Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pure and empty vessels

We sometimes forget how strongly the idea of patriarchy informs LDS cultural views on sexuality and the expression of gender. I was reminded of this recently when I read a blog post on Feminist Mormon Housewives. For those you who don’t follow fMH, it’s a group blog written by fairly mainstream LDS women about religious and cultural issues in Mormonism. It’s a pretty orthodox crowd, but being from a younger generation they prefer a more egalitarian approach to marriage and church governance.

The post I read took issue with the fact that LDS leaders make women the gatekeepers of male virtue. The case in point was a speech by General YW President Elaine Dalton which claimed that young women shouldn’t send racy text messages or photos to young men because doing so might “cause [young men] to lose the Spirit, their Priesthood Power and their virtue.”

What I find troubling here is the implicit assertion that as sexual beings young men and women are not of equivalent vigor and passion. In other words, we can’t contemplate the idea that a young woman might have sexual motivations of her own; instead, we can only talk about the effect of her actions on the (well acknowledged) sexuality of young men.

The sexuality of men is affirmed in many ways in LDS culture. Lust should be controlled and channeled in specific ways, but male sexuality in general is thought to be a productive and creative aspect of life. Female sexual desire, on the other hand, is one of the topics in LDS culture that is simply never, ever mentioned. Basically, it doesn’t exist in LDS culture. A sexually empowered woman is not an archetype that Mormonism generally allows.

Negation of women as sexual beings is also evident with the LDS focus on female modesty. The idea of female modesty affirms the existence of male sexuality only. Women are the objects of male desire and as such must take care not to inflame male desire by exposing their bodies. On the other hand, the absence of any real concept of “male modesty” (it’s almost a funny term) is one of the signs of vastly different views of young men and women as sexual beings. In LDS thinking, there’s no concern that young men by their manner of dress might inflame the desire of young women. It’s a nonissue because female desire is not really acknowledged to exist.

For young women, not being given any validation of one’s sexual nature, being placed in the asexual role of guardian of what is possessed only by another, is a denial of full personhood. It’s an anachronism that needs to be called out and challenged, and I’m glad that Mormon women are taking this on.

One woman commented:
I believe the whole message of making women responsible for the sexuality of men has greater implications for a girl than just keeping her from getting pregnant as a teen. Once married … where is her sexuality in all of that? I went for a year or more thinking it was all about him… with no orgasms of my own to show for it. Once I could operate sexually more fully, I was left with a huge level of guilt, even though I was married and faithful. I felt guilty for simply being sexual. This went on for over 20 years… what a loss.

When women are given responsibility for something they can’t control, like the thoughts and actions of their husband, they are forced into a very controlling (but uncontrollable) position. If their husband looks at porn, whose fault is it? If their husband lusts after other women he sees… whose fault is that? So much of the time, a wife is blamed for her husband’s infidelity of any kind… and the teachings featured in the post are laying the foundation to make women responsible for something they cannot control.

Assuming responsibility for something you cannot control results in anxiety. How many Mormon women are on anti depressant and/or anti anxiety medication? I, for one, remember how desperate I felt in the quest to keep my husband virtuous. I’ve given up that responsibility only recently and cannot express the freedom I feel in only being charge of myself.

When we teach our girls that only men are sexual creatures and that women are in charge of men’s uncontrollable sexuality, what are we setting our girls up for… for life? My answer? A life of guilt and anxiety.

This comment resonated with me because as a closeted gay Mormon adolescent my sexuality was also completely denied by my surroundings. My culture provided no context for me to live and develop into a sexually mature adult; eventually I had to get this education outside.

It’s hard to describe the effect of having one’s sexual identity erased. If you don’t have a confident and well-grounded sense of yourself as a sexual being, it’s very difficult to assume the full mantle of personhood. You remain diminished or infantilized, with a distinct second-class status. This is one of the ways that patriarchal nature of LDS culture oppresses women and gay people. It’s a connection I hadn’t noticed before.