A guest post by Mette Ivie Harrison
As a teen in the Mormon church in the 1980s, I frequently heard how important it was for me to be modest so that I didn’t tempt my male counterparts to think unchaste thoughts. Even as a forty-five-year-old adult woman, I have been told that wearing competitive triathlon clothing as I run through my neighborhood is leading to young men in the ward having uncontrollable sexual thoughts.
This leads me to wonder: What it is we Mormons are doing if we imagine that young men are so very fragile that the sight of a teenage or middle-aged woman’s legs, arms, or even abdomen cause temptations beyond endurance?
And what message are we sending to women of all ages about what their bodies are for?
Elizabeth Smart said last year that she’d been taught growing up that she would be regarded as a piece of chewed gum if she ever had sex before marriage. Telling young women like her that no one will want them if they have been “sullied” sexually leads to many problems, particularly for those who are sexually abused due to no choice of their own.
And even when abuse is not involved, are young women responsible for keeping dating relationships sexually pure and for leading young men to the temple?
I have heard people argue that such talks are well-meant attempts to “scare” teens into avoiding sex until marriage. But if the only purpose of all our talks on modesty and sexuality is to make sure that men and women come to a marriage without any sexual experience, is anyone looking beyond that to how well we as Mormons do at creating a functioning marriage that includes healthy sexuality for both parties?
The message we send to young women that their bodies are objects to be ogled (or not) by young men (and older men) may create difficulty in transitioning to the marriage bed, where they need to be more than objects and more than “pure” good girls.
The cultural expectation that Mormon women do not have sexual feelings pervades even casual conversation. Asking about other women’s experiences sexually, within marriage, even as an attempt to gain knowledge and to share information, is culturally taboo. For women to think about such things is not part of their “nature” and therefore does not fit within the otherwise healthy relationship in Relief Society between women who share other knowledge about everything from cooking skills to child rearing and book recommendations.
Even if adult Mormon women do not realize that they are suppressing sexual thoughts constantly, even if they do not consciously believe that sex is wrong, the subtle message we send in every church meeting is that women are “angels” and that every bishop or other church leader has his wife to thank for inspiring his greater spirituality.
Because, of course, men are basely physical and women are made of less earthly stuff.
Or are they? Whenever I have challenged men who argue that Mormon women are obliged to make extra efforts at modesty because they as men are more “naturally” sexual and are “wired” to respond to visual images of the female body (see here or here), I think of how men and women were seen two hundred years ago as diametrically opposed—but in a completely different way than now.
For Kant, the philosopher of the Enlightenment, the masculine “man of Reason” was practically bodiless, and was at its highest point a mind consumed by thought. And Darwin used his newly minted theory of evolution to argue that the female of our species had no reason to develop a brain, as she was a wholly physical being, and her only purpose was reproduction.
Thus, for Darwin, women were only interested in sex, and only men were capable of rising above the physical and becoming scientists, physicians, inventors, and so on.
Of course, it is obvious now that this was merely an attempt to excuse the suppression of women in society. But it is instructive in showing how “science” is often used to prove cultural assumptions.
From General Conference talks lately, it seems that pornography is a terrible problem for men in the church. But how much of that problem is related to our cultural assumptions about male and female sexuality? Has anyone done a study to see how many Mormon men who are addicted to pornography are married to angelic women who have no sexual desire?
Could it be that our insistence on talking about male desire and female purity is leading to problems for married couples who do not know how to negotiate an equal sexual interaction?
We need to stop talking about sexuality as something that belongs only to men or is only a problem for men, and start talking about it in healthy ways.
And this begins with our discussion of modesty for young men and young women.
Mette Ivie Harrison is a nationally ranked triathlete and Mormon mother of 5, including one missionary in Texas. She wrote two guest posts here last month about leaving Mormonism . . . and finding her way back. She is the author of six YA fantasies, including The Princess and the Hound and The Rose Throne. She also has published a memoir of her experiences in loss and triathlon called Ironmom and has an adult mystery coming out with Soho Press in December called The Bishop’s Wife. You can find her at www.metteivieharrison.com or on twitter (@metteharrison), facebook (Mette Harrison or Mette Ivie Harrison), and tumblr.