On Femininity, Sexism, and Sensuality in the Bible

Last night, my wife told me about a new meme that is starting to take off on the internet. It all started with a male student at Baylor University posted a Facebook message that said “I’d rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria’s Secret model.” Apparently, the statement somehow went viral, and it is rapidly becoming the subject of unending controversy in and outside of evangelical circles. Some have even created graphics of the meme (like the one on the right) that resemble a Victoria’s Secret advertisement.

I have a brief comment to add to the controversy, but in a discussion like this I think it is first important to recognize the temptation to create two-dimensional caricatures of other people’s thoughts in situations like this. I am raising some red flags about what I think is being said by the meme’s creator. However, at the same time, I acknowledge that he and the meme’s other supporters likely have a more sophisticated understanding of femininity and sensuality than this post might infer, so I invite any supporters reading this to comment and color in the nuances of their perspectives in more detail.

Now, on to my comments:

I think it is admirable that a hormone-driven college-age male is recognizing that a culturally idealized appearance is not the only desirable trait in a potential mate, and that he is willing to communicate that to his female friends, who are probably somewhat insecure in the thought they will ever look like supermodels. That impulse, I think, is a good one, and I hope he and the meme’s supporters will stick with this theme.

Having said that, I also think that the meme implies something that is problematic: it suggests a false dilemma between sensuality and “biblical” femininity, and then, as a result, it trades one form of shallow sexism for another.

To paraphrase social researcher David Kinneman in his landmark book You Lost Me, we should not think of women as walking vaginas (as our sex-obsessed culture sometimes implies) or as walking wombs (as the reactive, conservative Christian culture often suggests). Healthy expressions of femininity ought to transcend both of these things.

Or, to put it another way, suggesting that a woman must be a “Proverbs 31 wife” is just as bad as suggesting that she is only worthwhile if she looks like a supermodel. They are both attempts to reduce and control her femininity.

The wifely ideal of Proverbs 31 is hardly a workable model for the twenty-first century. Guys, are you seriously looking for someone who will gather the raw materials for your clothes and sew them for you? Manage your servants when you are away? Take care of your business affairs for you? Make sure you have clothes so that you can be warm in your (non-gas-heated) home when it is cold? Someone to provide you with “faithful instruction”? And to give you a good reputation when you hang out at the city gates?

Of course not. While these may have been desirable traits at a time when women were treated more like property than people, they are hardly fair, desirable, or even applicable in post-modern America. It is unfair to suggest to women that they must somehow uniformly comply with this ideal.

Furthermore, Proverbs 31 is not the only place in the Bible where we find expressions of the feminine. Among other things, we also find:

  • Deborah, who sat over men as a prophet, mother and judge.
  • The female “voice” in the Song of Songs, whose sensuality and body are celebrated in poetry by a lover who longs for her on every page.
  • Vashti, who bravely refused to allow herself to be sexually objectified, even though it meant defying the supreme authority in her culture.
  • Esther, who, by contrast, seduced a king and then used her influence over him to save her people.
  • Phoebe, who was a leader in the Corinthian church, a trusted supporter of Paul, and likely the first person to ever teach from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
  • Priscilla, another leader in the church during Paul’s day, who was apparently more prominent than her husband Aquilla (he is generally mentioned second when the two are discussed).
  • Rahab, a prostitute, who bravely conspires with several Jewish spies to help them escape from a city.
  • Mary Magdaline, a trusted follower of Jesus, and apparently unmarried.
  • The woman of John 4, who bounces from one bad relationship to the next, but who is still willing to engage in dialog about the nature of God, even with strangers.

On and on we could go, but the point is simple: when you look at the entirety of scripture, the depiction of the feminine that emerges is hardly a consistent picture of the Proverbs 31 wife. Not all of these women have a husband. Not all of the married ones seem subservient to their husbands. Some are wealthy. Some have made mistakes in their past. Some are still making them. Some are sexually attractive in appearance and behavior. Some probably aren’t. Some, we have no idea.

All of them are rich, deep, complex human beings.

The variety of characters and personalities that we encounter in the pages of the Bible defies the very notion that there is one and only one form of “correct” femininity, which can be boiled down to a few verses. In truth, an authentic expression of the feminine is beautiful (and, for guys, genuinely desirable) not because it fits a single ideal (whether it be the Victoria’s Secret or the Proverbs 31 variety) but because it is unique, complex and valuable in and of itself.

Healthy, authentic femininity, to me, is also dynamic – it changes from moment to moment, and day to day. It can’t be predicted or bottled. It lives, breathes, grows, reacts. In healthy relationships, things like conversation, play, power, sex, and work are always shifting, mutating, and evolving. This requires both partners to be somehow different today than they were yesterday. Photoshopped stills don’t change. Neither do bible verses. Real women do.

So I am a little leery of the Proverbs 31 meme. It has a good impulse, I think, but in the end it creates a new form of sexism that is made all the worse by implying that it is “biblical.”

There is nothing wrong with an expression of the feminine that includes the thrift and pragmatism of Proverbs 31. There is also nothing wrong with one that indulges in the coy playfulness of Victoria’s Secret. Both can comfortably exist in a single, authentic expression of the feminine.

  • Paul Matula

    The larger fault of adhering strictly to the Proverbs 31 model is it neglects the call the NT sets forth with the model of the church being Christ’s bride. A woman finds her femininity in adhere to that and the created purpose of submitting. An attempt to veer away from these models removes a woman’s femininity because it separates her from her created feminine purpose. When an object no longer performs for the task it was created (a cup that can’t hold water) it is no more that object than any other. Females are feminine when they adhere to their created purpose for being female. The Proverbs 31 model helps us to apply that idea for its own given time period; its usefulness to us is that we should find practical means to apply these ideas to our lives.

  • mozi470

    Thank you for this carefully written article.  Reducing women to objects or a single role/duty is counter to the complex characters and contributions of women described in both the OT and NT–something you aptly remind us of in your writing.  In re-reading Proverbs 31, I find it interesting that although the description begins from the perspective of a husband looking for a rare and special wife, he figures less and less into what defines her as the poem progresses.  In the end (vs. 31) she is to be rewarded and praised not based on her marriage to her husband but based on her own “works.”  The Proverbs 31 woman is not someone that one can “have” but rather one that can perhaps be known and loved and praised by those lucky enough to find her.

  • http://laurenelisenanson.wordpress.com Lauren Nanson

    a woman’s created purpose is not submission. woman was created in the image of God. God made humans in his own image, male and female he created them. A woman’s created purpose is to bear the image of God and the glory of God. For both men and women, submission is part of the works, but our ultimate purpose is to share Christ’s glory. 

    To degrade women to the purpose of submission is to claim that we are a lesser creation, that we are the servants of men. That would be angels, my friend. If your view of femininity is submission, than your view of the feminine is wrapped up in yourself and what a woman can do for you, rather than seeing her for the beauty of who she is independently. (Not saying this is you, I don’t know you, I’m sure you are very respectful of women, just saying this is what this idea would suggest.) 

    Submission is not what makes us feminine. Submission is something we do because we love. In the same way that Christ submitted to the Father because he loved Him. Yet Christ’s purpose was to be exalted and share his Father’s glory. 

    Imagine if someone said a child’s created purpose is to obey his/her parents, or a child’s obedience is what makes him/her childlike. Just because there’s a command that says, children obey your parents, doesn’t make it the child’s ultimate purpose. It is simply an instruction about how one member of a family should relate to another, for the sake of love. 

  • Holli McCormick

    Matt – you don’t know how timely your words are to my soul right now.  I am struggling as I disengage myself from an abusive marriage/relationship of 11+ years.  I had wrongly bought into the conservative Christian camp of what it meant to be a woman – and am paying for it now.  I tried to squeeze my “round” peg into a square whole…and it nearly suffocated me.  I struggle with allowing myself to even think there might be good men like you out there who have a great and truly center view on women…who aren’t trying to make us fit into your molds of what a woman should be.  I never even realized that I was buying into either the “vagina” or the “womb”  notion – but this makes so much sense and so much of what I feel is true for me and my life so far.  When I tried to fit into the worlds ways…I felt cheap and ashamed that I have to use my looks to get attention.  When I tried to fit into the Proverbs/subservient mode…I feel expendable and unseen.  Neither allow me to integrate my entire self…but keep me trying to suppress both sides of myself – for I reflect both…but am also so, so much more.  

    This was a breathe of fresh air to know that there are men out there who can look at each person – whether male or female – and see that they are unique and individuals.  None of us should have to fit a stereotype – none of us.  Thank you so much for your words that are helping me realize that maybe, just maybe God is bringing me to find men I can trust that don’t just want to “use” me for their own purposes.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I have started to write about more the “egalitarian” view in some of my posts at http://www.realmamareallife.com….I think they are in the “earthquake” titles back in Sept/Oct time frame of this year.  Would love your thoughts on those if you have a moment.  You would be helping a sister who dearly wants to find her place in the world…and then turn around and help other men and women find a nice neutral ground where we can both serve with the synergy we were meant to have in order to help God’s “garden” flourish to its fullest!  (This is why I am going to seminary – to study the original languages of the bible so I can figure all this out.)

  • Holli McCormick

    Hi again – can I have your permission to repost this on my blog with my comment?

  • http://darensirbough.com/ Daren Sirbough

    Great thoughts. You are right about both the ideal of a Victoria’s secret model or a Proverbs 31 Woman being out of sync with the true nature of the feminine.

  • Holli McCormick

    Hi again Matt!  So I didn’t copy the whole post over…but you are in there with a link.  And a letter from me…hope you have a chance to read it!

    http://www.realmamareallife.com/2011/12/rediscovering-victoria-secret-vs.html

  • Angie

    I alerted the readers of “Why ‘Modest is Hottest’ is Hurtful to Women” at Her.menuetics about your post.http://blog.christianitytoday.com/women/2011/12/why_we_can_dump_modest_is_hott.html    Good thoughts.

  • Anonymous

    i am not an obsolete person.
    i firmly believe that the church represents the bride of Christ and He is the Groom.
    the relationship clearly explains that the church is to submit to Jesus Christ; therefore, a wife submit -not doormat – to her husband.
    the modern obsolete marriages exist in the form of adam and eve relationships in the garden of eden. the passive and aggressive rather than “love and respect”.

  • Natalie

    Fantastic article!  I love how you’ve addressed the oft overlooked cultural irrelevance that the P31 woman has to today’s woman (in her practical day to day roles) and the over-fixation of this passage.  Also, how you’ve defended the fact that Christian women are not to be void of the “coy playfulness” of a VS model is so true.  What are we to be, fat, boring, unnattractive, and undesirable to our husbands but ever-so-holy?!  Why is BOTH not an option?  Since when did it NOT become an option?  Thank you for pointing out that their is a balance of both and equal importance of godliness and feminine appeal for the Christian woman:0

  • Angelique

    I think you all are forgetting that the Hebrew word for helpmate is ezer kenegdo.  If you look at other instances in the Bible where it uses that term, you will see that it is a very powerful term and means one’s “right hand man”…the one you can trust and turn to at all times to watch your back…your most trusted friend.  For those men out there, it is the man who is at your back in the battle while you face the front.  He is right there with you, but he is still subservient to you.  Women today have this feeling that the word subservient is a bad word…that it means you are less of a person or a servant (and maybe that is because we have had too many men who don’t understand what an ezer kenegdo is either), however, it is not bad.  A woman’s created purpose is to reflect the glory of God, but we do that in a very special way as an ezer kenegdo.  So, Paul Matula is right and Lauren Nanson.  The two go hand in hand.  No one is a lesser creation just because we are to be subservient to someone else and to say that tilts the balance the other way….then women don’t want to be subservient at all because it now has a bad connotation.  We must be very careful of our words.  And I believe the Bible is applicable to today’s life just as much as it was back then…to deny that denies the power of the Bible and God’s Word…again…be careful with your words people.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_4AYBOKPEWNO26VM34BPRB32BZ4 Mark

    Matt, I’m not sure you got the point of the meme, which was to say that the woman described in Prov 31 is more desire-able than a VS model.  It doesn’t say that Prov 31 is the complete description of what ‘feminine’ means or that there aren’t other good examples of women in the Bible (e.g. Moses’ sister Miriam), but what it does do is create a clear line between what the world sees (VS model) and what godly men see (Prov 31).  I suggest you re-read Prov 31 and see how these verses describe the Prov 31 woman: noble character, worth more than rubies, turns profit from her own hands, fills her home with nice things, buys land and earns profit from it, strong, dignified, speaks wisely and gives faithful instruction, receives praise from her children and husband each day, fears the Lord, receives reward and is praised at the city gates. I’m not sure how you see that as controlling a woman’s femininity any more than the many verses in Proverbs directed towards men controls their masculinity. I put it to you that the Prov 31 woman is not an object, not a servant, not ‘less’ of a woman, and definitely not lower in anyone’s eyes than men.

  • http://theoprudence.com/ Matt

    Hi Mark, and thanks for commenting.

    To be clear, I do NOT have any criticisms of the Proverbs 31 poem itself. I think its a beautiful tribute to a particular type of wife/woman. My concern is when Proverbs 31 is used by people (usually, men)  as a means of setting a standard that women must meet. When it is used that way, its no different from when men use VS models as ideal standards for women’s appearance.

    A proverbs 31 woman is not “lesser,” but neither is a woman who has different qualities from Proverbs 31.

    Peace.

  • http://theoprudence.com/ Matt

    Thanks, Natalie. I’m glad you got something from the piece – and what I’m ultimately trying to say is that women need to be allowed to be who they are, whatever that is. Healthy femininity can be expressed in a lot of ways. I want my wife and daughters and female friends to find their own identity, rather than one that is imposed on them by society or religious leaders.

  • createdtobehishelp

    Amen, Angelique! Very well stated.

  • createdtobehishelp

    Natalie, There is nothing, NOTHING in the word of God that is cultrally irrelevant. That is a lie from the pit of hell and delivered courtesy of the feminist and humanist movements. It may be an incovenience to those who want permission to run their own lives as opposed to being submitted to God and any form of authority He has placed over us, however that does not render it irrelevant. 

  • createdtobehishelp

    Genesis 3:16, “…and he shall RULE OVER YOU.” It cnnot be more clear. As well, when you consider the entire counsel of the Word of God, you would clearly see that women were indeed placed in a role of submission to their husband’s. That does not mean we are a lesser creation. When Christ became servant, did that make Him less than God? Submission to authority may not be a person’s ultimate purpose, we are commanded to submit to our husbands and therefore, it is our ultimate responsibility.

  • CADS

    We have to understand that the Proverbs 31 woman is definitely an ideal, because nobody is perfect!  Men (and women) must take into account this very well known fact!!   Look, this is not about feminism, or degrading women!  This is about following GOD’s standard!!  To the best of our abilities we (women, men, etc.) should be more worried about pleasing GOD!  How do we please the Lord?  By following His Word!  Don’t forget ladies what the Bible says how a husband should treat his wife in Ephesians 5:25-33, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her  to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.  However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” 
    Husbands must love their wives as Christ loves the church!  Christ was the ultimate example!  Yet he died for the church, and not only that Christ was/is thee example of what it is to be a servant leader!  Husbands are meant to be servant leaders!  That’s another sermon for another day! 
    As a woman, who came from a controling earthly father, have had too many failed relationships, abusive relationships even, a fear of marriage, because I was afraid of marrying the wrong guy who would abuse the authority given to him by GOD.  I can honestly testify today that God’s way is the best way!!  With Christ’s help, I surrendered my will to His will, and I asked Christ to arrange my marriage (if you will).  Who knows better than God in finding the right mate?  Today, I am married to the most godly man I have ever met!  He cherishes me, and loves me.  He does not lord over his authority, but gives me freedom to be who Christ has created me to be!  Yet my husband is a strong servant leader, lives his life to please God in all that he does! Trust Christ, people, Trust Him!  Don’t be fooled into thinking you know what’s best for yourself.  Read the Bible, trust His way!  The world has screwed up a hundred times over!  There is truly no comparison!  “In His time, In His time, He makes all things beautiful in His time!!!” God’s in control!  We are not! 

  • Natalie

    Hi createdtobehishelp, I definitely believe P31 is certainly relevant in its general themes of how a woman’s character should be but as Matt outlined, the literal aspects of a P31 woman’s world are not the same as a woman of the 21st centrury.  That’s just fact that we can read (unless maybe you’re in a Quaker community sewing clothes by hand and bringing homemade goods to market, etc).  Our day-to-day worlds are vastly different from people who lived in Biblical times, which should go without being said.

    But can we as women still take away from this chapter to be more godly and have better marriages, families, and Christ-centered lives/homes?  You bet!  While all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness as 2 Timothy says, there still remain cultural nuances that aren’t relevant to our day and time that do not disvalue the Word as God-inspired or inerrant but are things that we have to look at and translate mentallyto what that means or looks like for our present time.

    For example 1 Peter exhorts women not to wear gold jewlery or braid their hair but to have the beauty that comes from a gentle and quiet spirit.  Are we banned from gold earrings and french braids?  No.  That was a detail relevent to the believers of that day’s culture where wearing gold and having elaborate braids was a huge trend among the pagan Roman culture.  Yet, the over-arching theme still rings true: women of God should seek to chiefly be concerned with the internal, spiritual beauty that’s so pleasing to the Lord.  Today’s admonition might read: no super-crazy high platform heels and Snooky-esq make up.  Whatever the details are, the same Biblical message and theme can be seem.

    So, that’s what I was saying, definitely not undermining the inerrancy of Scripture or its relevance to our lives.

  • http://theoprudence.com/ Matt

    Thanks to everyone who is commenting after reading Holli’s piece on crosswalk.com. So far, it has been a very spirited, but civil discussion – a great example of the way we can speak to each other about difficult, even person issues, while maintaining a sense of mutual respect and love.

  • Natalie

    Hi Matt, I think one of the other key things you mentioned was that femininity is “dynamic.”  So not only can that look different for various women (and still be deemed feminine) but it’s also an ever-changing type of thing. 

    However, while I agree that society and religious leaders should not define women, are you exhorting your wife and daughters to still be looking to the Word of God to define them?  And not just one aspect of it, of course, but in its entirety?  A question, not an accusation:)

    I’m in full agreement that we shouldn’t base femininity (or masculinity for that matter) on one Bible verse, but scripture as a whole needs to be THE place we do go to, to see just how God has designed us and desires for us to be.  And as you outlined, scripture is full of varying examples of femininity in all its dynamic, diverse glory.

  • http://theoprudence.com/ Matt

    “Are you still exhorting your wife and daughters to be looking to the Word of God to define them?”

    Yes and no. But rather than getting into the reasons I would say “no,” which won’t be too helpful here (and which would make this comment way too long), let me tell you the sense in which I would say “yes.”

    I think the Bible is telling a story about how God is redeeming creation from sin and death. That redemptive work includes, most importantly, humanity which was created in God’s image, as both “male” and “female.” So I want my daughters to read the stories of other women in the Bible and the way they came to discover/express their femininity, and to reflect on how those stories can help them to discover their own, unique “image-of-God” nature in our own day.

    However, I would say that process is more like entering into a dance with our Creator than allowing oneself to be “defined.”

  • Dale

    “helpmeet” is not a word (nor is it a noun) , it is two words, “help” and “meet”. It is KJV language and refers specifically to a helper/partner that is appropriate /suitable for a man, in particular Adam. It was contrasting the unsuitability of partnership or appropriate relationship with animals which were paired and brought to Adam. God pronounced that it was not good for man (Adam) to be alone so He created an appropriate, suitable, partner with whom he could be in relationship just as God designed.
    Can we please stop using this made up word that strips away it’s meaning and replaces it with some contrived meaning or misused Hebrew.

  • Leah

    Hi. I am 24 years-old and my name is Leah… 
    I found the topic of your article both riveting and full of opinion. I fancy the hope that I will be a true Proverbs 31 woman and I know my family and husband support that endeavor. But I must clarify… 
    The beauty of human integrity is timeless. 
    The Bible crosses all lines of culture, time and relationship. I hope that with the love and support of my church, prayer, the Bible and time with my Jesus I will be able to become a woman of more beauty in character and heart as the years go by. In kindness, love, patience, peace, goodness and the like… 
    Whether my body is perfect or not. (Cuz we will all grow old and nobody is perfect). 
    However, that being said, I know that I’m beautiful! And my last job was all about appearances. My point is… Some people are both. Gorgeous on the outside and on the inside… Beauty is something to aspire for, beauty of moral character and passionate fortitude for life. My story is a journey, a process, that will not be complete this side of eternity. 

  • Leah

    I love Jesus. I think he would wear a white-T and a pair of blue jeans. :-D

  • Leah

    I agree Matt. We all need to rest in our identity and lot allow society to tell us who we are. Speaking as a daughter and eldest of three girls, one brother. :-D 
    Has your wife ever read “Captivating”? 

  • Leah

    exactly! And the only one who can “speak identity” into your daughters as we become adults, is Jesus. It’s encouraging to read the words of a guy like my Dad. :-D

  • Miles O’Neal

     That was part of the result of the fall. Jesus lived, died, and rose again to set us free from the curse of sin and death.

  • freedomforall

    So he is a nice master

  • freedomforall

    A subservient or a submissive is a slave.  Glad you have a nice master.