“Purity culture,” or the “purity movement,” refers to an evangelical movement that took place in the 90s and was exemplified by organizations like True Love Waits and books like Joshua Harris’s “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” The movement was a reaction against the sexual revolution and the lack of sexual parameters in the decades that followed. In many ways, what the purity movement set out to do was commendable. However, the messages purity culture promoted about sex, marriage, and singleness were misleading and even damaging to many people.
One critique of purity culture is that it overemphasized men’s struggle with lust and the importance of female modesty, downplaying or ignoring the fact that women also struggle with lust and that men can be immodest. It has been common for women in the church to hear that they should be cautious about how they dress so that they do not “cause their brother to stumble” (Romans 14). Numerous women who have grown up in the church have experienced being shamed for how their attire.
There are several false assumptions at play here, one of which is the idea that men have no power to overcome the temptation to lust after women. That contradicts multiple Scripture passages about the power the Holy Spirit gives all believers to overcome sin.
Another problem with this view that Phylicia Masonheimer points out in her podcast episode, “Modesty & the Real Weaker ‘Brother,’” is that it assumes the man is always the weaker brother and the woman is always stronger. In reality, says Masonheimer, there could be a situation where a woman is dressing immodestly because she is the “weaker brother.” The men around her who are mature believers then have the opportunity to show her grace and “accept the one whose faith is weak.”
Quite a few people believe Matthew West’s music video perpetuates these false ideas about men and women. One woman wrote on Twitter, “Want to know why people are so upset about that stupid Matthew West video? I grew up in that culture. Let me tell you about all the shame I still carry. Let me tell you about every time I’ve second guessed what I put on to go to the grocery store.”
“Stop telling women to dress modestly and instead tell men to keep their eyes and hands to themselves,” said another user who quoted Jesus’ warnings against lust in the Sermon on the Mount. In the sermon, Jesus focuses on the responsibility that those who are lusting have to take extreme measures to resist their sin.
“I have loved your music for a long time,” said another person who reiterated the same scriptural argument. “This song is wrong on so many levels. Jesus didn’t tell women how to dress. He told men to pluck out their eye if it caused them to sin. Very disappointed.”
Others pointed out that the phrase “modest is hottest” actually does not put the focus on women’s inner value, but still defines women’s worth entirely on physical appearance.
You have heard it said, “Modest is hottest,” but I say to you, “Hotness is not a virtue.”
— ǝɓıɐԀ 𝖜𝖊𝖘𝖙𝖇𝖊𝖗𝖌 💕 (@paigelaurel) June 20, 2021
Another user observed that men will struggle with lust even when women dress modestly: “Dude, I hate to break this to you but guys will perv on your daughters even if they are in a potato sack. THEY aren’t responsible for how men treat them. Teach them self-respect.”
One woman shared that dressing modestly did nothing to protect her from a sexual predator. She said, “When my pastor began texting me after hours telling me I was sexy, I uncomfortably said I’d just wear a choir robe to office. He said it didn’t matter, he’d just imagine my naked body underneath. My pastor, my boss, my sexual abuser. I dressed modestly. He was a predator.”
Christian author Sheila Gregoire tweeted, “The ‘age-old struggle’ is actually women feeling responsible for men’s sins. I know many think this is cute and fun, but obsessing over girls’ bodies without making reference to boys’ responsibility is part of the problem. Let’s raise girls (and boys) in a healthy way instead.”