'Christian Cleavage' Probably Isn't the Problem

Our talks about modesty break down when we assume the worst of everyone.

There was a bit of outrage last week when a prominent Christian blogger published a post entitled “The Problem with Christian Cleavage.” He has since pulled it, edited it and republished it with a different title.

It isn’t my intention to beat up the author; I’m sure he had good intentions and was probably surprised at the response. But, in addition to “mansplaining” why women shouldn’t wear certain items of clothing, the post perpetuated some questionable teaching. I mean, he was only saying the same stuff evangelical youth groups have heard for years. 

The gist of the admonishment goes like this:

1. A man is a visual animal.

2. If he can see the "wrong kind" of flesh on a woman he has sexual thoughts.

3. Women are responsible to dress in a way that doesn’t “cause men to stumble.”

It’s one of those teachings we’ve heard so often that we don’t really question it. But is it really biblical? And, should we be more concerned with addressing the problem of questionable teaching, instead of having men tell women how to behave?

Should We Be Telling Women What to Wear?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume everything this teaching says about men and women is true. Men are naturally wired to see and respond sexually to women.

Do women bear the responsibility to adjust their behavior in order to help them? Many would give an emphatic, “YES! They should never give men a reason to stumble.” Seems reasonable, right?

Women throughout history have carried the weight of that belief. It’s not just some forms of Islam that make women wear burkas; Christianity has a history of many types of modesty teachings aimed at women: no makeup, you can only wear dresses, no two-piece bathing suits, skirts must match a prescribed length and so on.

In what other area do we place the burden of our purity on another person? Do we blame someone eating around us for our gluttony? Can I, in good faith, blame my avarice on others who own nice things?

In what other area do we place the burden of our purity on another person?

Now, I am in no way saying we are not responsible for one another in some ways. But should it be a teaching of the Church that God expects half the population to limit their freedom for the sake of people struggling with natural tendencies? Some may say yes, but let me tell you why I find that difficult to swallow.

There Is No Standard That Even Makes Sense

Human sexuality is a weird thing, and there’s simply no telling what is going to send someone into a dither. The author of the cleavage post makes this argument quite well when he says, “The reality is that men are visual creatures who can see a woman’s kneecap and get revved up.” [It’s interesting that this sentence reduces men to creatures—I think this reductive aspect of this teaching should annoy men more than it seems to.]

I am sure there are men out there with kneecap fetishes, just like there are men who have a weird fixation with feet. I mean, quite honestly, what is a woman to do? It is impossible for women to hide everything that might make a man sexualize them.

A major problem with this teaching is that it helps reinforce the idea that women are responsible for what goes on inside the mind of men and that their wardrobe (and not the self-control of a man) is the contributing factor in someone else's actions.

Looking on Women With Lust

One of the verses that drives this teaching is when Jesus says, “but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

The flawed interpretation basically goes like this: "If I see a woman and have a sexual thought, I have already sinned, and I might as well commit adultery with her. It’s the exact same thing, right?"

Is that what Jesus is really teaching here?

This breaks down at the point where we teach men that every moment their mind flits into a sexual thought, they have committed a grave sin.

But let's be serious. I would say that a momentary sexual thought is not lust. If it was, reading the Song of Solomon would be sinful.

Some translations helpfully translate Jesus’ words “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery ...”

You might see some cleavage and have a sexual thought. You might also see a woman tying her shoe and have a sexual thought. At that moment, you are faced with the choice to “take that thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5) or to indulge it.

That battle happens within your mind and it is your responsibility.

Jesus calls us to be responsible for our lives with this hugely hyperbolic teaching, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away” (Matt. 5:29–30).

Whose responsibility does it seem like God places the weight of our purity on? Someone else? Or us as the owner and operators of our minds?

We contribute to the problem of the over-sexualization of our culture by constantly harping on it.

I have had some huge failures in this area, and they have all been lost at that moment of choice to indulge—they should never be laid at the feet of any one else. It’s really the same buck-passing argument that Adam tried to pull on God in the garden, “The woman you made me gave me the fruit and I ate.” It’s just now, “That women wore yoga pants, and I lusted.”

Contributing to the Problem

I have raised a wonderful, modest daughter. I didn’t do it by laying the responsibility for the bad thoughts of all men on her. I did it by reaffirming to her that she is responsible for how she presents herself and how the decisions we all make communicate to others what we value—and then I trusted her. My daughter is way more mindful of the clothing choices she makes than I am. Why would I lay shame, guilt, and fear on her?

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Some of Church’s teaching on the topic can be drawn out to send the wrong message when we tell both men and women that:

1. Men can’t be responsible for their behavior. This seems like it ramps up the distrust and disharmony between the genders. And, on a scarier note, it offers a way out to men who act inappropriately: “Hey, I can’t control myself. I am a victim of my drives.”

2. There’s something shameful about women’s bodies. No one would say this is what they’re trying to communicate, but it is. We tell women they need to be careful to cover up their bodies because their bodies lead men to think bad things. Any conversation about modesty must be grounded in the truth that bodies are not part of the problem.

3. Sexuality is the most important issue in the world. I sincerely think we contribute to the problem of the over-sexualization of our culture by constantly harping on it. We tell boys that all they think about is sin. We mistakenly communicate to them that if they think it, it's functionally the same as indulging in it. 
It’s like we’re constantly saying, “Don’t think about sex. Don’t think about sex. You want to look at women as sexual beings ... you want to, but don’t.” The whole time we’re working with the culture to create stigma surrounding sex.

Men, maybe the issue isn’t so much about “Christian cleavage” (whatever that is). In my experience, so many ills could be avoided if we were to “treat younger women like sisters, with absolute purity ”(1 Tim. 5:2). That seems like the best possible scenario.

This article was originally published at jaysondbradley.com

Top Comments

Randall Malone


Randall Malone commented…

It's not either/or: the NT teaches both women's modesty and men's avoidance of lust. Past generations of Christians could teach us something in their emphasis on both sexes seeing others as siblings (brothers and sisters).

Desiree M. Mondesir


Desiree M. Mondesir replied to Randall Malone's comment

The issue here, I believe, is that we women are blamed for things we cannot possibly help. Lust is lust whether a woman is nude or wearing a burka. I'm not suggesting that women should walk around [half]naked, I'm just saying men need to stop blaming women for their own issues. That's what rapists do. They blame their victims for their own issues. The problems are related and it stems from a chauvinist mentality that puts women down and blames them for the root of evil. It's demonic.


Anthony Spering


Anthony Spering commented…

You say blame too much. What about personal responsibility? Meaning not for the one falling to temptation but the one tempting another? Do I blame my gluttony on another? No. But do I eat more chips when someone hands me an open bag? What if the point of the teaching isn't to excuse people sinning or to judge or shame women, but simply to let them make informed decisions. When a friend is fasting or dieting I won't eat in front of them. When I am with a recovering alcoholic I won't drink in front of them. Knowing how the clothes we wear will affect others should absolutely affect how you dress. Paul was willing to go vegan to protect his brothers. Shouldn't we be willing to wear a t shirt when walking to the beach?

Jacob Park


Jacob Park commented…

"We have been told, till one is sick of hearing it, that sexual desire is in the same state as any of our other natural desires and that if only we abandon the silly old Victorian idea of hushing it up, everything in the garden will be lovely. It is not true. The moment you look at the facts, and away from the propaganda, you see that it is not.

They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. But for the last twenty years it has not been hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still in a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right. But it has not. I think it is the other way round. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess."

--C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

Melissa Clarke


Melissa Clarke commented…

As a 31 year old female, this article irritates me. It has this tone of an "offended feminist" which is ironic since it was written by a man. This article makes me so angry because it forgot to mention the degraded, devalued, disrespected, hurt, and violated feeling a woman can get when she knows she is being lusted after. I know this feeling because I feel it ALL THE TIME!

America has become a ridiculously immoral country. This is a place where a 17 year old girl can be solicited for sex by two complete strangers (I know because I was that 17 year old girl). It is now a place where your male coworker will have his friend ask you if you'd like to have sex with him. Never mind dinner and a movie. There is no pretense anymore. It's so bad that basically any time a man talks to me I just assume he wants to have sex with me. It is THAT ridiculous. So what do I do in response? I "dress defensively". Whether I'm dealing with Christian men I trust or sinful, ungodly men (who sadly sometimes call themselves Christians too) I take the time to consider everything before I put my clothes on. Sometime it means wearing a hoodie and baggy sweat pants. Sometimes, it means looking nice but modest. I take the time to ask "Will this cause a brother in Christ to stumble?" or "Will this keep me safe from someone else's lust?".

So am I being a woman who is "treating my body like it's a detestable, evil thing"? Am I "taking all the responsibility for someone else's sexual purity"? I don't give a dang! I just know that when I sense a man is lusting after me sexually I feel like I've just been raped or molested. If I have to walk around in a cardboard box my whole life, I'll take that over a moment of feeling so violated. I don't have to feel like I'm being robbed of my female right to be beautiful. My beauty does not come from OUTWARD ADORNMENT. I don't have to look nice on the outside to feel beautiful because my beauty doesn't come from there. It comes from my inside. It comes from a gentle, quiet spirit that desires to please my Father in heaven. I am most beautiful when God is most pleased with me, and that inward beauty makes me of great worth to him.



Brett commented…

Phew, even just reading Melissa's comment there reminds me how volatile a conversation this is, but an important one. The piece i compiled on Christian Cleavage was also one of my most popular posts of last year - https://brettfish.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/the-breast-of-intentions-a-re...

It is a topic which people [especially men] have gotten so so wrong over the years which i think has left us in a place where it feels very nervous to be able to say anything about it at all - the emphasis on the problem being the womans when it is largely men needing to deal with lust/intentions/behaviour etc has caused so much hurt but at the same time i don't know that it is the most helpful thing to put all the emphasis on one side, especially when you are dealing with an issue someone is actively struggling with as opposed to a guy being the negative stereotype of what guys are like according to the media/pop culture/general experience.

Because it is a difficult topic should not make us run away from it completely but it should caution us to be super sensitive and to create safe spaces where we can learn from each other and dialogue openly and honestly and figure this out together going forwards. in love, from both sides.

Thanks for raising it and creating space for dialogue on here
love brett fish

Daniel Bain


Daniel Bain commented…

Blame? Personal Responsibility? Fault?

Romans 14:13 "Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother."

Malachi 2:8 "But as for you, you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by the instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi," says the LORD of hosts.

Matthew 18:6-7 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!

It seems that God has weighed in on the issue already. If you cause someone else to stumble (in this case by showing something that almost every man finds arousing), then you are just as guilty as the sinner that savored the morsel of a thought. Both are sinners and need to be forgiven. If someone mentions to another that such-and-such is a stumbling block, they should respect that person and no longer do such-and-such. Both are responsible, both are at fault, both are also laid the blame.

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