Saturday, July 11, 2009

From Emily: Mormonism and Male Sexual Responsibility

This week I attended a large meeting required for almost all students employed by BYU. The meeting addressed the topic of Sexual Harassment, but despite the good intentions of the presenter from Human Resources, the meeting wasn't just unsuccessful - no, for the few people who stayed awake through the full 45 minutes, it downplayed the seriousness of any form of harassment and reinforced the misperception that in more cases than not, well-meaning men are the victims of women who falsely cry "sexual harassment." The presenter (who was a man, in case anyone is curious)offered numerous examples of scenarios that were inappropriate but which were not technically sexual harassment, such as TAs asking out students and then giving the students lower grades when the students turned them down. The audience loudly proclaimed that a TA who asked a student out multiple times after being turned down was doing nothing wrong, and even after explicitly stating that it's against University policy for a TA to date a student, the presenter said, "maybe the TA's breaking a policy, but it's not sexual harassment," thus de-emphasizing what the TA was doing wrong.

The only example of real sexual harassment he offered was the hypothetical scenario of a male boss offering a female secretary a promotion in exchange for a sexual favor. I'm going to note, but not discuss, the stereotypes that very scenario plays into - men as perpetrators of harassment and women as the victims, and men as employers with female secretaries, for instance. The audience was sober when he mentioned that scenario, but by giving such an extreme example of sexual harassment and then contrasting it with multiple scenarios where a well-intentioned man was simply "misunderstood" by a female co-worker, the presenter unwittingly reinforced the idea that only really, really bad people sexually harass someone, and that anything short of demanding sex in exchange for job security is just a misunderstanding. When he said he'd heard multiple complaints from people who said their supervisors were staring at them, the audience laughed and he joined in, as if there could be no credence to such a complaint. Then, when he told supervisors to be cautious about giving gifts, one of the girls sitting behind me loudly told her boss "just ignore everything from this meeting!" Incidentally, at the beginning of the meeting this same girl loudly debated with co-workers over whether a short-haired girl two rows in front of me was male or female.

I've always felt frustrated by how many people insist that little to no sexual harassment really takes place, or that most complaints just exaggerate something innocuous, such as a hug. As someone who experienced sexual harassment in high school, went to a teacher about it, and then listened to a 45-minute lecture from said teacher about how I had brought the sexual harassment upon myself by being too sensitive, I know first-hand how seldom perpetrators of sexual harassment face any consequences at all. Fortunately, that teacher was fired a few years later for sleeping with an underage student, but most people who take sexual harassment lightly aren't pedophiles - they're just ignorant or misinformed.

But there's a lot of misinformation floating around about these kinds of issues. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (commonly known as "Mormons," a nickname adopted from the name of one of our sets of scriptures), I feel fortunate to belong to an organization that empowers women and teaches the sanctity of each person's body. However, I'm frustrated by the narrow-minded misperceptions that are especially prevalent among Latter-day Saint men and women at Brigham Young University. The one that frustrates me most is the belief that women are responsible for the sexual purity of men.

I can't think of any one particular origin behind this belief. For one, it is completely at odds with church doctrine. Past and present prophets alike have said that it is each person's individual responsibility to be pure in their hearts and their minds, the most prominent of course being the Savior. But somehow the old-fashioned belief that men are sexual and women are asexual, and that women are therefore at fault if a man has a sexual thought, since men can't help but think sexual things if they're tempted, whereas women have no excuse - a belief that has no connection with LDS doctrine - has been internalized by the same Latter-day Saints who convince themselves interracial marriages and women who speak their minds are all abominations.

Many individuals who are open-minded and progressive about politics still hold women responsible for male sexual purity. One of my ex-boyfriends, for instance, often joked about his propensity for saying shocking and nearly sacrilegious things at church. But when I wore a shirt that was short enough to go up a bit when I bent over, and he saw a couple inches of my lower back, he didn't take his eyes off my body and stared at my chest for the rest of our conversation. He later informed me that I was dressing immodestly by wearing a shirt that went up when I bent over, and that my shirt had given him inappropriate thoughts. This same man later told me that he imagines himself having sex with someone about once an hour, and that he feels sexually attracted to almost every girl he sees, but that he can't help what he feels and thinks, because as a man he is simply "wired that way." When I insisted his thoughts were between him and God, and that he didn't have stewardship over my body, he warned me not to carry that argument too far, and insisted that women who dressed immodestly, such as by wearing halter tops, bikinis, or tank tops, made it nearly impossible for men to have pure thoughts. Needless to say, I broke things off, but a surprising number of my male and female friends either laughed off his insistence that I'd given him dirty thoughts, or told me to be happy he was communicating with me. My mother's response was that he was saying what other men were thinking, and that the real issue here was his lack of tact. But turning human beings into sexual objects, and then telling them they've brought it upon themselves is a serious issue.

It wouldn't bother me quite so much when people insist women are responsible for men's thoughts if they believed men were responsible for women's thoughts too, but the general attitude at BYU is that women are far less sexual than men and that therefore, while women can't so much as bare their shoulders without men losing control, men can run around shirtless and it doesn't matter. A female friend of mine who had served a mission, once told me that at Christmas her mission president wanted to show a film to all the missionaries, but since missionaries aren't allowed to date during the 18-24 months they're on a mission, he showed a movie that had few female characters. He didn't want to remind the men about dating, but he forgot that there were women in the audience, and that the film he'd chosen was about an athletic team, filled with attractive, muscular men who tended to practice with their shirts off.

Beyond what these double standards do to women, though, I find these stereotypes incredibly insulting to men. Speculations about how men are similar to other male animals and therefore incapable of controlling their thoughts contradict some of the most essential aspects of what Latter-day Saints believe. Latter-day Saints are taught to become as much like the savior as possible, and told that if they live worthily they can become like God over time. Do the very men who insist a woman in a tank top controls their thoughts believe that God's thoughts are controlled by women's clothing? LDS men are entrusted with many responsibilities: While LDS women are welcome to serve missions, LDS men are instructed that they have an obligation to serve a mission unless medical reasons stop them, and the highest leaders in the church are men. Plus, all worthy men in the LDS church are eligible to hold the Priesthood, which is an enormous responsibility and call to service. With all this responsibility, male purity had better not be controlled by how the women around them dress.


  1. What is refreshing is when you meet those who transcend stereotypes without it feeling like there is any "anomaly." It is great when you can meet someone that behaves according to an internal ethical code instead of an arbitrary set of expectations and obligations.

    I'll never forget a time I was meeting with a bishop and someone I was dating (don't worry--it was a pre-marital interview). He looked at me and said, "Have you done anything immoral?" I said no, because I hadn't. He then went on to explain that he would understand if I had done something immoral because "guys just can't control themselves." I wanted to tell him that I actually can control myself and that in that particular relationship I was honestly the only one who would demarcate boundaries and insist on keeping our intimacy in check. I couldn't help but chuckle afterword. Perhaps I am secretly a Mormon female? Or maybe the tidy gender categories of the nineteenth century have outlived their function. (Perhaps a blog post on the "function" of gender is long in coming. I'm not talking about a compulsory heterosexuality type of thing, but an approach to gender that doesn't demonize essentialism., because such an effort always already has a sense of right and wrong that reinscribes essentialist tropes.)

  2. If you're a Mormon female, then you're in good company, but you'd be surprised how many Mormon girls have told me they've been in relationships where the guy was more likely to put boundaries on their intimacy.

    On a more general note, I think it's problematic when theories about people's emotions are based solely on behavior. Even if a well conducted study found that 90% of the time BYU girls are more likely to put on the breaks than BYU guys, that still wouldn't mean they had weaker romantic feelings. In fact, many people give themselves personal rules about physical intimacy based on how in control they feel. So, setting stricter standards could be a sign of stronger feelings, rather than the other way around.

    If you do write something on the function of gender, that's exactly the type of thing we'd love to post here. You know you want to contribute...

  3. It's definitely an interesting conversation to have, the one about the functions of gender beyond compulsory heterosexuality. While in cultures around the world gender identities tend to be related to (usually in the sense of circumscribing) sexual roles and standards, they also serve many other functions in terms of setting up ways in which people are expected to interact. That would be a great post to make here!