A guy once gently chastised me for showing him a picture of women in 1940’s swimsuits. Their bare legs were showing, and he needed to avert his eyes. I was shocked. They were legs! Everybody has legs. What’s sexual about legs?
It’s taken me several years to process why that encounter made me feel disturbed, uncomfortable, and a little grossed out: his sex drive was showing, and I was supposed to be okay with it.
During those several years, I discovered porn was a thing even among men I loved and trusted. I learned 1 in 4 girls are sexually assaulted, that I knew many of them, and that the most unlikely men (and boys) could be the perpetrators — and I knew those men too. Those personal experiences triggered memories of Christian anecdotes I read: For Women Only retold how a man came upon a napping woman, caught a glimpse of her underwear, and (helplessly, it seemed) went into dark, inappropriate places in his mind. “What Guys Think About Modesty” proclaimed that the temptation to lust never stops and that “this is not an aberration, this is the norm.” And there were various personal testimonies of men who couldn’t hold a conversation with a woman if her cleavage was showing.
I projected this male “norm” onto all of my guy friends. When they complimented my outfit, I thought, “Great, I must look like a slut.” When they told me I was beautiful, I checked to make sure their gaze hadn’t wandered to my breasts. Whenever a guy looked into my eyes as we discussed some asexual, academic thing, I felt that he must be keenly aware that I had a vagina.
For a time, every man I passed on the sidewalk was a potential predator who had just come from watching porn in his dorm room. I developed a fear of men. The world was full of them, oversexed and out-of-control. One bare leg could doom us all.
This fear started affecting my relationship with my then-fiancé. The only thing he could possibly want from me was sex. He was marrying me for the wedding night. I asked him bizarre questions for no reason other than he was male: “Did you ever sexually abuse someone? Are you able to look at a woman in a bikini? How often do you think about sex?”
“No, I would never abuse someone. Bikinis don’t bother me at all. I don’t think about sex that often, Bailey, but it sounds like you do.”
Those words sounded too good to be true. I was told my whole life that my body is primarily sexual and that all men, by virtue of being male, would have automatic sexual responses to the female form, even in the contexts of art, anatomy, dance, or sports. All men would have automatic sexual responses to my body, and there was nothing they could do about it. My only defense was wearing whatever the majority of Christian men deemed appropriate.
That is a degrading and disturbing reality.
I’m starting to question that reality, even though I’ve encountered more sexual abuse and pornography among my male acquaintances than I ever did. I’ve married a good man who overcomes his temptations, sexual or otherwise, and values me as more than a sexual partner. I’ve befriended men who notice my beauty and clothes with no motive other than complimenting my sense of fashion. I’ve chatted with men — professors and students alike — about sex, modesty, and human anatomy without ever sensing they were undressing me in their minds. The thought would never occur to them to objectify me, much less act on it.
Their sex drive never came untucked in my presence. And if, in the future or the past, it ever came untucked, I’m sure they would be the first to apologize, take responsibility for it, and make some changes in their lives.
These responsible and respectful men have given me the courage to curb my fear of men. While I would never make light of a man’s real struggle with lust, I do hold men to a higher standard of self-control. I don’t believe men are hopelessly entangled in their sex drives. I don’t believe men cannot look at a naked female body without entertaining a sexual fantasy. I don’t believe all men are sexual predators waiting to happen. If a man abuses another person, looks at porn, or struggles with lust 24/7, it’s not because he’s male but because he’s fallen.
Men are better than that. It’s unfair to men’s dignity to teach a modesty and a sexual ethic that affirms an out-of-control sex drive as something unchangeable and unique to men. Plus, it’s just not accurate.