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Gendering Mormon Temple Architecture

3 Apr

Michael Haycock, who has his own blog here, joins us again with this insightful piece.

In recent research for a term paper on Mormonism and native Hawaiian culture for my history course on the American West, I came across Frank Salamone’s essay on “The Polynesian Cultural Center and the Mormon Image of Body.” Salamone discusses the alterations made in traditional Polynesian dress made at the Center to accommodate LDS conceptions of modesty, gender differentials in bodily coverage, and subversions of modesty through manner of dance and personal comportment.

While I will save for another day his analysis that greater male bareness at the Polynesian Cultural Center is reflective of Mormon gender ideology, I would like to focus here on another observation he makes, taking a cue from another researcher: “As Knowlton mentions, Mormons are surrounded by phallic symbols in their religious imagery, including the architecture of their temples.”

My immediate reaction was a sort of revulsion; how could one relate the ethereal heaven-reaching spires to something so base?  Furthermore, I felt that this analysis reflected a sort of Freudian phallomania. Could temple spires truly be conceived as symbols of such dramatic masculinity? I do not think it is anywhere near that simple.

Here is the church house, here is the steeple...

Even as Salamone qualifies that “American Mormons are a bit more subtle and shy about these images [than Pacific Islanders],” I think that cultural context must be considered when judging Mormon architecture. First, it arose in the American Northeast and West, were the country church reigned supreme: a rectangular structure, roof pitched to the sides, and a steeple housing a bell by whose ringing the community might measure time in the absence of clocks. This, in turn, was influenced by hundreds of years of European church-building, wherein the spired bell tower was literally the pinnacle of community achievement and served as a significant civic and ecclesiastical landmark. The dramatic Catholic cathedral, roughened and simplified by frontier Protestantism, has had an enormous impact on Mormon designs. The Kirtland and Nauvoo temples, save for the interior arrangement of their assembly halls and other ordinance-specific designs, had more to do with the neighborhood church with its amalgamation of folk architectural vocabularies than the Mormon theology reflected in incidental surface details (sunstones and moonstones, for example). If the spire is a phallus, it’s a democratized European one. (Were Tocqueville an architect, he’d have written a book on this.)

Moreover, sometimes Mormon architects tend to do strange things. There’s a reason that the Washington DC and San Diegotemples are likened to fantasy castles: they articulate architectural movements of their times in ways that are mostly unparalleled in the modern world. People don’t quite know what to make of them.

You should see it with a Hollywood marquee. Yup.

(Humorously, the South Park creators knew exactly what to do: they based the stage frame for the Book of Mormon musical on the San Diego Temple itself, and play on the peculiarity of its design by shifting its lighting throughout the production.)

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Rape on a University Campus

29 Aug

A few days ago, the University of Michigan sent an e-mail to its students, faculty, and staff updating them on the police investigation of the recent rise of sexual attacks near campus.  The women involved were attacked in stairwells, parking structures, and on the street.  Although some of the attacks happened at night, at least one occurred in the afternoon as a woman went to a parking structure to get her car.  Initially, the university’s response seemed inadequate and almost laughable.  It urged young women to be careful and to never walk by themselves.  It was as though most women were already worried about being attacked, and that it was up to us to make sure that we weren’t attacked.   One of my friends, angered by the university’s response, posted the following guide to men on how to avoid sexually assaulting women.  It began simply, “If you see a woman walking alone, don’t follow her.  If she is wearing clothing you think are revealing, do not think that she deserves whatever she gets.  And, no matter what happens, don’t rape her.”

As time passed, however, the university’s response got better.  Officials at the university agreed to meet with one of my friends who was particularly concerned about what the campus’ response was going to be.  She had been assaulted once in New York and was determined that the university should do everything in its power to prevent other young women from being assaulted after the reports initially began to circulate.  The university has also sent out multiple e-mails about the investigation and was supportive of a Take Back the Night Rally.

I applaud the university’s response to the rapes, but I think we need to expand the way that we think about rape and the way in which we respond to it.  Although the university’s efforts have been commendable, most rapes do not occur in parking lots, elevators, or staircases.  They occur in apartments, bedrooms, and at parties.  Most women are raped by men that they know, not by strangers.  I would like to see campuses like the University of Michigan become more involved in preventing these everyday, more frequent types of rape.  There needs to be education and activism to stop sexual violence within relationships and by acquaintances.  Focusing too much on one type of rape without being equally vocal about the others spreads the misperception that the danger of being raped is one that exists primarily in the streets and not within the walls of your home and those of your friends.

Picturing the Female Body, Part II: A Historical View

27 Aug

Last week, I went to the exhibition “Books and Babies: Communicating Reproduction” at the University of Cambridge Library.  The exhibition is a collection of prints, anatomical drawings, comic books, novels, and science texts from the medieval period to the present that attempt to understand human reproduction.  Looking at them is a marvelous reminder that the way that we think about the body has changed over time. Continue reading

Picturing Female Body Parts

25 Aug

One of the things that is unavoidable in London is the Evening Standard, a free newspaper hawked by dozens of men and women standing in tube stations.  Walk past King’s Cross, Tottenham Court Road, or Euston at any time during the day and someone is going to try to hand you a copy.  Today on the train to Cambridge I grabbed a copy so that I had something to read on the approximately hour long journey. One of the articles was a fun yet nuanced look at the popularity of art depicting vaginas.  Although I get squeamish even writing the word, I appreciated the artwork that was showcased.  Continue reading

Heathen Polygamy in the Anglican Archives

1 Jun

I began my archival research for my dissertation at the Lambeth Palace Library today.  To find it, you cross Vauxhall, Lambeth, or any of a number of bridges over the Thames and turn onto the Lambeth Palace Road.  On one side of you will be the river; on the other, a wall with a sprawling complex of medieval buildings, old churches, and gardens on the other.  After a few yards, you’ll come to a small black door with a sign assuring you’ve come to the right place if you want to see the exhibition and that a guard will await you between the hours of 10:50 and 4 and that if you want to use the library, you should ring the buzzer.

Inside the library I read the Papers of the Committee on the Polygamy of Heathen Converts.  Appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the committee was to decide whether or not men who had contracted polygamous marriages before they converted to Christianity should be forced to put away their extra wives as a requirement for baptism.  The committee answered with an unqualified yes.  Strangely, women involved in polygamous relationships did not have the same requirement.  They could continue to live as polygamous wives without jeopardizing their baptism or ability to receive the sacraments.

One of the things that surprised me about the committee’s report and the letters that had been sent to them about polygamy as they were deliberating was how different portrayals of African polygamists were from Mormon polygamists.

Bishop Crowther argued that polygamy sapped men’s virility.  He wrote in his “Notes on the Life of Polygamy in West Africa” (Lambeth Confernece Papers, 1888) that “the lust of the flesh immoderately indulged in leads to excess, which debilitates a man and incapacitates him to perform the marriage duty all.”  He then tells the story of a chief who asked them to help him perform his marriage duty when he and Rev. C.A. Golmer first arrived in the neighborhood of Badagry in the Yoruba Mission – “Mr. Gollmers interpreted and myself being Natives of the Country, and masters of the language; the head Chief very confidently opened his mind to the interpreter, and told him of  a complaint for which he wanted to ask medicine from the white man, because he was told that the Europeans were very skilful in many things.   His complaint was a delicate one; which was inability to perform the marriage duty with his wives; for this he begged the white man’s assistance by way of medicines to strengthen him That the missionary took the opportunity of telling the Chief of the life of polygamy as a breach of God’s holy Ordinance, who in wisdom appointed one woman to each man, I need not waste time to relate.  Though his case was irremediable, yet for the benefit of his health, he gave him some port wine.”

Although Mormon polygamists were rarely portrayed as stunning examples of manhood, they also were rarely portrayed as impotent.  According to the dozens of stories in Fanny Stenhouse, Ann Eliza Young, and Maria Ward, young women were often left alone and pregnant by their polygamous husbands.  This may not speak loads about their marital fealty, but it does suggest that Mormon men were at least perceived as being able to perform sexually.

A lot of work has been done on the ways in which Mormons were racialized.  As Sarah Barringer Gordon has pointed out in the Mormon question, Mormon men were often seen as being kin to the Turks who kept harems.  Reading the Papers of the Committee on the Polygamy of Heathen Converts, however, suggests that there is more work to be done in considering how Mormons were represented and whether those representations differed from the ways in which native polygamists were pictured.

What Men Want

18 Sep

I just read “Why Standards Night is Substandard,” written by Kathryn Lynard Soper and posted at It’s a good article. But her experience did not resonate with mine at all. Although I may have fancied myself physically attractive from time to time, I think I have consistently underestimated the power that my attractiveness might have over men. Continue reading