215: Mormonism’s Modesty and Sexuality Discourse

MaraMcWilliamsThe cover of the March 2014 Ensign highlights an article, “The Lord’s Standard of Morality” by Elder Tad R. Callister, that has been the subject of much Internet talk of late, with most voices recognizing the importance of the subject and good desires of the author and those who chose to publish it but expressing concern that some of its messaging might be more harmful than helpful for youth negotiating the important transition from childhood to adulthood, including sexuality.

In this episode, two therapists, Natasha Helfer Parker and Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, who both work closely with Latter-day Saints struggling through issues often related to negative ideas they picked up during their formative years, join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon for an illuminating dialogue about modesty and sexuality (especially patriarchal assumptions and views of women) and how messages designed to protect women can instead increase the very devaluation and objectification they seek to mitigate. They also share ideas for healthy messaging that might comfortably fit in LDS Sunday and Young Women/Young Men curricula.

Please listen and share your comments below!

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Links:

Elder Tad R. Callister, “The Lord’s Standard of Morality,” Ensign, March 2014

Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, “Moderating the Mormon Discourse on Modesty,” Exponent II, Winter 2014 (links to entire issue, with her article beginning on page 10)

Natasha Helfer Parker, “Morality? We Can Do Much Better than This . . .Mormon Therapist (blog), 15 Feb 2014

Jana Riess, “Especially For Young Mormon Men,” Flunking Sainthood (blog), 20 February 2014

Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Does Mormon Modesty Mantra Reduce Women to Sex Objects?Salt Lake Tribune, 28 February 2014

Becca A Moore, “Modest is Not Hottest,” The Life and Times of an Excessively Tall Mormon (blog), 15 February 2014

Mrs Hall, “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)Given Breath (blog), 3 September 2013

Natasha Helfer Parker and Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, “LDS Female Sexuality,” Mormon Stories Podcast, Episodes 214-216

Natasha Helfer Parker, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, John Dehlin, “How to Have Better Sex in Your Mormon Marriage,” Mormon Stories Podcast, Episode 280.

Comments

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32 comments for “215: Mormonism’s Modesty and Sexuality Discourse

  1. Anonymous :)
    March 4, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    Thank you so much for this! I have two daughters who are in their tweens right now and I am so stressed about how to teach them about sexuality and modesty and how to protect them from the damaging messages that are so prevalent. The way I was taught about modesty was very damaging for me and created a lot of shame and repulsion for my body that I have had a very difficult time with.

    But the sexuality part of it turned out to be much worse. I never broke the law of chastity myself, but I married a wonderful man who had had a sexual relationship with his high school girlfriend. He had repented and gone on a mission, but after we were engaged, he confessed to his past sins and I was crushed. I knew that his sins were taken care of by the atonement, but now I also knew that he was the kind of guy who could have so little respect for a woman that he would destroy her virtue. I loved him and considered him to be one of the best people I had ever met, but he was also the gum-chewer, the cupcake-licker, the rose-bruiser. I believed in the ability of people to change and be better, but I also knew that he had this darkness in him. I was terrified that he wouldn’t always be able to hold that darkness at bay and that he would cheat on me. On the other hand, he never even came close to crossing any lines with me when we were dating and I was worried that he didn’t find me as attractive as other women, adding to the concern that he would find someone else he liked better. The anxiety I had for the first couple years of our marriage was a heavy burden.

    I was eventually able to work it all out, but I am so worried about how these messages will affect my daughters. My parents had no idea that I was so torn up about all of it or even that they had been contributing to it. What harmful things will they be internalizing? So thank you, thank you, thank you for having these conversations. I do feel a little more empowered.

    • Anonymous :)
      March 4, 2014 at 5:55 pm

      Just to clarify, I guess my comment came across very differently than I meant it to. I was pointing out how the object lessons that I had been given as an adolescent damaged my perception of sexuality. There is another side to the stupid object lessons beyond just how objectifying it is for girls. It made it seem like there were two kind of boys: the kind that respect you and the kind that don’t. I don’t think he destroyed anyone’s virtue, but that is the message that we send to young women with all those stupid chastity lessons and that’s why I worded my comment the way I did, to show how damaging it is. This was all just sitting in my subconscious and I didn’t know how to deal with any of it. I didn’t think he was horrible, I was just confused because all of the bullshit rhetoric that had been ingrained into me did not square with this amazing guy that I fell in love with. I never thought what he did was shameful, but I had anxiety because he was the kind of guy they warned us about in Young Women’s. It took a year or two for me to figure out what was going on in my head and put words to it and work it out. Like I said, he is genuinely one of the best people I know and I this didn’t affect how much I loved and respected him. I mean, I did marry the guy for eternity. 🙂 I am really sorry that this came across the way it did. I didn’t mean to sound judgmental of my husband. I was trying to be judgmental of chastity lessons. I do think it is important to talk about this because youth leaders need to know the consequences of these terrible lessons they are teaching. Maybe it would help them to adjust the rhetoric.

      • Dan Wotherspoon
        March 4, 2014 at 6:01 pm

        Thanks for sharing here! Your story definitely highlights the mismatch between intentions and outcomes that I think is the pivot point for the episode’s discussion. All good desires by those who write and speak on this from pulpits and in many lessons but primarily negative messaging can indeed go haywire in many ways.

      • also anonymous
        March 5, 2014 at 10:00 am

        Thank you for having the courage to say this. My case was a little different, but similar enough. Nobody else knew. I was alone in my knowledge, and the first few years of marriage were very hard.
        I don’t know who you are, and I don’t want to know, but you touched my heart today.

      • Kevin
        March 13, 2014 at 10:52 am

        A terrific conversation, Dan. Like your previous podcast with the Sisters of Common Sense and Sexual Wisdom, I’ll be recommending this one to my bishop.

        Thanks for sharing your story, Anonymous. I imagine it brings to mind dozens of similar tales that Jennifer and Natasha have heard from their clients. I delight in the joy and love you feel for your husband. May you bless each other’s lives through the eternities.

  2. maggiesq
    March 4, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    I was frustrated by the implied assumption that sexuality only affects teens and married couples. Not all adults are married.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      March 4, 2014 at 5:31 pm

      Certainly not intentional, Maggiesq! I hope there were still valuable things in the conversation that relate to unmarried adults.

      Hope you’ll share your experiences with the Ensign talk or general messaging that you encounter that relate to unmarried singles. We’d love to hear from you!

      • maggiesq
        March 4, 2014 at 7:03 pm

        Yes, I enjoyed the discussion overall and thought there were many good points made. It’s just that we Mormons are so often guilty of speaking as marriage as the default and speaking very heteronormatively. I hope that we can work past that.

        As far as modesty goes, I find that single women are constantly scrutinized. We are seen as potential husband stealers if we dress in a way that shows our sexuality. And conversely accused of giving up and eschewing marriage if we don’t dress in a way that is perceived as attractive.

        The law of chastity takes on a whole other meaning when waiting for marriage turns into decades of celibacy. I certainly don’t know what the answers are, but it’s not so simple as knowing what you want.

        • Jennifer Finlayson-Fife
          March 5, 2014 at 3:40 pm

          Hi maggiesq, You make very good points, and i agree that it is easy to neglect the challenges and dilemmas of single adults, particularly around the law of chastity and the dilemmas inherent to it. I think talking about these cultural and personal challenges and how to make healthy choices within this context could be a great future podcast on MM. Don’t you think, Dan?

          • KD
            March 5, 2014 at 9:39 pm

            I’m with you Jennifer, I think this would be a great podcast. I personally know several amazing 30+ single LDS women and as the recent NYT article pointed out (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/02/us/a-growing-role-for-mormon-women.html?_r=0), the ratio of single LDS women to men drastically increases over time thus reducing the odds of “older” women being able to marry a LDS man. I think the church could, and should, do better to realistically address these issues especially as the age 30+ single population continues to grow.

          • Dan Wotherspoon
            March 7, 2014 at 6:37 pm

            We’ve done an episode on the LDS mid-singles experience, and sex comes up a little bit there. Would you listen to this and let me know what areas are missing and/or need to be amplified? Were you and Jennifer wanting a focus mostly on messaging about sexuality related to the single Mormon adult?

            http://mormonmatters.org/2012/04/10/89-90-latter-day-saint-mid-singles-experience/

          • maggiesq
            March 8, 2014 at 10:25 am

            Yes, I enjoyed that podcast and the conversation around it.

            But I still think there is perhaps room to dig a little deeper into our doctrine, traditions and culture, and examine how our doctrines about marriage (and more specifically, how temple marriage is held up as a requirement for exaltation) affect those who don’t fit into that mold.

            I seem to hear two narratives in the Mormon community, the first is the Dew narrative. This is the official true believing route for singles. We are to hold out for temple marriage indefinitely. We are promised things like widowed general authorities, stripling warriors and civil war casualties for our faithfulness. We are expected to smile and nod through countless numbers of talks about marriage and child rearing without complaint.

            The second narrative the one where we leave the church. We give up and walk out.

            But I’d like to believe that our doctrines and traditions might be capable of evolving accommodate singles (without reinstating polygamy), That we could stop marginalizing them and constantly reminding them that they aren’t married and fall short of the glory of God. What is this atonement we preach of good for, if it is infinite and eternal yet requires coupling to take full effect?

            I feel like the marriage doctrine is a taboo among Mormon. Is it the one sacred cow, that we don’t dare dissect?

          • Kevin
            March 13, 2014 at 11:13 am

            I appreciate your comments, maggiesq, and hope you’d consider being on a future podcast on the topic. I have both heterosexual and gay friends who’ve remained celibate and unmarried members of the church. I marvel at their faith and commitment in the face of few solutions. I would love to watch Jesus Christ weigh in on this topic. Why he left it to us struggling mortals is a bit of a mystery.

          • KD
            March 8, 2014 at 8:57 pm

            Yes, I enjoyed that podcast immensely and appreciated the issue being brought into the light. I agree with the points maggiesq brought up below and also think there are probably other topics that could be expanded upon from that podcast, sexuality and its messaging being one of them. But perhaps it is stretching the purview of mormonmatters? For sure mid-singles are a unique group and often church teachings/doctrines do not always fit or address this group; leaving us at many times in awkward positions, like as maggiesq brought up, waiting for stripling warriors or soldiers of previous wars. Lol.

  3. Laura
    March 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    As a convert and past YW leader I found this really inspiring especially after the shock I had from how the LDS teachings on this issue were presented to our Youth in our Ward. Thank you so much!

  4. Amy
    March 5, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    As a YW leader and parent to a daughter who has severe anxiety and
    depression, I really appreciated the conversation. I especially related
    to Jennifer’s comment about seeing the fallout of negative messaging in
    regards to sexuality. The effects of shame-based teaching are brought
    into sharp focus when you are trying to parent a child who agrees with
    and reinforces every hint that she is bad, different, damaged, etc, I
    want to promote an approach to sexuality that puts ownership in the
    hands of these girls that I love, because they deserve to develop
    healthier ideas about their bodies in the safety of the gospel. I’m glad
    that many of them seem to able to either absorb or deflect the
    negativity without too much apparent harm, but if it’s so hurtful to my
    own daughter, then it can’t be good for them either. Thanks for the
    great discussion!

    • Amy
      March 5, 2014 at 4:43 pm

      And btw I also agree with Dan – the YM need this too. I feel like all they hear is “Don’t watch porn, don’t watch porn…” I imagine it would be like me on a diet being told “Don’t look at chocolate cake, don’t look at chocolate cake…” Much better to focus on nourishing food and let the veggies crowd out the junk, right?

  5. Jaden Reese
    March 6, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Jaden Reese

  6. Jen
    March 6, 2014 at 11:24 am

    I am happy to know that I was not alone in feeling like this article was iffy and did not want my adolescent daughter reading the harmful effects. We tow a fine a line these days between teaching our children correct principles which will better them now and later, and letting other people teach them, even if the sources are well meaning.

  7. Jaden Reese
    March 6, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Thank you for addressing this topic, Dan, Jennifer and Natasha. I related to this article as a female, a mother of girls and one boy and a current YW’s leader. All too, too often I find my YW misusing the word “modest” in our lessons. On the calendar this Fall is a combined modesty activity that involves the girls going to Good Will to select immodest clothing. After which, we are to alter, add material, etc., to make the clothing modest. Because I am concerned about this message and it’s continued emphasis for all girls but specifically my daughter who is in YW’s, I plan not to have her attend such an activity that perpetuates this culture of modesty, defined by clothing. I have good intentions of meeting with my Bishop (who happens to have his 12 yr old daughter joining us in beehives upcoming) on this topic and before we ever get to have an activity as mentioned above. I would like to direct him to this podcast to listen to for himself before (hopefully) gaining his support to present it to the YW’s presidency and leaders. (He’s a great guy, and I believe the podcast will be better received by the YW leaders if it has his endorsement.) Then we’ll have the YM leaders listen to it. My hope is not to thwart the activity but to add balance to the topic of being modest by addressing the larger, more important message of what being modest really is. I have to admit that my somewhat unrealistic vision for approaching the Bishop with your podcast is that he will call a mtg with all Youth Leaders to tune in. After which, I can’t help but believe we will discuss in a very beautiful and inspiring way to better lead our youth. I just can’t see how anyone who after listening to this podcast in its entirety would not forge to do better because of it. And your podcast can help us do that better than anything we’ve received as leaders from manuals, conference talks, and specifically Ensign articles. So thank you.

    Jennifer, if down the road this leads to a mtg might I inquire as to more of the specifics as to the mtg you had with the YW in your ward?

    • Jennifer Finlayson-Fife
      March 6, 2014 at 6:24 pm

      Yes, absolutely, Jaden. I’m more than happy to talk about that lesson. And I think it is wonderful that you are taking a proactive stance in asking the bishop and YW leaders to approach these issues thoughtfully.

  8. Chris Wiren
    March 8, 2014 at 3:38 am

    Loved it, and will listen to it again!
    Had a lot of thoughts on my mind… primarily the definition of “modest” (as listed in Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, etc.)
    To stand up in testimony-meeting, wearing Sunday-best designer brand black suit and tie, and pronounce: “I am so blessed I have the most beautiful wife, 8 marvelous children – 6 of which are doctors or lawyers – and 49 grandchildren – 5 of which are currently serving a mission. I am so blessed to live in this very country and I am so blessed belonging to the one and only true church.”
    That is, by definition, the opposite(!) of modesty.
    If we truly should promote “modesty” why should we not try to hold back those(!) individuals instead of blaming the young members when trying to be as flashy and boastful as the people they grew up amongst?

    • Anonymous
      March 12, 2014 at 3:07 pm

      You can always tell when a regional authority is visiting our stake center to meet with all the stake presidents because of the infusion of luxury cars that nobody in our ward could ever even dream about owning. Is that modest?

  9. Corrina
    March 13, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    Thank you, Jennifer and Natasha! I so appreciate the knowledge and nuance with which you speak. You guys rock, and I’m very grateful for your work/advocacy in our LDS community at large.

    Dan, thanks also for the idea of the little notebook in which you keep phrases, ideas, facts to take w/ you to church. There are so many gems in these podcasts that I need to record them as I go, so I can refer to them later.

    I’ve forwarded this podcast to my ward’s YW president (I’m pretty sure she will listen to it), and my dh who is in bishopric is going to recommend it to our Bishop.

  10. Don B.
    September 17, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    While I was on my mission, my Mission Pres. was Douglas Callister, not Tad Callister. While I was serving i did masterbate, When I talked to Pres. Callister he did not rain fire and brimstone down on my head. What he said was that masterbation can lead you into having thoughts that may not be conducive with the need to have the Holy Ghost. But again he offered his support, gave me a blessing and wished me well in my efforts to curtail my habit. FYI, I still masterbated, just not as often.
    On another note, in regards to how people judge others, even though they may have repented. One of the Elders in my zone made the comment that he could not marry a girl who wasn’t a virgin. I asked him if it made a difference if she had repented. He said no, he could not marry a non-virgin, that was the wrong thing to say to me. I told him that if God could forgive her, what right did he have to judge her. Other Elders also spoke to him about the need to forgive. Regrettably, we did not change his mind. We did not talk to him much the rest of that day.

  11. BJ
    October 7, 2014 at 10:43 am

    Hello. This is coming quite late. I suspect few will read it, but I’ll continue. Recently I attended a sacrament meeting that was a homecoming for an older married couple who had served as missionaries in rural Cambodia. The husband had been a professor of some agricultural discipline at a state university before he retired. He and his wife went to Cambodia to assist local farmers in matters related to local agriculture. While ostensibly not on a proselyting mission, opportunities for such occasionally presented themselves. On one such occasion, they found themselves providing humanitarian assistance to an impoverished young, single woman who had just given birth to baby. The young mother was distraught because for some reason her breast milk had not come and the baby was not being nourished and the mother greatly feared for the baby’s life. The husband of the older missionary couple offered to give a priesthood blessing to the young mother and her baby. The young mother agreed, not knowing what exactly that meant. The older couple located two young proselyting elders and the 3 Melchezidek priesthood holders anointed and blessed the young mother. In a great display of God’s love, within minutes of the blessing, milk began to flow from the young mother’s breasts. All present were crying many tears of joy. The young mother immediately placed her baby’s mouth on an exposed nipple and young child began to hungrily suckle the mother’s sustenance. Sadly, the wife of the older missionaries told how she quickly shooed out the young American elders of the room so that the young mother’s modesty would be preserved. That act sadly cast a pall over what had been a beautiful story at the intersection of God and mankind, also robbing the young elders of the opportunity to bask in the warm glow of “… pure religion and undefiled before God.” (James 1:27)

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      October 7, 2014 at 11:05 am

      Fantastic story that indeed illustrates both the beauty of the gospel as well as the disappointments that arise when elements of current, Westernized, LDS culture detract. My guess is those Elders hadn’t sexualized the situation of the nursing mother with an exposed nipple “until” they were shooed out allowing the thought began to take form. Hopefully they still didn’t then.

  12. Brooke
    December 18, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    With all of the discussion, what I think would be most helpful is an example of what an appropriate modestly and sexuality lesson would say.

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