The gender conversation 2: Lad culture, porn & modest women

There’s no doubting that gender continues to occupy a lot of time, space & energy in the church. It regularly raises the emotions and generates a lot of heat and little light. It can also put Christians into camps where the ‘the other side’ can be seen, talked about & treated as a problem or worse ‘the enemy’. In the church this is nothing short of disastrous. So I’ve invited Hannah Mudge to a blog conversation with me about faith and gender.

Follow the links for previous posts: part 1:

P: You mentioned four things that made you uncomfortable at university – sexism, lad culture, objectification of women and the ubiquity of porn that all started you thinking about feminism. Now I have to confess that while at university I was guilty of all four but now I would agree that all four issues are a huge problem. It can often seem that there is little common ground between opposing sides in the church on gender issues, but these are four at least that we can agree and work together on. What do you think?”

I definitely agree that these are all areas where feminists and Christians should have some common ground and should be able to work together. What sometimes proves a barrier, however, is the way their approach to the issues differ somewhat. For example, a common Christian activist response to porn and “lad’s mag” culture has been to campaign for it to be kept away from children – out of sight in shops, for example. There will sometimes be talk of “modesty” and “decency”. This can imply an attitude that suggests the impact these magazines and this culture has on women and men’s perception of women does not matter so much as protecting the innocence of children, which of course is not true. That is one of the challenges for Christians who want to tackle sexism in this way.

The other main challenge which again, I have seen happen all too often, is making sure that as Christians we do not decry porn, lad culture, etc, while setting up an attitude towards women and their treatment by men that can be just as damaging. Examples of this would be a focus on “decency” to the extent that the women in the magazines, in films, etc, are seen as bad because they do not conform to conservative Christian standards of purity and modesty. I have seen reactions from Christian men to the effect that women who wear revealing clothes are not worthy of their respect, that they are not good women, that there must be something wrong with them. We must be so careful in speaking out against porn, lad culture and objectification that we do not instead place “good” women on a pedestal and treat them in a paternalistic way while disdaining women who do not conform to an ideal.

I wonder if university Christian groups tackle these issues? I know there will often be a focus on porn, etc as a struggle, as a problem of lust and addiction (which of course is correct), but it could be discussed in relation to gender and treatment of women.

P: I would agree with you that there are significant problems with the kind of responses you outline, mostly from my perspective because it looks like blame shifting from the male to the female. ‘I wouldn’t look if she kept her clothes on’ sort of approach, when in essence it simply reveals the sin, faulty worldviews and misdirected desires of the guy. However, having said all of that – the Bible does talk about modesty. So what do you think that means for women in the west, to dress modestly. Is there a principle that can be used without getting into making laws about the right length of a skirt?

Modesty is one of those topics that a lot of people have an opinion on, but everyone’s standard of what constitutes modest is different! Some examples I’ve observed within Christianity:

– women wearing trousers is immodest; they should always wear skirts or dresses
– trousers are ok, but they can’t be tight/figure-hugging ones
– shorts are ok, but only if they come below the knee
– dresses or skirts must be floor-length
– no clothes that show the outline of the body can be worn at all (some people will go as far as specifying the number inches of spare material around hips and bust!
– layers must be worn to make sure no outlines of underwear or underwear itself can ever be seen
– shoulders must be covered

I personally have no problem with flouting any of those “modesty” rules – for me they are a bit too extreme and I worry about the impact of the teaching surrounding exactly why women should be covering their bodies to this extent. Again you only have to read the accounts of ex-patriarchy movement Christians to see how it can make women feel shameful about their bodies (for example by making curvaceous women feel that their bodies are more problematic than those of slim women) and their sexuality, and how it can give men the aforementioned distorted view of women where they are either modest and “good”, or “bad” women who are to be disdained or pitied.

On the other hand, a few months ago a friend of mine was talking about “modest” fashion blogs. When I checked out the links she posted, I noticed that the outfits the women were posting pictures of were the sort of outfits I would wear, particularly the sort of outfits I would wear to work. None of the bloggers were wearing extremely short shorts or skirts or showing cleavage for example, but they were wearing skinny jeans and pencil skirts and sleeveless tops. The main objective seemed to be not showing a lot of bare skin or showing underwear. I think that getting older, along with working in an office and living in a not especially hot climate, means that it wouldn’t occur to me to dress in a way that is anything other than “modest”! I think most people feel there is a time and a place for a lot of bare skin (generally the beach!).

I think it is so difficult to prescriptively talk about standards of modesty because for each person it means something different. It’s also so easy to get into making ridiculous demands of people and silly rules in the name of not inciting sin. It’s difficult for it not to turn into sexist or victim-blaming thinking. A while back I blogged about The Rebelution’s Modesty Survey, which was done in 2007. This was a prime example of Christians trying to set modesty standards but going way over the top and revealing some ugly attitudes in the process.

P: You’ve mentioned the ‘patriarchy movement’ a couple of times and I’ve never heard of it before, so having read this I’m slightly shocked. ‘Twisted’ is a kind word for it.

Wow I didn’t realise you were unfamiliar with it! The blog you linked is one of the examples of an ex-patriarchy movement Christian that I was thinking of. An example of a patriarchal Christian organisation would be http://www.visionforum.com/, if you want further insight.

P: No never heard of it or in fact despite being in church my whole life, I don’t think I’ve heard it mentioned. I’m fairly sure I haven’t just blanked the memory. Hey ho, you learn something distressing every now and then.