“To the Ladies of Patrick Henry College”: A 2006 Email from 2 Male PHC Students
HA note: The following was submitted by a PHC graduate who wishes to remain anonymous.
Trigger warning: slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and abuse apologisms.
If you need some extra content for your series, you might be interested in publishing this lovely piece of misogynistic bullcrap.
This email was sent to all PHC students by two male students on March 15, 2006. As you can see from the first paragraphs, this was not the first email of its kind. In fact, the all-student email function was routinely used for purposes of “exhorting” fellow students over various moral matters, although not usually to quite this length and degree.
[Redacted 1] and [Redacted 2], to the Ladies of Patrick Henry College:
The purpose of this e-mail is to encourage and exhort you. This is something we as brothers in Christ should always be doing. We do not mean to judge or to condemn—that is not our place—but for some of you, this e-mail will also attempt to offer correction. That too is a good and appropriate thing, but it is easy for us to be judgmental or prideful, seeking to correct with the wrong spirit or from the wrong motives. We are very aware of the dangers, and of how far we ourselves fall short of the mark. Nevertheless, prayerfully, in brokenness and humility, we offer this e-mail for your edification in Christ Jesus.
The matter in question is Modesty.
Two years ago, [Redacted 2] sent out a long e-mail entitled “Love, Lust, License, and Liberty (Ball).” It addressed a lot of the questions we will speak of here. However, it was rambly, and although we don’t claim by any means to completely understand the subject now, we’re quite certain we understood it a good bit less then.
Further, there are three factors making this a particularly apropos time for such a discussion. First (as with [Redacted 2]’s epistle), there is a Liberty Ball coming, and the ladies are purchasing lovely dresses. Second, the weather is getting warmer, which tends to make modesty a much more immediate concern. Third—based partly on the first two reasons—several persons of both sexes have encouraged us to address the subject.
Thus, another e-mail.
The Nature of Modesty
Far too frequently, we talk about and make emphatic statements about “modesty” without defining what we’re talking about. So, first of all, a definition. Although he has since taken it in other directions, this definition was originally formulated by Dr. Hake.
Gentleness as a masculine virtue may be defined as “Perfect Strength under Perfect Control.” In a complementary way, Modesty as a feminine virtue is defined here as “Perfect Beauty under Perfect Control.”
Some definitions of modesty seem to be opposed to beauty categorically, suggesting that prettiness and modesty are somehow at opposite poles, and you must choose one, or else try to balance precariously somewhere between the two. This is a wicked and damnable lie. In truth, a right understanding of modesty is rooted first and foremost in the fact that you as women are—and are meant to be—perfectly beautiful. Any really useful discussion of modesty should begin with a radical affirmation of that fact. God created you to be beautiful; and He has done a pretty stupendous job. In spite of early mornings and caffeine and all the things which the self-centering mirror and lying culture claim make you unlovely, you are deeply and truly beautiful in God’s sight—and in ours, too, when we see clearly.
Further, it is good and right that this deep, internal beauty should be adorned, and that it should be enjoyed by others (more on that later). God Himself is beautiful, and He reveals His beauty in His Creation. It was revealed in a particularly wondrous way in the last act of Creation, the first woman, Eve—and all other women share in her gift, the effects of the Fall notwithstanding. We should rejoice in this fact, and give Him thanks. But there are also many false ideas about the nature of beauty, and many women (including Christian women) believe them.
An elderly woman from [Redacted 1]’s church back home died two weeks ago. She had experienced the usual results of aging: graying hair, crooked teeth, wrinkled skin, thinness, bentness, and often-debilitating illness. And she was very beautiful.
It is eminently clichéd to say that beauty comes from within. It also happens to be true. This lady deeply loved God. She was a faithful believer, a servant of God, a saint if ever there was one. She prayed earnestly for others. She gave of herself wherever she could. She loved people from her heart; and it shone from her face.
“Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves.” (I Peter 3:3-5)
The apostle moves on to offer the example of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Scripture informs us that she was an extremely physically attractive woman (at ninety, no less). That is, Biblically, a good and commendable thing. (If you think God dislikes physical beauty and don’t want to be disabused of your belief, stay away from Song of Solomon). But it was not her physical beauty that was the central thing; it was her inner holiness. Everything about her, body and soul, was radiant with the presence of the Holy Spirit.
We have both known women who, while by no means unpleasant-looking, just didn’t strike us as particularly attractive. However, as we came to know them, and noticed how they lived their lives in service to God, we realized the depth of their devotion to Him… and found ourselves increasingly appreciating their physical beauty as well. Honest truth, ladies—a woman who really loves and serves God with all her heart and soul and mind and strength becomes more physically attractive as well; not because her physical beauty changes, but because the deeper beauty becomes apparent through it and infuses it with life. On the other hand, we have known women who were extremely beautiful in a merely physical sense—some of them professing Christians—and yet because we did not perceive the same depth of Christian character, the physical beauty, real though it was, simply failed to inspire any deeper attraction.
True beauty begins on the inside, with the “gentle and quiet spirit,” with devotion to God and a constant focus on love and service. But that is only the proper beginning. Beauty also has a proper end.
The Purpose of Beauty
Beauty attracts. This is fundamental to what beauty is, and an essential part of its purpose, its end, its telos. Further, it is good that beauty should attract. God made it that way.
But if attraction is central to the purpose of beauty, what is the proper end or purpose of attraction? We would suggest that the proper end of attraction is enjoyment.
If we see a beautiful sunset, or mountain, or small child, we want to look at and admire it. If we smell a beautiful flower, we want to breathe deeply of its fragrance. If we taste—allowing the phrase—a “beautiful taste,” we want to partake of that delicious food or drink. This is the natural human response to beauty. We want to participate, to delight in, to enjoy.
So it is with the beauty of women. And here is where matters become difficult. There are some aspects of beauty which not everyone may rightly enjoy. A woman has a lovely face—well and good. We all may look upon and appreciate the beauty of her face. She has lovely long hair. “It is a glory to her,” and to everyone who beholds it. She has graceful and pleasing curves, she is a fragrant garden of delights—now we run up against complications. “The king is captivated by your tresses” is one thing (Song of Solomon 7:5). The following few verses are another. (No, we’re not quoting them. Read ’em yourself.) And yet the two are related, and we cannot deny the reality of that relationship. A man who spends significant amounts of time admiring a woman’s captivating tresses, her eyes like doves, her neck like ivory, etc., is likely to make the very natural progression to Solomon’s next subject.
One man, and one only, is allowed to follow this progression to its consummation. This does not mean, however, that others cannot enjoy the woman in some sense. Many people benefit from a woman’s spiritual gift of hospitality, or kindness, or encouragement. A few can rightly enjoy the emotional comforts of her presence and care: an elderly father, a younger brother, a close friend. But the full physical enjoyment of a woman’s beauty is limited strictly to her husband and no other.
There are different kinds of love—admiration, desire to serve, desire to possess, etc.—and they are appropriate for different things or persons, at different times and in different ways. The moon may be admired; no one but a lunatic would try to possess it. A cat may be admired, served, and possessed. All women may be legitimately admired (if they deserve it) and served (whether they deserve it or not), but there is only one of which any man may truly say “this is mine.”
The difficulty arises because all the kinds of love, and all the kinds of beauty and attraction, are intimately intermingled. Men under the influence of attraction are rather poor at keeping simple admiration separate from a desire to possess (and we’re always rather poor at cultivating a desire to serve). And, it must be said, women are frequently just as bad at keeping all these things separate, and at encouraging right kinds of attraction while discouraging wrong kinds. Again, the problem is not the desires, but the sinful human propensity to try to satisfy them at the wrong time, or in the wrong way, or to an excessive degree. Women desire—rightly!—to attract; they have been given beauty for this very purpose. But they often do it for reasons or via methods that are frankly wicked.
Desire Gone Wrong
We rejoice to say that the women at Patrick Henry are, overall, some of the most conscientiously-dressed ladies it has ever been our joy to meet. And we have seen a number of our sisters here grow in this area over the past few years. However, we must in honesty say that there are many who could do better. We do not believe that there is a general wicked desire to “cause a brother to stumble”—quite the contrary. You all show great love and care for us. But many Christian women, probably a large majority, simply do not understand the depth and extent of the foul perversity of the male mind. (If you’re a man and some part of this doesn’t apply to you personally, just assume we’re only talking about ourselves at that point.)
We have a duty as brothers in Christ to guard the purity and holiness of our sisters, which means restraining how bluntly we speak. On the other hand, part of that duty is to help you understand the problem. To avoid causing offense for our own sake, all the most explicit bits are taken directly from Scripture. Anyone who finds God’s authoritative written revelation inappropriate is advised to skip this section.
You’ve heard this before, but we’ll say it again: men are visually wired. A man notices a pretty female walking by. His eyes lock on, his brain clicks in (we mostly tend toward one-track minds). He is attracted to her. Attraction, when left undirected, leads naturally to desire.
If she’s his wife, all is well. In itself this visual attraction is a good thing. A man is supposed to look upon his wife and be drawn to her beauty. Please, please, ladies, don’t confuse the abuse of the thing with its good and proper and holy purpose in God’s plan. Husbands are not merely allowed but commanded to take pleasure and fulfillment in their wives’ physical beauty: “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love” (Proverbs 5:18-19). This intoxication is a blessed fact and should be a cause for great rejoicing. As C. S. Lewis says in a very similar context, “God likes it. He made it.”
But there is a great deal of abuse. If the attractive female wandering by is not the man’s wife (and mathematically, the odds tend that way), then there’s a nifty Biblical phrase for desiring her: “lusting after her in your heart.” We’ll leave out the details; you don’t want to know. Suffice it to say that he wants to be intoxicated and filled with delight too. As Solomon says in that passage we declined to quote from earlier: “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.” It’s all right for Solomon, he’s talking about his wife, but many of us are not married. Of course most men—here at least—are decent enough not to actually do anything much; but that’s beside the point. The man has spoken these words to himself. He has made the act of volition.
He has once again committed adultery in his heart, and the woman is once again a victim of visual rape.
No, not always. There are plenty of occasions where a man is not tempted to lust. There are some men who are tempted rather less than others. But then, by the same logic, there are some who are tempted more than others.
And yes, it’s more complicated than that. The man’s physical desires are almost certainly confused with all sorts of other desires, emotional and intellectual and spiritual. Some of them are commendable desires, like the longing to care for a woman, to make her feel loved and appreciated, to encourage her—or simply to have a stimulating intellectual conversation. It can be very difficult to sort all this out and be certain what results from righteousness and what from sin. But sometimes a lot of it is sin.
And no, the woman is not guilty of the man’s sin, if he does give in. If a man sins, it is his fault. He is utterly without excuse. Adam tried his line “the woman made me do it!” and God was not convinced. This is important. I am not trying to blame anyone else for what I do; I nailed Christ to the cross, and have no room to point fingers. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
And yes, there is grace. There is much grace. God gives us the strength to manfully oppose temptation, and commands us to do it. We must die to the flesh, and live according to the Spirit. We have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God.
But temptation still happens. There is a war going on here. Some of your brothers are achieving mighty victories, by the power of God. Some—more than you would think—are losing blood and beginning to grow faint, and are in grave danger of being overcome. And many of us are warring and winning more often than not, but expending so much spiritual energy in doing so that we are left tired and worn down, weakened for the next confrontation. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness; but sometimes we forget.
Now, again (before some men get offended at me), there are Godly men who face less temptation, and there are those who face a great deal but have obtained great victory. However, there are many—and among them some of the most dedicated and true-hearted believers we know—who feel many days as if they’re struggling for their very soul (as, in a sense, they are). For the sake of these men, please at least consider the things we’ve said.
We are not trying to blame you for our sin. Rather, as a warrior with many wounds, on behalf of ourselves and these our brothers, we are asking for allies. This is a cry for reinforcements, lest the battle go to the enemy. We are sorely pressed on every side. This is no exaggeration: we need all the help we can get. We don’t need to be struck down from behind by friendly fire.
Remember, Adam’s sin was Adam’s, but that doesn’t mean God held Eve guiltless in the affair.
Eve tempted her husband, and God cursed her for it.
If we give in to temptation, we are judged; but if you deliberately tempt us, you are judged, whether we give in or not—even whether we notice or not. The sin is not in successfully tempting a brother, but in trying to do so. The immodest swimsuit is still immodest and sinful even if there happen to be no guys on the beach that day—if you decided to wear it because you hoped there would be. Deliberately choosing the barely-too-tight top is still immodest and sinful, even if the RA catches you before you make it out the door.
We have been told how difficult it is to find apparel that is both beautiful and modest. We believe it. Many of you do an amazing job—and for those who do understand what’s at stake, or who without understanding have simply been trained and have very right instincts on these matters, blessings upon you to the fourth and fifth generation. You are all wonderful, and we pray God will bring you every good thing, all your lives long.
For those who are sincere, but perhaps were not trained quite so well or do not altogether understand quite yet—we pray that He will continue to work in you, so that you can better carry out the good desires of your heart. We deeply appreciate you too. Do not become complacent; continue to grow in purity and holiness. There are women who not only avoid causing temptation, but actually provide positive assistance, making it easy for men not to lust after them—and yet modestly display the beauty God has given them. More than noncombatants, they are valuable allies. Seek out such ladies and ask them for advice in all humility.
But let us also offer a warning. Although women almost never completely realize the extent to which (or the ways in which) they can affect men, most women are aware on some level that certain things attract men. And women like to feel attractive. This is natural; we have already said that you are created to be beautiful. But we have also said that the purpose of attraction is enjoyment.
Please be careful of this desire to attract. It is a good thing; but it is easy to misuse. Many females drive us to ask some pretty unpleasant questions.
If a woman does not want to be the subject of wicked imagining, why does she provide so much scope for the imagination? If she does not intend to be suggestive, why does she tantalize with hints, peeks, glimpses, suggestions?
The answer is that wrongful desire also has a feminine side. The third-century apologist Tertullian links the “lust of the eyes” to corresponding sins in both men and women: “Such [male] eyes will wish that a virgin be seen as [those of] the virgin who shall wish to be seen. The same kinds of eyes reciprocally crave after each other. Seeing and being seen belong to the self-same lust.” But only the husband is meant to see fully, and to enjoy completely. “Should your springs overflow in the streets, streams of water in the public squares?”
To attract where there can be no completion, to encourage desire which must not be fulfilled in enjoyment—let us put it bluntly. This is sin. C. S. Lewis quotes an unnamed source in That Hideous Strength (he may have made it up): “To desire the desiring of her own beauty is the vanity of Lilith, but to desire the enjoying of her own beauty is the obedience of Eve.” The poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti also speaks of Lilith, fascinated entirely with her own beauty, “subtly of herself contemplative,” who snares a man and leaves “round his heart one strangling golden hair.”
All flowers attract insects with the promise of nectar. All are beautiful, adorned with bright colors or beautiful perfumes or landing patterns painted in the ultraviolet. Most of these flowers give up their nectar and satisfy the desire of the bee or the moth, who in return helps to pollinate the flower. But there are also certain flowers in the world which promise but do not fulfill: they are called “carnivorous.” They want to be desired, but not enjoyed—what they really want is to greedily fulfill their own desires, at the cost of a continuous stream of lives.
This lust for desire, which withholds physical fulfillment, is exactly the inverse of the rampant male sin of promising emotional intimacy (which girls want with the same intensity that men want physical intimacy), without the fulfillment of real commitment.
The lustful woman craves attention, and by her attitudes and actions she promises physical rewards that she cannot legitimately deliver.
The lustful man implies a promise of emotional rewards that he is either unable or unwilling to deliver, in return for the physical rewards that the lustful woman has rashly promised. It’s a ghastly mockery of a waltz; it’s two serpents circling forever, endlessly trying to devour the other’s tail; it is Tantalus squared.
This grim fact is why immodesty can, of course, also be practiced by males, though it usually happens in forms that are less visual and more verbal/emotional. (Still, guys, give up the public displays of the muscle shirts—they really aren’t a blessing to your sisters). But if this is how and why immodesty occurs, it follows that modesty is not primarily or fundamentally a physical thing. As with beauty itself, the soul of modesty does not lie in the outward appearance, but in the heart. It is the intent, the desire, that drives everything. It impacts what is worn, of course; but far more significantly, it impacts the reason it is worn, and the way it is worn (and when, and in what company). This is why we have deliberately avoided making comments on particulars of dress—that misses the point. Some articles of clothing are just irredeemably scandalous (in the Greek sense of “causing to stumble”), but many others may be immodest on one woman and perfectly modest on another, and not simply because of physical differences. (Just be careful of the “Well, it could be immodest, but I’m not wearing it like that” argument.) Any woman can be immodest “by accident,” but she is far less likely to do so if she has sisterly love in mind as a deliberate daily goal. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Modesty flows from a heart devoted to the service of God.
“Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to Godliness.” (I Timothy 2:9-10)
This brings us full circle. This is why Godliness is so much more important than the physical radiance that will eventually grow from it. It is this beauty, this inner beauty of a “gentle and quiet spirit,” which not only does but should attract everyone, because it may be rightly delighted in by everyone.
We have put a great deal of emphasis on the extremity of the situation, the severity of the battle, the desperate need for help, and thus the importance of modesty. It really is this important. But this is stating the issue in a negative way. Immodesty is a sin of omission. The contrary is inexpressibly more important, for it is not mere restraint, but a positive and difficult action, a firm belief, a way of life:
You are created to be gloriously, radiantly, superabundantly beautiful.
This beauty is a beauty of the soul, of the heart, and to some degree of the mind. It does not allow slovenly appearance, but neither does it allow an overemphasis on or too-great concern for the physical. It is revealed in the face, but it is not a beauty of the face. It is, rather, a filling of the inside of the cup with clean and living water—and then the outside is clean as well. It is the scrap of carbon thread being turned into a flaming incandescence by the electrifying power of the Spirit of Holy God. It is the flowering of the crocus bulb that has lain unnoticed in the ground all winter, persevering through cold and comfortless nights, drinking deep of the graceful rain, and waiting for the Father—in His time—to clothe it more beautifully than Solomon in splendor. It is the transformation of the heart, the “renewing of your mind,” which God is bringing about to make you like His Son—to infuse you and overwhelm you with His own glory and beauty, so that He may be the more infinitely glorified in you, and in all who behold your countenance and see His face reflected there.
Ladies, you are beautiful. God has declared you so, and “not one word has failed of all His good promise.” In the same way in which He made you holy, and is continuing to sanctify you, so also He has beautified you, and is continuing to make you beautiful; and “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Believe it. Live it. Grow in beauty. Bring glory to God.
Under the Mercy,
[Redacted 1] and [Redacted 2]