Zelophehad’s Daughters

Feminism’s Critique of Modesty

Posted by Seraphine

A recent post at Pandagon by Amanda Marcotte clarified some concerns I’ve had for awhile now about certain (but not all) discussions of modesty in our church discourse. Now, while I’m guessing that many of the readers of our blog would dismiss some of her stronger claims about modesty and “compulsory femininity,” I primarily wanted to highlight one passage:

Modesty exists mostly as a reason to obsess over what women are wearing and remind them non-stop that no matter what else they do with themselves, they’re just sex objects in the eyes of the patriarchy. The end result is women are given twin messages to be sexually appealing and not to be sexually appealing all at once, and that at any point in time they are in danger of being deemed sluttily or prudishly dressed.

Now, the reason I was drawn to this paragraph is not because I think the church needs to discard outdated notions of modesty. On a certain level, I am a believer in this principle, and I’m just fine with our leaders teaching it. I also think our leaders use this principle to try and combat some highly dangerous cultural patterns.

In the popular media, women’s bodies are overly-sexualized. Women are objectified and demeaned by many of these representations. These images negatively impact both how women view themselves and how men relate to women. In many of the messages at church on the topic of modesty, I hear an attempt by our leaders to provide an alternative to the destructive messages that women encounter on a daily basis.

However, what I think is interesting about the quote above is that it highlights that if we are not careful, our discussions of modesty can reinforce the cultural messages about women and sexuality that we are trying to critique. When we overemphasize modesty (and do things like connect it to the need to protect men from their sexual impulses), we reinforce notions that whether women are immodestly dressed or fully clothed, they are only going to be viewed in sexual terms.

In other words, we should not set up our discussions of modesty directly in opposition to popular discourses. We shouldn’t respond to the oversexualization of women by saying, “Women, you should be modest and not draw attention to the sexual attributes of your bodies. By doing this, you will demonstrate you are daughters of God” By reiterating the problem in these terms, we run the risk of reinforcing women viewing their body as well as their worth (as daughters of God) in sexual terms.

We need to teach modesty as a principle, but in our discussions of the topic, we should clearly and deliberately disconnect the principle from women’s inherent worth (something women spend so much time doubting in today’s world). We should critique the sexualization and objectification of women in the media while simultaneously offering women a separate discourse through which to view their worth and identity, one which does not treat them as sexual objects, constantly under the gaze of men.

286 Responses to “Feminism’s Critique of Modesty”

  1. 1.

    Seraphine, I’ve actually got a post half-way drafted about modesty–maybe I’ll actually finish it now! I think the only way to rehabilitate our discourse on modesty may be to return to an earlier sense of modesty, which had to do with a repudiation of materialism in dress, as well as with respect for sexuality. If we recover the sense of modesty as a certain “seemliness” and humility, then it applies to both genders and is decoupled from the sexual objectification which is otherwise its inevitable subtext.

  2. 2.

    Interesting post, Seraphine. If I understand correctly, you’re saying that Church discussion of modesty makes the same assumption as worldly discussion–that women are in some fundamental sense no more than sexy bodies for men to look at. The Church and the world just disagree on what should be done about it. The world says, “Therefore, show it off!” and the Church says “Therefore, cover it up!”

    This might be a bit of a stretch, but it kind of sounds like the parallel assumptions to non-faith-promoting Church history made by the Church and by anti-Mormons. Both agree that non-faith-promoting history will destroy members’ testimonies. The Church reaches the conclusion that such history should be covered up, while anti-Mormons conclude that it should be shouted from the housetops. In this case, as with modesty, as you note, the Church would probably be better off rejecting this assumption and realizing that maybe people can stay in the Church even after hearing less-than-perfect parts of Church history.

  3. 3.

    Women are constantly under the gaze of men, and vice-versa. And women are constatly viewed in sexual terms by men and vice-versa. Among our many other aspects, humans are sexually reproducing animals. We see people of the opposite sex, among other things, as potential mates. We have a sex drive that can be stimulated and manipulated in many ways.

    Suggesting that one of the reasons not to dress immodestly is that doing so can adversely affect others in their efforts to curb their natural sexual apetites did not contribute to the tendency of humans to regard each other in part as objects of sexual desire. That tendency is part of being part animal. No, such a suggestion is an acknowledgment of the fact that sexual apetite is inherent in our nature and is something that we can and should curb outside of marriage. Yes, our primary responsibility is to curb our own apetites no matter what others do, but taking reasonable measures to avoid making it harder for others to curb their apetites is perfectly sensible, as is suggesting that that’s one good reason to dress modestly. (Please, nobody say that that’s a slippery slope toward burkhas. There is nothing oppressive about knee-length pants and shirts with sleeves.)

    Let me just pause for a minute to give this quote a little sneer:

    Modesty exists mostly as a reason to obsess over what women are wearing and remind them non-stop that no matter what else they do with themselves, they’re just sex objects in the eyes of the patriarchy.

    Sneeeeeeer. I think I might be able to imagine why someone might think such a thing, but the view of the world that is expressed here is about a million miles away from my way of seeing the world, which is, of course, the right way. :-)

    Here’s an alternative reason for modesty: the greatest happiness for God’s children is in attaining exhaltation, which has as a prerequisite making and keeping covenants with our marriage partner. One aspect of the marriage covenant is sexual fidelity, both in act and in desire, to our spouse. Treating sexual expression and the sexual characteristics of our bodies as aspects of ourselves to be shared only with our spouse is one way to make successful marriage and, as a result, exhaltation more likely for ourselves and others. So one reason that prophets might be inspired to teach modesty standards is that God loves us.

    Of course, for those who see religion as a tool of “the patriarchy” to oppress women, that explanation wouldn’t be persuasive. Hence, the million miles between Marcotte’s view of the world and mine.

    What I really want to know is why I wasn’t invited to the patriarchy’s Female Oppression Masterplanning Meeting and Clambake during which modesty was invented?

  4. 4.

    Tom, I actually totally understand how you have a drastically different world view (esp. regarding patriarchy and so forth) and so might disagree with the ideas presented. But instead of simply doing so you…take a moment to sneer? I know you mean it in jest, but sometimes one of the most frustrating things about feminist thought in the mormon world is men ‘sneering with a smile’ instead of taking it seriously and addressing the issue at hand.(/rant).

    Excellent post. I have always felt that we are sexualizing our young women by emphasizing the ‘lack of sexiness’ they should display. I think that this over-emphasis is a great contributor to the often strange relationship mormen women have to their bodies and sex, and some of the hang-ups they struggle to overcome after marriage.

  5. 5.

    Seraphine, I really appreciate your thoughts about modesty, and I enjoyed reading the essay you linked to as well. The modesty discourse in the church is a topic that gets me very worked up. It’s probably better for my health that I don’t engage it. :)

    I like Kristine’s ideas about tying modesty back to “seemliness” and humility. I see no reason why a bit of shoulder or knee should be “unseemly”. Ideally, dress should be appropriate for the occasion. I see nothing inherently inappropriate about a tank top and shorts at the park in the summer. The nature of the temple garment and the manner in which it has become associated with modesty skews LDS perceptions of “modesty” in some ways and also leads to being more judgmental about what other people are wearing. I’m still sick whenever I remember a certain bloggernacle commenter proclaiming that all the scantily clad women he saw at Disneyland were committing sexual sin. Ick.

    I wish there were a way to be comfortable with our own bodies and others’ bodies in a natural and healthy way. In the current Western cultural climate of simultaneous repression and oversexualization it seems nearly impossible.

    Tom, knee length shorts and sleeved shirts may not be inherently oppressive (and neither is a burqa), but the cultural attitudes and judgments about a person who does not adhere to the standard can be very oppressive.

  6. 6.

    Veritas,
    I must admit that an actual sneer came to my face when I read that quote. But you shouldn’t blame it on me being a Mormon. Being completely honest, I think about 95% of the sneer comes from the hard scientist snob in me. The problem isn’t that she’s not arguing from a Gospel perspective, it’s that it’s an untestable “Just So” assertion of why modesty exists. It can’t be proven or disproven. We could probably come up with a dozen other equally plausible, and equally squishy, explanations for the existence of modesty that don’t invoke sinister designs of the patriarchy.

    I actually take feminist critiques of the Church coming from believers quite seriously. Seriously enough to put a lot of thought into understanding them, debating them when I disagree with them, and defending them when I agree with them.

  7. 7.

    AmyB,
    knee length shorts and sleeved shirts may not be inherently oppressive (and neither is a burqa), but the cultural attitudes and judgments about a person who does not adhere to the standard can be very oppressive.

    I can understand this. I think we have a tendency to police others far too much. We should never let the fact that others, either within the Church or without, may have different standards than us affect how we treat them or regard them. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have standards as individuals or as a Church. Knee-length pants and shirts with sleeves are not inherently oppressive. And neither is having a general standard of appropriate dress that suggests that some shorts are too short and some shirts show too much skin.

  8. 8.

    Could you kind feminists please explain to me (in teenager’s terms) what you want, because I just don’t understand (I’m serious). Do you want to be thought of as sexy but not told that you shouldn’t be sexy? Do you want to not be thought of as sexy at all? Do you want to look sexy but not be told that you look sexy? Do you want to self-determine your own sexiness without relying on men to tell you? Do you want men to think you’re sexy because of your personality/spirit and not because of what you wear?

    I know those questions are probably absurd to you but I’m sitting here reading this post wondering what the hell I should tell my (yet unborn) daughters when they ask why I want them to wear sleeves. There seem to be so many landmines that I need to avoid that I just don’t know what I could possibly say that wouldn’t set a feminist off.

    (All this talk about “sexy” reminds me of one of the greatest-lines-ever in the movie This is Spinal Tap…”What’s wrong with being sexy?” “SexIST you idiot.”)

  9. 9.

    Now, while I’m guessing that many of the readers of our blog would dismiss some of her stronger claims about modesty and “compulsory femininity,”

    Seraphine, after having read the post in question and some of the ensuing comments, I would say that is a bit of an understatement.

    I think the church as an institution is actually attempting to promote the idea that we should not dress in ways that draw undue attention to our bodies, and in ways that focus on humility.

    Here is the relevant quote from For the Strength of Youth, directed to both YM and YW:

    The way you dress is a reflection of what you are on the inside. Your dress and grooming send messages about you to others and influence the way you and others act. When you are well groomed and modestly dressed, you invite the companionship of the Spirit and can exercise a good influence on those around you.

    Never lower your dress standards for any occasion. Doing so sends the message that you are using your body to get attention and approval and that modesty is important only when it is convenient.

    There are certainly other approaches in recent memory, probably most notably the reference to “living pornography”, but, overall, I think the church deserves at least a B-.

    Finally, please allow me to vent my frustration with the approach taken by Marcotte and others. Some of those people are hyper-sensitive to generalizations made about women, and insist that all the varying shades of feminism be given careful and considerate consideration. But ironically, they lump all patriarchies together into one undifferentiated mass and then blame it for whatever they perceive to be the problem du jour. I don’t think she cares much about modesty one way or the other. She is pursuing a narrowly defined political agenda, and modesty is simply the device she is using to advance her argument. I, for one, simply do not feel inclined to accept lectures on what constitutes acceptable behavior from Amanda Marcotte.

  10. 10.

    Rusty, I want to be thought of as a person. I don’t want what I wear to be a big deal. I don’t want to be thought of in terms of my sexiness.

    Why would you tell your sons you want them to wear sleeves?

    Mostly, I would hope that whatever you choose to tell your daughters or sons, it would be in a thoughtful way that affords them full human dignity and does not objectify them rather than worrying about offending a feminist.

    It might be worth your time if you end up having daughters to think about why certain things that offend feminists might be offensive rather than demonize the feminists for having their opinions.

  11. 11.

    considerate consideration. Duh.

  12. 12.

    Tom- I don’t think anyone is really advocating that we all just run around naked. I see it this way; The current discourse on modesty focuses almost exclusively on women, and effectively says “whatever you do, don’t be sexy!” Having modesty defined negetively (ie modesty is not [x]) ensures that whenever modesty is brought up everyone thinks about [x] right off the bat. So the conversation remains centered on sex, sexual attraction, and women’s bodies- the very things we’re trying to avoid thinking about. If we actively define modesty then we’ll get rid of the unhealthy fixation on what teenage girls may or may not be wearing.

    Rusty- tell your teenage girls the same thing you’d tell your teenage boy when he asks you why you don’t want him to play shirts vs skins.

  13. 13.

    Rusty,
    That’s a good question. Here’s one suggestion:
    How about telling your daughters, “Dress and behave in such a way that what you wear and how you act will make it easier for thoughtful people to give careful attention to the good, intelligent and thoughtful things you have to say without being distracted by your choice of clothing or by your behavior.” Then, when and if they need them, you can give some suggestions as to the particulars of non-distracting clothing that will make it easier for people to hear them, not just look at them.

  14. 14.

    I think the key thing is to reject the idea that women must take responsibility for controlling male sexuality. Men can and should control their own behavior, and the suggestion that they can’t is just an excuse to control and burden women. I think when we hold women accountable for men’s sexual behavior we’re on a slippery slope to blaming the victim.

  15. 15.

    Being completely honest, I think about 95% of the sneer comes from the hard scientist snob in me. The problem isn’t that she’s not arguing from a Gospel perspective, it’s that it’s an untestable “Just So” assertion of why modesty exists. It can’t be proven or disproven.

    Tom,
    At the very least, are you impressed that the explanation is consistent with modesty being much emphasized for women and girls and hardly mentioned for men and boys, both inside and outside the Church? And that modesty rules are much tighter in times and places where the power differential is larger between men and women?

    I realize that you will still be able to come up with alternative explanations, but I just want to point out that the idea Seraphine cites doesn’t come totally out of the blue.

  16. 16.

    Mary B, I think that’s the best one-paragraph explanation I’ve ever seen. Any chance I could get you here to be my daughter’s Beehive adviser :)?

  17. 17.

    I loved your post Seraphine. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I just read Reading Lolita in Tehran so it made me think a lot about how we enforce modesty. I think one key factor is that when we tell girls they have to dress modestly to help boys control their thoughts, we are not only objectifying women, but it also objectifies men. In essence we are animalizing men by telling women “men can’t control their thoughts. it is up to you to keep their thoughts out of the gutter.” While encouraging clean thoughts for men is a perk of dressing modestly, it should not be presented as the reason for dressing modestly.

    Rusty, that’s a good question– one that I think about a lot. Mary B gave a good reason, because it applies not only to your daughters who may want to wear a tube top but it can also apply to your sons and how they dress.

    Understanding modesty comes from a respect for your body and a respect for the principle. I’ve heard lots of people say that women who dress immodestly don’t have self-esteem, so they make up for it by parading their bodies. When you dress modestly, yes, you respect your body, but it’s also because you understand the principle. It doesn’t mean others who dress immodestly don’t respect their bodies. There’s much more to it that that.

    Hmm. I’m rambling. Great post, again, Seraphine.

  18. 18.

    Kristine, I’d definitely be interested in reading your post. Obviously, this post was focused more on some of the problems I see (rather than specific ideas for what our discourse on modesty should look like).

    Ziff, your first paragraph is a very good summary of what I’m trying to say (though I think this only happens in *some* discussions of church modesty, not all). I’d hadn’t thought of the parallel you raise re: church history, but you’re right that I’m trying to get us to think about how to avoid reinforcing the assumptions/ideas circulated by the media when we talk about sexuality/modesty.

  19. 19.

    Tom, I totally accept that you’re not going to accept Amanda’s ultimate take on modesty–I doubt that many of our feminist readers would completely accept her argument. The argument I presented in my post was a modified version of her argument (and one that does not object to modesty as a principle/standard).

    As for your comments on our sexual natures, I do think you raise a legitimate concern–we have sexual natures, and we shouldn’t stop talking about that. I don’t really have a better response than Starfoxy’s comment to you in comment #12 (thanks, Starfoxy!). And I think Ziff raises another good point in #15 when he talks about the gender imbalance.

  20. 20.

    Veritas, I hadn’t really thought about the potential connection you raise, but I think it’s certainly a possibility. Since I grew up outside of Utah and most of my friends have been non-Mormon, I haven’t had a lot of exposure to Mormon women having difficulties negotiating their bodies/sex after marriage/etc. (which means I’m not comfortable making any kinds of conclusions in this regard).

    AmyB, thanks for your thoughts. While I often wish I could wear a tank top or two in the middle of the summer, I generally am fine with the temple garment as a general standard of modesty. I definitely agree, though, with this comment:

    I wish there were a way to be comfortable with our own bodies and others’ bodies in a natural and healthy way. In the current Western cultural climate of simultaneous repression and oversexualization it seems nearly impossible.

  21. 21.

    Rusty, thanks so much for your questions. I liked Mary B’s general answer. If you feel like you need to address the whole “modesty and sexiness” theme, I would take AmyB’s suggestions to heart: do your best to explain the topic honestly, thoughtfully, and without resorting to explanations that objectify women.

    While this is obviously a generalization, I would say that feminists want to be seen as sexual beings under the appropriate circumstances (in their relationships, marriages, etc.), but that in most circumstances (including their interactions in the public sphere), they want to be seen first and foremost (as AmyB says) as a person.

  22. 22.

    Amy B:Why would you tell your sons you want them to wear sleeves?

    Well mostly because I think muscle shirts look ridiculous. I mean how can you take anything said by a dude wearing a muscle shirts seriously?

  23. 23.

    Mark IV, perhaps I did not make it clear enough that I wasn’t critiquing *all* discussions of modesty in the church–just the ones that fell into the parameters that I outlined in my post (which is enough of them that I think it’s important to discuss). But thanks for pointing out that our discussions on this topic at church aren’t always failures.

    And I can understand why you do not want to use Amanda Marcotte as a guide to your behavior. I’m more sympathetic to some of her arguments than you are (and think you’re reading her a bit uncharitably), but since I am not advocating her entire argument, I’ll leave this conversation for another day (since I’d rather have people engaging my argument than the one presented by Marcotte).

  24. 24.

    z, I think you’re definitely right. And the problems I observe in my post are definitely closely related to this problem (blaming women for men’s sexual behavior). And I think cmac adds another important consideration–it’s better for men if we spend more time emphasizing their agency and control rather than emphasizing the things women can (and/or should) do.

  25. 25.

    Good question, S., and a very interesting discussion. I like the comments so far — they seem to reflect an interesting divide.

    Like Amy, I think there’s no reason to think a little shoulder is provocative. There are moms at my daughter’s pre-school — a pretty conservative Protestant group — who wear sleeveless tops regularly. The tops are not at all immodest, and that’s something the Mormon cultural approach misses. Not all non-garment attire is equal.

    I agree with Seraphine, Amy, and others who point out that this burden seems to fall disproportionately on women. “You need to dress differently, so that other people don’t have trouble controlling their thoughts.” It’s buck-passing at its finest. The reason I can’t control my thoughts is because Sister Z showed too much of her clavicle. That attitude really does objectify both women and men. Women are nothing but potential sex objects, whose status is entirely determined by how much skin they show; men are nothing but collections of hormones, helplessly dragged down to destruction by flashes of skin.

    Rusty asks a very good question. We know there’s a problem; what’s the solution? There are a lot of competing concerns here.

    Overemphasis on looks creates many of the problems Seraphine and others point out. On the other hand, under-emphasis on looks can create its own problems. We’re already in a culture where massive numbers of young women suffer from eating disorders.

    As a parent of a young daughter, I think it’s important to give girls the right message. Yes, you are pretty. I tell my daughter that she’s pretty, all the time. I want her to feel good about herself, about her body, about her image. She’s going to receive enough negative messages from peers and media and everywhere else — you’re not thin enough, tan enough, whatever else. From me, she’s going to hear: You’re beautiful. Because she is.

    So I guess I disagree with the strong wording in #10, Amy. You write, “I want to be thought of as a person. I don’t want what I wear to be a big deal. I don’t want to be thought of in terms of my sexiness.”

    I disagree that our looks, our wardrobe, and so on are fully separable from our persons. They’re not. When my daughter dresses in a pretty new dress for Easter, she wants to know that her effort is appreciated.

    I’m happy to adopt a lesser version of your argument, though. I think your broader point, that one’s looks are only one facet of the person, and not at all the most important, is dead on.

    And so, yes, I tell my daughter that she’s pretty. But I also tell her that she’s smart, and talented, and congratulations for doing well on her school project, and so on. Ultimately, her looks are part of her — but only one part. And I don’t ignore the other parts.

    I suspect that the same applies to adults, and doubly so for people we’re not related to. I don’t really want to be completely unnoticed for looks; if I dress nicely for a conference, I hope that someone appreciates it. On the other hand, I’m much more interested in whether they listed to my talk; noticing physical characteristics is a minor concern. And I think that applies to most people. Pulchritude (or lack thereof) is not a primary characteristic of anyone except perhaps a professional supermodel. It’s not even secondary; for most normal people, it’s a tertiary (or quaternary, quinary, or senary) characteristic. I don’t mind if people notice that I’ve gotten a new haircut and put on a nice tie; I do mind if that’s all they notice.

    I don’t know for sure that the same view is held by any particular woman, but it dovetails with some of my own conversations with women.

    So I would agree, absolutely, that a statement that focuses solely on looks — “Sister B is a pretty person” — is a problem, because it emphasizes a relatively minor part of someone’s character, and in doing so slights her other qualities, which are much more important than the quinary characteristic of looks.

    On the other hand, a more complete statement — “Sister B is a great person; she’s smart and articulate, musically talented, and a good friend; also, she’s pretty” — seems less problematic to me, for exactly the same reasons. I don’t think that the problem is with any acknowledgment of physical attributes, but with over-emphasis of those attributes, at the expense of noticing or acknowledging attributes that are more central to the particular woman.

    And that’s the problem with, “on the stand we have with us High Councilor Smith and his lovely wife.” The real problem isn’t acknowledging the wife’s loveliness; it’s in choosing that as the single adjective we give her.

    Side note: All this subject to the wife/girlfriend exception: If your wife or girlfriend wants to be told that she’s sexy, first of all, then none of the above applies. Tell her she’s sexy, first. And then remind her that she’s also smart, talented, kind, etc.

    Hope this makes sense — I’m off to chase kids now . . .

  26. 26.

    I just did an Activity Day presentation (girls 8-11) about modesty and dress standards and grooming. I thought I did an awesome job.
    I started by talking about taking care of our bodies (brush teeth, brush hair, shower appropriate frequency that increases as they get older…ask your parents).
    Then I showed pictures of women. Police Officer, doctor & patient, etc. Asked what they could tell about the person (job). Asked if they could tell gender & age (adult/child). Asked if they could tell if good person. Asked if they could tell if Jesus loved the person (tricked some of them with that one). Construction workers with hard hats.
    I wanted to introduce the idea that you wear what is needed for the activity. That there ARE things that can be assumed based on what someone is wearing. And that there are things that you cannot assume. I just wanted the idea planted.
    Then I showed them pictures of basketball team. Uniform. And then Mary Lou Retton vaulting with her American Flag Olympic team gymnastics suit. I talked about how sometimes we represent something, our country or a team, or ourselves, etc.
    Then we played Apples to Apples that I created. It was all clothes and then different activities. So when the activity was beach, then the girls each looked in their hand for something like swimsuit, flip flops, shorts, or old jeans. Then when it was church they maybe could put down dress or hair brushed or necklace, or clean clothes, or whatever they wanted from their hand. Other activities were school, yard work, friend’s house, restaurant.
    So, I thought the game would help them see that different clothes are appropriate for different activities.
    Then I discussed dress standards of the church. I read a statement and they had to jump yes or no. I included things like shirts should have sleeves, but also that if you can’t find your sunday shoes, you wear other shoes that you have so you can go to church. I included that clothes are not the most important thing. That outside appearance is not more important that the person you are inside. That it doesn’t matter where you buy your clothes. That looking good isn’t more important than being good.
    I actually did this activity because I called up the leader and asked what she was doing for it, since I didn’t want a modesty talk to emphasize body parts for children that young. 8 year olds are still pretty young and what they wear is their parents realm.
    I really tried to give them a solid base for understanding taking care of your body and respecting it, and respecting those around you and respecting Heavenly Father. But I also wanted to make sure they understood that outside appearance is not something they should obsess about.
    That is what I think about modesty. And if you think about what the word means, you realize that it is about not walking into a room and thinking you have to be the best dressed, or the most expensively dressed (or on the flip side that you look down on those who are the best dressed or the most expensively dressed). They are simply clothes.

  27. 27.

    It might be worth your time if you end up having daughters to think about why certain things that offend feminists might be offensive rather than demonize the feminists for having their opinions.

    AmyB,
    Wow, I ask a sincere question wanting to know how to avoid offending feminists and by doing so I offend a feminist. I thought my question was part of the “thinking” but I guess all it was was me demonizing feminists (huh?). Sorry.

    Mary B,
    Thank you for your answer, I think that was what I was looking for. But I do have a question then about fashion: would you consider it immodest to wear an article of clothing that fully covered the body but had bright purple and yellow polka-dots or a tee-shirt with a political message or acid-washed jeans, all of which are distracting the viewer to things other than the personality and intelligence of said person? This issue of non-distraction seems to bring up a number of other issues doesn’t it? I mean, like all us designers are constantly told, “you cannot not communicate” and fashion is all about communicating, whether it’s sexiness or confidence or introversion or slobbiness or whatever. Would you say “neat and comely” is really the only acceptable option? (I hope you understand that I’m asking these questions sincerely)

    Saraphine,
    I appreciate your response. But I’m still a little confused. You seem to be saying that sexiness is appropriate in relationships/privately but not in the public sphere? Is that right? I understand that physical attraction shouldn’t be the primary focus but are you suggesting that it shouldn’t be present? I guess I see the problem as a pragmatic one. Physical attraction is all there is until you talk to the person and you only talk to a small fraction of people you see, especially potential mates.

  28. 28.

    I had the same thought as Rusty about clothes drawing attention to themselves, not the person.
    I think by the definition of detracting from the person, MANY young men are immodest, with crazy hair and clothing styles, especially the tight-fitting girl pants that sit just below their bottoms. Additionally, I think there are plenty of looser fitting sleeveless shirts that are more modest than tight fitting, low-cut, capped sleeved shirts I see at church.
    In my AZ highly concentrated LDS area, women spend a lot of time on their looks. There are wards where breast implants, fake tans, and highlights are the norm, not the exception. But, these women dress “modestly” and are married to bishops and stake presidents. Now, I don’t condemn any of these things (I have highlights, in fact), but I think it points to the ideas of how we see women in the church. Valuable at least in part because of their looks, but modest only in the length of sleeve kind of way. It is so strange to me.
    Also, how do we start teaching young men that they have a responsibility to be modest in this sense as well? What a great idea, equal emphasis to young men and young women. I especially liked this idea to help others not be

    distracted by your choice of clothing or by your behavior

    But, I believe the ability of a person to be distracted depends a lot on culture, gender, and age (older people are thrown a lot more by different styles, I think). So, I think it’s a good goal, but it wouldn’t always work.
    BTW, great discussion, thanks for the post!

  29. 29.

    Rusty, I’m apologize. I’m working on being more kind and respectful in my blogging, but I sometimes still get heated up and snap off a comment that could be put in a nicer way. I do think framing your questions in terms of whether or not they will offend a feminist isn’t very helpful. Rather look at the concerns themselves and decide whether or not you agree.

    I think that LDS treat modesty in a Law of Moses-ish type of way. How to keep the Sabbath, for instance, is rather ambiguous, so they made specific rules for how to do it- how many steps one can walk, etc. We know that our bodies are sacred and there is something important about the principle of modesty, and because of the temple garment we have a convenient line to draw. I don’t think there is anything more intrinsic about sleeves than there is about how many steps one walks on the Sabbath, but it gives us a hard and fast line that keeps us protected from being close to breaking the principle. One problem lies when the “rule” gets conflated with the principle, and we start trying to justify the rule as if it has intrinsic meaning itself.

  30. 30.

    Rusty,
    I think you are on to something. Some details of the English language need to be addressed first.
    If you look up the definition of “modest” you will get something like the following:

    1. having or showing a moderate, humble estimate of one’s merits, importance, etc.; free from vanity, egotism, boastfulness, or great pretensions.
    2. free from ostentation or showy extravagance.
    3. having or showing regard for the decencies of behavior, speech, dress, etc.; decent: a modest neckline on a dress.

    The word means far more than definition #3. Numbers 1 and 2 also go along with some of the principles I find and treasure in the New Testament. All three are ones I use when I teach about modesty.

    As for the particulars of purple and yellow polka dots, stonewashed jeans and slogan-laden t-shirts, it depends on what you are trying to say that day. If my high school colors are yellow and purple, such a polka-dotted shirt might be quite appropriate on the day of a big game, particularly if my main message that day was my enthusiasm for that game. One simply must be aware that when you wear certain articles of clothing those clothes may end up being the primary thing others remember about you and about what you said while you were wearing them. They may distract others from your words. And then choose accordingly.

    JKS, I liked your activity day description.

  31. 31.

    JKS–I liked your description a lot, too, and I think it’s great that you took the initiative to present a positive message. May your tribe increase!

  32. 32.

    Let me just pause for a second to give this quote a little sneer.

    God loves us.

    Sneeeeeeeeer. Needless to say, this is hardly the only (or most parsimonious) theory that accounts for the data.

    What I really want to know is why I wasn’t invited to the patriarchy’s Female Oppression Masterplanning Meeting and Clambake during which modesty was invented?

    Does the data preclude the theory that ideology can develop un-self-consciously and/or spontaneously?

    (I realize your comment was a joke–my response is intended equally as a joke. Invitations to storm the next installment of the Patriarchy Masterplanning Meeting are in the mail.)

  33. 33.

    I agree that our discourse on modesty often contributes to the very problem we are trying to address for the reasons already expressed by others. But I would go further. I think that our extrem focus on modesty is a solution in search of a problem. I just don’t see what the big deal is. I am the father of five daughters, now in their twenties. I have spent a lot of time over the last 20 years at church activities, school activities and community activities surrounded by my daughters and their peers. I work downtown in a relatively large and very secular city. I almost never see women dressed in ways that I consider to be immodest and I don’t believe I have ever seen any of the young women in our stake dressed in anything other than pretty normal and modest clothing. Never. So what are we so worked up about and why do we give this issue such emphasis?

    Mary B above nailed it. That is the only discussion I have ever had with any of my daughters. I just can’t imagine telling them that they should not expose their shoulders because they inspire inappropriate sexual thoughts in the boys that see them. Sleeves or no sleeves, exposed knees are covered knees? Good heavens, these are not issues of morality. I don’t want my daughters to think that every one of the women we see playing with their children at a park is immodest (and hence immoral) because she is wearing shorts and a tank top, or that every woman wearing a sleeveless gown at a cocktail party is immodest. Even more importantly, I don’t want my two sons to think that. I want them to think that this is perfectly acceptable attire in our culture, and it does not send any message at all about the person wearing the so called immodest clothing. If they think otherwise, then they need to grow up. I am convinced that the attitudes that they will absorb through that kind of teaching is far healthier than teaching them that women dressed “immodestly” are guilty of some kind of moral offence.

  34. 34.

    Seraphine,

    I think we actually agree on the substance of your argument: When we teach modesty in the church, we ought to exercise greater care than we sometimes do to help females, especially our young women, understand that their value isn’t derived from their ability to attract the sexual attention of males.

    I think we probably disagree on the reasons why we sometimes don’t teach modesty in a way that is 100% optimal. I take it that you more or less agree with the paragraph you quoted. Burkha or bikini, it’s all the fault of that darn partriarchy. I think that is an answer that is too simplistic, like saying that ‘Society’ is to blame for an increase in crime. On a certain level, that is certainly a true statement, but it does nothing to advance our understanding of the real problem.

    Human sexuality, however we want to define it, is a powerful and therefore potentially hugely disruptive force, and needs to be accounted for. While I agree that women should not be responsible for men’s sexual (mis)behavior, I think it is foolish to pretend that there is no difference in the way that men and women, speaking in general terms, approach sexuality. And I think any explanation of modesty needs to address that difference in some way. We are, after all, sexual beings, created male and female. We need to push back, hard, against the damage that is inflicted upon our YW by the overt sexualization of the female form. I think the approach taken by Mary B. in comment # 13 is just about perfect. But please notice, that approach acknowledges that you can dress and act in ways that draw unwanted attention.

  35. 35.

    Kiskilili,
    That’s the thing, we bring so many assumptions with us that a perfectly plausible theory to one person makes is completely silly. Any justification for modesty standards that invokes God’s preferences will be totally nonsensical to a lot of people.

    I actually think it’s possible that gender power struggles have a large part in influencing modesty standards from culture to culture. My guess is that there would be modesty standards of some kind even in hypothetical 100% gender egalitarian cultures. If I thought long enough I could probably come up with a plausible Just So story to explain the existence of modesty standards from an evolutionary/mating competition perspective. Or maybe not.

    And believe it or not, some of that forced femininity stuff in the essay really does resonate with me. It is absurd that women are expected to put colored powders and goop on their faces or that men can’t wear skirts. It’s double absurd that women are rewarded for cutting their breasts open and stuffing gel packs in there.

    And I don’t think for one minute that modesty standards, per se, came into existence because of God’s love for mankind. But regardless of how modesty standards came about, or what effects the particular standards have on women in society at large, it makes sense to me that God would inspire prophets to counsel Church members to dress in a way that instills or reflects a respect and reverence for bodies, for sex, and for marriage.

    The undercurrent I get from Marcotte is that we can’t draw any lines or teach any standards without oppressing women. And the view I get from feminists in the Church is that we can’t ever talk about modesty in sexual terms.

    I agree that modesty shouldn’t be exclusively about sex. But the fact is that we are sexual beings and objects of sexual desire. Acknowledging this as we speak about how it is appropriate to dress does not make us into nothing more than sexual objects. It acknowledges that sex drive is a large part of who we are.

  36. 36.

    Great post.

    I also feel that the typical LDS approach to modesty sexualizes body parts that really shouldn’t be sexualized, such as kneecaps and shoulders. After only three years in Utah, I’ve found that I’m much more likely to notice when a woman walks by in short shorts or a tank top than ever before. And this bothers me.

    In obsessing over covering women’s bodies, we’re reinforcing notions that the female body can’t be looked at in anything but sexual terms.

  37. 37.

    While people are inherently sexual beings, I believe that socialization also plays a very significant role in how we view others (particularly those of the opposite sex).

    When it comes to modesty, extremists on either end essentially agree that the human body (particularly the female body) can’t be viewed in anything but sexual terms. Pornographers exploit this belief, while those on the other end of the spectrum try to protect us from it.

    However, many who have studied art realize that even the nude human body (both male and female) can be portrayed in a non-sexual, even modest, manner. But if we have been socialized into believing that the body can only be viewed sexually, then guess what? We will view non-sexual nude art in purely sexual terms. Which is kind of missing the point, in my opinion.

  38. 38.

    Steve M:

    When it comes to modesty, extremists on either end essentially agree that the human body (particularly the female body) can’t be viewed in anything but sexual terms.

    Precisely. That is why I take issue with the way Marcotte frames the problem. She apparently can’t tell the difference between mullah Muhammed Omar and Gordon B. Hinckley. Her explanation infantalizes women, portraying them as both helpless and brainless, victims of an evil power she doesn’t even bother to define. They simply have no choice to be anything other than a slut or a prude.

  39. 39.

    Mark,

    I wasn’t trying to defend Marcotte in any of my comments. But I don’t believe she (or anyone else here) is saying that women “simply have no choice to be anything other than a slut or a prude.”

  40. 40.

    I think of clothing modesty in the same way I think about housing or lifestyle modesty–one doesn’t do or wear or buy things that call attention to one’s worldy possessions. To me, this applies to not flaunting our bodies or gratuitous wealth. I have at times been a little confused by the BYU honor code stating that faculty/students shouldn’t wear “form-fitting” clothes, because I think it’s proper for women to wear tailored clothes that are made to fit a woman’s body (in other words, form fitting). Personally, I think unisex clothes are too sloppy looking for a professional environment. So I usually interpret that clause to mean that we shouldn’t try to squeeze clothes that are a couple sizes too small.

    Serving in YW this year, I became weary of leaders telling girls “you can still be cute and modest,” which seems to imply that modesty is not inherently “cute.” Focusing on being outward appearances so much is what I think is the mistake. I also had to hold in a laugh when hearing a Priesthood leader talk about how inmodest a girl was b/c she wore a shirt that was so tight “you could see her bra” through the shirt. Of course, I could see his garments through his shirt.

  41. 41.

    Although not all discussions of immodesty/modesty reflect the prejudices of a virulently sexist patriarchy, I don’t find a material difference between objectifying women as “walking pornography” over the General Conference pulpit, and the comments Don Imus made recently on his talk show about the Rutgers womens’ basketball team.

  42. 42.

    I have at times been a little confused by the BYU honor code stating that faculty/students shouldn’t wear “form-fitting” clothes, because I think it’s proper for women to wear tailored clothes that are made to fit a woman’s body (in other words, form fitting).

    My wife has expressed frustration over that rule as well, for the same reasons you cited.

    I’m not a woman, but it’s puzzled me as well. Should women be trying to cover up the fact that they have breasts? Is having breasts something to be ashamed of? Or is it just that men can’t look at a woman with breasts without thinking “impure” thoughts?

    Okay, sorry for my frequent comments today. I’ll shut up for a while.

  43. 43.

    I don’t find a material difference between objectifying women as “walking pornography” over the General Conference pulpit, and the comments Don Imus made recently on his talk show about the Rutgers womens’ basketball team.

    If this is true, it speaks as much to the limitations of your own hermeneutic as to the nature of the utterances themselves. (And I say this as one who was disturbed by the “walking pornography” remark, as well.)

  44. 44.

    There’s a lot to like about Kristine’s recentering of “modesty” from sex to class, and she could certainly get more doctrinal purchase on a class-based modesty from the scriptures.

    But such a recentering would abandon the ideological work that modesty accomplishes in regulating sexual behavior, and perhaps we ought to be clear on what that work is—and whether it’s socially necessary—before we jettison it entirely. I take it that most feminists argue that modesty uses women’s clothing as means to regulating male sexual behavior, and that this instrumental infringement on women’s freedom is unjust and psychically damaging. I’m not clear on whether or not feminists think that modesty actually accomplishes the ends of regulating male sexual behavior–that is, do men in fact behave themselves better when women dress modestly?– and I certainly don’t know how to answer that question myself.

    But I think this line of analysis might get things wrong, or at best get things half right. What if modesty instead (or also) works independently to regulate female sexual behavior, as an end in itself and not merely a means? For women, far more than for (straight) men, I think, clothing choice is a form of sexual behavior. There’s some empirical evidence to suggest this, perhaps, and a lot of cultural confirmation: women themselves get turned on by wearing sexy clothing. A lambent excitement at being wanted by boys, at being sexy for boys, is how most girls experience desire.

    But I would argue that this kind of desire–wanting to be the object of desire, rather than its positive subject—is secondary and inferior, because, in its strong form, it can lead girls and women to engage in demeaning, painful, and even risky behavior of their own accord (i.e., Girls Gone Wild). Part of the work of modesty, then, may be to train female desire away from this inferior, secondary form toward a positive, affirmative, subject-centered form. When we encourage girls to dress and behave modestly, on this view, we’re asking them to curb their own impulse toward an inferior kind of desire in favor of a healthier and ultimately more satisfying kind of sexuality.

  45. 45.

    “When we encourage girls to dress and behave modestly, on this view, we’re asking them to curb their own impulse toward an inferior kind of desire in favor of a healthier and ultimately more satisfying kind of sexuality.”

    While I would agree with this statement, it is true only if we encourage girls to dress and behave modestly in the right way. If we do it with phrases like “walking pornography” or other similar kinds of expressions, we will not achieve the desired result. I am convinced that if a woman is dressing in a sexually suggestive manner, the real problem is not the way she is dressing–that is just a symptom of something else. And the solution will not be found by focusing on her dress and lecturing her about the need to cover her body.

  46. 46.

    Gosh, Rosalynde, I’ve missed you. I know you’ve commented here and there recently, but still…I’ve missed you.

    I agree with you that modesty can act as a means of constraining women’s sexual behavior. Unfortunately, appropriate women’s behavior is specifically codified as feminine. Within the context of femininity, what other means of the exercise of power do women have?

    I think we’d get a lot more mileage out of our modesty rhetoric if it wasn’t so appearance focused, and if we quit holding up femininity as a characteristic to which women should aspire.

  47. 47.

    Both the comment, “walking pornography” and Imus’ comments express extreme disapprobation for the woman’s appearance and choice of dress (and hairstyle). Would a woman rather be called “porn” or a “ho”? I would argue there is no material difference between these two characterizations.

    Well said, Lost #45.

  48. 48.

    Kaimi, thanks for the insight on how you practically deal with this with your own daughter. The issue that we want our looks to be appreciated under certain circumstances–which you do by telling your daughter that she pretty–is something I was trying to get at in my response to Rusty in comment #21.

    I’m not sure that we essentially disagree, since I do think there is a difference between telling your daughter she is pretty and the kinds of comments I often hear in GC on modesty (the example that ECS cites in comment #41 being one of the most egregious).

    JKS, that sounds like a great activity day! Thanks for some practical ideas on how to discuss this issue with girls and young women.

  49. 49.

    Rusty, sorry for the confusion. I agree that physical attraction can’t be eliminated from the public sphere–as many people have pointed out, we *are* beings with sexual natures.

    When I said that feminists wanted to be seen “first and foremost” as people, I was trying to suggest something along the lines of what Kaimi argued–that while physical attraction is present in our interactions with others, feminists don’t want their looks/dress/appearance to be the primary way through which others engage them.

    Jessawhy, thanks for your thoughts on how young men can also have difficulties with immodesty.

  50. 50.

    Lost (#33) and Steve M (#36 and #37), thanks for your observations that our discussions of modesty can potentially aggravate problems that often aren’t even there in the general public discourse (i.e. our discourse can potentially sexualize nude artwork or women with their knees bared, where most people would not respond to these kinds of works/situations in sexual ways).

  51. 51.

    Lost, # 45,

    You make a decent point, and it is one I have been thinking about lately. Sometimes, the way we approach problems is counterproductive. A sermon from the pulpit about the evils of liquor probably doesn’t help an ancoholic put down the bottle. Sister Bednar has spoken about the phenomenon of “plumber’s cleavage”, except it isn’t just for fat guys cleaning out your kitchen drain anymore. Does lecturing the MIA Maids about bsre midriffs actually motivate them to cover up? It beats me, but my guess is that it is ineffective. But there is still value in setting clear expectations.

    ECS # 47,

    I think what Rosalynde was getting at is the possibility that some women actually do enjoy sexual attention. A woman around the corner from me drives a red convertible with the personalized plate reading “PRNSTAR”. The statement about walking porn was meant, I think, as a caution, and should be taken as evidence of concern. The comment from Imus was meant as a cheap wisecrack at somebody else’s expense. I see a world of difference between the two statements.

  52. 52.

    Mark,

    Women may enjoy reveling in porn and promiscuity, but that doesn’t justify characterizations of such behavior that serve to objectify women (i.e., “walking porn”). I would expect such comments from someone like Imus, but I do expect a higher level of discourse from our Church leaders than referring to women (and never men) as “walking pornography”.

  53. 53.

    I think the point about compulsory femininity is also a good one. Is there a way for a woman to be a Mormon in good standing, religiously and culturally, without displaying traditional femininity?

  54. 54.

    Mark IV, you’re right that we probably agree for the most part. I think I am confused about how exactly you’re reading Marcotte’s argument, though. For example, when you write,

    I take it that you more or less agree with the paragraph you quoted. Burkha or bikini, it’s all the fault of that darn partriarchy. I think that is an answer that is too simplistic, like saying that ‘Society’ is to blame for an increase in crime. On a certain level, that is certainly a true statement, but it does nothing to advance our understanding of the real problem.

    It sounds to me like you think Marcotte is blaming “the patriarchy” for how women dress. I don’t think that’s what she’s arguing at all. I think she sees the choices women make about clothing as complex ones, but that they are always making those choices in a power structure where they are always at risk of being labeled a “slut” or a “prude,” and that it’s difficult to view their decisions outside of that framework.

    So, I don’t think she’s arguing what you think she is:

    “Her explanation infantalizes women, portraying them as both helpless and brainless, victims of an evil power she doesn’t even bother to define. They simply have no choice to be anything other than a slut or a prude.”

    I think she believes that women have lots of choices, but that in the context of our society (where women have less power) any choice that they make concerning dress is under the potential to be judged negatively. Now, of course, this is true for anyone (as others in this thread have pointed out)–our society is always going to be making judgments about how people dress and what that means. But in the case of women, our society is very apt to hold women to a standard to which men are not held to, use judgments about their dress (how “sexual” vs. how “modest” they are dressed) in order to dismiss other aspects of their behavior, and that this often happens in situations where it is inappropriate (just look at the recent media kerfluffles over Nancy Pelosi wearing the head scarf and Imus’ remarks on the Rutger’s women’s basketball team).

    Our church doesn’t completely escape this problem, though I think sometimes we do, which is where I think both of us would disagree with Marcotte.

  55. 55.

    ECS, I’m really not trying to defend the walking porn statement, honest! I’m suggesting a possible way to understand it. Is it possible for a woman to objectify herself? I think it is. So, at that point, how do we describe that behavior?

    BTW, I always find exchanges with you to be enlightening. I admire the way you explain and defend your positions.

  56. 56.

    Lost, I also object to the phrase “walking pornography,” and I agree that modest behavior ought to be our focus. Clothing choice is a part of behavior, of course, and as I argued above, I believe that clothing choice is an important aspect of female sexuality, so I would expect modest clothing to be a prominent subset of modest behavior for women.

    Ann, what a kind thing to say! Thanks for welcoming me back into full bloggernacle fellowship. I always love reading your contributions.

  57. 57.

    Tom, you wrote,

    And the view I get from feminists in the Church is that we can’t ever talk about modesty in sexual terms.

    I won’t speak for other feminists, but you’re pretty close to my original argument. I would probably revise it slightly to say that “if we are going to talk about modesty in sexual terms, we need to be very, very, very careful because otherwise we run the risk of reinforcing the very problems we are trying to address.” Most of the talks I see in church that talk about modesty in sexual terms are not very careful, which is why I made this post.

  58. 58.

    Seraphine, there you go again, being nicer to me than I deserve!

    I will agree with you that I am giving Marcotte’s argument a critical, rather than a charitable, reading. I view her as a polemicist and practicioner of invective, the lefty equivalent of Ann Coulter, though not quite as skilled and certainly more vulgar. She paints with a pretty broad brush in the blackest of tones, and that is what really bugged me. I’ve gone back and re-read the entire essay, and I still don’t see the complexity and nuance you apparently do, so we’ll disagree there.

  59. 59.

    Rosalynde, you raise some interesting points. First, I would say that feminists generally reject the claim that modesty regulates male sexual behavior. There were some recent discussions in the feminist blogosphere that no matter how modestly women dress, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. If the rule is that women’s knees should be covered, people (primarily the men in power) will argue knees will excite men’s desires; if the rule is that women’s faces and wrists and ankles should be covered (as in some Arab countries), than the men in power will argue that displaying those things will excite male desire.

    It seems to me that in your discussion of women’s desire, you main point is that we need need to get women to not *desire* to be objects. As a feminist, I am in complete agreement. I also agree with Lost, though, that our current discourse on modesty does not seem to be doing a very good job of addressing this problem. I also agree with Ann and z that our focus on appearance and traditional femininity seems to compound the problem. In general, I think feminists are doing a better job getting to disassociate desire and being an object than we are in a lot of ways.

  60. 60.

    Not to beat up on Elder Oaks or anything (his “walking pornography” comment has been referred to a few times), but I’m surprised nobody has mentioned this line:

    “Your destiny is to be a wife and a mother in Zion, not a model and a streetwalker in Babylon. You should dress and act accordingly.” (“Be Wise”, Devotional at BYU-I, 7 Nov. 2006)

    In my opinion, such comments encourage the binary thinking that often shows up in discussions about modesty. Either you cover your knees and shoulders, or you’re essentially a hooker (or porn, or a slut, or whatever).

  61. 61.

    When I say “we” in my last sentence of my last comment, I mean “we, as members of the church.”

  62. 62.

    Mark IV, in response to your question in comment #55:

    Is it possible for a woman to objectify herself? I think it is. So, at that point, how do we describe that behavior?

    I think it’s better to say that this woman is internalizing the cultural pressure to objectify her body (and try to address the reasons she may be trying to do so) that to call her “walking pornography.” What purpose does the latter serve except to reinforce the messages of objectification that this woman is internalizing (and also reinforce that message in other women’s minds)?

    As for your comment #58, while I agree that Marcotte is liberal and often incendiary, I see her in a very different light than Coulter. I read a lot of her (Marcotte’s) blog posts, and in my opinion, despite her strong tone and unwavering stances on certain issues, she often has quite a nuanced take on things (so I’m probably reading her post in that light). So I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. :)

  63. 63.

    Mark IV – thanks. I enjoy chatting with you, too. I find our conversations much more congenial in person, however. :) As to the substance of your question, I think Mary B. waay up in comment #13 offers some useful advice on how to discuss this issue respectfully and constructively.

    Steve M. – interesting (and unfortunately worded) quote. If you’re “model”, you’re the equivalent of a whore? This language depresses me. Especially coming from a former Utah Supreme Court justice.

  64. 64.

    Er, “a” model, that is. LOL

  65. 65.

    What “walking pornography” statement are we talking about? Is it the April 05 General Conference talk where, after 15 minutes of berating men for pornography use, and in the context of speaking against the patronizing of pornography, Elder Oaks briefly warns, “And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.”

    What purpose does this statement serve? Elder Oaks’ concern here is with “efforts to protect our loved ones and our environment from the onslaught of pornography,” not, at the present moment, with modesty itself. He is asking young women to be conscientious of the struggles of some of their brothers and to limit the opportunities for some men to objectify them in a potentially destructive way.

    At times I think I’m beginning to grasp feminism, but how Elder Oaks’ plea for compassion could be offensive remains, I’m afraid, quite beyond me.

  66. 66.

    Eric, it’s offensive because it blames women for ‘becoming pornography’ rather than blaming men for seeing women as pornography. And it legitimizes and excuses men’s failure to see women as persons rather than pornography, and reinforces the idea that it’s appropriate to manage male sexuality by restricting women’s freedoms. One of the important ideas in feminism is that men are strong enough to treat women as people rather than objects.

  67. 67.

    z,

    That’s precisely the answer I was looking for because that’s just the point I’m trying to make. He is NOT blaming women rather than men and I think the context of the statement, a full GC discourse focused on blaming men for this problem, shows us that. And it most certainly does NOT “legitimize and excuse men’s failure to see women as persons rather than pornography” in its context. Elder Oaks makes it abundantly clear that this failure is men’s own.

    To espouse an attitude of “men should be able to look away if they want so I’m going to dress however I want” is an attitude of pure selfishness, even though it be liberating. Elder Oaks is asking for Christian sympathy, not pointing the finger of fault. It’s the spirit of the statement that I think counts in this case.

    As a stand alone statement of principle, I understand the objection. But you can’t pull something out of context, isolate it and then reel in horror for how some people may misinterpret it in its isolated state.

  68. 68.

    I agree with Eric that this one comment by Elder Oaks has been blown way out of proportion and twisted far beyond the actual statement. Here it is:

    Finally, do not patronize pornography. Do not use your purchasing power to support moral degradation. And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.

    Elder Oaks does not blame women for ‘becoming pornography'; rather he simply states that in the eyes of some men, when young women dress immodestly they are viewed as pornography whether they like it (or realize it) or not. In fact Elder Oaks doesn’t even give explicit counsel on how young women should dress in that talk — he just warns them of the fact that they will likely be ogled inappropriately if they dress immodestly.

    He is not letting men off the hook at all. (The whole talk is basically blasting men for their difficulties controlling their sexual appetites after all.) Rather he is alerting the more naive among us to the fact that there are sharks out there and that a young woman dressing immodestly can be like swimming with an open wound — it attracts those sharks.

    I think it is unfair to Elder Oaks to take this one sentence out of the context of the sermon and make him an offender for a word over it.

  69. 69.

    Eric, I think you make a good argument. I’m glad to know of your reading, but I simply can’t share it. The Elder said that the women are “becoming pornography.” Not that they are making it easier for men to see them as pornography. Not that they could choose to be helpful by dressing modestly. If women dress a certain way, they are pornography. It’s unacceptable to say that, and in the context of our society and its history of treating women as objects and burdening them with responsibility for male sexual behavior, unacceptable even to leave it as a plausible interpretation.

  70. 70.

    I’m going to have to agree with z on this one. And the fact that he says “magnifying the problem” indicates that while he thinks men need to be in control of their sexual desires, he seems women dressing immodestly as part of the problem (i.e. they bear a certain amount of responsibility).

    As z explains, context is hugely important. If we did not have a pervasive media that constantly objectified and commodified women’s bodies, I might be more willing to be generous in my reading of Elder Oaks’ statement.

  71. 71.

    z: If women dress a certain way, they are pornography.

    No, he didn’t. He said “And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.”

    The qualifying statement “to some of the men who see you” makes his statement about “becoming pornography” an issue of perception rather that actually what they are.

  72. 72.

    Well, I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree. To me it’s that they are pornography to those men, rather than that those men are making the error of perceiving them as pornography. And I agree with Seraphine’s point about the assignment of responsibility.

    But making it about one or another particular statement misses the point. The view that the Elder may or may not have expressed exists and is held by many, and that, rather than any particular statement, is the problem.

  73. 73.

    z,

    Well I will certainly agree with you that anyone who actually believes that anyone (male or female) can be pornography (rather than be perceived as pornography) is just wrong. I was mostly arguing against the insinuation that Elder Oaks said or meant that in his sermon.

    (Franky, I don’t think the idea of a person being pornography even makes sense — it is especially absurd in a Mormon theological context where we are all understood to be children of God.)

  74. 74.

    But would you allow the argument to go the other way?

    We blame males for the problem of pornography, as they are the paying customers. No porn consumers, no porn, no subsequent objectivization of female bodies.

    So, what if a young man excused his porn consumption on the pretext that he was just responding to the messages that a pervasive media was sending him? How sympathetic would we be to his rationalizations? Everybody on this thread would pause and sneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer at his lameness. We welcome denunciations of porn from the pulpit, we have no regard for the self esteem of porn users, and we don’t care very much whether the approach we take is helpful in getting them to change.

    I get twitchy when we talk too much about things like the messages society is sending, bombardment by the media, external pressures, and so on. I don’t believe they are excuses for scuzzy, or sub-optimal, behavior. If we can’t expect a woman to be careful with the message she sends by the way she dresses, I don’t understand why we have to walk on tippy-toes and exercise extreme caution about whatever messages we may be sending her way.

    I really do think this is a difference in the way we treat YW and YM. A young man who tries to explain his slackerness by saying that he is bombarded by subliminal slacker messages in popular society would be laughed to derision by everybody who knows him. I think we damage our YW when we allow that excuse. And I think, to the extent modern feminism perpetuates the language of victimhood and and makes excuses by portraying females as helpless receivers of messages, it is complicit in the damage.

  75. 75.

    Geoff, what do you think of the language that inappropriately dressed women _are_ “streetwalkers in Babylon” (i.e., prostitutes) merely on the basis of their appearance?

  76. 76.

    ECS,

    I’m afraid I don’t know what you are referring to. Can you explain further?

  77. 77.

    Geoff J, see comment # 60.

  78. 78.

    Mark, perhaps I was not being clear. I’m not saying that this woman’s behavior is not a problem (I’m fully in support of women viewing themselves as subjects rather than sexual objects)–I’m saying that calling a woman “walking pornography” is not necessarily the best solution to this problem. Especially since, when we speak in church, the message goes out to *all* women, and because women are constantly bombarded with objectifying messages, I think we are best served by taking a different approach.

  79. 79.

    Geoff- this is the full quote:

    Sisters, don’t fall for the worldly urging that women should emulate men in various masculine characteristics. That is not what the Lord created you to do. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that women should not be doctors or lawyers or any particular occupation that fits their circumstances. To use lawyering as an example, what I am saying is that women should not attempt to be manly lawyers. Nor should women emulate the worldly ways of womanhood. Your destiny is to be a wife and a mother in Zion, not a model and a streetwalker in Babylon. You should dress and act accordingly.

  80. 80.

    Well, as an individual I can’t really speak to what ‘we would do’, but I think it would be very inappropriate to sneer at that young man. His point is a legitimate one: he lives in a society that tells him he must consume porn or be less of a man, and that puts him to a cruel choice. The way our society treats gender and sexuality is harmful to both women and men, and it’s difficult for all people to resist strong messages from society at large. But still, the solution is for men to stop objectifying women, so he would have to stop watching porn. Whereas the solution to the ‘walking pornography’ problem isn’t for women to dress more modestly, because if men are determined to sexualize and objectify women, no amount of modesty will ever be enough, and it comes at a cost to women’s liberty.

  81. 81.

    ECS: Geoff, what do you think of the language that inappropriately dressed women _are_ “streetwalkers in Babylon” (i.e., prostitutes) merely on the basis of their appearance?

    Ok, I am caught up now.

    I think the actual statement does not say what you said. In other words, Elder Oaks never said “inappropriately dressed women _are_ “streetwalkers in Babylon”. Those are your words.

  82. 82.

    BTW — On the subject of men and porn I thought this column in Salon was very provocative. (Hat tip to the BCC sidebar)

  83. 83.

    LOL, Geoff. The actual statement says that women should not be “manly lawyers”, “models” or “streetwalkers in Babylon”. I’m curious as to how one would determine if a woman is a “manly” lawyer, a “model” or a “streetwalker in Babylon”. It’s a reasonable assumption that Elder Oaks is commenting on the woman’s appearance, because this makes her a “model”, “manly” or a “streetwalker”. I think this is a reasonable assumption because the last sentence in his paragraph is “You should dress and act accordingly.”

    I could be wrong, however. It could be that Elder Oaks was actually warning the women in the audience not to _become_ streetwalkers/prostitutes after they graduated from BYU-Idaho (rather than to look like a streetwalker/prostitute).

  84. 84.

    z, I think the relevant question is this: Do women sometimes objectify their own bodies, of their own free will? If we answer that question affirmatively (and I think we must), we need to develop a more robust and comprehensive explanation for it than simply saying that the patriarchy made them do it. That is the point I am trying to make.

  85. 85.

    I confess I don’t really see how that’s the relevant question, or what it’s relevant to. Maybe I’ve missed something upthread, but could you just restate your argument concisely?

  86. 86.

    Have any of you ever read the police blotter for Rexburg, ID? It is funny and dndearing at the same time. Cops there spend their days busting freshmen for jaywalking, and “booting” cars parked on campus w/o the right permit. I honestly would be surprised of there has ever been a case of prostitution there.

  87. 87.

    Maybe Mark IV is saying that what if women want to be treated as objects, and men just happen to be serendipitous bystanders to all the walking pornography?

  88. 88.

    z, sure, and thanks for allowing me to attempt clarification. I’m reacting to this comment, in the paragraph Seraphine quoted in her original post:

    Modesty exists mostly as a reason to obsess over what women are wearing and remind them non-stop that no matter what else they do with themselves, they’re just sex objects in the eyes of the patriarchy.

    I think that explanation is insufficient, because I think some women sometimes freely choose to objectify their own bodies. While I certainly do object to the way that lots of men objectify the female body, I think there are other, good reasons for modesty to exist.

  89. 89.

    Hehe. Ok — thanks ECS. That gives me more to work with.

    I’m curious as to how one would determine if a woman is a “manly” lawyer, a “model” or a “streetwalker in Babylon”.

    I don’t really know what criteria Elder Oaks had in mind to define “manly lawyers” or “models and streetwalker in Babylon” either. However I think the last two parts of the positive counsel he gives (the do’s rather than the don’ts) are directly connected:

    Your destiny is to be a wife and a mother in Zion… You should dress and act accordingly.

    In context I read this as the a version of the same message z and Seraphine are using here: That none of the Saints should not let the culture of Babylon (read: the bombarding we receive from media) have much sway in our decisions about how to act and dress. This is no new message of course. The idea is: Rather that adhere to the standards of Babylon we should adhere to standard of Zion. That is a very pro-female message I think and I can’t see why a Mormon feminist would object to that.

  90. 90.

    ECS, exactly, I find myself in that position all the time. Frankly, I am getting tired of all those women wanting to commit adultery with me in their hearts, but I know they are just victims of their lust. Such are my trials.

  91. 91.

    There is a stray “not” in that last paragraph. Sorry.

  92. 92.

    But seriously, the point RW made in # 44 is a good one, isn’t it?

  93. 93.

    Thanks, Mark IV, and I would direct your attention to the word ‘mostly’ in the first line. Your point isn’t inconsistent with Amanda Marcotte’s statement.

  94. 94.

    Mark, I wonder if what z is confused about is that she’s not entirely sure *how* you see women objectifying their own bodies. In feminist circles, “objectifying bodies” typically means “viewing bodies as objects,” and most women I know have a much more complicated relationship with their own body than simply viewing it as an object. On the other hand, men have the luxury of viewing women’s bodies as objects (which is not to say that all men do) because those men are not in possession of the bodies. So, maybe you could clarify what you mean by “women freely choose to objectify their own bodies.”

  95. 95.

    Mark, yes, Rosalynde makes a good point: we should be doing everything in our power to prevent women from desiring to be viewed as objects. Feminists spend a whole lot of time arguing this very point. But as a number of people have reiterated, the problem of women wanting to be desired objects rather than desiring subjects is not best solved by calling women to repentance for being “walking pornography.”

  96. 96.

    Geoff, I agree that the first part of the quote is very good. I appreciate Elder Oaks’ recognition that women may pursue their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, or other professionals. This is all good stuff! Which is why I was so surprised by the “manly” lawyers comment – and the mention of “models” and “streetwalkers in Babylon”. Huh?

    In any event, I giggled at the thought of Elder Oaks, who was rumored to be a possible appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court by the Reagan Administration, trying to explain his “manly” lawyers comment to the Senate confirmation committee. (especially if Hillary Clinton were a member!)

  97. 97.

    Mark #90 – maybe you can share your perspective on unwittingly becoming “walking pornography” ;)

  98. 98.

    trying to explain his “manly” lawyers comment to the Senate confirmation committee. (especially if Hillary Clinton were a member!)

    Lol!

  99. 99.

    Seraphine, yes, that is a fair distinction to make.

    I think what I mean is something like this.

    1. Women are moral agents, responsible for their actions.

    2. Some women conciously, and with deliberate intent, dress and act in a way calculated to draw a man’s attention, in a sexual way. She uses her body as a means to an end.

    3. When we rationalize her behavior on the grounds that society bombarded her, or when we invoke the bogeyman of patriarchy, we are insulting her by implying she is not fully adult.

  100. 100.

    Well, the “manly lawyer” comment was kind of funny, and Elder Oaks probably is much less careful with what he says along these lines now that he’s working for the Church instead of sitting on the bench.

    On the other hand, I wonder if Elder Oaks held the same opinion of women as he sat on the Utah Supreme Court listening to “manly” women lawyers. I must say that it’s upsetting to me, as a lawyer, to see this language used by men who have worked in my profession, because I’m sure Elder Oaks isn’t the only man in a position of power who still thinks women should be “feminine” and not “manly” (whatever that means). Most important, however, I hope judges who harbor a distaste for “manly” women lawyers do not allow their personal views on women to play a role in deciding cases brought before them by women or about women.

  101. 101.

    I see Mark’s point. I think women (and especially teenage girls) sometimes do desire to be sexual objects by the way the dress, act, talk, etc. There’s a zillion years of sexual history about this, isn’t there? I think the ideal of women seeing themselves as sexual subjects is the exception, not the norm of our culture.
    I have to admit when I read Rosalynde’s (#44) idea that

    women themselves get turned on by wearing sexy clothing. A lambent excitement at being wanted by boys, at being sexy for boys, is how most girls experience desire.

    I totally agreed. I mean, isn’t that the point of lingerie? (it does very little to excite my husband) The idea that wanting to be the object of desire is secondary and inferior to wanting to be the subject of that desire is a very difficult concept for me, and I can understand that teenage girls have no clue.
    I think discussions of modesty must be framed in healthy discussions of sexuality. They seem rather inseperable.

  102. 102.

    With respect to Elder Oaks statement about immodestly dressed women becoming pornography to some men, I don’t care which of the two different interpretations offered above is correct. They are both offensive and serve to make Seraphine’s original point. It is stunning to me that anybody would ever suggest to a general conference audience that any of the women in that audience might be or might be perceived by some men to be pornography by dressing immodestly. The term “immodest” to that audience does not mean “dresses like a stripper”. It means “skirt too shirt”, “sleeveless”, “strapless”, or maybe a bare midriff. The term pornography should never be applied to such women, ever. I do not want my sons or my daughters ever to be exposed to that kind of teaching.

    And I happen to know, love and admire Elder Oaks.

  103. 103.

    Lost: It is stunning to me that anybody would ever suggest to a general conference audience that any of the women in that audience might be or might be perceived by some men to be pornography by dressing immodestly.

    Wow. Well I guess we are even then because I find it stunning that anyone could, in all seriousness, deny that young women are more likely to be looked at as pornography by some men when they dress immodestly than when they dress modestly.

    I suspect you and I understand the word immodest differently or the word pornography differently because if we don’t I find your comment totally baffling.

  104. 104.

    Geoff, what I find objectionable about the “pornography” statement is that it dehumanizes these girls entirely: pornography is not human, even an objectified human, but a cynically manipulated representation of a human. Even when these girls are deliberately attempting to attract sexual attention, they are still fully human; they are not pornography; they are more than images on a screen or pages in a magazine.

    However, in my most despairing moments it seems to me that the primary operation of male sexuality, in any form, is to dehumanize women, more or less fully; that male desire is inherently incompatible with a fully realized apprehension of women. Shades of Andrea Dworkin all-sex-is-rape, I suppose. Maybe Elder Oaks is just bringing us this bleak truth. Fortunately I don’t despair very often. It’s a bad place to be.

  105. 105.

    Geoff J: Let me try to elaborate then. I do not deny that a woman appearing in a pornographic movie, or stripper on stage is likely to be looked at as pornography by men. That, after all, is the definition of pornography. But a woman who is wearing a tank top, or a short skirt, or a sleeveless and strapless gown is considered to be dressed immodestly as that term is generally used within the church. That is clearly not pornography, unless we are willing to empty that word of all meaning.

    In a talk dedicated to the evils of real pornography, it is stunning to me that anybody would suggest that any woman could become pornography, or that any man could ever reasonably look upon any woman as pornography merely because she is dressed immodestly. By doing so, on one interpretation of his remarks, we are telling women and men that women become pornography by the mere act of exposing too much of their legs, arms or midriffs. On the other interpration of his remarks, we are telling women and men that the term we use to describe graphic and sexually explicit images also applies to images that men might have of women dressed in short skirts and tank tops. I have seen real pornography, and I have seen women in short skirts. They are not even in the same category and talking about them as if they are is a classic example of the problem identified by Seraphine and others on this thread. It contributes to the objectification of women and our obsession with over-sexualizing women’s bodies. It also heaps unnecessary guilt and shame upon men by suggesting to them that noticing and admiring an attractive woman in a shirt skirt is on a par with viewing pornography.

    If your point is that some men are capable of conjuring up sexually explicit images of a woman as a result of her wearing a short skirt, then I would agree. But many men are capable of conjuring up sexually explicit images of a woman who flashes a friendly smile at him. Shall we also lump friendly women in with the the porn starts?

  106. 106.

    Rosalyne: Please don’t despair. I know of at least one man who does not fit your description, but you will have to take my word for it. I am pretty sure there are others too.

    But your point is well taken. Based on my experience in counselling with many young men experiencing difficulties with porn or sexuality in general, I believe that our way of talking about these issues in the church contributes to the very problem we are trying to solve. We are dehumanizing women and men, we are shaming them and we are driving them underground with destructive sexual obsessions. When talking to such men, I always tried to help them see women, even the porn stars, as whole people, and as their sisters, rather than as fantasies. But that is just me playing armchair psychologist.

  107. 107.

    Well said, Lost.

  108. 108.

    Rosalynde: what I find objectionable about the “pornography” statement is that it dehumanizes these girls entirely

    As I read Elder Oaks comment, that is part of what he is warning the more naive young women in congregation about. That there are predatory men out there who are more likely to view them not as humans but as pornography when they dress immodestly. Yes, the fact that some men do that is deeply objectionable and the rest of the sermon is preaching about how totally unacceptable that is among the Saints. But I see nothing wrong with alerting the young women to the increased risk they take along these lines (even if it is just the risk of being ogled inappropriately by some pervert) when they spurn the modestly standards of Mormonism.

    Lost: If your point is that some men are capable of conjuring up sexually explicit images of a woman as a result of her wearing a short skirt, then I would agree.

    Yes that is largely my point. And the warning Elder Oaks gives to the young women is that such conjuring is much more likely to happen to them when they dress immodestly. Now the young women of the church are free to disregard that warning and say “I might as well dress immodestly because there are some men who will conjure up sexually explicit images about me no matter what I wear”. They are free to do so of course. But that doesn’t make the Elder Oaks’ point about the likelihood of it happening as a result of dressing immodestly less true.

    Also, I agree with your last comment. Rosalynde need not despair because I presume she is not married to part of that group of “some men” who dehumanize women when it comes to all things sexual. I am not one of those men. In fact I suspect that the the percentage of such men among active Mormons is about as high as the percentage of off-the-wagon alcoholics among active Mormons…

  109. 109.

    Geoff, you are so agreeable that it’s difficult to disagree with you :)

    As I read Elder Oaks’ comment, it is HE who dehumanizes women by saying inappropriately dressed women will become “pornography” (i.e., objects) to the men who look at them. Lost’s comment #105 sums this up best. Women wearing short skirts are not “pornography”. Elder Oaks, however, appears to say otherwise.

  110. 110.

    Well again I think the actual quote does not support your reading ECS.

    Finally, do not patronize pornography. Do not use your purchasing power to support moral degradation. And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you. (Italics mine)

    The fact that Elder Oaks says they become pornography only “to some of the men” who see them clearly implies that they do not become pornography to the the rest of the men that see them. Obviously Elder Oaks includes himself among those who do not see immodestly dressed young women as pornography and thus he is not among those who dehumanize women because of their dress. (Contra your conclusion.)

  111. 111.

    As I read Elder Oaks comment, that is part of what he is warning the more naive young women in congregation about. That there are predatory men out there who are more likely to view them not as humans but as pornography when they dress immodestly…. But I see nothing wrong with alerting the young women to the increased risk they take along these lines (even if it is just the risk of being ogled inappropriately by some pervert) when they spurn the modestly standards of Mormonism.

    My reading of the Oaks’ quote is a little different. To me, it doesn’t seem that he’s warning women that there are predatory men out there who are more likely to view them as objects if they dress immodestly. His point seems to be that women who dress “immodestly” may be guilty (and thus bear part of the burden) of aggravating some men’s pornography problems. And this is what’s objectionable to me: placing part of the blame for men’s objectification of women on “immodest” women, to the point where he even equates them with pornography.

    When Elder Oaks talks about immodesty, I don’t think he’s talking about the wearing of extremely revealing clothing that quite obviously are designed to draw attention to one’s physical features. I don’t think he’s talking about strippers or porn stars or others who arguably objectify themselves. Most active LDS women probably have very little risk of adopting such fashions.

    Rather, it’s more likely that he’s referring to those who choose to wear tank tops, strapless dresses, shorts that don’t extend to the knee, or other fashions that aren’t considered immodest by Western standards of modesty. If a man looks at a woman in a tank top and sees “pornography,” then I believe that this is wholly his problem, and the woman should not bear any of the blame or responsibility for this man’s problem.

  112. 112.

    Okay, Geoff. I do see your point. I find it offensive, however, to refer to women as “pornography” in a General Conference talk.

  113. 113.

    Geoff J, while I can understand where your reading is coming from, I have a hard time reading his comment as a warning (i.e. “you should be careful of predatory men who will view you as pornography”) when he tells the young women they are “magnifying this problem.”

    And thanks, Rosalynde, Lost, and ECS for saying much more eloquently what I was thinking.

  114. 114.

    I find it offensive, however, to refer to women as “pornography” in a General Conference talk.

    This all comes back to the age old question about whether or not pornography is in the eye of the beholder. If it is, then there is nothing offensive about telling someone they may unwittingly become pornography for certain observers if they are not careful. If you think pornography is not in the eye of the beholder, then I would simply ask you to define pornography for me so I can know what it is.

  115. 115.

    Geoff J: Thank you for the clarification. I think we understand each other better now and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I will add more comment. In my view, if a man sees an immodestly dressed woman and then conjures up pornographic images in his mind, the woman does not become pornography even to him. He may have used her as a catalyst to create other images, but those images are not her. Those images in his mind are fantasies that he invented. She did not become porn, but he used her as an excuse to invent his own porn. We should never tell women dressed in short skirts that they become pornography, even in the subjective sense that you believe Elder Oaks’ intended, because it is not true, it is demeaning and sends the wrong message to both women and men.

    Frankly, I doubt very much that many men conjure up pornographic images in their mind as a result of seeing womens exposed shoulders or legs. I think they do find themselves attracted to what they see, but that is light years away from pornography.

  116. 116.

    Mark IV (#99), I don’t know that we’re in complete disagreement. I agree that women are moral agents, and that they can use their bodies in problematic ways. However, when I think about the causes of the problem, I assume that she does this because she has learned that this is this only way she believes she can get attention, power, etc. (especially since she’s been told over and over and over again in the media, etc., that if she acts this way, she *is* going to get attention).

    So, I’m not trying to say her behavior is not a problem. I’m just trying to make the point that calling her “walking pornography” is not going to solve anything (and is probably going to make things worse, since it’s reinforcing her current [mis-]understanding of her own body).

    Or, maybe to sum it up more generally: I want to acknowledge cultural causes while still holding onto a notion of individual responsibility. Agency is an important concept for me, but I think it’s best when we try to understand the choices that people make in the context of the society/culture in which they’re making them.

    (Also, because we have such a problematic history worldwide of controlling women’s bodies [society and institutions telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies] in multiple ways, I tend to be very wary about anyone who sounds like they might be participating in this kind of discourse [a wariness I think many feminists share].)

    So, how’s that for a convolunted response. And after you gave me such a nice list! :)

  117. 117.

    Jacob, we don’t need to agree upon a definition of pornography in order to discuss the issue of modesty. My point is that it is offensive and wholly unnecessary to refer to women being pornography or becoming pornography in a General Conference talk on modesty.

  118. 118.

    Steve M (#111),

    As you know Elder Oaks is a seasoned attorney and state supreme court justice. He was reading this talk rather than improvising. I think it is safe to say that he was fully aware of what he was saying and what he was not saying in that single sentence that has so many people up in arms.

    So I think that a solid argument can be made that Elder Oaks intended to imply, among other things, that by dressing modestly young women can help the pathetic men who have personal problems with viewing women as objects of lust to control their own objectionable personal weakness (as Eric argued in #67). I also think that he meant to imply a warning to the naive young women out there as I have been arguing here. But I don’t think it is fair to say he was “placing part of the blame for men’s objectification of women on immodest’ women”. I don’t see any justification for taking his meaning that far in the text. Rather,the general talk places the blame on the weakness of individuals in responding to the temptations and pressures of our culture (which is what we are all in agreement about in this conversation).

  119. 119.

    Lost: In my view, if a man sees an immodestly dressed woman and then conjures up pornographic images in his mind, the woman does not become pornography even to him. He may have used her as a catalyst to create other images, but those images are not her.

    I think that is a pretty solid argument. No human being is ever pornography after all. But I think Jacob’s point about pornography being in the eye of the beholder is very important here. It is obviously a very difficult thing to define or we wouldn’t have the famous “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it” line.

    ECS: My point is that it is offensive and wholly unnecessary to refer to women being pornography or becoming pornography in a General Conference talk on modesty.

    Actually it was a talk on pornography. The modesty comment was just a one sentence warning/plea in the closing.

    As for how appropriate it was — I think apostles are charged to tell us truth and warn us of dangers (even if they are uncomfortable truths). If he said something untrue I would agree that it was inappropriate but I think he spoke truth in that sentence.

  120. 120.

    Geoff, Elder Oaks tells women directly: “you are magnifying this problem”. YOU are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography. How is that not placing at least “part of the blame” for mens’ objectification of women on women?

  121. 121.

    If we adopt the view that pornography is in the eye of the beholder in the context of women being at least partially responsible for tempting men to think (and act on?) sexual thoughts, women should be completely covered from head to toe to prevent them from tempting any number of men with fetishes for ankles, wrists or necks.

  122. 122.

    ECS, nope, I’m not going to join you on that particular slippery slope. The corollary to your statement would be that if we are going to insist that young women are victims of the surrounding culture, we need to absolve the date rapist of guilt when he claims she was asking for it, after all, he was just responding to external cues. Egalitarianism brings with it all kinds of interesting questions.

  123. 123.

    Geoff (#118)

    As you know Elder Oaks is a seasoned attorney and state supreme court justice. He was reading this talk rather than improvising. I think it is safe to say that he was fully aware of what he was saying and what he was not saying in that single sentence that has so many people up in arms.

    I am very confident that he knew exactly what he was saying. Which is why it bothers me.

    But I don’t think it is fair to say he was “placing part of the blame for men’s objectification of women on ‘immodest’ women”. I don’t see any justification for taking his meaning that far in the text.

    He said, “And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.”

    Oaks was saying that, by dressing immodestly, young women may contribute to certain men’s problems. As I understand it, contributing to or “magnifying” a problem implies that one bears at least partial responsibility for its perpetuation.

    But I don’t know if we have enough information at our hands to conclusively nail down what Elder Oaks “really” meant. I think it’s fair to say that, since he himself did not elaborate upon the statement about young women “becoming pornography,” there is room for different interpretations of his comments. We may have to be content to disagree.

  124. 124.

    Seraphine, # 116

    So, I’m not trying to say her behavior is not a problem. I’m just trying to make the point that calling her “walking pornography” is not going to solve anything (and is probably going to make things worse, since it’s reinforcing her current [mis-]understanding of her own body).

    We agree completely on this point. I, also, do not believe that a statement like that from the pulpit is likely to bring about a change of behavior. However, I am open to the idea that GC talks are more about line-drawing and boundary maintenance. The GAs outline the bigger picture and leave the heavy lifting to parents, youth leaders, and bishops.

    I think this is also true with regards to the way we talk about porn. It is a transgression that thrives in an environment of guilt and shame, and so far, our institutional response has been to…pour on more guilt and shame! ECS, to her great credit, has been the only person I know in the b’nacle who has put forward some ideas for dealing productively with the problem.

    Or, maybe to sum it up more generally: I want to acknowledge cultural causes while still holding onto a notion of individual responsibility. Agency is an important concept for me, but I think it’s best when we try to understand the choices that people make in the context of the society/culture in which they’re making them.

    Again, complete and total agreement. We probably differ on the ratio of personal/cultural responsibility, but that’s OK, because I disagree with myself about that, since I am re-evaluating my views in this area.

    (Also, because we have such a problematic history worldwide of controlling women’s bodies [society and institutions telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies] in multiple ways, I tend to be very wary about anyone who sounds like they might be participating in this kind of discourse [a wariness I think many feminists share].)

    Wariness appears to be the order of the day, then. While I am sympathetic to most feminist concerns, I think the tendency to make the patriarchy the catch-all diabolus ex machina for anything unpleasant leads to lots of unforced errors. Marcotte still hasn’t apologized for her part in the fiasco with the Duke lacrosse team rape case, for instance, and I doubt if she will ever be held to account.

  125. 125.

    Mark, thanks for your response–I think you’re probably right about where we eventually disagree.

    And, of course, just when I think we’re mostly agreeing, you make a statement like this one: :)

    I’m not going to join you on that particular slippery slope. The corollary to your statement would be that if we are going to insist that young women are victims of the surrounding culture, we need to absolve the date rapist of guilt when he claims she was asking for it, after all, he was just responding to external cues. Egalitarianism brings with it all kinds of interesting questions.

    I’m sorry but I’m going to have to say that women dressing immodestly and date rape are not even in the same realm when it comes to behavior. Show me a case of a woman sexually assaulting a man (which does happen), and I’ll demonstrate a willingness to be egalitarian.

  126. 126.

    ECS and Steve M,

    I should have clarified my comment better in #118 — I can see why it would lead to more questions. There is no question that Elder Oaks says that by dressing immodestly young women are magnifying some problem. The question is which specific problem does he mean such dress magnifies. I am not willing to jump to the conclusion Steve did and assume that “this problem” = men’s objectification of women in general. Rather the qualification of “some men” at the end of that sentence indicates to me that he meant the following: Young women dressing immodestly does indeed make the personal problems some men already have more difficult for them to deal with.

    Now it is not clear to me whether you think that specific proposition is untrue or not. If it is true (as I believe) then it seems perfectly appropriate and even expected that he would pass that bit of wisdom on to the church (even if it makes some people uncomfortable to hear it.) Of course even if we agree that this specific proposition is true young women in the church are still free to say to themselves “That’s their problem, not mine, and I can dress immodestly all I want”. And of course they would be right about that. Mormon doctrine holds that we are free to choose after all.

    ECS: If we adopt the view that pornography is in the eye of the beholder

    I agree that there are problems with this definition but it seems to be the standard one courts have used in the past. I guess I must join Jacob in #114 and ask: Do you know of another more objective view we can use to define pornography?

    As for the covering to avoid be ogled idea — I think that fits well with the “warning the naive” angle I see in that sentence by Elder Oaks. You are right that there will be perverts ogling women no matter what they wear. The very practical part of the advice is that that by following the modesty standards of the church, Mormon young women will have less of that to deal with in their lives than those who dress less modestly.

  127. 127.

    [Porn use] is a transgression that thrives in an environment of guilt and shame

    Is there any good empirical evidence for this? Please, no bishops or therapists with impressions from their practices, etc. I’m skeptical.

  128. 128.

    Seraphine, you’re right. My comparison was over the top. I was attempting to get in a jab at ECS for suggesting that Dallin Oaks wants to put women in a burkha, and I reached too far.

    Rosalynde, sorry. I have no evidence of the sort you are seeking, just bishops’ anecdotes and therapists’ impressions. They were published in the Church News, though – does that count?

    FWIW –

    “It is a vulnerability, not just a behavior or some little habit,” said Elder John C. Jones, a program coordinator for the LDS Family Services Addiction Recovery Program….Most try to stop on their own but when they can’t, are too humiliated to seek help….”The biggest obstacle to break through is the shame factor,” said Elder Jones.

    and –

    There is hope even for the very entrenched, said Michael Gardner, LDS Family Services program specialist…He said the guilt and shame young males experience can stop normal social development and drive them to isolation. An addiction can form within a month.
    “All addictions thrive in secrecy,” said Brother Gardner.

    While this isn’t clinical data, I am inclined to grant some passing respect to the experience of the therapists who deal with it every day.

    And I guess what really boggles my mind is that this is apparently an enormous problem afflicting between 30-50% of men in the North American church, and we still really don’t even know what we are talking about.

  129. 129.

    Geoff, by legal standard, you may be referring to Justice Potter Stewart’s (in)famous statement about recognizing obscenity: “I know it when I see it”. This standard, however, is inapplicable to the context of assigning fault to women for mens’ sexual thoughts, so I’m still unclear as to what you mean. Because you consider a woman wearing a tank top to be sexually stimulating, women shouldn’t wear them?

    Mark IV, I agree with Seraphine. I know you were joking about women deserving to be raped because of the clothes they wear, but when we objectify women by saying they become pornography when they dress a certain way, your date rape joke becomes a reality.

  130. 130.

    ECS: This standard, however, is inapplicable to the context of assigning fault to women for mens’ sexual thoughts, so I’m still unclear as to what you mean.

    Hehe… We are apparently getting so far into this conversation that we are starting to confuse each other now. As a reminder, the question of what pornography is or is not came up earlier. The idea that pornography is in the eye of the beholder was presented and the Stewart quote was brought up in relation to that idea.

    Again, I reject the idea that Elder Oaks ever “assigned fault to women for mens’ sexual thoughts”. I think that is an unsustainable (and perhaps uncharitable) reading of one sentence at the end of his sermon.

  131. 131.

    We don’t need a particularly precise definition of pornography to know that a woman dressed immodestly is not pornography, and not even the wildest imagination of the most hormone crazed man can make her become anything other than what she is–a woman.

  132. 132.

    Lost,

    I’m afraid that unless you are willing to define “dress immodestly” your claim in #131 is totally indefensible. Dressing immodestly can mean a lot of things after all.

    Further, the issue with the Oaks sentence is whether an immodestly dressed young woman can ever “become pornography” to “some men”. I don’t think that is a statment that can be disproven because we also don’t have a settled definition of what pornography is. It may be untrue by your personal definition of pornography but that does not make it untrue by the definitions others use.

  133. 133.

    Mark, thanks for the acknowledgement, and I echo what Elisabeth said in comment #129.

    More generally, I am not unsympathetic to men talking about the ways in which they struggle with the cultural messages sent to them by the media. I read an interesting post/essay a few years back (I wish I could remember where or when it was) by a pro-feminist man who discussed how media imagery of idealized women sometimes adversely affected his relationships with real women.

    While we often talk about the ways that pornography contributes to men seeing women as objects (and make arguments that men should stop doing so, etc.), it was really interesting reading an essay by a man who was trying to fight this phenomenon and struggling at times.

    Lost (#131), amen.

  134. 134.

    Lost,

    As a follow up to my response in #132: If you are simply saying that people (women or men) never become pornography — as in they never attain the ontological status of pornography — then we can all agree with that self-evident point. Even porn stars never literally “become pornography” in that sense. But of course we aren’t talking about ontological status in this discussion and neither was Elder Oaks in has talk, so if people are going to criticize the one sentence by Elder Oaks it needs to be on a different level than that.

  135. 135.

    A few months ago, I read a bloggernacle blog post about pornography. The author stated that he thought a good way to help men avoid it (or kick the habit) is to teach them to view the women as daughters of God and feel empathy for them. (They usually have substance abuse problems, for instance). Does anyone remember it? Can you post a link? I thought it was a great post. I’d like to read it again

  136. 136.

    Careful, JKS in 135, that could get dangerous, what with the other assertions flying around this thread.

    Let’s see:

    [Women in tank tops are walking porn]

    +

    [women in porn are mostly substance abusers]

    =

    [Women in tank tops are mostly substance abusers. (!)]

    I expect the surgeon general will start requiring warning labels on garments, real soon. “Warning: Spagnetti straps may cause substance abuse.”

    And for that matter, doesn’t substance abuse cause birth defects? The syllogism is complete — tank tops cause birth defects.

  137. 137.

    Geoff, your comments in 132 and 134 reveal the dangers of discussing women and pornography in the way Elder Oaks did. In comment 132, you say that it is “indefensible” to assert, as Lost did in comment 131, that women can never become pornography. In comment 134, however, you say it’s obvious that women (even porn stars) can never become pornography.

    That Elder Oaks’ statement is so easily misunderstood to mean that women literally become pornography when they dress immodestly is precisely why we should be careful in speaking about immodestly dressed women “becoming” pornography. In as wide an audience as General Conference, many men who listen to or read Elder Oaks’ talk (hundreds of thousands? millions?) could very well misinterpret his meaning to mean that women literally _are_ pornography when they dress immodestly. And, when women are described as pornographic objects, men feel more license to treat them as such.

    But to follow up with your question about defining pornography, do you think women walking down the street wearing short skirts and tank tops are “pornographic”, or are they “immodest”?

  138. 138.

    Geoff J: Now I am confused. You previously stated that you intepreted Elder Oaks statement to mean that immodestly dressed women can serve as a catalyst for some men to conjure up pornographic images in their own minds, and that there was an important distinction between these images and the woman and that the fact that some men migh conjure up these images does not make the women pornography. My statements all seemed pretty defensible then, so what gives?

    I did not say that women cannot ever dress in ways that could reasonably be described as pornographic. However, immodesty, as that terms is generally understood by Elder Oaks’ audience, cannot be equated with pornography. I am not trying to hide behind a technical ontological distinction. A woman is not pornography and is not pornographic, by virtue of being dressed immodestly.

    If Elder Oaks had said in his talk about pornography that women who are porn stars contribute to the problem of pornography, nobody here would disagree. That is self evident. If he had said that women who dress in ways that are sexually provocative (think MTV videos), we might quibble over whether that is really pornography, but I would cut him some slack and say he made a good point. (I might wonder why he bothered, because I doubt that there is great concern that too many of your young women are dancing in MTV videos, or parading the streets in the kind of dress that would be featured in such videos.) But he did not do any of that. He referred to women who dress “immodestly”. I have no doubt that he chose that word very carefully and deliberately knowing full well that his audience would understand that term to include women in short skirts, strapless gowns etc. Not even the most expansive definition of pornography would include “immodesty” as that term is commonly used withing the church, and I don’t think we need to agree on precise definitions of immodesty and pornography to agree on that point.

    I am not trying to get hung up on semantic distinctions. This is about much more than whether Elder Oaks used the English language as precisely as he might have. I remember clearly hearing this talk. I felt absolutely sickened when he used that phrase and hoped desperately that my own daughters (who to my knowledge have never dressed immodestly) weren’t listening. I was horrified at the thought they might have heard an Apostle suggest that they, or their friends, could be called pornography because their prom dress had no sleeves, or their skirt was too short. I am still horrified, and my horror does not depend on technical definitions of pornography and ontological distinctions such as whether women can ever actually be pornography.

  139. 139.

    Try this thought experiment. You are attending your daughter’s graduation banquet. Your daughter and her friends are all wearing strapless gowns. She says to you, pointing to her best friend who also happens to be the Laurel class president, “Oh look at Susan, doesn’t she look great in that dress?”

    “Well, no dear, she doesn’t. In fact, both of you have become pornography to some of the boys in this room.”

    Wouldn’t all of us think that a parent who would say such a thing has a few screws loose? In fact, even if you wouldn’t say it, to even think that one could equate your daughter and her friends with pornography suggests that something is desperately wrong. If that is a ridiculous and demeaning statement in that context, does anything change if the statement is uttered in general conference by an Apostle?

  140. 140.

    We use “immodesty” in the church to refer to both violations of dress standards (which I take to be largely arbitrary accommodations to the garment) and to sexually provocative clothing. These two categories overlap quite a bit, but not entirely—violations of the dress standards are not always sexually provocative, and sexually provocative clothing does not always violate dress standards—and I think herein lies much of the misunderstanding on this thread. In a talk on pornography (not dress standards), I think it could be reasonable to conclude that Elder Oaks was talking about sexually provocative clothing, but I understand why the confusion arises. I object to the formulation regardless of the meaning of “immodest” for the reasons I suggested above.

  141. 141.

    ECS: In comment 132, you say that it is “indefensible” to assert, as Lost did in comment 131, that women can never become pornography.

    Actually, I didn’t assert this — at least that was not what I meant. I clarified what I meant in #134. Lost said that “a woman dressed immodestly is not pornography”. If she was making an ontological statement then that goes without saying. But if not then I was simply pointing out that she would need to define “dressing immodestly” if she wanted to defend such a bold statement. Dressing immodestly could technically mean wearing nothing but a pair of sunglasses after all and that sort of immodesty could easily fit into the porn category.

    I guess I don’t think the Oaks statement is easily misunderstood in that I don’t think anyone could seriously think that he was making an ontological statement. Therefore the only remaining logical conclusion would be that he is saying that people can be perceived as pornography in the eyes of other people.

    BTW – I should point out that in this sense men can become pornography too so this is not exclusively a women’s issue. It is a human issue and a culture issue. It is about how we perceive and treat one another. It is part of what Matin Buber called “I-it” relationships vs. “I-thou” relationships.

  142. 142.

    Um, just to add to the creepiness of the date rape references, I’ll note that until very recently(early 90s), there was a story in the YW manual about a girl who wore a skirt that was too short on a date. The boy she’s with tries to “take advantage” of her, and she has to pull herself out of his arms and jump out of the car to run away. The story ends with her berating herself for having made such a poor clothing choice…

    Also, until the 1987 iteration of the Church Handbook, part of a bishop’s stated responsibility in counseling a rape victim was to assess her culpability in the event.

    Our talk about modesty arises from a particular cultural context, and I think the culture is sick all the way through. I’d have said it was getting better until Elder Oaks’ talk, but that was at least several steps backward.

  143. 143.

    Kaimi,

    The old “tank top” line is a red herring. Elder Oaks never mentioned tank tops or an other specifics in this one sentence that has freaked so many people out.

    Rosalynde (#140),

    Well said. “Immodesty” can mean a lot of things but in the context of a sermon against porn it implies something very different than in the context of a youth fireside or something.

  144. 144.

    I guess I don’t think the Oaks statement is easily misunderstood in that I don’t think anyone could seriously think that he was making an ontological statement.

    This is a strong statement: that you don’t think “anyone” could have understood Oaks’ to mean that women become pornography when they dress immodestly. I’m must be as confused as Lost is, because first you say that there are ambiguities in what Elder Oaks said, but now you’re saying there aren’t?

    You may not agree with alternative interpretations from the one you prefer, but there are important ambiguities in what Elder Oaks said about women and pornography. These ambiguities absolutely need to be clarified as part of our discourse on women and pornography and not dismissed out of hand as “uncharitable” readings of admittedly ambiguous statements.

  145. 145.

    What Rosalynde says is true, but I don’t think it is credible to assert that when Elder Oaks used the term “immodestly” he was referring to women who dress in a sexually provocative manner that borders on the pornographic. I say this for two reasons. First, the term “immodest” within the church is used a lot, and it has a widely accepted meaning that goes way beyond the sexually provocative. Elder Oaks is a very careful wordsmith, and he would have used a much stronger word if that is what he had wanted his audience to understand from his remarks. Second, I have never seen any LDS woman (and very few other women) dressed in a sexually provocative manner that might possibly be construed as pornographic. LDS women dressed as strippers or prostitutes is hardly a burning issue in the church, and it would not merit even scant attention in a general conference address.

  146. 146.

    Dressing immodestly could technically mean wearing nothing but a pair of sunglasses after all and that sort of immodesty could easily fit into the porn category.

    This is true. (By the same token, technically, dropping atomic bombs on people could be labeled “rude.”) But again, given the context of Elder Oaks’s statement in which the young women of the Church are addressed, is it likely that what he means by “immodest” encompasses “naked”? (To paraphrase: “Young women, please understand that your unfortunate tendency to walk around in public without clothes on is inciting sexual thoughts in men.”)

    Pornography is an image, not a person. Elder Oaks might have phrased his remarks more judiciously to reflect this distinction.

  147. 147.

    ECS,

    I said: “I don’t think anyone could seriously think that he was making an ontological statement”

    I mean nobody could seriously think Elder Oaks meant people literally cease to be human beings and take on the literal status of living pornography. That doesn’t even make sense. Thus it goes without saying.

    I’m not sure why that position would confuse you or Lost.

    So if he is not talking about a literal change in ontological status then we can at least agree that he is talking about how we are perceived by others. He states that people can be perceived as pornography by other people. (And as I said — those people must logically be able to be either men or women.) So the next question is what he meant by dressing immodestly. That is why Rosalynde made such a good point in #140.

    Now if Elder Oaks intended non-extreme immodesty to by lumped in with his statement as Lost insists, there is still the all-important caveat “to some of the men who see you” in that sentence. There is nothing innacurate about telling a well formed young woman or young man that she or he is more likely to “become pornography” to some of the men [or women] who see her or him. Now you could argue that telling them that is too alarmist in nature (and you might have a good point in that argument), but don’t believe it is a completely innacurate statement.

  148. 148.

    Kiskilili,

    I undertand your response and don’t disagree. To be clear, I wasn’t referring to Elder Oaks’ usage of the word immodesty in that comment you quoted. I was referring to this overreaching statement by Lost:

    We don’t need a particularly precise definition of pornography to know that a woman dressed immodestly is not pornography

  149. 149.

    Geoff, I respectfully disagree with your statement that men don’t view women as objects of pornography and less than human when they dress in a sexually provocative manner. The reason why I said I was confused by your statement is because I thought that this very issue was the main thrust of the discussion all along.

    Let me try to be more clear: it is my understanding that you’re position is that there is no reading of Oaks’ statement that could mean women become objects of pornography in the eyes of some men. (i.e., that there is no way ANYONE could misinterpret the statement this way). Well, many people on this thread have interpreted Oaks’ statement in just the way you say no one ever could. And, given the context and ambiguity of his remarks, I find it unlikely that we’re the only ones.

  150. 150.

    ECS,

    We must be misunderstanding each other here more than I realized. Your restatements of what you think I’m saying don’t look accurate at all to me. I’ll try to clarify:

    I respectfully disagree with your statement that men don’t view women as objects of pornography and less than human when they dress in a sexually provocative manner

    I don’t think I ever said this. I do think men and women can view or perceive other men and women as objects of pornography. I also think that doing so reduces the other to the status of an “it” rather than a “thou” in the eyes of the offending viewer.

    In those clarifications about ontological status I simply said no one would ever interpret the statement of Elder Oaks to mean people literally cease to be people because of their apparel. That is a very different subject that the way people are viewed by one another.

  151. 151.

    Maybe my confusion stems from the fact that you seem to think that objectifying women by saying they “become” pornography means that women magically become (i.e., are turned into) inanimate objects of porn?

  152. 152.

    Okay, Geoff #150. Thanks for clarifying. That’s what I thought you were saying. So I think our conversation here boils down to you saying that Oaks’ comments can’t ever be understood by anyone as objectifying women because when they dress “immodestly” they become pornography. I respectfully disagree.

  153. 153.

    ECS: because when they dress “immodestly” they become pornography

    More specifically, the only claim Elder Oaks actually made is that people can become pornography “to some of the men who see [them]”. Do you still disagree with that rather innocuous claim of his? I’m not sure how you could based on our agreement just now that people can and do occasionally see/perceive other people as pornography.

  154. 154.

    Re: Rolsalynde (#127):

    [Porn use] is a transgression that thrives in an environment of guilt and shame

    Is there any good empirical evidence for this? Please, no bishops or therapists with impressions from their practices, etc. I’m skeptical.

    Shame and guilt fuel compulsive behavior, such as compulsive pornography use (“porn addiction”). For instance, this article states that

    “Shame and sex addiction are natural partners. The more intense the pain of self-hatred, the stronger the drive to find a sexual behavior that offers relief from internal pain and emptiness. For the sex addict, the answer to his inner problems lay outside himself in the ‘magic’ of sexual desire for or from another. He confuses sexual desirability with self-acceptance. He is trying to fill the void that has been at least partially created by shame. He simply cannot bear feeling empty inside.”

    Likewise, this article states,

    “Sexually compulsive individuals struggle with shame. This shame manifests as a series of internalized statements such as: at my core, I am a flawed, bad and worthless human being; I am undeserving of love; others will never help me meet my needs. These painful statements about oneself serve the addiction in several ways.” (Emphasis added)

    And from a PhD thesis:

    “The theory suggests that when we no longer feel ashamed of the things we’ve done, we are less likely to act with obsessive-compulsive behaviours. Self-acceptance breaks the cycle of shame-compulsion leading to more shameful behaviours and hence more shame-compulsion”

    Also, take a look at this article, particularly Scott’s story, which begins on page 379. He was raised in a very strict religious home that had negative attitudes about sexuality, which he inherited. He claims that he became “addicted” to porn at age 10, which compulsion/addiction has been reinforced throughout his life by extreme shame and self-hatred. Additionally, this study (reported in the Journal of Personality, Vol. 43, Issue 3, p. 385-394) indicates that those with more restrictive, negative, and authoritarian views of sexuality are more aroused by pornographic stimuli.

    There are many studies and reports showing the link between guilt, shame, and compulsive behavior, especially when it comes to compulsive sexual behavior.

  155. 155.

    That’s not completely accurate. Not only does Elder Oaks say that WOMEN (not people) can become pornography, but he says that WOMEN are partly responsible for this by dressing “immodestly”.

  156. 156.

    Geoff: You said “Therefore the only remaining logical conclusion would be that he is saying that people can be perceived as pornography in the eyes of other people.” I think you are playing little fast and loose here. The assertion that women can sometimes dress or act in ways that other people might perceive as pornographic is a trivial one. Of course they can. I am confident that Elder Oaks was not trying to make such a trivial point.

    He taught that by the mere act of dressing immodestly, woman become pornography to some of the men who see them. He did not limit that assertion to women dressed like strippers and prositutes or MTV dancers. He deliberately used terminology that he knew and his entire audience knew included short skirts and sleeveless dresses. He knew that any reasonable person in the audience would conclude that by dressing in ways that the Church leaders have taught are immodest, that they become, in some sense at least, pornography. To respond by saying, well that is true because he might have been referring to women walking naked down the street or to strippers or MTV stars strikes me as unreasonable.

    What did you think of my thought experiment?

  157. 157.

    Our talk about modesty arises from a particular cultural context, and I think the culture is sick all the way through.

    Kristine, this may be true, but I think it is also true that an assymetrical (with respect to gender) modesty culture reflects and attempts to address the reality that sex is riskier for girls than for boys. This is unjust and entirely illiberal, yes, but it is an intractable feature of human experience, and it is particularly intractable among the most vulnerable groups of women, including girls. A cultural environment that discourages girls, in particular, from risky sexual behavior will offer some degree of protection, even if it may also do some collateral psychic damage. I think we do need to regulate girls’ sexual behavior, and, as I argued above, I believe that clothing choice is an important form of sexual behavior, especially for girls. Thus I don’t want to abandon a culture of modesty that works specifically on sex and clothing choice (as I understand you to be advocating in #1), and I don’t see how such a culture could be made entirely gender-symmetrical given sexual reality.

    This is not to say that I want my daughters to hear stories like the one you describe. But I think our rehabilitation of modesty ought not cede jurisdiction over sex and clothing. I offered one such refashioning way up above in #44.

  158. 158.

    (er, asymmetrical, above) (assymetrical is an especially unfortunate misspelling!)

  159. 159.

    ECS,

    I guess the question for me is whether one should take offense at Elder Oaks’ comment or not. Certainly one could and lots of people in this discussion clearly have, but I see no good reason why one should. Based on the terms we have agreed on so far in this thread, when young women dress immodestly they do indeed become pornography to some of the men who see them. Why should truth truth offend us? And the unavoidable corollary to such logic is that by those same definitions men become porn to women at times, men to men, and women to women. It is also not controversial to imply that dressing immodestly increases the odds of such objectification happening.

    Again, we are all free to take offense to whatever we feel like, but I am arguing that taking offense to what Elder Oaks actually said (and didn’t say) isn’t well justified.

  160. 160.

    Re: Rosalynde (#127)

    [Porn use] is a transgression that thrives in an environment of guilt and shame

    Is there any good empirical evidence for this? Please, no bishops or therapists with impressions from their practices, etc. I’m skeptical.

    Porn “addiction” is a compulsive habit, and there is substantial evidence that shows the detrimental effect that shame and guilt have upon the habit. I tried to post a longer reply earlier with a number of links to related articles, but it never showed up here in the thread. But a quick Google search on guilt/shame and compulsive sexual behavior will lead you in the right direction.

  161. 161.

    Steve M, your comment got stuck in moderation. I approved it, so everyone should be able to see it if they scroll up a bit.

  162. 162.

    I believe that clothing choice is an important form of sexual behavior, especially for girls.

    I guess I understand the general sentiment behind this statement (despite my limited heuristic capabilities- as you noted above), but can you tell me more specifically how clothing choice is “sexual behavior” – especially for girls? And girls of what age?

    Geoff, Thanks for your response. I’m going to officially appoint commenter Lost as my representative to continue this debate. I have enjoyed talking with you about this, but I don’t think there’s anything else we can say to each other that would be constructive to the conversation.

  163. 163.

    Rosalynde, I’m not so much concerned with the asymmetrical teaching–as you point out, it may be inevitable–but at the point where we even suggest that a girl’s choice of clothing (which I’m willing to grant is a sexual act) makes her culpable of actual violence that is inflicted on her, we’ve gone well beyond asymmetry and into misogyny. Wearing a short skirt is the sexual behavioral equivalent of wolf-whistling at someone who’s wearing one, not raping her. Some asymmetry is unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we have to put our thumb (or whole fist!) on nature’s scale.

  164. 164.

    Geoff J, I think that you and Lost and ECS have clarified a number of misunderstandings (about what Elder Oaks possibly meant or didn’t mean). However, what you don’t seem willing to acknowledge is that:

    (1) While we have ruled out certain readings, there is still some disagreement on this thread about *exactly* what Elder Oaks meant. It’s an ambiguous statement with a few potential ways to read it, not all of which are as generous as your reading. I have a difficult time reading it generously because of my next point:

    (2) Elder Oaks was not talking about people, he was talking about *women* (as ECS points out in comment #155). In today’s world, women are constantly objectified by a pervasive media, held accountable for men’s sexual sins (a common tactic of rape trials is to put the rape victime on trial), etc. As a result, most women have a highly problematic (if not destructive) relationship with their bodies and appearance. Additionally, we have a highly problematic history of controlling women’s bodies, both in this country and worldwide.

    We need to view Elder Oaks’ comment in this context. As I and others explained above (I’m quoting one of my above comments), “context is hugely important. If we did not have a pervasive media that constantly objectified and commodified women’s bodies, I might be more willing to be generous in my reading of Elder Oaks’ statement.” In my mind, in the context I have outlined above, it is irresponsible to be connecting actual women to the term “pornography.” We should not make comments that connect real women to objectifying practices (and then hold them partially responsible). Women already have way too much to deal with when trying to negotiate how to view and understand their bodies–they do not need to get messages from General Authorities that reinforce the anxiety they probably already have about what they’re wearing and how men are viewing them (especially since, as many have pointed out, most of these women are probably not walking down the street naked or in MTV-video-like clothing).

  165. 165.

    LOL, ECS. Your heuristic capabilities appear to be just fine; it was your hermeneutic I was questioning! (Which, of course, is entirely different from questioning your intelligence or your abilities.)

    I think clothing choice fall into the category of sexual behavior for women because they themselves get aroused by wearing provocative clothing and by the sexual attention it draws from men. As I argued, I think this is an inferior and secondary kind of desire, and I want to gently encourage my daughters toward a more subject-centered approach to sex. As for age, I would assume that clothing choice, like other behavior, takes on sexual meaning when girls reach sexual maturity, after puberty.

    Steve M, thanks for your response on the porn question. I looked at the links you provide, and they appear to be qualitative discussions of the effect of shame and ADD on compulsive porn use. I’m interested in a quantitative question: do more men use pornography in environments where it must be used secretly or where it may be used openly? I have no doubt that porn use thrives in environments of secrecy, but I also suspect that porn use thrives in frat houses, the military, and other environments where it is openly accepted. In fact, I have a feeling that porn use thrives anywhere there are men with easy acces to sexual images.

  166. 166.

    This has been an interesting conversation. I would like to make one tiny observation. Maybe it’s just me, but in all of Geoff’s comments, I hear a steady undercurrent of protectiveness towards the sisters. I hear it in Elder Oaks words also. It seem likely to me that given Elder Oaks careful way of speaking and his professional background, he chose the words in the statement in question very carefully.
    I think Geoff has it right. Claiming that Elder Oaks is “calling” girls or women something derogatory is a stretch that I just don’t see any real evidence for.

  167. 167.

    Kristine, it sounds like we’re in substantial agreement, then. And by the way, if it weren’t for the carbon emissions, I would happily drive across several states on any given Sunday in order to have my girls attend any YW lesson you might teach!

  168. 168.

    Geoff: “Based on the terms we have agreed on so far in this thread, when young women dress immodestly they do indeed become pornography to some of the men who see them. Why should truth truth offend us?”

    No, I don’t think we do have agreement on that point. Not by a long shot. I think we have agreement that some men may be incited to conjure up sexual images or fantasies as a result seeing immodestly dressed women. That is a truth I accept. That is radically different statement from your assertion. I will make one last attempt to summarize:

    1. Women don’t become anything at all by virtue of men’s fantasies, regardless of the content of those fantasies. And I don’t just mean “become” in a technical ontological sense. I mean that they don’t become become pornography, then don’t become pornographic, they don’t become pornographic images, and they don’t contribute to the problem of pornography being addressed by Elder Oaks merely by being dressed immodestly. That somebody else invents pornographic images of them in his own mind (which I concede is possible, but probably extremely rare) does not mean that the woman has become pornographic.

    2. For the reasons cited above, the reference by Elder Oaks to immodestly dressed women cannot be reasonably construed to mean “women dressed like porn stars, or strippers are anything a reasonable person might agree is presents a pornographic image. He said “immodest” and we should assume that is what he meant rather than an arguable but extremely narrow subset of the term. See Kiskilli’s comment regarding a detonation of a nuclear being rude.

    ECS: You flatter me if you think I can adequately reflect your views. Thank you, but you can do much better.

  169. 169.

    Geoff J (#159),

    In answer to your question, yes, I believe we should take offense at Elder Oaks’ comment. Let me quote the relevant sentence again:

    And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.

    I personally object to the word choice “becoming”, but I can understand how you can give it a more sympathetic reading. The part of the sentence that I think we all should take offense at is the phrase “young women … you are magnifying this problem”. Elder Oaks is stating that by dressing immodestly (and considering the audience of this talk, I think immodest means short skirts, rather than actual nudity) women are part of the problem. Young women wearing short skirts or tank tops should not be blamed in any part for men having pornographic thoughts. The men who have those thoughts are responsible for them. Period. Telling the young women otherwise is perpetuating cultural norms that are wrong and, in my opinion, downright evil (such as a bishop needing to evaluate how much culpability a rape vicitm possessed for her rape).

  170. 170.

    Seraphine: In my mind, in the context I have outlined above, it is irresponsible to be connecting actual women to the term “pornography.”

    Ok. So you think it would be equally irresponsible to connect young men to the word pornography as was done with young women in that sentence by Elder Oaks? What I mean is, do you simply object to saying any person can become pornography to another person? Or is it ok to say that young men can “become pornography” to “some men” but not that young women can become pornography to “some men”? I am trying to figure out if gender is the issue here or simply the way Elder Oaks used the word pornography.

  171. 171.

    Lost,

    I am a little perplexed about how to continue with our conversation together because every time I answer your question you seem to ask it again. For instance, your point 1. is the another rehashing of the ontology question I’ve agreed with you on several times already.

    Since we all agree that Elder Oaks wasn’t making an ontological statement then we have to assume that he meant people only “become pornography” in the eyes of some beholders. Of course this can happen no matter how modestly we all dress. So I don’t really know what the repeated MTV/strippers reference adds here. The simple point seems to be that the more immodestly a young woman dresses the greater her risk of “becoming pornography” in the eyes of some beholder. Now I understand you might not like the way Elder Oaks expressed this ideas — but the truth of the concept seems pretty evident to me.

  172. 172.

    Vada: Elder Oaks is stating that by dressing immodestly (and considering the audience of this talk, I think immodest means short skirts, rather than actual nudity) women are part of the problem.

    Elder Oaks simply refers to a nebulous “this problem” in that talk. This is only cause for offense if you limit the meaning of “this problem” in that sentence to something narrow enough to make his statement utterly false. But as Rosalynde has so compellingly pointed out, young women can magnify parts of our overall societal problems in this area by dressing provocatively so I think assigning some unduly narrow meaning to the term “this problem” in that talk is not a good hermeneutical approach at all.

  173. 173.

    All,

    I get the feeling that Kiskilili (#146) might have really nailed down the heart of the objections to this one sentence by Elder Oaks best:

    Elder Oaks might have phrased his remarks more judiciously

    I certainly can’t argue with that opinion. I am mostly arguing that Elder Oaks’ meaning was not objectionable even if people object to the delivery.

  174. 174.

    Geoff: I am not sure there is much more to be said in order to narrow the gap between us, but since you are still perplexed, I will try one more time.

    (1) Women who dress immodestly are not, for that reason, pornography or pornographic. Nor is it correct to say, as you have, that they are viewed as pornography by some men. If men conjure up pornographic images of women, they are not viewing the women as pornography. They are inventing their own pornography and it is those images, and not the immodestly dressed woman that is the pornography. If your neighbor happens to have a friendly conversation with your wife, and then begins to fantasize about having an affair with her, he is not viewing your wife as an adulterer. He is not viewing her at all–he is viewing a fantasy of his making and we would never say women such as your wife should not get too friendly with the neighbors because in so doing they become adulters for some men.

    (2) Immodesty, as that term is used in the church is not pornography under any reasonable definition of either term. Elder Oaks used a powerful pejorative expression to describe immodestly dressed women and did so in a context which implies that are deserving of that label by virtue of having dressed immodestly. I think that is absurd and contributes to some destructive attitudes that both men and women have about men and women and sexuality in general.

    These are not just trivial semantic distinctions because when we say that a woman who dresses immodestly “becomes” pornography we are applying a pejorative label to a woman who has done nothing to deserve it, and we are doing so only because somebody else is now entertaining pornographic fantasies.

  175. 175.

    I am trying to figure out if gender is the issue here or simply the way Elder Oaks used the word pornography.

    I am actually bothered by both. I’m bothered by the gender issues (for the reasons I stated in my last response), and I’m bothered by the way Oaks used the words “become” and “pornography” for the reasons Lost outlined in comments #168 and #174 (thanks Lost!)

    Anyway, since I’m with ECS and Lost on this one, I think that we’ll have to settle for agreement on the “Oaks might have phrased things more judiciously” point and agree to disagree about your claim that “Elder Oaks’ meaning was not objectionable even if people object to the delivery.”

  176. 176.

    Lost,

    What I gather from your latest restatement of the same thing you keep repeating (particularly your #1) is you don’t like the way Elder Oaks said what he said. I’m ok with that. Whether someone could reasonably be said to “becomes pornography” in the eyes of another is a matter of opinion I suppose. Elder Oaks thinks that is an accurate way to describe the situation you don’t like that way of describing it. To each his or her own on such descriptions I guess.

    Seraphine and Lost,

    I have gone to great lengths here to show that Elder Oaks is of the opinion that in the eyes of some people (men in his example), other people (young women in his example) become pornography at times. Seraphine just said he meant something other than that. If he didn’t mean that what exactly do you think Elder Oaks really meant?

  177. 177.

    I agree with Geoff’s and Kiskilili’s assessment. If the U.S. Supreme Court cannot agree on a definition of pornography, it is pointless for us to attempt it here. And since the word is capable of being interpreted in so many different ways, it would have been better if he had said what he meant without using the term.

    I have argued that if a choice of clothing or behavior can be an expression of sexuality (and it seems to me to be blindingly obvious that is can be, and very often is), then the framework Marcotte advocates for understanding modesty is inadequate, because it goes beyond the limits of power or patriarchy. When it comes to the quirkier aspects of human sexuality, it is hard to tell who has power and who doesn’t. If we consider the extreme example of a woman bumping and grinding on stage, and a man who stuffs what is left of his rent money into what is left of her underwear, who is the exploiter and who is the victim? At that point, the language of gender as a social construct breaks down. We just have two pathetically sad people with mutually reinforcing weaknesses. We can safely say that, in general, women have been subservient to men, and that is part of the culture we call home, for now. But we cannot safely say that women are always subservient. Everybody knows a few female bullies, and it becomes especially difficult when bullies can just jump back behind the victim badge if they are challenged.

    Both nen and women give and get messages and cues from each other all the time. If I choose to buy a t-shirt from Hooters and wear it in public, that is a sexually aggressive act, and I can’t blame women for concluding that I am a boor. A woman who consistently wears low-cut blouses has no right to complain that men look at her chest too much and never listen to her ideas.

    In regards to the trivialization of rape, I immediately saw my error, regretted it and apologized, and I am still willing to take whatever lumps I have coming. But I will ask that we muster just a smidgen of opprobrium and direct it Marcotte’s way, since she is a worse offender than I. She is on record saying that it really doesn’t matter whether that woman was raped by the Duke lacrosse team, the real tragedy is that she is a person of color who was exploited by rich white men, and she should not be prosecuted for filing a false rape report. In the world she inhabits, it is worse to be male and white than it is to commit rape. That view is morally obtuse, but that is where an excessive tendency to view all problems in terms of gender, race, and class will lead us. Those men were kicked out of school, and looking down the barrel of a couple of decades in the hoosegow. Rape is a serious matter, and allegations of rape should be taken seriously.

  178. 178.

    Lost,

    Immodesty, as that term is used in the church is not pornography under any reasonable definition of either term.

    Did I miss the comment where you provided a reasonable definition of pornography?

  179. 179.

    That the “legal definition of ponography” reference keeps popping up in the context of this thread is making my skin crawl.

    There is no “legal” definition of pornography. If we want to frame this discussion in a legal context, the correct legal term is “obscenity”. Pornography is a layperson’s term with no legal significance. The U.S. Supreme Court provided a fairly workable definition for obscenity almost 35 years ago in Miller v. California (check out this wikipedia link for more information).

    Notice that the legal discussion of obscenity focuses upon the obscene “work” or object, not an obscene “person”. The U.S. Supreme Court obviously understands the difference between the “person” and the “work”, whereas the language in Elder Oaks’ General Conference talk conflates “pornography” (i.e., an object) with “woman”. And that is precisely why I find his language most offensive.

  180. 180.

    A woman who consistently wears low-cut blouses has no right to complain that men look at her chest too much and never listen to her ideas.

    Mark, this women has every right to complain about this behavior. It’s called sexual harassment.

  181. 181.

    When it comes to the quirkier aspects of human sexuality, it is hard to tell who has power and who doesn’t….We can safely say that, in general, women have been subservient to men, and that is part of the culture we call home, for now. But we cannot safely say that women are always subservient. Everybody knows a few female bullies, and it becomes especially difficult when bullies can just jump back behind the victim badge if they are challenged.

    Just because there are a few female bullies does not change the fact that men generally have more power than women do in sexual encounters, and it does not change the statistics that show the majority of sexual violence (including sexual harrassment) is committed by men against women.

    I’m not going to get into an argument with you over Marcotte and her take on the Duke rape case (since I haven’t read the post you summarized). But when it comes to sexuality (and sex, and pornography, and modesty), while I want a discourse that goes above and beyond the power dynamics of these issues (which I’m not going to get from Marcotte, and which I will get at church), I am not going to deny the very real (unequal) power dynamics that inform these issues and how they play out in the lives of men and women on a daily basis.

  182. 182.

    Geoff, I don’t know what Elder Oaks really meant, but that is immaterial. While I accept that you interpret his statement “in the eyes of some people (men in his example), other people (young women in his example) become pornography at times,” I am arguing (and others such as Lost have argued even more eloquently than I have) that even if that is what he meant, it is a problem, since it is highly irresponsible to say that people can “become pornography.”

  183. 183.

    Mark, this women has every right to complain about this behavior. It’s called sexual harassment.

    ECS, I’ll take your word for it.

    So, can you tell me if there is anything – anything whatsoever, up to and including walking down the middle of Broadway at high noon buck nekkid – that a woman could possibly do that doesn’t entitle her to victim status?

    That is a serious question.

  184. 184.

    Seraphine,

    And neither do I want to argue. I had assumed you were fimiliar with her history, and that is why I alluded to it. Marcotte was the victim of a sexual assault, and she feels the authorities took her report too lightly. FWIW, I think she may well be correct in her assumption. Anyway, that makes her attitude about this entire case even more incomprehensible.

    One of the interesting things about human sexuality is the vulnerability it seems to demand from all concerned. We apparently differ on the extent to which one sex or the other is consistently in a position of power.

  185. 185.

    *Though ostensibly they are modeling swimming attire, the women of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit edition become pornography to some men.*

    Is that an irresponsible statement? (Honest question.)

  186. 186.

    Mark, my reading of your comment about women wearing low-cut shirts is that these women _deserve_ to be oogled and demeaned as a sexual objects with no intelligence. That can’t be what you meant, is it?

    And yes, men who stare at womens’ breasts and demean womens’ contributions in the workplace, at the very least, create a hostile work environment. It’s not my own standard I just created out of thin air, it’s the EEOC’s and the U.S. Supreme Court’s.

    That said, I think you raise an important question. Do women ever create a “hostile work environment” by dressing provocatively? Employers are certainly free to enforce reasonable dress codes, but, for the most part, the courts expect men to keep their hands to themselves and to treat women with respect (at least in the workplace), regardless of what the women happen to be wearing (or not wearing).

  187. 187.

    Yes, Eric Russell. It’s an irresponsible statement based on the 100 plus comments on this thread explaining that women never “become” pornography. The women in the magazine are human beings, not objects. Women don’t “become” the pornographic (or immodest) pictures. Why is this concept so difficult to understand?

  188. 188.

    Geoff: It is not just that I don’t like the way he expressed the idea, though it is true that I do not. My biggest objection is that even under your more generous interpretation, he is still wrong because he states that women, by the mere act of putting on a short skirt or otherwise dressing immodestly, become pornographic to some men. That is patent nonsense. Go ahead and teach that women who dress “pornographically” are pornographic. I will cheer you on. But do not suggest that a woman becomes pornographic to some men by the act of putting on a short skirt or other immodest attire. A woman is either pornographic, or she is not, and that must be determined objectively. She does become pornography to some men just because they have active imaginations. Men who invent pornographic images where they did not exist before are the creators of the pornography, and are 100% responsible for those images dancing in their heads. It is an abuse of the language and of women to suggest otherwise.

    Jacob J: No, I have not attempted to define pornography and no exhaustive definition is necessary for the purpose of this discussion. Whatever pornography is, it is clearly not the case that women who dress in short skirts, strapless gowns or short shorts are pornographic under any reasonable definition of that term, and that is what we are talking about.

    Incidentally, none of this means women who dress and act in ways that are designed to sexually arouse men get a free pass. That is a different matter altogether.

  189. 189.

    Oops–I meant to say “She does NOT become pornography to some men just because they have active imaginations.”

  190. 190.

    To All: I apologize for being so tendentious and verbose. I am new here, and I am afraid I may be wearing out my welcome, so I will shut up now.

  191. 191.

    ECS:

    Notice that the legal discussion of obscenity focuses upon the obscene “work” or object, not an obscene “person”. The U.S. Supreme Court obviously understands the difference between the “person” and the “work”, whereas the language in Elder Oaks’ General Conference talk conflates “pornography” (i.e., an object) with “woman”. And that is precisely why I find his language most offensive.

    Given Elder Oaks’ background, I think you sell him just a wee bit short on whether he understands the difference between the person and the work. But, if you truly find “no material difference” between Elder Oaks’ comments in the talk he gave on this subject in General Conference and Mr. Imus’ diatribe on his radio show, well, I am surprised indeed.

  192. 192.

    The question is so complicated because it means different things to different people. For some women, the possibility of being ogled is repulsive. Other women really seek out male attention. And many women fall in between — they’d like to be ogled by the right guys, but not by the wrong guys. Looks can be a way that women are pigeonholed and marginalized, or they can be a tool women use to get ahead.

    One female associate in my old law office — one of the generally-agreed-upon more attractive associates — openly considered her looks to be part of her lawyer’s arsenal. She was known to ask male associates on the team whether she should, as a strategic matter, wear a short skirt to some particular client meeting or deposition — i.e., whether she needed to intentionally make herself a distraction, or not. She was happy to go either way, as the situation called, and was as matter-of-fact about strategically employing her looks as about any other legal strategy decision.

    I think that many (most?) of the women at the office made similar strategic decisions from time to time; they usually did so more discreetly, though. The sheer chutzpah of her openly asking male senior associates whether she should wear the short skirt to the meeting was really striking.

  193. 193.

    Seraphine: I am arguing (and others such as Lost have argued even more eloquently than I have) that even if that is what he meant, it is a problem, since it is highly irresponsible to say that people can “become pornography.”

    I see several problems you are facing with this statement. First, Lost has offered us no eloquent arguments that support the idea that Elder Oaks acted irresponsibly. The arguments she(?) has repeatedly offered are nothing more than her own personal views on how the word “pornography” should or should not be used in the English speaking world. Why should we accept her definition of the word pornography as binding?

    Further, because we have no definition of the word pornography — on what grounds can you say Elder Oaks was “highly irresponsible” to use the word pornography in the way he did? It certainly is not irresponsible for him to use this nebulous word in a way you (or Lost, or anyone else here) aren’t thrilled with.

    Lost: She does NOT become pornography to some men just because they have active imaginations.

    I’m afraid that even emphatically stating your personal opinion on how the word pornography ought to be used does not count as evidence that Elder Oaks is wrong in the way he uses the word. You are free to prefer to use the word differently than he uses it of course, but it is arrogant to claim that the whole world must bow to your personal definitions. Unless someone can show me a universally accepted definition of the word pornography proving that Elder Oaks was actually wrong in his statement then I must assume accusations of him being “irresponsible” or teaching “patent nonsense” are nothing more than hot air.

  194. 194.

    The discussion reminds me some of law professor and race theorist Randall Kennedy’s controversial book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Kennedy points out that the word “nigger” means very different things in different contexts — it can be, among other things, an epithet; a way for whites to demean blacks; a word used by some blacks to demean other blacks; a sign of pride or solidarity among blacks; and so forth. Kennedy suggests that this protean nature is possible because of the word’s meaning varies highly by context. He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes:

    “A word is not a crystal, transparent, unchanged, [but is instead] the skin of a living thought that may vary in color and content according to the circumstances and time which it is used.”

    Thus, Kennedy suggests, “nigger” means different things to different people, because its ultimate meaning depends on other indicia like the user and the context.

    Terms like “walking pornography” (or for that matter modesty or pornography) similarly mean different things in different contexts. It’s possible that one person means no harm with a particular contextual use of a word; it’s also possible that the same term, used by another person or in another context, could be quite harmful.

    Add to this the Mormon tendency to create prooftexts, and it seems possible that some terms (e.g., walking pornography) might be transported into contexts in which they are used oppressively, even if that was not Elder Oaks’ original intent. The word’s meaning will vary by its context.

    To some degree, there is contextual variation in all words. However, some highly charged words — Kennedy discusses “nigger” as one example — are particularly susceptible to vastly different and sometimes harmful interpretations given different contexts. Based on comments here, I wonder if “walking pornography” isn’t similarly broad in its range of possible (sometimes harmful) interpretations.

  195. 195.

    Well said Kaimi.

  196. 196.

    Guy – of course Elder Oaks “understands” the difference between an object and a person. As I said in the last sentence you quoted, however, his words conflate an “immodestly dressed” woman (i.e., a human) and “pornography” (i.e., an object). Elder Oaks says “Women, when you dress immodestly, you become an object.” Not only that, he says immodestly dressed women are responsible for this objectification – meaning that women should _expect_ to become objects to men.

    And yes, for the foregoing reasons, I don’t see a material difference between Imus’ comments and the idea that women become objects when they decide to wear short skirts (or even as Mark VI said, nothing at all!).

    As for the sexy lawyer example in #192, I wonder whether Elder Oaks would prefer working with the “sexy” laywer to the “manly” lawyer. If you’re sexy, you’re a pornographic object, and if you’re “manly”, well, forget it.

    As an aside, I understand the frustration of Geoff J. and others about parsing the words of our Church leaders who routinely express their love and respect for women. I know Elder Oaks’ intentions are pure. When he says things like women are responsible for being treated like objects, I hope that Geoff J. is right. That NO ONE of the millions of people listening in General Conference would ever believe that women are less than human because they dress a certain way.

  197. 197.

    The term walking pornography has been repeatedly and explicitly attributed to Dallin Oaks as a direct quotation. Whether or not we think the phrase is an accurate description of his expressed sentiments, he never used the term, and it is improper usage to enclose it in quotation marks with a false attribution.

  198. 198.

    OK, so are you all saying that it would have been acceptable if Elder Oaks had said, “And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem because the visual image of you becomes pornography to some of the men who see you.”

  199. 199.

    Nope. If this is a talk about men and their pornography consumption, there’s no place for addressing young women’s responsibility. They have a responsibility to themselves to dress in ways that convey the messages they want to telegraph–but that’s a completely different talk than the one Elder Oaks was giving. Men’s pornography habits are NOT women’s responsibility. Full stop.

  200. 200.

    Eric, I for one certainly don’t care to make myself the word police of the GAs, despite the fact that I objected so strongly to the phrase at the time and continue to object now. I don’t have any interest in determining what is or is not “acceptable” for an apostle to say. (I may differ on this from others on this thread.)

    That said, I personally would not have objected to the following statement: “And young women, please understand that if you dress provocatively, some of the men who see you will become aroused in the same way that they would become aroused if they were looking at pornography.” Not very elegant, but it avoids dehumanizing girls.

    Still, even the forgoing statement would have mde me sick at heart to think of my daughters and sons growing into those young women and men, and made me wonder despairingly yet again why our sexual natures are so mutually harmful and incompatible.

    (N.B.: I am supremely blessed with a happy marriage and a wonderful husband, so my despair—thank heavens—is not based on personal experience.)

  201. 201.

    Ok, I know I said I would shut up, and I will after this.

    No, Geoff, this has nothing whatever to with my idiosyncratic definition of the term “pornography”. All that is required for me to make my point is that a woman in a shirt skirt or sleeveless dress is not by any objective standard, pornographic. (Whether she can become such through as a result of the subjective imagination of another is a different question.) If that is in dispute, then I guess we will be talking past each other forever.

    I don’t think you have really addressed my point that if there any pornographic images dancing around the mind of a man as a result of seeing a woman in a short skirt, they are entirely the creation of the man’s imagination, for which he alone is responsible.

    Forget about parsing his words. He said that there are at least some circumstances when it is appropriate to call a young woman “pornography” because she dressed immodestly. He made that comment in the context of sermon dedicated to decrying the evil of pornography. He made that comment to an audience comprised of people with a generally shared interpretation of the term “pornography” means and what the term “immodestly” means.

    Let that sink in for a moment. He just called my daughter’s best friends “pornography” to some people because she wore a sleeveless dress to her graduation banquet. The term once reserved for “Debbie Does Dallas” is now being attached by an Apostle in general conference to our daughters and their friends. That is precisely how his comments would be understood by the large majority of his listeners. If after some reflection, the thought of pinning that pejorative label on your daughters and your daughters’ friends for the crime of dressing “immodestly” does not cause you at least some consternation, then, well, I am really surprised.

    Incidentally, since you were asking, Lost is a he.

  202. 202.

    ECS wrote:

    Elder Oaks says “Women, when you dress immodestly, you become an object.” Not only that, he says immodestly dressed women are responsible for this objectification – meaning that women should _expect_ to become objects to men.

    Except that’s not at all what Elder Oaks said. He said:

    And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.

    Those who “objectify” women, are “some” of the men who see them–not Elder Oaks. But, of course Geoff J has, I think, already clearly pointed out this distinction over and over again on this thread. I suspect we will just have to agree to disagree.

    But, when you take 26 words out of a 2500 word discourse, and attribute to those words a meaning that the plain words themselves do not convey (nor does the context of the talk itself), then I think there is some element of parsing of those words.

    The parsing becomes even more apparent by equating Elder Oaks’ quote above (particularly in the context of the talk he gave), and “nappy headed hos” as being without a material difference.

  203. 203.

    I’ve just seen Kristine’s #199, and I’m thinking maybe she’s right. Maybe a talk on the evils of men’s pornography use ought not address women at all.

    Still, though, in another context, girls should gently be made aware that the male attention they crave (they do crave it, and they often—not all the time–dress to draw it) can be a very, very ugly thing indeed.

  204. 204.

    Kristine,
    They have a responsibility to themselves to dress in ways that convey the messages they want to telegraph . . .

    That is like saying that I only have a responsibility to myself to use language in a way that communicates what I want to communicate. That’s not true. I also have a responsibility to those around me to use language in a way that does not cause detriment to them. It would be wrong of me to use sexually suggestive language in public, in part because of the effect it would have others. Just like it would be wrong of me to dress in a sexually suggestive manner in public, in part because of the effect it would have on others. The effect on others isn’t the only reason that dressing or speaking in a sexually suggestive manner in public is wrong, but that’s part of it.

    Men’s pornography habits are NOT women’s responsibility. Full stop.

    This is absolutely true. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t negatively affect others in the way that we speak, dress, and act. The porn actor harms both him/herself and others by his/her actions. Can the porn viewer blame his/her viewing on the actors? Absolutely not. The porn viewer is fully culpable for his/her own actions. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t tell people that one reason they shouldn’t act in porn is that doing so causes harm to others.

    Dressing provocatively is not acting in porn. But it does have negative effects on others, even non-scumbags.

    One semi-related issue: it is never a woman’s fault that she gets raped. The rapist is always fully to blame for his deplorable actions. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that women can do to increase or decrease the likelihood of getting raped. Pointing those things out is not the same thing as blaming the victim for the rape. Just like saying that you’re more likely to get robbed if you walk alone down dark alleys at night is not the same as blaming robbery victims for getting robbed. [I don’t know what all the risk factors for rape are, but whatever they are, it is sensible to teach them to people in order to decrease the likelihood that they will become victims.]

  205. 205.

    ECS, 186,

    Mark, my reading of your comment about women wearing low-cut shirts is that these women _deserve_ to be oogled and demeaned as a sexual objects with no intelligence. That can’t be what you meant, is it?

    You are correct, that isn’t what I mean’t, and I appreciate the charitable reading and chance to clarify. I meant that she shouldn’t be surprised if those are the results she gets. If we want to consider women as adult human beings, responsible for their actions (and I really do), we need to be able to say that a woman who gets implants, wears wonderbras, and dresses to show cleavage bears a lot of responsibility for the way she is perceived. As Kristine said, she has a responsibility to herself to dress in ways that only convey the message she wants to convey.

    Kaimi’s example in 192 is instructive. That woman is by no means a rare case. My guess is that at least 1/3 of the women I work with do the same thing, although not quite so blatantly mercenary. And they all think of themselves as feminists and will, if challenged, immediately pull the victim trump card out of their sleeves and throw it on the table.

  206. 206.

    Rosalynde:

    Maybe a talk on the evils of men’s pornography use ought not address women at all.

    I think this is an excellent point. Elder Oaks gave the talk in the Sunday afternoon session, but he explicitly addressed his comments to “my fellow holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood, and also our young men.” I think the sentence so much discussed on this thread is the only one not directed to boys and men. I wonder if he originally planned to give the talk in the priesthood session, but when he found it was to be given in a general session, he tacked on this aside to young women, which really doesn’t go with the rest of the talk.

  207. 207.

    We are now over 200 comments into this thread, but nobody has asked a question that interests me. Please indulge me.

    Why does puberty and adolescence hit young women harder than it does young men?

    For boys, the changes in their bodies are all positive – broader shoulders, more muscle mass, especially in the upper body, a deeper voice, and no more peach fuzz. A boy’s body tells him that he is becoming more capable, more completely adult, and boys almost universally welcome that message.

    I will guess that for a girl, first bras and menstruation mean not only that she is growing up, but that she is destined for maternity. I think some girls welcome that signal, but the majority of Beehives probably find it somewhat disturbing, and experience puberty as a confusing phase of life, even something of a betrayal. Her body has taken over, and it is pushing her towards destinations unknown, against her will.

    That is all just speculation on my part, and I hope it isn’t offensive. I’ve observed that many girls in the wards and neighborhoods I have lived in change from happy-go-lucky ten year olds into young women who have a certain kind of sadness or confusion about them that doesn’t ever completely leave. I think we are absolutely justified when we inquire how much the culture at large contributes to putting our YW at risk for negative outcomes. But I also think that, even in a completely egalitarian utopia, the sense of powerlessness, and therefore much of the problem, would remain.

  208. 208.

    Mark, I think it may be less complex than that–American media culture idealizes a female form that is pre-pubescent (except for the breast implants). Many, many girls experience adolescence primarly as getting “fat” and having to go to war with their bodies to stop it. Mormon culture, despite its positive associations with maternity, offers little in the way of resistance to the culture of skinny, perfect beauty–we don’t in any serious way encourage girls’ athletics or, uh, outdoorspersonship, and we do have makeover nights and prom fashion shows… I think there is much more we could do to help our young women find their value as adult women, and making sure we don’t add to their discomfort about their bodies with confusing messages about modesty would be a good first step.

  209. 209.

    Lost: All that is required for me to make my point is that a woman in a shirt skirt or sleeveless dress is not by any objective standard, pornographic.

    This sentence illustrates the fatal flaw in your argument. We have established quite clearly that there are no objective standards to determine what is pornographic and what is not. Therefore, no matter how many times you restate your view on how the term pornography should be used among English speakers, it really does amount to nothing more than your “idiosyncratic definition of the term pornography”. Because of that, there are no grounds on which to justify accusing Elder Oaks of being “highly irresponsible” or of teaching “patent nonsense”.

    However, there is plenty of room for thoughtful responses like Rosalynde’s in #200 where she said she wishes Elder Oaks would have worded things differently. I can fully understand that his use of language in this case made people uncomfortable. But saying one does not like the way he worded something is a far cry from accusing him of preaching patent nonsense or being highly irresponsible.

  210. 210.

    Good point, Kris, about puberty and the you’re-too-fat culture. It reminds me of a recent article in the Atlantic about porn, women’s bodies, and perceptions of sexuality, where the author derisively suggested that today’s ideal woman, as portrayed in media and in lad-mags like FHM, is basically “another boy, but with tits.”

    (Weirdly, the article then went on to praise the porn of the 1960’s — Playboy magazine, in particular — for idealizing a more realistic, feminine, and woman-y woman.)

  211. 211.

    Mark IV (#184), I’m somewhat familiar with Marcotte’s back history, but I was just saying that I haven’t read her stuff on the Duke rape case. And you’re right that I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on the power stuff. :)

    Lost (#190), as the originator of this thread, I will say you are not wearing out your welcome. As long as people here are respectful and follow our comment policy, they can stay as long as they like.

  212. 212.

    Kristine: If this is a talk about men and their pornography consumption, there’s no place for addressing young women’s responsibility.

    The problem is that it is not exclusively a talk about men and their pornography use. Elder Oaks summarizes the purpose of his talk in the paragraph immediately following the sentence we have been debating. Here are the passages:

    Finally, do not patronize pornography. Do not use your purchasing power to support moral degradation. And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.

    Please heed these warnings. Let us all improve our personal behavior and redouble our efforts to protect our loved ones and our environment from the onslaught of pornography that threatens our spirituality, our marriages, and our children.

    I testify that this is what we should do to enjoy the blessings of Him whom we worship.

    So it is true that in true Mormon fashion he spends the majority of his talk berating the men. He then gives some passing counsel to the young women. Then he gives a general plea to all to work together to protect our environment from the onslaught of pornography we are experiencing in our culture.

    I only bring this up to question this claim that Elder Oaks had no business giving counsel to young women in this talk. I think that is just not true.

  213. 213.

    Geoff, as ECS says in #196, we recognize that Elder Oaks had everyone’s best interests at heart in his GC talk. However, as Kaimi pointed out, once words leave a person’s mouth, the interpretation of those words is not up to the person who spoke them. The context (and the potential understanding of the audience) influence how those words will be interpreted. What we have been trying to argue in this thread is not that Elder Oaks was purposefully trying to objectify women, but that he said something that could easily be interpreted by church members in problematic ways (and, therefore, our conclusion that he is “irresponsible” for doing this).

  214. 214.

    That’s interesting, Kristine. A few years ago I read a book called Reviving Ophelia, and the message I remember from the book is pretty much what you describe.

    I’ve done some reading in an effort to inform myself about anorexia and eating disorders. While I haven’t found anybody willing to set out a definitive list of causes for anorexia among adolescent girls, many people who treat it think it is an attempt by the girl to assert control over her life. For instance, a move during the high school years, even for a girl who is happy with her body, might be a triggering event. Does any of that make sense to you? At any rate, it makes me sick to my stomach to see prescious young women who are wonderful and thoroughily delightful in every way go through these painful messes.

  215. 215.

    Mark, this deserves another thread–maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to start one…

  216. 216.

    Re: Rosalynde (#165, way back there)

    do more men use pornography in environments where it must be used secretly or where it may be used openly? I have no doubt that porn use thrives in environments of secrecy, but I also suspect that porn use thrives in frat houses, the military, and other environments where it is openly accepted. In fact, I have a feeling that porn use thrives anywhere there are men with easy acces to sexual images.

    Actually, the opposite may be true. Check out this U.S. News article. The harsh anti-pornography battle waged by Reagan and Bush coincided with a dramatic increase in porn sales in the U.S., while a dramatic liberalization of obscenity laws in Denmark has coincided with a dramatic decline in the Danish porn industry. It appears that where porn is widely and easily available, and where there is no taboo (and therefore no shame) attached to it, it becomes unpopular and even “boring.”

    Frankly, compulsive porn use (and other compulsive sexual habits) is fueled by shame, guilt, taboo, and unhealthy attitudes about sexuality. In the LDS context, when we talk about porn use, we are usually talking about this type of uncontrolled consumption (rather than the casual use you might expect to find in frat houses and dorm rooms). Hence the frequent use of the term “addiction” in LDS rhetoric when it comes to porn.

    So it appears that guilt, shame, and taboo are not our friends when it comes to fighting pornography and helping “addicts” overcome it.

  217. 217.

    Also, check out the abstract for this study. It states,

    “The majo[r] finding in the second study showed that the married male who is high in sex-guilt finds his marital sex life less satisfactory, masturbates more and has a more positive response to pornography than a single male high in sex-guilt.”

    I don’t have access to the actual article, so I don’t have all the details. But it seems that a male who experiences sexual guilt in response to porn would probably feel that much more guilty if he were married as opposed to single. This may explain why the married male high in sex guilt “masturbates more and has a more positive response to pornography than a single male high in sex guilt.”

    Oh, and the last article I linked to in my previous comment (#154) is more of a quantitative study, and it shows that those with more authoritarian and negative views of sex are more likely to be aroused by pornography.

    I’m sure there are better, more recent studies out there, but unfortunately I’m not what you’d call an expert in this area. However, what I’ve read seems to point to the conclusion that shame and guilt actually make porn problems worse than in an environment where these factors are removed.

    I’m not saying we should be accepting of porn. I just think that we should be more understanding of the causes and nature of the problem.

  218. 218.

    Seraphine, 211,

    As a dues-paying member of the Privileged White Male Club, I solemnly vow that I will never use my power to engage in a power struggle with you. :)

    While I do not disagree with the overall analysis that women are historically subservient to men, I think there is so much overlap and variation in the two groups that the application to individual cases becomes problematic. An educated female probably has more options (power) open to her than an uneducated male, for instance. And in relationships, personalities types probably count more than chromosomes in deciding who dominates. But you probably already know all that anyway.

    I’m really sort of surprised that I’m still participating in this thread, and the credit for that goes to you. After getting through the third paragraph of your post, I had already had two strongly negative reactions: 1)”Geez, Do I really have to listen to lectures on modesty from somebody who uses f-bombs the way I use commas?”, and 2)”I can’t believe it. Just because I’m a white guy with a job, they’re trying to blame me every time one of the Laurels decides to wear thong panties and a pair of Daisy Dukes.” But I like the general tone you set, and now I am glad that I stayed with you. Muchas gracias.

  219. 219.

    GeoffJ: In response to Lost’s statement that a woman in a short skirt is not, by any objective standard, pornographic, you stated in #209 that therein lies the fatal flaw in his argument. Do you really mean:

    (a) that the term pornography is so poorly defined in the English language that it could easily include a woman dressed in a short skirt?;and
    (b) that a definition of pornography that does not include women in sleeveless dresses and short skirts is idiosyncratic?

    I would be extremely surprised if any educated person in our society would argue that women in sleeveless dress or short skirts fit within the definition of pornography. Do you think that they do? You also said that we have established that there are no objective standards to determine what constitutes pornography. Where and when was this established?

  220. 220.

    ECS (#179),

    That the “legal definition of ponography” reference keeps popping up in the context of this thread is making my skin crawl.

    And the fact that you and Lost think you can make definitive statements about the usage of a word which you cannot define is making my skin crawl. Words mean things. To pretend you can talk about the word without needing its definition is just silly. It is patently absurd to say that you can’t define the word, but you can tell that a certain usage is irresponsible. Further, I am not concerned at all with a legal definition. What I am interested in is a working definition of the word in the context it was used, which was not a courtroom, but a pulpit.

    In the church, it is quite clear to me that many people use the word “pornography” to mean any visual image which sexually excites a person. Thus, even though someone might say that a National Geographic magazine is not pornography by and “reasonable standard,” in the church it would be quite an average usage of the word to call a National Geographic pornography for the young man masterbating to it. We might even say that the magazine has “become pornography” for him. That is a reasonable usage, it is not irresponsible, and it means something substantive. It is based on a definition of “pornography” which is reasonable.

    Now, would this be saying something perjorative about National Geographic? No. The word pornography is not simply a perjorative word, it has a meaning. Since the meaning is hard to nail down, we have to consider what meaning the user has in mind and whether that meaning is offensive.

    Women (in general) and young girls (in particular) simply do not understand the affect that visual images have on young men. They do not understand it. Elder Oaks’ statement is primarily about the affect of visual images on men. The reason he says a young woman may “become pornography” is because of the affect that it may have on a young man. If pornography is defined as I have described about, this is a perfectly reasonable thing to say.

    And despite Kristine’s “Full stop” in #199, if we believe it is the responsiblity of young women to dress modestly (which the church clearly does), and if the need for modest dress is motivated by the affect immodesty has on young men (which it seems to be), then his statement absolutely belongs in his talk.

  221. 221.

    Jacob,

    AMEN.

    Lurker,

    See #220

  222. 222.

    Why don’t all of us women just start wearing burkas and then we won’t have to think about this. Ankles in some cultures is inappropriate.

  223. 223.

    Jacob J. and Geoff J. (are you related?)

    From the American Heritage Dictionary:

    Pornography

    1. Sexually explicit pictures, writing, or other material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal.

    2. The presentation or production of this material.

    3. Lurid or sensational material

    Pornography is a descriptive noun. When Elder Oaks says women become pornography, Elder Oaks says women become objects. As I’ve already stated, the equivalency of women with pornographic objects is dehumanizing and dangerously inappropriate.

  224. 224.

    This is a great topic! I come from outside Mormon culture, as a convert, and to me shoulders and knees are not immodest. Nor are they (of course) pornographic in any way. Because I come from the south where it’s hot and humid much of the year, bare midriffs don’t seem at all racy to me either.

    I remember when I was visiting my sister in Massachusetts one summer around 1979 while she was in grad school and the news was all about the “heat wave”. This meant it was in the high 80s all week and people were sweltering. To us from Alabama it was quite pleasantly cool for summertime. We wore our ordinary summer attire of shorts, t-shirts, and tennis shoes as we walked around the city visiting various sites. We continually were greeted with hoots and catcalls from guys who apparently thought we were being really racy. I noticed that other people mostly wore long pants and shirts with sleeves, possibly even polyester rather than 100% cotton. No wonder they swelter up there when it’s only in the 80s! They have on clothing that is inappropriate to the weather.

    Honestly, I think modesty just means less skin than you’re used to seeing regularly in public and immodesty means more. The variance in what constitutes enough modesty is so wide in time and place and culture that it’s completely obvious to everyone, I would think, that there are no objective standards.

    I’ve thought about this a long time and prayed about it, asking for guidance. I’m leaning toward the conclusion that worrying about girls’ modesty is a bad idea. The correct assumption is that people are dressing for their own comfort and convenience, not to be ogled. If one ends up erring in this, then at least it’s on the side of decorum and kindness.

    Young people have different standards than old, people in warm climates have different standards than those shivering in the cold, and societies that oppress women have different standards than those in which women enjoy legal equality. Rather than assume my standard is pervasive and take offense (or worse, presume I should ogle) when other people have different standards, I think the proper thing to do is to accept each person as they are, and treat them as though they’re dressed perfectly for whatever occasion it may be. After all, what matters is the person, not thier clothes.

  225. 225.

    ECS,

    Okay, now we are getting somewhere–defining terms always helps. I think that the AHD definition above is not going to be inclusive enough for the usage “pornography” has in the church (which is the pertinent context for the statement we are discussing). I already provided one example of where the definition above is clearly too restrictive for our context. The National Geographic would not fall under the definition above, but it would be referred to as pornography in our context. Many other examples could be given. Thus, you’ll need a broader definition (like the one I suggested in #220) if you are going to correctly analyze the statement of Elder Oaks.

    Now, even if we accept the AHD definition above, I am still not sure that your argument is sound. So, let me find out how committed you are to the logic of your argument. “Art” is also a descriptive noun. Would it be dehumanizing to say that in one sense a performance artist actually becomes art when s/he is performing?

    (By the way, Geoff and I are not related, I just took on the final “J.” in solidarity with my extended Thang family.)

  226. 226.

    Tatiana,

    Honestly, I think modesty just means less skin than you’re used to seeing regularly in public and immodesty means more. The variance in what constitutes enough modesty is so wide in time and place and culture that it’s completely obvious to everyone, I would think, that there are no objective standards.

    I agree 100%, nicely said. (Tatiana’s statement above is my response to ECS’s #121, incidentally.)

  227. 227.

    [A]nd if the need for modest dress is motivated by the affect immodesty has on young men (which it seems to be)

    This is where I disagree. In my responsibility to dress and act modestly I am answerable only to God. It is *polite* to dress with others in mind so that they aren’t distracted or tempted. The *commandment* to be modest in dress and action is for my benefit alone. Even though polite behavior is a happy by-product of keeping this particular commandment, it does not make the polite behavior *the reason* for keeping the commandment. If we pretend that it does then we sell ourselves short and make keeping the commandments part of getting along in polite society rather than a matter of eternal growth and salvation. A woman should dress modestly because she intends to be a Queen and Priestess, not because some teen might be thinking about her when he masterbates.

  228. 228.

    Starfoxy,

    Your claim is that the commandment for you to be modest is for you and you alone. If you were alone on an island, would there still be a *commandment* to dress modestly? Would such a commandment have any benefit for you alone? I don’t see how it would, which leads me to believe that the reason for the commandment is to be found in the affect modesty has in a social setting. One of those affects is on the people with whom the immodestly dressed person interacts. On what basis can you justify removing this from the reasons behind the commandment and relegating it to an issue of politeness?

  229. 229.

    Hi, Jacob-

    New Cool Thang is a great blog.

    I don’t think I’m being very clear in my comments, so let me try again.

    Elder Oaks’ definition of pornography is not relevant to his statement that immodestly dressed women are responsible for objectifying themselves and “becoming” pornography, in the same way that Don Imus’ definition of “nappy headed ho” is not relevant to his comments about the women athletes on the Rutgers’ basketball team.

    Under _any_ definition of pornography, women do not “become” pornography. Pornography is a noun describing an object or an image. Women are human beings, not objects.

  230. 230.

    Steve, thanks for the follow-up. The trends in Denmark re: porn regulation and usage are interesting, but since the analysis doesn’t appear to take into account demographic factors like the aging of the population and changing ethnic profiles, I don’t find it persuasive, or even particularly suggestive.

    It appears to me that the qualitative linkages of compulsive porn use and shame are largely tautological. I take it, from the sources I’ve consulted, that a “compulsive porn user” is a person who fails in attempts to reduce or control his viewing of pornography. So imagine two men, each of whom masturbates to porn every day. One of them feels ashamed of his habit, and tries to stop. He can’t stop, he sees a therapist, and he gets labeled a “compulsive porn user.” The other doesn’t feel ashamed of his habit, doesn’t try to stop, never sees a therapist, and never gets labeled a “compulsive porn user.” But there’s no material difference in their use of porn, so the label is largely meaningless.

    I have no doubt that many if not all of the porn “addicts” a bishop or therapist sees in his office are ashamed of their behavior. But bishops and therapists don’t see a representative sample of porn users, thus they can’t (or shouldn’t) draw conclusions about the causal role of shame in porn use. Pornography stimulates the most primitive reward centers in the brain, and thus porn use is likely to be only very marginally responsive to cultural factors like shame.

  231. 231.

    ECS: Under _any_ definition of pornography, women do not “become” pornography.

    This statment is absolutely untrue ECS. By the definition Elder Oaks is using, some young women do in fact become pornography in the eyes of some men.

    You don’t have to like his definition, but you have no right to insist he adhere your preferred definition.

    his statement that immodestly dressed women are responsible for objectifying themselves and “becoming” pornography

    Here again you have put words in Elder Oaks’ mouth — a practice I object to.

  232. 232.

    ECS,

    To follow up on Geoff’s comment, in #220 I said:

    In the church, it is quite clear to me that many people use the word “pornography” to mean any visual image which sexually excites a person.

    Under that definition, it seems to me that women could fall under the definition. Where am I going wrong?

    Women are human beings, not objects.

    Are you sure about that?

    ob·ject, noun
    1. anything that is visible or tangible and is relatively stable in form.
    2. a thing, person, or matter to which thought or action is directed: an object of medical investigation.

  233. 233.

    Geoff, what do you make of my assertion in comment #213? You can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that you’re bothered by the fact that people on this thread seem to be ascribing malicious intent to Elder Oaks when we are merely saying (or, at least I am) that one interpretation of his statement (an interpretation that many on this thread have come up with independently) has very problematic implications.

    In other words: since none of are Elder Oaks, we are all, by making assumptions about what he means by his statement (and words such as “immodesty” and “pornography”), in a sense, “put[ting] words in Elder Oaks’ mouth.” For me, this discussion is not about what Elder Oaks’ really meant, but the possible ways his words could be interpreted and the potential negative effect those interpretations may have on his audience.

  234. 234.

    Geoff, please stop scolding me. I have every right to complain about Elder Oaks’ choice of language. Just as you have every right to disagree with me.

    Jacob, I’ve already explained myself. I do not appreciate language that objectifies women as pornography. Whether it comes from Elder Oaks, “some men”, or you.

  235. 235.

    From what I’ve seen, Church denunciations of pornography overwhelmingly focus on the ways in which it’s spiritually destructive to men. Why is pornography wrong? A number of conference talks will tell you that it’s because it weakens men; because they get ensnared by it and they feel out of control; because it interferes with their ability to feel the Spirit; because it hurts their relationships. It’s often compared to a drug addiction, or to a poison of some kind.

    I certainly wouldn’t disagree with any of this. However, I think it leaves out a crucial piece. I believe that pornography is wrong not simply because it’s addictive and all of that, but also because of the dehumanization factor–because it sets up a framework in which certain people are viewed as objects which exist for the pleasure of others. And I’m somewhat troubled by the frequent emphasis on the ways in which pornography is destructive to men, without even a mention of how it harms women by dehumanizing them.

    That’s the background I’m bringing to the comment in question from Elder Oaks. It’s possible that I’m not giving him a fair reading. But I see no indication that he’s at all challenging the underlying framework in which men are the subjects (the ones who act, who look) and women are the objects (the ones who are acted on, looked at); in fact, the “becoming pornography” comment only reinforces that framework. And that’s why it bothers me.

  236. 236.

    Amen, Lynnette. The frequent analogy to other addictions has bothered me for years. Although the addiction model certainly seems applicable (from what little I know about the subject), there is one vital difference; cocaine, heroin, and alcohol are things. They have no feelings about being used and exploited for the gratification of their users. And it’s one thing to describe these substances metaphorically as a destructive poison; it’s quite another to describe images of women in such terms.

    It shouldn’t have to be pointed out, but sadly, it probably does have to pointed out, that women aren’t things. Women are not drugs or poison. It’s especially disturbing when our critique of pornography so chillingly replicates the degredation of women that characterizes pornography itself.

  237. 237.

    I think the feminist position on this thread can be summarized in this way:

    1. Women are not responsible for the thoughts and actions of men.

    2. Women are also not responsible for their own thoughts and actions, since they live in a culture that is dominated by men.

    On a feminist blog, we have nullified a woman’s thoughts and ideas by telling her she can’t even be sure those are her own thoughts and ideas. We have not only infantalized, but also lobotomized her.

    We have also portrayed women as neo-Victorians who get the vapors anytime they see or hear anything that bruises their delicate sensibilities. Offensive conversation is classified as a sexual assault. Talk about the trivialization of rape! And if this is the world where men retain their hegemony by the exercise of their vast power, I must say that we men are doing a lousy job of it.

    ALthough I do not understand the pressures women face, especially young women, I understand that those pressures are difficult to navigate, and that our culture does indeed bring the pressure. But we must be able to acknowledge the problem without simultaneously portraying women as amoebae responding to stimuli.

    Our church recently implemented a policy which prohibits men from teaching Primary classes alone. I understand the reasons for the policy and support it fully. It is nonetheless an ugly message for an adolescent boy to hear. His own church presumes him to be a potential molester. If, in later years, he actually becomes one, how many of us would have sympathy with him if he tried to blame it on the message the church sent him?

  238. 238.

    Jacob J (#220)
    I don’t personally know anyone (inside the church or out) who would consider National Geographic pornography. The only definition I’ve ever heard of porn, and which everyone else seems to accept, is that from AHD: sexually explicit material. I realize that you accept that National Geographic can be pornographic, so obviously someone can, but just because you define pornography this way doesn’t mean it’s how Elder Oaks was using the word.

    Geoff J (#231)
    Why do you think that Elder Oaks is using anything other than the dictionary definition of pornography. In his talk he calls pornography “images and words intended to arouse sexual desires”. This seems to mean sexually explicit material to me. To quote you, “Here again you have put words in Elder Oaks’ mouth, a practice [you] object to.”

  239. 239.

    Seraphine: Geoff, what do you make of my assertion in comment #213?

    Well I think your argument there had major flaws actually.

    Here is the basic argument:

    he said something that could easily be interpreted by church members in problematic ways (and, therefore, our conclusion that he is “irresponsible” for doing this)… (#213)

    I think it is nothing short of ridiculous to assert that Elder Oaks is “highly irresponsible” for saying what he means just because some people misinterpret his meaning. By that untenable standard most anything anyone says could be called “highly irresponsible”. I would say it is highly irresponsible for a Latter Day Saint to attribute an untenable meaning to the the words of one of our apostles. (In this case such untenable meanings include assuming Elder Oaks meant women cease to be human when they dress immodestly or that Elder Oaks meant that “some men’s” porn problems are the fault of immodestly dress women or whatever. None of those misinterpretations are supported by the actual text.)

    Also, if it is irresponsible to have one’s words misinterpreted then Elder Oaks is in good company because Jesus himself was regularly misunderstood and his words were (and are) misinterpreted all the time.

    Further, there is a certain irony in this assertion of yours that the full responsibility of communication rests on the shoulders of the sender. In case of Elder Oaks you claim:

    - The communicator (Elder Oaks over the pulpit) = 100% responsibility for the message and its interpretation
    – The receiver (people hearing the message) = 0% responsibility for properly interpreting the intent and meaning of the message.

    Yet in the case of young women and the “some men” Elder Oaks described you claim:

    - The communicator (Immodestly dressed young woman sending non-verbal messages) = 0% responsibility for the message and its interpretation
    – The receiver (“some men”) = 100% responsibility for properly interpreting the intent and meaning of the message.

    I think that the standard of responsibility for senders and receivers of messages must be much more consistent than you are implying with this latest line of thought.

    I don’t begrudge anyone for not liking the way Elder Oaks made his point. But I do object to your unsupportable claim that he was highly irresponsible just because some people might have misinterpreted him.

  240. 240.

    Vada, if you know any boys 12-15 years old, you know somebody who thinks of National Geopraphic as pornography. My junior high school teacher referred to them as ‘Poor Man’s Playboys’ and ridiculed us when we paid too much attention to the back issues.

  241. 241.

    Mark, I’ll freely confess that I’ve only skimmed only a handful of the 238 comments above, so maybe I shouldn’t even ask this (feel free to refer me back to the point in the discussion from which you’re drawing your conclusions)–but I missed the comments that lead you to conclude that the feminist position embraces your #2:

    2. Women are also not responsible for their own thoughts and actions, since they live in a culture that is dominated by men.

    Can you help me out here?

    The Primary ban made me really sad as well. Some of my absolute favorite Primary co-teachers were men, and it was a tragedy to lose them. I can see why the church did it, though; it seems to be partly an issue of legal liability and of the church not wanting to be sued constantly and be constantly vulnerable to accusations, founded and unfounded. It is extremely frustrating that because of the actions of the one, the ninety-and-nine have to suffer. I can see your concern about boys growing up to think something’s wrong with them and they can’t be trusted with children. How would you suggest we present the ban and the reasons for it to boys (and girls)?

    I’m probably the wrong person to comment on modesty per se, since immodesty has never been much of a temptation for me. I am often a walking fashion disaster, and I find having to attend to my body’s social meaning (by, for example, brushing my hair) one of life’s ongoing annoyances. I think of fashion the way some women think of cooking–OK, fun once in a while, yes!–every day, having to make a fashion statement, EXHAUSTING. (One reason I’m constantly telling my husband that no, I CANNOT go to law school! Stories like Kaimi’s above frighten me deeply.) I’ve never even owned a miniskirt, and I last owned a sleeveless shirt when I was five, I think. Every year comfort encroaches on style a little further. I fully expect to die in a baggy polyester jumpsuit with electric orange and purple flowers.

    I’m not sure quite what that has to do with anything.

    People, I am so not here. I am not here! I have tons of work to do. Feel free to tell me to please go away and try to pass my classes this semester….

  242. 242.

    ECS,

    I promise I’m not trying to scold you. I don’t begrudge you disliking Elder Oaks choice of words. In fact I can fully understand that position. Kiskilili and Rosalynde have articulated similar preferences nicely in this thread.

  243. 243.

    LOL, Geoff. I’ll try to be nicer next time.

  244. 244.

    Vada (#238),

    In context of his talk, it is quite clear that in the sentence in question Elder Oaks is defining pornography as being a subjective thing that exists in the eyes/mind of the beholder. So based on his usage of the term it is perfectly understandable to say that in the eyes of “some men” (misguided as they may be) an immodestly dressed young woman could very well become an “image intended to arouse sexual desires”.

  245. 245.

    Eve, I can’t believe it. You actually want me to back up and document an inflammatory and unsubstantiated stamement? You must be some kind of academic or something.

    Here is the offending part of the original post:

    The end result is women are given twin messages to be sexually appealing and not to be sexually appealing all at once

    I think it is unproductive and harmful to portray women simply as receivers of messages and not rational beings. I see (perhaps inaccurately) a willingness to allow young women to rationalize their choices and place blame for their actions on the patriarchy.

    I think institutional feminism has invested too heavily in the narrative that divides the world into victims and victimizers. The relentless portrayal of women as victims can become a self-fulfilling prophecy where women literally cannot see themselves as anything other than victims.

    That is not to say that the narrative is not more or less historically accurate. But I am arguing that we absolutely must find a way to empower women, especially young women, and the victim approach does more harm than good. I think.

  246. 246.

    Lynette (and Eve),

    The good news is that Elder Oaks doesn’t dehumanize women in the least. Instead he counsels the young women on ways they can avoid being dehumanized by “some men”. Further, he spends the bulk of the talk preaching against any LDS men dehumanizing women by viewing porn.

  247. 247.

    Geoff, can you show me in the talk where Elder Oaks discusses porn as “dehumanizing women”? Elder Oaks talks about men disappointing their wives by viewing porn, but I couldn’t find a reference to the dehumanizing effects of porn on women.

  248. 248.

    Jacob (re #228)

    You ask:

    If you were alone on an island, would there still be a *commandment* to dress modestly? Would such a commandment have any benefit for you alone?

    My answers are yes, and yes. The benefits are many- I get all of the blessings of wearing the garment, I avoid the sins of pride, and vanity, and I am better able to direct my resources (time, effort) towards more fruitful pursuits. I feel I should also point out that ‘modesty’ means much more than just ‘non-sexual.’ Extremely expensive, or distracting, or irreverant clothing is also immodest.

    You also ask:

    On what basis can you justify removing [the effect modesty has in a social setting] from the reasons behind the commandment and relegating it to an issue of politeness?

    My basis is the fact that when you make an earthly benefit the reason for keeping a commandment then you make the need to keep that commandment contingent on the need for that benefit. The idea of eternal laws disappears. Will we dress modestly in the Celestial Kingdom? Yes. Will it be to avoid tempting eachother? No- I’d hope residents of the Celestial Kingdom would be beyond such temptations. Instead I think we’ll dress modestly because that is simply the way Gods dress.

  249. 249.

    Eve, stick around. (I know, I’m an evil influence.) I want to see your baggy polyester jumpsuit with electric orange and purple flowers.

  250. 250.

    Mark, LOL. I’m some kind of an academic, I guess, but not a scary one–a nice frumpy one. ;) (Polyester power!!!)

    Here is the offending part of the original post:

    The end result is women are given twin messages to be sexually appealing and not to be sexually appealing all at once

    I think it is unproductive and harmful to portray women simply as receivers of messages and not rational beings. I see (perhaps inaccurately) a willingness to allow young women to rationalize their choices and place blame for their actions on the patriarchy.

    OK. I guess I don’t see what’s so controversial about the original quotation here–the point that women are given contradictory messages. That fact in itself doesn’t deny them their rationality or their agency. (Aren’t we constantly talking in General Conference and elsewhere about the messages the world gives us and how to avoid buying into them?)

    Pointing out that the media send women or men or goats a particular message doesn’t deny anyone their agency; on the contrary, I would think identifying and picking apart these subtle and destructive messages is the first step to–hooray!–liberation (!!!). We can’t unloose ourselves from the assumptions that, say, we need to buy 283 skin-care products until we put down the Vogue magazine and say, “Wait just a minute here…I think someone’s sending me a message!”

    Personally I’ve never heard a single young woman justify her immodesty by saying that the patriarchy made her do it. Young preteen and early teen girls are, in my experience, extremely vulnerable and struggling desperately to figure out who they are. They’re trying to figure out how to be women. If the women they see as hip role models all flaunt their sexuality wildly, it’s going to be extraordinarily tempting for the preteens watching to want to do the same. Of course they’re responsible for their decisions (to the extent that they’ve been taught correct principles, which, we have to remember, many haven’t)–but navigating the minefield of feminine self-presentation is an ongoing trial even for adult women. (Too much makeup? Wear a dress to work? No one will take you seriously. You can’t establish authority. Too little makeup? Power suit? Now you’re a “manly lawyer,” insufficiently feminine. Sigh. Can’t win.)

    I’m getting more and more longwinded, but maybe the model here is language. We can’t change the social meanings of the language we use or the clothes we wear. Those meanings are established for us. All we can do is attempt to use the language of dress to send the message that we want to send. There are a lot more problems for women in this regard than there are for men. It’s not that men are more responsible for their behavior than women, who are just victims; it’s that there are positions in the language that exist for men that don’t exist for women (in the same way that there are extremely vulgar terms for women in the language which have no male counterpart). For example: the message “I am a masculine man and I have authority in this situation” (suit and tie and short haircut and polished dress shoes). There’s no equivilant message that says: “I am a feminine woman and I have authority in this situation” because femininity and authority contradict one another. The more feminine you are in dress, the less your dress sends a message of authority.

    (And the rationality model of human behavior has some limitations, for all of us–I mean, if we were fully rational about everything, there WOULD be no addictions to porn or to anything else, right? We’d just say, why would I ever be so stupid as to indulge in this short-term gratification at the expense of my long-term happiness? Sadly, we humans just aren’t that strong or that smart.)

    OK, I’m REALLY getting back to work now. Really. (Photo of me in flowered polyester jumpsuit to follow, pending discovery of said jumpsuit at Goodwill…)

  251. 251.

    Geoff J, I think you raise a fair question in #239. Obviously people can’t entirely avoid the possibility that their words will be misinterpreted by some, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to expect them to think out every single way that might happen in order to pre-emptively counter it before uttering a single syllable. On the other hand, I do think it’s legitimate to question whether certain ways of phrasing things are the most helpful or responsible ways to discuss them. And in that context, I don’t think it’s out of bounds to refer to a particular phrase as “irresponsible.” While I agree that it’s untenable to interpret Elder Oaks as asserting that immodestly dressed women cease to be human, the statement does leave a certain amout of ambiguity about the relation of actual, flesh-and-blood women to pornography, as the discussion on this thread has certainly illustrated.

    Also, I’m not sure your situations are truly analogous. In the first instance, we’re talking about what an apostle says in conference, words which we’re encouraged to take so seriously that we study them along with our scriptures. So indeed we are challenged with the task of interpreting those words correctly. In the second instance, however, I don’t think the challenge is to correctly ascertain the message the immodestly dressed young women is hoping to send (e.g., is she intending to be viewed as pornography?) Rather, the challenge is to see her as a human being regardless.

    For what it’s worth, I’m all for reminding both young men and young women that how they dress does communicate something, and that they should think about what they’re communicating. I’m certainly not advocating an abdication of responsibility on that end. However, I’m uneasy when female modesty is framed in terms of the need to protect males. I think that sends a problematic message to both young women and young men.

  252. 252.

    Wow, a lot of comments while I was at church.

    ECS (#234),

    I was genuinely trying to move the discussion forward (in the direction of mutual understanding). You obviously don’t want to engage the substance of my argument, which is fine.

    Vada (#238),

    I can only assume you didn’t read my comment very closely. I don’t consider National Geographic to be pornographic. My point is as summarized by Geoff in #244.

    Further, I am not saying that Elder Oaks must be using the definition I suggested. I am responding to the multitude of comments above which claim that an immodestly dressed young woman cannot be considered pornography by _any_ definition of the word (or sometimes, any “reasonable” definition of the word). That claim has been made. I have refuted it by providing a reasonable definition under which they can.

    You asked Geoff: Why do you think that Elder Oaks is using anything other than the dictionary definition of pornography.

    The reason I think Elder Oaks is using a broader definition than that of the AHD is that he is referring to things as pornography that do not fall under that definition–that seems plain enough. In addition, there is a large body of material available online which is NOT sexually explicit but which IS considered by many inside the religious community to be pornographic. For example, much of what can be found in Playboy magazine is not sexually explicit, but is commonly considered to be pornography.

  253. 253.

    I think the feminist position on this thread can be summarized in this way:

    1. Women are not responsible for the thoughts and actions of men.

    2. Women are also not responsible for their own thoughts and actions, since they live in a culture that is dominated by men.

    Mark IV, I think you’re mischaracterizing the feminist position on this blog. While media messages and power relations complicate issues of agency (i.e. how can you resist media messages if you’re never taught to value your own body?), women have agency and responsibility. Anyway, Eve said it all much more eloquently than I could hope to, so I’ll just say that I echo her response!

  254. 254.

    Geoff (#239), I couldn’t have framed a better response to your comment than Lynnette’s #251, so I will just say that I agree with everything she has expressed in this comment. (P.S. I’m not trying to turn this into an amen chorus, but all my co-bloggers are doing a better job today expressing the arguments in my head than I could hope to!)

  255. 255.

    Starfoxy (#248),

    I appreciate your response. I can see that our disagreement goes all the way back to very basic assumptions. For example, when alone on an island, I would say you could enjoy the blessings of the garment without being modest (after all, by itself it can hardly be considered modest). I see no reason to believe that running around naked would inspire pride or vanity (maybe you are better looking than I am, which could account for it). I see no reason to think that wearing expensive clothing, if I were all alone on an island, would pose any problem at all. I don’t view modesty as an eternal law, so I feel comfotable grounding it in temporal concerns. I wouldn’t be at all surprised or upset if I found out that people in the Celestial Kingdom do not dress modestly.

    So, you can see that we don’t have a whole lot of common ground to work with. But, I respect your point of view despite the fact that I do not understand it.

  256. 256.

    Jacob – I’ve already addressed your substantive arguments (i.e, that women are objects). Please re-read my comments and let me know if you have additional questions.

  257. 257.

    Lynnette (#251) (and thus Seraphine #254),

    Thanks. Your response seems quite reasonable to me. I have no objection to people wondering aloud (as several people have in this thread) if Elder Oaks’ choice of words in that one sentence was the most prudent choice on his part. I don’t really know the answer to that one. It could be that it was a just an unwise gamble he took to wake the audience up. (If he did just throw it in to jolt us a bit and get our attention his plan worked because I don’t see many debates about the other talks from that conference.) But on the other hand it could have been wording inspired directly by God. I suppose no one but Elder Oaks knows the answers to those questions. But at any rate, I appreciate your tempered words.

    My primary objections have been with the much more strident declarations that others have been making about that statement by Elder Oaks. Some have put words in his mouth that cannot be supported by the text. Others have claimed he was simply wrong in the way he used the English language but that charge is simply not true. Others have called him blatantly irresponsible or accused him of teaching patent nonsense but could not remotely support their over-the-top accusations.

    I see nothing wrong with having artistic/linguistic differences with Elder Oaks, but I chafe at the false charges he has been regularly accused of ever since the talk came out.

  258. 258.

    ECS,

    Seriously, if after #220, #225, and #232 you think my substantive argument is that “women are objects” you are not even trying to understand me, nor communicate.

  259. 259.

    Jacob J, I agree that your argument does not seem to be that women are objects. However, it does seem like you are okay with thinking about women as objects when discussing the issue of pornography, which many of us on this thread take issue with (the most recent comments which explain why are #235 and #236). If this reading of your comments is incorrect, please clarify.

  260. 260.

    […] The extended discussion on Seraphine’s thread about modesty, and in particular the issue raised there about seeing women as objects, has gotten me thinking about another, somewhat related question. To put it bluntly, I’m wondering: do Latter-day Saints believe that in some sense women are the possessions of men? […]

  261. 261.

    Seraphine,

    Jacob never said it is “ok” to think as women as objects ever. Nor did Elder Oaks. Elder Oaks did say that women did say that some men some time think of some women as pornography. (ECS seems to be displaying a nasty debating habit of putting words in people’s mouths again… I didn’t realize that was a part of your arsenal ECS ;-) ) See comments 231 and 232 for the source of the latest mis-attribution. Further, you will notice that the “objects” comment Jacob did make had nothing to do with women specifically but was about definitions of the word object.

  262. 262.

    Oop, that 3rd sentence should have read:

    “Elder Oaks did say that some men think of some women as pornography some of the time.”

  263. 263.

    Geoff–I think you statement in 262 is a reasonable interpretation of Elder Oaks intended meaning, with one qualifier. He said that women “become” the kind of women that some men think of as pornography merely by dressing immodestly. It is that act of the woman that results in her becoming pornography to some men. This implies to me that it is her fault, and that she has done something to merit this label. I think that this is wrong. A woman who exposes her bare shoulders or the three inches of flesh above her knees is not responsible if a man takes that image and then manufactures a pornographic image in his mind. I believe that Elder Oaks language implies that she is responsible for HIS overactive imagination, by stating that as a result of her actions, that she is transformed from an innocent woman into pornography.

    Of course, if she is dressed in a way that is pornographic, or that seems to invite that kind of sexual attention, she should be held to account for that. I, like others here, would still object to the objectification language used by Elder Oaks, but I would not absolve her of responsbility for getting the reaction she was trying to get. However, I would not hold any woman responsible for getting a reaction that she was not trying to get.

    A beautiful, well dressed woman can easily also become pornography in the way you have proposed, because some men can concoct a pornographic image out of a beautiful face, or long blond hair. We would never accuse women of contributing to the problem of pornography or becoming pornography because of that. Women who dress in ways that are pornographic do contribute to the problem of pornography. Women who don’t, don’t.

  264. 264.

    Seraphine,

    I am aware that I am a new person around here. I apologize if I have jumped into an argument surrounding a touchy subject before going through a “getting to know you period.” I appreciate your patience.

    To clarify, I don’t think women should be thought of, or treated as objects.

  265. 265.

    Jacob J, I understood your comments in #232 to mean that you believed it was okay to think of women as objects (since you asked a question whether or not we were sure if women were objects when including the definition of the word “object”). Thanks for the clarification, and I apologize for my misreading. (And if you’re willing to be patient with us, since we can be a crotchety bunch at times, we’ll do our best to be patient with you.) :)

    Geoff (#257), I’ll guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on how “irresponsible” we believe Elder Oaks was for making that particular comment in GC.

  266. 266.

    Lurker – Wow. You have known the universally applicable difference between “merely by dressing immodestly” and “dressing in a way that is pornographic” all this time? Where were you 200 comments ago with these long-sought-after definitions? We could have avoided all of this discussion!

    Seraphine – Indeed.

  267. 267.

    I find it extraordinarily ironic that the dominant reaction here to someone who clearly wants young women to dress in a reasonable way so that they do not encourage others to think of them improperly, it to criticizing him for raising the issue in the first place, which can have no other practical result than increasing the number of young women who are thought of improperly (and potentially taken advantage of, etc.) – whether by leaving them more oblivious to material realities about the intensity of the effect such dress has on men (which seems to be the point of using the word in the first place) or leaving the men in the audience less convinced about the seriousness of pursuing such thoughts.

    And what is even worse is the la la land suggestion that somehow the world will be better off if we just discarded the whole concept of modesty in the first place.

    Why not take some practical action to start with? First circulate a petition to eliminate all dress codes. Then the film rating system. Conduct a campaign to have pornographic magazines displayed prominently at every grocery store stand, and lingerie models on every billboard. Repeal all the laws against indecent exposure and make every beach and swimming pool clothing optional. Conclude with mandatory anti-modesty indoctrination in every school, complete with live audience participation, until the curse of modesty is eradicated forever.

  268. 268.

    Mark D., I’m not entirely sure where you got the idea that any of the participants in this thread want to completely eliminate modesty. The concern being raised is rather about the ways in which modesty gets discussed. I could be wrong (it’s a looong thread, and I can’t say I’ve done a close read of every last comment), but my sense has been that everyone here agrees that modesty is a good thing–what we’re discussing (and at times quite strongly disagreeing about, though I have to say that I’ve appreciated the civil tone maintained by everyone involved) is the best way to promote that good.

  269. 269.

    The introductory quote in the original post was:

    Modesty exists mostly as a reason to obsess over what women are wearing and remind them non-stop that no matter what else they do with themselves, they’re just sex objects in the eyes of the patriarchy.

    I think that attitude is mind-bogglingly naive. It’s like saying “nutrition exists mostly as a reason to obsess over what we eat and remind ourselves constantly that science considers us nothing more than gelatinous blobs”.

  270. 270.

    Mark D, did you read the rest of Seraphine’s post? Immediately after the quoted paragraph you cite, she continued,

    Now, the reason I was drawn to this paragraph is not because I think the church needs to discard outdated notions of modesty.

    And later,

    We need to teach modesty as a principle, but . . . we should clearly and deliberately disconnect the principle from women’s inherent worth

    (emphasis added)

    Seraphine (and other commenters) are concerned with how modesty is being discussed, not with its being discussed at all. Amanda Marcotte may want to discard the whole notion of modesty, but that’s not what this discussion is about.

    Your comparison of modesty to nutrition breaks down quickly. Nutritional requirements don’t lend themselves to being bent by cultural whim. But modesty does. What’s modest in one time or place may be exhibitionism in another. But this whole line of argument is really irrelevant because as Lynnette pointed out, nobody here is arguing that the idea of modesty should be done away with.

  271. 271.

    To the “J” brothers, I re-read the talk and no where does it talk about the harm women suffer as becoming the objects men dehumanize when they look at pornography. The talk is focused on men, and the damage men suffer. Then, at the very end of cataloging the horribly corrosive effects of pornography on MEN, Elder Oaks says “immodestly dressed” women are responsible for the suffering of some men who can’t stop looking at them as pornographic objects.

    Look, I know you don’t agree with this interpretation of Elder Oaks’ statement. But since this is my interpretation for which I have a reasonable basis, it is not productive to dismiss my comments by accusing me of putting words in Elder Oaks’ mouth. Since you are both nice people, I’m sure we could have made more progress (or ended it much sooner!) by having this conversation in person. But thanks for keeping me entertained and occupied during a blustery Nor’easter weekend. :)

  272. 272.

    Late to the game, but Mark IV (#237), I think part of what this thread is about is the difficulty girls and young women face in developing a positive sexual identity (which would include being fully responsible for their sexual acts, including deliberately dressing provocatively to attract male sexual attention) when they are so regularly constructed as passive objects of the male gaze and male desire. Elder Oaks goes out of his rhetorical way at the beginning of the talk to lament that innocent (i.e. not responsible) women are present in the audience. He does not, at any point, remind women not to consume pornography, nor does he remind men not to dress provocatively. He also doesn’t say anything about the women who participate in the production of pornography (whose culpability might be assumed to be greater than that of girls who dress “immodestly”) The whole rhetorical structure of the talk assumes that women are innocent, passive victims of male sexuality. That’s part of why it’s so jarring when he then does an about face and accuses women of being part of the problem.

    I don’t want to argue about the broader culture or American feminists, but in the Mormon culture, girls are not encouraged (in any ways that I can see) to see themselves as responsible sexual beings. They are either told how wonderful and pure and beautiful they are, or how dangerous every manifestation of their developing sexuality is. We’ve got to find a better way to help them a) discover that they are sexual beings and b) take responsibility for themselves as sexual subjects. But if the discourse constructs them always as objects, they can’t learn responsibility, only shame.

    It’s much, much harder to do undertake such a project in a culture where growing up means becoming more dependent on men–the young woman’s experience at Church) is of moving from a world (Primary) where women are in charge, to one where, increasingly, women are subject to male direction–Young Women’s leaders defer to Young Men’s leaders and bishoprics in planning activities, etc., girls start attending (and paying attention) to more meetings where men preside and are the primary speakers, they receive no increased public responsibilities to correspond to the boys’ participation in passing the Sacrament, collecting fast offerings, home teaching; they are told that missionary work is primarily a priesthood responsibility and that they should, instead, devote themselves to attracting a mate (i.e. being *objects* of male sexual attention). Then we pity and infantilize women who have failed to attract a mate–is it any wonder that young women might go to extreme lengths (and lack thereof, in their skirts) to make sure that they do not fail in their primary spiritual (and institutional, within the Church) duty to marry and become mothers?

    Please note that this is not (necessarily) a complaint about this structure (though I do have some!), only an observation that you can’t blithely support this structure then be outraged that women don’t take more responsibility.

  273. 273.

    Also, please note that my mother (and English teachers) warned me about the overuse of parentheses. I am solely responsible for my lapses in this matter. Good grief!

  274. 274.

    But if the discourse constructs them always as objects, they can’t learn responsibility, only shame.

    This is what I’ve meant by women being viewed as “objects”, both specifically as discussed in Elder Oaks’ talk on pornography, and generally. Thanks, Kristine.

    (and thanks to Seraphine for writing this thought-provoking post and participating in a very lively discussion!)

  275. 275.

    Eve, 250,

    I’m some kind of an academic, I guess, but not a scary one

    Eve, I question that. An electric orange polyester jumpsuit with purple flowers sounds like a good start on a horror movie. The script could begin like this:

    Late one Halloween night, from the bottom of the discard bin at the Goodwill store, it began to emerge…

    Top it off with the unbrushed hair and we are talking nightmares. :-)

    Your response is reasonable and persuasive, but I’m not sure it fully addresses the issue that is bothering me. It seems to me, although I may be mistaken, that we are more willing to rationalize women’s behavior than we are men’s behavior, and I think that is an odd position for people to take who purport to be interested in equality. The statement I quoted blames everything from the burkha to the bikini on, you guessed it, men. I disagree with that conclusion, mostly because I think the problem is so much more complicated than that.

    Kristine,

    I have deliberately stayed out of the part of the discussion concerning the statement by elder Oaks, and focused more on the culture in general, rather than just our church culture. But since it is likely that we can influence church culture more than we can change the culture at large, the discussion specific to the church is probably the more interesting one.

    I agree with what you said in 272, with the following two caveats:

    1. I am comfortable with the indictment of church culture in general, but I want to be certain it doesn’t get interpreted to mean only male influence and patriarchy. After all, it isn’t men who are planning those fashion shows and makeover nights for YW activities.

    2. I’d like a little more charitable response than I have detected on this thread towards the difficulties that young men experience, since they get all kinds of conflicting messages, too. I understand that women can only speak from their own experience, but I don’t think it is productive to discount the problems either our YW or YM face.

    Finally, I need to make a confession. I was sooo sorely tempted to jump on this statement you made back in comment 199:

    Men’s pornography habits are NOT women’s responsibility. Full stop.

    The response that immediately came to my mind was this:

    Kristine: Oh yeah? What about Christy Hefner, CEO of Playboy Enterpises, Inc. What about her? Huh? Huh?

    I see that you have now allowed for the possibility that women involved in the production of porn actually do have some culpability, so I’m glad I resisted the urge to score some cheap debater’s points. But I still think you need to give me full credit for not taking the bait!

  276. 276.

    LOL, Mark. Certainly women involved in peddling porn are part of the problem, but (with few exceptions) men are the ones who buy it. In other words, if men didn’t buy Playboy or hire women for sex, then we wouldn’t have many of these problems in the first place.

    Also, is it ever going to stop raining?

  277. 277.

    Mark, believe me, I’m *very* willing to hold women accountable for stupid activities like fashion shows and makeover nights. This tends to mean I don’t get to stay in YW Presidencies very long :)

    I’m also sympathetic to the difficulties young men face in growing up with a healthy sexual identity, both in and out of the church. And getting more sympathetic by the day, as my firstborn starts wading out into the deep water of adolescence (just bought his first deodorant and Clearasil…yikes!! and this boy who has always resisted even bathing asked if we could get some gel for his hair–I quake in terror)

    I wouldn’t have known Christy Hefner was the CEO of Playboy these days. But I’m not the sort of feminist who would cheer such a development.

    So, I think we have reached something like agreement…

  278. 278.

    Kristine, thanks for a fabulous overview/analysis of a lot of the issues we’ve been discussing. I was thinking of doing a follow-up post on the difficulties women encounter when their experience of their own sexuality (as a sexual subject) is undermined by cultural scripts that rewrite them as objects (based on a great essay by Iris Marion Young). Maybe when I’m done with all my grading in a few weeks. :)

    ECS, thanks. And thanks to you (and everyone else on the thread) for the lively discussion!

    (And Kristine, you’ll notice that I have my own issues with parentheses–and I’m an English instructor!)

  279. 279.

    For the next Niblets I nominate this as the most outstanding thread ever in the bloggernacle. Everyone has been thoughtful, specific and concise without being afraid to politely confront opposing opinions. It took a while to read it but it was worth it.

    Two comments. First, the 200+ comments once again illustrate to me the huge gulf that exists between how women assume men perceive sex and sexuality and how men actually perceive sex and sexuality. Women take their experience and apply it to men, but many of the comments by women in this thread show you just have no idea what it is to be a teen age boy or young man dealing with sex.

    Second, equating modesty with the way we dress is like equating reverence with folding our arms. I think our culture, in the church and out, would be better if we taught modesty as a way of realistically understanding ourselves in relation to others instead of limiting it to the amount of fabric covering our bodies.

  280. 280.

    Speaking of art and objectification, see this disturbing news report. The objectification of women never ends!

  281. 281.

    the 200+ comments once again illustrate to me the huge gulf that exists between how women assume men perceive sex and sexuality and how men actually perceive sex and sexuality. Women take their experience and apply it to men, but many of the comments by women in this thread show you just have no idea what it is to be a teen age boy or young man dealing with sex.

    That’s fascinating, KLC. I don’t doubt what you’re saying is true, but my perceptions have been just the opposite: that the discussion illustrates the huge gulf between what men think it’s like to navigate the minefield of female attire (the constant, intense pressure to be a sexual object for men, and the constant modesty message that feminine sexuality is dangerous to men) and what it’s actually like for women to navigate that minefield. I thought that many of the comments by men suggested that they had no idea what it is to be a teenaged girl or young woman dealing with sex.

    Just goes to show, I guess, that there are probably always more comunication gulfs going on than we realize.

  282. 282.

    Eve, I see your gulf, it’s one that I also observed, and certainly more to the point of the entire discussion.

  283. 283.

    I agree this has been a great thread. It’s caused me to think deeply about all this stuff again. I do believe men and women aren’t understanding each other’s issues. I wish there were a way we could bridge that gulf. I wish I understood.

  284. 284.

    […] President Beck’s talk.) Geoff J at #3, Seraphine at #8, and Lynnette at #10 were all part of one big long argument discussion. ECS’s most-commented was her comparison of President […]

  285. 285.

    I wrote a recent blog post that might be relevant for this discussion http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2007/04/10/feminisms-critique-of-modesty/.

  286. 286.

    Whoops, wrong link! How embarrassing that I linked this post to itself. Here is the real one.

    http://gbbothsidesnow.blogspot.com/2011/08/what-about-bathsheba.html#comments

Leave a Reply