Several years ago, I sat in a therapist’s office trying to cope with my total worthlessness. I had everything that was supposed to prove my worth as a Mormon woman. I had a husband and children, the financial blessing of being able to be a stay-at-home mom, a calling I enjoyed, plenty of opportunities for service and a tight knit extended family. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling of being utterly and completely worthless. Obviously, I had depression, but medication didn’t give me healthy self-esteem; it just lessened the crushing weight of despair so I was still functional.
I spilled it all out to a Utah County therapist who probably heard this story a hundred times a year. When I finished telling her how guilty I felt because I wasn’t full of joy and gratitude at my blessed life, she said, “You want to matter.”
Reader, I cried.
Yes, I wanted to matter. I wanted to matter for something other than empty praise and a pat on the head. I wanted to be a whole and entire human being, separate and apart from the service I could render to others and the role I could fill in a man’s life. I wanted to do selfish things like work on writing fiction that would never be published or art that would never be sold; I wanted to be able to say I was angry without being lectured about forgiveness; I wanted to admit that motherhood was exhausting and wifehood was miserable. I had lived my life to adapt myself to the male gaze, and it left me an empty half-person.
The Male Gaze
There are two layers to the idea of the “male gaze.” One layer is the sexual. The male gaze is when women are depicted in art and film to be sexually pleasing for the male viewer. For example, I saw a movie that took place in a cave. The men in the cast wore long sleeves and jeans – appropriate caving clothes. The women in the cast wore tank tops with plunging necklines and short shorts. The next time you watch a show, notice how the women are dressed and if it’s appropriate for the setting or if their clothes are for male enjoyment.
The second layer of the “male gaze” is the personhood of the people depicted. A book/film created from the male gaze presents men as relatable characters and women as unknowable objects. The men have interior lives, complex personalities, and understandable motives. The women, on the other hand, are to be looked at and interacted with, but they aren’t complex and complete people. Their role is to assist the man in achieving his goals. I read several books by an author – the men had interesting and complex interior lives. Every woman in every book, from the 10-year-old daughter to the 70-year-old CEO, was a sassy self-confident one-dimensional character. To be fair, it was nice that the women were one-dimensional in a sassy and self-confident way, rather than a ditzy and sexy way, but they still lacked a rounded personality.
The LDS Church uses the male gaze. I think some leaders and members are still confused about why women pushed back so hard about being put up on a pedestal. Fortunately, the rhetoric telling women to not become porn by dressing immodestly has decreased (because women educated men on how inappropriate that was, not because men had a revelation), yet the male gaze still confines women to the roles that men want them to fill. When LGBT individuals are addressed, it’s through the straight male gaze. LGBT persons are created by God and he loves them, but at the same time they are fundamentally broken and wrong. Celibacy is their only righteous option.
The law of chastity is arrogant. It isn’t that the male Church leaders want to cause any harm; it’s that they simply don’t consider any point of view besides their own. Straight men with social skills and the good luck to get married and stay married are the only ones permitted the full range of human experience. The straight male gaze doesn’t see that the rest of us also have hopes, dreams and joy – we also want to live a full and rounded life, rather than flattening ourselves to fit into the straight male gaze. There needs to be more to the law of chastity than just what fits the Brethren and people like them.
Let’s start the discussion by summarizing the law itself.
The LDS Law of Chastity
You shall have no sexual relations, except with your opposite-sex spouse to whom you are legally and lawfully married. Perfect chastity before marriage; perfect fidelity after marriage.
The newly-issued For the Strength of Youth says this about chastity:
Sexual feelings are an important part of God’s plan to create happy marriages and eternal families. These feelings are not sinful—they are sacred. Because sexual feelings are so sacred and so powerful, God has given you His law of chastity to prepare you to use these feelings as He intends. The law of chastity states that God approves of sexual activity only between a man and a woman who are married. Many in the world ignore or even mock God’s law, but the Lord invites us to be His disciples and live a standard higher than the world’s.
Keep sex and sexual feelings sacred. They should not be the subject of jokes or entertainment. Outside of marriage between a man and a woman, it is wrong to touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body even if clothed. In your choices about what you do, look at, read, listen to, think about, post, or text, avoid anything that purposely arouses lustful emotions in others or yourself. This includes pornography in any form. If you find that situations or activities make temptations stronger, avoid them. You know what those situations and activities are. And if you aren’t sure, the Spirit, your parents, and your leaders can help you know. Show your Father in Heaven that you honor and respect the sacred power to create life.
Living the law of chastity brings God’s approval and personal spiritual power. When you are married, this law will bring greater love, trust, and unity to your marriage. Obeying this law will make it possible for you to progress eternally and become more like your Heavenly Father. Your confidence will grow as you live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I am attracted to people of my same sex. How do these standards apply to me? Feeling same-sex attraction is not a sin. If you have these feelings and do not pursue or act on them, you are living Heavenly Father’s sacred law of chastity. You are a beloved child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ. Remember that the Savior understands everything you experience. Through your covenant connection with Him, you will find strength to obey God’s commandments and receive the blessings He promises. Trust Him and His gospel.
I was abused, and I feel ashamed. Am I guilty of sin? Being a victim of any abuse or assault does not make you guilty of sin. Please do not feel guilt or shame. The Savior loves you. He wants to help you, heal you, and give you peace. Professional counselors, your family members, and your leaders can also help.
Young Women’s Value
The Young Women’s value of virtue is “I will prepare to enter the temple and remain pure and worthy. My thoughts and actions will be based on high moral standards.” The value experiences for virtue are (summarized):
(1) Study the meaning and importance of chastity and virtue by reading Jacob 2:28 and Proverbs 31:10–31; “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”; and the section on sexual purity in For the Strength of Youth. In your journal write the promised blessings of being sexually clean and pure and your commitment to be chaste.
(2) Virtuous living qualifies you for the guidance of the Holy Ghost. Read the specified scriptures about the guidance of the Holy Ghost and write about it in your journal.
(3) Prepare for the temple by reading Alma 5 and answering all the questions in that chapter for yourself.
(4) If you sin, repent.
I couldn’t find the Duty to God program for the Young Men. Was that abandoned? If the Young Men have a statement of chastity anywhere, let me know in the comments and I’ll add it. It would be unbalanced if the Young Women have to study how to be virtuous but the Young Men don’t.
The Church’s law of chastity is miles ahead of the law of chastity as taught in the scriptures. The Church applies the same law to both men and women, and allows for repentance. The Church has also learned a bit about sexual trauma and abuse, and tries to be kind. The acknowledgment of homosexuality is better than it was, while still being woefully inadequate. The Church has much room to improve, but we should acknowledge the progress that has been made.
The Law of Chastity in the Scriptures
Prophets, revelation, scripture. Every mention of sex and the law of chastity in the scriptures is filtered through heterosexual male priorities. Honestly, I don’t think a male God talking to his male prophets has come up with decent commandments about sex. If sex is all about the sacred procreative process, you’d think eventually someone would have a revelation focused on the people who actually bear the burden of that procreation (women). But no.
The scriptures are much worse than modern-day LDS sexual standards. Women in Biblical times did not have sexual autonomy. Fathers controlled daughters until they married them off. Moses specified that fathers couldn’t pimp out their daughters (Leviticus 19:29). I suppose without that commandment, some men would offer their daughters for the night in order to, I dunno, get a better price from someone buying the father’s sheep. Perhaps the emphasis on the daughter being a virgin on her wedding night was to protect daughters from being sexually exploited before marriage. After all, the right to say ‘yes’ doesn’t matter unless a woman also has a right to say ‘no.’ Fathers don’t face any punishment for pimping out daughters; if the daughter isn’t a virgin on her wedding night, she gets stoned to death, apparently without any way to say that her father sex-trafficked her (Deut. 22:13-21) (if that’s what happened).
The principle that women had no sexual autonomy also explains the Old Testament’s horrible treatment of rape victims. If a man rapes a virgin who is not betrothed, the rapist pays the woman’s father fifty shekels and then has to marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). I guess this is the principle of ‘you break it; you bought it.’ Once she isn’t a virgin, certainly no one else will ever want to marry her. If a man rapes a woman who is betrothed, then both of them get the death penalty if he did it in the city – the assumption being that she didn’t scream for help. If the rape takes place in a field, the law assumes she screamed for help and no one could hear her. In this situation, the rapist is sentenced to death. The victim is not killed, but there’s no mention about her fate – does her betrothed still have to marry her or can he break the betrothal? (Deut. 22:23-27).
If a woman isn’t a virgin on her wedding night, she is stoned to death (Deut. 22:13-21). There’s no comparable commandment about men that I saw.
The law of chastity in the Ten Commandments is actually pretty narrow – once you’re married, you can’t have sex with anyone else, but the words themselves don’t forbid premarital sex. Those prohibitions are elsewhere.
The New Testament doesn’t advance sexual compassion very much. Jesus says not to stone the woman taken in adultery, but he didn’t say anything about how to treat survivors of sexual harm, or teach anything about consent. Sure, lust is like committing adultery in your heart, but there’s still no hint of sexual autonomy for women or guidance about helping women (and men) heal from sexual trauma. The long history of Christianity treating survivors of sexual trauma with either cruelty, blame or disdain likely springs directly from the lack of any guidance in the scriptures.
Paul praised celibacy as being more holy and pure than marriage and sex, and then taught that a spouse’s body belongs to the other spouse (1 Cor. 7:1-4). Those are poor principles to advance a healthy discussion about consent in marriage.
The Book of Mormon is no better. Jacob condemned men having concubines, even while saying polygamy is okay if God needs women for breeding stock (Jacob 2). Isabel the harlot is out there seducing missionaries and committing the sin that is second only to murder (Alma 39:1-6). When Mormon bewails the war crimes visited upon the women, he says they were deprived of that “which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue” (Moroni 9:9). Nothing there affirms the innocence of sexual trauma victims. The modern LDS Church does better at that.
The Doctrine & Covenants is nearly completely silent about chastity, human sexuality and women. I am not wading into D&C 132 in this post, and no other section even talks about marriage or procreation.
Adding Diverse Gazes to the Male Gaze
Revelation channeled through straight married males isn’t going to address all sexual sin and righteousness. That’s been the procedure for thousands of years, and it’s inadequate. Since we are not allowed to talk to Heavenly Mother, or seek revelation from her that is specific to her daughters, and Heavenly Father is coming up empty for the LGBTQ community, we’ll have to use mortals and social sciences to set down principles of sexual righteousness from diverse gazes.
Not everyone has similar sexual feelings. Not even all straight men have the same sexual feelings – libido certainly varies. Nor are they all in the same situation – not all straight men can get married and stay married. What this means is that the Male Gaze Law of Chastity (be a virgin on your wedding night and then the only other sexual issue you ever need to worry about is fidelity) is inadequate not just for women and gays, but for a fair number of straight men as well.
It’s always confused me that the law of chastity doesn’t account for rape and abuse. If you’re victimized, then you’re basically kicked out of the law of chastity discussions and referred over to the Atonement for healing. After digging into all those scriptures, I understand that the impact of sexual violence has never been part of chastity. It’s like victims should just disappear. The current, more compassionate approach, is a result of feminism and social sciences, NOT revelation.
The law of chastity also doesn’t say anything about procreation. I mean, if sex is the “sacred procreative process”, shouldn’t there be something, anything, about how to treat pregnant women?
I want a law that encompasses all those issues – voluntary sexual activity, penalties for those who rape and abuse, healing for victims of sexual trauma, procreation and non-procreative sexual activities. Let’s stop pretending that the Brethren – straight men who (I’m guessing here) haven’t experienced sexual trauma, and who have the social skills to get married and stay married – are the only people who have sex.
Rather than set down a competing Female Gaze Law of Chastity, I want to present some principles of sexual righteousness. The goal is to create an ethical framework that could apply to anyone – straight or queer, married or single. Your comments are welcome, and then I’ll follow up this post in a month or so to summarize and revise.
Principles of Sexual Righteousness
First Principle: Identity and Self-Acceptance
Know who you are, who you’re sexually attracted to and what you enjoy and don’t enjoy. The purpose of this principle is to work towards a healthy relationship. Straight men who inadvertently marry a lesbian or an asexual are going to struggle. A lesbian or asexual who marries a straight man will also struggle. Same issue with a straight woman marrying a gay or asexual man. Mixed orientations are a difficult relationship dynamic. No one should be pressured into a mixed orientation marriage. If someone wants to take on a mixed-orientation relationship (and some do), they should know as early as possible that their orientations are mismatched rather than having it be a surprise after 20 years of pain and confusion. This means letting people find out and acknowledge their orientations.
This will require a general acknowledgment that gay people exist and its normal. I know that will throw conservatives into heart failure, but the truth is that denying the existence of queer people doesn’t make everyone straight. Conversely, acknowledging gays and non-traditional sexual arrangements won’t turn straight people into gays.
None of this requires premarital sex. People can figure out their orientation by paying attention to their feelings. Teenagers shouldn’t be pressured into figuring out their sexual preferences before they want to; nor should information be withheld from them if they’re ready to consider the question. The right to say yes is partnered with the right to say no, and no one has to do anything they aren’t ready for.
I would put a frank discussion of pornography in this principle. Porn creates unrealistic expectations and makes your sexual partner feel demeaned and undesirable. No woman should ever be expected to become her husband’s pornography, and vice versa. Individuals who prefer masturbating to porn more than sex with another human being should be discouraged from dating or marrying without being honest about this issue with their partner. Sometimes I wonder if porn should be its own sexual orientation – screensexual, so to speak. I was in the Church’s support group for wives of porn addicts long enough to know that some men really do prefer porn to their wives and nothing was going to change that. Other addicts were men with a bad habit and they could change it. Porn users might need to spend some time working out whether they’re screensexual or not. What I mean is:
- Some people use porn for exploration and can take it or leave it.
- Some people use porn with their partner’s approval and cooperation to spice up their sex lives.
- Some people use porn as a coping mechanism and will stop once they’ve learned healthier ways to deal with stress.
- Some people use porn due to past sexual trauma and are able to quit once they’ve healed from the trauma.
- Some people prefer porn to the exclusion of sexual experience with another person because they like porn more.
That last person is screensexual. Porn users should figure out how they’re using porn before they get into a relationship and then be up-front about it with a partner. Being married to a porn addict can create a lot of the same stress and problems as being in a mixed-orientation marriage. Accept that some people use porn and some people prefer it to the exclusion of anything else. This isn’t an endorsement of porn. The goal is to not marry someone if you’re sexually incompatible.
Second Principle: Consent and Respect
No sexual activity is permitted unless your partner fully and clearly consents. Treat your sexual partner with respect. This remains true after marriage as well as during a dating relationship.
Respect for your sexual partner includes fidelity to them. Do not commit adultery.
Never have any sexual contact with someone who is unable to consent, whether that’s due to age, mental capacity, drunkenness, or any other reason.
Third Principle: Consequences for Violating the Second Principle
Any form of sexual exploitation, disrespect or coercion is a sin, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of a crime. No one has to tolerate sexual mistreatment in a relationship. If the victim chooses to end the relationship, they receive the Church’s full support.
Rape or sexual exploitation, assault or abuse is the “sin second only to murder,” and is more serious than consensual sinful sex. Nonconsensual sexual contact indicates such a depraved character that the repentance process MUST include cooperation with law enforcement if the behavior was also a crime and the victim wants to report it.
The Church must also educate leaders and members about enablers and make it clear that enabling sexual misconduct by denying, minimizing or hiding abuse is its own sin.
Any sexual abuse of a child or use/possession of child pornography will result in a report to law enforcement and Church disciplinary proceedings. If a spouse is aware that the other spouse is violating this principle, the spouse must report it. The failure of a parent to protect a child from known sexual abuse is also grounds for Church disciplinary proceedings. Enablers are culpable for the sin of enabling.
Fourth Principle: Healing
The Church supports victims of sexual trauma in the healing process. This includes supporting consequences for the perpetrator. The Church’s first priority is helping the victim, not the perpetrator.
The Church takes steps to educate its leaders and members about common challenges faced by sexual trauma survivors and how to best create a healing environment. The Church regularly and frequently repeats that forgiveness is not the most important step in the healing process, and that victims should never be told to “just use the atonement and get over it.” The Church never pressures a victim to allow a relationship with the perpetrator, especially in family relationships.
Fifth Principle: Procreation
The Church continues to assert that children are best served by being born within the bounds of matrimony to parents who want a child.
Women are given sole authority for the choice to use birth control; in other words, no husband may override a wife’s wishes to use birth control. Men are encouraged to also take responsibility for birth control. DMBA starts offering coverage for birth control.
The Church actively works to improve conditions for pregnant women. Universal health care becomes one of the moral issues that the Church speaks out to support, as access to health care before pregnancy is necessary for a woman to be in good health before she becomes pregnant, and of course being able to access health care while pregnant is crucial.
The Church also supports measures to include reproductive technology in insurance coverage, and leads the way by DMBA becoming one of the first health insurance companies to fully cover IVF and other fertility treatments.
Sixth Principle: Gays and Singles
There’s no reason for an adult to be celibate as long as they are not procreating outside of marriage. Don’t irresponsibly make a baby or violate any of the other principles of sexual righteousness. In particular, do not have any sexual relationship with someone who is in a relationship with someone else.
I understand the Church will likely never budge on this issue, but it is a common-sense acknowledgment of human sexuality.
Laws of sexual morality should address the entirety of the human experience. Sexual morals should not be confined to the prophetic male gaze. To have an important aspect of your personhood restricted to someone else’s expectations causes pain and confusion. The rest of us are also whole and entire people – we want to be loved by others and love them in return; we want to love ourselves; we want sexuality to be a part of a whole rather than something sectioned off and doled out only to the extent that we match the Brethren. There is more to life than grieving because the law of chastity didn’t anticipate your existence or your experiences.
Sin should be defined by the harm caused, not by the frankly barbaric standards of the scriptures.
Be honest, be kind, be respectful and find joy.
- Would you add or subtract from the Principles list?
- Do you think the law of chastity as it’s taught now is good enough?
- Is there any reason an unmarried 40-year-old should be governed by the same sexual standards as a teenager?
- Does anyone really think that pretending gay people don’t exist will somehow make everyone straight? Conversely, does anyone think that acknowledging the existence of gay people will somehow change straight people into gay people? Why are conservatives so weird about this point?