Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Mormon Teens, Sexism, and Sex


If you haven’t read it already, check out Kathryn Soper’s gorgeous post about Mormon girls and sexuality over at It brought back memories for me of being in the Young Women presidency and trying to walk that line between helping girls have a positive view of sexuality and their bodies, but also teaching them about the importance of chastity.


While I was serving in the presidency, one of the girls got pregnant at fifteen. Like the teen mom in Kathryn Soper’s blog post, I recognized that it was not fundamentally a desire for sex itself that had led “Anne” to have intercourse with her much older boyfriend; it was a yearning for love and acceptance and adulthood. She didn’t seem to be getting those things elsewhere, despite a loving family. And the church, I think, failed her by focusing on legalism rather than encouraging her gifts. (One year at EFY, for instance, she was almost sent home just for wearing butterfly sleeves, which was ridiculous and ruined her experience of the event.)

I’ve never attended an LDS “Standards Night.”  I didn’t grow up in the church, and I was out of town when this occurred while I was serving in the YW presidency. So I have no personal experience. I have read plenty of accounts of other people’s mostly negative experiences — the plucking of the petals of the rose, for example, to demonstrate the loss of a teen’s innocence until there is nothing left, and who is going to want a deflowered rose? Or, even worse, the chewed-up piece of gum that is passed from hand to hand — who would want to touch it? Such “object lessons” are horrifying in their messages to girls (as well as their stubborn refusal to acknowledge the power of the Atonement).


I have also read enough church materials on sexuality to see the truth in Soper’s assessment that our curriculum focuses on the dangers of male libido to the extent that girls and women are objectified, voiceless, and themselves de-sexed. But it’s not just the Church’s explicit teachings on sexuality that manifest sexism; the problem is unfortunately more pervasive.

Some of the materials in our lesson manuals do not encourage girls’ agency, and that must change. One particularly disturbing piece of the curriculum that stays in my mind is the YW lesson “Preparing to Become an Eternal Companion.” Don’t get me wrong; I support the basic values underlying this lesson. Every young woman should prepare herself to have a loving eternal relationship, and to run a household. Family should be our life’s work.


However, so should every young man learn these lessons and practice these values. And yet that’s not the counsel that the YM are given in their companion lesson to this one, which is aptly titled “Choosing an Eternal Companion.” I once heard someone in the Church complain that while we’re sending boys the message that they are in control of their own destiny, we are subtly telling girls that it is not their role to choose but to wait to be chosen. That’s certainly true here.

In the lesson, not only are boys encouraged to think about what qualities they might want in a future spouse, they are actually told to come up with a checklist! Whereas the lesson for the YW is all about preparing themselves for marriage and working on their own character and skills, the lesson for the YM focuses on choosing well, on knowing what they’re looking for in an eternal mate. 90% of the YM lesson is about finding the right person; in what seems almost like an afterthought, the other 10% explores the idea of becoming the right person for someone else.


I think that Soper’s questions about power and agency in girls hit upon problems in Mormonism that run far deeper than sexual expression. If our lesson manuals are teaching young women that it is not their role to act but to be acted upon, even in something so crucial as choosing a spouse, how do we then expect them to stand up for their rights in other areas, like sexuality?

  • HP

    This is just another example of how sexist the Mormon church is. I have no regrets about leaving.

  • Satsuki

    Wonderfully said. I agree 100%. Thank you for your post…I’ll be thinking about this as my daughter gets older, and especially if I am ever called to YW.

  • Jen

    Thank you for writing this. You expressed things I have felt, but couldn’t put to words.

  • Susan E.

    “_Every_ young woman should prepare herself to have a loving eternal relationship, and to run a household.” Seriously? (The _every_ woman needs a mate part, not the household part.)

  • Brett Nordquist

    “I once heard someone in the Church complain that while we’re sending boys the message that they are in control of their own destiny, we are subtly telling girls that it is not their role to choose but to wait to be chosen.”
    Maybe this isn’t the best choice of words, but I think you nailed it in that one sentence. I’ve taught Sunday School for many years I see these subtle reminders often, although I believe changes have been made for the better. But we aren’t there yet. Too many lessons focus on young men serving missions, getting an education and selecting a spouse for eternity. All worthy goals. But the message to women is often, “get as much education as you can but not at the expense of a temple marriage”. So if the right guy comes along, drop everything and jump on the domestic train. Had my sister invested more time in gaining an education, she would have been better prepared for the time when her first two husbands (both served missions) left her.

  • Larry Ogan

    I left the Church as a teenager and wasn’t exposed to what was being taught in young men and young women about marriage and relationships. I returned to activity 37 years later. For six years I had to deal with my grandson’s adolescence and keeping him involved with the Church. I was concerned that the mixed signals about sex, marital equality and love might be creating some problems for him. Off course, I know these lessons are not the only problem affecting the youth or that it is exclusive to Mormons but like my grandson, now 18 years old, many young men and women are choosing to leave religion out of their lives. We need to realistically understand the reasons why this is happening and how we can help them renew their relationship with God. Blaming it solely on the bad influences of the World just doesn’t cut it anymore.

  • missOlea

    In YW, we had lessons where we made checklists about the man we wanted to marry – I specifically remember a lesson in which we were told that many people spend more time thinking about whether a car or a house was suitable than they ever would about whether the person they were dating was suitable as an eternal companion. On the other hand, I can see how the lessons are different for the YM and would like to see a more similar curriculum.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Robert Anderson

    It seems to me you get this one entirely backward. The lesson taught to the young women is the one that should be taught to the young men. Our society would be a lot better off if are young men spent a lot more time focused on becoming the companions they need to become rather than worrying about what kind of mate they should choose.

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    I really don’t think that being irate over the curriculum is going to solve anything. Quit trying to make then the same. They are not supposed to be. How often have we been taught that marriage is between man and wife where they use their uniquely different but complementary roles to sustain the family? “By divine design, men and women are intended to progress together toward perfection and a fulness of glory. Because of their distinctive temperaments and capacities, males and females each bring to a marriage relationship unique perspectives and experiences. The man and the woman contribute differently but equally to a oneness and a unity that can be achieved in no other way. The man completes and perfects the woman and the woman completes and perfects the man as they learn from and mutually strengthen and bless each other. “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11; italics added).The natures of male and female spirits complete and perfect each other, and therefore men and women are intended to progress together toward exaltation.”

    They contribute differently but equally. That right there should mute your complaint about having “equality ” in your teachings.  Men are taught from the very beginning they are to go on missions and be worthy priesthood holders who will take their wives to the temple.  They are taught from the very beginning what qualities are encouraged of who to be so they can stand out through their teenage years as different from the typical man. They need to be worthy from the beginning not twenty years in.  By the time they reach YM they need direction on choices. They should be taught how to choose an eternal companion because they’ve never been taught that before.  They have been focusing on developing who they are. Women are taught from the very beginning they want a man who will take them to the temple and be worthy priesthood holders. They are taught from the beginning how to choose so that they are prepared as they enter teenage years not to take crap from guys. To demand respect on the way they are treated.  That’s when you givs them the next step of how to be an eternal companion.  Women need preparation of who they want first and then learn who they should become to balance that because now they’ve seen the different types of men and what they want.  Time to learn it cuts both ways – who do you want to be?  Your choice lies in who you say yes to. 
    I’ve heard my whole life – you can’t do that you’re a girl.  There are literal scientifically proven physical mental and emotional gender differences.  Girls hear better, more sensitive to touch than boys and boys throw harder stronger and faster than girls to name a few.  Boys and girls are supposed to be different. Why try to lump them into the same category and make them the same? At school teachers are to teach in as many different ” learning styles ” as they can so their students learn from their  strength modality – kinesthetic, aural , oral etc. 

    If you are YW presidency. Teach by the spirit.  Just because it’s not in the lesson book doesn’t mean you can’t do it.  I made a list every year about the quality of the man I wanted to marry. The punch line of that lesson? Am I those things on my list? You attract the kind of person you are.  If your a 3 you’re going to attract a 3.  Want a 10? Be a 10.  
    You’re mad about things not being taught? Teach them.   

    Every girl goes through the jealousy that men get to do this and they don’t. That men get the important jobs and They don’t.  The most important thing you can teach a young women is her value and the basic principles of the gospel. I didn’t realize or fully understand the importance of being a wife and mother and how it’s right up there with the men’s job of holding the priesthood until I was 19-20.   And only because I learned to change perspective.  It’s not that we are worth less but we are worth lots and it is the love and respect for us as women that men protect us ( and we feel hidden and uncredited. )  

    It was complained women aren’t encouraged to use their agency because of the structure of the lessons.  Take a look – they have a choice. Follow it or don’t.  Why teach them about the ” fun of drinking”? That’s going to encourage them to try it. No you teach them about the word of wisdom and the negative consequences that come with disobedience and hope they choose to listen and obey.  Women are in no way confined to a destiny.  If they go out and have sex they are going to be a  mother.   If they get married and have children they are going to be a mother. You can’t escape the consequence but you can choose the path that takes you there . Trying to teach them about the blessings of eternal marriage and the requirements of who to be to get there are essential in YW because when else are they going to get it? They live in a world of horror why not teach them hope? Happiness is only by choosing the right. Teach them to find solace in their life through the gospel. Support in their decisions and recognition of their trials is what they need.  I think people feel the church smothers choices because it focuses on only one.  That’s because there is only one way. Yes there is opposition in all things so there will be two sides to the coin. But there is still only one way to be happy. They are going to figure out the horrible as they live life. Let them learn that. But teach them there is always a light and hope to follow if they choose.  If they learn the foundations of the gospel and know who they are and have a relationship with their Heavenly Father and Savior they will not feel such desire for acceptance and love elsewhere because they will know they already are.
    That all being said yes I know – easier said than done. But I do believe that it all comes down to their testimony. As teachers and support we are guidance. Nothing is set in stone. 

    Here is the message by Elder Bednar where the quote came from. 
    Marriage Is Essential to His Eternal Plan- David A Bednar,4945,6558-1-3363-3,00.html

  • Michelle

    Sorry I’m late but this is too fascinating and I must add my two bits. There was a burning question I always wanted to ask while enduring those YW lessons you just analyzed on preparing myself for the one who would whisk me off to my happily ever after temple marriage: “What if I never get asked?” I’m 39 now, live alone, no husband, no kids. Nothing I learned in YW ever prepared me for this life. Does anyone know the answer to my question? Here’s a thought. Why did the Twilight phenomenon affect so many millions of Mormon girls and married women? Because every Beehive is subjected to the pressure that if she doesn’t have a boyfriend by a certain age, well, she’ll end up JUST LIKE ME!!! The pressure is even worse today in Mormon culture.

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