What Were You Wearing When Teenage You Was Harrassed in Church?

by | Jan 27, 2021 | Uncategorized | 54 comments

What Were You Wearing When You Were Harassed in Church?

Tragically, sexual  harrassment, leering, and groping behaviour is all too common in churches–especially evangelical ones.

Why “especially evangelical ones”?

Because evangelical ones often stress that “boys will be boys”, “all men lust”, and thus the responsibility for keeping men from lusting falls on girls and women. They mustn’t be temptresses.

I measured all of this in our survey of 20,000 women, looking at how different evangelical teachings, like the lust message, the “boys will be boys”, and more, affect women’s sexual satisfaction and marital satisfaction.

And the story is not pretty. It’s all out in our new book The Great Sex Rescue, coming March 2! And you can get pre-order bonuses by emailing me your receipt now, too!

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What if the things that you’ve been taught have messed things up–and what if there’s a way to escape these messages?

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Before Christmas I looked at the effect of this on teen girls, prompted by some posts on Facebook that went absolutely viral. We turned it all into a “don’t be a stumbling block” podcast, which was one of the top podcasts of 2020, and you really need to listen to it! Rebecca was on fire!


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This week we’ve been looking at the idea that “boys will want to push your sexual boundaries.” We talked about sexual assault in the church in last week’s podcast, and I wanted to end the week (before we start a new topic with tomorrow’s podcast) with this.

When my stumbling block posts on Facebook went viral, so many women shared heartbreaking stories.

It consumed all my attention for several days, as more and more women shared their heartbreak and betrayal.

I didn’t know what to do with all of their stories. But I thought that perhaps I’d just collect some in this post, as a way to say “thank you for sharing this with me” and “this matters.”

Here, then, is what girls were wearing when they were harrassed/assaulted/leered at:

When I was told inappropriate things about my body

14-year-old: Wearing a dress she had picked out with her dad on a shopping trip

A late 20-year-old who was creepy would comment on it. I was too embarrassed to ever wear that dress again. He later ended up in prison.

8-year-old: Wearing a below-the-knee skirt and top that met the Baptist modesty standards for her church

She was harrassed by an adult member of the congregation for five years. When she spoke out, she was asked what she was wearing and what she had done to encourage him. She was told, “It takes two to tango.”

3-year-old

She was told to “cover up her mystery.”

7-year-old: Wearing a shin-length floral dress

She was told she had great legs and when she was older she’d have to cover them up.

13-year-old: Wearing normal Sunday dresses

Her father told  her that she’d have to wear looser dresses because an adult man was attracted and distracted by her developing breasts.

19-year-old: harrassed by pastor

She was told that he didn’t “feel that way” about his wife, implying that he did “feel that way” about her. He was later discovered to have had an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old congregant (aka clergy sexual abuse).

16-year-old: waist-high mom jeans and a Northern Reflections sweatshirt

Was told by her youth pastor that he lusted after her, and was asked for forgiveness.

14-year-old

Told by a married man that her figure was adorable, “just like a Barbie.”

15-year-old: Wearing very modest fundamentalist Baptist clothing

Her music minister took the youth group out to Dairy Queen and played “You Sexy Thing” on the jukebox. He told  her he played it for her.

Young Adult: Mid-length floral high necked dress, gathered at the waist

She walked past elder passing out bulletins. He approached her from behind saying he hadn’t given her one because he was busy watching her walk in that sexy pink dress. She never wore that dress again.

What were you wearing when you were warned by church leaders that your body was a stumbling block?

13-year-old: jeans and a baggy t-shirt

She was told at church that it was good of her to dress so modestly, especially since she had “such a sweet well-formed figure.”

All through childhood/teenage years: Jeans and a baggy t-shirt

All of us girls were made to understand that if we didn’t wear a skirt or dress, the men would stumble and be looking at our butts. The guys were allowed to go shirtless at outdoor summer church events, but girls couldn’t wear shorts above the knees.

13-year-old: Wearing skirt past knees and modest tops

An elder visited her and her friends at their houses to tell them to dress differently because an older man was stumbling over them. She didn’t know who, so she felt self conscious and distrustful towards all the guys in church

14-year-old: At a youth rally at John Piper’s church

The youth leader told the girls that their bodies were meatsuits, lust factories for boys around them.

15-year-old: Wearing jeans, baggy t-shirt, and sneakers

Was told by the worship leader not to move at all during worship because her butt was too distracting. It took five years to feel comfortable even slightly raising her hands during worship after that.

14-year-old: Wearing baggy shorts, full strap, non-tight tank top, all within dress code

Was at a summer Bible camp, and was told she needed to change her clothes because she was making someone feel uncomfortable. She felt disgusted that a grown man had been looking at her body and felt unable to control himself.

14-year-old:

She was told at morning service to put her hair up because it was distracting for the guys.

What were you wearing when you were sexually assaulted?

Many women left stories of being sexually assaulted, primarily by youth leaders or elders/deacons in the church, but most didn’t say what they were wearing. Here are two that did:

Child: Wearing long dresses, long sleeves, high neckline, bloomers under

Was raped repeatedly by someone at church throughout childhood.

14-year-old: Dressed like a normal teenage girl

Was assaulted by the youth pastor.

So many women left heartbreaking stories. Connor went through all the viral Facebook posts for me and pulled some out and put them in a Google doc for me. As he did, he left some comments on the margins. He found the whole job rather disturbing:

This really isn’t okay.

If you have a story like this…

Please know, I am so, so sorry. This was wrong. You should never have been subjected to this. You are not dangerous or evil just because you have a female body. I’m sorry.

And if your story is one of sexual assault, I am doubly sorry.

If this many women remember…think about how traumatic this is

The emotion coming out from women telling stories that happened when they were 13 or 14 is so sobering. This stuff sticks with you. It taints your view of the male gender, or sex, and of your body. It makes you feel disgusting and dirty. And it has long lasting repercussions.

If people in your church talk about women being stumbling blocks…

Then that church is not safe for your children or for other people’s children.

Men, has your wife experienced this?

Check in with her. Ask her. This could be a moment to really connect and understand why certain things hurt her so deeply. 

Please speak up whenever you hear anyone blame a woman, let alone a child, for causing someone to stumble.

This will only end when blaming the woman is no longer acceptable. The elders and pastors who told girls to change because a faceless adult man was being distracted/lusting is just disgusting. So he is the one sinning, and she is the one made to feel the shame.

That’s wrong.

That’s sin.

That’s not of Jesus.

It will only stop when we refuse to shame women, but shame the men (and the women) instead who try to blame the girl. It should be completely unacceptable to do this.

Next time someone asks, “but what was she wearing?”, point them to this post.

Most men do not think this way. There is nothing about being male that makes someone lust after young teenagers, let alone children. Don’t demean men by believing that. Let’s not think that the most extreme sex addictions are normal male behaviour. They are not. Men are better than this. And if we start calling men to more, then we will be able to recognize the red flags in our midst.

This message that “boys will be boys” may be a message that is hurting your marriage and sex life now.

If you have a story like one of these, that may have affected you profoundly, even if it was only an off-handed comment when you were young. It’s traumatizing and it sits with you. If you’re wondering if that’s the root of some of your problems, you may really enjoy reading The Great Sex Rescue! You’ll feel validated and heard. And you’ll find you’re not alone, too!


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What Were You Wearing When you Were Harassed in Church And Called a Stumbling Block?
Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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54 Comments

  1. Katydid

    Yup. I was never sexually harassed at church, thank God, but like I had posted on Facebook I was covered chin to ankle with a blanket breast feeding my infant when the deacon sexualized my feeding the baby because it made him think about breasts.
    All the evangelical churches I have been in have no crucifixes. (My last evangelical church even got rid of crosses except for Easter). I wonder if it is in part because Jesus is undressed. However, in Catholic churches I see Christ on the cross Christ baptized, Christ whipped at the post, Mary breast feeding with her breast fully exposed….no one bats an eye. But, I can’t feed my baby in a weekend hallway fully shrouded because if the deacon knows I am breast feeding it makes him think of boobies and that makes him uncomfortable??! Thus, my tiny, helpless hungry infant is far less important than a grown man’s scruples?!
    (This same man harassed my husband weekly about how he looked and dressed. Apparently, you can’t love Jesus if you have a beard and long hair….you know, a beard and hair like Jesus. Jeans also apparently make it impossible to receive sanctifying grace.)

    Reply
      • Sarah

        A man who is leading a Christian club for girls and boys asked my daughter if she wears her ripped jeans to church. These jeans had rips , but under the rips were fabric and so her skin was not exposed except for her knee and below. I heard the man ask her that question. I was surprised he would ask it . It looked like my daughter had no clue why he asked that, but I had a feeling it was him saying they were inappropriate. I know my daughter wears them for fashion and shows no interest in boys right now so there isn’t much of a chance she wears them to draw unhealthy attention to herself. Should I say something to the guy?

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I would! Just say that it isn’t appropriate for him to ask girls about their clothing choices, and makes them feel very uncomfortable. And it isn’t appropriate to sexualize young girls or to give them the impression that others will sexualize them. He may not even realize he’s doing it. But it can be really harmful. I know how my 11-year-old felt after it was done to her. (well, she’s 23 now, but still).

          Reply
    • Bonnie

      It’s time for women to speak up, to be appropriately assertive but courteous manner. Eg”Babies have been fed thus as long as humans exist. I am feeding my infant appropriately. Your comments however are not”. You can choose not to look and I would appreciate if you did and keep such inappropriate comments to yourself.” WHATEVER THE SITUATION. No man be it pastor, elder or congregate member has what they may think is the inalienable right to behave as such.

      Reply
  2. Chris

    The content of this whole post is so sad. Ugh. Just ugh. And pathetic. I feel so depressed reading this stuff. Ugh. Gross. I am not being very articulate am I?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s kind of like all of Connor’s comments in the margins of the document! It is totally ugh and gross. I’m not sure what else there is to say, either.
      Except that this is far too common. And what I want parents to realize is that this has far more power when you’re in a church that supports the ‘girls are stumbling blocks’ message. Like, there are always going to be men who say gross things. But if that happens in a healthy environment, where you’ve been taught your worth, girls will be far more likely to shake it off and tell their parents and have it not affect them. But if you’re in an environment that supports this by telling girls they’re sources of temptation, then when someone says something awful, it sticks a lot harder.
      So even if parents are healthy, you really need to make sure that your church is healthy, too. And, tragically, far too many aren’t, and then this stuff happens.

      Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Sometimes the best response isn’t an articulate answer but just an honest, gut reaction. And I think yours is entirely appropriate.

      Reply
  3. Anon

    Urgh, that ‘what were you wearing’ question makes me SO angry!!! 1) Because it is NEVER ok to assault anyone, regardless of what they were wearing (and why do we blame the girl in these circumstances when we don’t blame the victim any other time? e.g. If a guy got mugged after waving around an expensive wallet stuffed with money, people wouldn’t be saying he made the mugger attack him!) and 2) because there is no clothing on earth that will deter a predator from assault – in fact, I reckon the more you cover up, the more likely you are to be targeted because predators know girls who don’t cover up excessively are more likely to be body confident and to take action against an abuser.
    EVERY single time I experienced this (and it’s ALWAYS been from someone in church) I was baggy, loose fitting, high necked clothing that made me as covered and as shapeless as possible – the only way I could have ‘covered up’ more would have been by wearing a burkha! I spent years trying to hide my body in the hope that I would be left alone and it never worked. So anyone who’s tempted to ask ‘what was she wearing?’ when you hear about abuse – know that the very attitude behind that question is encouraging and promoting abuse.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m just going to repeat your last sentence and bold it. 🙂
      “So anyone who’s tempted to ask ‘what was she wearing?’ when you hear about abuse – know that the very attitude behind that question is encouraging and promoting abuse.”

      Reply
  4. Active Mom

    When I was growing up this is how I viewed all men in the church. As gross icky older weirdos. It’s probably why I wasn’t interested in dating until late high school. I think one of the best ways to help women and girls feel empowered and safe is when they see men like Connor make those honest comments. More and more men are starting to confront the gross thinking. It lets women know it’s not every man and it’s not normal.
    It’s still not enough. Women are still seen as objects in some cases or as lesser than in others. Go on any Christian marriage blog and read the comments regarding porn not being a sin or whether or not modesty plays a part in men’s lust etc etc from the men. Until that warped mindset is confronted and flushed out of the church by other men I don’t think women will ever be truly safe in Gods house.
    I was wearing cotton shorts that fell to almost my fingers and a t-shirt the first time I was confronted by an elder about being a temptation. It was my duty to “not let the devil use my body to cause Christian men to sin.”
    Gross!!!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, gross! And you’re absolutely right. We need to change the way we talk about this whole thing.

      Reply
      • Bonnie

        There is still appropriate dress no matter where you are. Some things worn are just bad taste. I like what I heard today from a woman who runs a secular group home for troubled teens, They have a sign in the home; “Reach for the stars then touch your toes. If anything shows, change your clothes.” I thought rather a good one. I don’t know what you think of that Sheila, but I thought it pretty much “covered” it. Pun intended.

        Reply
  5. Anon

    I keep saying I’m not going to look at your Facebook page because I know the comments are just going to wind me up too much, and I’ve just gone and done it again…
    And the first thing I see is the guy who wrote:
    “Forget the 13 year old girl . How about the 20 year old or the 40 year old or the 18 year old. And let’s say the man is 15 or 16… I’m more concerned about the 14 year old boy. I have one. And I have had discussions about modesty with him. Some girls don’t know how to dress modestly. Some are immodest to gain attention. ”
    WHY???!!!!! Why is it we could have a conversation about the number of teenage boys who fall victim to gang knife crime without anyone going ‘oh, but what about elderly people who get stabbed, don’t you care about them?’ and we could talk about elderly people being scammed out of their money without anyone complaining that we’re not discussing child poverty instead, but as soon as we start talking about sexual abuse of YOUNG GIRLS someone always comes in with ‘we should be more concerned about helping teenage boys not to lust’ and ‘some of those girls don’t know how to dress modestly’.
    We live in a world where a guy who claims to be a Christian can actually use the phrase ‘forget the 13 year old girl’ when we are talking about CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE. Yeah, let’s just forget about the 13 year old girl in her baggy jumper and jeans, dealing with her shame & confusion over being groped by an older boy in youth group. According to this guy, our sympathy should REALLY be with that poor teenage boy who is finding it SO HARD to deal with his lust that he ‘can’t help’ what he does with his hands…
    It’s just heartbreaking. Sheila, I don’t know how you & the rest of your team keep going in the face of attitudes like this, but I’m so thankful that you do. Praying for strength for you all xxx

    Reply
  6. Rebecca

    I’ve probably said this before, but the most uncomfortable a man has ever made me happened while I was dressed in baggy camouflage. All he could see was my face and my hands, but that didn’t stop him from talking really explicitly about me to people I knew. I got checked out in dress blues too, which I guess makes more sense. But y’all, if you’re turned on by a woman in a wool-poly blend you might want to reevaluate 🙄
    The point is, I was dressed extremely conservatively, covered up, hair in a bun, and it didn’t stop the grossness. Why do we continue to put this burden on women in the church? No thanks.

    Reply
  7. Melissa

    When a man from our church made some very inappropriate comments to me one of the first questions that was asked when I shared the experience was “What were you wearing?”
    Who asked that question? My mother. My 👏 own 👏 MOTHER 👏. If that doesn’t say something about how insidious this attitude is, I don’t know what does.
    I have always been a relatively modest dresser by nature. Mostly because it’s more comfortable – I can move around freely without being concerned about anything being out of place. The thing I’ve learned is that perverts are going to be perverts no matter what anyone is wearing. So, church leaders, if you have a problem with men lusting after girls, maybe you don’t have a modesty problem, maybe you have a pervert problem. Oops was that my outside voice?????

    Reply
    • Becky

      Ugh, I’m so sorry, Melissa. I can’t help thinking that the parents should be sticking up for their daughters more. Like that comment about the dad telling his daughter that she couldn’t wear normal Sunday dresses because she needed to cover up more? I’d be having to hold my husband back in the parking lot from going after the creepy man.

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I know! When dads blame the daughter, it adds an extra layer of creepiness and shame.

        Reply
  8. Anonymous Husband

    Maybe the title of this post should be, “Why are you surprised that you were sexually harassed in church?” It has nothing to do with what you were wearing, because an upstanding man will not harass a woman or girl, regardless of what she’s wearing.
    Creepy men exist everywhere. They prey on women because their mind and heart are warped and sick. To think that you’re “safe” from this in church is naïve, and any parent who teaches that to their child is asking for trouble. Sure, I want my 14-year-old daughter to feel safe at church, at youth group and other places that “should” offer that sanctuary, but she can’t, not entirely. I don’t want her to be constantly distrustful, but I tell her that creepy men/boys are out there, in places and positions you wouldn’t expect. So proceed with caution, be aware and don’t be naïve. So while all of the above examples are disgusting, why are they surprising? Because they happened at church, and came from people who are supposed to be trustworthy? You’re not going to change creepy men; the best you can do is educate your kids, and encourage the upstanding men around you to have a backbone and put an end to any behavior like that mentioned above. If a church supports any of these types of behaviors, even by turning a blind eye, you’re in the wrong church.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This is a great point, Anonymous, and I’d like to expand on it a bit.
      YES, creepy dudes exist everywhere. YES, evil exists everywhere, and we will never eradicate it. That’s why we need to teach our daughters especially situational awareness, and how to spot dangerous situations. Not because they’re to blame, but just as a matter of safety.
      That being said, we also know that while creepy dudes exist everywhere, they exist in greater numbers in cultures that promote creepiness. So in churches where women are blamed for men’s lust, men who lust will naturally gravitate, because they’re told “it’s not your fault. You can blame all your problems on someone else.” Also, when boys grow up with the “she’s a stumbling block” message, they’re more likely to become harassers than when they grow up to respect women.
      So while we need to teach our kids that predators can be everywhere, we also need to realize that if we are going to a church that teaches and promotes this stuff, and that hosts Every Man’s Battle study groups, and that tells youth group boys to read Every Young Man’s Battle, and that lectures girls on what they wear–then our girls are more likely to be harassed and assaulted.
      That’s why it’s important to not attend these types of churches when you have daughters especially, or at least to do your darndest to change the conversation so this type of message is pushed back against rather than accepted!

      Reply
      • Anonymous Husband

        I agree with you, and it’s the reason my family has left several churches. I want to be loyal and steadfast, but in the end I can’t support a church that is supporting a direction I wholeheartedly disagree with.

        Reply
    • Anon

      Yes, creepy guys exist everywhere, but they have a greater ability to prey on their victims in a culture where such behaviour is expected. And too many churches regard this behaviour as part of being a ‘normal’ man.
      It’s easy to say ‘avoid these churches’. But you don’t always realise you’re in one until the problem occurs. I was groped by an engaged guy who was 20 years older than me and whom I had barely spoken to beyond a ‘hello’ when he was greeting people on the door. When I told one of the leadership team it was completely dismissed – it was ‘just what men do’ and I should be ‘grateful for the attention’. If you’d asked me beforehand, I would have said that church would have taken a stand against sexual harassment – how wrong I was!
      This problem is endemic in church society and we won’t get rid of it by just leaving church every time it happens. I actually find it sad that you are questioning why we find abuse within church surprising – we SHOULD be surprised when pastors, elders & deacons make sexual comments about children or touch women in inappropriate ways. We should expect a higher standard from our church leaders than from men in the world – yet I’m not alone in feeling far more wary around Christian guys than non Christian ones. Saying that I should ‘expect’ Christian guys to be creepier than their unsaved counterparts is actually part of the problem – it ‘normalises’ this behaviour among believers.

      Reply
      • Anonymous Husband

        Anon, I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but you’re going a bit outside the lines of what I said. First, I don’t just leave churches. I confront the issue, speak with the pastoral staff, etc. If they’re unwilling to address a major issue, then yes, I will leave. Second, we absolutely should expect a higher standard from our deacons, pastors, and others in church leadership. I’m not arguing that. What I said is that you shouldn’t be surprised that creeps exist – in church or otherwise. That’s all. So when things happen like were documented in this post, no, we shouldn’t be surprised. We should be appalled, however, and we should address it. And at no point did I say that we should expect Christian guys to be creepier than their unsaved counterparts.
        I’m sorry about your experience. Unfortunately I’ve heard many like it.

        Reply
      • Anon

        I think we’re on the same page – I guess it was just your comment about titling the article ‘Why are you surprised that you were sexually harassed in church’ that troubled me – having so often been told that I should ‘expect’ Christian guys to act like that and dealing with unwanted attention is ‘part of being a woman’ (or even worse, that it was ‘my fault’ in some way for ‘encouraging’ it), it sounded like more of the same – almost like saying ‘hey, women have always been harassed in church and they always will be. Don’t be surprised. It’s part of life. Get used to it’. (NB: Having read your other comments, I realise that was not your intention!)
        Having dealt with unwanted sexual attention from Christian men for over 30 years, I am past being ‘surprised’ or ‘shocked’ by it. For many girls, once they’ve had their first few experiences (often by mid teens), it stops being shocking or surprising and becomes ‘normal’. I agree that we need to warn girls that predators can turn up in church, just as anywhere else, but we need to be very careful with the language that we use – sexual assault, abuse and harassment within the church (and especially from church leaders) should ALWAYS be surprising and shocking. I’m just concerned that phrases like ‘why are you surprised’ could be misinterpreted by some as ‘normalising’ this behaviour.

        Reply
      • Anonymous Husband

        I see what you’re referring to with my previous post, and that’s definitely not what I intended to get across in my comment. We absolutely should not put up with, defend or enable any behavior like Sheila has documented in this post. I’ll admit to becoming a bit jaded and disheartened by what I’ve seen. Years back a member of the worship team I was on turned out to be a convicted sex offender. I didn’t find out about this until he was seen chatting up a friend’s young daughter and some people looked into it. I’ve seen quite a few instances like this, and put up with men hitting on my wife, making questionable comments, etc. All of this has made me put up very firm boundaries, in and out of church. That’s all I meant when I said it shouldn’t be a surprise. Take care.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Oh, I’m with you! I’ve seen some things in churches from youth pastors that has made me so jaded. So very, very jaded–especially by how badly the leadership handled it. We must do better. Even if there will always be gross guys, we can at least, as churches, handle it better.

          Reply
      • Anonymous Husband

        Agreed, Sheila. And a correction on my last comment: I did not ‘put up with’ men hitting on my wife. I witnessed it and confronted the individuals. It stopped immediately, but having to deal with it was tiring nonetheless.

        Reply
    • Anon

      I was wearing an ankle-length, lose, floral skirt with a high-neck 3/4 sleeve top when a man we gave a ride to church regularly followed me into my parents minivan and groped my thighs. I was 14.

      Reply
      • Bonnie

        While I think women should dress in good taste, sexually inappropriate behaviour has NOTHING to do with what a girl or woman wears. Sexual predators exist if we all dressed like nuns of old. It used to be a rape victim was victimized further by police asking her what and where she was, what she was wearing and eventually realized that this had nothing to do with it. All predation is about abuse of power, not lust. Time the church recognized it

        Reply
  9. Cass

    When I was in high school I lost 40 pounds. All of a sudden, my friend’s married dad was always around, everywhere I turned. In the parking lot, offering to carry things for me, always watching..,I could feel it. A couple of times he came up behind me in church and whispered in my ear how good I was looking and how dresses were showing off my good figure. Always made me feel super uncomfortable but I never said anything, I would just try and avoid him. I only ever wore classy sundresses…vintage-y type stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary or “scandalous.” I was about 17.

    Reply
  10. JessicaC

    I don’t recall ever being singled out over the way I dressed as a teenager, however, there was a style of dress that was “banned” from my conservative Baptist church. This was in the mid 90’s and there were dresses that had a high collar but then had a heart shaped “cut out” under the collar. The heart shape was small and not low cut. My parents were very conservative and they let me wear this style of dress so I don’t think it was immodest at all. I never noticed any of the women in the church wearing them immodestly. The dresses were typically loose otherwise and relatively long. Anyway, the pastor said those dresses could not be worn at church anymore. I always thought it was odd that he was saying a certain dress couldn’t be worn when it really wasn’t immodest. Obviously, it made a big impression since I remember it clearly over 25 years later.

    Reply
  11. EOF

    Reading through this is sickening. I didn’t experience anything like that within the church, but I had more than my fair share in public schools and family gatherings growing up.

    Reply
      • M

        Family gatherings with unsupervised kids is one of the most common places for sexual molestation.

        Reply
      • Marie

        Never had any experience like these in church. It’s sad to hear how common it was. These kind of comments are absolutely wrong and horrible!
        I still think women should be thoughtful about what they wear and avoid very provocative clothing. But it really is all about your context and a woman’s clothing is not an excuse for a man’s lack of self-control.

        Reply
  12. Marlene

    Here’s my experiences. First, in second grade I was raped by a teenager from my church. Wearing a one piece swimsuit at the local pool surrounded by family and his family.
    Second, as a 13 or 14 year old, wearing a t shirt and jeans. A teenage boy a year younger than I told me to “keep my arms down, because he could see my side boob and bra” I guess. Also from my church.
    Third, my own sister told me in college not wear certain shirts around her boyfriend because my big chest distracted him. I wore very modest clothing at the time and was floored she put the blame on me. That was at a very conservative Christian College.
    Churches fail at putting the blame where it needs to be.
    Women fail at blaming other women for what men do or think.
    And Families fail at teaching all of this. to the sons and daughters.
    My thought process over this topic has changed over 2 decades; through help like you Shelia, and this is interesting; in the secular world. They do a better job than we do.

    Reply
    • Lindsey

      I am so, so sorry for the things you have suffered.
      I also have just recently begun my shift in understanding the Freedom of Christ and the true problems with these dogmas.

      Reply
  13. Nathan

    I feel a combination of heart break and anger at things that some people do and say. All we can do is keep confronting it.

    Reply
  14. Marlene

    I am sorry for her too; if i can look at myself as a 2nd grader, then teenager, then college girl. I am working through it.
    I think though, that just talking about these kinds of things happening in our church is healthy, even though it may be awkward or uncomfortable for people. This is what helps people rethink or refocus their skewed thinking. Conversations like this.
    I am sorry these types of things were not talked about 20 years ago. Thankfully we are talking now. And hopefully we can make it better for our daughters and sons.

    Reply
  15. Julia

    I was wearing a t-shirt layered over a very conservative tank top, and a knee-length skirt like a normal 14-year-old. The “kindly” old guy who I volunteered under at church told me “thank you for dressing so modestly, because men are pigs” and then proceeded to tell me how women are partially at fault for being raped. As a kid in purity culture, I took this as a compliment, but still felt icky. He’d always be going in for full frontal hugs, telling us teen girls how pretty we were and that we were gonna be heartbreakers one day. There was a time he told me not to climb a ladder in a skirt and I turned red and said, “I always wear shorts under my skirts” and he said something like, “I know how to make you blush!” I don’t remember anything explicit or physical, just icky.
    Nine years later, I talked with my sister and friends- turns out he’d been saying similar things to them, too. One friend said that when she was a teenager, she’d catch him staring at her breasts.
    As someone who works with youth now, this makes me absolutely livid. I spent a couple days crying about this and ranting to my fiancé. Even though nothing physical or explicit happened, this man talked to us like we were prey animals or objects. If ANYONE treats my youth kids like this, I will take them out back and deck them. (I’m only kind of joking).

    Reply
      • Julia

        Thank you- that’s really validating; it means a lot. I haven’t told my parents about these gross experiences because I don’t think they’d take me seriously, and if they did, they’d just feel guilty for letting me be around him. I’ve kept it close to my chest because I often feel I’m being way too sensitive, even though I really want to talk about it and help people recognise not just when adults are outright abusing kids, but when they’re objectifying them even in a subtle way, because I believed that guy was right for years in how he talked to me. I think what he (and all the other creepy old guys in the comments) was doing is really damaging to kids.
        Every time I think of my disturbing interactions with this guy and other guys, I always feel a little crazy because I wasn’t raped or groped or propositioned, so it must not be that bad. I feel sane reading your work and all these comments by women with similar experiences.

        Reply
  16. Sadie

    PK here….there was one older man at my church growing up who made me uncomfortable. When I was around 16, he & his wife sat in the pew behind my family at church one Sunday. At the end of the service, he complimented my dress (which was modest) & then told me that I reminded him of his daughters when they were teenagers & how, if they wore a nice outfit, he would pinch their butt (his own daughters). And then he said that he wanted to pinch my butt. Worst part was, my mom had heard the compliment but not the rest of it, so she made me thank him for the compliment!!! (I did tell her the rest of it later.) Same man also told all the teenage girls that when bowing in reverence at the altar, that you should bend far enough down that the congregation could see up your skirt. Umm, NO!!!
    My family went back last fall for the 25th anniversary of that church. This man walked up behind my sister (now 22) & surprised her by pinching her shoulders. She was only 14 when we moved away. I’m sure he would’ve done the same to me if I hadn’t been standing there with my husband. Instead, he asked why I didn’t have a baby yet. Told him I’d only been married 4 months, and he said he’d be expecting a baby announcement within 9 months. So basically, either wanting to pinch my butt at 16 (like his would with his teenage daughters…ick) or telling me that it’s time to start having babies.

    Reply
  17. C

    Hi Sheila. I want to share womething that makes me feel restless, and I believe it is related to the topic of this post.
    I had an argument with someone I love in with he said something that didn’t reasonate with me. I am not a rape survivor, but there are some views that make me worry about all of this. I was told that yes, a rapist will rape regardless of the way a woman is dressed, but if there are two women, one who is dressed “modestly” and one who is dressed “inmodestly”, the rapist will for sure choose to rape the inmodestly dressed one, because “it is more provocative”. I told this person that such view, in some way, justified that rape, but he insisted that wasn’t the case, and that he was upset at TV presenters that say, in order to defend the rape victim, “women can wear anything they want”, because, in his eyes, that justifies her way of dressing up.
    I wonder if I am right or not. I believe that dressing modestly is important to glorify God in the first place, and that can also help other believers who struggle (but NOT that the motivation must be “if I dress inmodestly people will lust after me and it will be all my fault”, I hope you can see the difference in my thinking, not coming from fear). But that last part seemed to prove his point, that women who dress inmodestly do so in order to gain male attention.
    At the same time, I believe rape is ALWAYS unjustifiable and is not the fault of the victim, regardless of what she was wearing or where she was. For me those are two different issues, of course rape being the most serious one.
    I am confused. If someone can help me to organize my thoughts, I’d be very thankful. I am all for defending the victim, but I don’t want to have a sloppy or weak argument for it.
    P.S. If you think this comment is dangerous in any way, feel free to delete it. Also, excuse me for any grammar or vocabulary mistake, English is not my first language.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi C! That’s actually a good question. I don’t have a lot of data on it, but from what I’ve read, I think rapists are more drawn towards people they think they can manipulate and attack without consequences, and in that case, the more naive you look, the better. Often the more conservatively dressed you are, the more you look like a target because you look like you’re so naive you won’t speak out.
      I do think that we live in a very fallen world, and we do need to (unfortunately) teach our kids basic risk management things, with the knowledge that the risk will never be 0 no matter what they do, and it’s not their fault if something happens. But teaching girls especially to look in the back seat before they get into a car; to never drink a drink they didn’t pour; to sit in the subway car where the conductor is or to sit near the bus driver; etc. etc. Doesn’t mean they won’t be attacked, but these things are good to know.
      But I don’t think dress has much to do with it. If anything, it would be the opposite.

      Reply
      • C

        Sheila, thank you for your kind response!
        I’d like to know, where can I read more research on this topic, on why do rapists act in such way, how do they target their victims, etc.? I think lots of people (including me) see the idea that ‘conservatively’ dressed women are more targeted than an ‘inmodestly’ dressed woman as counterintuitive.
        At the same time, I 100% agree with you about the basic risk management education.
        I still have unhealthy ideas about topics such as women’s bodies and men’s behaviour, both from the world (for example, the ‘Billy Crystal rule’, term coined by Aimee Byrd) and conservative evangelical circles. I will keep reading your blog to gain a healthier, Christian perspective on these topics. Thank you for all the work you are doing!

        Reply
  18. Annie

    I lost track of the number of times over the years I was shamed – personally and corporately from the pulpit. We often heard very pointed preaching about how women dress to flaunt their bodies intentionally and cause their brothers to stumble. I internalized the message so that at the ripe old age of 5 years old I believed the old man who molested me when he said he “couldn’t help himself because my body was too temptingly beautiful”.
    The most recent insult was an “old saint” in the church who reprimanded me for wearing a long sleeve, ankle length nursing dress with a v-neckline because when I leaned forward she felt that everyone in the whole sanctuary could see my full breast exposed. We’re not talking about a deep v-neckline either and someone would have to be staring to see even the top of my breast exposed. As someone who has never been that well endowed, having so much attention directed to my chest was mortifying.
    The number of times I’ve been corrected by other women – is disturbing. It seems all these women feel the need to protect their men is just mind boggling.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It is often women who do the correcting for sure. It makes me wonder what their marriages are like and how much fear they must live in.

      Reply
      • Bonnie

        I just typed a comment that sexual predatory behaviors is about abuse of power, not lust. Thst’s why dress has no role. This has been long been researched. Eg. There were nuns raped in a polish monastery by Nazis during WW2 and read (if you can tolerate it about the rape of Beijing and Berlin during WW2. ) Rape is recognized as a dreadful weapon of war. Further proof it is about abuse of power. It is also proven that a woman who walks and behaves assertively will be less likely targeted, esp randomized rape, ie. assailant not known to victim. I took a woman’s self defense course in my 30’s and wish I had learned it in my 20’s. MOM’S and DAD’S enroll your daughter’s in self defense or a few years of mixed martial arts. I know a young woman who was attacked on her campus. She had a brown belt in karate. She broke the assailants arm. Her husband and family were so proud of her. Sheila I don’t know if your girls have had training but please encourage them to get started.

        Reply

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