The following are a few thoughts about discourses involving sex, modesty, and power in the LDS universe, obviously from a male perspective. That part is important. Here, I want to write as self-consciously and honestly as I can about the experience(s) of being a man regarding sex and modesty. My experience will not be every man’s experience, of course, but I hope some things will resonate with other men (and women). First, a story.
10 months into my mission in Guatemala I was sent to one of the coastal areas of the mission. I will admit–I was pretty unnerved by the half-dressed state of many of the girls I saw there. My companion and I occasionally discussed the temptations we would daily encounter, but for the most part we struggled on in silence.
Only one month after my arrival my companion was transferred and I was given my first “greenie.” This was his first area and he was excited to be serving so far from headquarters. I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm, but as the senior companion and his trainer I nevertheless felt I should warn him about what he was going to see. He just smiled, shrugged, and said nothing. He was young and inexperienced, I thought. He would see soon enough.
But as the weeks passed I was surprised to notice that he seemed unfazed by any of it. After encountering one very attractive woman who greeted us at the door wearing little more than a half-open robe, I waited until we were well down the road before letting loose a tirade of anger and frustration. I told my companion that it really bothered me seeing so many women in various states of undress. It was hard to focus and I felt weak and powerless around them. How were we to be strong and stay faithful? I had prayed and fasted about it constantly, and felt little strength in return. And I began to despise many of the women I encountered for “making” me feel that way (I knew plenty of other missionaries who felt the same in the face of these hellish sirens). I then turned my frustration on him, wondering how he could possibly be so calm and seemingly indifferent to it all. Was he just pretending? Maybe he was on the edge of sanity, barely holding it together, putting up a brave though false front.
In response he told me that he spent several years in Hawaii when he was younger. He was on the beach daily, surrounded all day every day by girls in various styles of swimwear, from more or less “modest” to skimpy, and everything in between. His friends’ mothers often wore bikinis to the beach; he was used to seeing every girl he knew like that. Some eventually became girlfriends, while others remained simply good friends. He was used to it; it really didn’t bother him.
It made sense, I thought. I told him that you can become accustomed to anything, and eventually you’ll be desensitized, even to evil and temptation. But how can you look at someone like the woman we just encountered without having sexual feelings? Justifiably, he wasn’t happy with my response. He told me that becoming accustomed and desensitization were not the same. He still thought women were desirable, no different from any other heterosexual man, it was just that he didn’t experience anxiety and powerlessness according to what a woman chose to wear. He didn’t have to sing a hymn or think about watching baseball or look at the ground. He felt free and unperturbed. Sure, he sometimes felt the urge to self-gratification or wanted to get more intimate with girls than was appropriate, but he viewed these as issues common to human beings generally and felt that virtuous living and basic human decency ensured that there would be appropriate boundaries that it was ok to occasionally struggle with. In other words, his normal sexual desire was disassociated from crippling anxiety and the feeling of losing control, of being everywhere surrounded by harm and threat. He loved girls, he said, and had always wanted to be with them regularly. But he didn’t obsess over girls or think of them as sexual objects designed for his own titillation, to constantly flee from until you hopefully found the safe haven of marriage at some point in the future. He didn’t think girls could directly and irrevocably cause inappropriate thoughts, but that such thoughts were just part of becoming an adult human being, and needed to be acknowledged and managed accordingly. He said he felt free. And that he was sorry for me that I apparently didn’t.
Frankly, I was devastated. And embarrassed. And envious. I felt constant anxiety and powerlessness when a girl “not dressed to standards” came into my line of view. And I felt victorious when I could somehow “banish” her from my presence or my thoughts (which wasn’t nearly as often as I would have liked), and that I had won a battle against Satan. Which, of course, made these immodest girls quite literally agents of Satan, testing my virtue and faithfulness, and, symbolically, the virtue and faithfulness of every man. It wasn’t fair, I thought, that my companion never appeared to fight any battles, that he didn’t even seem to know there was a war going on. He wasn’t sexually promiscuous, but neither was he a eunuch. He was a man, it seemed to me, truly and positively empowered.
That priesthood can be conferred on a man, this is true, they can be given authority but they cannot have power unless they are pure. So it’s very important for us to continue to talk standards, to teach them, and to encourage them, young men and young women, to be guardians of virtue, their own virtue and others because there are so many who say ‘It is not a young women’s problem if a boy is doing something wrong. If she is immodest, it’s not her problem if the boy does something wrong.’ Well it is! We have to take responsibility for one another, we have to help one another.”
Elaine Dalton got quite a bit of pushback for this quote (not, of course, the only such statement she has made on this topic). I understand the impetus for concern with the quote–I myself have been a firm advocate for the responsibilization of boys and men for their own thoughts and behaviors. We infantilize and unnecessarily and falsely victimize men (and women) when we insist that men at best bear only partial responsibility for their feelings and any actions derived from those feelings, and often have no substantive responsibility at all. However, I do agree with Dalton that “we have to take responsibility for one another, we have to help one another.” There is an important sense in which this is profoundly true. The question, of course, is how this is or should be the case (more on this in a moment).
Now, let’s be honest–there’s nothing a woman can do that will completely eviscerate certain aspects of the male mind/gaze. It doesn’t matter how modestly a woman is dressed, a guy will find a way to notice her attractiveness. If a woman dresses in a burlap sack, something will still be noticed by a typical man in her presence. You can guarantee that in cultures where extreme modesty is the norm (like Muslim culture), men (gasp!) somehow find ways to discover women attractive and desirable. It is sufficient, really, that they are women, period. No need to panic, of course–this doesn’t mean that men have the lascivious meter cranked up to 11 whenever a woman is around. Women will note the same sorts of things in their own ways with the men in their presence. It’s called sexual dimorphism, and it’s Human Sexuality 101. We’re fooling ourselves if we think there’s some sort of magical fashion threshold beyond which awareness of sexual difference disappears. It’s also why the following quote, voicing some fairly common views, doesn’t hold much water for me:
So why don’t you just wear a bikini, you ask? Why? Because I am making a sacrifice for the guys around me. I’ve heard the excuse, Guys just have an imagination, it’s not a girl’s problem. Frankly, I think that’s stupid. Part of it is our problem. The way we dress impacts those around us, especially guys. I don’t really want a guy to look at me and notice me for my butt, upper thighs, or chest. I’d rather him notice my smile or God-loving personality. Well sure, you say, that’s all fine and good, but guys should be able to control their imagination and look beyond our bodies. That’s true, they should control it. But it’s important for girls to help them as they try and do so.
It’s absolutely true that the we ways we dress ourselves impacts those around us. What is simply not true, however, is that there is some way to dress in which your own sexuality is completely foreclosed to another human being, and that you can lessen the impact sufficiently to prevent another’s loss of “virtue” (another problematic term we’ll need to save for another time). The thought that a one-piece is some kind of testosterone vaccine to the polio bikini is quite ridiculous. If a woman takes steps to ensure a man notices her smile and “God-given personality,” it will never come at the expense of actually being a woman. Fetishization (for both men and women) will always occur where norms and taboos exist, which are always mutually constituted, and which, of course, always exist.
Sex is constantly being re-discovered to be an increasingly complex phenomenon. Not only do we see arguments that female sex drives are more on par with male sex drives than previously thought, but that the brain has an element of “neuroplasticity” in which it is constantly being altered throughout the span of a lifetime due to changes in behavior, environment, and neural processes (in other words, that the brain is not static; it changes over time). Consequently, we are learning that
If boys and men tend to take in messages that manhood is defined by sex and power, and those messages encourage them to think about sex often, then those neural networks associated with desire will be regularly activated and will become stronger over time. If women, generally speaking, learn other lessons, that sexual desire and expression are not necessarily positive, and if therefore they don’t think as much about sex, then those same neural networks will be less stimulated and comparatively weak. The more robust the neural pathways of eros, the more prone you are to feel lust at home, even as stimuli dissipate with familiarity and habit.
All of which, for purposes of this essay, means that 1) our narratives about how sexuality plays out in both men and women will always already not be nuanced enough to grasp all the truths about our sexual lives in their entirety; and 2) the stories we tell have an enormous impact on the ways human sexuality (including modesty discourse) plays out in the real world.
Two things, then, must be acknowledged. First, it is absolutely a reality for men and boys that sexual desire can feel overwhelming, all-consuming, and thus, unsurprisingly, frightening. I think this is at least one of the roots of the constant need to present virtue and modesty as acts of vigilance and courage–because fear lies at the heart of what we are trying to confront but doing a poor job talking about. My anxiety and feelings of powerlessness in the face of perceived temptation from the opposite sex on my mission were real; there was nothing untruthful about them. The same is true for other men (and women) in that boat, and it’s difficult to appreciate that fact if you haven’t set sail onto uncertain stormy seas in it. What was untrue, however (what remains untrue), and this is point number two, were the stories that had produced that anxiety and powerlessness in the first place. Stories about girls and women being centers of uncontrollable desire and lust that must look and act in particular ways in order to tame the beast within me. Stories about learning to be strong and courageous while surrounded by frightening temptation everywhere I turned, thereby transforming women around me into either enemies or potential enemies (should they choose at some point to not dress according to current acceptable standards, on my behalf). Stories that metaphorically and realistically banish or exile women from thought and place so I could feel safe and powerful. Stories that divided not just women against men in significant ways, but also women against women, in which women saw other women as potential insidious bearers of the seeds of destruction sown in husbands, sons, and fathers.
It’s a daunting thought, to consider telling alternative stories about human sexuality, but because, as I am arguing, the problems are structural, the stories that have built the structure are due for a revision and overhaul. Many will be understandably concerned that a different narrative will simply cause us to devolve into wanton permissiveness and excess on the parts of both women and men. Honestly, I don’t know that that wouldn’t be the case for some. The traditional stories are rooted in deep soil and might remain powerful for a long time. But it is an unalloyed good to be able to understand ourselves in ways that allow us as men and women to interact with one another in the bonds of love, confidence, and friendship, not fear, anxiety, lust, and distrust. More than any other thing, it will be a climate of fear, anxiety, and powerlessness that will create dependency in ways that lead to sexual addictions of various kinds, which we know are rampant in our communities. The ways we currently talk about sex an modesty are not accomplishing the healthy and empowering understandings of ourselves and our potential that are necessary for us to truly live together.