Christian singer-songwriter Matthew West’s newest song, “Modest is Hottest,” has drawn a host of hot takes concerning modesty and purity culture.
The single elicited both laughs and criticism upon its release on YouTube over the weekend. Some also heard it when it was played last Monday during the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual Pastors Conference leading up to the two-day SBC annual meeting.
At the time, many took it as a joke, though some saw parallels between the song’s presence in the SBC playlist and the denomination’s high-profile sex abuse crisis. Writer Jonathan Merritt, whose father, James Merritt, is a former SBC president, wrote: “When gender narratives speak of female bodies chiefly as temptations for men, it’s easy to understand the denom’s sex abuse crisis.”
The musical number at the Southern Baptist Convention right now is called “Modest is Hottest,” which is framed as a dad’s letter to his daughter. When gender narratives speak of female bodies chiefly as temptations for men, it’s easy to understand the denom’s sex abuse crisis.
— Jonathan Merritt (@JonathanMerritt) June 14, 2021
West uses over-the-top lyrics to urge his teenage daughters to look “a little more Amish, a little less Kardashian.” And in the video, the girls roll their eyes as they pose in turtlenecks — clothing their father considers appropriate. “What the boys really love,” he insists, “is a turtleneck and a sensible pair of slacks.”
Many commented favorably on the video on YouTube and elsewhere, some adding they’d been trying to teach their own children to dress conservatively.
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Tennessee Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby), chairman of the state’s House Republican Caucus and a worship leader in his home church, tagged one of his five children in a tweet about the song, urging her to “recognize the wisdom here.”
— Rep. Jeremy Faison (@JeremyFaison4TN) June 19, 2021
But critics pointed out the song, while tongue-in-cheek, perpetuates the notion that girls are responsible when men look lustfully at them.
Dear Matthew West’s daughters:
Your bodies are not sinful.
Your bodies are beautiful.
Your bodies do not exist for men.
You are your own.
You are not responsible for men’s actions or their thoughts about you.
This is on them, not you.#ModestIsHottest
— a l l i s o n ( fully vaxxed ) ➳ (@addiejoy) June 20, 2021
“Modest is hottest” didn’t stop grown men from sexually harassing me as a teenager, or from catcalling me in the street, Matthew. Don’t put this on your daughters. It’s not fair.
— sam ♒️ (@_samissam) June 18, 2021
“The ‘age-old struggle’ is actually women feeling responsible for men’s sins,” author Sheila Wray Gregoire wrote on Twitter, echoing a line from the song. “I know many think this is cute and fun, but obsessing over girls’ bodies without making reference to boys’ responsibility is part of the problem.
“Let’s raise girls (and boys) in a healthy way instead,” she suggested.
Gregoire is author of “The Great Sex Rescue” rethinking how Christians talk about sex. She has noted that focusing on teaching girls to dress modestly effectively teaches boys that they can’t control their own lustful desires and aren’t capable of treating a girl as a whole person without help.
“You’re telling him: “Your walk with Jesus, and your ability to be a decent human being, is at the mercy of what girls choose to wear,’” she wrote. “This message doesn’t just hurt girls; it seriously hurts boys.”
Does the MODESTY debate affect BOYS? You betcha.
One thing we often overlook in the debate about teaching girls to dress "modestly" is the effect this has on the male gender. When boys hear that girls must dress modestly so that boys don't lust, they hear three things:
— Sheila Gregoire–The Great Sex Rescue is here! (@sheilagregoire) June 19, 2021
Todd Benkert, a Baptist pastor in Indiana, also pushed back against the song’s message. He had called for a strong response to the SBC’s sex abuse crisis during the convention’s annual meeting.
“I don’t think it’s funny given the harm purity culture has done to women and girls,” he told a fellow Baptist pastor on Twitter when discussing the song.
I hope whoever decided showing "modest is hottest" in our Nashville gathering is paying attention to the pushback — we're done with purity culture.
— Todd Benkert (@toddbenkert) June 21, 2021
Christian webzine editor, O. Alan Noble, pointed out the illogic of the titular catchphrase. If “modest is hottest,” he said, “then being modest is more likely to ‘cause someone to stumble.’”
Also, if modest is *hottest* then being modest is *more* likely to “cause someone to stumble,” therefore we should be immodest because it’s less hot wait a minute that doesn’t make sense who came up with this phrase https://t.co/bi3z2JKeky
— 𝐎. 𝐀𝐥𝐚𝐧 𝐍𝐨𝐛𝐥𝐞 (@TheAlanNoble) June 21, 2021
Similarly, seminary student Megan Koontz, wrote, “hey ‘modest is hottest’ people: what if . . . we didn’t automatically assume that being ‘hot’ was the primary objective for why women wear what they wear… like… at all?”
hey “modest is hottest” people:
what if—and just plz hear me out—we didn’t automatically assume that being “hot” was the primary objective for why women wear what they wear… like… at all? 🧐🤷🏼♀️
— meg (@megannnkoontz) June 18, 2021
The phrase has been around for decades. In her 2008 book Pure, singer-songwriter Rebecca St. James promoted the concept, though she added, “Modesty means way more than just not dressing provocatively. The word modesty has to do with walking in humility, being meek and unassuming. Someone who is modest . . . is not bold or in-your-face, is not vain or conceited.”
However, some took exception to the concept.
Author Sharon Hodde Miller wrote ten years ago that purity culture’s modesty rhetoric teaches that “women are to cover their bodies as a mark of spiritual integrity. . . . Too much skin is seen as a distraction that garners inappropriate attention, causes our brothers to stumble, and overshadows our character.”
The larger perception of women primarily as a temptation, she noted, goes back as far as second- and third-century Christian thinkers Tertullian and Origen.
And in the 17th century, Puritan pastor Richard Baxter instructed women not to become a “snare” with what they wore, author and speaker Katelyn Beaty wrote earlier this year.
But that approach, she pointed out, runs contrary to what Jesus taught with the metaphor that he whose eye causes him to stumble must pluck it out. “That teaching leaves no doubt where the responsibility lies for managing lust: with the person struggling with lust,” Beaty wrote.
“Now more than ever, Christian communities must reexamine attitudes and actions that blame women for men’s sexual problems. They must help men take responsibility for their own temptations,” she concluded.