I Was 12 When I Was Told The Way I Dressed Could Cause A Man To Sin

Because it was Eve that gave the apple to Adam, right?

I was 12-years-old the first time I learned of my duty to dress modestly, lest I cause a man to sin. A flat-chested, athletic, tomboy of a girl, the last thing I saw myself as was an object of sexual desire, yet the message was clear: what I wore and how I acted made me responsible for a man’s thoughts and actions toward me.

I was yet to realise this message would stay with me for the next two decades of my life. That it would be the voice which would see me unable to wear a dress or skirt should I appear too feminine and unintentionally lead a man to impure thoughts. That it would make me fearful of every interaction I had with boys through my teenage years. That it would be the self-contempt in later years when men were inadvertently attracted to me. And that it would be the reason I would remain silent about the years of sexual abuse I endured because of the shame that somehow, I had been the one to make it happen.

I was 12-years-old when I learned it was my duty to dress modestly, lest I cause a man to sin. (Image: Getty)

This message that a woman is responsible for the thoughts and actions of men is at the core of the purity culture; a movement which rampaged through American churches in the '90s before filtering into Christian churches here in Australia. The movement emphasised extreme modesty for women, stating if a woman was to wear anything remotely provocative it would cause a man to stumble, rendering him unable to control his lustful, fleshly desires.

She would therefore be responsible for his sin.

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It also taught for a girl to be considered worthy for her future husband she was to remain a virgin until her wedding day -- in fact, the ultimate measure of her value was founded upon this one thing.

In many cases a father would take it upon himself to be the gatekeeper of his daughter’s virginity through the giving of a purity ring or the attending of a purity ball -- a formal father-daughter dance where a teenage girl would wear something akin to a wedding dress and pledge to remain sexually abstinent until marriage while her father signed a commitment to protect his daughter’s purity until her wedding day; at which time her body would be given to her husband as a gift that would then belong to him.

A purity ball can cement a father's role as the "gatekeeper" of his daughter's virginity. (Image: Getty)

While the movement may not have been as prevalent here as in the States, for those of us who lived our teen years under the influence of books such as I Kissed Dating Goodbye, And the Bride Wore White, When God Writes Your Love Story, and Why True Love Waits, there’s no denying the impact of such a movement, and how it influenced our beliefs in a way which has left many of us now trying to unravel these virtuous threads woven into our formative years to assess whether these ideologies were, in fact, helpful or harmful.

For me, 20-something years later, I find myself in the throes of what Brené Brown refers to as a “breakdown spiritual awakening”; deconstructing the doctrines I was taught to accept without question and examining them through the eyes of my own awareness -- understanding truth as I really see it, not as I have been told to see it.

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Because of this, there are many things within the purity movement that concern me which I once may not have been as aware of. The emphasis of purity being placed upon girls more so than boys. The implication that the totality of a girl’s worth is found between her legs. The way a woman who has not upheld the strict moral code is seen not just as damaged, but dangerous. The added shame heaped upon the hearts of girls who have been raped or abused and therefore implicated as “used goods”. A woman’s body belonging to everyone but her. The underlying tones of submission, compliance and ownership echoed inside words like respectable, honourable and devoted.

And while I believe there is essentially no issue in itself with modesty and abstaining from sex until marriage if this is a person’s desire, the thing that concerns me the most about purity culture lies in this:

Purity culture teaches that a woman is to blame for causing a man to stumble based on what she chooses to wear or how she chooses to act.

Rape culture teaches that a woman is to blame for causing a man to rape her based on what she chooses to wear or how she chooses to act.

The parallel is undeniable, and now I’ve seen it I cannot un-see it; how a culture that claims to protect women is actually enabling a culture that harms women – if not blatantly allowing and supporting it.

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For all that purity culture has been marketed as a means to protect and value women, what it has actually become is yet another way to minimise them -- to silence them -- through the use of blame, shame, manipulation and control. This has become the biggest problem of purity culture: not that young girls are being encouraged to dress modestly or abstain from sex, but that they are being taught they are to carry blame, while men remain blameless.

The Regal Daughters Ballet Company dance around the wooden cross in the ballroom of the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Image: Getty.

Because it was Eve that gave the apple to Adam, right?

It’s this kind of dangerous and destructive thinking that vindicates rape culture and allows it to continue. Even within the supposed sanctuary of the church walls. Especially within the supposed sanctuary of the church walls.

By all means, teach your daughters modesty, but teach them modesty out of respect for their bodies. Teach your daughters abstinence, but teach them abstinence as a way of understanding the worth of their bodies. Teach your daughters the choices they make in regard to their bodies and their sexuality are for them to make, and them alone. But mostly, teach your daughters the choices they do make will never, ever place them responsible for another person’s thoughts and actions toward them.

After all, nobody forced Adam to eat the damn apple.