Michael Haycock is a rising senior at Yale, ostensibly graduating in political science but finding out how much he can skew that major toward religious studies. He maintains a personal blog, Not a Tame Lion.
Having seen a comment recommending Kathryn Soper’s article as an excellent example of a discussion of LDS modesty and standards (especially with regards to dress and other topics related to sexuality), I decided to check it out. What I found, while insightful in some ways, was disappointing in many more.
Of course, her subtitle makes it obvious that her focus is speaking about young women, and that she does well, pointing out that sexual desire is not the only instigation for sexual activity, but rather that intimacy, joy, fulfillment–and that ever-so-vague thing “love”–can also work towards fueling interest. While this is important to recognize, I think the things she dismisses show more about her conception of sexuality than her attention to a few nuances–and are symptoms of a perception that colors and damages our cultural, and Mormon, ideas of gender stereotypes, gender relations, and the complex issues of chastity and sexual impropriety.
Her bias (in which she is not unique) is revealed in the first line of the post: “The model of sexuality currently used in popular science and culture is consistently accurate for men but not for women.” Later in the same paragraph, she asserts that “our [the LDS/Mormon] default model is biased toward male experience,” which in the subsequent paragraph she characterizes as “bridl[ing] their [men’s] libidos, which we describe as wild beasts that must be restrained until domestication in marriage.” Not only does this overstate and generalize the findings of the studies she cites, but the very fact that she uses the singular (and the word “consistent”) in talking about “the male experience” and then reproduces the overworn description thereof, as if all men being in perpetual heat (for women) were universal truth to be dealt with, displays her bias. I would expect more of someone asking for consideration of nuance and challenging of traditional views on behalf of her own sex.
Among all the criticisms of assigning the responsibility for care of male sexuality to women by calling upon them to not arouse men through improper dress, any questioning of the supposition that men will necessarily be aroused by such is conspicuously absent. Cite what scientific studies you may, it is always difficult–if not impossible–to divorce descriptive, biological fact from a culture that may have unconsciously conditioned that biology (especially when such culture may be geographically pervasive!). I have read enough to know that the conceptions of sex, gender and sexuality have changed significantly even over the last two hundred years (even, and perhaps especially, within American culture, to which LDS culture is more closely tied than we would like to imagine), and any universals we propose are inextricably intertwined with myriad subtle, imperceptible cultural presuppositions and twistings and torquings of Foucaultian power plays. In addition, these cultural perceptions play a significant role in shaping people: even if someone does not fit a social stereotype, it is still likely that others will treat him/her as if s/he did, and that treatment itself could encourage and foster the same traits the other expected to observe in that person. Allegations of cultural influence also seem to be uniquely gendered feminine: while we make much of the construction of female body image, for example, very little is said about male analogues, including the fact that an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of male children are diagnosed with attention deficit disorders. (Is this an example of the pathologization of maleness? Or is the very maleness that seems to be manifest here something imbued by the boys’ environments? What sort of potentially deleterious psychological effect will telling a majority of boys that they’re chronically deficient and need medication to operate “normally” have?) I have also experienced enough to know that personal experience is seldom translatable, and what seems obvious to one person is utterly impossible for another to grasp. Between the ineffability of personal experience and the nebulous and metamorphosing manipulations of culture, attempts at approaching some sort of universal truth about gender are much more confused than people desire them to be.
The world is not a dichotomy between a male monolith of patriarchy and a variegated heterogeny of feminism. If there is anything that we can learn from the male-skewed accounts in the scriptures, it is that our religion canonizes the fact that “the male experience” is not so definite or inalienable. In fact, the plural male experiences recorded in scripture are not only various, but they often run counter to things that we would describe as “male” in modern American culture. Think of Moses’s or Enoch’s initial insecure rejections of calls to action and authority; Nephi’s sensitive introspection in 2 Nephi 4 that underlies all proclamations of strength or bluntness with his brothers; Alma the Younger’s almost fond recounting of the utter humiliation that led to his conversion; Enos’s all-night prayer for the benefit of his people and his enemies; Omni’s humble acknowledgement that he has not lived up to the standards of righteousness; Moroni’s and Mormon’s sorrow-ridden laments–and their willingness to let untold generations see these things about themselves (strong and silent, not showing emotion, my foot!). Thomas S. Monson is no Brigham Young. Joseph Smith, despite his renowned prowess at wrestling, was known for showing emotion in public. Jesus himself hardly seems the model of the modern male patriarch.
In short, my objection to Soper’s argument is rooted deeper than assumptions easily made and accepted about male sexuality: it’s about assumptions easily made and accepted about gender (or sex) in general. (However, few seem to protest when such assumptions are made about men, whereas an endless history of discrimination against women–justly–has primed people to react against such assumptions about women.) Whether it be that women are inherently more spiritually sensitive or nurturing than men or that men are innately predisposed to or enabled for leadership (let alone pretty much dismissing men as essentially “lusty lions,” as one blogger put it in her protest against such statements), such assumptions are harmful and handicapping in the end. For one, they serve to alienate children of God that don’t precisely fit those descriptions but still must have a place in the kingdom of God, both on earth and in heaven, as well as build expectations based not on eternal truth but on human philosophies. If our purpose as members of the church is to usher in a new order on earth and rework ourselves in heaven’s image, we must be willing to at least question things that seem, or are otherwise presented as obvious–especially when they make blanket assumptions about multifaceted groups or persons–and then discard them. Myths of maleness are one such thing.
Note: This is not to deny that there are differences between men and women. There are differences, but I don’t feign to know what all they are nor to understand their effects, much less try to root them in science (especially when so few understand what “science” actually means in terms of human knowledge). Nor is it to deny that rampant male sexual behavior seems to be a trait in many cultures, nor that there is no difference between experience of sexuality between men and women. Even in the U.S., women face extensive harassment, and in other cultures it is even more drastic. However, if anything, the variation between the expression of male sexuality in different cultures should show that there is some element of cultural conditioning that is involved in its construction. It is valuable to note that church handbooks specifically criticize cultures that do not respect women’s opinions as they do men’s.