Monday, December 13, 2010

Sex and Power and the LDS Woman

I find myself singing to my kids often--snippets of songs, really. I think I do this because my mother did. And just like her I sing in snippets because I can't remember all the words and when I am on my own with no music I'm usually off key. One of my earliest mom-song-memories is Helen Reddy singing the great feminist anthem:

I am woman hear me roar
In numbers too big too ignore
And I know too much to go back and pretend
'Cause I've heard it all before
And I've been down there on the floor
No one's ever gonna' keep me down again.

It is funny, really, that this song, a huge hit the year I was born, should have so permeated my childhood. My mom did not, and definitely does not now, consider herself a feminist. And yet, she represented all that the movement wanted--she rose up from a difficult family life to attend college, told her boyfriend she wouldn't be married until she finished college (marrying in 1969), insisted on going back to work part time after her children were born, managed her own money and bank account for her whole adult life, had four children spaced exactly as she chose them to be. Growing up, it never occurred to me that there might be places in America where men and women weren't treated as equals. In my family, the women always had equal say with the men. Always.

And yet I don't consider myself a feminist either. It is ironic really, because I also completely recognize that my lifestyle, choices and self-actualization are a direct outgrowth from that time. I am not a feminist because for all the good the movement did for women in my generation, there were also heavy costs. A huge part of the movement, and the 1960's in general, was an exploration of sexual "freedom." Instead of helping to create a world where men were held to the same high standard that women had always been judged against, they advocated the freedom for women to act to the lowest common denominator. Empowering women became so wrapped up in sex that all the good work the feminists did ended up resulting in some pretty terrible unintended consequences. Women may now exhibit all kinds of lewd behavior without the consequences of a generation or two ago, but in the process these same women cause men to further objectify them. So much for the sexual revolution being anything more than huge step in the wrong direction.

A few months ago, Kathryn Soper, one of the lovely and talented women behind Segullah, posted an incredible article at a website called "Patheos." The article is about the ways in which we miss the mark when it comes to teaching teen aged women about chastity. Her insights are fascinating, the writing engaging, and her personal experiences deeply poignant. If you haven't had a friend send you the piece yet, you really should take a few minutes to go and read it. Ever since reading it a few weeks ago, I haven't been able to quite put it out of my head, and though I won't be as eloquent, I would like to add some of my own thoughts here.

The article begins by pointing out that most teenage girls do not engage in sexual activity because of an overwhelming desire to have sex. In fact, a New Yorker article from a couple of years ago, when reviewing the Twilight books, believed the popularity of the books was due to the fact that young women want love without sex. Soper asserts the same, and quotes President Ezra Taft Benson to back her up. The teen sex itself is a symptom of a deeper problem. Or problems.

Going further, Soper focuses the rest of her piece on just one of these problems: power.

Too many young girls, maybe particularly LDS girls, feel a lack of power. In this case, power is defined as a person feeling like they have a large measure of control over what happens to them. When we talk about power at church, we most often talk about Priesthood power--exclusive to men; or the power of procreation--inaccessible without a man. It isn't that there aren't plenty of examples of female power within the Church, it is just that our terminology doesn't acknowledge it.

When a powerless feeling is coupled with a strong need for love and/or attention, sexuality is the most obvious default for a teenager. Because, let's face it, ladies, men are wired to be deeply driven by sex. Women who learn from an early age to manipulate that desire can gain a lot of power. Of course, Soper reminds us, the power is just an illusion because it isn't based on something inside the young person, it is based on others' perceptions of her. Like the other power mentioned above, such burgeoning sexual power is based on something a man gives or does or notices.

I'd like to add that the power usually only lasts as long as the object of young man's desire is unattainable. Studies show that the vast majority of teen relationships end within a month or two of a couple's first sexual encounter. Girls, of course, have the most to lose in such a break-up, because it ensures that the temporary substitute for love is now absent, and to make matters worse, she has given up the only source of power that she had. In the self-image crash that inevitably follows, needs deepen further and our powerless young teenager finds herself repeating her mistakes because this time it will be "different."

The remainder of Soper's article is in the form of a personal essay, where she bravely talks about her first encounter with the realization that sexual power was within her grasp. In my own life, I was lucky not to have such an experience when I was in my mid-teens, though I knew that many of my friends understood that power. At the time, it didn't feel lucky. Other than a brief stint during my junior year, I could count on one hand the number of dates I had until I was twenty years old.

I was so jealous of the way my many friends could flirt and tease and even manipulate to find any number of boys with which to spend a Friday night. Or to take out the garbage. Or to lift something heavy. Or to hang on their every word. Or ultimately, to spend three months salary on a diamond ring.

Yet, even as my bitterness and mild disdain for what I perceived as the weakness of men grew (along with frustration over my sisters' cruelty toward them), I was busy cultivating other sources of power: intellectual, emotional and spiritual.

Then, when I was twenty years old, something remarkable happened. After a very unusual set of circumstances that landed me in Sacramento California and hanging out with a guy I didn't really like all that well, I looked into his eyes (too) late one night and I recognized exactly what Kathryn Soper is talking about in her article: sudden approval where before there had only been indifference. Bald desire that frightened me.

I kept my power and walked away from the situation, terrified at what I was capable of, and more than a little embarrassed. Because of this person's previous role in my life, for me to suddenly have such a hold was complete reversal, and more than a little exhilarating. What I learned that night, however, without really realizing it, was that "no," was more powerful than desire. My choice, my decision, was a product of every part of my power, not just my sexuality.

In Disneyland last month I was terribly disappointed not to see more evidence of Mulan: my favorite Disney-heroine and the consummate non-Princess. At the first of that movie, right after a disastrous trip to the matchmaker, she goes to the temple of her ancestors, made up and lovely. She is the classic picture of Chinese beauty. Yet, she knows as she catches her image in the highly polished stones that the gorgeous woman she sees is not a reflection of herself. As she wipes the make-up off just one half of her face, she sings,

Who is that girl I see?
Staring straight back at me?
When will my reflection show
Who I am, inside?

I saw this movie the summer I met Plantboy. I was quite self-actualized for 23, but I understood Mulan's sentiment exactly. How many times had I asked myself the same question, though perhaps without the moving vocals. Mulan is not just a love story between a man and woman, it is also a love story of a girl and her father, a girl and her country, a girl and herself.

Some time in my early thirties, I finally looked into the mirror one day and loved the woman I saw staring straight back at me. I found the place where I ceased to see myself through others eyes, even Plantboy's, and I felt deeply empowered. Intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and sexually. A balance that had taken me half my life to finally achieve.

The question I have today is, "why did it take so long?" What can be done to speed this process for the wondering and wandering young women we know and love so that they can be the heroines in their own lives?

Just a few weeks ago, a man in our ward gave a wonderful fireside about dating, but during his remarks he noted that if you believed yourself to be "in love" in high school, then you were just being ridiculous. (Ironically, his own wife, to whom he is very close, is his high school sweetheart.) I felt impressed to drive one of my young women home and speak to her a little more closely: she is dealing with some serious empowerment issues right now, and a serious boyfriend issue. I told her that loving another person wasn't ridiculous, and that part of the nature of women was to be loving. I reiterated that it is never okay to break the commandments, but that there are plenty of appropriate ways to give and express all kinds of love, even that feeling of romantic love. I pray that she will feel the power that comes into her life by choosing to be chaste. By choosing to love. By choosing her own path and asserting what she really wants. Mostly I pray that she will find her power before she finds herself on a road where she actually is helpless.

It is a hard thing we ask of our youth and young adults; it is a hard standard the Lord holds us to while simultaneously blessing us with such powerful needs, but we weren't sent here to fail, either. Empowerment is about realizing that we can do hard things. Because I am God's daughter.

A woman.

Strong. Feminine. Empowered.

Hear me roar!


FoxyJ said...

You always write such eloquent, thoughtful posts. I read the same piece and keep returning to it in my mind. I have two daugthers who are little now and I hope that I can help them feel empowered and self-assured as they grow older. My oldest is super confident and spunky but I worry that her attitude won't last through junior high.

My sister works for Planned Parenthood and does a lot of counseling of women (often very young ones and girls) about sexual issues. She's told me that she uses the metaphor of fire to describe sex: it isn't really 'good' or 'bad', it's powerful. If you don't control it or use it in the right way, it can be very destructive. But it can also be a positive force that can warm you or cook for you. A campfire or a fire in a fireplace is great. A bonfire in the middle of your living room is not. It's the wrong time and place for it.

I also really liked a follow-up piece that was published on Patheos recently that addressed the issue of those of us who felt completely undesired as young women. I was really nerdy as a teenager and socially awkward (I'm actually pretty sure I have mild Asbergers). I was the stereotypical trivia bowl contestant who wears mom jeans and t-shirts with pictures of wolves on them. The only attention I got from boys was jokes about how I didn't have any breasts. I also grew up in an area with few members of the church and very little actual dating. Most people in my high school just 'hooked up' at parties (that I didn't go to because I was a nerd and a prude). So I felt really disconnected at YW lessons because they were all about being careful of my power over guys, and yet I knew that I had no such power and was convinced that I never would. Anyways, now I'm rambling and I think I should write my own post about that topic, but I really liked your thoughts. I also hope that a changing attitude about teaching our youth about sexuality will make its way to parents and leaders because it is really needed.

Melanie said...

Thanks for another thought-provoking post. I agree that even in the Church we focus too much on women's power as related to sex and physical appearance. I do believe that one of woman's greatest roles is that of mother, and that her power to create life, to train children is immensely important. But what about the power of woman as a person - as an intellectual, spiritual, compassionate being who can do good in the world apart from or in addition to her role as mother?

For teenagers and some other women, motherhood is a blessing that is far off. I think we need to send the message, early on, that a woman's worth stretches beyond her ability to reproduce and raise a family. We need to teach that virtue is much, much more than chastity. When we begin to focus more on teaching girls that they are of worth, not only as the mothers that they will one day be, but right now, I believe that our concerns about moral purity will decrease. Women who are confident in themselves don't need to compromise their moral values in order to find power.

Now if only we could teach more men not to be intimidated by strong women who know that their power lies beyond their appearance and sexuality.

Jenny said...

"What can be done to speed this process...?"
I say nay to the speed.
It's a journey--let it take however long it takes. But maybe what we could do, is more openly share our stories with the experimental and wondering/wandering young women within our reach and influence.
Lucky you!! You were in your 30s. Me? In my 40s. But I wouldn't trade the experiences it took to get me here.

emandtrev said...

Great post. I so wish someone would have had that chat with me that you had with the young woman in your ward. I didn't stray too far at all, but I was in a relationship way back when that impacted who I was and how I felt about myself for a pretty long time. It's interesting to look back on it now and think how much stronger it made me, but honestly--I could have done without the broken heart and self esteem. It is beautiful and reassuring to know that God loves us, knows us personally, and that we truly have divine roles as women. I loved how you put this all together. Thought-provoking, as usual.

Sherry said...

I have been mentally returning to this post and to Soper's post since Monday. I definitely can agree that many young women use sexuality as a way to have some sort of power or control in their lives. However, I don't know that we can really lump all sexually active young women into that same category. I knew several sexually active girls in high school who had great self esteem, etc. They were just interested in fooling around. I guess I just think that not all sexually active young women are necessarily feeling like they have no power.

mstanger said...

Sexual power, schmexual power, we need to spiritually empower our youth.

While I enjoyed Kathryn Soper’s post and yours, I don’t think we solve systemic problems by only addressing one half of the system. To the extent there are females feeling a lack of power within the church social structure, we need to address the men and boys who are contributing to that feeling. If too much emphasis is given to sexual power (and not enough to the intellectual, emotional and spiritual power that should carry the day), it is because we males are participants in placing that emphasis, sometimes more explicitly than others.

A few anecdotes:

At least once a year during my Aaronic Priesthood years I could count on a quorum lesson that focused on finding a wife. Inevitably we would be asked to make a list of attributes we were seeking in our eternal companion and then rank them according to importance (I understand such lessons are de rigueur in the YW as well). These discussions quickly disintegrated as attributes like “nice butt” and “great rack” were tossed out, often with the tacit endorsement of quorum instructors, and elevated to the key factors. I am attracted to the feminine physique as much as the next guy, but had been raised right by powerful women and knew better, so I spoke up and disagreed that those should be on the list of what we needed to be seeking—instead we should be looking for someone who was intellectually and spiritually in the right place. Quorum-mates: “Come on, Mike, are you serious—you don’t care what she looks like as long as she has a testimony?” I was not claiming then, and do not assert now that a male Latter-day Saint should be content with a spiritual female version of Jabba the Hutt, but prioritizing is key. Frankly, I think elevating sexual power to No. 1 = unrighteous dominion, and amen to the priesthood of that man (or woman, as the case may be). I think you’ll agree that such messages in official quorum instruction are problematic at best, and contribute to what the YW are thinking/feeling.

I was pleased to find in the MTC that things had improved somewhat. Our three instructors decided to have a “Who worked the hardest?” Contest. (Yes, I know the “Harder the Work, the Hotter the Chick” principle is loaded—read on—it gets better). Each of them brought their then-girlfriend to visit our class and get to know us (this was towards the end of our 9-week stay, and we were, frankly, bored out of our minds), and we were to judge whether the women in question were suitable marriage material for our instructors (and, yes, we were to choose the “hottest”—again, read on to see how we got it right). The first two instructors brought young ladies who were quite attractive, including one who was probably beauty queen material, but, at least in their visits/conversation with us, they didn’t offer much. The third was clearly, from an objective standpoint, the plainest of the three, but we liked her so much more. What put her over the top? She was a returned missionary. She clearly wasn’t there to serve as a showpiece. Instead she brought her mission journal with her and shared some really inspiring experiences with us and encouraged us and helped us understand what a great work we were engaged in. (And, to top it all off, she brought us warm home-made chocolate chip cookies). There wasn’t much debate on the winner. Now let me be clear—the whole exercise was problematic. I’m confident that the two young ladies who placed second and third had spiritual, emotional, and intellectual power and assets that weren’t even considered in the contest our instructors had schemed up. But the point here is that a bunch of 19-year-olds were influenced by a woman who showed spiritual power to change the rules of the game and reprioritize.

mstanger said...

A third story—My dense brain didn’t figure out I wanted to marry my wife until she had her mission call. When we did figure that out, we faced the decision whether she should still go. That decision obviously involved personal revelation, and specifically HER personal revelation, gained in the temple (I know some male BYU students might think this revelation was mine to receive but she clearly had the first right of inspiration on this question). A few months later, with her safe overseas, in the October 1997 Priesthood session, President Hinckley gave the talk which made clear bishops and stake presidents should not be pressuring sisters into serving. A few weeks later, I was visiting with my future in-laws and her dad speculated that if that talk had been given before she left, she might not have gone. I then related that conversation to her in a letter, and the next think I knew, future father-in-law was getting a rebuke from her—how dare he question/second guess her personal revelation on the issue; President Hinckley’s talk would have had no impact whatsoever; the Lord had told her to go, repeatedly, both before and after my butting in. Today that letter gets joked about a bit: “You really put me in my place!”

I guess my overall point would be that we need to enthrone women as primarily spiritual beings who can, should, and do receive revelation to guide their lives, with spirituality as the primary source of their power, so that they don’t have to look to other external sources for empowerment. We need to teach all of our youth personal revelation, and teach that early and often. It may be the single most important topic in our instruction of young people. They need to know that as they move closer and closer towards adulthood that they will be facing a myriad of incredibly important decisions, which they must make with the assistance of the Lord. Too, we need to put them in situations where they can put those skills to use. We need to teach and empower YW class presidencies to actually function as presidencies, not just to give them something to put on a job application. They need to be on their knees, praying for the welfare of those over whom they have stewardship, and seeking inspiration as to how to save souls. The sooner we involve YW in fulfilling the mission of the church, the sooner they will experience real power in their lives and not need to look to other sources of counterfeit power.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

There is really so much to talk about here, but Christmas is tomorrow and I'm both brain-fried and distracted, so I'll just thank you for your thoughts, send a couple of personal notes, and wish for a couple of hours to sit down together.

FoxyJ--I loved your self-description from your high school years. I know a bit about that: my summer science camp after my junior year was Engineering State. That really lines up the boyfriends.

Melanie--Excellent point about motherhood, and something I hadn't really thought about while posting, but clearly my own mother deeply influenced me. As for why men are intimidated? THAT is the million dollar question.

Jenny--your thought gave me the most pause. My own writing indicates that the slowness of the process is actually where I had time to gain that strength. Maybe a better question is "How do we FACILITATE this process," and not speed up. Clearly, every woman must come to this place in her own time. My fear is for those girls who are so vulnerable, for those that discover this false sexual power before the rest. In the movie Little Women, the powerful and beautiful Susan Sarandon tells her daughter that she "fears she will come to believe that her value lies in being merely decorative. Time erodes all such beauty. What it cannot take away is your. . ." and she goes on to list several of her daughter's very fine qualities.

Em--It is hard to know, isn't it? I would not be who I am without having had to very dramatic (and several lesser dramatic) boy relationships. But it hurt. A lot. Could it be that we can't really learn without some measure of pain? Ouch.

Mike--My first impression was "easy to say for someone coming from the gender that traditionally has held ALL the power." However, I think that part of the point here is that sexual power is only one aspect of what a woman is. When a young person tries to tap into that too soon, and at the expense of all else there is to learn (primarily spiritual empowerment), she is bound to be disappointed, at the least. But to overlook the reality of sexuality all together is to ignore something very vital in the teaching of our youth. As admirable as I think it is that you spoke up in your Priest's Quorum all those years ago, the reality is that our daughters enter a dating pool where there is one guy like you and 14 guys like the others in your quorum, and another 10 who didn't even bother to show up to Church. And that is in Utah!! I live in a place with Young Women who will be lucky to have a date at all before leaving high school, let alone with someone who is planning on serving a mission. They outnumber the boys at the dances easily 5:1. University away from our local CC here is an impossible dream for most of these girls. Who will they marry? In a Church with so many more righteous women then men, the power of choice is further slated to favor the men. Promiscuity becomes a terrible default for too many when you view the future and your own prospects without much hope.

I agree in every point with your last paragraph, but women are incredibly complex. When a boy you love who is your best friend dates somebody else because she is pretty and will make out on the first date, there is no amount of logic that can tell you he isn't worth crying about, and all the inspiration in the world won't take the sting from it for a long, long time. Even strong girls have times when they'd be willing to chuck it all in to feel loved.

mstanger said...

I'm not going to concede your ratio. Most young men, both inside and outside of the church, are themselves incredibly complex, and struggle with various aspects of their personalities, including the sexual component. The day we throw in the towel on the idea that the YM cannot be taught correct principles re: sex, women, and dating will be a sad one. Some sit back silent because they are conflicted on the issues, shy, etc., but many can be taught correct principles and learn to govern themselves (as my MTC anecdote was intended to illustrate). And I include non-member males among this group. I've done a lot of anti-violence work/education, and know many men who do the same. Respect for women for the right reasons is not someone we've got a corner on the market for.

Science Teacher Mommy said...


Maybe the ratio just FEELS that way to a worthy and wonderful woman who would like nothing more than to be a wife and a mother but can't seem to find a date.

loradona said...

I just wanted to say that I have so much to say that I don't know how to say it. I like what you've written here. I agree with it. And I wish I could just come chat with you about it, because I think my thoughts would be more understandable that way.
Keep writing. Keep thinking. And keep writing about your thinking. I like it.

mstanger said...

I like this comment:

Leah Killian said...

This is a great post! Thank you!