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Does Mormon modesty mantra reduce women to sex objects?

Virtue » Do Mormon sermons treat women and men equally?



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Julie M. Smith, a Mormon writer in Austin, Texas, doesn’t mind the idea of women’s clothing having an effect on men being among the reasons to dress modestly, just not the main one.

Current LDS modesty discourse "doesn’t focus on modesty as something that is important to the woman herself, but rather as something that is important to other people in her life," Smith writes in a blog post at timesandseasons.org. "[It] tells women that they, of themselves, do not matter … [and] contributes to the objectification of women."

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She would like to see LDS leaders talk about "women’s bodies as unique creations of an eternal creator who wants them to emphasize that body’s ability to dance, sing, serve, ski, generate life, laugh, and cry," she writes, "and not that body’s ability to conform to cultural notions of beauty or advertise the wearer’s wealth or attract sexual attention from males and envy from females."

In LDS scriptures, most discussions of women’s clothing are all about economics, not sexuality, says Smith, who has a master’s degree in biblical studies from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., "and make the case that using one’s clothing to showcase wealth is a sin."

Even Jesus’ famous statement about looking on a woman with lust "doesn’t mention the women’s clothing choices," she says in an interview, "only the man’s looking."

Smith notes that the idea of modesty was not mentioned in the Friend until the mid-1990s and now has become all about wearing sleeves.

"We once had raging battles on birth control, then working moms and now modesty," Smith says. "Why do we always have to have a fight over women’s bodies?"

What about the boys? » Some suggest the approach of Callister, Dalton and others is just as damaging for young men as young women.

"I have heard all my life that it is the young woman who has to assume the responsibility for controlling the limits of intimacy in courtship because a young man cannot," Jeffrey R. Holland, then-president of LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and now an LDS apostle, said in a 1988 school devotional. "What an unacceptable response to such a serious issue.


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"What kind of man is he, what priesthood or power or strength or self-control does this man have that lets him develop in society, grow to the age of mature accountability, perhaps even pursue a university education and prepare to affect the future of colleagues and kingdoms and the course of the world, but yet does not have the mental capacity or the moral will to say, ‘I will not do that thing’?"

A "sorry drugstore psychology" would suggest that such a man is helpless before such attractions, his "glands have complete control over his life — his mind, his will, his entire future," Holland said. "To say that a young woman in such a relationship has to bear her responsibility and that of the young man’s, too, is the least fair assertion I can imagine."

Jana Riess, a popular LDS blogger, comments on this double standard in a recent satirical post for Religion News Service in which she urged young Mormon men to be mindful of what they wear to keep young women from straying to "lustful thoughts."

"Away with shoulder-baring tank tops during your pickup basketball games in the church gym," she writes. "Away with low-slung jeans that drive girls crazy wondering by what defiance of physics your pants don’t drop to your ankles."

Then, in a twist on Callister’s speech, Riess reminds Mormon men that they will marry "the type of woman you dress for."

Brad Kramer, a Utah-based anthropologist who studies the effects of language on Mormon communities, argues that there is a distinction between thoughts and actions.

Mormon males "feel a degree of guilt when any sexual desire is triggered by someone other than their wife, and they partially blame and resent the girl/woman in question if modesty rhetoric has given them a pretext for judging their dress as inappropriate," Kramer says. "You see this play out especially strongly in the mission field, where young men feel the strongest pressure to completely suppress desire. You encounter an awful lot of resentment and sometimes vivid hostility in male missionaries toward local girls and women who trigger sexual desire or attraction."

Even a naked woman would be responsible only for "triggering desire or reflective arousal, which is not by itself sinful," Kramer says. "If I indulge that reflexive reaction to what I see or act on it, that is me and me alone."

In a wider American culture that "trivializes sexuality," Mormon men and women fear that "sexuality may undermine our spiritual progression," Finlayson-Fife writes, "keep us from God, and cost us our social standing."

The church’s modesty mantra creates deep anxiety about human sexuality, she says, and "does women (and men) a deep disservice."

Such anxiety "robs women of self-knowledge, as well as ownership of and confidence in their sexuality."

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