“Dear Women, You Are Making Me Stumble”

By January 26, 2015My Thoughts

It hasn’t felt much like January around here. The sun is shining. The snow is melting. I almost don’t even need to wear a coat in the mornings when I take my kids to school. And for some reason, the change of weather from winter to spring always takes me back to my college days.

Every year as the weather changed and the first new blades of grass popped up through the snow, something else popped up on my college campus: the annual letter of shame posted by an anonymous student on the forum wall.

Dear <insert name of college> Women, 

You are causing me to stumble. When you wear _______, it is a distraction to me, and it causes me to lust. In the book of Romans, Paul encourages us not to do things that make our brothers in Christ stumble. Your clothing choices are causing me to stumble. Here are some things I wish you would not wear:

And the letter would list things like shorts that are “too short,” spaghetti strap tops, bathing suits, sleeveless dresses, form-fitting shirts, and anything that showed “too much skin.”

The first time I read the letter, I felt so guilty. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for a problem in someone else’s life. I have long legs. Long shorts look short on me. I am tall and skinny. Clothes that fit are hard to find. Had I worn something that caused this anonymous brother in Christ to stumble?

The letter was posted in the very early spring. The weather was warm enough that I no longer needed to wear a coat, but still chilly enough that I needed to wear long sleeve shirts or sweaters. If this kind of attire was causing my brother to stumble, what on earth would I do when it was 90 degrees outside?

The second time the letter was posted, it bothered me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. The third year the letter was posted, it made me angry. Our college campus already had strict rules for what was considered appropriate attire – more stringent for women than for men. The vast majority of women on campus already chose to dress “modestly.” And yet, every year a letter just like this one was posted.

It became very clear that no matter how women dressed, someone was going to have a problem with it.

Lust, like all other sins, is a heart problem. Lust is not something we can blame on anyone else. We can point out clothing that emphasizes certain parts of the body, but it is only a way of distancing ourselves from taking responsibility for our own thoughts and actions.

Letters of shame like the one posted annually on my college campus, like any other impassioned plea for women to cover up to “keep men from stumbling,” are a way of passing the buck. And, they keep us from having healthy conversations about body image and lust because they are rooted in misconceptions about sin and human physiology.

Jesus placed the burden of lust on the one lusting, not the one lusted after. 

In a teaching on adultery, Jesus says this: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” [1]

Notice that? Jesus places the responsibility on the one doing the lusting. Looking at a woman isn’t sin; looking at her with lust is the the problem. Jesus speaks harsh words about the importance of reining in one’s own desires. It’s not the woman causing the man to lust; it is his lack of control over the way he is looking at her.

Men and women are both visual. 

As a society, we have long believed that men are visual and women are relational. Studies where men were asked to self-report their visual attractions seemed to confirm this idea. But in recent years, studies have shown that men and women are both visual. In fact, one such study monitored the brain wave activity of women and found that women’s brains responded to erotic images as strongly as men’s. [2]

Discussions on lust and modesty will look radically different if we bear in mind that women and men are both visual. Women are not the enemy. Women’s bodies are not dangerous weapons that threaten men’s holiness. When we stop demonizing the clothing and bodies of others, the deep work of understanding lust can begin.

No one else is responsible for your thoughts and actions.

This one might seem obvious, but it bears repeating. I think nearly every parent has broken up an argument between kids with, “I don’t care who started it.” No matter how someone else behaves, we are still ultimately responsible for our own actions. But, despite years of being told we need to take responsibility, we’ve still becomes pros at placing blame. Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the serpent. We’ve even developed language for it: “She made me angry. He made me cry. She made me lust because of what she was wearing.”

The way other people behave towards us may trigger an emotion or a feeling, but each of us remains responsible for how we react.

It has been almost thirteen years since I saw a letter posted on the forum wall, but I’ve seen plenty of articles recently that read the same way. It is my hope that we can move the conversation beyond the blame game, and move towards a conversation that is based in mutual respect.

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About April Fiet

April is a pastor, wife, mom, and lover of words. She finds inspiration under the big Nebraska skies, in the garden, in the yarn aisle, and in the kitchen. Learn more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Anna Marion Howell

    Oh, April, this is absolutely perfect. Everything you said is so spot-on, and it’s a message everyone (men and women both!) really needs to hear. Thank you so much for this.

  • Awesome! I was always tall and thin as well. It’s impossible to find clothes that fit well (unless I drop a ton of cash) and I went through various “modesty shaming” speeches growing up. Our youth group went on a service trip to rebuild homes that had been damaged in a tornado. The girls had to wear long pants instead of shorts (hey, at least we were allowed pants) and no tank tops, but the boys were boys were allowed to run around with their shirts off. It’s ridiculous to think all those teenage girls weren’t checking out the shirtless guys (I think I might have stumbled right off a porch while carrying some lumber). You’re right on that both men and women are visual. The responsibility is on each of us to refrain from lusting after another person. Lust dehumanizing a person. We need to remind ourselves that the other person isn’t a sexual prop, but a brother/sister made in the image of God.

    • Yes!! Lust dehumanizes…exactly! Lust moves beyond admiring beauty to thinking of how to exploit it for our own gratification.

  • Melissa Vanden Bout

    Lovelovelove. Thank you.

  • Paul Janssen

    Well then John Piper should be of great help to you then…. NOT…… : /

  • Stephen Shaffer

    Thanks for sharing this. While there are obviously ways both men and women can dress that are designed to excite and arouse, it is far too easy to blame someone else for my own problems. I greatly appreciate the appeal to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. However, as I was reading, another story came to mind: Samson. One of my teacher remarked that while we usually associate Samson’s problem with women, his greatest problem is that he ‘sees.’ The primary organ of faith in Scripture is the ear instead of the eye. Samson does not listen, but continually sees. He doesn’t fundamentally have a woman problem, but an eye problem. It is only when his eyes are removed that he finally stops seeing and starts listening. I have wondered if Jesus had the story of Samson in mind when he spoke of ‘tearing out your eyes’ and entering the kingdom maimed.

    • Wow!! What an insightful (pun not intended LOL!) connection!! I will be thinking on that for a while!

  • Roland Legge

    Hi April, the message you saw on your University Campus and hear too often deeply offends me too. Women should be able to dress how they would like to. No person can be responsible for another persons behaviour. I so agree that each of us need to take responsibility for ourselves. I also find it offensive as a man to hear some men say they have no control over their behaviour. For me this is an excuse to do what they like with women. This makes men look stupid as though they we no control over our actions. This is garbage! It is natural to be attracted to others even when one is married, but I hope most of have the wisdom and self control to not act upon those fleeting feelings. Thank you for raising this topic.

    • Roland- yes! Absolutely! It is deeply offensive to men to suggest that men are animals and can’t control themselves. Thank you for your voice of reason on this topic!

  • Sandy

    Yes, so true, and part of a larger societal/church problem where women are held accountable for men’s behavior. One way for that to change is for women to stop accepting the blame. So often it is women who are passing on the oppresive teaching to each other. All in the spirit of Titus two, of course. 🙂

    • Yes, absolutely! As women we need to advocate for each other rather than continue to pass on oppression.

  • Tom Lampen

    Hear, hear, I am responsible for what is going on in my mind. Roland already made the point that is my main reaction. It is offensive to men to say that we are such brutes we need to be protected from the sight of a woman.

    The teaching that woman need to cover up to protect men comes from Islam, not Christianity.

    • Yes! We are all responsible for what goes on in our own minds, and to claim that men somehow can’t control themselves is really tragic. Men are capable of so much more than that. Thank you for speaking up!

  • I completely agree with your post, but I do get the sense that the point you’re making is in some way still the blame game only in reverse. For example, it is not my body that is the problem, it is your mind that is the problem. I think we would all agree that it is not just a man’s mind or just a woman’s body that leads to lust but both and in different ways. I could see many men reading your post and feeling defensive. Which is probably very similar to the way you felt when you read the open letter. I only bring this up because I truly sensed that you desire a more open and honest dialogue about the issue.

    • Matt, thank you for pushing back and for doing so with grace. I really do hope for an open and honest dialogue, and the points I offer above are only a starting point for sure. My hope is that we can move beyond blame and talk about where lust originates, how we can work past it, and come up with a healthy concept of modesty that’s rooted in mutual self-respect.

      My hope for conversations about the way men and women interact is that we can find a way to view each other as brothers and sister in Christ – as made in God’s image – rather than as enemies. Thanks for giving me respect and for expressing your perspective with kindness!

    • Sandy

      Matt, like April I appreciate your respectful tone and your willingness to enter the conversation and help us see things from your perspective. We always need both male and female voices in spiritual conversations. As your sister, I am going to ask you to consider the following. To say that “it is not my body that is the problem” is something that women have to be taught by people with compassion, sensitivity, and respect for a woman’s personhood. Women grow up being told that their body is the problem if they are too fat/thin/attractive/unattractive. They are told their body is the problem if they can’t get pregnant or if they have a miscarriage. They are told their body is the problem if they don’t have a husband/boyfriend, even if they aren’t looking for one. They are told their body is the problem if they are raped, whether they were wearing a mini-skirt or a military uniform. They are told their body is the problem when they are cat-called walking down the street. Women are told their body is the problem when they are denied education or basic human rights because they are female. They believe their bodies are the problem when they succumb to eating disorders. I do not know a single woman who at some point has not thought or been told that her body was the problem. Bodies we were born with, bodies made in the image of God. To men it may seem like semantics, but to women it is a matter of spiritual freedom when I say that *my body is never the problem*. If a woman is purposely trying to attract sexual attention by dressing a behaving in ways designed to attract the attention of a man she is not married to, that is a problem. But the problem is never with her body, it is with her intention. We can’t completely know someone’s intention from their state of dress. If we’re going to talk about stumbling blocks, we would need a whole different post to talk about the spiritual and emotional damage done to women when they are shamed for being born in a female body.

      • Sandy – thank you. <3 Yes. That's where my heart really is with this post. I don't want any dear sister to grow up believing that she caused any abuse that has happened to her. Not because I don't believe modesty is important, but because I want women to know that their bodies are not betraying them in such deep and painful ways.

      • Sandy

        That’s where my heart is too, April. Thank you for “starting a conversation that matters”.

      • Wow, that is so true. Even in my reply to April I was still thinking that a woman’s body was “partially” to blame, but I agree that it is the intention that is the real culprit. I also agree that the blame is placed on women much more often, so I probably should not have said anything in the first place.

      • Matt, I’m really glad you did. I tried so hard not to swing back so far the other way that I placed blame on men more than women. I appreciated the push back, and I hope it won’t keep you from commenting in the future.

  • Jennifer Vander Molen

    Thank you for this important word, April. The amount of times I’ve been called out for my body being “too tempting” is ridiculous/sad and I can only hope that we are setting better examples for future brothers and sisters in Christ to see one another as people (flawed and coming up short) and not resort to finger-pointing and shaming. Thank you for helping me cast aside more judgment and sit in the holy place of hurt and awareness and grace.

    • Jennifer, I’m sorry you have been called out in that way 🙁 It’s so painful. I have the same hope – that we can show a better way. Thank you so much! 🙂

  • Deborah West

    April,
    I totally agree. That line ‘men are visual’ is such a cop out. To put it better would be to say ‘why do men lack self-control? The Bible also commands us to have self control”.
    Also, I would be interested in seeing your footnote(2) for the study.

    • Deborah, thank you! Also…I see the footnotes got formatted strangely. The second one is there, but it blends into the first. I’ll fix that. Let me know if you can see it!

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