Not A Stumbling Block

I fumed in my pew while women around me cheered for rape culture and victim-blaming.

To be fair, I don’t think the pastor realised he was promoting rape culture. That’s the definition of culture: our foundational attitudes, customs, and beliefs—ways of thinking ingrained so deeply that we only notice them when they’re challenged. Attitudes like, “Cover up. Nobody wants to see that.” Customs like asking what a victim was wearing. Beliefs like, “If women are modest, men won’t lust.”

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The pastor expounded on liberty in Christ. The snag came when he mentioned I Corinthians 8:13: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

To his credit, tight trousers and low-cut blouses weren’t his first example of ways we make each other stumble—they were his second.

Here’s the thing: that verse comes at the end of a passage about whether or not it’s okay to eat meat that was used in a pagan religious ceremony. Paul reminds his readers that since idols have no power, it’s okay to eat the meat. But if your buddy still feels guilty about it, you shouldn’t eat meat in front of him. What Paul does not say is, “If your buddy has a problem with meat, you should hide all the meat in the world so he can’t possibly have to deal with it.”

And I am not a piece of meat.

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Let me turn this into a modern day example for you, because I haven’t had to deal with idol meat ever in my life, and I doubt you have either. I’ll even use the lust example:

Say you have a buddy who has a problem with lust, and you don’t want him to stumble. You’re walking through the mall and you see Victoria Secret coming up; you know you’ll have no problem walking past the display, but your buddy will. So although you’re free to walk by the store, you suggest an alternate route. That is helping your brother not stumble. That’s intentional and considerate, and it does not make you responsible for preventing his problem. And if you walk away from Victoria Secret and happen to pass a girl in a low-cut shirt, it’s still your buddy’s job to look away. It’s not your fault for picking that direction, and it’s not her fault for wearing the shirt.

Because she is a human, not a stumbling block.

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I’ve heard this idea over and over again: dress modestly to “protect our brothers.” It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s wrong. Unless our brothers live ascetic lifestyles on desert islands, a handful of youth group girls in long skirts will not “protect” them from what’s bombarding them anyway. They know what’s under that floor-length skirt. Men are intelligent humans with free will, not drooling animals who can’t control their impulses. Forcing responsibility onto a woman not only undermines attempts at justice after an assault but also creates a situation in which assault is nearly inevitable.

Women are not objects to be covered or uncovered at mens’ whims.

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Let me throw a few new ideas out there at you. “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” That means that no matter what she’s wearing, you don’t have an excuse to rape her. There’s also, “Each will have to bear his own load,” or “…we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” To me, that sounds like, “The perpetrator is guilty.” I don’t see, “…unless the victim wore a miniskirt” in there anywhere.

And this isn’t just a theological debate. This is happening every day. Most rapes are underreported, and fear of victim-blaming is one cause. (If you need victim-blaming explained, check out this video.)

If this were merely a matter of denominational differences or personal opinions, I might have caved to peer pressure and clapped with the rest of the congregation. But this is not about what we say in church or how we interpret obscure ancient Greek. This is about people—people with faces, people with names, people with scars they will carry forever. And it is not their fault. 

It’s time to stop dehumanising women.

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You, whoever you are—no matter what you wear, no matter what has happened, no matter what will happen—you are not a stumbling block.

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About Elizabeth Syson

While consuming tea and coffee at an alarming rate, I read and write everything I can and pursue my unnatural love of copyediting. My hobbies include learning new instruments and languages, riding horseback, sketching very badly indeed, and periodically recommitting to doing yoga regularly. View all posts by Elizabeth Syson

9 responses to “Not A Stumbling Block

  • happystacyashworth

    Hi Elizabeth, Thank you for this interesting article. I really enjoy your blog! I find myself chewing on this post….which is a good thing. I 100% agree with you that every man, and woman!, is responsible for his or her own body, their own purity, their own thoughts, and handling his or her own temptations. We are very misguided to ever EVER say that rape is anyone’s fault except the person doing the raping. My goodness….it seems so obvious; it’s hard to believe we live in a world where that isn’t obvious to every human being.

    I simply love your Victoria Secret example. It’s great. The reason I wanted to leave a comment, though, is I can’t quite seem to feel ok about your statement that the girl who decided to wear a low cut shirt is not at fault. I’m not disagreeing with you–his lust issue or possible wandering eyes IS his problem–but at the same time, I did a quick google search to define “fault” and found this: responsibility for an accident or misfortune. Maybe it’s not her FAULT, per say, but did she not have some responsibility in this incident? If she had worn a shirt that didn’t reveal cleavage and therefore the temptation was removed and no lusting took place, then wouldn’t a person have to admit that she has at least a smidgen of responsibility in this scenario? I will state it again just to be clear–I am not saying his lust is her fault, only wondering out loud with you….didn’t she play a part in something that could have been avoided?

    The reason this issue is so dear to my heart is I have had the opportunity to work beside extremely honorable Christian men, in a Christian family camp setting, who have openly shared just how helpful it is for them to be among women who use thoughtfulness in the way they dress. It allows these men to have deeper, more intimate friendships with women when temptations are minimized. My heart breaks for men who struggle with sexual sin and find themselves in a world where Victoria Secret is in every single mall in America, and much worse is a simple click away on almost any computer anywhere. It is my understanding that most women truly do not understand the addictive nature of pornography, so I suppose my fear is that because you did not address it here, that a post like this would inadvertently communicate the message, “You are totally blameless, totally pure, totally not at fault no matter how you dress” because the truth is that to a man who is praying and repenting and trying for holiness, how women dress matters a LOT. Know what I mean?

    So…perhaps I’m just adding to this conversation, Elizabeth. If I had written this post, my follow-up post would be one where I help women understand that they have the power to help men in a powerful way they probably cannot fully understand. It is a *truly* beautiful woman who recognizes she is free to wear whatever she wants, but puts thought in her choices so that someone else faces a little less temptation that day when his reality is a daily, constant, unrelenting war of constantly filtering images in malls, on screens, on billboards, in magazines, and in person. Is a woman responsible for helping? Is she at fault if she doesn’t help? No and no. But who is telling women that they CAN help? That they really truly can help these real men, in real marriages, with real families, who find themselves in real addictions? Maybe you will be someone who speaks this truth in a future post. Maybe I can help you. 🙂

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    • Karrn

      I agree with “happy…” above. Nobody ever has the right to rape or to take advantage of another no matter what they are wearing.

      One example, I thought of is when I leave something valuable in my car, I hide it even though I lock my doors. I do not lay a$100 bill on my seat even with the doors locked. Why? As we like to say, “Let’s keep the honest people honest.”

      Our bodies (male and female) are valuable. But we do not need to lay our valuables out as a temptation either. We protect what we value. I personally believe if I am not willing to help another in their temptation by being careful that following Christ and loving my neighbor really isn’t as valuable as I say they are.

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    • Elizabeth Syson

      I suppose it depends on what you define lust as, which is a whole new conversation; it might be, by your definition, her fault that he saw what he did, but he would still have the choice of where to direct his thoughts at that point and what to dwell on. The truth with this topic (like any important topic, unfortunately) is that there are so many facets to it, so many angles, and so many nuances, and a lot of it comes down to heart attitude, which is something we simply can’t police. I think you make some good points as well. Due to word count limits, my hope with this post was more to address the fact that our common Christian approach to modesty contributes to a rape-culture and victim-blaming mindset in ways we often don’t even realise. I do, for the record, believe in dressing modestly–but I also believe that “modest” is a concept that should go far beyond whether I cover my skin. Any discussion on modesty would have to extend to all areas of life which, again, is part of why that was not my intent to address in this post. It’s just such a huge subject.

      Liked by 1 person

  • XeraRose

    I’m not sure that any amount of covering will ever be enough. I live in an area with a large amount of Amish and Mennonite people, who obviously dress differently than the average person. It’s summer here, and you can definitely tell the difference between the young women in the caped dresses, with necklines up to the neck, sleeves down to the wrist, and hems down to the ankle, in black, and in “capes” covering the breasts area, lest any hint of what is there show. But, I also have contacts in the domestic violence/sexual assault community helps, and in discussing statistics, sadly to say, the Amish and Mennonite communities actually have a higher rate of abuse and assaults than the surrounding non-Mennonite population. We’ve even had Amish girls kidnapped off the roads, while walking between farms, and raped — as young as 9 and 10. Child sexual abuse is a very real problem in these communities as well. Because — as the writer wrote, when you focus on what she wears, you make her an object to be used. The issue isn’t what she wears or doesn’t wear, it isn’t how much or little she shows, it’s the idea that a female person isn’t a person, but an object to control somehow. And that any lack of control is punishable — by abuse or assault. Sure, women can be “modest” (the definition of modest btw isn’t how little skin you show, but how little attention you attract, and I’ve seen women who show skin but do not attract attention,.. and the opposite too!), women can cover up, but it won’t stop the problem in the first place. The problem in the first place is that attitude that sees women as objects only for one use, and not as real, whole, human, people!

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  • Jennifer

    I intentionally dress modestly, in that I do my best to make sure my blouse isn’t cut low enough to see cleavage (I bend over & look in the mirror to be sure–and even then I use my hand to cover if I feel it needs it) and that my bottom isn’t hanging out of my shorts or short skirt (I also bend in skirts because even longer styles can reveal your bottom when bending over). I’m not a ankle-length skirt, necklines must be at collar bone, & non-sleeveless rule person (although I have some of those fashions hanging in my closet). I love fashion. I like following trends, though I’m discerning about how things look on my body. I want to flatter it in the best way possible, meaning people should see ME as a whole, not just body parts, when they look at me.

    I choose to dress modestly not because I fear of making anyone “stumble”, but because no one except my husband has the privilege and honor of seeing my body in all its birthday suit glory. Only my husband is qualified to see my breasts, or even just the sides of them, or even the way they cleave. Only my husband is authorized to view my behind. Or my front. I give all of that to him freely. No one else can afford the cost.

    And that reminds me that that same privilege belongs to the husbands of other wives with THEIR wives. THEIR wives are for THEM to look at. THEIR wives get to show them THEIR bodies. My husband doesn’t get that privileges. Other women’s breasts are for their husbands’ enjoyment, not my husband’s.

    And if neither party is not married, the same principal holds true, because we are to honor our spouses, doing good for them ALL the days of our lives, not just from the point we say “I do”. (Proverbs 31:12)

    You can believe you are not a stumbling block…until someone makes you stumble. Then you know. But it’s even better to gain wisdom and discernment by learning that lesson without having to have been made to stumble or causing others to stumble in the first place.

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    • Elizabeth Syson

      I think the thing with the stumbling block is that we’re applying it as a metaphor to an unrelated situation entirely. A stumbling block in the context in the Bible is more of something that my conscience feels wrong about but that other Christians do in freedom; then, when I see them doing it, I feel like I should do it too, even though I still feel like it’s wrong. So that would be more like if I wore a bikini because I see other people wearing them and I feel silly for not wearing one, even though I still feel uncomfortable about it. A stumbling block in that context is not something someone else does that causes temptation. That’s just life. There will be temptations. No matter what anyone else wears, it’s still my responsibility to control what I think and do about it. I think there’s a lot to be said for dressing respectfully and even for doing so in an attitude of love toward others, but responsibility for someone else giving in to temptation can only be laid at the door of that person, not the person who, probably unknowingly, may have been the source of temptation. If my coworker leaves her chocolate on her desk, and I’m tempted to take it, I shouldn’t. No matter how much I love chocolate or how hungry I am, that’s hers, and maybe it would be kinder for her not to leave it on the desk if she knows I’m a chocoholic, but she’s free to do what she wants with her chocolate, and I need to control my impulses.

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  • Jen

    Preach it Elizabeth! The problem with rape is rapists.

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  • Jen

    Elizabeth, I really liked this article! However, I have received push back for sharing this article and expressing support for your views from many folks who are really stuck in that rut of believing that more cloth on a female body with keep men from lusting. I can only imagine the responses you are getting. In muslim populations women wear burkas. Is there less rape in that culture? And what about when men are raped? Is it because of what they were wearing? Why aren’t men being asked to wear looser fitting slacks and t-shirts? Why aren’t they being asked to button their shirts to the neckline? Thank you for having the courage to write this post. You understand this all comes down to being a heart issue. No amount of clothing can change that.

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