I was recently listening to the awesome feminist mormon housewives podcast episode in which Lisa Butterworth talks to Brad Kramer about what it means to be a male feminist. I particularly liked his discussion about modesty and sexuality and how he wants to frame those issues for his children. There are many, many parts of this discussion that I wholeheartedly agree with. For example, I really like his discussion about how the current modesty rhetoric in the church reinforces the idea that girls and young women are primarily sexual instead of sexuality being only a part of who they are as a person overall.
That being said, there were a couple of statements within this discussion that brought me up short. For example, this statement at about the 33 min mark:
I think that most women remember what it was like when they first realized as young women that they were capable of using their looks, their bodies, to influence boys and men. That’s just something, I think, that comes with the territory of growing up as a young woman.
When I heard this statement, my first thought was, “Huh, I never had a realization like that.” There was also this statement at the 38 min mark.
I do want my daughters, when they become capable of having that effect on men, on boys and men, I do want them to choose not to exercise that. To choose not to take advantage of that.
If you grow up surrounded by the LDS rhetoric about female sexuality it is perfectly reasonable to assume that all (or almost all) young women have a power through their bodies to influence men and that they know how to use that influence. However, these statements don’t ring true to my experiences as a young woman. Although Brad more than adequately demonstrates that he is well versed in the issues surrounding sexuality and modesty within the LDS church, I think these statements reveal a blind spot (which we all have, by the way) in his thinking about these issues. In this case, I think that Brad is ascribing to women more power or influence over men than they actually have. (Of course, I don’t want to misrepresent Brad or take these quotes out of the context in which they were stated. Thus, I encourage you to listen to the podcast to form your own opinion about what he was saying).
For example, I was a very shy teenager that had very little interactions with boys at church or at school during Junior High or High School. I didn’t really think of myself as pretty and, thus, never felt I had any power or influence over the young men because of my physical appearance. I did fantasize, at times, about some boy that I liked noticing me and being physically attracted to me. However, on the occasions when I tried to use my physical appearance to influence certain boys (by dressing up for an event where particular boys would be), I never seemed to be able to attract their attention. Furthermore, I didn’t think lessons about modesty were directed to me because the boys didn’t look at me *that* way. Overall, I think that young women’s experience growing up is very similar to young men’s in that they hope and pray that certain people will notice them and find them attractive, but often those people don’t. The mere fact that you are female does not necessarily mean that you have power or influence over others because of your body. Instead, I think that a small percentage of the male and female adolescent population are attractive in traditional ways, confident, and know how to use their physical appearance to influence others.
In my mind, one of major problems with the current church rhetoric about female bodies is that it ignores the variability among young women. There is wide variability in both young women’s actual appearance and in how they feel about their appearance. For example, there are some young women who would be considered pretty by the traditional way that attractiveness is defined in American culture (tall, thin, white, and clear skinned), but the vast majority of young women don’t fit within this traditional definition, and many who do don’t think of themselves as being pretty. So when church leaders frame lessons around the idea that “you are highly attractive to boys and thus you have a large influence over them”, there are many young women who count themselves out of that discussion. Of course, I am not denying that there are many young women who unexpectedly find out that they are attractive to men or do have an influence over them. For example, one of my former mission companions was very busty at age 14 and was completely caught off guard when she was hit on by a couple of High School seniors at a state fair. However, despite these experiences for some, in no way should we assume that the realization of some kind of sexual power or influence is universal for female adolescents. Yes, there are some young women who do hold a lot of power because of their physical appearance, but I think this is equally true of some young men. Furthermore, the experience of being hit on by older guys doesn’t necessarily make a young women feel like she has a lot of power or influence, but often just creeps her out.
In my opinion, the way to change these cultural assumptions is to bring more authentic women’s voices into the conversation about sexuality and influence through sexuality. However, this is not an easy thing to do within the current LDS church culture. For example, the way that the current female church leaders frame these issues closely follows the rhetoric established by the men. So increasing the number of talks by female leaders on these topics probably won’t change the discussion very much (in fact I wish female leaders were talk less about these issues and focus more on other aspects of young women’s lives). Somehow we have to shift the conversation from a heterosexual male’s view of how women influence men to a discussion about how both men and women approach and feel about sexuality during adolescence and adulthood. Although it wouldn’t necessarily fix the problem immediately, one of the strongest ways to make this change would be through including a lot more women in the leadership structure of the LDS church. If we continue to have mostly men framing these discussions, these blind spots will continue to be overlooked. Furthermore, we need to offer the opportunity for women and young women to honestly express how they feel about these topics in a safe-space without the requirement that what they share fits into the dominant rhetoric. Somehow women need more free rein to talk to young women and girls about sexuality without everything being filtered through a male lens, and men need to hear more about these issues from a female perspective so that they can recognize their blind spots. Because large changes in the leadership structure of the LDS church are unlikely (at least anytime soon), maybe one of the strongest ways to make that happen is for women to speak out when the framing of the issues are not consistent with their experiences. Nobody is going recognize their blind spots unless someone else starts pointing them out.
Some discussion questions:
1-Are the quotations consistent with your experiences growing up (both in what you heard in church settings and how you felt about your own sexuality or influence)? What aspects of the current LDS framing of sexuality are consistent with your own experiences? What aspects are inconsistent?
2-How do we change the current conversation about sexuality (especially female sexuality) within the LDS church? What aspects of the conversation should be changed?
3-How do we better recognize blind spots within ourselves and point out blind spots for others? What changes to the LDS church leadership structure and culture would reduce the number of blind spots in church governance and the framing of church doctrine?