When I was in Young Women, we had an annual activity which I absolutely despised, which was the box social. Each young woman would make a dinner for two and put it in a box and decorate the box, and then all the young men would bid on the different box and the highest bidder would get to eat the dinner in the box with the young woman who had prepared it. (This was all done with fake money so no one would be reminded of anything unsavory, like prostitution. Not that a box social is anything like prostitution, because it isn’t. I’m just saying, everything was on the up and up.) I refused to participate in this activity for the following reasons (in order of importance):
1. I was no fun.
2. I thought it was unfair that the young women always had to cook for the young men. Yes, the young men were in charge of bringing dessert, but big whoop-de-do. Which do you think is easier to prepare, a portable and palatable dinner or a portable and palatable dessert? I’ll give you a hint: Oreos come in a bag.
3. The whole business of guys bidding on dinner dates was just vaguely creepy to me. Yes, I knew it was just dinner–I didn’t have any idea that they were going to expect something more from me just because they paid (fake) money for me; get your minds out of the gutter–but there was still the basic premise of trying to make yourself attractive (by box proxy) so men could bid on you (by box proxy) and win dinner with you (actually you, not the proxy…although you would consume the contents of the proxy, so…I don’t know, whatever). That doesn’t set off anyone else’s Ew-o-Meter? I guess it was just me.
I’ve described this activity to my husband, who thought it sounded “sweet” and, needless to say, harmless. I think it was probably sweet and harmless, provided you didn’t mind making dinner for some random guy not of your choice and wouldn’t get your feelings hurt if you went for less (fake) money than other girls. I don’t know. I’m not a good judge of things that are fun. I think most of the youth enjoyed it. It was one of those old-fashioned activities that harkened back to more innocent times. (See also: “slave” auctions)
If I were a young woman today, the activity I would be most likely to boycott is the Modesty Fashion Show. For those of you unfamiliar, well, it’s sort of self-explanatory, but this Deseret News article from a few months ago will give you the flavor. The purpose is to demonstrate that one can be both fashionable and modest and show off your daughter-of-God-ness. It’s a fairly common activity for young women and Activity Day girls, and I think most girls enjoy it. I, however, would not have enjoyed it, for the following reasons:
1. I’m no fun.
2. I don’t like people looking at me.
3. The whole business of strutting up and down a catwalk specifically to show off how much of your body is covered and also how attractive you are is just vaguely creepy to me. It just doesn’t seem very…what’s the word? oh, yeah–modest.
I’ve considered writing tirades against Modesty Fashions Shows before, but I never have because I feel like the modesty topic is so overdone in the Bloggernacle and we just keep saying the same crap over and over again, and to what avail? Who isn’t tired of this conversation? Plus, there’s the matter of me not being any fun, so what would I know about wholesome recreational activities? But time goes by, and modesty keeps coming up again and again and again, and I’ve gone from being bored to being angry to feeling defeated and then I tried to feel bored again but that wasn’t working–and then I went to a youth fireside with my daughter last week and I got angry again, and the anger just refuses to go away, so here I am.
The fireside was a “special presentation” on practical and spiritual strategies against pornography. Actually, there were two presentations, one for the young women and a separate one for the young men. Parents were invited. I didn’t think my 14-year-old daughter would want to go because sexual topics tend to make her queasy and church talks about sexual topics tend to offend her feminist sensibilities. I was not optimistic about the content of these presentations when I saw that the young women’s session was called “Warriors of Virtue” and the young men’s session was called “Warriors for Christ.” It’s rarely a good sign when warring for virtue and warring for Christ are gender-segregated occupations. But I try not to judge a book by its title, and to my surprise, my daughter actually wanted to attend, so against my better judgment, we went, and I tried to keep an open mind.
It started out very EFY, all “we don’t usually think of women as warriors, but you must be a warrior because we’re in a war and tonight we’re going to teach you how to be warriors–true warriors…for virtue!” (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.) Kind of cheesy, but basically harmless. Then it went into an explanation of what happens in one’s brain when one is exposed to material that stimulates the pleasure center in your brain. I’m not a neurologist or anything, and I don’t think these people claimed to be either, so don’t nitpick my science because that’s not the point; the point is that your pleasure center gets stimulated and your ability to think rationally and morally is severely compromised, something about the frontal lobe, blah blah. Which was fine. Then the very next thing they talked about was what happens to a young man’s brain when you show up for a date in a dress with spaghetti straps. There were some charts and graphs, but the upshot is that you’ve basically gift-wrapped the boy for Satan, and that’s not nice. These are the nice guys, the ones you want to spend time with–don’t make them run away from you just so they can keep their thoughts properly garnished.
At this point my daughter turned to me and said, “Can we go now? I’m not really learning anything here.” This was impressive because my daughter’s usual response to being fed a load of crap is to get up and yell, “This is a load of crap!” before fleeing the room. So the good news is that my daughter is maturing. The bad news is that we didn’t learn any practical and spiritual strategies against pornography because once again a discussion of human sexuality geared toward young women was co-opted by concerns about keeping our young men safe from temptation.
The other bad news is that I, a mild-mannered Mormon housewife who actually shares the positively Neanderthal view that men really are much more susceptible to visual stimulation than are women, am so effing sick of hearing about modesty and the female responsibility to keep our young men from turning into sex-crazed perverts that I’m about to throw up all over my cap sleeves.
Of course I can’t judge the quality of the whole presentation based on the relatively small portion that I saw of it, but I do know one thing: When you’re talking to young women about sexuality, you really need to make it more about them and less about the young men. Don’t make your first item of business something that is all about what women can do to keep men’s brains under control. Men have sex-obsessed brains. We get it. But we women have our own brain problems. Can we talk about those instead, for once? Why does it always have to be about the young men?
Obviously, there are many ways women can serve in the church, despite the fact that they can’t serve in priesthood roles. Not having the priesthood doesn’t prevent them from serving others or from serving God. However, the absence of an institutional role for women has not prevented us from imagining that women have a gender-specific role (albeit not an “official” one). Instead of serving in a priesthood capacity, we serve as sexual gatekeepers. We wage war on behalf of virtue so men can do the heavy-lifting for Jesus.
Well, it happens that sexual gatekeeping is kind of important. I get that. But when we imagine the modesty fashion show as a spiritual experience, when the practical strategy against pornography is to avoid provoking pornographic thoughts in men, we are just putting a churchy spin on the same message girls get from the media: Your primary power is in your sexuality. You wield it primarily by withholding sex from men. Yes, that’s a crude way of putting it. Not at all uplifting. But it’s honest.
In theory, we talk to our young women about a lot of things in church—prayer, scriptures, service, repentance, forgiveness, etc. But what do I remember from Young Women? The importance of getting married (in the temple, or you may as well not do it at all!) and having children. What does my teenage daughter perceive as the church’s primary message to her? Get married in the temple and have children. Why? I think there are two reasons: 1. We manage to repeat those messages with tremendous frequency, even when we ostensibly have a different agenda. 2. Being a mother is the only female-specific role that women have.
It may be that, in general, men “need” structured roles more than women “need” them, hence the all-male priesthood. But Mormonism is heavily invested in gender differences, so it should be no surprise that as a people we expect that a male role should be paired with a corresponding female role. Unfortunately, we don’t have revelation on the subject, so we cobble something out of the role nature gave us: to gestate and care for the resulting dependent humans. (As purposes in life go, motherhood is pretty good, but it’s not a corollary to priesthood. See this post by me because I’m not going to talk about it here anymore. And don’t you dare talk about it for me.) So young men prepare for a lifetime of priesthood service, and young women prepare to gestate in the appropriate time and place by not tempting men to impregnate them prematurely. Well, that sounds so passive, doesn’t it? Can’t our girls serve more actively? Hence, the modesty fashion show. Hence, Warriors of Virtue, aka Fighting the Pornographic Culture with Sleeves.
But this is depressing.
As I’m always telling my daughter when she gets upset about lessons on marriage and motherhood, marriage and motherhood are important parts of most adult women’s lives. Most women want to get married and/or have children. Not because it’s so righteous, but because that’s what people do. It’s normal. So it would actually be kind of lame if we never talked about marriage and motherhood at church. I told this to her the other day, and she said, “Yeah, but YOU said that the things that prepare you to be a good wife and mother are the same things that prepare you to be a good person.” (Dangit, why does she pick such inconvenient times to recall my wise teachings with precision?) And this is the problem with our church culture’s approach to young women–not that we talk too much about marriage and family but that we don’t talk enough about women as people, who exist as individuals independent of marriage and family, who are so real that they even have sexual feelings and sexual temptations independent of how boys and men see them. We are not just pretty boxes for righteous men to bid on. Like Soylent Green, we are people. PEO-PLE!
I don’t expect the church to ditch modesty as a value. I don’t even want that. I like modesty. I just want to ditch modesty as a fetish because a) it’s creepy and b) it dehumanizes us. The next time you feel impressed to talk to girls about the importance of dressing modestly, count to 100 and say a prayer. Ask God what nourishment these young ladies need for their souls. And then talk about that instead. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did. Well, I’ll be glad. And so will they.