Immodest Proposals: Brothers and sisters

Let’s talk about how the modesty rules affect relationships. I would contend modesty-conscious girls relate to people differently than anyone else — but not necessarily better.

In Christianity, there’s a long history of referring to other believers as brothers- or sisters-in-Christ, as, the doctrine goes, we are all adopted by God the Father into his spiritual family. Purity culture harps on this language, suggesting that, aside from other sinfulness, being sexual with a sibling-in-Christ is a sort of spiritual incest.

Matthias Stoltenberg

Matthias Stoltenberg

Modesty’s specific usage of this phrasing is rooted in a nice general command: Think of others’ comfort before your own. This is applied specifically to mean: Your brothers are visual creatures. You, as their sister, are visually pleasing. Cover your beautiful body so as not to cause them to stumble (i.e. feel attracted to you, experience arousal, or lust for you — all of which are equivalent in purity culture).

Modesty proponents throw around so many tropes and metaphors. Stumbling brothers and naive sisters, lusty Davids and available Bathsheba, meat and prey, women who tempt and men who just can’t resist. Inter-sex relationships seem terrifying. The positive goals — for girls and boys, men and women to be able to interact humbly and without distraction — tend to get lost among all the pressure and propaganda. Here’s how all that affects a modest girl and …

How she relates to other women:

A modest girl believes in accountability. If you see a sister in sin, you have two options: gossip about her with your friends (whether blatantly or in the guise of “let’s pray for so-and-so”) or approach her in love, pointing out what a skank she is and encouraging her to reevaluate her clothing choices. If you don’t police her clothing, who will? Obviously her parents are failing. Maybe the Holy Spirit will use you, as a peer, to convict her. (Sometimes modesty proponents also endow brothers-in-Christ with the duty of keeping their sisters in line. Which is not at all creepy.)

A single modest girl watches how married couples interact, and how a man responds to his wife’s beauty (or bounces his eyes off the women who put his ugly wife to shame). A married modest girl knows her single sisters are the greatest threat to her marriage, so to keep up appearances to keep her husband’s eyes on her.

[Mark Driscoll gained some infamy (back before he was super infamous) when he instructed wives to be visually generous with their husbands. As in, look good for your husband. Lose the baby weight. Invest in some lingerie for the bedroom. Please, put on some makeup. Pat Robertson, too, caused an uproar when he said ugly women are at fault for their husbands’ infidelity. But these chauvinists’ bright ideas are just longstanding modesty tropes that are passed on from woman to woman and church to church.

While I’ve never heard women specifically encouraged to call out their fuggo friends, being pretty for your husband seems like it’s a topic at just about every woman’s retreat. After all, the thinking goes, we are made to be beautiful, and men are made to pursue the beautiful (without being aroused by it, of course, because #stumbling). I mean, it’s all about inner beauty, but also, can you come to my Mary Kay party next Friday?]

How she relates to men:

A modest girl sees men as both victims and potential assailants. On the one hand, good Christian men are beleaguered warriors, constantly fighting the onslaught of hormones and bare clavicles and Victoria’s Secret ads; women must not join forces against them. But on the other hand, a modest girl never knows when a warrior will drop his shield and turn his sword on her, indulging his beastly urges. If she flashes just a bit too much of her goods, he, the predator, will consume her. Which inch of skin will push him over? Which movement, which skirt, which smile?

Modesty culture teaches girls to fear boys and men at almost every moment in almost every context. Men cannot be trusted to glance at women without imagining them naked. Men cannot be trusted to talk to or be with a woman alone at the office (he’ll cheat on his wife with his co-worker) or at church (leaders will have affairs with their congregants) or on a date (he’ll violate her boundaries) or when praying together (he will take advantage of the intimacy; guard your hearts, ladies). Men cannot be trusted even to hug a woman without secret, perverted intentions. Men are awful! They cannot control themselves! (But are the stronger sex and should be leaders.)

A modest girl also sees men as her judges. The meaning and modesty of her outfit is determined by men’s opinion of it. Some modesty proponents encourage girls to ask their father or (literal, not metaphorical) brothers to approve an outfit before leaving the house (or choosing their wedding dress); if there are no close, Christian male blood-relatives, she can instead seek the advice of a pastor, or the mailman or whoever. Because ultimately, a modest girl is dressing for men. And no one can decide what a 12-year-old will wear to a church picnic like her 17-year-old brother! I’m going to talk more about this in my next piece.

How she relates to non-heterosexual or -cis-gendered people:

A modest girl hates the sin but loves the sinners, praying one day they’ll repent of their choices and become her siblings-in-Christ, too.

The thing that all these things have in common is a sense of a false intimacy. While there’s beauty in the thought that first century saints and believers in some little New Zealand parish are as much as part of the global, historic church as the old couple next to you on the pew in your local congregation, the brothers and sisters language is often used more narrowly, to encourage you to feel like you have as much say in the lives of everyone at your church or in your religious community as you do in that of your own, actual brother, daughter or parent. When everyone is family, everyone’s business is everyone’s business, and everyone’s under your authority and accountability. Parents do have authority over their children, and accountability is powerful when it’s coming from a mentor or friend. But no Christian has a close relationship with every other Christian. Modesty culture pretends this is so, though, promoting universal accountability and universal closeness.

Modesty culture also pretends that life and gender are black and white, predictable. But just because you have heard a bunch of stuff about gender essentialism doesn’t mean you know someone’s personality or intentions. You don’t know a man is a ravenous beast; he probably isn’t. You don’t know a woman is a wicked temptress; she probably isn’t. For heaven’s sake, you don’t know that a man is even attracted to a particular woman or women in general, and vica versa. He’s not your brother and she’s not your sister, and what someone is wearing, just because they like Jesus too, probably isn’t your business.

For all the nice-sounding language about spiritual siblinghood, kumbaya, modesty culture portrays a toxic family where sisters turn against each other and taunt or are terrified by their brothers. And that doesn’t sound like the kind of family into which I’d want to be adopted.
Other posts in this series: An Introduction (with links list)The Rules | Learning Shame | Elephant in the Room | De-Universalizing Conviction | Alternative Principles


  1. This is so awesome. I am reading parts of it aloud to unsuspecting passersby.

    1. Ha! They must be quite confused.

  2. […] Rules Learning Shame Brothers and Sisters Elephant in the Room De-Universalizing Conviction Alternative Principles Authorial Intent and Rape […]

  3. Very well-worded, as are most of your posts. I appreciate you using your talent in such a valuable way. I suspect that the “dysfunctional family” environment that you describe is the biggest reason for so many walking away from “church.”

  4. Men are awful! They cannot control themselves! (But are the stronger sex and should be leaders.)

    I LOLed. Fantastic post!!!

  5. Love this — again. Another home-run. False intimacy and so much attention on each other’s business, that is NONE of our business. Excellent.

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