A lot of posts in the bloggernacle focus on the difficulties of being a woman in a church (and society) that has sexist and patriarchal norms. What about the ways in which that culture is difficult for men? Feminists acknowledge that men are harmed and limited by these same systems, albeit in different ways than women are. In Golden Rule fashion, I thought I’d take a little time to brainstorm on what our brothers in the gospel experience, just as I want them to understand things from a woman’s perspective.
- Men are expected to be the sole financial supporter. They are also told repeatedly that they must treat their dependent wives as equals and ease the more difficult burden women bear by helping out equally at home. Just as women may feel reduced to only their physical attributes and fertility, men may feel reduced to their earning potential. The reductionist thinking associated with role prescription cuts both ways.
- SAHDs and single or divorced Dads are persona non grata. Even men who are secondary earners may feel like they are viewed as deficient in a Mormon context, and yet, within the US, 38% of wives out-earn their husbands. And yet, in my experience, Mormon men are some of the most nurturing males on the planet, second only to seahorses. Despite this, because of the heavy role prescription, Mormon men may be ill prepared to transition to the full time caregiver requirements associated with joint custody agreements in the wake of divorce. As one divorced male Mormon put it: “In divorce a lot of time men are assumed to be at fault. He didn’t treat his wife well enough, or he had an affair. This goes hand in hand with what men in the church are perpetually told…that we married “up.” That our wives had to stoop down to accept us and that we need to be grateful for this. I had several bishops tell me this (not my current one who saw my ex’s behavior first hand). I had one bishop tell me that I ought not to complain about my wife’s faults because it was likely those faults that made it possible for her to eventually marry me.”
- Church volunteerism expectations with a career. While wives with high-powered careers are typically not called to demanding roles like presidents of auxiliaries, because most men have careers no such reprieve is given to them. The high demand of their time on church activities often reduces quality of life, including the amount of time men are able to spend with their children. This expectation was just raised again with the missionary program changes.
- Men are expected to take initiative. Whether it’s regarding asking girls out on dates, asking them to dance, proposing marriage, or taking the lead in meetings in the church, even introverted men are expected to take charge, even if they are not suited to this expectation. This can leave some men feeling stressed out or anxious, and it can also result in social ostracism and judgment from women in dating situations when a man is not comfortable being the one to initiate, and the women have been told that it is the man’s responsibility. While these expectations are shifting in society, social norms in the church remain planted in the traditional expectation that men do the asking and men run the meetings. Women who go outside these norms may be viewed as bossy or undesirable.
- Cryers wanted. We expect men to adhere to social norms of the 1950s but with a twist: they have to be comfortable with crying in front of an entire congregation of their fellow Mormons as a sign of their spirituality. We want our men to be emotional and fully domesticated while acting macho. That’s a pretty tall order. Fortunately, they see it modeled frequently.
- Men are shut out from the “nurture structure.” While men theoretically have access to competitive hierarchical positions (the power structure), men don’t have the peer-based social support structures that women do in the church (the nurture structure). Our awesome expat ward in Singapore instituted a male social support structure in creating weekly “menrichment” activities so that men whose families left for the summer still have support in the ward. They went to movies, dinner, museums, or participated in sports together. Even so, men were seldom asked about their mental well being, how their marriages fared, or their personal happiness. Additionally, men who care for children find themselves shut out of the female organized nurture structure. They are not invited to play groups, and husbands may feel threatened if they become too involved in the child-centric activities with the other “mothers” in the ward.
- Bad lessons / indifferent teachers. Relief Society teachers are hard core. They prepare the lessons far in advance with a lot of forethought, and often a table display and crafty handout. Contrast the lessons I get in Relief Society every week with those same lessons in a typical Elder’s Quorum. Often, the men are basically phoning it in, having class members read straight from the manual. More coma-inducing than thought provoking.
- Pressure to marry. As tough as it is for single women in the church, I suspect it’s even tougher for unmarried men who are often stigmatized and ostracized. If they don’t marry young, they are accused of porn addiction and Peter Pan syndrome (being perpetual adolescents). And it’s acceptable for the women to be single if they haven’t been asked; it’s not acceptable for the men to be single as they are responsible to ask. The divorced of both sexes can also feel stigmatized, but in many cases, divorced men lack the social network to rebound within the organization.
- Worthiness objectification. Many women in the church will only date or marry RMs. They objectify based on being a return missionary even without themselves being one. They feel entitled to someone who is “worthy” by those standards. Just as women may feel objectified for their looks or youth, men may be viewed as interchangeable so long as they are temple worthy, not known and loved for who they are as individuals.
- Pressures of the organization. As part of the Priesthood hierarchy, men are prone to pressure over missionary numbers, and may feel a push to be promoted from Elders Quorum to High Priests Group. I have also observed that men are frequently lectured and spoken to in a punitive way whereas sisters are often coddled by male leaders. In my mission, the elders often caved to the pressure of numbers, whereas the sisters (who were outside the power structure) didn’t and could focus on the work. To me, that speaks to the power of organizational pressure when you are inside the system rather than outside of it as we sisters were.
Obviously, men do have certain privileges and entitlements that women don’t have, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to be a Mormon man, and there is a downside to the privileges (just as there is a downside to women being put on a pedestal). Truth be told, I think the rigid role prescription makes it difficult to be either sex within the church, especially since we do not experience the same rigid structures in daily life. What do you think?
- Are there other ways it is difficult to be a man in the church?
- Are there ways the church could be more supportive of both men and women?
- What changes would you make?
*This is a reprint of a previous article at W&T.