Introduction: This was a post I wrote for the site http://youngmormonfeminists.org/. I was born and raised a Mormon but left the religion several years ago and became an atheist. I wrote this for the site because most of my family and friends are still in the church and I wanted to address issues that they face constantly.
It is often said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I hope you’ll forgive me if I reword it in a more atheistic way. The road to oppression is paved with good intentions. The oppression isn’t always as obvious as a paperback copy of 1984. Most often it is wrapped in flowery language and the gentle comforter of love and protection.
A perfect example of this is the Modesty Doctrine. If you grew up in the church -like I did- or have spent any time around it you’ll know what I am talking about, so forgive me if I don’t waste valuable space rehashing what the modesty doctrine is. Type the word modesty in the search field of lds.org and you’ll get hundreds of hits.
So how is the Modesty Doctrine oppressive to women? Modesty is not about fashion nor is it about protecting women. It’s about control of the female body; a control men feel entitled to in order to maintain privilege and power over women by controlling the ways they use and think about their bodies.
To grasp how modesty is used to control women you simply have to look at who controls the narrative of modesty. Who decides what is and isn’t modest? In most cases it’s men telling women what to wear or say or do or don’t do. Modesty is not about what women feel comfortable wearing, and it’s not about a woman’s agency to decide what she will wear, or how she chooses to present herself to others. Modesty is about what men feel comfortable with.
An example to illustrate this point:: an old friend went on a date with a young man in her YSA ward. The young man seemed uncomfortable and stopped the date early, going home without explanation. The next day she received an e-mail from the young man saying that he was uncomfortable with the t-shirt she chose to wear on the date and that it was immodest. He then admonished her to be more modest in the future.
Did you notice it? How this man views this woman? He wasn’t concerned with her feelings. Because he was uncomfortable she had to change. He felt that she was the cause of his discomfort and that he had a right to tell her how to dress.
This ‘blame the woman’ attitude is old and deeply intrenched in the psyche of patriarchal society, which often sees female sexuality as monstrous. Kathleen Barry notes in her pamphlet The Vagina on Trial: The Institution and Psychology of Rape:
Women have been led to believe for so long that they have an uncontrollable sexuality which victimizes men and makes females innately promiscuous -a myth that we must believe at the same time that we believe all women are frigid.
This is the double bind women in the LDS church face. On one hand they are seen as sexual objects and yet they are threatened, slut-shamed and shunned if they express anykind of sexuality. Even when directed at men it‘s only in the context of encouraging or shunning women into being modest.
“Neither is there excuse for young men to bare and expose their bodies. The fellows could show courage and good judgment if they encouraged their young women friends to wear modest clothing. If a young man would not date a young woman who is improperly clothed, the style would change very soon.”
(Spencer W. Kimball, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, Chapter 17: The Law of Chastity)
In the patriarchal mind the only reason a women would dress in revealing clothing is to arouse and entice men. As the quote above implies, if men stop giving attention to women they’ll stop trying to entice men. Forget that it’s hot outside or that she is comfortable wearing those clothes, men suspect it is only to seek sexual attention from men.
Here’s the real question that’ll blow your mind: Why aren’t women allowed to seek sexual attention from men? I see men in the church do it all that time, I see guys with shorts above the knee, shirts off, falling over themselves to get attention from women, yet when a women does the same she is a slut (or the equalling cutting but more benign phrase “immodest”). This is the other side of modesty, the de-sexualizing of the person. Women in the church are expected to act as if they don’t ever think of sex. If they do express their sexuality it’s an act of immodesty. Believe it or not women like sex! As much as men do. Women even look at pornography at similar rates as men do. So why are men in the church so frequently given the ol’ porn talk while the women hardly ever have it? Because women are too pure to ever want to look at porn, and women must be too virginal to think about sex.
Further to this -and contrary to popular belief- the modesty mentality actually sexualizes the female body and turns it into a sexual object much the way pornography does. Pornography is edited and shot in such a way that it disassembles the female body into a series of sexual objects to be used for the pleasure of others (mostly men). Modesty works in reverse but it is still obsessed with objects such as shoulders, thighs, legs, stomach, breasts and so on. In response to an incident where a group of Orthodox Jews inJerusalem spit on an eight year old girl and called her a slut because they accused her of being immodest, Rabbi Dov Linzer said:
The Modesty obsessed gaze is looking at sexual objects not at a human being. Those men who spit on that girl saw her not as a little innocent girl like decent humans would but as a sexual object that offended them. This is not out of concern for temples (the body) or for women in general, it is out of misogyny. When a man is offended by a woman’s revealing clothing it is because he see her as a sexual object, not a person with desires, dreams, plans ambitions; she is simply a series of sexual objects.”
So how then does a doctrine that blames women, sexualizes their bodies and attempts to control a fundamentally personal part of their life protect women from sin, assault, rape or objectification? Simply put: it can’t, because it‘s part of the same structure of oppression that victimizes women, that keeps women in their place as second class citizens. Thus, it comes from the same misogyny that blames women for their victimization. And that’s just contradictory.