The following is an article published in the Winter 2014 issue of the Exponent II Magazine:
The topic of modesty has been getting a lot of attention in LDS circles recently. Whether provoked by the BYU student who infamously challenged his co-ed for her supposed immodest dress last year or the recent Friend article depicting a young girl prompted by the Spirit not to buy a sleeveless shirt, members of the Church are grappling with questions around the impact and legitimacy of these cultural messages. As a couples’ therapist who works primarily with marital sexuality and desire, I believe the LDS cultural discourse around modesty is important because of its very real implications for women in the Church. How we construct our sexuality deeply affects how we relate to ourselves and to one another. As I will discuss, the current discourse on modesty undermines women’s relationship to themselves, to their sexuality and to men.
Now, I can understand why the Church is intently focused on the topic of modesty. In a post-sexual-revolution and media-saturated era, sexual imagery and references are everywhere. A distressing number of Church members (particularly male) struggle with compulsive pornography use that for many threatens their marriages and spiritual well-being. And in a period of supposed greater female strength and autonomy, women seem to be more sexualized and objectified in American culture than ever before. As a subculture that believes in the sacredness and limited scope of legitimate sexual expression, the cavalier manner in which broader American culture flaunts and trivializes sexuality threatens our values and stirs a deeply held anxiety: we fear our sexuality may undermine our spiritual progression, keep us from God, and cost us our social standing. In the face of these risks, getting women to cover up seems like an efficient solution, if not a righteous response to the perceived threat to our values.
However, the cultural meaning of this expectation for women is extraordinarily costly to them, because it represents women’s disproportionate shouldering of our shared sexual anxiety. While many would argue that modesty protects women from sexual objectification and devaluation, I suggest the rhetoric on modesty does precisely the opposite.
It is true that the sexualization of girls, particularly pre-teens, seems to be the focus of commercial and popular culture today. Girls are increasingly given the message that their ultimate goal is to be regarded as sexy. As columnist Libby Brooks articulates in a 2007 article in The Guardian, “It makes sound business sense to identify tweenaged girls’ image-related anxieties and offer them the clothes, cosmetics and pop culture characters . . . to set them on the consumer escalator that will keep them insecure and over-spending well into adulthood.” This “corrosive imperative . . . eats away at fundamental aspects of a young girl’s personhood: her sense of self, her ambitions, and her most intimate relationships.”
As an antidote to these hyper-sexualizing and exploitative cultural messages, General Young Women President Elaine Dalton encourages young women to see themselves as “Daughters of God” and “precious.” “Our message is ‘Love who you are. You don’t need to be like the world. You matter. You are important.’” President Dalton also admonishes mothers to teach their daughters about the importance of modesty, for unless they do so, they “may unknowingly put them at risk” (Arise and Shine Forth, BYU Women’s Conference).
In some respects, I welcome President Dalton’s message to young women. I want my daughter to grow up with clarity that her body and her appearance do not define her, and that she does not ever need to use her sexuality to gain the approval or commitment of a man. I also hope my daughter will see herself as valuable--as a beloved child of earthly and Heavenly Parents--such that objectifying and hyper-sexualizing messages will not compel her. That said, the way that we as a Church claim to “protect” girls through messages of modesty not only fails to protect them, but it reinforces their objectification and exposes their inferior position relative to men in our patriarchal church. Far from protecting females from seeking male approval, the rhetoric on modesty unwittingly reinforces it. At the same time, we are taught that pleasing men through sexual availability is not necessary, we are taught to please men and God by covering and suppressing our sexuality.
I see two defining frameworks within our faith that shape the current narrative on Mormon modesty: one is sexual conservatism and the other is patriarchy. Sexual conservatism offers many potential benefits, in my opinion: the exclusive context of commitment elevates the symbolic meaning of sex between a couple; it also lessens the potential for non-marital conception, sexually transmitted diseases, and the relational vulnerability possible in casual sex. Similarly, recent research at Cornell University suggests that couples who delay first intercourse stay together longer (2012). However, sexual conservatism also increases the level of sexual anxiety within any group that avows it. The notion that pleasure and sensuality are problematic except within a very proscribed context is difficult to embrace without concurrent anxiety around all non-sanctioned feelings and actions.
In the context of patriarchy, the anxiety of sexual conservatism is readily given to women. Although LDS men and women are held to the same explicit standard of sexual behavior in the Church, women--with their lesser institutional status--are constructed, at least in part, as both the problem and the solution to men’s sexual self-control. My dissertation research took up the subject of sexual agency among Mormon women using a radical feminist lens. According to radical feminism, patriarchies suppress women’s ability to be subjects of their own sexuality through gender ideology. Constructed as “naturally” less sexual than men as well as “naturally” nurturing and deferential to the desires of others, femininity is made incongruent with sexual desire and autonomy. Women are taught that sexual desire rightly belongs to men, and consequently, women’s sexual self-awareness emerges in reference to men’s desire. Masculinity is equated with sexual desire, and femininity with sexual desirability. And one of the most important ways to demonstrate desirability in patriarchal discourse is through sexual purity and innocence, or the disownership of sexual desire. Women are constructed as the sober drivers in heterosexual relationships, the ones best equipped to keep men’s pressing sexuality under control by keeping his hands off the wheel and his foot off the accelerator—while keeping her own sexuality locked in the trunk.
I analyzed Mormon women’s interpretation of LDS teachings as well as their pre- and post-marital sexual experiences, looking for congruence and incongruence with the radical feminist perspective. Among other findings, I discovered that most women espoused a cultural double standard. Women reported feeling more responsible than men for defining and defending the limits of any pre-marital physical encounter. They also reported feeling responsible for and shamed by unwanted physical engagement, as well as conflicted about how to fend off such advances while at the same time being kind and deferential. Most LDS women also interpreted men’s pre-marital sexual behavior as less connected to his value than their own pre-marital sexual behavior was, and inexplicably as more forgivable than their own.
Consistent with and reinforcing of the double standard evident in my research is the discourse on modesty. Girls and women are taught that they are partly responsible for the sexual decisions of men. For example, in a lesson entitled “Teaching Chastity and Modesty,” women are taught that “Anything that causes improper thoughts . . . is not modest. It is especially important that we teach young girls not to wear clothes that would encourage young men to have improper thoughts. . . . Modesty can help us keep our chastity.” (The Latter-Day Saint Woman: Basic Manual, 2000). This is a particularly problematic definition of modesty, as it is not measured through a young woman’s own moral decision-making, but instead by the thoughts that another human being may choose to indulge. She cannot control anyone’s thoughts, nor can she reveal or hide the entirety of her sexuality through her manner of dress. The fact that she is saddled with responsibility for men’s behaviors, whether decent or indecent, is unfair and constraining. Further, modesty defined by the sexual behavior of another reinforces the notion that we are sexual objects acted upon, rather than sexual subjects and moral actors.
It is paradoxical: Ostensibly, we want our young women to be confident and “know who they are,” at the same time that we teach them to be anxious about and attentive to the assessments and judgments of others. We teach young women that their appearance--how they dress--rightfully increases or decreases their value in the eyes of others. While it is true that popular culture encourages women to seek validation through clothing that flaunts their sexuality, it is not any more noble to encourage LDS women to secure approval through clothing that masks their sexuality. The notion that a woman is either “modest” or “immodest” is another iteration of the whore/Madonna split so typical in patriarchal societies. A woman is either asexual and good or sexual and bad; the dichotomy teaches her the terms on which she will be valued and accepted, a condition counter to creating self-confidence and strength in women.
In the name of modesty, an externalized sense of self in women is developed which necessarily undermines clarity and self-confidence. Far from downplaying the importance of sexuality relative to a woman’s worth, we teach even Primary-age girls to be hyper-vigilant to male gaze, to be anxious about their sexuality, and to feel responsible for that which they cannot control: the decency of boys and men. As it reads in a mock MormonAd on modesty: “It is easier to ask women to dress like sexless, shapeless adolescents than to expect men to act and think like decent human beings.” The misattribution of responsibility induces fear in women as it reinforces the message of indiscriminate male sexuality. Further, the constant attention paid in LDS culture to bodies and how they are clothed or not clothed has the paradoxical effect of sexualizing us more. The eroticism of the body is emphasized in our attempt to de-emphasize it; that which we restrict becomes more powerful in our sexual imaginations.
The saddest consequence of this cultural reality is the very real impact it has on women’s relationship to their sexuality. As a client tearfully said to me recently, “I believed my sexuality was a forbidden part of me, and so I shut it down in order to be a good girl. Now I am in a sexless marriage and I feel so broken.” Placing the anxiety of human sexuality onto women does women (and men) a deep disservice. It robs women of self-knowledge, as well as ownership of and confidence in their sexuality. We are sexual beings, not sexual objects for male gratification. Our Parents in Heaven gave us beautiful, curvaceous bodies. They are lovely and worth celebrating. In my opinion, a modest woman loves and embraces her God-given body—including her curves, her sensuality, and her capacity for pleasure. Modesty, or behaving in a spirit of moderation, includes honoring our sexuality--neither flaunting it nor masking it, neither seeking male approval nor rebuffing it. I see many LDS women unwittingly exposing the discomfort and self-doubt they feel in their own bodies by dressing in shapeless or multilayered clothing. I also see many LDS women in my practice, strangers to their own sexuality, feeling a sense of self-betrayal by having disowned such a fundamental part of themselves.
Teaching my daughter the principle of modesty means teaching her to reference her own wisdom and desires while exercising a spirit of moderation in all things. I hope she will value herself and embrace her own strength. I hope she will recognize that her mother respects her own body and is happy as a sexual being with her father. Far more important than the specific lines of the clothing she puts on is the question of how she relates to her body, and to others with it. Is she anxious or comfortable with who she is? Is she rejecting of her body or accepting of it? Is she seeking others’ validation out of emptiness, or enjoying her life and embracing beauty in herself and others? Teaching my daughter to respect herself and value her own sexuality is critical to her capacity to be happy in the intimacy of marriage. If we reject this fundamental part of ourselves, we can never fully share ourselves with another, nor can we ever be fully known, even to ourselves.
The more women respect themselves and know their own desires, the more conservative they tend to be in their sexual behavior. In my dissertation research, I found that women who demonstrated self-confidence and clarity about their own sexual values were the least vulnerable to being pressured by a man. They also embraced their sexuality and moved comfortably into marital sex. In contrast, women who were more anxious for male approval were the most vulnerable to betraying their values in the sexual realm. Those who saw sexuality as something offered up to men were the ones who struggled most in their marital sexual relationships. Our conservative sexual values are worthy; saddling women with responsibility for men’s sexual behavior is not. Treating women as sexual agents seems to facilitate sexual conservatism, not undermine it. My hope is that the discourse on modesty will shift to a conversation on moderation and wisdom for both men and women as we embrace our God-given sexuality.
References: (in order cited)
Brooks, L. (2007, December 19). “A tide of bland imagery tells girls that sexy is everything.’ The Guardian.
Weaver, Sarah Jane (2013, March 27). “Modesty reflects discipleship, commitment, leaders say”. Deseret News.
Dalton, Elaine S. (2004, April 30). “Arise and shine forth.” Brigham Young University Women’s Conference.
McCourt, Alexa (2012, December 19). “Fools rush in? Sex early in a relationship linked to later dissatisfaction”. Cornell Chronicle.
The Latter-Day Saint Woman: Basic Manual for Women, Part A, (2000). “Chastity and modesty.”, Lesson 9, p. 60. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Finlayson-Fife, J (2002). Female Sexual Agency in Patriarchal Culture: The Case of Mormon Women. Boston College. ProQuest: Ann Arbor