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.