this funeral/dinner party/etc. because I know it is important to you), etc. Women also dress for themselves, usually to bolster confidence or more easily adopt a certain persona (I am hot/powerful/skinny/clever/smart/cute/competent in this).

 Picture of a girl not conforming to gendered expectations for dress.


Sometimes, they even dress a certain way with virtually no thought to how the clothing looks, but because it is comfortable, inexpensive, and easy to launder (that would be me). But LDS modesty rhetoric presumes that women do–and should–dress for men.  This is a male perspective, not a female one. (I hope it is clear that many of the rationales for dressing a certain way that I suggest in this paragraph are not consistent with being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and I think it would be super-productive to begin a modesty discussion with YW by saying, “Think about the last time you took extra effort in your appearance. What was motivating you? Were those good motivations?”)

Women Are Attracted to Men

But current LDS modesty rhetoric denies that women have sexual desires by almost never discussing the need for a similar level of male modesty to thwart female sexual desire.

Picture of a shirtless Ryan Gosling: “Hey Girl. I am here for your viewing pleasure.”

The only desires that are mentioned are men’s. But I’m a Very Happily Married, Temple-Attending, 38-Year-Old Housewife, and on more than one occasion, I have had to reluctantly convince myself to click away from a picture posted on Facebook and, um, maybe even hum my favorite hymn for a while. The fact that men are (on average) more visually stimulated than women does not imply that women are not visually stimulated. The sight of a muscular chest, tight and tanned abs, a firm chin, a charming smile . . .

Wait . . . sorry, I lost my train of thought . . . where was I? Oh, right, yes. Women can be sexually attracted to visual depictions of attractive men.

But we never talk about this. We never tell men that maybe posting shirtless pictures on Facebook (even when the context is that they are at the beach with their children) isn’t the most helpful thing they can do for their sisters. Why is that? Is it because we recognize that making men responsible for an unpredictable response by women is not fair to them?

Picture of a half-naked man in a burka.

What if we told the 15-year-old YM: “Pairing off at your age is a sin. So don’t do or say anything that would cause a YW to fall in love with you.” Is that reasonable counsel to give them?  Is it possible for them to actually follow that counsel?

We also recognize that the men’s intentions matter: a married LDS dad posting beach pictures isn’t trying to turn on bored housewives; he’s just sharing his family’s vacation memories. We understand that his intentions are more important than other people’s varied responses to him. But we don’t afford women the same leeway.

Lack of Mature Reflection

Next, because LDS modesty rhetoric starts and stops with “don’t tempt the boys,” it hasn’t developed the theological sophistication that it needs to actually grapple with the real world. (I compare this to the incredible reception that Elder Holland’s talk “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments” received as the first chastity talk not delivered to an audience presumed to have the spiritual maturity of 15-year-olds but rather of adults.) Two thoughts for what an effective modesty rhetoric needs to reckon with:

1. Situationality. Why is it OK for the Laurels to have not one inch of their thighs or shoulders covered at an official church event if that event is a swim party? Why is it OK for the BYU Cougarettes to dress like this for an official photograph?

Picture of BYU Cheer.

If it were true that women should not dress in a certain way because men will have a certain reaction, then how are these things justified?

2. Historical change. You can have some good fun reading, for example, Joseph F. Smith’s impassioned plea against immodesty from the October 1913 Conference. But if you do, you have to think about the fact that what he is criticizing as “obscene, uncleanly, [and] impure” is clothing like this:

Picture of 1913 clothing.

 A mature discussion of modesty needs to grapple with its dual nature as both an eternal principle and a highly historically-determined one.

So “don’t tempt the boys” might be enough to get the YW to cower and cover, but when they go to college and start thinking about #1 and #2, what can you tell them that will help them to still desire to dress modestly?

The Importance of Agency

When we tell women that they are responsible for men’s reaction to their clothing, we tell women and men that men’s agency is limited and contingent on women’s choices. This does violence to the doctrine of agency and the idea of, as our young women value it, choice and accountability.

It also perpetuates rape culture. Let me back up for a minute and say that I have no evidence of any LDS speaker intending to suggest that a man is not responsible for a rape he commits or that a woman is responsible for being the victim of rape because of the way that she was dressed. (I suspect that most would be horrified by the thought.) But when you posit that a woman’s clothing choice determines a man’s response, then you are more than halfway to pinning the blame for the man’s response on the woman. You have actually already done so. This is an abomination and it must stop.

An Overemphasis on Sexuality

Thought experiment time: imagine a woman with a facial deformity so severe that we can be 100% sure that no man will find her sexually attractive. Should she still dress modestly? The answer is a resounding yes! Modesty is about–or, at least, should be about–her relationship to God, not her relationship to men. But this is not the impression you’d get from most of the current LDS rhetoric. Let’s start talking about why modesty would be important even in a universe lacking the male gaze. Let’s talk about women’s bodies as unique creations of an eternal creator who wants them to emphasize that body’s ability to dance, sing, serve, ski, generate life, laugh, and cry and not that body’s ability to conform to cultural notions of beauty or advertise the wearer’s wealth or attract sexual attention from males and envy from females.

The Scriptural Case

It is striking to me how very different from the scriptures most of our current modesty rhetoric is.

1. Most canonical discussions of women’s clothing focus on economics, not sexuality, and make the case that using one’s clothing to showcase wealth is a sin.

2. Jesus’ thoughts on the male gaze were made fairly clear in Matthew 5:28: “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” You will notice that he did not mention the women’s clothing choices or her subsequent responsibility for the man’s looking with lust; he focuses only on the man’s looking.


96 comments for “Men, Women, and Modesty

  1. Great post, Julie. It is frankly embarrassing to me to sit in Church and listen to grown men talk about how much help they need from women to control their thoughts. Not to mention the mothers who so passionately believe that the only way to protect the virtue of their precious sons is to police what the young women wear.

    I’m afraid that so much damage has been done both to men and women by our current ridiculous modesty rhetoric that the only real solution is to stop talking about modesty altogether for the next twenty years or so.

  2. My favorite part of this is the scriptural case at the end. We very seldom take modesty into consideration with any of our conspicuous consumption decisions, which include cars, homes, electronic devices, and whole range of things beyond just clothing choices.

  3. Thanks, Julie. From a European perspective (and I’m repeating what women here say) the whole church modesty rhetoric sounds unreal and unnecessary. Sure there is something like “modesty” norms, but that is determined by culture and tradition. The less one talks about it, the less it is a problem. But… the Mormon-American emphasis on modesty is spreading to some of our more fundamentalist-leaning members, causing discussions and obsessions we never had.

  4. Well done, Julie. This can be hard to articulate in a way that people who don’t perceive the problem will grasp, and I think you’ve managed to do that here.

  5. Fabulous read. I hope to take this post into consideration anytime I am in a position to give a modesty talk.
    It does make me think though, of the time that my 16 year old Sunday School teachers were talking about the problems they were having with their 14 year old daughter dressing and how she was adamant that the amount of cleavage she was showing had no effect on any boys at all.

  6. I have always considered modesty as applying to both men and women. And yes, it is situational — what is modest in one setting might, for the same person, be immodest in another setting.

    But honestly, looking at how the kids dress at my son’s school, it seems that, generally, the girls, generally, need a better appreciation of (i.e., need more instruction on) modesty than the boys.

    Do we sometimes take it too far? Yes. But is it still a principle that needs to be taught? Yes. We cannot abandon the subject. And fathers need to be allowed to teach correct principles to their daughters.

    I disagree that the discourse regarding female dress is shaped almost exclusively by males. In the wards and stakes where I have lived, I have heard far more regarding modesty, in lessons aimed at girls, from women speakers than from men speakers. At the general church level, I think it is a favorite topic of the general Young Women presidency (all females). This is just my observation, and I cannot support it with empirical data. I live fr from Utah, and have never lived in Utah, but it is far easier, in my own mind, to imagine women complaining about the Cougarettes than men. As an observer of females, sometimes I think fellow females can be a female’s worst enemy.

  7. Excellent post.
    “You will notice that he did not mention the women’s clothing choices or her subsequent responsibility for the man’s looking with lust; he focuses only on the man’s looking.” An excellent point, but in context of the post, seems to assume that today’s dress trends map onto the NT context without any problems. That is, that such extreme public differences existed as, e.g. the cartoon, with bikinis on one end and burkas on the other. I strongly suspect such was not the case.

    It also says nothing about general 2nd temple cultural views on the nature of women and sexuality. That is, Jesus (or the gospel writer) may have shared in that negative cultural tradition that women were by default “temptresses.” In other words, the statement’s focus on male responsibility doesn’t tell us anything about his views on female responsibility or nature. I’m not sure I’m being terribly clear here.

  8. “she was adamant that the amount of cleavage she was showing had no effect on any boys at all.”

    These conversations sometimes remind me of some of the back-and-forth about media effects; some make claims that what you spend a few hours watching or playing has no effect on you, then undercut by the implicit claims made by advertising companies spending millions of dollars on a 15-second ad.

  9. Yesterday on the drive home from Church we asked our kids the typical, “What did you learn about today.” From our kids perspective the lesson revolved around a story about an immodest little girl who colored on her arms with markers contrasted by a modest little girl who refused to write something down on her hand because it was the appearance of evil. Part of me wanted to cheer because it wasn’t about clothes and sexuality – which amazingly finds its way into primary way too often. Anyway, the car-ride debriefing session will now be followed up with a complimentary group reading and discussion of your post. Thank you.

  10. Rachel- From Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes

    What goes without being said about money in Western culture can lead us to be blind to lessons about money that we may think are about something else. Paul tells women in Corinth that they must have their head covered when they worship (1 Cor 11:5–6). It is not immediately clear to us what the problem is, so we may assume something went without being said, which is a good instinct. So perhaps we assume that a woman’s hair was somehow sexually alluring to ancient people and that therefore a Christian woman needed to cover hers. We may then reason that since hair today is not a sexual turn-on, it is okay for a Christian woman to wear her hair down.
    We are correct that something went without being said, but we are wrong about what that was. Paul is indeed talking about modesty. In our culture, if male ministers are talking about what a Christian woman should be wearing, we are almost always discussing sexual modesty or the lack thereof, so we typically assume that’s what Paul is doing here. We feel affirmed when Paul mentions that it is disgraceful if a woman doesn’t cover her head (1 Cor 11:6).
    Likely, however, Paul was admonishing the hostess of a house church to wear her marriage veil (“cover her head”) because “church” was a public event and because respectable Roman women covered their heads in public. These Corinthian women were treating church like their private dinner parties. These dinners (convivia, or “wine parties”) were known for other immoral activities including dinner “escorts” (1 Cor 6), idol meat (1 Cor 8–10), adultery (1 Cor 10) and drunkenness (1 Cor 11). The issue was modesty, but not sexual modesty. These women were co-opting an activity about God for personal benefit. They were treating church as a social club.
    Paul discusses women’s apparel again in 1 Timothy. Again, the issue is modesty (1 Tim 2:9). In Timothy’s church in Ephesus, some women were dressing inappropriately. Again we might assume Paul is concerned about sexual modesty. Contextually, however, a case can be made that Paul meant, “Women should dress economically modestly” so as not to flaunt their wealth. The remainder of 1 Timothy 2:9 reads, “with decency and propriety … not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” Paul mentions a triad of trouble (anger, quarreling/disputes and economics) for women here in 1 Timothy 2:8–9. But this is not solely a feminine problem. He applies the same triad in the following passage addressed to the men: “not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Tim 3:3). Our cultural mores tell us sexual modesty is necessary while economic modesty is considerate: preferable but not necessary.
    In other words, one of the ways Westerners routinely misread instructions about modesty in the Bible is by assuming sexual modesty is of greater concern than economic modesty. Where two mores—sex and money—collide, we see which is more important to us. And when we project our own cultural mores onto the original audience of the Bible, we may fail to apply the Bible correctly in our own lives. It is certainly important for men and women alike to arrive for worship in attire that is sexually modest. But we seem to have no trouble turning sacred spaces into Christian country clubs. We see no dangers in the human tendency to assert our status in the way we dress.
    That most modest of Christian communities, the American Puritans, were certainly not inclined to wear revealing clothing. But certain worship customs in colonial New England threatened economic modesty in Christian gatherings. In New England churches, families paid their tithes by renting pews. The wealthier the family, the better seats they could afford. So the social structure outside the church was reinforced in miniature on Sunday mornings: the wealthiest and most important Christians sat in the center pews nearest the pulpit; the poorer folks sat on the margins. In some cases, the wealthy were seated first, while the others watched and waited. There could be no mistake regarding who were the most important and influential church members.
    Nearly three hundred years later, American Christians might shake their heads at this obviously un-Christian behavior. But the tendency remains. Today we are not judged by the order in which we enter church, but we may judge others by what they drive into the parking lot. Many of us wear our “Sunday best” to church because we claim we want to look our best for God. But God sees us all week. Is it really God for whom we want to look our best?
    In other words, if we understand Paul’s exhortation that women should dress modestly to mean only that their clothes should not be sexually revealing, we may think his words hold no challenge for us today. If we recognize that his concern might instead be economic, then the exhortation is timely for most Western churches, in which everyone keeps their shirts on but in which some dress in ways that say, “We have more money than you.”

  11. My definition of Modesty: Treating your body, and the bodies of all others, with respect and as holy objects. Immodesty: using your body, or the body of any other, as an object of pleasure or for unholy purposes.

    IMO a person is being immodest if they are fully covered, but are trying to looky ‘sexy’. This applies to men and women. That ultra-tight T-shirt to show off the ripped abs are just as immodest as the ultra-high skirt. The purposeful use of your body to create sexual desire in a non-spouse is immodest no matter the apparel. Looking at someone, no matter their clothing, with a lustful heart is immodest.

    Dressing to look nice is not immodest. That skirt you like because it matches your necklace isn’t immodest because the boys whistle and gape, unless you wore it to induce them to do so. Same for those super tight jeans that men might wear. Wearing them because they are comfortable? fine. Wearing them to advertise your ‘package’? Immodest.

    But that is my take on it!

  12. Ben, I’d never assume that today’s dress standards map the NT context without problems. While there would not have been the extreme differences, there would have been differences in women’s dress–think back to Tamar, or think about the rabbis (or even Paul) on the topic of women covering their hair, or the prophets on female nakedness as shame and humiliation, etc.

    I think it is safe to say, given Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman, the anointing woman, etc., that he did not share assumptions about women as temptresses.

    I realize that arguments from silence are always somewhat weak, but here’s Jesus with a perfect platform in which to say “whosoever causeth a man to lust after her hath already . . .” and he doesn’t. That’s the extent of my point: that you can’t make a case for “don’t be immodest because of what it does to men” based on the scriptures. If you want to talk about the results of the male gaze and scripture, all you have is “the men who look are guilty.”

  13. Great post! I often find these modesty discourse critiques to be whiny and deeply unrealistic about human nature. This one has neither of these faults, and it has a lot of good ideas including some I hadn’t thought of before.

    Some ideas I liked a lot that I would like to see explored more:

    1. What is seen as “immodest” is always culturally and contextually determined, as the Joseph F. Smith example shows. )But the church likes to talk about unchanging, eternal standards. )

    2. Women dress for different reasons, including for other women. For example it always seemed to me that the (oft-criticized) ideal of super skinny fashion models is more driven by women than by men. But sexuality probably usually matters too. How do women decide what they want to wear anyway? How SHOULD they decide?

    3. There is indeed a very fine line between looking attractive and looking sexy. Maybe there is not even a line at all. How in the world are young women, tasked with attracting an eternal companion, supposed to navigate this difference? I don’t believe for a minute that even the most Peter Priesthood RM doesn’t react favorably to a young lady in a form fitting sweater, for example. Is this immodest? If not, why not?

  14. ji in #9: I agree with you that most modesty discourse on the local level is normally delivered by women (since they are usually the ones tasked with teaching children and women), but that rhetoric–like the rhetoric surrounding every single other topic that they teach about–is determined not by those local women but, generally speaking, by male church leaders. And as I showed in this post, most of that rhetoric is determined by the needs, experiences, and perceptions of men, not women.

  15. Let me rephrase my second paragraph.

    I see Matt as echoing Proverbs 6, where it is clear that although responsibility is male, that assignment of responsibility is not because there is no provocation or temptation on behalf of the female. Quite the opposite.

    6:23 For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life,
    24 to preserve you from the wife of another, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress.
    25 Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes;
    26 for a prostitute’s fee is only a loaf of bread, but the wife of another stalks a man’s very life.
    27 Can fire be carried in the bosom without burning one’s clothes?
    28 Or can one walk on hot coals without scorching the feet?
    29 So is he who sleeps with his neighbor’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.
    30 Thieves are not despised who steal only to satisfy their appetite when they are hungry.
    31 Yet if they are caught, they will pay sevenfold; they will forfeit all the goods of their house.
    32 But he who commits adultery has no sense; he who does it destroys himself.

    (Pro 6:23-32 NRS)

    No directive is given to the female(s) in question in Proverbs, even though they are perceived as inherently sexually dangerous, as “wife of another”, “adulteress”, “prostitute.” If this is the right kind of cultural/contextual background to Matthew’s statement, than as I said before “male responsibility doesn’t tell us anything about his views on female responsibility or nature.”

  16. Thanks for the post. I’ll add what I taught myself as a YW: wanting a man to look at me with sexual admiration is a healthy desire that I accept within myself, but I will curb that appetite of mine, just the way men are checking themselves on various parts of the “slippery slope.” I decided that past a certain point of appropriateness, showing my body off is something to save for marriage, and to look forward to with a healthy attitude.

  17. (I always end up talking from personal experience, which others might find irrelevant)

    I remember as a very young woman feeling shocked, shamed, and frightened when others – well meaning people at church, men on the street, friends who were boys, my own parents – commented on my body, dressed “modestly” or not. Whatever they intended, it felt like an assault.

    Sometimes I dressed in what was apparently an inappropriately noticeable way because I was still a kid and didn’t pay attention to what I wore. Sometimes (much more rarely) I dressed that way because I was experimenting with my own changing shape and what I thought was cute. But every time I was slut-shamed for having a female body, I pulled back violently and became more introverted, camouflaged, and sex-averse.

    Some of the damage was done by men – those I knew well and also strangers – doing whatever it is they think they’re doing when they make sexual comments to a young girl (often regardless of what the girl is wearing).

    But also a lot of harm was done to me personally by well-intentioned modesty talk. I always, always felt blamed and shamed and resentful about it. I complied, which was maybe all that mattered to the people who pushed it.

  18. What don’t you feminists get about; you came from our rib and we know it when we see it? Lol, excellent article!

    LDS values in general are conservative values which assume rule compliance by the under class for the “greater good” which btw happens to be the privileged class spouting those values, orthodox men! The practice of the LDS church needn’t be conservative, Christ incarnated as Jesus certainly wasn’t conservative (did he become so post mortem?) so this is obviously a cultural issue, one of many that has become codified in a pharisaical way.

  19. Very good post, Julie. I have come to a similar conclusions. The underlying problem with our modesty discourse is that women are often treated as objects to be acted upon rather than agents endowed to act of their own accord. Unfortunately, the problem runs much deeper than just modesty. Much of the scriptures, and even the temple ceremonies I love so much, are premised on the idea that women are objects (wombs) and men are actors (brains/brawn). These views are thankfully changing, but the going is slow because so much of our foundational beliefs are tied up in them.

    I have to disagree with you somewhat on the reasons for the over-emphasis of modesty in RS and YW lessons. In my view, the focus on female modesty is largely due to the judgment of female leaders. On both the general and local level, it may be men who speak with the most ecclesiastical authority, or who have the final say in curriculum, but it is the women who choose to focus on this issue and who spur their husbands to do the same.

    Perhaps this is because, without priesthood responsibilities, women have fewer things to discuss. Perhaps it is because women view each other as competition (visit any singles ward). Perhaps it is because modesty is one of the few ways women feel they can fight back against the porn-ification of their world. But mostly, I think it is because mothers and female church leaders have better personal experience to speak from. They know first hand the concerns over safety, self-worth, and other real issues that modesty addresses.

    For what it’s worth, when I teach lessons on modesty to my YM, I always begin by having them define modesty without any reference to clothing. Then we discuss examples of immodesty such as running up a basketball score on an inferior opponent or wearing a blinking-red nose raindeer tie to pass the sacrament. Once those principles are in place, I find my boys are in a much better mindset to address the typical issues of what clothing is appropriate for dances, swimming, etc.

  20. My apologies for the slowness of the site today.

    Apparently when you pin your post to Pinterest with a picture of a shirtless Ryan Gosling, you end up generating a little more traffic than you can actually handle. (Seriously–the little thingy at the top of the page shows easily 3x the traffic today.)

    On the plus side, I think I just proved my point about women and visual stimulus. :)

  21. Thank you so much for this. It is exactly what I needed someone else to put into words for me. I was always thin and athletic and smiled and was kind to everyone, but I was very shy and didn’t talk much and blushed a lot. I always felt uncomfortable as my true self because other girls hated me and the boys were afraid to talk to me. It didn’t help that my mom drilled into me that pretty girls are mean so I should stay away from them. When I got older I realized I wasn’t fitting in because of how I looked, so I took great effort to look bad. I gained 50lbs and even wore my hair short for awhile. I fit in better, but I am not myself and I know I am not honoring my creator by ruining my body with unhealthy food and avoiding my true self for the purpose of making others feel comfortable. I am beginning to work on figuring out how to honor Heavenly Father and serving others without feeling uncomfortable. This article was a true help for me. Thanks again.

  22. Julie, your point that modesty “hasn’t developed the theological sophistication that it needs to actually grapple with the real world” resonated with me. Please forgive me from speaking from a place of personal experience, too–I know that really bugs some of the readers. I’m a single woman in my late 20s, and generally have chosen throughout my life to dress according to the modesty standards of the church. I’m less clear about the reasons I have done so–even now as I’m trying to puzzle out why I do this, I can’t put my finger on it. I’m afraid it’s nothing like as pure a motive as an outward expression of my commitment to God. It’s more like a complicated mess of wanting to be seen as compliant, not being comfortable with my body, and social conditioning.

    In the absence of the male gaze–and more specifically, the Mormon male gaze–I often feel just great in “immodest” clothing. I jog in a tank top and shortish shorts, and in the summers I sleep or hang around my apartment in similar attire–it’s Arizona, after all. If I’m going to work or the store, I might wear that dress that’s a few inches shorter than my knees, or the other dress that’s sheer across the shoulders since they’re well within the normal range of socially and professionally acceptable attire and nobody will care or oggle. In these situations, I’m not motivated by sexuality and I don’t feel like I’m disrespecting the temple of my body, especially when it’s only me and God or me and other park-jogging strangers.

    What I’m trying to get at is that even when we try to move modesty rhetoric away from “don’t dress that way or the men will have bad thoughts,” which I agree we most certainly should do, it still doesn’t seem to have a well-developed basis in scripture and eternal principles. In short, the reasons for it, given that it is subjective and changes over time, do not resonate with my spirit. What’s the theological rationale? The situationality of it makes it inherently not about the individual’s relationship with God–it makes it about the reactions of other people, which are intimately connected to cultural expectations, judgment, and group status. Until the day a well-developed God-centered paradigm arrives, I continue to negotiate my clothing between what’s comfortable for me and what society–and what sub-culture I’m interacting with–expects of me.

  23. Julie (23), next time you pin your post to Pinterest, include a picture of a kitten eating a cupcake while reading Pride and Prejudice in a remodeled kitchen. That will take down the server for at least a week.

  24. Julie: “This is what current LDS modesty discourse does to women. It doesn’t focus on modesty as something that is important to the woman herself, but rather as something that is important to other people in her life. We don’t do this with any other commandment or for any other audience. We don’t tell the young men to serve missions solely because there is a young woman out there who deserves to marry an RM. We don’t tell people to study the scriptures solely because it will make it possible for them to explain doctrine to other people. But LDS modesty rhetoric tells women that they, of themselves, do not matter. Their only value is in the impact that they have on other people.”

    I’m all for reforming modesty rhetoric but this is overstated and inaccurate in my opinion. Church leaders teach most commandments in the context of a covenant community. The importance of a given commandment is most often grounded in relationships between members of the covenant community. I am a 26 year old man. I am told not to look at pornography because it harms the people who produce it (especially the women who are depicted as sexual objects) and because looking at it will harm my wife and children; and, at the same time, it will harm me spiritually. I was told to serve a mission almost entirely because it would benefit the people I taught, my future wife, my future children, my future ward members, etc.; and, at the same time, it would benefit me spiritually. I’m told constantly that I need to study the scriptures so that I can benefit my family, friends, and ward members, through my callings and roles as father, friend, and teacher; and, at the same time, the scriptures will benefit me personally. Commandments most often cut two ways in my opinion. We are bound together. Our actions effect each other. Commandments are a codification of that social reality. I’m sure leaders overstate one side of the equation when teaching modesty, but let’s not throw out the equation. The idea that a commandment matters because it effects others, not solely the commandment-keeper, is not unique, it’s par for the course.

    Obviously, there are unique problems with the application of that principle (commandments being relevant to the commandment-keeper and the rest of the community) to women and modesty, and surely there are ways the current rhetoric of modesty can be harmful, and I’m all for calling attention to those and hashing them out. But I think we should be careful about entirely discounting (or not teaching) the idea that as members of the body of Christ we should gladly make sacrifices to remove stumbling blocks from eachothers’ paths, even if each person’s actions are in most senses and in most situations ultimately his/her own responsibility.

  25. Totally agree with just about everything in this post. Very well said.

    I taught the lesson on the plan of salvation and agency to my deacons yesterday. I made a point to tell them that because agency is god-given and cannot be taken away, the responsibility for our choices remains with us, and we cannot blame anyone else for our choices. To illustrate the point, we discussed two examples: (1) someone who commits war crimes and uses the “I was following orders defense,” (they got that example pretty easily) and (2) someone who breaks (or bends) the law of chastity and uses the “she seduced me with her immodesty” defense (they had a harder time with that, but they got it). I told them that as they go through the youth program over the next 6 years, they will probably at some point hear someone saying, or implying, that the YW are responsible for whether they (the deacons) have impure thoughts, if they are not dressed modestly enough, but that it is an old lie and they should not believe it. I told them if they think that they have no control, they are believing a satanic lie.

  26. Julie, I would join you in the dangerous business of arguing from silence based on what is probably the most infamous episode of sexual sin in the scriptures: David and Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan’s rebuke is directed at David and David alone, and there is no rebuking Bathsheba. (Though Nathan’s parable is also problematically objectifying, it certainly got the point across to David; and that probably says more about David’s view toward women than about the prophet’s or the Lord’s view , given that the parable was intended not to teach doctrine, but to convict David).

    I have, however, heard talks and lessons condemning Bathsheba for bathing on the roof where David could see her.

  27. “When we tell women that they are responsible for men’s reaction to their clothing, we tell women and men that men’s agency is limited and contingent on women’s choices.”

    No. Absolutely not. I’ve agreed with essentially everything in this post up until the “rape culture” segment, to which I take exception.

    Visual stimulus is just that – stimulus. It invokes reactions that are involuntary. That doesn’t mean that one’s agency has been lost. The fact that an immodestly dressed woman can cause sexual thoughts in a hormonally receptive man does not in any way take away his choice as to what he does with those thoughts. Likewise, if the woman were to abruptly slap the man, his adrenal response would be involuntary, but his behavior thereafter would not be. I do not believe I have ever heard church teachings presented in such a way to suggest this wasn’t true.

    Everything we do affects someone else, so it’s good that we understand those effects before we choose to do them. Even though we’re not responsible for the choices of others, we’re certainly responsible for our own, and clearly this justifies teaching modesty to some degree.

    Of course there are trade-offs in how far it’s reasonable to go to accommodate others’ involuntary responses, but that’s the correct discussion to have.

    I realize that I’m only arguing with a small part of the overall post, but it’s an important part, imo.

  28. Imagine that your hearing was extremely selective.

    Imagine that every single talk on the Word of Wisdom was delivered by an ex-drinker or ex-smoker, or by someone who had alcoholism run in their family.

    Imagine not approaching the gospel from the standpoint of a special interest or aggrieved identity pressure group.

  29. My experience with LDS modesty teachings comes mainly from the strength of the youth handout. It didn’t seem to me to be emphasize the “don’t the boys” aspect to the extent you describe.

    Regardless, since as you correctly point out, men may not know what motivates women, I am curious what you think is effective in getting young people to behave modestly?

    Does preaching “don’t tempt the boys” cause some girls to “tempt the boys” to get attention or does it cause them to dress and behave modestly?

    I’m of the opinion that neither matter very much. The kids that want to get the clothes off, will get them off, no matter how much they have on when they leave the house and the others don’t need to worry that much about it.

  30. Some good thoughts. The problem is that I have not personally seen an overemphasis on sexuality and the ‘don’t make the boys have bad thoughts’ when discussing modesty.

    Look at for the strength of youth pamphlet. It doesn’t mention either of those things at all.

  31. Also, if you ignore the tempting and voluntary/involuntary distinction, does it make no sense to teach kids about non-verbal communication in matters of sexual relations? Most people do not consent explicitly and formally to a particular degree of sexual intimacy. Often, stuff happens until one party or the other stops it.

    Dress and speech certainly play a role in this, but things are pretty complicated in that some people want to engage in certain behaviors without openly signaling it, while others want to signal more sexual availability than they intend to act on.

    Adam G. may have been being facetious but a lot of preaching and moralizing is not addressed at the people who are doing the sinning. Its all identity group speech designed to make people feel good about what they weren’t going to do anyway. That’s why preaching that emphasizes something that doesn’t come easy to the group being preached to is met with more resistance than that which caters to an area where people are already behaving morally.

    The top-notch sinners the wolves and the home-wreckers, are way too sophisticated to violate social modesty norms – after all, think of the scandal!

  32. Adam and mntmarty, I have no complaint about the treatment of modesty in the Strength of Youth. I am quite pleased, actually, with its gender-neutral presentation and it should be a model for how we teach modesty. Unfortunately, in several examples that I was thinking of when writing this post, it was not.

    Tony F, thanks!

    Martin, if LDS modesty rhetoric made the distinction that you make in your comment–between an initial (involuntary) response and a later (avoidable) voluntary one–I would have no objection. That distinction clearly shuts the door on rape culture. But that distinction is not something that I am hearing.

  33. Julie,

    Why do you think people are presenting it the way they are? Is it something specific to what they think girls need or want to hear? I don’t know the reason why they are presenting it that way.

  34. mnmarty, I address this in my second paragraph: I think that the most problematic rhetoric stems from men thinking about their own relationship to female (im)modesty instead of men thinking about how female (im)modesty affects women.

    I also think that the very real fact that one of the results of female immodesty is male sexual desire makes it easy to talk about, whereas, as I indicate towards the end of the post, the nature of modesty as an eternal AND historically- and culturally-conditional principle makes it tricky to talk about in other terms.

  35. JKC (#29)–good point about Bathsheba.

    anonymous in #27–I don’t disagree with what you are saying and I make the same point in paragraph #4 of my post. I have no problem pointing out that part of the reason that we keep the commandments is to bless other people; I do have a problem with the extreme emphasis (often, to the detriment of all other reasons) placed on the idea in (some strands) of LDS modesty rhetoric.

  36. Great post thanks. Assume in response to Callisters article in the march Ensign.

    Martin, those reactions are partly involuntary and partly learned. I saw an interview with a Taliban modest police man once, and he said if he sees a woman’s ankle he assumes the woman is inviting rape. Do you have that reaction to ankles? The regular talk of conservative US modesty is training our members to an unnecessary level of sexual sensitivity/responsiveness. Relating a woman’s self esteem to her modesty is also an artificial and offensive concept

    I live in a part of Australia where the average winter day is 23c (76f) and summer 29c(86), so clothes are rarely necessary to keep warm. 99.5% of the population are not Mormon so most of the women I see are not Mormon, and very few of them are dressed to Mormon modesty standards. Most of them appear to dress to be comfortable in the environment they are going to be in, with some influence from fashion. At present there seem to be more very short shorts among the young women, and lots of cleavage among the older ones.

    So what would you expect from this; that our men would be following immodest women around with their tongues hanging our until they could rape them – if you believe the modesty rhetoric. Utah has the highest rate of sexual assault in the US and the lowest reporting rate, this rate is also higher than ours here where there is no modesty rhetoric except at church. Nearly all sexual assaults are perpetrated by people the victim knows; usually dates/or husbands, family, or friends, and only 13% by strangers. This could be more useful for a woman to know than to dress modestly.

    If the sexual attention modesty is guarding is a lesser level than sexual assault I don’t know how to measure it, but sexual assaults appear to be higher in Utah, that other places where modesty is not taught. Teenage pregnancy is also higher, by factors of at least 2, but birth control and other factors influence that.

    Are our modesty trained men more likely to be responsible for sexual assault than men who are trained only to respect women, in the worldly sense, or is there some other explanation?

    By the way Tora Bright is Mormon Australian who has won a silver medal at the winter Olympics but it hasn’t got to

  37. I learned from my mother at an early age to respect all females and to look away or down or walk away from seeing too much.I am 72 and the girls in my high school wore frilly blouses to the neck,skirts and or dresses and I always thought they were neat and special.Times have changed and the male dominated world makes the girls think
    they have to be immodest.

  38. David gets into hot water more for the murder than the adultery. Of course the adultery is what caused him to commit murder. David used his position AND his priesthood to attempt to cover his sins and the end result was his murder of an innocent man.

    We focus too much on the peeping tom element (it’s salacious and sexy) and not enough on the lying, cheating, cover-up and murder. It’s not just in the LDS church, it’s all to common everywhere.

    Not condoning adultery or voyeurism, just stating, maybe we got to the well too often with this story for modesty purposes and not enough as an unrighteousness dominion purpose.

  39. Julie, you’re simply the best at this kind of post.

    Two small quibbles: you frame your critique around an implicit male perspective — referring, no doubt, to the Callister piece. Yet thinking about my daughter, a large majority of the modesty discourse she has absorbed has come from a female — me and her (local and general) YW leaders. She may read an occasional article in the New Era by a male author (I don’t know) and perhaps the bishop addresses it occasionally at a fireside (haven’t heard that he has). But I strongly suspect that at women enforce modesty norms more strongly than men, in general. In my case, I do it because I sense at a deep level that modest dress is both empowering and protective for me, and I want to empower and protect my own daughters. All the modesty-rage in the world is not going to change that gut-level feeling, and I think I’m fairly typical of mainstream LDS women.

    Second, you construe “LDS modesty discourse” so narrowly — restricting it solely to official, in-print discourse. May I suggest — very immodestly indeed — that I and many others have been working toward a companion LDS modesty discourse that avoids many of the memes to which you object. We count, too!

  40. “Let’s start talking about why modesty would be important even in a universe lacking the male gaze.”

    Amen, amen, and amen!

  41. Julie, thank you! This issue has SO LONG driven me NUTS. Every time I’ve written about it, I’ve come mostly to the conclusion that the church teaches modesty ad naseum but has NO coherent reasoning for it.

    Last summer Monica (16) attended EFY. Her session was July 22-26th at the University of Utah. The session leaders were a man and his wife, but the man did most of the presentations to the group. The man literally HAMMERED home the idea that girls had to cover up to protect the poor incapable boys and that, in fact, girls who dressed immodestly were evil.

    To be clear, this is not a daughter who felt guilty because she pushed the limits. This is the girl who, when she was FOUR, took home the Barbie stickers the doctor gave her and colored in the “‘kinis” because they made her uncomfortable. She has always dressed modestly and the constant harping by this man was really awful.

    One other (male) session leader also spoke in a similar manner (though not as harshly). It that case she had the opportunity to suggest to him that modesty was important but that boys were responsible for themselves. He listened politely and said something akin to, “Well, that’s an interesting idea.”

    Rosalynde, I think you’re right about where they MIGHT hear this most often, but IMO it’s mostly rhetoric that originates with men that women repeat. Perhaps not you, specifically, but in church lessons, articles, etc., the word comes from the top within the church.

    It’s time we stop making women the keepers of all virtue and let women worry about keeping their own.

    Seriously, if men are SO freaking out of control that they can’t handle themselves, why are they handling the church?

  42. Marvelous post. So much done so well here. I do often wish that “modesty” in LDS discourse would prefer the other, more fundamental sense of modesty: i.e., moderate behavior, language, relations to others, etc. (Until then, yes and yes!)

  43. Julie,

    But the men don’t talk that way about female modesty to men, so its not how they view female modesty generally, it just they are presenting it to women.

    I think immodest dress gratifies male desire more than it creates it. Male sailors coming to port don’t need immodest dress to stoke desire, they’ve got that already from the lack of females in their field of vision.

    I think some of these males are motivated by a proprietary, patriarchal type attitude. Women should keep their ability to gratify men private because it rightfully belongs to their husband or future husband and not to men in general. They don’t want other males to have access to their females but are expressing it as “temptation.”

    That is putting it too simplistic and crudely so take it for what its worth.

    I think you are right that they may not be adopting the female perspective but I don’t think you are at all correct about their motivation.

  44. Rosalynde, thank you and I will now quibble with your quibbles: I’d agree that women might be _enforcing_ norms but men are _generating_ them (which is why they matter: even if your daughter doesn’t read them, she will by taught be leaders who do).

    You mention your own enforcement because “I sense at a deep level that modest dress is both empowering and protective for me.” I wholeheartedly agree with this–modesty properly framed is a gift and a blessing. We just need to frame it properly to minimize collateral damage, and I don’t think we have done that (in general).

    Also, it _was_ my intention to limit the kind of discourse that I am critiquing in this post–but not to official, in print discourse. (I’m honestly not sure where you got that idea, esp. after I praised For the Strength of Youth). I’m limiting my critique to the message “be modest for the sake of the YM” and I see that locally as much as I see it on the church-wide level.

    You write, “I and many others have been working toward a companion LDS modesty discourse that avoids many of the memes to which you object. We count, too!”

    Yes, you do! And I applaud you for it. I think the only thing that will really end the harmful rhetoric is to replace it with better rhetoric and we need smart, faithful people like you to do that!

  45. “It doesn’t focus on modesty as something that is important to the woman herself, but rather as something that is important to other people in her life. We don’t do this with any other commandment or for any other audience.
    “…just like our discussion of every single other commandment focuses on the impact that (not) following that commandment has on the person him/her-self.”
    I’m sorry that is what you learn when you learn about other doctrines. I have to disagree with you on that point. Christ was the perfect example of looking outside himself and living completely for the benefit of other people. That is what charity is–having as our sole motivation to bless others, and becoming perfect, not by self-service, but by serving others. I appreciate your point of view on the topic and agree with many things you said, I just don’t agree with that premise–that we should focus on how keeping a commandment serves ourselves. That misses the point of religion.

  46. What is this Callister piece people are referring to? I haven’t seen the March issue of the Ensign yet and it’s not online.

  47. Great post, great comments all around – especially thank you for publicly recognizing that women also have sexual desires – and it’s okay that they do and should (it always gets swept under the rug – like only men have/are the problem(s)).

    I do have to comment on your opening point:

    “Imagine that every single talk you ever heard about missionary work was given by someone who had not served a mission or every single talk about fasting was from someone who (let’s say for health reasons) had never fasted. It is reasonable to suspect that our rhetoric about missionary work or fasting would, in these circumstances, sound very, very different.”

    Are you aware that NO ONE in the entire First Presidency, nor over half the Quorum of the Twelve has served a mission? Pres. Monson and Packer and Elder Perry were in World War Two, the others (including Pres. Uctdorf) either served in the military during the Korean war or peacetime when the Church suspended missions, or were in college. Elder Holland is the most senior apostle to have served a mission. Only five of fifteen apostles served missions….yet we don’t denigrate their counsel, pleadings, and promises in the name of The Lord, nor do we say: “Well they never served! They don’t know what they are talking about. They have no idea what it is really like!”

    The reality and the roots are MUCH deeper – and it is found mainly in history and culture – particularly with all the different reasons why Eve was so bad (as promoted by Christianity since Saint Augustine) and why sex is an unpleasant duty to be endured so babies will be born and because men are pigs (Puritans), to nice people don’t ever mention sexuality publicly, but we can go hog wild behind closed doors – no matter how immoral the practice and the variety of partners – so long as we keep up a dignified reputation (Victorian age morals).

    At some point, as a Church and as a culture (mainly Utah) we are going to have to have a very frank and open discussion about sexuality – but probably everyone of marrying age before say, 1980 will have to die off before we are reasonably comfortable and open enough for that can happen…and that includes probably ALL the apostles and most of the general authorities…

    The problem is not that the top leaders are men – it’s that 1950’s standard of modesty (what they experienced) is significantly closer to the Lord’s standards of sexual behavior than today’s world.

    Again – great post :)

  48. Just to be clear: this post is not about Elder Callister. He didn’t say anything that I haven’t heard many times before–in venues both local and general, formal and informal, etc. While there are, in my mind, some problematic elements to what he said, there are also some positive ones. This piece is not a thinly-veiled attack on him.

  49. Rob in #53: I think there are significant differences between the kind of modesty rhetoric that I criticize in this post and the kind of selfless Christian service that you describe:

    1. Christianity does not divide Christians into two groups, the first to focus on meeting the needs of the second but with the second free to ignore the needs of the first. In some instances, our modesty rhetoric does this. (See: shirtless beach pictures on FB posted by my male friends).

    2. Christianity sees self-sacrifice as appropriate from adults who know their identity and willingly choose to sacrifice. The atonement could not have been performed by a child, but only by someone who knew that he was God’s beloved son. But the rhetoric I criticize is inflicted on girls who do not yet know who they are; rather, it shapes their sense of self as objects and not subjects.

    3. Which leads to: the self as the subject of other humans and not the subject of God is contradicted by Christianity.

    4. Jesus spoke repeatedly against the objectification of women (see: Luke 11:27-28, John 7:53-8:11, and Luke 10:38-42), which is pretty stunning given his socio-historical context.

  50. First of all, I LOVED THAT ARTICLE!!!!! Yes, yes, a million times, EXACTLY!! Second I just wanted to say that I think a discussion like this needs to be accompanied by a discussion of how we are going to teach our young men. I think for LDS men and women, an image of an immodestly dressed person makes some feel angry and resentful. We need to teach kids that immodest people aren’t walking pornography, but that they’re daughters (& sons) of God. I realize some men will need to look away, but should maybe say to themselves, “I am not judging that person. She is a daughter of God and can make her own choices. I choose not to date that type of girl. I won’t dwell on this image, because it will not make me into the person I want to be.” As the article said, what will our young men do at the pool, the gym, or even football games? Immodesty is all around us, and men need better coping mechanisms than to just judge people and feel upset. What is it doing to our young men to teach them that immodest dress is what they can blame immoral thoughts on? I want my son to be able to control his thoughts in all situations!

  51. My son recently taught an Elders’ Quorum lesson on modesty. He found it very interesting that none of the people in the class had ever before been taught a lesson on modesty, although they know that females get it constantly. They discussed men’s responsibility to be modest. They discussed how it applies to children. (ie. do I need to tell my two year old who constantly strips off his/her clothes that Jesus says we should wear clothes? No, at age 2, it is a health issue, and you say, “You will wear clothes because I’m Daddy and I said so.) A further conclusion is that Celestial laws of modesty could well be different. In the presence of only Celestial beings, neither clothing nor nakedness would provoke impure thoughts. And if I were a resurrected being, I would not need to worry about the disgust and revulsion that my naked middle-aged body would cause in any sensible mortal person. My son felt it was useful to have the discussion and apply it to men themselves, not to men as keepers of the females in their lives.

  52. I think if we could truly understand how beautiful our souls are, how beautiful our glorified person will be, that we would never want to detract from that by what we wear. But we only know this life and the trials and temptations that come with it. I feel that if we could even glimpse how glorious we will be in the Eternities that it would never even cross our minds to dress immodestly.

  53. I think if we could truly understand how beautiful our souls are, how beautiful our glorified person will be, that we would never want to detract from that by what we wear. But we only know this life and the trials and temptations that come with it. I feel that if we could even glimpse how glorious we are in the eyes of our Heavenly Father that it would never even cross our minds to dress immodestly.

  54. Thank you!! This is the article on modesty that I’ve always wanted to write, but a thousand times better than I’ve ever been able to put together. The section about standards being impossible and contradictory is spot on and what I feel has been missing from most discussions on modesty. And because of that, modesty is a moving target.

    I’ve collected several photos from the online BYU Harold B Lee digital collection that show formal, shoulder-baring dresses with straps from the 20s or sleeveless dresses in the 50s and 60s. At BYU. Of course, they were also wearing cats and chickens on their heads so maybe that cancelled out any sexual vibes sent out by the “immodesty”.

    What has changed that made this above photo ok 90 years ago at a BYU dance and the same thing immodest today?

  55. Julie:

    I’d agree that women might be _enforcing_ norms but men are _generating_ them (which is why they matter: even if your daughter doesn’t read them, she will by taught be leaders who do).

    I’m not sure exactly how you meant that phrase, but it’s right on more than one count. It IS the fact that authoritative sources (almost always men) are saying them, that means they DO matter in the sense of, well, having authority.

    When I wrote my Eastland response (which focused a great deal on female modesty) **I got a lot of pushback, but NO ONE argued with Elder Holland’s quote.

    Fortunately I could find an authoritative male figure to support my point. Because, let’s me honest, quoting Barbara Smith just doesn’t have the same impact, no matter how much sense she might make.

  56. I don’t think modesty or immodesty in dress has anything to do with sexual thoughts. I can see a man with a great tush walking down the street and have sexual thoughts, no matter what he’s wearing!

  57. My concerns have largely been addressed in the comments, so I’ll narrow it down to the following:

    1 – by not citing any specific examples your argument rises almost to the level of a straw man. Clearly you have some examples in your head but not everyone has the same experience. In fact, while I do occasionally hear the argument used in our area, generally the discussion is focused on the concept of self-worth, relationship to god, the body as a temple, etc… In fact, I spent some time a few months ago asking my daughter and other teenage members in the area “why” they should dress modestly. They uniformly included the “don’t make young men…” argument in their list, but it was usually buried 3 or 4 places down behind the others. This also raises the distinction between the wacky behavior of locals versus the actual policies, teachings of the general church leadership. A quick search on shows references to conference talks (Elaine S. Dalton, 2011; M. Russell Ballard, 2010), For the strength of youth pamphlet and supplementary materials, and the “Gospel Topics” reference as ones that address the “why” of modesty. They all adhere very closely to your “accepted” method of discussing modesty; i.e., the male reaction is one of several reasons. Some of them also expand “modesty” beyond simply dress codes (which is a favorite of some blog writers and a commenter in the thread above). In my reading and understanding, the focus at the general levels does not overemphasize the male reaction. Those at the local level still being idiots will someday hopefully take note of the official stance.

    2 – Considering the concept and definition of “objectification.” In the establishment of a standard in the church, I don’t see any of Nussbaum’s seven definitional features. There is a possible danger of violating two of Langton’s three additions, “reduction to body” and “reduction to appearance.” (never mind the weakness of the definitions themselves, we’ll just take them as they are). However, this risk is mitigated by making the appearance to others as only one of several reasons for the modesty standard. Those reductions might well happen, but they are due to individual reactions, not to the simple establishment of a standard. Claims that the church standards create objectification fall flat because “addressing an issue” and “reduction to body” are not the same thing.

    Lastly, I am baffled by the commenter that claimed there is no scriptural/doctrinal basis for a modesty standard. Perhaps the commenter has not searched recently; the scriptural basis is quite clear and well-expounded in church materials.

  58. reb wrote: modesty standard…the scriptural basis is quite clear and well-expounded in church materials Please post a link to the “clear and well-expounded scriptures”. The last time I attempted to chase this down via the Strength of Youth pamphlet it went no where that made sense, that is the scriptures really had to be s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d to fit modesty.

  59. Julie:

    What if we told the 15-year-old YM: “Pairing off at your age is a sin. So don’t do or say anything that would cause a YW to fall in love with you.” Is that reasonable counsel to give them? Is it possible for them to actually follow that counsel?

    Ha! I thought I was the only one who’d tried the thought experiment asking men to stop being so smart and funny and kind because it makes me lust after them. (It does. Far more than visual stimuli.) I’ve never gotten more than an eye roll from the modesty-police men I’ve said that to–they didn’t agree it was at all the same thing as asking women to prevent men’s minds from wandering into forbidden territory by dressing exactly right. Loved your points about the 100 photos and the impossible position women are put in, even if they agree to take on responsibility for both preventing fruitless (pre- and extra-marital) lust and provoking fruitful (marry and multiply and replenish) lust.

    And your last point about clothing as a flaunting of wealth and status–that’s what I’ve been focused on lately as I’ve read and participated in the Mormon modesty debates. Lily Darais’s post (on December 9th) over at Mormon Momma was a great exploration of that idea–that perhaps a far more important question about women’s appearance is how much money and time and thought we are lavishing on it, when those same resources could be used for far more important pursuits, spiritual and otherwise.

    I thought I’d read it all in the modesty debate, but you’ve done an excellent job of summarizing the most compelling points and adding a few more worth exploring.

  60. Author makes some goods points, but also seems to make a number of generalizations and leaps of logic. Moreover, I would like to have read more on her suggestions about what better rhetoric would look like, more specific examples, etc. (I.e., her articles is heavy on criticism and light on positive ideas for improvement).

  61. Sarah, I’m afraid of messing the website up again, but if you follow the Ryan Gosling link in the post (which I know you were wanting to do anyway) or the man-in-burka link (which you don’t, because pale hairy men are gross), that takes you to my Pinterest page, from which you should be able to repin.

  62. JT, Julie’s post may have been heavy on criticism because that was the POINT of the article, to point out problems in the modesty rhetoric.

    Your comment, on the other hand is heavy on criticism but short on specifics. For example, what do you believe were the “good points” and what were the supposed “leaps of logic” she engaged in.

    Speaking for myself, I’ve been grappling with the issue for decades, but there is a REASON few of us come up with alternative modesty teaching: WE DON’T HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO DO SO.

    I can tell you what I THINK are good reasons for modesty, but I can’t tell you why the church has these policies. And the people who CAN tell us seem to think that “cover up so the boys don’t attack you” is pretty good for now.

  63. Alison,

    On what authority do you have the authority to say we don’t have the authority to come up with an alternative modesty teaching?

  64. because pale hairy men are gross

    What about fat, pale, hairy men? (I’ll continue to take my children swimming regardless of your response.)

  65. How is modesty an eternal principle? It didn’t exist until this became a fallen world and sex entered the picture. My relationship with Heavenly Father is unaffected by what I wear or don’t wear while alone in my bathroom. Am I supposed to cringe in shame when changing clothes? It’s when we’re out and about and interacting with others that modesty matters.
    While modesty standards change with time and context, the basic point is to protect men and women from treating each other as sexual objects all the time. Modest clothing says “hands off.” I would argue that immodesty (at least of attractive people) leads to more objectification than talking about the need for modesty does. By teaching my girls to be modest, I’m helping them protect themselves in a very imperfect world. Since study after study shows that men are far more affected by what is considered immodest clothing, it makes sense to talk about helping men out by lessening their exposure to unwanted stimuli. Until Playgirl comes close to rivaling Playboy in popularity, I don’t expect that to change.

  66. Christian, I think it is very good but could be better. It avoids most of the problems that I outline in this post by presenting the same message to men and women. It focuses more on the big picture than the hem length and also mentions language, behavior, and the core idea of not drawing attention to ourselves.
    Four things I wish were different:

    1. I wish the penultimate paragraph had a sort of disclaimer that we can’t control others by our choices. I want to be sure that a rape victim reading this paragraph did not think that she (or he!) was responsible for what happened because her clothing had “sent messages” and “influenced” others.

    2. I don’t think sex is “central” to modesty. (Last paragraph.) (If you think this, you can get to a place where you give a pass to un-sexy people to be immodest.)

    3. The final sentence: the “and actions” parts needs to go. Just looking at the grammar of the sentence, it states that “clothing . . . can stimulate . . . actions.” We don’t believe that clothing can stimulate actions. We believe in human choice and agency. I see this as the biggest problem with this entry.

    4. I wish it mentioned cost of clothing.

  67. How do you get to the point that un-sexy people get a pass to be immodest? Un-sexy people have sex, too.

  68. CT, if avoiding prompting sexual desire in others is the only/major reason for being modest, then unsexy people get a pass on modesty (because no matter what they [don’t] wear, they aren’t going to “cause” anyone to sin). It isn’t, and they don’t.

  69. Really? You think there is no one out there who will lust after someone who is advertising their availability, even if that availability is unaccompanied by attractiveness? The behavior of many, especially males, would indicate that you are incorrect in that assumption.

  70. CT, no. I’m using the idea of “unsexy people” as a way to explain that modesty is not solely (or centrally) about causing sexual desire in others. I admit that my last comments were probably not as clear as they should have been, but go back to the part of the original post about the thought experiment about a deformed woman to see what I am getting at here. The point is that even in a world where you know that _no one_ would possibly be sexually attracted to you, modesty is (or should be) still a thing. The way the statement tied it to sex appeal denies that idea.

  71. But why have modesty if not to hide the private, i.e., sexual parts of our body? I don’t think there is any support for the idea that modesty in dress exists independent of sex.

  72. CT, your last comment presumes that the purpose of modesty is to avoid causing sexual desire in others. If you think that, you might want to re-read my post!

  73. Are you making up your own definition of modesty? The standard ones used by the world–when talking about clothes–all make reference to sexuality. That’s why it’s not immodest to show breasts when they are not considered erotic, such as when breastfeeding or in many cultures. That’s why it’s not immodest for little kids to run around gleefully without their diapers on. Modesty presupposes the possibility of sexual behavior (not necessarily attraction).

  74. CT,

    I think the dictionary definitions are on Julie’s side. They cover more than just sexuality although they do use words like decency and not coarse which are subject to interpretation as to how much sexuality they involve. Is gaudy jewelry immodest, for example?

    How about politically offensive t-shirt slogans?

  75. Almost all of the examples of immodest clothes on the Gospel Topics site appear to refer mostly or entirely to women.

  76. My wife and I lived in Jordan for several months. Women there wear the hijab to cover their hair (some women cover their entire faces). Based on my conversations with average Jordanians (nothing scientific), the head covering is very much about sexuality–girls begin wearing it at puberty; it’s used to distinguish and separate men and women in the public sphere; it’s used to cover up a woman’s chest and hair; woman may take it off in the home, but it is worn outside the home around other males. When I asked a colleague at work about it, he said women wear the hijab to cover up the most sexually arousing feature of women, “the hair.” I think I told him the Arabic equivalent of “okie dokie.”

    My wife knew women who wore the hijab for reasons that had nothing to do with men. Some women saw it as a way to reject Western culture. Others as a demonstration of their personal commitment to God.

    FWIW, I agree with CT above, modesty presupposes sexuality. All my children are on the swim team. When we go to a swim meet nobody says, “crickey, look at all the immodesty.” Swimmers wear swim suits because … well, that’s what works best and we like to compete. If an adult wore a swimsuit to church, then one might say “crickey, that’s immodest.” If a child wore a swimsuit to church, we wouldn’t say it’s immodest; we’d say the child wasn’t dressed properly. CT is right–at least in our culture modesty and sexuality are bound together.

  77. Don’t know how I missed this the first time, but I completely missed the “rape culture” reference. That thought has now entered into the public discussion. This “novel” feminist mormon reaction to part of the reaction to modesty discussions alleging a creation of “rape culture” is incredibly intellectually dishonest. While the term itself is not clearly defined or agreed on, most of the women’s studies websites out there tend to treat it like this one from Marshall University (

    ‘Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.  Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.’

    While I would agree the some people overemphasize the “watch what you wear because of boys’ reactions” argument relative to other reasons for modesty in clothing choices, but that is far from even beginning to create a “rape culture.” At best, what you might say is that the “watch what you wear” argument is an attitude found in rape cultures, but it is nowhere near definitive or causal. Only when it rises to the level of “blaming” the victim and excusing male sexual assault does it begin to approach a “rape culture;” alleging that this is the case within Mormon doctrine, teaching and practice, is empirically, categorically, and emphatically false. Womens’ safety, proper behavior toward women and completely eschewing sexual violence are deeply ingrained in church teachings; all young men know it and are consistently bombarded with reminders.

    I don’ know why that argument even carries a shred of weight, my only guess is that it comes from not liking the “watch what you wear” argument. That is no excuse for violating the simple bounds of logic nor reason to smear the church with a false brush, using language that the general public doesn’t understand. To suggest that there is a pattern of behavior excusing sexual assault, objectification of women, or disregarding women’s safety within the Mormon Church is a complete and utter untruth.

  78. I have to take issue with CT’s claim that “by teaching my girls to be modest, I’m helping them protect themselves in a very imperfect world.” Do you truly believe that the way your daughters, and other women, dress will protect them from sexual predators? If so, please explain the high rates of sexual violence against women in countries where women are covered from head to toe in such a way that their very form is obscured. This data, and much more, can be found here: How could this statement of yours: “Since study after study shows that men are far more affected by what is considered immodest clothing” ever explain those statistics? I’ll tell you how: they have so sexualized and objectified the female body (the same path that a large subculture within the LDS church seems determined to pursue) that it seems a woman’s very existence is an invitation to rape. Contrary to your opinion, modest clothing does not, in fact, say “hands off.” The math does not support you.

    The problem is not how women are dressed; the problem is that predators, often men, have been and are still being taught that they are entitled to put their hands on another human being with or without consent. As a mother of three boys and a girl I reject and denounce this concept. A far better thing to teach our children is that they must show respect for their own bodies and those of others.

  79. I do believe that. It’s called being a “hard target”. Predators will attack someone eventually, but it doesn’t have to be my daughter. But that is not the only way that modest dress helps protect them. Modest dress (not prudish, just normal for the context) also helps keep relationships with non-predators focused on non-sexual things because it is not calling attention to sexuality.

  80. As for “high sexual violence against countries where women are covered from head to toe,” statistics are not quite what you think they are. Please look up the most recent study on this, published a week ago, by the Lancet: Worldwide prevalence of non-partner sexual violence: a systematic review. The findings, while likely under-reported for some areas, nevertheless indicate that the worst, by far, sexual violence by non-partners is happening in southern Africa. Dress codes there are fairly lenient, particularly in Namibia. The Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia have the lowest reported rates of any region.
    I can certainly accept that partner sexual violence might be higher in the countries you mention, but that doesn’t relate to modesty of dress since in general, partners see more of the women’s body already.

  81. We normally close comments near #100 and so I’ll do that now. Thanks to all of you for a remarkably civil discussion. Two follow-up notes before I turn the lights off:

    1. Someone asked me what I thought of the modesty section in For the Strength of Youth. I thought I had read the whole thing, but it turns out that I hadn’t–the “show more” button continues the entry (I assumed, wrongly, that it took you to additional resources). There is one line in the “show more” that is so obviously false as to be a real head-scratcher: “The fashions of the world will change, but the Lord’s standards will not change.”

    2. My purpose here was to criticize a certain strand of LDS modesty discourse (namely: “be modest so you don’t tempt boys,” when that idea constitutes a majority of the message). In the initial post, I sometimes used phrases like “LDS modesty discourse” or “LDS modesty rhetoric” but I didn’t mean “in general;” I meant “be modest so you don’t tempt boys,” when that idea constitutes a majority of the message. I should have been clearer about this; several of the comments here made me realize that y’all thought I was criticizing _all_ LDS modesty rhetoric/discourse, but that wasn’t my intention.

    In future posts, I hope to set out a feminist-friendly theology of modesty.

    Again, thanks to you all.

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