Every time, without fail, when I try to talk about men’s struggles with lust the conversation turns to how women, and especially teenage girls, dress.
Basically it goes something like this:
Well, of course men shouldn’t lust, but girls should also watch what they wear. I worry for our sons when girls come to church wearing really revealing clothing (or yoga pants, or spaghetti straps, or insert particular item of problematic clothing here).
This isn’t meant to be a criticism of any particular commenter, because it’s across all my posts, from so many people, both men and women. And we see it on other blogs, too.
But I am concerned that, in equating men’s struggle with lust with teenage girls’ clothing choices, we might actually be creating the conditions for boys to have a problem with lust.
So I want to deconstruct this today, and go back to first principles. And to do that, I want to start with two propositions that I hope that all of us will agree with:
- No matter what a women wears, a man (or boy) is still responsible for what’s going on in his heart and mind
- Even if we could control what women and girls wear to church (which we can’t), we certainly cannot control what women wear on the streets, in malls, in schools, and in the workplace.
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Another big principle when it comes to raising teenagers, and which Rebecca definitely found in her research for her book Why I Didn’t Rebel, is this:
Teenagers tend to live up to the expectations of their parents.
Teens tend to internalize our expectations of them. Now depending on our expectations, this can be a bad thing. If we expect that they will follow in their father’s footsteps in playing football and then becoming a lawyer, for instance, and your son is more of a music guy who wants nothing more than to teach elementary school, there might always be this feeling that he’s disappointing you or that he’s a failure.
But one of the key things that Rebecca found was that when you expect that your kids will rebel, or when you expect that they will go off the rails, that is indeed what kids tend to do. On the other hand, if you expect that your kids can make good choices, and will follow Jesus, then that is also what they tend to do. (Of course there are no guarantees! Every person has free will. But there are certain things that make it more likely that kids will go off the rails, and certain things that make it less likely).
What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?
So, with that being said, what do you think your teenage boy will think if the way that you talk about lust is always equated with what girls are wearing?
For instance, on another blog I was reading recently a woman was bragging that she moved several pews up so that her boys wouldn’t have to sit directly behind some girls wearing yoga pants. But let’s think about what message you want your son to have about women. Do you want him to think:
No matter what, I will be able treat girls like whole people, respecting them and seeing them as Jesus sees them.
Depending on what a girl wears, I will have trouble not lusting after her. If she’s wearing something revealing, it’s pretty much automatic that my thoughts will go in a certain direction, and so I will have to be on guard when girls are around and watch what they wear.
I would hope that you would want him to think the first one. But here’s my question, then:
Is the way that you talk about girls’ clothing choices and boys’ struggle with lust more likely to lead to the first outcome or the second outcome?
Because honestly, if we moms are that paranoid about what girls are wearing because of what it might do to our sons, then our sons are going to feel:
I have no control over lust, and this is something that I will struggle with.
You see, you can talk about lust in a healthy way, where you acknowledge that boys will find girls attractive, you acknowledge that they’ll be curious, you acknowledge that they’ll have sexual feelings–but you also say, “But I know that you can still treat girls with respect.” In fact, that’s the way that we framed it in The Whole Story, our puberty course for dads & sons (we also have a version for moms & daughters, of course). Yes, you’ll have sexual feelings. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t see girls as whole people.
I suspect one reason that moms are really scared of what our sons will experience is that we’re scared about our husbands lusting
When we grow up in church hearing that it’s inevitable that men will lust, and that this is every man’s battle, and that we have to be modest so that we won’t be stumbling blocks–well, many women are very nervous about our husbands’ thought life. And men who grow up in these churches, I believe, are also more likely to struggle with porn and with lust than men who grow up in other cultural enclaves. But we’re scared of what our husbands will think, and so the only way to stop lust is to police what women and girls wear. And that just plain never works.
Equating men’s struggle with lust with teenage girls’ clothing choices, we might actually be creating the conditions for boys to have a problem with lust.
Okay, a few things that I’m sure will be push backs:
But how can you ignore it if a girl is wearing something super provocative?
I don’t think you have to ignore it. But if you absolutely must comment on it (and usually we really could ignore it and treat it like it’s no big deal, but if you just can’t do that), imagine how different your son’s expectations of how he should act would be if, while talking about what she’s wearing, you were to phrase it in terms of concern for her rather than concern for him? What if you could say something like:
I wish Jenny understood that with what she’s wearing she may start to get attention that she doesn’t actually want. Honey, if you’re in a group with her, and you see boys getting creepy around her, please go run interference and protect her from that, okay? Maybe if you treat her with respect you can help her see that she can respect herself.
You don’t treat her as if she’s dangerous; you just acknowledge that she might be in danger in some circumstances. In fact, that’s a great way to raise your boys! Let them know that if they’re at university parties, one of their responsibilities is to watch out for the girls around them, especially if any are drunk, to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of. Watch their drinks to see that nobody puts anything in them. Stand up for girls who are subject to leering. That’s a much better message.
But he’s a boy! He can’t help but lust!
You know what? That may very well be true to an extent. He may get some sexual thoughts he doesn’t want. He may even entertain them. But he doesn’t have to feed them, and it doesn’t have to change how he acts in a respectful way towards women. And the more that you expect him to lust, the more he’ll lust. The more you show that you expect him to interact with the girls and women around him in a respectful, friendly way, the more likely it is that he’ll do that, too.
I really wish that we could stop talking about what women and girls wear to church and start talking about how we can treat others with respect.
Obviously I have concerns about what some teenage girls (and women) choose to wear. I’m not saying that the amount of skin that we show is A-okay. I’m just saying that it is part of our culture, and we aren’t going to change it. And we are told to live in this world. So your job as a parent is to teach your son how to live in this world, surrounded by women and girls who may have clothing choices that you disapprove of, and still act respectfully.
If you have daughters, certainly teach her to dress with care (and I have non-shaming modesty rules at the bottom of this post). That’s what I did!
But ultimately, your sons will tend to live up to your expectations. So how about we stop expecting them to struggle with lust, and we start expecting that, no matter what happens, they will treat women and girls with respect?
Personally, I think boys and men can be much more awesome than we often give them credit for.
I think men can be gentle and strong at the same time. I think men can stand up for the ones around them who need protecting. I think men can rise above their temptations and do the right thing. I think men can be honorable, loyal, and steadfast. I think men can go against the crowd when they need to and, well, simply act like Christ.
And I think teenage boys can, too.
Men–and boys–can be wonderful. As the new grandma of a grandson, I believe that, and I’m going to act like I believe that, too.
What do you think? Is the way that we frame the modesty debate dangerous for boys? Let’s talk in the comments!
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Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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