I'm still mulling over the various points folks have brought up below my two posts on dress and accountability. I'm aware that in the first post, I focused on the importance of men taking responsibility for their reaction to a woman's appearance, while in the second, I wrote about my own attempts to exercise good judgment with my body and my clothing. I may be guilty of leaving the impression that I demand a great deal from men and very little from women. Some clarification is in order.
I'm a great believer (perhaps too great a believer) in the importance of creating strong, same-sex accountability groups. Particularly when we are talking about sexual issues, I think it vital that both men and women be willing to be accountable to those of the same gender. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't have frank and vigorous dialogue with the other sex, it just means that we must be very cautious about calling the "opposite side" to account.
For the past four years, I've helped teach our Wednesday night youth group "sex and relationships" curriculum. For each of those four years, I've worked in tandem with a female volunteer. The "sex unit" is spread out over several weeks, and involves much candid discussion on the physical, emotional, spiritual and ethical dimensions of sexuality. Most of what we do is done in a mixed setting with boys and girls together. But we do make certain to spend a considerable amount of time doing single-sex work. I take the guys off to one room, my colleague goes off with the gals. There's an intimacy and a directness that happens when it's just "Hugo and the boys" that is electric and powerful. There are things that get shared that none of us would feel comfortable sharing with women around. (Masturbation is perhaps the most obvious example.) And we can talk frankly about what it really means to go through adolescence and into adulthood in male flesh, with male biology and acculturation.
I'm willing to challenge my guys, and to challenge them in love. (For the record, I don't use words like "acculturation"!) On the issue at hand, if this year is like years past , when the weather gets warm, we'll have girls in our youth group who will show up wearing very little indeed. (We don't have a dress code at church, and we aren't likely to create one.) I do know that my female co-worker has done some talking with the girls about dress and responsibility and sending signals. I don't know the content of all those conversations, and frankly, I don't need to. I do think young women do need to be aware of how their dress may be interpreted, of course! But my focus is on changing how the boys interpret that dress rather than on getting the girls to cover up. That's not because I see boys as having greater responsibility but because I understand my job as a male youth leader to be one that makes me more responsible for mentoring boys than girls. (Though I do love "my girls" very much and treasure their trust and friendship.)
I don't shame boys for "lusting". Desire is human and healthy. (I may be twenty years removed from adolescence, but I have not forgotten what it felt like.) When we are alone together, I make sure to let the boys talk about who it is that they are attracted to and what they like about her. I don't join the fun, but I do let them vent, knowing how important that is for them. There's usually lots of nervous laughter. But I do take the time to make the point that male desire is not some imperious force whose demands must be obeyed at all times. When a pretty girl comes into youth group in a mini-skirt, I'm not going to expect "my" boys not to look at her. I am going to challenge them to not let her presence and their arousal divert their attention from what it is that we are doing. I invite them to consider that they have choices, and that while they may have a purely biological response to her presence, they don't have to be enslaved by that response. I am going to make it clear to them that whatever her motives may have been in wearing what she wore, they have no right to make her uncomfortable with a penetrating gaze. And I always invite them to pray for her, asking them to ask to see her as God sees her, not as they see her.
Does this work? Well, success in youth work is notoriously difficult to measure. I do know that I have seen individual boys change over the course of a year or two. I have seen them become more respectful towards girls and women around them. I have seen them do a pretty impressive job of taking responsibility for their actions time and again. And I've watched a few of them "avert their eyes" even under considerable provocation. I've been immensely proud of many of them.
When making decisions about clothing, we all must balance many things: our physical comfort, our need for validation, the comfort level of others, and respect for the setting in which we expect to appear. All of these matter, and they matter to men and women alike. But I also believe that when I am offended or aroused by someone, the problem (assuming we see arousal as a "problem") is ultimately mine to resolve.