Over the past few weeks, I have been having candid conversations with women about purity culture and their thoughts on how it affected their understanding of women’s bodies and sexuality.
One theme that continues to pop up is the objectification of women through the preaching of modesty and lust.
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This leads me to consider what modesty culture has caused us to lose, and reminds me of the Bishop Nonnus.
As the story goes, Nonnus was the leader of the church in Syria in the in the late 4th and early 5th century.
While sitting with his followers, a lovely woman came by with her servants. They were scantily dressed, drinking, and laughing together.
She was an actress and a woman known to have many lovers.
His followers covered their eyes. To them, the sight of the woman could lead sin. She was a temptress, and since they could not possess her, they must avoid her.
Nonnus, however, fixed his eyes on her and watched as she travel down the road, until she was out of sight.
He comments “Did not, the sight of her great beauty delight you? it greatly delighted me, and well pleased was I with her beauty.”
He goes on to challenge their faith, because they failed to see God’s glory in creating a beautiful woman.
For Nonnus, a beautiful woman is a part of God’s creation, and God’s creation is lovely. A heart yearning toward God should see her and delight in the creator, not seek to possess her.
Let’s be clear; you cannot own another person and still glorify God.
Yes, Paul talks about spouses owning one another, but in a Greco-Roman culture where a man literally owned his wife like he owned cattle or his house. In this context he is commenting more on equality then possession.
Modesty culture takes this verse and perverts sexuality into a contractual sale making both parties property of the other.
If lust is about wanting another person, you do not own. Then marriage becomes the natural solution to that problem.
This treats humans as objects to own instead of the image of God, divine creations, belonging to the creator.
Not our sexual partners, husbands, wives, parents, or anyone else.
Asceticism is often associated with a shutting down of desire and turning instead toward God. However, when looking at early ascetics’ writings, a different perspective of desire comes to light.
Early Ascetics didn’t turn off desire. Instead, they let it fuel their passion for God.
As Sarah Coakley explains, desire is “the precious clue that ever tugs at the heart, reminding the human soul – however dimly – of its created source . . . desire is more fundamental than ‘sex.’ It is more fundamental, ultimately, because desire is an ontological category belonging primarily to God, and only secondarily to humans as a token of their createdness ‘in the image.'”
Our conversations on modesty and lust teach us to extract desire from our spiritual life.
Lust happens when we ignore the relationship between God and desire. Seeing the world and others around us ours to dominate, own and objectify instead of the Imago Dei.
And when we look away from someone we find enticing, we are saying, “no, I refuse to see God in them, they are not the Imago Dei.”
This is not avoiding sin. Instead it denies the sacredness of another person. It ignores the power of God’s creation, and refuses to honor God as a response to it’s beauty.
Looking away, and shaming women to cover up limits our ability to encounter God in the other, creating a weak understanding of sexuality and self-control in our sons, and fear and shame in our daughters.
Ultimately, modesty culture has failed to draw us closer to God and hinders the call to love one another.
What is a God honoring understanding of sexual desire? Read my post on God and the Erotic
*Did you grow up in Purity Culture? I’ve been studying feminist theology for the past seven years and love talking with women about how purity culture hurts women in the church. Interested in sharing your story? Let’s talk! Schedule a meeting with me here.