Why The Rebelution’s Modesty Survey Was A Bad Idea: Shaney Irene’s Story

HA note: Shaney Irene’s story was originally published on March 13, 2013, on her site ShaneyIrene.com. She was homeschooled and was a former moderator on the Rebelution forum and now describes herself as a “thinker, reader, and writer” who is “passionate about adoption, youth ministry, and ending sexual abuse.” This story is reprinted with her permission.

On Valentine’s Day 2007, The Rebelution unveiled the Modesty Survey. Girls submitted questions, and guys responded. As a moderator of the Rebelution forum, I was really excited about the project. I posted it on Facebook, forwarded it to my youth pastor, and talked about it with anyone who would listen.

Six years later, if you ask me what I think of the Survey, I’ll tell you I regret having been a part of it, and I wish the project didn’t exist.

What happened? Well, basically I realized there are a lot of problems with modesty as taught in American Christianity, and the Survey hands a megaphone to some of the worst of those problems.

Perhaps the biggest and most disturbing problem is that we gave a platform to guys just because, well, they were guys.

We had no way of knowing whether the respondents had a healthy understanding of their own sexuality, knew the difference between attraction and lust, truly respected women, etc. We gave legitimacy to the idea that they had a right to speak about women’s clothing choices simply because they were male. 

Just because a person is male doesn’t mean their opinions on modesty are legitimate. And, quite frankly, it was inappropriate for us to promote the idea that men should teach women what clothing choices are appropriate. It reinforces the false idea that modesty is something that women do for men, an idea never found in the Bible and fraught with its own set of problems.

In offering a platform to over 1600 guys, many of whom shouldn’t have been given it, we lent legitimacy to some very dangerous ideas.

Many guys admitted to losing respect for girls who didn’t live up to their ideas of modesty, feeling “disgusted” or “angered” by these same girls, and even going so far as to say, “…she loses her right to ask guys to stop looking at her like something to be had…you are asking to have guys stare at you.” The word “cause” in relation to guys’ lust also made a frequent appearance.

This is the same attitude that says victims of sexual assault and harassment who wear “immodest” clothing are “asking for it.” This is the attitude that allows pastors to think that “What were you wearing?” is a legitimate question to ask when a woman reports being sexually harassed or assaulted. It’s the attitude that allows stories like this to happen.

We gave this attitude a platform.

(Ironically, all of the guys were asked to sign a petition in which they admitted that their lust was entirely their own fault. We missed the contradiction we were presenting.)

We also promoted the idea that modesty is primarily expressed through clothing choices.

While modesty as an attitude of the heart was given a lot of lip service, you simply can’t get past the fact that the vast majority of the 148 questions were about clothes.

The idea of modesty was inherently connected to the idea of not being a “stumbling block” for men, instead of being connected to the ideas of humility and self-respect. Modesty in Scripture is about not flaunting oneself. When Paul tells women to dress modestly, he’s basically saying, “Hey, let your beauty be about a beautiful heart, not about dressing extravagantly to impress others!”

But when modesty is about not “causing men to stumble,” it becomes about someone else’s reaction, not the state of one’s heart.

The survey allowed little to no room for the idea that, “Hey, maybe just because the majority of guys think a girl is being immodest, doesn’t mean she actually is.”

This is further reinforced by many responses from guys that made a direct correlation between a girl’s clothing choices and the state of her heart. Multiple guys made comments such as, “It changes everything about what I think of her,” “I feel sorry for them, because they must value their looks a lot, and esteem themselves a lot in their body, rather than in their relationship with the Lord,” and “…my opinion of her character lowers quite a bit.” In making these statements, the guys are making assumptions based solely on one factor: clothing.

You can’t say modesty is a heart issue, then make assumptions about a person’s heart based on their clothing choices. That’s backwards.

The last problem I’ll mention is that the Survey did nothing to differentiate between healthy, normal biological attraction, and lust.

Unfortunately, there are lots of guys who are led to believe they are the same thing. So when they find themselves physically attracted to a girl, they feel guilty. By asking guys to go through a list of questions about clothes and think about their reactions, we unintentionally reinforced unnecessary shame for those guys who didn’t understand that their biological reactions are not the same as lust.

(For further reading on the problems that modesty teachings present for guys, I recommend these posts by Preston and Dianna.)

When these concerns were brought up when the Survey first launched, we justified its existence through disclaimers and clarifications. Not once did someone say, “You know what, disclaimers don’t exempt you from the problems with the Survey.” Six years later, after hearing many stories on how modesty teachings have hurt people, I’ve realized it’s true: good intentions don’t erase problems.

So while I still think that modesty is important, the Survey approached the topic from the wrong angle, used incredibly problematic methods, and ultimately does more harm than good.

If you are a girl who has felt pressure from the Survey, I’m so sorry. If others have used it to control you, devalue you, or question your discernment, I’m sorry. You are free to ignore the Survey and to make decisions based on the Holy Spirit’s leading and input from friends and family that YOU trust.

18 comments

  • Thank you. I hate that stupid survey!!

  • I got so tired of guys using that as an example to tell me that they thought I was worthless… because I wore jeans and mascara.

  • Thank you. Having spent my teens in Gothard Land and familiarized with the ‘Extreme Modesty at All Costs’ shillings of Vision Forum and others, I was extremely disgusted by this survey when it came out. I didn’t know how to form a coherent explanation of what I found wrong when close friends of mine, who did not grow up in the fundy circles I did, were asking my input. I spent some time reading through the survey, and was troubled by the extremes which were present and the number of males advocating those extremes in all areas of clothing. There wasn’t anything to take away from that survey as a woman than to think all men are pigs and will turn ANYTHING as a means by which to lust after a woman, and to make most men suspicious of each other in struggling in this area when they themselves may not. Rather than build honest repoire with one another as fellow human beings worthy of our respect in our deeds, words and thoughts, it opressed the women into believing they must take every man’s thoguht life into account in the way that the dressed. I am certain Vision Forum, who had quite cozy ties with the Harris boys at the time, and other Patriarchy/Modesty driven groups benefitted as a result of this survey as well.

  • The Rebelution was a slicked back, youth led, regurgitated hybrid of Gothardism/GenerationJoshua/VisionForum/Theonomy. That the authors of Rebelution had significant ties to each of these comes as no surprise.

  • I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream when I first saw that survey. It’s bad enough (though not surprising) to think that men are the ones who decide what women should or shouldn’t wear. But it’s even more mindboggling that the survey decided to give that power to teenaged boys. Who on earth thinks its a good idea to survey young men at the biological height of sexual desire who lack the accumulated wisdom of life experience, and then act like their erratic, hormone-fuelled opinions are somehow binding? Crazy.

  • I was a fan of The Rebelution. Read the manuscript, then read the book, interviewed the authors for a magazine. But where I drew the line was the modesty survey….even then, I thought it was completely inappropriate and gave men the freedom to think anything..and women the blame.

    To be honest – most homeschooled males can’t see a woman in a sleeveless dress because they can’t control their hormones because they’ve never been exposed to it. It’s like this viscous circle.

    Granted, I know females who went from super modest to working at strip clubs…in rebellion of their homeschool upbringing. This of course isn’t good either.

    Overall – let’s just remember that modesty goes both ways.

  • I am a male who spent his late teens in the Gothard system, and I will admit that I was horrified at some of the questions. The one that tipped me over the edge was the one about whether it caused lust for a guy when a woman’s breasts bounced when she walked or ran.

    And nearly half of the respondents said YES!

    So, this essentially requires that women never engage in vigorous exercise of any kind. And that well endowed women should avoid walking at all. Perhaps they should be wheeled about in chairs?

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Sorry. Correction. 75% said it was immodest when a woman’s chest bounces during running or walking.

    Yes, women should remain decorative objects rather than actually move about.

    Have we really gotten to the point where we think breasts are made out of Barbie plastic?

  • I agree with this. I must say that we can’t forget about love though. It reminds me of when It says in the bible not to ask where the meat came from. That way you are innocent by not knowing. However, if we know that someone is immature and will be caused to stumble it would be better to never eat meat again. Or in this case wear said item. Loving covers all this. Also, please commenters, be nice. Those guys were just trying to be pure before The Lord. We are all prone to make mistakes on this walk we’re on.

  • Maybe these boys wouldn’t stumble so often if they kept their eyes on the path and off of other people’s bodies.

  • I can’t begin to describe how much I agree with this. I know so many Christians who give credence to this survey and suggest it’s a good idea, and in vain have I tried to convince most of them that it misses the point of modesty. After all, as an apostate my credibility was already destroyed. Thanks for this!

  • I don’t think it’s completely true to say a man has no business ever discussing modesty … But not teenage boy strangers to teenage girls! But a father telling his daughter “hey maybe you should wear a tank top under that neckline” could be very appropriate. Also, was it a good idea to even ask teen boys to think about bouncing breasts!!?

  • I remember finding this years after, it was done and found some of it eye opening, but more pissed off by what they said. The one that stood out to me was on leotards in dance and black makeup anything, as a level three ballet dancer ( about five years and no point) I knew that they did not understand why a girl wears leos’ and tights, so they don’t hurt themselves. I as christian goth, who happens to loves black eyeliner and nail polish, was hurt that they could not see past my eyeliner and see beautiful woman that God created, the same God that they claimed to follow.

  • I read about The Rebolution in HSLD, and found the survey long after it came out – which must have made me 17 or 18. I remember reading through it with increasing incredulity and ridiculing to my mother the incongruity of not being able to stretch or wear a purse strap across your chest. While I largely took it with a grain of salt, it confirmed a lot of the lesser modesty rules my parents had taught, and reinforced my negative opinions of men.

    Now it looks like the survey has been taken down, which is great. But the comments are still up; all the poor homeschool girls praising it and complaining that the pictures it used to illustrate questions were too graphic and so they’d had to screen their brother’s responses. This was our world… a world so many of us have walked away from, but the survey still stands testimony to what we were and can maybe serve as a warning for how not to raise the next generation.

  • After skimming the modesty survey as a teen I found it liberating. I noticed there wasn’t a single item discussed that someone didn’t have a problem with. I realized then I couldn’t control others thoughts by my dress. I might be able to influence them, but ultimately if anything could cause someone to ‘stumble’ it wasn’t my fault what anyone thought. They had to stand alone before God for their own choices.

  • Pingback: That Time Mary Pride Put the Modesty Survey on Blast | Homeschoolers Anonymous

  • Stupid survey. I just found it again and, like some of the other posters above, it did little good for my already stunted opinion of the male half of the race. Thank god for nice guys at college who took the trouble to care and slow down and notice how afraid I was of them.

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