Eroticized Wives and Mormonism

“As the clock approaches the hour of her husband’s return, a nervous housewife readies herself for his arrival. She checks herself one last time in the mirror, smoothes her hair, and practices a sultry pout. Hearing her husband’s car in the driveway, she shuffles, penguin-style, to the front door and waits…

The door swings toward her, her husband takes one step into the house, and then he stops, as if frozen, and gawks. “Welcome home, darling,” she says, batting her eyelashes. His wife stands in the front hall of their home wrapped in nothing but yards and yards of plastic wrap, her middle-aged curves visible, but distorted through layers of transparent film…Served up like a TV dinner for her husband’s consumption, this wife has become what author Marabel Morgan calls a Total Woman, a model of Christian marital perfection.”

As I read these first paragraphs of an article by Rebecca Davis entitled, “Eroticized Wives: Evangelical Marriage Guides and God’s Plan for the Christian Family,” I, like the husband above, guffawed. I admire people putting efforts into spicing up their marriage, but this seemed ludicrous to me.

It was also interesting to note that this Total Woman movement, which flamed to life in the mid 70’s, was at least partially inspired by Mormonism’s own Helen Andelin – author of Fascinating Womanhood – who likewise advocates strong gender roles and performances of feminine weakness and helplessness. But the focus on the man’s erotic pleasure is muted in Andelin’s work, in stark contrast to the Total Woman marriage guide, the focus of which was to encourage women to turn their body into an object of erotic fascination for the husband. As the Total Woman wife undergoes a daily regimen of bodily discipline (which culminates in sex when the husband comes home), Davis enumerates a number of results.

-the home becomes a castle of male gratification

– the wife’s body, adorned with costumes, props, and makeup, affirms his heterosexuality and his dominance in the marriage

-the husband, affirmed in his masculinity, thus follows her on the path to salvation (no adultery, goes to church with the wife)

-the wife’s submissive body “sexes” (inscribes sexual identity upon) the children. The author of Total Woman urges parents to display the erotic rewards of heterosexual marriage to children, and recounts an incident in her own marriage in which she greets her husband coming home from work in a baby doll outfit, which results in her husband chasing her around the dining room table, with her two children watching and giggling all the while.

It was interesting for me to think of this in a Mormon contxt. Despite the Mormon Andelin’s role in sparking this movement, I actually don’t know any Mormons that fall into this dynamic. Perhaps this is because:

a) Mormons are too prudish in general to want to get into sex games, costumes, etc.

b) male dominance is already established in Mormonism’s all male priesthood – therefore there’s no need for women to eroticize their bodies in order to establish a submission/dominance dynamic. (That’s not to say that all Mormon couples do play out such a dynamic, but there’s certainly enough in Mormon teachings to justify it, if that’s what the couple wants.)

c) it takes a lot of time and energy to be constantly performing erotica like this. Perhaps Mormon wives who are working, engaged in good works, or raising children just don’t have the time for it.

d) because of the all male priesthood, men are taught that they are essential to the workings of the church. There are clear roles that only men can carry out on Sunday, so there’s no sense that men need to be drugged with sex into passively follow their women to church.

Despite the fact that this Total Woman marriage dynamic may not resonate with a lot of Mormons out there, it actually was revolutionary in the Christian world. Because, despite Christianity’s long history of denigrating the body, of seeing it as lowly and base and something that must be transcended, this Total Woman Christian movement actually elevated the body. The woman’s body becomes the vehicle through which she can earn salvation for her husband and children.

Do you see an eroticization of wives being played out in Mormon culture? Why or why not?

How do you feel about the Total Woman movement? Is there anything empowering in it for women, or is it just demeaning?

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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21 Responses

  1. Satsuki says:

    The cover of this books is very familiar to me — I saw it around the house frequently as a child. No wonder my parents’ marriage failed.

  2. Davis says:

    “a) Mormons are too prudish in general to want to get into sex games, costumes, etc.”

    Guess again. Who have you been talking to. This is a completely false statement in my experience.

  3. Satsuki says:

    More seriously (though I WAS pretty serious about my previous comment), I suppose I can see how eroticizing one’s body might be imagined as empowering to Mormon women who already feel powerless or dominated. If you cannot control your husband through other means in your home, then at least you can try to use sex to do it.

    Kind of reminds me of Twilight, actually. My personal theory on why the series has been so popular with Mormon women is that it embodies power issues that they identify with. Bella is largely powerless in her relationships with Edward and Jacob, both of whom are indescribably stronger physically than her, and possess special powers that she is does not share. How does she get special powers and physical strength of her own, with which she can finally protect herself? By marrying, having sex, and having a baby. (I suppose it is incidental that she’s really into rough sex…) Anyway, the whole reason she’s special to Edward is her delicious-smelling blood (with blood symbolizing sex, of course). Sexual appeal as a means of controlling men seems to resonate pretty well with Mormons.

    (Oh, and for evidence of wifely eroticism being played out today, see the humor blog Seriously, So Blessed. She gets a whole lot of things right about Mormon culture!)

  4. Corktree says:

    What about the seemingly excessive emphasis on external enhancements and body alterations in Utah? This can’t be a benign thing that I witness as I drive through – and I’ve heard it attributed to the competitiveness among women – but what if what’s really behind it is increasing a woman’s ability to be sexually desirable in order to exert that type of control over her husband?

    I know that sounds harsh, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how little attention we pay to sexuality in the church, and it’s easily something that plays a large role in our marriages and interactions and we don’t really see if for what it is. It makes sense to me that a wife who subconsciously felt powerless in other aspects of her marriage and life, would use sex as a means to gain control over something, even if it’s not intentional manipulation. The sexual response and cycles of men and women create so many ups and downs and a sense of need and satisfaction in the brain, that I really think we should put more effort into understanding it better so that we can master it together (as husbands and wives). It seems to me that our base instincts are winning out more often than not, and the effects don’t appear to be all that positive.

    I don’t think the book or the movement is demeaning, unless we view it as deconstructing men (and women) to nothing but their neurochemical and DNA spreading needs, but it may be empowering in the wrong way.

  5. Craig says:

    I’m all for increased sex-positiveness and healthy sexuality in the church, but this is neither. It is inherently demeaning and dehumanising towards women. It turns them into nothing other than a receptacle for sex.

  6. Satsuki says:

    (And for the record, I agree with Craig. I think that viewing sexuality as a means for control is a symptom of a larger power-domination problem. It’s not a positive thing for relationships between healthy, mature, equal partners to do.)

  7. Corktree says:

    In case it wasn’t clear, my last part was tongue-in-cheek. I think it is absolutely demeaning to both sexes.

  8. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’m going to have to think on this a bit because there’s a TON of crap to parse here, but my first real “huh” moment is this:

    The difference between evangelicals and Mormons is that while evangelicals may give lipservice to the idea that sex before marriage is bad, we have codified it in our collective soul so much so that I think the idea of doing something like this seems taboo in some way.

    @Davis:

    “a) Mormons are too prudish in general to want to get into sex games, costumes, etc.”

    Guess again. Who have you been talking to. This is a completely false statement in my experience.

    Well, I don’t know (nor do I care to find out) how extensive your experience is, I can point to the shelves of Deseret Book and show you that there is not one title now or in the past that delves as deeply and with as much abandon into the subject.

    At worst we get preschool euphemisms and at best, clinical descriptions, neither of which gets to the heart of what some women want and NEED to know. Tell me how this doesn’t scream “prudery.”

    Not that I’ve ever been accused of being a prude… *whistles innocently* But you’d be amazed how many Mormon women want to talk to SOMEBODY in a frank manner, and will glom onto the first woman who seems to be able to speak plainly and also might actually know what she’s talking about.

    Round 1, G. Ball’s in your court. 😉

  9. Moriah Jovan says:

    @Davis

    Unless, of course, you’re in the scene wherever you live and you happen to run into members here and again. I could probably believe that. (Not even tongue-in-cheek or sarcastic at all; also, no judgment applied.)

  10. Caroline says:

    Satsuki,
    I agree that this Total Woman movement has some seriously disturbing implications. For me, the lack of mutuality is a real problem. It’s all about the man’s pleasure and not at all about the woman’s.

    And I love your reading of Twilight. The one thing I might add to the mix is that another thing that Edward seems to find so attractive about Bella is that he can’t read her mind. Maybe there’s also the idea there that a woman presenting a challenge of some sort is erotic?

    Davis, I’d love to hear where you get your info from and what kinds of Mormons you know who engage in costumes, props, etc. I imagine that most Mormons hold sex to be pretty sacred, so many wouldn’t feel comfortable with toys, costumes, etc. But I’ve very interested in hearing differently.

    Corktree,
    great point about plastic surgery and breast enhancements in Utah. I hadn’t attached that to a woman’s desire to sexually entrance her husband, but I can certainly see that as a possibility. Now that you mention it, I would guess that a woman’s fear of having her husband grow bored and maybe divorce her for someone younger and sexier might indeed be motivation for some of that plastic surgery.

    As for the question of whether it’s demeaning or empowering or something in between, I think it’s an interesting question. I can see how this dynamic could indeed foster a sense of power. particularly for women who maybe don’t feel like they have much say in their marriage. But like you said, I’m not sure that this is a good way to get power.

    Craig, you get at the above point with your comment. This movement is all about the objectification of women, and it’s also all about deception. The author encourages women to fall all over their husbands, even if they are tired or find their husbands disgusting.I just don’t see how a healthy relationship can develop from a dynamic that is really all a performance.

    Moriah,
    I agree with you that Mormonism seems to have a taboo against sex games, costumes, etc. I’ve never seen any Mormon marital self-help book advocate anything even close to this. But maybe this is all going on underground? Or maybe there’s just a huge taboo about talking about it? I have several Mormon friends I’m close to, and I’ve never heard a single one mention anything like this, even when the discussion centers around sex.

  11. Moriah Jovan says:

    @Caroline

    But maybe this is all going on underground? Or maybe there’s just a huge taboo about talking about it?

    In my experience it’s one of two things: 1) ignorance of what’s available, what other people do, what other people find interesting/arousing, how to explain and/or label their desires to their spouses

    or

    2) it’s way way way underground and pretty heavy duty stuff (and I have reason to believe there’s an active, if relatively sparse, subsubculture of…kinky…sexual practices).

    Personally, I figure if it’s you and the spouse, no third parties and both are consenting, it’s all fair game. The question of taboo only comes into play when everybody’s on the same page as to what levels of kink we’re actually referring to.

    I only remember this book because Erma Bombeck did one of her columns on greeting her husband at the door wrapped in Saran wrap. I don’t remember the punchline.

    ***

    Re “demeaning.”

    First, we’re talking about a book published in 1973.

    (Geez, I hope I’m not the oldest one on this board, explaining all this.)

    In 1969, Dr. David Reuben published Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). It’s shocking, but in a clinical and no-nonsense fashion. Needs updating, but I think it should be required reading.

    Nancy Friday published two books about female sexual fantasies in 1973 and 1975, and they were, um, far out. (Don’t hit me for all my bad puns, please. I’m having a blast.)

    Shere Hite published Sexual Honesty, By Women, For Women in 1974 and The Hite Report on Female Sexuality in 1976.

    So while this was a VERY sexually liberated time period, and one side of the feminist movement was all about female sexuality, the other side was burning its bras and man bashing.

    It must have been a confusing time for a lot of people, and not just the religious ones.

    I also think we need to bear in mind that a tenet of evangelical Christianity is Original Sin and that Eve is, in fact, responsible for every drop of evil on the face of the planet and thus, women being the daughters of Eve, blah blah blah.

    Thus, I see The Total Woman as a Christian woman’s antidote to the sexual revolution, a push-back of the militant feminism, an amelioration of Christian womens’ feelings of sexual inadequacy, AND a push-back of the notion that female sexuality is BAD because we’re all daughters of Eve and the bitch got us all kicked out the garden.

    A religious woman trying to live a spiritual life, but struggling with her libido without vocabulary to express it and the attendant shame going along with it, starting to catch wind of the idea that it’s OKAY for her to enjoy sex– I can see how this book might have been a godsend for her.

    We have the luxury of distance to sneer at a work like this, but we don’t have the memory to go with it or, as in many other instances of history writing, it gets whitewashed so we can’t look back on our own growth.

    What we also don’t have, never had, never will have, is an LDS equivalent.

    And I think that’s a shame.

  12. Moriah Jovan says:

    For me, the lack of mutuality is a real problem. It’s all about the man’s pleasure and not at all about the woman’s. […] The author encourages women to fall all over their husbands, even if they are tired or find their husbands disgusting.

    I should probably shut up now because I haven’t read the book and apparently, my reading comprehension is on the fritz today.

    But before I do, with your comment I quoted, Caroline, I want to know if anybody else sees a parallel with Girls Gone Wild and similar self-debasement? All for the dude, right?

    Oy!

    Going to bed before I choke on my toes.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    I remember reading that book decades ago (I can’t remember where it came from or how it came into my possession). The only thing I remember about it is the saran wrap presentation at the door when the husband comes home.

  14. JL says:

    I’m with Craig and #12.

    I don’t see any eroticizing of women in mormon culture. What I see is excessive objectivizing. I don’t think they are the same thing. Objectivizing encourages the competition between women. The pressure among them to look perfect, always thin, neat, and impeccably groomed. In addition to the pressures to do everything else perfectly. Except sex. Maybe books like this will add one more impossible standard for women to feel bad about not achieving.

    Among the singles, men definitely objectify women, it’s probably the biggest problem for both sexes. I assume they eroticize us privately. But there is no public eroticization, for obvious reasons. The men want the “best” woman/ product. Young, fertile, temple-worthy, and with whatever accoutrements they think necessary. From my experience, submissive good girls get chosen over the dangerous hot ones. Does that suggest anti-eroticization? Maybe. I don’t know.

  15. mb says:

    “How do you feel about the Total Woman movement? Is there anything empowering in it for women, or is it just demeaning?”

    I also am old enough to remember the plethora of books that came out in the mid seventies along these lines and the discussions about them. Though there has been some good discussion here about why some LDS women embraced “Fascinating Womanhood” and why some Christian women embraced “The Total Woman” twenty five or so years ago, no one has discussed a major reason why many LDS and other Christian women at that time soundly rejected it.

    Interestingly, it wasn’t due to the sexuality of the material. It was due to their perception that the book encouraged women to use sex to manipulate men, rather than to deal with men straightforwardly and honestly. The biggest criticism was directed at the books’ encouragement of marital partners to see each other as an object who needed to be enticed or tricked or worshipped rather than to see each other as equals to be open and honest and fair with.

    Interestingly, I hear the same conversations and spectrum of responses among my LDS counterparts as they discuss the “Twilight” phenomenon now.

  16. Craig says:

    I’m glad others feel the same way about this. A healthy relationship, sexual or otherwise, requires mutual respect and communication. Wanting to have a better, more erotic sex life with your partner is an awesome goal, but it is not achieved by diving even deeper into traditional gender roles, but rather by loosening restrictions. One partner’s sexual satisfaction cannot come at the expense of the other’s, nor can a good sex life come about through one partner always giving and the other taking. Rather, both have to communicate with each other what they like and don’t like, what really turns them on, and what makes them uncomfortable. It might not sound especially spontaneous, but once each person gets to know what/where the other’s “buttons” are, and know how to please the other person, a healthy, erotic, enjoyable, interesting sex life can result.

    From what I perceive and know of Mormon culture, it seems to me that not very many (or at least not enough) Mormon couples approach sex this way. Even if it’s not explicitly for procreation, I get the feeling that a lot of sex is devoid of real eroticism, extensive foreplay, and outside-the-box sex acts because they’re seen as taboo and or even “sinful”.

  17. Sterling Fluharty says:

    Wow, that is so freakin’ messed up. I think sex should be equal parts romance and fun. That is so wrong that the kids were the only ones laughing. I don’t think it is sexy when a woman totally throws herself at a man. The saran wrap is so symptomatic of shallowness. True love involves lots of layers. This book is reeking of the completeness rhetoric that tells men and women that they are unfulfilled without one another. The whole frozen and shuffling scene speaks volumes. It is such a fallacy of fear that men will become effeminate without affirmation from women and that women will only find liberation if they devote themselves to fulfilling their husband’s every desire. And I think it would totally backfire if woman tried to use sex as a tool for getting men into church. Sex only works as a gift that is freely given, selflessly shared, and mutually enjoyed. If we have anything similar to the Total Woman movement in our recent church history, it is instead likely the idea that charitable examples from wives and children are what soften the hearts of husbands and get them out to church. So love has power, just not always the kind that people have imagined.

  18. Caroline says:

    Moriah,
    Thank you for laying out the history of sex books! That was very helpful, and I think it’s also helpful, like you suggested, to look at this book in its context – an attempt to redeem women and women’s sexuality. And yes, I think the Girls Gone Wild stuff is an interesting modern day out of wedlock parallel.

    JL,
    I love your comment about the objectification of women. You also said,”submissive good girls get chosen over the dangerous hot ones.” I think that’s a fascinating observation. I’ve never thought about this much before, but If I had to pick one way to lean or the other, in my experience I would probably say that the dangerous hot ones got picked over the non-sexy submissive ones. Perhaps these things are regional? I’d love to hear others’ sense of this.

    mb,
    Thank you for commenting about why people rejected Fascinating Womanhood and Total Woman. It’s good to know there was a sizable segment of the LDS population that saw that stuff as manipulative and problematic.

    Craig,
    “One partner’s sexual satisfaction cannot come at the expense of the other’s, nor can a good sex life come about through one partner always giving and the other taking.”

    Amen!

    Sterling,
    ” If we have anything similar to the Total Woman movement in our recent church history, it is instead likely the idea that charitable examples from wives and children are what soften the hearts of husbands and get them out to church.”

    I think that’s an interesting observation. There have been some LDS books/talks that propose that women be the Christs of their families, sacrificing themselves in order to win salvation for their families. That kind of rhetoric plays into what you mentioned.

  19. AllieKay says:

    Wrapping yourself in saran wrap is seriously dangerous. Just sayin’.

    I find this phenomenon of needing to affirm men’s power, dominance, and heterosexuality demeaning to men especially. Why does a man need a charade of affirmation for his identity as a man and a husband? It inadvertently suggests an inherent weakness in men if they cannot have a strong sense of self on their own.

    Also, I don’t understand how this sort of relationship, which is clearly not egalitarian, would encourage children to want that in their own relationships etc. Children are incredibly perceptive, and they can tell when people are unhappy, dishonest, and unfair. I can imagine seeing a sort of relationship as a child and being confused and later afraid to marry a man. The fact that the children were “giggling” does not mean that they were pleased with the relationship. They probably just thought it was silly.

  20. JL says:

    Caroline,
    Maybe men choosing the sweet safer girls was a unique experience. It happened to my sister and two of my friends who were all in different wards. One friend looks like a prettier Brittany Spears and she is still single in her 30s. My sister looks like a cuter Hilary Swank, most of the boys in her Arizona ward were not interested. She had to find a man who had just returned from apostisizing and she married him in her late 20s. My other friend looks like Halle Barry. In the 4 years we attended the same ward, only one man ever asked her out, and he turned out to be a creep. I’m as far from submissive as one can get and I’m 34 and single.

    I’d love to hear if other people had different experiences. It would make me feel better about mormon culture.

  21. Dar says:

    Good discussion. My wife and I are active LDS with 7 kids and have carried the attitude that what goes on behind the bedroom door is between the couple and Lord. Toys, role playing, public places, are all part of a fun and a active sex life. My wife takes her friends to the toy store and many we know have toys to enhance their relationships. We are not the norm but I’d say 20% are open and “wild” as we are with sex being openly discussed as key to a successful marriage.

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