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Flunking Sainthood

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If you haven’t read it already, check out Kathryn Soper’s gorgeous post about Mormon girls and sexuality over at Patheos.com. 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?

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