I walked late into Elders' Quorum a couple weeks ago because I had ducked in to another ward's linger-longer to get food. I did that all the time in my previous stake without a thought, but after two years I still don't feel quite at home in this stake and I had to push myself. But I got the food, I ate the food and then I went to Elders' Quorum and I have no regrets about my priorities. They were talking about sexual transgression and respecting women. As a backdrop we played clips from then-BYU president Jeffery R. Holland's speech "Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments," which for the most part I think is phenomenal and really powerful even though most of it doesn't apply to me. It's just so well-done that it almost convinces me that sex is as beautiful and sacred as I'm supposed to believe it is, and not as disgusting as I know it is.
Holland refers to the impulse for sexual transgression as "a physical appetite so conspicuously evident in all of us," and I can't fault a guy in 1988 for not recognizing that asexual people exist, or even for not noticing that some people's physical appetite is not for the opposite sex. But in the clips we heard he also refers to "the God-given power available in every one of us from our early teen years on to create a human body" and says that "all of us" carry "daily, hourly, minute-to-minute, virtually every waking and sleeping moment of our lives, the power and the chemistry and the eternally transmitted seeds of life to grant someone else her second estate, someone else his next level of development in the divine plan of salvation." Okay, so, people with fertility problems aren't even rare. They're 9% of men and 11% of women. Those percentages may have gone up in the last few decades because of plastic pollution or whatever, but still, this is a really obvious and perplexing oversight.
And then the teacher said we need to respect women by not telling sexual jokes, and asked for examples of how we respect women. I remained silent because, as is often the case at church, I knew my contribution wouldn't be welcomed. I would have said that I respect women by speaking out against the aspects of church culture and teaching that degrade them, and then the guys who believe those aspects and/or think the Church is perfect would have felt really uncomfortable.
Putting women on pedestals is not respect.
Treating women like children is not respect.
Telling women that they don't need the same privileges and opportunities as men because they're special is not respect.
Telling women that motherhood and homemaking constitute the entirety of their God-given role is not respect.
Telling women that they need to be careful how they dress so men don't get aroused is not respect.
A few months ago I respected women by sending the following email to the stake president, which I mentioned at the time but now reproduce in full because the bishop knows I wrote it anyway:
I'm sorry to trouble you about this, but I won't rest easy until I speak out.
On May 30, Bishop [Redacted] of the [Redacted] Ward gave a Sunday school lesson which, though it contained good and helpful information - I particularly appreciated him acknowledging same-sex attraction and telling people to chill out about not being married by their late twenties - overall made me feel sick, unwelcome in the Church, and reluctant to ever go to Sunday school again. Specifically, he was very blunt and adamant that God wants all women to be full-time homemakers. He straight-up told them to use their college education to be better mothers, not to have professional careers, full stop, no caveats, no nuance. And I knew there was no point in trying to discuss it with him because he was also adamant that anyone who feels differently (like me) is following the "natural man" and the world's lies about women's equality. (He had a very us vs. them tone throughout the lesson, like Latter-day Saints are the only people on the planet who believe in family values.) At least twice he referred to the people who feel differently "outside the Church", which came across to me as a conscious attempt to invalidate and put down the many people in the Church that he knows perfectly well also hold that view and constituted a sizable portion of his audience. He stressed that this was DOCTRINE, this was SCRIPTURE, this was from A LIVING PROPHET.
He based this part of his lesson on the section of the Family Proclamation about fathers being primarily responsible for providing and mothers primarily responsible for nurturing. But that section is very short and vague and doesn't say most of what he thinks it says. I know that what he said is what the Church taught when he was our age, but I don't know how he could have failed to notice that it's not what the Church teaches anymore. In the last thirty years the Church has backed down a lot on the women's-place-is-in-the-home rhetoric and even reversed it with the "I'm a Mormon" campaign showing off (usually married) career women to the world as positive examples. In 2017, the Church's newspaper did an in-depth article on mothers who worked outside the home and some of the history around them. It explained that the stay-at-home-mom "doctrine" originated in the 1950s and (even while acknowledging that some of it came from living prophets and has been printed in church manuals) described it as "culture" and not some kind of eternal principle. So I'd say that's the closest thing to an approximation of where the Church stands right now. https://www.deseret.com/2017/9/6/20618595/mormon-women-navigate-cultural-pressures-around-work-family-and-faith I could go on (and have elsewhere), but I think this shift in the Church's teachings is pretty self-evident to anyone paying attention.
It upsets me to think that my future wife may have been conditioned by lessons like this one to believe that her career ambitions are sinful, and to think that some women present for this lesson were thus conditioned. It's wrong and it's harmful. It will lead to depression, guilt, faith crises, and disaffection from the Church. (It's already led to me losing a great deal of trust in local leadership, but I'm not primarily worried about myself.) Anecdotally, the twenty-something LDS women I know - not all of them raging liberals by any means - are far more open-minded on this topic. A majority of them see no reason why they shouldn't pursue careers (one staunch believer has straight-up told me she wants to work at least part time because she'd go insane being stuck with kids all day, and that if she sat through a lesson like this one that equated womanhood solely with motherhood she would leave and not come back for a long time) and those who do want to be stay-at-home moms have no desire to force their preference on everyone else. Many of the latter will end up working anyway because modern economic realities have made it impossible for many families to survive on one income, Bishop [Redacted]'s talk of sacrifice and frugality notwithstanding. I know for a fact that I wasn't the only person in the room who vigorously disagreed with what he said, and that his belittling of us did not persuade us to reorient our thinking. I don't believe this part of the lesson provided any benefit whatsoever to counterbalance the negatives, either. Women whose staying home is in the best interest of their particular families can make that decision for themselves without a man incorrectly insisting that it's the only option God will allow.
The damage has been done, but I would appreciate it if this never, ever happened again. I didn't reach out to him because he made it abundantly clear in the lesson that he's not open to discussion because he thinks his views are the word of God.
I carefully avoided using the word "sexist" in the body of the email and then went ahead and put it in the subject line. And the stake president agreed with me, and as I later learned during an unrelated meeting, he shared the email and withheld my name, but the bishop knew I wrote it because it was so well-written. Blush. He said he wasn't mad, that he makes mistakes like everyone, and he hopes I would be comfortable talking to him about such concerns. I might have done so if he hadn't pre-emptively dismissed views like mine as the product of the natural man and the world's lies.
So in Elders' Quorum, not for the first time, I kind of wanted to say something about seeing women as individuals with individual talents and skills and interests, not as interchangeable wombs with legs, and encouraging them to pursue all those things on equal footing with men and speaking up when they face discrimination large or small. But that would have been too controversial. On that particular day it also would have made me a hypocrite, since I had made a sexist joke that morning.
I was at the home of some female ward members having pumpkin waffles, and this guy from the ward was there and I don't remember why but at some point he said "Women, am I right, Chris?" And then a few minutes later he was about to leave and three more women from the ward showed up. And he said something like "They're replacing me - three are worth one, right?" And I didn't give my response any thought. I think I'm generally regarded as a funny guy, and that's because my brain unconsciously observes and processes principles of humor. So in this case, I immediately noted the gender ratio between the three and the one, saw the opportunity for a joke, and inferred from the guy's comment about women a few minutes earlier that he would find it funny. And he did, and the women whose home we were in either did or pretended to as they laughingly said that I could leave.
I've hated myself since then for making this joke that was entirely inconsistent with my feminist values. Of course I didn't mean it, and of course the shock value was kind of the point - but still, it reinforced a societal power imbalance and it was wrong and I'm sorry to the whole world. At least I can no longer feel holier-than-thou about that one time a few months ago when I was at a church activity and a couple of people told racist jokes and everyone except me laughed.
Getting back to Elders' Quorum, the bishop was there and he said that if we could see how the women in our ward are feeling we would get our crap together (paraphrased because I don't remember how he said it). He decried the gender imbalance in the ward and the percentage of men who don't come to church. I didn't feel like chastising the ones who did come to church about the ones who didn't was quite fair. I also was kind of like, I know I'm a bad person and need to improve myself in countless ways, but I don't want to marry any woman in this ward and none of them want to marry me, so I'm not going to do it for them and I feel like it's none of their business. The unquestioned assumption throughout the lesson that all of us experience the same sexual temptations made me feel kind of excluded and invisible too, but that's hardly just a church problem.
We (and by we I mean the bishop and other guys not including me) discussed how, as men, we have a duty to protect women, even though virtually the only thing women need to be protected from is men. One guy recalled a time when he talked back to his mother while his father was nearby, and the next thing he knew he woke up at the bottom of the stairs with a hole in the wall. Everyone except me laughed because child abuse is funny. I guess honoring women means having zero emotional maturity or impulse control - in other words, acting like a police officer. The bishop said that any true man would gladly take any pain rather than let his wife experience it. I'm down with that, but I'd expect her to feel the same about me. I'm not made of stone either.
I do think men in the Church are pretty good at not sexualizing women in the ways discussed on this occasion. A few months ago I heard one talking about how women from this one South American country are way hotter than the women from this other South American country, and his brother married a woman from this other South American country and she's - here he shook his head and made a hand motion toward his throat - but he was young and about to leave for a mission to this one South American country, so of course he didn't know anything.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.