‘(Christian) Cleavage Probably Isn’t the Problem’

This issue has been close to my heart for decades, not solely from a Christian perspective but because the blaming of women for the actions of men is deeply entrenched in our world-wide culture. Every religion, race or creed is underpinned by this flawed philosophy, and it is not only oppressive and unjust for women, it also damages the male of the species. I’ve re-blogged this piece from jaysondbradley.com. I hope my readers will find it thought-provoking.

“Christian Cleavage” Probably Isn’t the Problem

by Jayson D. Bradley · January 25, 2015

It was the last and final interview. I’d sat through two discussions with this women already, and I knew that, not only was she going to be an incredible fit in the company, she was going to be an unbelievable asset to my team. As I was sure she would, she nailed the interview.

I thanked and escorted her out, and came back into the room to debrief. I was completely flabbergasted when the first words out of his mouth where, “Does she always dress so provocatively?” Her outfit was, in my estimation, professional and complimentary. But depending how the top fell, there was the slightest bit of cleavage. I was surprised that he saw it that way . . . I hadn’t.

As I stammered out a response I don’t even remember, I thought, “If she could hear this conversation, she’d be completely crushed and demoralized.”
The threat of ‘Christian cleavage’

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, . . . and then yanked it again.

It isn’t my intention to beat up the author; I’m sure he was probably surprised at the response. I mean, he was only saying the same stuff that evangelical youth groups have heard for years. It really offered no new thoughts or interesting perspectives.

The gist of the admonishment goes like this:

A man is a visual animal
If he can see the wrong kind of flesh on a woman he has sexual thoughts
Women are responsible to dress in a way that doesn’t “cause them to stumble”

It’s one of those teachings we’ve heard so often, and it comes so replete with Scripture, that we don’t really question it. But is it really biblical?
Are men simply beasts?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that everything this teaching says about men and women is true. Men are naturally wired to see and respond sexually to women and are also driven by a need to possess and subdue the objects of their desire.

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, hair must be up, you can only wear dresses, and skirts must match a prescribed length.

In what other area do we place the burden of our purity on another person?
But think about that for a minute. 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? I asked a similar question in a parody post I wrote entitled How the Rich Can Make Church a Safe Place for the Greedy. Can I, in good faith, blame my avarice on others who own nice things?

Now, I am in no way saying that we are not responsible for each other. If you’re an alcoholic, I definitely would not want to do things that would contribute to your addiction. 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 naturally tendencies?

Still some would 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 that this reductive aspect of this teaching that should annoy men more than it seems to.]

What if you’re a guy who gets turned on by a modestly dressed female?
I am sure there are men out there with kneecap fetishes, just like there are men who have a weird fixation with feet. I have always love the curve of a neck. 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. I mean really . . . if it is their responsibility, a burka is really the only thing that makes sense. It’s the only way to cover up everything that can make a man have bad thoughts. Well . . . except their eyes . . . and their shape . . . and the fact that there’s a woman under that black shape.

And this may sound silly, but what if you’re a guy who gets turned on by a modestly dressed female? It is, quite literally, a no-win situation.

The problem with this teaching is that it helps reinforce the idea that women are responsible for what goes on in the mind of men and that their wardrobe (and not the self control of a man) can be a contributing factor in a sexual assault.
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.” (Matt. 5:28)

The 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!? But is that what Jesus is really teaching here?

I think that 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. I would say that a momentary sexual thought is not lust. Some translations translate Jesus’ words “ . . .everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery . . .”

That battle happens within your mind and is your responsibility.
You might see some cleavage and have a sexual thought, but you might see a woman tying her shoe and have a sexual thought. It’s at that moment that 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 is your responsibility.

You might walk by a bank and think, “I wonder what it would be like to rob a bank.” You have not necessarily done anything wrong. You haven’t necessarily committed a heist in your mind.

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?

I have had some huge failures in this area, and they have all been lost at that moment of choice to indulge and should never be laid at the feet of any one else. I can’t imagine ever standing before God and saying, “I did what I could, but, you know how it is—tank top.” 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 half the population 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 communicates to others who we are and what we value. . . and then I trusted her.

We’ve shamed women from even being able to feed their children in public—the most natural and beautiful act in the world.
See . . . she’s way more mindful about this than I am. While we’re laying our concerns that we may have bad thoughts on them, women like my daughter are worried they’re going to get assaulted or raped. My daughter is WAY more mindful of the clothing choices she makes. Why would I lay more shame, guilt, and fear (fear that already feeds into her main fear that she is always in danger of being assaulted) on her?

The church’s teaching in many way reinforces some of these fears. We tell both men and women that:

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 to act out, “Hey, I can’t control myself. I am a victim of my drives.” One has to wonder if we have not helped create this problem by constantly reinforcing it.
There’s something shameful about women’s bodies. No one would say that this is what they’re trying to communicate, but it is. We tell women that they need to be careful to cover up their bodies because their bodies lead men to think bad things. We’ve shamed women from even being able to feed their children in public—the most natural and beautiful act in the world.
Sexuality is the most important issue in the world. I sincerely think we contribute to the problem of sexualizing our children by the constant harping on it. We help infuse sexuality with this allure and mystery creating a mystique that contributes to the problem instead of fixing it. We tell boys that all they think about is sin. We mistakenly communicate to them that if they think it, they might as well do it. We tell women that they’re sexuality is a secret power they wield over boys.
It’s not that we need to hide it or ignore it. It’s that there are ways we can deal with sexuality that doesn’t stigmatize it and inadvertently make it the issue we’re trying to avoid. 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.

The Collective Disempowerment of Women

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Sketch of a woman crying

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As a woman who grew up in the seventies, when ‘feminism’ wasn’t the dirty word it’s become today, I look upon our current society and it’s treatment of women and simply shake my head. Ladies and gentlemen, have we really come such a long way?

I observe the younger generations of women in their various modes of dress – or more accurately ‘undress’ – and listen to their often inane chatter with a sense of disappointment and, it has to be said, a good measure of despair. Three or four decades ago, some of us fought long and hard to promote a world in which a woman could stand tall (even if you’re short, like me), feel self-assured, trust her own decisions, operate from her own reality and mostly, feel empowered to operate on an equal basis with our male counterparts. We pursued for ourselves and our sisters, a strong sense of self-worth, trust in our own capabilities, and the ability to develop a life based on our own values, needs, aspirations and passions. We shunned the 1950’s domestic goddess and also the false value placed upon the female gender based on ‘looks’, advanced by the movie industry and its backers (advertising) for its own ends. We rejected this hierarchy of beauty foisted upon us by outside influences and began to value ourselves for who we really are, with all our attributes and foibles.

Paradoxically, the backlash was both swift and insidious. In the seventies, we wore ankle-length caftans, flares, A-line skirts that reached between mid-calf and the floor, boleros and Laura Ashley. Hot-pants made a brief appearance but were rarely seen on the streets. We enjoyed the clothes. And of course the platform shoes. The eighties brought us lycra and the new era of ‘skin-tight’ from top to toe. Skirt lengths were rising but mini-skirts were reserved mostly for evenings in discos and clubs. Street-length was still just above or just below the knee. By the nineties though, the micro-mini went mainstream, along with midriff tops and ultra-plunging necklines. It’s been all downhill from there.

So why this harping on about skirt-lengths and the baring of female flesh? It’s because I’ve witnessed firsthand the corresponding plummet in the self-esteem of the young women in question, who have increasingly put themselves on display. To those who quip that it’s because these girls are so confident that they step out clad as they are, I say rubbish. A confident woman steps out in sweat pants and no make-up and doesn’t give a toss what anyone thinks. She arrives at the office in a combination that means she’s not relying on her physical attributes to be noticed; she knows she’ll be noticed for her competence, cleverness and achievement. Think long pants, neat blouses and coats.

Over the years I’ve encouraged a number of young women, including my own daughters, to think long and hard about where real self-esteem comes from. (Hint:  it comes from a sense of ones own self-efficacy). I’ve also pointed out what seems rather obvious to me – that any woman can get the attention of a man by putting herself physically on display; but do you really want that kind of man? If you want to be loved and valued for who you are, take away the distractions and give him the opportunity to know the unique and precious being you really are.

The current preoccupation with all things trivial and superficial has accompanied this backlash. I spoke recently with a young Indian taxi driver who lamented his inability to find himself a suitable girlfriend. In his view, the majority of girls today just want to go out to pubs and clubs, get drunk, and shop for frivolous bits and pieces. He was looking for more depth and quality of interaction, and I truly felt for him. It’s a trend I’d already noted in the current generation, particularly after my experience with step-daughters who were brought up with a whole different set of values and guidelines to my own. I, too, struggled with having to listen to endless inanities about this pretty dress, that pretty ring, and requests for endless parties, always involving stunning amounts of alcohol; not to mention long-winded soliloquys about the latest episode of this or that, while being driven to distraction by the ever-present ‘can I haves’. My efforts to educate them, to strengthen them against the endless assaults on their self-esteem by the media and to instill a secure sense of self within their vulnerable psyches, were to no avail.

It seems that in a relatively short time-span we have regressed as a society. As technology advances and the external world becomes more civilized, the collective internal experience of the world’s women is being besieged by increasing levels of barbarism. How can we be free to be who we really are if are valued only for outward appearances? We are spiritual beings in a physical body, and yet the world is reducing us to that body alone, leaving so many feeling empty, confused, insecure and mostly, dis-empowered. How can we attain our highest potential and fulfill our life’s unique purpose if we are dis-empowered? The answer is that we cannot.

And that…of course…is the whole game plan.

 

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Vulnerability

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday, I received a stark reminder of just how vulnerable I still am, and how close to the surface my fears and anxieties yet reside. It was a simple MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) I was to undergo and I arrived at the radiology centre in a relaxed state with my 12 year old granddaughter in tow, chatting happily about anything and nothing.

I made the obligatory joke about how fetching was the gown I had to wear and how it complemented the colour of my stockings. The assistant, a lovely young woman, handed me earplugs and fitted me with ear muffs to deal with the excessive noise I was assured the magnets would make, secured my head in position, and instructed me to just close my eyes and zone out. At that point, the equipment began to slide me, conveyer-belt style, into the belly of something akin to a mechanical coffin. I’d been warned it might not be pleasant but I’m normally not claustrophobic, so was well-prepared.

Or so I thought. Continue reading

On Truth and Beauty

True beauty is ageless, timeless, intangible. It is evident at every age and stage of life and inherent in every human being, male or female, young or old. Deep within ourselves we hold this knowledge and yet we forget. We struggle with exquisitely painful feelings of inadequacy, failure and abandonment because we do not live up to the ideal of a mere physical beauty imposed upon us from the external world.

 

Women in particular, who are valued almost solely for their looks, suffer immeasurably, becoming consumed by the attainment of this one thing, beauty. Yet, the hierarchy that has been created in our material world is an illusion. In reality, there is no objective measure of beauty, no better or best, no gradation of beauty from plain to pretty to perfect. We are beautiful according to our uniqueness, because there is no other human exactly like we are, no soul whose journey and purpose is quite like ours. No one is more valuable or worthy of love and respect because of the nuances of bone structure, skin tone or physical measurements of any kind.

 

These illusions are built on shifting sands; our culture raises the bar, changing the criteria of desirability so that ultimately, no one can win. The trick is to understand that there is no competition.

 

I have spoken with many women who, like me, are trying to integrate their inner and outer experiences. We need to somehow survive, emotionally and spiritually intact, in a world that relentlessly throws poison darts at our self esteem. We need to shed a little light on this dark aspect of femininity. We need to do what women have done throughout history – worked alongside one another to stitch together a rich tapestry of truth and experience to reveal something far more beautiful and powerful than any individual icon of our time.

 

I’m an idealist and in my own quiet way, a warrior. If I could find a way to open the eyes of the world to the illusion, to reveal the truth that is truly beautiful, I would do it. I would remove the pain from our sisters, daughters and mothers  – if I was able to change the world.

 

Instead, I drop my pebbles into the pond, hoping the ripples will span out and make a difference.

 

Recently, I heard a radio talk-back program in which the Buddha was discussed. Scratchy reception meant that I missed most of what was said but I did manage to catch a pearl of wisdom that is particularly significant for me. After living as an ascetic in the wilderness for many, many years, the Buddha reached a point of true enlightenment. The story goes that at this point, he had a conversation with the devil, who said something like, ‘Well, you made it. You’ve reached the point of true enlightenment. And now no-one will understand what you’re talking about.’ The Buddha responded that ‘someone will understand.’ His point was that all his effort and pain were worth it if only one human being understood the message he came to bring to the world.

 

I am no Buddha and my path to enlightenment is yet in its early stages. Yet if only one other person understands and benefits from the insights I bring to this blog, and to my life in general, then my job is done.

 

This thing called ‘beauty’ is a burden, a two-edged sword that must be handled carefully until the illusion is lifted and truth becomes our reality. I don’t expect this to happen in my lifetime, or in my daughters’ lifetime, or even in my daughters’ daughters’ – but I do intend to be instrumental in the process. When enough people understand, change will take place.