Why the Rebelution’s Modesty Survey Was A Bad Idea
On Valentine’s Day 2007, The Rebelution unveiled the Modesty Survey. Girls submitted questions, and guys responded. As a moderator of the Rebelution forum, I was really excited about the project. I posted it on Facebook, forwarded it to my youth pastor, and talked about it with anyone who would listen.
Six years later, if you ask me what I think of the Survey, I’ll tell you I regret having been a part of it, and I wish the project didn’t exist.
What happened? Well, basically I realized there are a lot of problems with modesty as taught in American Christianity, and the Survey hands a megaphone to some of the worst of those problems.
Perhaps the biggest and most disturbing problem is that we gave a platform to guys just because, well, they were guys.
We had no way of knowing whether the respondents had a healthy understanding of their own sexuality, knew the difference between attraction and lust, truly respected women, etc. We gave legitimacy to the idea that they had a right to speak about women’s clothing choices simply because they were male.
Just because a person is male doesn’t mean their opinions on modesty are legitimate. And, quite frankly, it was inappropriate for us to promote the idea that men should teach women what clothing choices are appropriate. It reinforces the false idea that modesty is something that women do for men, an idea never found in the Bible and fraught with its own set of problems.
In offering a platform to over 1600 guys, many of whom shouldn’t have been given it, we lent legitimacy to some very dangerous ideas.
Many guys admitted to losing respect for girls who didn’t live up to their ideas of modesty, feeling “disgusted” or “angered” by these same girls, and even going so far as to say, “…she loses her right to ask guys to stop looking at her like something to be had…you are asking to have guys stare at you.” The word “cause” in relation to guys’ lust also made a frequent appearance.
This is the same attitude that says victims of sexual assault and harassment who wear “immodest” clothing are “asking for it.” This is the attitude that allows pastors to think that “What were you wearing?” is a legitimate question to ask when a woman reports being sexually harassed or assaulted. It’s the attitude that allows stories like this to happen.
We gave this attitude a platform.
(Ironically, all of the guys were asked to sign a petition in which they admitted that their lust was entirely their own fault. We missed the contradiction we were presenting.)
We also promoted the idea that modesty is primarily expressed through clothing choices.
While modesty as an attitude of the heart was given a lot of lip service, you simply can’t get past the fact that the vast majority of the 148 questions were about clothes.
The idea of modesty was inherently connected to the idea of not being a “stumbling block” for men, instead of being connected to the ideas of humility and self-respect. Modesty in Scripture is about not flaunting oneself. When Paul tells women to dress modestly, he’s basically saying, “Hey, let your beauty be about a beautiful heart, not about dressing extravagantly to impress others!”
But when modesty is about not “causing men to stumble,” it becomes about someone else’s reaction, not the state of one’s heart.
The survey allowed little to no room for the idea that, “Hey, maybe just because the majority of guys think a girl is being immodest, doesn’t mean she actually is.”
This is further reinforced by many responses from guys that made a direct correlation between a girl’s clothing choices and the state of her heart. Multiple guys made comments such as, “It changes everything about what I think of her,” “I feel sorry for them, because they must value their looks a lot, and esteem themselves a lot in their body, rather than in their relationship with the Lord,” and “…my opinion of her character lowers quite a bit.” In making these statements, the guys are making assumptions based solely on one factor: clothing.
You can’t say modesty is a heart issue, then make assumptions about a person’s heart based on their clothing choices. That’s backwards.
The last problem I’ll mention is that the Survey did nothing to differentiate between healthy, normal biological attraction, and lust.
Unfortunately, there are lots of guys who are led to believe they are the same thing. So when they find themselves physically attracted to a girl, they feel guilty. By asking guys to go through a list of questions about clothes and think about their reactions, we unintentionally reinforced unnecessary shame for those guys who didn’t understand that their biological reactions are not the same as lust.
When these concerns were brought up when the Survey first launched, we justified its existence through disclaimers and clarifications. Not once did someone say, “You know what, disclaimers don’t exempt you from the problems with the Survey.” Six years later, after hearing many stories on how modesty teachings have hurt people, I’ve realized it’s true: good intentions don’t erase problems.
So while I still think that modesty is important, the Survey approached the topic from the wrong angle, used incredibly problematic methods, and ultimately does more harm than good.
If you are a girl who has felt pressure from the Survey, I’m so sorry. If others have used it to control you, devalue you, or question your discernment, I’m sorry. You are free to ignore the Survey and to make decisions based on the Holy Spirit’s leading and input from friends and family that YOU trust.
Note: I realize that this is an issue that people feel passionately about. I encourage healthy dialogue in the comments, but please make sure you read my comment policy first.