Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Bright Side

The other day I read the post "Sister... show mercy!" on Pyromaniacs, a team blog made up of a group of Reformed bloggers. I don't agree with everything they write, but they usually give me some challenging topics to reflect on. That post was no different. In it, Dan Phillips (who maintains his own blog which I also like... mainly because he often finds and posts some really cool stuff, like this) humbly requests that many sisters in Christ be helpful to their brothers by dressing more modestly. That's a topic that I've never really thought about, but in the comments many Christian men agreed, and related several anecdotes in which bare backs or plunging necklines had caused them to mentally stumble.

On the same day, I read this article by Mike Ensley which was written for Focus on the Family's Boundless web magazine. The actual article was about another topic that I won't get into here, but the opening anecdote in which a provocative ad for men's fashion caused Mike to mentally stumble was interesting to me. The main reason it was interesting was because I thought about the rarity of such provocative displays of male sexuality when compared to that of females.

I guess the rest of this post is directed towards guys who struggle with homosexuality. Both the Pyromaniacs and Ensley posts reminded me that, in some ways, we have things a little easier than our straight Christian brothers. That's because, unfortunately, in our society the female form is on much greater display than the male one (I would go so far to say that it's often exploited). Provocative and sexually-charged images of women are the norm. That's not to say that there aren't provocative images of men (go to an Abercrombie store and you'll see what I mean; as a side note, I don't understand why a clothing store uses models that barely wear any clothing). But women are definitely sexualized more in our culture than men (and I suppose they always have been).

A good example of this is something I was watching recently. I was watching the music video of the song "If I Never See Your Face Again," by the band Maroon 5 with a special appearance by the songstress Rihanna. It's an absolutely great song, and I've linked to it in my new playlist feature on my side bar. The music video is pretty good as well, but I didn't link to it. That's because even though I found the video fine, I think a lot of straight guys who were trying to remain "pure in thought" might have found a problem with it. After all, in the video the handsome members of Maroon 5 are all fully dressed in crisp suit - nice looking, but nothing that would cause me to mentally stumble. The stunning Rihanna, on the other hand, is singing wearing little more than high heels and a skimpy red negligee. She's gorgeous, but I'm pretty sure that kind of image wouldn't really help most straight Christian men, or maybe I'm just not giving straight guys enough credit. ;-)

Now, with the Internet there is plenty of opportunity for anyone of any sexuality to stumble. However, I do think that guys struggling with homosexuality (and I suppose even straight women) have it easier when it comes to day-to-day thought patterns. Men generally don't dress half as provocatively as a woman can. I live in a beach town and go to a college that consistently ranks as having one of the most attractive student bodies (whoever does those rankings has never seen me at 8:00 in the morning, but whatever). Therefore, there are lots of beautiful women walking around wearing very little clothing. Like I said, I've never really cared before. However, I'm sure I have several straight brothers who I'm sure must have a hard time with all the miniskirts and low-cut tops. At least, they would if they are as committed to taking their thoughts captive as most SSA-strugglers are, but that might be another post for another time. :)

So, that's about all the post was about. Holiness isn't easy, and I think a lot of SSA-strugglers view our struggle as harder than anyone else's. It certainly has its own unique traits, but purity is hard for everyone, and for those attracted to women (that means straight men and struggling lesbians), it's probably harder thanks to our culture's exploitation of the female body. Let's just call it a bright side, and as I've written before, I always look for those in this struggle, especially when it seems difficult.

23 comments:

Ellie said...

I'm always suprised when I talk to gay (or SSA) men and realize that they don't realize the amount of sexually explicit material straight men are surrounded by on a daily basis, or that the straight men would have so much trouble with it. I suppose the pinnacle of that would have to be the designers from the last season of Project Runway. It took them being surrounded by underwear clad male models (season four, episode three, if you're wondering) to understand why straight men always are jealous of them being surrounded by (and allowed to dress) underwear clad female models. I've always figured that men pretty much are visually stimulated by the scantily clad of whichever sex they're attracted to. Apparently you guys don't all make that assumption. I think the equivalent of, say, a professor who wears a push-up bra and a low cut top to class (a situation that happens often) might be an attractive male professor standing in front of the class wearing a dress shirt completely unbuttoned and untucked (with nothing underneath, of course). Or who came to class in a t-shirt and a pair of speedos. How well do you think you could pay attention to the lecture if that happened?

As to female modesty, you might find The Modesty Survey on Alex and Brett Harris's website very interesting, as well as all of the reactions to it, from a purely speculative standpoint. Also, Rihanna isn't actually wearing 'a negligee' at all in the video (although that red thing is very daring), those are all dresses. In other words, she could wear any of that out to a club, or a nice restaurant, or to a play. Most women would consider her a slut, but many others would be wearing the same thing. And of course the straight men have to deal with that.

This next is very tangential, but you did wonder, and I happen to be fascinated by the subject. Hopefully I explain myself clearly:

The way that retail stores work is that they have a fantasy 'ideal customer,' essentially the person who would wear their clothing, around whom they build all of their advertising, the way their stores are set up and how they function, who works for them and how their employees present themselves, and various other details. This creates a picture of what the customer should be like and in extreme cases what their entire lifestyle should be. Abercrombie and Hollister Co. (which are owned by the same parent company) are two exmaple from the extreme side of this, as are Anthropologie, American Aparel, Urban Outfitters, and J Peterman Company. These stores create a narrative that the people they hope to attract as customers will identify with. So HCO is the California surfer, Abercrombie is the big man on campus college student (who is perpetually on spring or winter break, apparently), Anthropologie is the young woman with a quirky sense of style, AmApp is the socially concious 20-something, Urban Outfitters is akin to AmApp but slightly less socially concious, J Peterman is someone who leads a life of leisure and puts good money into unique clothing. All of these ideas about what type of person wears their clothes are conveyed via the in- and out-of-store advertising (Abercrombie has half-naked models and a porn filled 'catalogue' [actually they may have finally gotten rid of it, or at least made it harder to get ahold of, but I don't think it's worse the risk to find out]; AmApp employees produce all of their advertising as part of their vertical heirarchy business model; Anthropologie produces a high-concept art catalogue and gives a quirky name to everything it sells; J Peterman has a write up about all of its clothing that explains how 'J Peterman' discovered the piece and portrays the buyer wearing it in text accompanied by a drawing [rather than a photo] of the clothes without a 'person' wearing them; Urban Outfitters has overly artistic photography reminiscent of the '60s, '70s, and sometimes '80s; HCO is Abercrombie-lite with younger models and no porn). The styles of clothing fit in with this advertising. the way the stores are set up also contribute to this affect, (No Anthropologie store is the same, but they tend to be set up to look like boutiques rather than coroporate chain-stores; HCO and Abercrombie have those giant pictures everywhere, are darkly lit). The employees are supposed to wear the clothes (and at least in the case of HCO are actually hired based on whether they fit the 'Hollister' look, and HCO openly says that the employees are the advertising). The models that these stores choose for their catalogues are also chosen very specifically. They are all looking for models with "The Hollister Look," or "The Urban Outfitters Look," excepting AmApp, which uses AmApp employees (again part of the business model). This allows customers to identify further with "The Look," if you compare the men pictured in Abercrombie's advertising to the men in Urban Outfitters, or the Girls in Anthropologie to the girls in Hollister, you will see what I mean. It's not just the way they look, it's the styling of the make-up and hair, how they stand, etc. Anthropologie usually uses only a few models per catalogue, and about four times a year produces a catalogue using only one girl, who is accompanied by a man (presumably her husband) and her children. They rent a house, furnish it, and stage various parts of the models 'life' there, giving a full picture of what "The Anthropologie Girl's" life is like. J Peterman takes a very interesting approach in that it eschews models entirely, instead using drawings of its clothing sans the humans wearing it. This frees the customer from the specifics of super attractive, super thin models, as well as the specifics of age, race, etc. It is just as easy for a black twenty year old to imagine himself wearing a Gatsby shirt as it is for a white fifty year old. This technique therefore seems to broaden their possible customer pool considerably.

The concept behind creating these detailed presentations is that it creates signals that say to the customer "this is my style, this is the type of person I am," and the customer will begin to identify themself as "an Abercrombie guy" or "an Anthropologie girl," thereby commiting themselves to shopping even more at the store. If you go to the websites of these stores and look at how they present their clothing you can see all of this for yourself (and maybe you can even figure out what kind of a guy you are; I'm definitely an Anthropologie/J Peterman girl).

Some people think that this is at least a little invidious, because it is manipulative. the stores I've been talking about use this technique very explicitly, but all stores do so to a certain extent. Victoria's Secret originally was based on the idea of "Victoria" as an upper class British woman and the stores were supposed to be the type of place a (straight) man would feel comfortable shopping in, but now she is a generic 'sexy woman' (recently the company has announced that it is going to return to its previous concept because it has gone so far in the sex direction that it is making customers uncomfortable). Nordstrom obviously attempts to attract upper class customers, and offers services like a piano player, personal shopping, etc. Express is very average in its advertising techniques, it obviously caters to the young, trendy, career man or woman, as evidenced mainly through the type of clothes it sells, but it doesn't really have any kind of targeted campaign setting that up. H&M is halfway in between explicit and average.

The advertising, both the explicit and average, actually helps consumers figure out where to shop, so I don't fault it for that. What I do have a problem with is that, especially in the case of Abercrombie, the narrative that they paint is not any kind of morally pure one. The ideal "Abercrombie guy" is one who is sexually promiscuous, bi-sexual, views women more as sex-toys than anything else, and is somewhat lazy. I am more familiar with the myth behind HCO, but both HCO and Abercrombie have foudning myths (i.e. made up stories about how they were started) about the men who started their stores. It's interesting to note that the (made up) man who founded Hollister only married 'the love of his life' after he had gotten her pregnant and been living with her (on a boat in the South pacific) for several years. He also was quite rich (born into a wealthy east coast family), which is what allowed him to float around the Pacific in the first place. The point of this story is to illustrate the character of the store and by extension the character of the people who shop there, and "spoiled, lazy rich kid who impregnates girlfriend" is not exactly the kind of thing it's best for teenage boys to be emulating. One very interesting thing about HCO and Abercrombie is that there is much more of a push towards identifying who the male persona is, than who the female is. The girls basically wind up being side characters in the (in Abercrombie explicitly, in HCO less so) sex filled lives of the male leads. Another thing we don't necesarrily need to see emulated by our young men. This is partially due, I think, to the fact that it is much more likely for girls to just buy the clothes no questions asked, but largely, I think, it's because the stores want to promote that lifestyle.

Jay said...

Ellie: Wow... You left a comment that was longer than my post.

I've always assumed that, like you say, men are visually stimulated by the scantily clad of whichever sex we're attracted to. My point was that women can get by with being much more scantily clad than men can. For example, seeing a female professor wearing the top you described wouldn't be that uncommon. Seeing a male professor wearing a speedo, however, would be (in fact, he'd get kicked out for violating the dress code). Not to mention that I don't really have any male professors that I'd EVER want to see in such attire. :)

As for Rihanna, thanks for clarifying that the red thing she was wearing was not a negligee. That it could be confused for such, though, indicated the lack of modesty in it. :)

Your description of advertising was certainly interesting. I assume this is your major or career field? I personally don't think I fit into any of those character types (when I do buy clothes it's at Target, for crying out loud). I've always had a problem with Abercrombie, and I think I've had the same subconscious knowledge of who their "ideal customer" is just through their advertising. It doesn't help that a lot of the guys I know who wear Abercrombie all the time are like the ideal customer you described - promiscuous, lazy, and at least metrosexual if not bi. Really interesting. I suggest you start a blog and make that comment a post. :)

otrolado said...

I am an Adele fan, I am thinking about downloading the cd from iTunes.

Great post, I have thought about this quite a bit myself.

Ellie said...

um, yeah. I may be a little long-winded at times. Randy Thomas has already put his name in for my book, whenever I manage to get it written and published :) I do technically have a blog, but I don't update it regularly (by which I mean it can sit dormant for months), so I don't usually give out the URL. Although I have been thinking about re-starting the whole blogging thing. Maybe I will turn that comment into a post.

You notice how a man would get into trouble if he tried to wear something as immodest as what women are allowed to wear whenver they want? But if straight men object to what the women are wearing feminists come at them with accusations of "you're trying to force us into burqas" and "you're excusing rapists." So it's impossible for men do anything about it. I personally do have a professor or two whom I wouldn't mind seeing in, well, okay, probably not the speedo, but definitely without their shirts.

And, believe it or not, I'm a double major in English and History. I'm planning on getting a PhD in English with an epmhasis in Mediaeval Literature. My theoretical approach, in history, tends to go towards cultural history, which has caused me to over-analyze modern discourses in the same way that I treat historical discourse, which is why I have become so tuned in to advertising (among other things).

And of course the fact that you already (at least subconciously) knew what Abercrombie was going for shows that their advertising is working. Oh, and the ideal Target shopper is someone who wants to have stylish clothes, but doesn't want to go through a lot of hastle (monetarily or time-wise) for them. You can figure that out both through their tv spots and the experience of shopping at the stores.

MR said...

Although it is true that advertisers are much more likely to show immodestly dressed women than men, still there are enough guys in real life that tempt me to look lustfully. To avoid temptation I have had to tell several oblivious straight male friends to put a shirt on. This is embarrassing for me, but it can result in a good conversation that helps both of us.

One other thing to add to the "bright side" point of view is that most places it is still not socially acceptable for a guy to stare at another guy. That keeps me from sinning as often in public.

Jay said...

MR: I was raised going to the beach very often and I currently live a mere five minutes from the ocean, so I've seen innumerable shirtless men and they don't really tempt me. Maybe I'm just used to it. I think a man would have to have a near-perfect physique to tempt me if he was just shirtless, and thankfully few men have that. :)

Which is good, because I love the beach far too much to ever quit going for a silly reason such as that!

As for your last "bright side," I don't think it's socially acceptable for a man to stare at a woman, either. Otherwise he'll be seen as creepy or piggish. Just ask a female friend if she considers it socially acceptable when men stare at her. :)

Neo said...

I have a rather unique perspective on these issues. (FYI, I am the same "neo" that has posted on Afterthoughts) I am a Christian man who used to struggle with SSA, but now struggles mostly with heterosexual lust-type issues. Yeah, I know this isn't typical even for an "ex-gay" or whatever label you want to use, but it's what happened. I should explain.

I actually came out of puberty with significant attractions to both sexes, although at the time the SSA feelings were stronger. I had kept what was going on completely to myself, so I hadn't really dealt with it. For a long time I knew God wanted me to tell someone, but I didn't. One time I had when I realized I needed to do something was during a college visit when I had seen some guys naked (just normal in that dorm) and it was a struggle. Months later I finally told my brother, then later others, and started to deal with it. For me, most of the healing came from doing things with other guys, learning not to feel different from them when I wasn't really that different, and breaking relational barriers that had started as early as grade school when I was rejected by peers. So it was actually kind of like the "reparative" theory, except that my problems weren't with my father.

In any case, through this process, my feelings towards other guys started feeling less sexual. At this point, I feel that the I do need to maintain healthy relationships with other men (which has meant mostly straight men,) and there is still a sense in which I am attracted to them. So in the initial stages of healing, I trained myself to try to avoid looking at other men while they were naked, as I have always tried to avert my eyes from sexual temptation with regards to females. I mean, that's the obvious approach, right? Well, at some point, I realized that when I did see some of my best friends naked, I really wasn't being led into any sort of thoughts or excessive temptations. In fact, there were even several times I'd come back from an evening shower having just seen a friend naked and then fell into heterosexual fantasies! I've since discovered that this sort of thing if anything makes me feel less different from other guys, and thus is actually at this point helpful if anything. (I still wouldn't be so stupid as to look up gay porn or anything - it seems poinless to me even if it weren't potentially dangerous. And I wouldn't seek out seeing guys naked for the sake of it, although I would no longer avoid something just because it involves nudity.) So just seeing guys shirtless isn't really an issue for me, needless to say.

When it comes to girls, as I mentioned, I've always tried to divert my eyes from anything involving scantily clad women, etc. I don't use pornography and never have. However, I am indeed tempted by a woman showing too much skin, and it can be a battle. I do try to "take my thoughts captive." A disadvantage of changing sexual feelings is that I can easily rationalize lust with "well, it's heterosexual, so it's not that bad," which is NOT biblical thinking. Nonetheless, I feel that I may actually not struggle as much as many of my male friends (we talk about this sort of thing fairly regularly), but I still do struggle, and perhaps some of the difference is from my lack of use of pornography. I have noticed that the struggle with heterosexual lusts does seem to have worsened since I worked on SSA. But all in all, I'm perhaps selfishly glad that God blessed me with this sort of change.

Nonetheless, I think that it's good you're finding the bright side in dealing with your struggle. Even for those few of us who seem to actually change, accepting SSA rather than shaming ourselves over it seems to be a critical step in healing. Of course, "accepting" it does not mean being sexually involved with other guys, which I do not condone. But it seems from the relatively few posts of yours I've read that you have a good grasp of what's going on.

Jay said...

Well, Neo, I think your situation is pretty unique. I've often figured that if I was bisexual, like you were/are, I wouldn't have as many problems. I'd struggle with lust like any other guy, but I wouldn't have all the drama that goes along with being called to celibacy because I don't think bisexuals are exactly called to celibacy (since they are fully capable of being able to have full relationships with women).

It's interesting hearing your story, though. Please come back again and read more of my posts (especially the ones marked "Personal Favorites"). Blessings!

MR said...

Jay,

I'm glad you aren't tempted by shirtless guys. For reasons I don't fully get, I have that problem. I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out why, I just seek to be obedient. For me, that usually means looking away.

I don't normally stare at guys or girls, but when I unthinkingly do that, I get more obvious anger from guys. Some girls actually act flattered.

kurt_t said...

I'm confused. When you guys talk about being "tempted" I feel like I don't understand what that means. Tempted to do what? Masturbate? Have an elaborate fantasy? I don't get it.

Jay said...

I think both of the things you mentioned are what I mean by "tempted." I'm sure the definition depends on the man, though. And by "you guys" do you mean SSA-strugglers or Christian men in general (or Christians in general, since surely men aren't the only ones who struggle sexually)?

I think in general we all are trying our best to remain pure in thought, which means to avoid lust. I don't beat myself up when I see a man that I think is attractive. It's when I think about how I'd like to have sex with him that I turn my thoughts elsewhere. And like I said, that rarely happens in my day-to-day life because it usually takes a lot more stimulus to get me to that point than what men are usually allowed to reveal by society.

kurt_t said...

I meant you, Jay, and your blog commenters. I guess I just don't understand the mental processes that other guys go through when confronted with eye candy. I guess for me I just see it go by, and I don't put a lot of thought into it.

Jay said...

I guess for me I just see it go by, and I don't put a lot of thought into it.

Again, same here. The post was about how women are more prone to being "eye candy" anyway. I see a handsome man go by, notice he's attractive, and then he's out of sight and out of mind.

Ellie said...

kurt

actually, in the Evangelical world where people talk about female modesty and men controlling their eyes/lust quite a bit, it's usually stated that 15 to 20% of all men are not visually stimulated and the other 80 to 85% are (with the percentages reversed for women). So you could very well be in the 15% category. What 'not visually stimulated' basically means is that you can still look at a man and find him sexually attractive, but it's more of a conscious thing, where you go, "alright, I'm going to look at his butt/abs/chest/etc. now," where most other men automatically think about sex whenever they happen to catch a glimpse of anything. On the straight side of things this is the point of cleavage, as well as burqas.

There is a Christian book called "For Women Only" by Shaunti Feldhan that has a chapter that explains this in some detail from the viewpoint of men explaining it to women which, should you want this explained in better detail, might be a good basic introduction.

kurt_t said...

Very enlightening, Ellie. Thank you.

MR said...

Jay,

You said,"I don't beat myself up when I see a man that I think is attractive." I agree. The point of resisting sexual thoughts is not self-hatred, but rather being obsessed with what is important (God) rather than what is not (guys I can't have).

Jay said...

MR: Right. And also, there's a difference in having sexual thoughts about a guy, and just recognizing that he's attractive. Goodness knows that every person who's called me "handsome" in my life wasn't lusting after me. Nor do I lust after every guy who I recognize is an attractive, God-made creation.

Robert said...

Hi Jay!

It's been a long time since I posted around here, so I thought I would do so.

This discussion about eye-candy is interesting. Although I have seen porn (both straight and gay) it does not tend to arouse me. What does arouse me is purely rated G material -- I love the sight of athletic men, particularly those on the field. (Soccer, lacrosse, and rugby are the best) Obviously, the athletes do not see themselves acting out a sexual fantasy, but it can be very arousing to me both when seeing the fully-clothed jock and/or fantasizing about him.

David said...

I just have to say that I find it amusing that that song has been on Maroon 5's most recent album... well, since it came out. I always kind of liked it. But now that it's featuring Rihanna - bam! it's a numbah one single. And it's not all that different, except that Rihanna has a lower voice than Adam's freakishly high one.

The music industry is strange.

TRiG said...

Is nudity necessarily pornographic?

TRiG.

TRiG said...

And yes, TRiG and The boy with the green tambourine are the same person. There's a long story to explain why I have two Google accounts.

Tambourine/TRiG.

Jay said...

TRiG: Of course nudity isn't necessarily pornographic. It really all comes down to intent. When a guy talks about stumbling with images of naked men, it's not like he's talking about Michelangelo's David.

I suppose it's one of those things where you have to know what your limit is. If you're artistically oriented (and I am), and you happen to see a painting or a photograph of a nude, what is your intent when looking at the photograph?

Are you looking at it from an artistic perspective - appreciating the beauty of the form, lighting, and subject material? Or are you just getting your jollies from the image of a naked person? The difference is subtle, but very real, and it does take a disciplined mind to separate the two.

TRiG said...

You're right. And the difference is very subtle. And I can discern the line far easier for pictures of women than I can for pictures of men. It's simple for women: When I stop finding the picture attractive, then it's porn.

David isn't porn, you say? I'd agree. Others wouldn't.

Is it the viewer's reaction that matters, or the artist's intent? And, while David isn't pornographic, is it erotic?

TRiG.