Here’s the Data on Why We Need to Stop Calling Girls Stumbling Blocks

by | Mar 29, 2023 | Parenting Teens | 41 comments

what are the long-term effects of modesty messages on girls as stumbling blocks
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It’s time to focus on the effects of modesty messages on girls–rather than the effects of girls on boys.

For the last few weeks we’ve been talking about modesty rules for teens, on the podcast, on the blog, and on social media. 

I often get extremely frustrated during these conversations, because even when I show how much shame modesty messages cause girls; even when I show how arbitrary and unfair they are; even when I show how it is theologically wrong to blame girls for boys’ thoughts, inevitably someone will say:

Okay, I agree with you, but what about the boys? Have you seen what some girls wear today? Shouldn’t girls know that they are causing these boys to stumble?

So people say they agree in principle, but it always come back to….what about the boys?

I’d like to flip the script today and ask, “What about the girls?”

Right now, the conversation goes–“we agree with your theology and your points, but we’re worried about the effects on boys who can be caused to stumble.”

That insinuates that the main victims when it comes to debates about what girls should wear are boys, who are presumably being led into sin.

Well, now that we have done our survey of 7000+ evangelical women for our new book She Deserves Better (which launches April 18!), we know the long-term effects on girls of these modesty messages. 

So let’s look at what happens to teen girls when they are told they must not be stumbling blocks for boys.

What are the effects of the modesty messages on girls?

We measured four different iterations of what we call the “modesty message”, looking at all the different reasons that girls are often told that they need to cover up.

We looked at these messages:

  • Boys can’t help but lust if girls are dressed like they’re trying to entice them;
  • Boys have a visual nature that girls can never understand;
  • Girls who dress immodestly are worse than girls who don’t (we left it to the survey taker to decide what “worse” meant) and
  • Girls have a responsibility to dress in such a way so as not to cause boys to stumble

All of them–absolutely all of them–hurt girls long-term. The messages that tended to do the worst were the first two (although the others were bad as well), likely because they framed the world as a dangerous place. They told girls boys are out of control, and that boys will react to them in gross ways. The other two were about what girls can and should do, and while they are also bad, they aren’t as harmful as framing boys as lustful beings who can’t respect them.

So all of these messages are bad.

Now let’s look at why.

Modesty messages increase the risk of sexual pain disorders.

Vaginismus is a sexual dysfunction disorder affecting women where the muscles in the vaginal wall involuntarily contract, making penetration during sex painful, if not impossible. Some women suffering from vaginismus also find inserting tampons very painful, if not impossible.

Evangelical women have more than twice the rate of vaginismus as the general population. We told you that in our survey of 20,000 women for The Great Sex Rescue we found that the obligation sex message–that a woman is obligated to have sex when her husband wants it–is highly linked to an increased chance of vaginismus, with 22.6% of evangelical women experiencing it.

Well, now we have another piece of the puzzle.

The modesty messages all increase the chance of vaginismus, some as much as 50%. That’s a huge increase.

When you tell teen girls that she might be a stumbling block and boys can’t help but lust if she is, her chance of having vaginismus increases by a significant amount.

That often takes years to heal. Thousands of dollars of physiotherapy. Lots of tears. Lots of frustration. 

Modesty messages increase the chance that girls will be in abusive marriages.

If they believe the modesty messages as teens, they are:

  • 1.68 times more likely to end up in a sexually abusive marriage
  • 1.57 times more likely to end up in a verbally abusive marriage

Why? Because they internalize the idea that THEY are the danger to boys, and that boys can’t help but treat them badly. Then, when a boy does treat them badly, that’s not seen as a red flag. That’s likely her fault.

Also, we found that girls who hear the modesty messages are more likely to be in church circles with all kinds of other messages that enable abuse.

Modesty messages lower girls’ self-esteem long-term.

When she believes modesty messages, she is 30% more likely to have below average self-esteem as an adult.

And why does self-esteem matter? Higher self-esteem is linked with better relational health, better mental health, better job security. It’s linked to better well-being on almost all scales.

Lower self-esteem, on the other hand, is linked to all kinds of bad stuff long-term.

Modesty messages have terrible fruit for girls.

There’s more we can say too–about lower marital and sexual satisfaction long-term. There’s much more data in She Deserves Better. 

But what I want to say today is just a simple but fervent request:

Can girls please matter? 

When we preach a modesty message, we are saying that:

  • It is more important that boys not be tempted to lust

Than it is that:

  • Girls not suffer from a highly elevated risk of sexual dysfunction disorders that are difficult to overcome
  • Girls marry someone who is not an abuser
  • Girls have higher marital and sexual satisfaction long-term
  • Girls get into stable relationships and feel confident
  • Girls have higher self-esteem, which benefits them throughout all aspects of their lives.


Who is it that is being caused to stumble really?

Look at the long-term results! Who are we actually hurting? Is it the boys? Or is it the girls?

And remember that this isn’t a zero-sum game, either. It isn’t like, “if we protect the girls, we will harm the boys.”

No, on the contrary, telling boys that they are fully capable of respecting girls as whole people, and that lust isn’t every man’s battle, benefits boys too. 

As we found in our survey of men, telling boys that lust is every man’s battle makes lust even more of a battle, and makes porn problems worse.

On the other hand, expecting that boys can treat women and girls well means that boys are more likely to, because we tend to rise to expectations.

She Deserves Better!

Launches April 18!

Your daughter deserves better than what you likely grew up with in church.

What would it look like to prepare the next generation without toxic teachings about modesty, sex, or consent, and instead set her up for a big faith?

Pre-Order Now! (Helps us out a ton)

And if you email your receipt, you’ll get special pre-order BONUSES

Everybody benefits when modesty messages stop.

Of course we can teach both boys and girls to dress appropriately, and we walk you through how to do that in She Deserves Better. We don’t have to frame the conversation about clothing as being one about lust. We can just stop.

So next time someone says, “but what about the boys?”, remember they are valuing boys’ very temporary discomfort over girls’ long-term well-being.

Girls get to matter.

Please. I’m not going to put up with this anymore. We have the data. It needs to stop. And if, after seeing the data, you still think, “but what about the boys?”, then it’s quite clear that you don’t actually care about girls at all. And God is not pleased with that.

I think She Deserves Better can be a big part of changing this conversation. When you see all the data, it’s hard to ignore. Please pick up the book for your youth pastor, for anyone you know who has teen daughters. We can make a difference in the next generation, because our girls deserve better.

Long-Term Modesty Messages on Teen Girls

What do you think? Can we stop saying “but what about the boys?” How can this conversation change? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at 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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  1. Joy

    Thank you for doing this research and giving us a way to talk back to the harmful messages. It also helps me to make sense of why I’ve struggled with self esteem and sexual dysfunction throughout my marriage. Thankfully I’m married to a good man, but I am still needing to heal from this and the damage it caused our marriage for a long time.

  2. Taryn

    I wonder what happened to forgiveness of sin in this entire conversation about lust+modesty. On Twitter the other day a woman said she was told the eternal consequences for a boy were more important than her safety around seatbelts, but what are the eternal consequences of a lustful thought? If the guy is saved doesn’t the blood of Jesus continually wash him clean from sin? If he’s not saved, then not seeing cleavage that day is not making a difference in his eternal state.
    It’s like people got so caught up in controlling teens of every sex that they forgot their own theology!

    • Laura


  3. Jane Eyre

    Where is “stumbling block” in the Bible? Evangelicals are supposed to be all about anchoring their beliefs to the text, and all I can find it Jesus telling men to pluck out their own eyes rather than lust. I don’t see where He says to blame women for not dressing better.

    Women’s bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and made in the image and likeness of God. We are not objects; men have a responsibility to not lust after women and to reserve his attraction for his wife.

    I also don’t see this really happen in other circumstances. Lusting is a form of coveting, and we don’t tell people to live in run down shacks so someone won’t covet their house or never wear jewelry so someone won’t covet it. Yet girls’ bodies are more open for misappropriation?

    • CMT

      “Lusting is a form of coveting, and we don’t tell people to live in run down shacks so someone won’t covet their house or never wear jewelry so someone won’t covet it.”

      Right?? Strange, considering that the only biblical passage I can think of that gives direct instructions to Christian women about modest dress is about wealth/status, not sexuality!

      Celebrity pastors buying designer goodies and palatial houses? Oh, see how God is blessing them! Girls wearing leggings and v neck tops? Gasp!! Tell them to cover up in Jesus’ name!

    • Taryn

      Stumbling block is all over the Bible (often hindrance in updated translations), but I can’t find a context where it references women’s clothing/too much skin. In Jer. 6 The Lord places a stumbling block before the people. In Matt. 16 Jesus rebukes Peter as a stumbling block. In 1 Cor. 1 the crucified Christ is described as a stumbling block to the Jews. Rom. 14 references eating food sacrificed to idols as a stumbling block to those with weak consciences.
      Isn’t it weird that almost the only sermons you’ll hear & definitely youth group lessons will be on stumbling blocks as girls’ bodies or maybe alcohol. The broad witness of scripture doesn’t focus on those things at all, but somehow they’ve become the main thing when we hear “don’t be a stumbling block.”
      I really liked Sheila’s essay about the modesty message being a stumbling block to church girls b/c in scripture it is more about something that is hindering someone from relationship w/God. Being (more like *placing*) a stumbling block just isn’t about low-cut tops & leggings.
      The only way I can make out an extrapolation from eating meat sacrificed to idols to clothing choices is if you are influencing someone who thinks wearing leggings is a sin to wear them, thus going against their conscience. I think that can more easily be dealt with by talking about peer pressure & not teaching that clothing choices are a sin in the first place! If, however, you are a grown woman not tempted to dress like the teens b/c they are too “immodest” the Romans passage tells you to quit judging. And if you are a man lusting, Jesus says elsewhere to get gouging.

    • Sequoia

      There’sa passage in Romans 14 (how often do we read through to the end of Romans?? 😬) that contains the stumbling block phrase.

      “ you come again, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God‘s judgment seat. It is written:
      “as surely as I live,” says the lord, “every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.“
      So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any STUMBLING BLOCK in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is God be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:10-17 NIV).

      • Sequoia

        Wow, typo right at the beginning 🤦‍♀️

        *”you, then, why do you judge your brother or sister?”

      • Sequoia

        Autocorrect is not my friend.

        *”do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil.”

      • Sequoia

        Now, unless I’m crazy, this passage seems to imply that the “stumbling block” is in fact the CONDEMNATION that we give to each other? Which has big implications in this conversation especially.

        Or, alternatively, the “stumbling block” is showing no concern or care for others’ sensitivities, particularly regarding things that are unclean. Earlier in the chapter Paul is talking about each person’s convictions about food sacrificed to idols or food prepared according to Jewish laws, and their convictions about celebrating Sabbath or Lord’s Day or all days equally. Essentially saying “don’t force people to go against their convictions; be considerate of others.”

        Which, *checking the passage again * has NOTHING to do with either modesty or lust??

        The most I could possibly draw from this passage into this conversation is to be sensitive to those whose faith is weaker (either because they’re younger or because they’ve bruised/seared their conscience).

        • Tim

          I imagine proponents of the modesty message would say that you could substitute ‘eat’ for ‘wear’ (or probably various other verbs too) in this bit:

          “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.”

          Which you can probably make a case for, but it’s a good distance from Paul’s original point and definitely open to interpretation.

          • Tim

            Actually, reading Luke at the moment and I imagine the argument actually comes from this passage:

            “1. Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2. It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luk 17:1-2, NET)

    • R

      The concept of a stumbling block comes from Romans 14:13. The context of Romans 14 has nothing to do with sex, lust, or how women dress. It has to do with people’s different beliefs on matters of conscience (ie secondary beliefs that do not affect salvation). Paul is saying that elevating or pushing matters of conscience on others, particularly immature believers, is putting a stumbling block in that person’s path.
      It has been totally taken out of context and made to relate to something that Paul was never talking about.

  4. Jo R

    The theobros teaching this 💩 will soon be telling their victims that they’re sinning by not having enough sex with their husbands, by not being enthusiastic enough, by not initiating enough, by not being adventurous enough, by not sacrificing their own health to make sure their husbands get to ejaculate on demand.

    Yeah, funny how women grow up from the youngest ages being told their bodies are inherently sinful and that they remain sinful because they somehow can’t overcome a lifetime of teaching just because they say “I do.”

    Things that make you go “Hmmm.”

  5. Jane Eyre

    As for the research: I’m not surprised but am sad. It’s horrifying to be told that your body is evil or bad, because you cannot escape your body. You cannot control other people’s thoughts, so their unwillingness to exercise self-control becomes an impossible burden.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly. And you feel like you are a source of shame and your are both dangerous and in danger. You can never relax.

      • Anonymous

        You just nailed something there for me by saying the body can never relax. It is always on guard. My pelvic floor therapist told me that she can’t do anymore physically to help me until I deal with more things emotionally. She believes that I have a more going on in my gut than food intolerance. I have the other extreme of vaginismus going on. Can’t feel anything going on down there from years to doing obligation sex with a very loving husband who I thought I couldn’t turn down. So I’d try checking out mentally because my brain was screaming I don’t want to do this…endure physically, but try to engage because I couldn’t let him down that it wasn’t doing anything for me (fake it to trying to make it) which never worked. So I’d just eventually say do what it takes to finish yourself and then go to sleep crying (sometimes he knew and sometimes he didn’t.) He’s always been gentle and loving. Such a twisted place that we’re trying to untangle.

  6. Laura

    Boys/men are seen as the default.

    Hear me out-

    In medicine, men (usually white men) are the default. Anything other than that is “abnormal”. We see this often in the medical world-
    1. Pulse oximeters were studied on white people. They don’t work as well with people with more melanin in their skin.
    2. The one time they came up with male birth control, it got scrapped because they were experiencing “too many side effects”. (It was almost nothing compared to female birth control).
    3. Men’s pain is taken more seriously. Women’s pain is often under reported, under medicated.
    4. Anatomical structures- they have only just recently come up with a model of the clitoris. We’ve known about the anatomical structures of the penis for decades.

    As a society, when we view men as the default and women are seen as lesser, it becomes obvious why we say, “But what about the boys?!”

    Thank you for changing the conversation around this.

    • Laura

      Ha, my first example isn’t a great one for male/female difference.
      So much for a cohesive argument. 🤦‍♀️

      • Nessie

        No, but it is still an example of putting one particular group first and the harm that can result. And the females with more melanin? I’m sure they are heard and studied even less because it’s two “strikes” against them. Argh!

    • Mara R

      Hear you out?
      You had me at boys/men are the default.
      Because it’s true.

      Concerning male a female pain, have you seen the menstrual cramp simulator?
      In many cases pain is part of women’s lives.
      Men are unaware because the topic has been taboo.
      Just another example of everybody knowing about all the pain the man/default human feels. But nothing about the women/secondary-less-important-human feels.

  7. Nathan

    Please don’t take this as belittling the issue. With this analogy, I’m actually belittling and minimizing the “normal” attitude toward this problem, and critiquing the extreme evangelical positions.

    From Big Bang Theory: Sheldon openly comments on some sensitive issues with Leonard and Penny, causing huge problems and endangering their entire relationship. He recognizes that, but wants to focus on what’s REALLY important: He lost a comic book in a bet with Howard.

    Much the same way, some people will say “sure, girls and women are being unfairly criticized, blamed for every problem in the world, made to feel shame at the sin of others, told that they and their bodies are inherently wicked and sinful, and are being seriously hurt and traumatized for life. I get that, but you need to focus on what’s really important: THE WHIMS OF MEN AREN’T BEING CATERED TO!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, that’s exactly it!

  8. J

    These are the exact teachings I heard in the world. The Evangelical church just puts God’s rubber stamp on them.

    So, as Jane Eyre said, you can’t get out of your body, you can’t control other people’s thoughts, and I’ll add you can’t control their actions. Boys grabbing your backside/snapping your bra? Men leering? Men committing sexual abuse/assault? Husband visiting a sex den/ watching porn? I can control none of these things, and I always dress modestly.

    It’s stunning that pastor after pastor after pastor preaches this stuff because the blame shift is so obvious. We know that forced clothing requirements around the world and throughout history do not stop lust. It is a heart issue.

    Why are men so afraid of women’s sexuality? Female genitalia mutilation is still a thing in some parts of the world. It seems like some churches in the West are practicing a metaphorical/ emotional version of FGM.

    • S

      It’s interesting that you bring up the prevalence of FGM in the world. It’s funny how the societies and countries that always preach that women have no sexuality or desire for sex also happen to have high rates of FGM, forced marriages, etc. almost like they’re trying to impose their beliefs of women on their society.

  9. S

    Does the book talk about the harmful teaching that girls don’t struggle with lust or temptation as well, and the damage that this teaching causes them (not being able to seek help for porn addiction, not thinking that objectifying boys is likewise wrong, their sexual satisfaction in marriage, etc.)

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, we do!

  10. Nessie

    “But what about the boys?”
    I’m raising a son and I am concerned- that he might be led to think that God is all-powerful and can defeat anything- EXCEPT a man’s lust problem. I am afraid his understanding of God may become distorted and corrupt because of this harmful, erroneous way of thinking/believing. We discuss these things and this research so he can learn how to treat women in a godly way.

    How many women have walked away from a relationship with God because they saw/felt how they were “at fault,” always will be, and realized it’s a losing battle? I’ve spent years wrestling things out, becoming apathetic, feeling I’ve lost my salvation, and feeling unloved and uncared for by God, my husband, and the church. Mostly because of these terrible teachings/attitudes on me as well as the junk my husband learned and contributed by harming me for decades. I try to keep believing but it.Is.Hard.

    Wouldn’t it be better if, instead of wasting time hashing things out with God I could instead be so confident in my relationship with Him that I am free and able to share Him openly and joyfully with others?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      AMEN! Yes, we spoke to several men when writing our Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex who ended up giving up on God for a time because they felt like lust was a hopeless battle (also because they were taught that noticing and lusting are basically the same thing).

  11. Angharad

    Very clear – and you would think, very obvious.

    But I’m still waiting for the first “Yes, but girls should…” comment. Because it doesn’t matter how often or how clearly you state that girls are not responsible for boys’ behaviour, the die-hards will still be chorusing ‘yes, but…’. I am so tired.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      There’s one on Facebook! 🙂 Yep, can’t get away from them.

  12. Jo R

    Wait, we’ve been mistranslating Jesus for two thousand years???

    So He didn’t really say “If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out” and what He actually said was “If your eye causes you to sin, blame it on every female—of any age—on the planet and tell them to cover up already”?

    Every person, male or female, who says “but girls” should immediately receive a printout of Matthew 5:28-29.

    • Phil

      And Jesus said to the men, “When you see a woman, or even a young girl, and lust after her, be sure you berate HER for YOUR weakness of will, hardness of heart, and perversion of mind. Make sure you tell children you want to have sex with them, because that will be so very helpful in their growing up into healthy adults. Oh, and be sure to be alone with them as much as possible, and make dire threats against them so they never reveal to anyone how hand-sy you got. Of course, if you take it further than hand-sy-ness, be sure to revel in the satisfaction you get because that is absolutely the ONLY reason I created my daughters, made in my own image, so that you men could abuse them in any and every way that you can think of.”

      • Jo R

        Wait, haven’t I read that somewhere before??? 🤣🤣😜😜

        • Phil

          Well since we hang out here so much together and dont exchange much I figured I should start somewhere.

          • Jo R


  13. Willow

    Based on the statistics quoted above, modesty messages are a way of grooming female children to be victims of abuse and assault. (And perhaps grooming males to become abusers.)

    Why are we encouraging our religious leaders and parents to groom children to be victims?

    The Q Anon’ers have all these crazy conspiracy theories about child abuse, when the so-called “safe leaders” are the ones grooming children. We need to take a hard look at ourselves.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire


  14. Mel

    My husband just lectured my daughter about leggings and clothes that show every curve and her form. She’s in tears and I’m not well enough versed to share what I’m learning here. The point he made was about attracting the wrong kind of attention and the danger involved is one that I haven’t seem much about yet. I’m still trying to learn and I have your book “She Deserves Better” and I need to commit to reading it. I feel like I want to defend my daughter’s desire to dress in cute fashion that does not seem provocative to me but raises red flags in my husband, and I just am terrible about discussing certain things with him. He is a good man, a good father. I freeze during these conversations because I don’t feel well enough informed to share what I’m learning effectively :(.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      We’ll try to address this side of it soon!


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