I've been following the Mormon modesty debate for months now. We talk about it at home, even in front of our son sometimes. But I haven't put keyboard to screen yet. My sister-in-law's post on the subject finally pushed me into writing some of the thoughts I've been having about the subject.
When it comes to Things Political, my sister-in-law and I agree on very little. However, we appear to agree that the way modesty is taught in the LDS church is not the ideal. We are both part of a growing number of women participating in the Mormon modesty debate, and we are on the same side, at least in terms of the idea that a change needs to be made in how modesty is taught to young men and young women.
It’s so refreshing when those on the Right and the Left can agree on something.
Lacey’s post in response to a March 2014 Ensign article – and, indeed, the way modesty is taught in materials for youth in the LDS church – is one that is well-thought-out and that makes a number of Very Good Points. In a church that preaches that anyone can receive revelation, I think that it makes sense for those In Charge to pay attention to what a sizable minority of the congregation has to say. While clearly we're not all receiving revelation for the entire church, I think it relevant when many ordinary people start asking the same questions and saying the same things.
And, forgive me, but when those In Charge are elderly men, I think that it makes sense for them to think about things from a point of view that takes into account what a growing number of congregants think and feel. Our religion often embraces progress and improvement. We're all moving forward, and the way we teach modesty needs to move forward as well.
One of the problems with patriarchy, especially one that is so incredibly hierarchical, is that just about everything, including the way doctrine is taught, is done so from a male point of view, and with the view of how women fit into what men want, rather than a view that sees women as whole, complex, rational people.
The way modesty is taught is a prime example, and the Mormon modesty debate centers around the way modesty is taught in an almost entirely sexual way – with the emphasis on women maintaining sexual desirability, expressed as “purity,” for men. Not for themselves, or to enhance a relationship with Christ, but so that they aren’t “tempting boys” who need to prepare for their missions.
The Way Modesty is Taught to Girls vs. The Way It’s Taught to Boys
Lacey does a great job of looking at the differences in the way modesty is taught to girls and boys. This is something that has bothered me for a long time. There’s a whole list of things that girls need to do in order to be considered “modest,” from the length of their shorts to the fit of their clothes. For the boys, though, the way it’s taught is pretty simple: “Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance.”
Lacey also points this out about Elder Callister's message in the Ensign — and it's something that applies to most Mormon modesty lessons I've heard:
Unfortunately, there is no mention here about the impact of how a man dresses on a woman. There’s no mention of how a man’s behavior towards a woman might influence her dress. There’s no discussion at this point on how important it is to control one’s behavior – not merely thoughts – even in the presence of an improperly dressed woman.
If women can “prompt” the thoughts and actions of men into impure paths, surely men can do the same for the women in their lives. Yet Elder Callister neglects to mention that men might also have a responsibility to help women live modestly (and not just because it helps the men keep control of their thoughts).
The boys are treated has full human beings who can be trusted to make their own decisions about modesty. The girls, though, are given a list of rules, as though they are children. On top of that, almost all the language used in teaching the concept of modesty focuses on sexual consequences, and places the emphasis on the girls maintaining their “purity” so they can attract a man who values their “purity,” as expressed by their outward choice of clothing. The boys are admonished to look for women who dress modestly — a woman who would never be a siren.
This Method of Teaching Modesty Can Be Harmful
The Mormon modesty debate is so important because the way it's taught can be harmful to the dynamics between men and women. It's taught in a way that shames girls who don't “measure up” in some way, and it encourages boys to think of girls in one of two ways, based on how they are dressed:
- The angelic woman, pure and good, the spiritual nurturer who brings him to the Celestial Kingdom.
- The vile temptress, intent on leading him into sin.
The truth, of course, is that most women — who are people as men are already acknowledged as people — are complex beings and can't be reduced to these stereotypes. A woman wearing short shorts more thank likely isn't actively trying to lead men to hell. And she certainly isn't “asking for it.”
Here is an observation from a very interesting article in the Salt Lake Tribune:
Brad Kramer, a Utah-based anthropologist who studies the effects of language on Mormon communities, argues that there is a distinction between thoughts and actions.
Mormon males “feel a degree of guilt when any sexual desire is triggered by someone other than their wife, and they partially blame and resent the girl/woman in question if modesty rhetoric has given them a pretext for judging their dress as inappropriate,” Kramer says. “You see this play out especially strongly in the mission field, where young men feel the strongest pressure to completely suppress desire. You encounter an awful lot of resentment and sometimes vivid hostility in male missionaries toward local girls and women who trigger sexual desire or attraction.”
Instead, teaching modesty differently — as standards that men and women should all follow — can change this dynamic. Modesty isn't just about covering up. It's also about attitude, and avoiding ostentation (including overly-expensive clothing). Unfortunately, these aspects of modesty are often glossed over, if they are mentioned at all.
And, as Lacey points out, the way modesty is often taught in the church usually emphasizes sexual relationships, as if these are the only relationships that boys and girls — men and women — can have. I think this is too bad. Girls and boys, men and women, can have respectful friendships.
Immodesty, as one Christian man points out, doesn't “make” anyone do anything. Unfortunately, the way modesty is taught in the LDS church doesn't encourage these respectful relationships between complex people. It encourages girls to think of boys as lust-crazed, and out of control, so it's up to them to “cover up.” It also, I think, could potentially encourage boys to focus more on sexuality, since they are encouraged to think more about what girls are wearing (or might not be wearing, as the case may be), than actually getting to know her as a person.
When we reduce others to stereotypes and gender roles, and especially when some of the way we value someone is based on a perception of modesty, it limits everyone — and we miss out on developing respectful friendships with others, and we place undue burdens on both boys and girls.