Toward a More Straightforward Expression of Female Desire

When I was a freshling at BYU, I lived in a Heritage Halls apartment with five other girls.  Then, as now, I had little interest in attending social events with hordes of people. The dorm held a variety of such events, and I did my best to steer clear of them. One event which I particularly remember was a dance in which your roommates selected a date for you. I told my roommates I had no interest in attending, and planned to spend the weekend back at my parents’ house doing other activities. I was standing in the hall one afternoon when I overheard them talking about me in the kitchen, trying to figure out if I really didn’t want to go, or if it was merely an act, and they should override my expressed wishes and find me a date.

To my relief, my roommates decided to let the matter go, and this didn’t turn out to be an issue. This particular dynamic, however, in which people ignore what you say and instead try to figure out what hidden message you’re attempting to communicate, is one that drives me batty. It reminds me a bit of a witch trial—if you deny you’re a witch, it’s taken as further proof that you are. If you deny that you want to go to the dance, it’s taken as evidence that you are actually dying to go. There is literally nothing you can say that will get you out of the trap.

People are complicated, certainly, and I do think we often send out mixed signals—I’m sure I do at times. However, I think that an important part of respecting someone is taking seriously what they have to say, and simply responding to their stated preferences, rather than trying to decode what might be lurking under the surface. And if it does happen to be the case that a person really does want the opposite of what she says, I think it’s her responsibility as an adult  to learn to communicate her actual feelings and desires.

But I realize that this behavior doesn’t take place in a vacuum. We live in a culture in which women especially often feel like they’re not allowed to directly ask for what they want, and it is this, I suspect, that leads to the dynamic in which those who don’t ever express their own desires assume that others must be likewise playing some sort of game in what they say, and therefore don’t take it at face value. Think about the social scripts that many women have learned to adopt around food, for example. Hunger is often coded as unfeminine in our culture (women are expected to have dainty appetites and practice self-denial), and as a result, many women go through a particular ritual  in which they’re not allowed to partake of a dish at a social function until it’s been offered multiple times, and they’ve established their credentials as a virtuous woman who doesn’t actually need food by refusing it a few times before finally giving in after being coaxed. The value of this ritual for women who don’t see their hunger as legitimate on its own is that it they can now frame their participation in the shocking behavior of eating (and eating in public, at that) as polite acquiescence to the wishes of others. I try to remember this when I get exasperated by people who don’t take no for an answer when they offer me food, that they may be accustomed to this particular social script and are simply trying to give me a way to save face if I do actually want the food but don’t want to admit to it. (Of course, some people are just pushy, which is a problem of its own.)

It’s easy to say in response to this kind of behavior, oh for heaven’s sake, just ask for what you want already. It would make things so much clearer and simpler for everyone involved. And indeed I’ve had that thought, many times. But the problem is that to ask directly for what you want is not only scary because you might be turned down, but also it assumes that you are able to see your own desires as legitimate. And for many women, that’s incredibly fraught. Women are told again and again how amazingly selfless they are, how wonderful it is that they pay more attention to the needs of others than to their own needs. The ideal woman is one who has no needs or wants of her own, who is all about service. When church leaders rhapsodize about how marvelous it is that women are so inherently caring and giving, I think they don’t realize just how toxic of a situation they are creating. Because in my experience, you can try to ignore your desires, but they eventually end up getting expressed in some way. Resentments build up and finally overflow; passive aggressive behavior soars.

Female LDS leaders don’t have much institutional power. But this is something I think they could do to make a difference in the culture: tell stories in which they personally had desires, and they took them seriously and directly asked for  things, instead of automatically coding desire as selfish. (I had a look at the women’s session of the most recent conference to see if I might find an example of anything in this vein, and was disheartened to instead find multiple stories about women with cancer who despite being in terrible pain devoted their lives to serving others. Sigh.) I would love to see a day when the Young Women heard as much about assertiveness training and good communication skills as they do about modesty. And of course, this isn’t something that only top leaders can do. I’m not personally very good at direct communication, and it’s taken some time in therapy to get even a little better. But I cannot tell you how refreshing I’ve found it when I’ve met women over the years who’ve demonstrated through their speech and actions that it’s okay for women to have desires, and to straightforwardly express them.

7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. This is great, Lynnette, and particularly timely since Mother’s Day is just a few days away, and thousands of Mormon men are going to stand at thousands of pulpits and rhapsodize about how their wives/mothers/sisters/daughters/nieces/aunts have no needs of their own, but choose to willingly while their time away in the service of others, with no thought for their own needs or wants. I agree with you that it would be great if we could hear an alternative narrative from official sources.

  2. There is another aspect of this that you left out. Men who are trained in the self sacrificing woman bit will sometimes punish women who dare to say what they want. My father was this way to such an extreme that if my mother or I asked directly for something, he would go out of his way to make sure that we did not get it. He wanted to be the hero who impressed the damsel in distress by granting her unvoiced wish. If said damsel mentioned her need, it destroyed his fantasy. And he threw a temper tantrum by making sure we didn’t get what we wanted. Vindictive, childish, abusive? Yup. But I have seen this exact behavior to lesser degree among other, mostly Mormon men, because the fantasy for them is they have magical priesthood power and can receive inspiration about the needs of the lesser mortals around them and be the priesthood hero.

    Also, my father seemed jealouse of things we loved, other than himself. For example, my mother once mentioned how much she loved a certain rose bush. Guess which bush got dug out and replaced within a month? Yup, her favorite.

    But his behavior taught me never to say what I wanted, needed or loved, because that was the best way to have what I wanted, needed, or loved taken away.

  3. My sister was always more obsessed with being “good” than I was growing up. I remember multiple times as teenagers when we’d argue over me not wanting to go to a church activity or befriend a person I disliked. My defense was always, “But I don’t want to do that!” And she’d just look at me like I was speaking some kind of foreign language. The reasoning didn’t compute for her.

    Anyway, I never put together how genuinely toxic this can be until an abusive man showed up in the singles ward I was in. The dude threw up every red flag imaginable, and privately others would agree that he made them very uncomfortable, but he was nonetheless included in everything and everyone went out of their way to be accommodating to him because that’s what we do. I was RS president at the time, so I put together a lesson on using spiritual gifts (promptings, discernment) as a basis for assertiveness and defining/protecting your own boundaries. I wish I still had my lesson materials, because I do believe there’s a good spiritual case for defining and stating your own needs and desires. I just wish it was a lesson more women heard earlier.

  4. Cue President Eyring’s conference talk a few years ago:
    “My mother lived in New Jersey for 16 years so that my father could support the family by doing research and teaching chemistry. To her it was a sacrifice being separated from her widowed mother and her unmarried sister, who had cared for her in the old family farmhouse. They both died while Mother was far away in New Jersey. Those were the only times I ever saw my mother cry.
    Years later my father was offered a job in Utah. He asked my mother, again in all innocence, “Mildred, what do you think I should do?”
    She said, “Henry, do whatever you think is best.”
    He turned down the offer. The next morning she wrote him a letter that I wish I still had. I remember that she told him, “Don’t open it here. Go to the office and open it there.” It began with a rebuke. He had promised her years before that if he ever could, he would take her to be near her family. He was surprised by her expression of irritation. He had not remembered the desire of her heart. He immediately sent a message accepting the job offer.
    He said, “Mildred, why didn’t you tell me?”
    She said, “You were supposed to remember.”
    He always spoke of that choice to move to Utah as his own, never as a sacrifice of his professional career. They had received the miracle of becoming one. It would have been better if Dad had been reminded by the Holy Ghost of the promise he had made years earlier. But he did allow the Holy Ghost to soften his heart so that her choice became his.”

    I’ve always been baffled by his presentation of this story. Why expect that his father should have been reminded by the HG when he actually asked his wife what she thought and instead of telling him what she wanted she said “do whatever you think best”!!! Because he’s supposed to know she hasn’t in fact changed her mind at some point in the intervening years!!! And that’s an example of a good spousal relationship!!!

  5. Great post and comments. Agree this is a massive cultural issue, and I agree with your mentality. It’s frustrating being on the other end as well and feeling like you constantly need to be doing detective work to understand the real desire, or to feel an underlying pressure of manipulation towards a desire since it won’t be stated outright. I can only imagine the person who feels like they can’t express their desires outright likely suffers the most, but it really is a lose lose for everyone.

    “I would love to see a day when the Young Women heard as much about assertiveness training and good communication skills as they do about modesty.” + 1. I know at least in my own household this will be true as my daughter grows.

  6. Thank you for diagnosing so precisely an issue that has been gnawing at me. A few days ago my spouse, in the interest of increased intimacy and dissipation of years of porn-related shame, offered to show me some of the pictures and clips he had found to be to his taste. It wasn’t until the next time we were having sex that I suddenly realized that out of everything he’d shown me, I couldn’t remember a single portrayal of a woman actively pursuing, or even overtly expressing, her own desires to her male partner. I know it’s not a turnoff for /him/ when I go after what I want, but it still messes with my head to know that expressing/pursuing my own desires has no place in the normal heterosexual male fantasyscape, according to people whose job it is to know their market. I’ve been thinking about where else that dynamic manifests, and your post confirms my suspicion that it’s a much much bigger problem than just what gets portrayed in porn.


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