More importantly, however, I found highly problematic Rey’s assumption that men are mere machines, unable to control the response of their brains to scantily clad women. Just as a woman is not a mere object, so a man is not a mere machine. The response of the brain to a particular image is not innate, but shaped by a person’s culture, context, and character.
Jessica Rey’s “Evolution of the Swimsuit” video has been making its rounds on the Internet over the past couple weeks. It is an interesting video, worth watching if you have the time and are a woman, a husband, a father of daughters, or otherwise interested in the subject. I’m loath to write more on the modesty issue at this point (see here and here), but a piece of data Rey summarized – and the way she used it – caught my attention. Towards the end of the video, describing a neurological study of the male brain (the participants were Princeton University students), Rey states the following:
Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tools, such as screw drivers and hammers, lit up. Some men showed zero brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
Rey’s argument was that since science shows that men respond to a woman in a bikini by viewing her as an object, women should not wear bikinis. The point, she argued, is not that the female body is problematic, but that a woman should dress in a way that graces her body with dignity and honor.
The latter point is, of course, true. And what follows is not a defense of the bikini, let alone a suggestion that women should wear bikinis. That question is a distraction from the real issues.
Two things bothered me about Rey’s presentation. First, I worry about the assumption that a woman’s dignity somehow depends on how she is viewed by a sexually charged male college student. Somehow I doubt that your average Princeton male would view women any less differently if they all suddenly started wearing one-piece swimsuits to the beach. As Christianity Today blogger Caryn Rivadeneira puts it,
Those who are “worried” about the male reaction to the female form need to remember that men will still find women in conservative, one-piece, adorable Jessica Rey swimsuits sexy, while not every woman in a bikini will be a turn-on. There’s no hard-and-fast-rule for how we guard our beach bods from the male gaze. And I’m not sure there should be.
As I’ve said before, one person will always find a “more modest” approach than the next. There’s a whole spectrum of opinions and positions out there, and imagining that we can find a place from which to be dogmatic merely introduces the ugly specter of legalism. This promotes just the sort of self-righteous moralism that inevitably obscures the gospel and alienates the kind of outsiders to whom we should be most sympathetic and who most desperately need our love and respect as they are.
More importantly, however, I found highly problematic Rey’s assumption that men are mere machines, unable to control the response of their brains to scantily clad women. Just as a woman is not a mere object, so a man is not a mere machine. The response of the brain to a particular image is not innate, but shaped by a person’s culture, context, and character. In an excellent set of responses to Rey’s video on Christianity Today’s her.meneutics blog, Sharon Hodde Miller writes of the study Rey cites,
These findings are significant, but they also beg an important question: Why do men perceive women’s bodies this way? Scientific findings show that the brain is essentially plastic. It can be shaped and formed and changed by our environments. This means that not all neurological responses are hardwired. Some are conditioned.
In the case of women’s bodies, it’s very possible that men have been conditioned by culture to have a Pavlovian response. Just as dogs grew conditioned to be stimulated by the ring of a bell, our culture has trained men to respond in certain ways to the sight of a female body. This conditioning becomes most apparent in comparison with non-Western cultures, where modesty standards differ….
Undoubtedly, Rey brought attention to important data. When men associate the female body with objects, not just theoretically but neurologically, we can be sure that our culture is sick. However, additional neurological research points to a societal dysfunction that runs far deeper than bikinis. When men associate the imago dei in women with an inanimate tool, then a more comprehensive restoration is in order, one that promotes theological correction, cultural healing, and renewed vision. To this end, we need to dig a bit deeper.
This is exactly right. I worry very much that in our obsession with what other people wear and what other people do, many Christians are entirely missing the fact that a gospel-centered, Christ-centered life is rooted in the virtues of the heart. Out of the heart come lust and sexual immorality, Jesus taught us, and it is the heart that must be changed.
Rey’s study certainly shows us that Christians should be counter-cultural. But the appropriate way to be counter-cultural is not to insist on a set of abstract, outward rules and regulations to which Christians conform, making them “different” from the world in a variety of arbitrary ways (let alone to shift men’s burdens to women, enforcing arbitrary restrictions on their dress that inevitably communicate their denigration rather than affirmation). The appropriate way to be counter-cultural is to conform, as a body of believers, to a new humanity (Jesus), characterized by new virtues (such as love, patience, self-control). Our starting point cannot be that since males lust after women as a matter of scientific fact, women must buck up and cover up or they are guilty of “causing” their male counterparts to sin. Our starting point, rather, must be that all human beings are created bodily in the image of God, and that in place of the temptation to lust after and use one another as objects, we need to learn to delight in and respect one another as embodied persons.
That’s why the New Testament does not give us a dress code, no matter how hard some conservatives try to find one in its pages. You’d be better off searching the rabbinic code of the Pharisees. The New Testament, in contrast, calls us not to attract attention to outward appearance with all sorts of adornment and apparel, but to focus on doing the sort of good works that reflect the virtues to which we are called (i.e., modesty) (1 Timothy 2:9-10). That’s why Paul, rather than commanding people to cover up and avoid interaction, writes,
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5)
What’s at stake in all of this is the gospel. Pluralism and secularization, with all the sins that come attached to them, are hitting the church like a tsunami right now. Conservative Christians are clinging to the instincts and intuitions they know best, seeking to justify them from Scripture, yet without necessarily letting Scripture shape their attitudes and practices. The danger of a new wave of inward-looking legalism is very real.
The only solution is to remember that the whole point of the Christian life is to conform to the image of Jesus, putting on the virtues of this new man and turning in service and self-sacrifice to our neighbors. Our actions and practices should prompt others to ask us for a reason for the hope that is within us. But when the world sees our fearful, defensive churches, will they see Pharisees, or will they see the Savior who was associated with prostitutes and sinners?
Matthew J. Tuininga is a doctoral candidate in Ethics and Society at Emory University, holds an MDiv from Westminster Seminary California and is licensed to preach in the United Reformed Churches in North America. He blogs at Christian in America, where this article first appeared; it is used with permission.