First of all, go and read a short article at the New York Times. You can find it here.
All done? Good. Here is my question:
Whom should this article shame?
The answer, I think, depends on the audience. It seems to me that she has two distinct audiences: Non-Mormon New York Times readers and Mormon readers (who aren’t necessarily New York Times readers, but who generally read anything having to do with Mormons).
For the Non-Mormon readers, her purpose appears to be anthropological. She is trying to project an experience regarding what it means to be an older, Mormon, single woman. I doubt that her experience should be universalized, although I’m sure that there are some universal aspects. From conversations with friends, I know that her conversation with the male providerer and that her experience with the gynecologist at Planned Parenthood were familiar. Of course, I don’t think that either of those experiences are unique to Mormonism; instead, I think that they are symptomatic of the concerns of religious American conservative culture. In any case, this is her single Mormon story. I was struck, in particular, by her self-description of her virgin self as an overgrown baby.
The image she projects to the non-Mormon audience is that of an innocent. Her attempts at self-corruption (seeing an R-rated movie and going to a sex-toy store) would likely strike a non-Mormon as childish, not in a selfish way, but rather as if this is what a child might do to emulate a poorly understood adult. Those may be things that adults do, but they don’t convey adulthood. Sexually speaking, Sister Hardy seems to be in the throes of adolescence, struggling to define herself. Even the initial setting, a first visit to a Planned Parenthood clinic, is probably more associated with the teen years, than with a woman aged 35. Mormonism makes (single?) women children in this viewpoint.
For that matter, I kind of think it is accurate to say that the church treats members who aren’t (legitimately) sexually active as children and this is particularly the case with women. Certainly, women have limited access to authoritative positions within the church. My impression is that single women are even further cut off. I would guess that the majority of Primary, Relief Society, and Young Womens presidents are married women. I know that Sis. Thompson, in the General Relief Society Presidency, is single and I believe that the church is looking to be more inclusive. But every talk that emphasizes the centrality of the family to our message equally emphasizes that the place for singles is somewhere else (not another church, but on the fringe of our ecclesiastical society).
The important thing here is that Sister Hardy’s status as an innocent means that shame is alien. If an innocent is caught in an R-rated movie or with a sex-toy, that’s not shameful (at least not for the innocent). Perhaps adult acquaintances should behave more responsibly, but the innocent, by definition, are incorruptible. Sister Hardy, as her non-Mormon boyfriends will tell you apparently, has the advantage of difference, but it isn’t the sort that gets you ahead in this life.
The message for Mormons, though, is different. Here is a woman talking frankly about wanting to have sex. She identifies intimacy as her ultimate goal, but she sees sex as a means to accomplishing intimacy and she sees it, however rightly or wrongly, as the obstacle that has kept her alone all this time. So, she’s getting birth control at age 35.
Further, she is attending R-rated movies and going into sex shops. I think that I can say that many Mormons would consider such behaviors shameful. Certainly, the contradictory emotions that her vaginal exam brings up include an expectation of shame and surprise at its lack. That she should expect shame at a routine medical exam, but that the male providerer feels no shame in dismissing her, is at the heart of a critique of Mormonism for Sister Hardy.
I think that she is expecting the Mormons in her life to be horrified. It would be simple to dismiss this woman as a crank, someone who can’t or won’t endure to the end. Certainly, the essay, though ostensibly intended to explain herself to non-Mormons, is designed to shock Mormons. She is choosing to be sexually intimate because that is necessary, she believes, for her to be a grown up. As I said above, I think, in the context of the church, she may be right. However, notice how she is coy with the circumstances of her trip to Planned Parenthood. Why is she getting birth control? Is she, for instance, going to get married? Did she wait until marriage as her Mormon upbringing suggested? Or not? It is impossible to tell.
I think that the Mormon reaction to this article hinges on how we interpret her circumstances. If she is getting married, I think that we don’t care about the visit (even if she isn’t getting married in the temple). If she is not planning on getting married, I think that Mormons read this article as a deliberate rejection of the church and its teachings. Certainly there is a lot of criticism here, but she also endeavors to tell what the church did for her parents. She tells how it enabled them to create an intimate relationship. She’s not blind to the benefits of membership; she doesn’t seem to be sure if it is benefiting her.
So, should Mormons be ashamed as a result of this article, or should the author? I think it is evident where her intentions lie, but I don’t think that the answer is clear.