I have long held that football is the worst so I was thoroughly unsurprised when another scandal presented itself this week. But rather than another story about a football player and his involvement in a rape or assault, this scandal involves a seemingly good Mormon boy caught up in a cruel hoax. I have no idea whether Manti Te’o was complicit in this lie, what is interesting to me is that we have yet another high-profile Mormon man unconsciously, or consciously, displaying the complexities of Mormon gender relations for the world to see.
In fact, it doesn’t really matter whether Manti lied, the gendered impulse behind both possibilities is the same. Mormon men benefit profoundly by being romantically attached to women. But before we examine the privileges that come from being a partnered man, it is important to understand what Te’o had to gain either by believing he was in a relationship or lying about being in one.
I can understand why Manti might have invented a girlfriend; it is important for those who participate in patriarchal, hyper-masculine sub-cultures to prove their virility and ability to attract women. For example, there is a meme going around, presumably from Alabama fans, that draws the connection between being the real champions with having a real girlfriend. Additionally, having a girlfriend, even a fake one, probably protected Manti from having to participate in a culture that has proven itself to objectify and harm women–something that a good Mormon boy would hopefully be sensitive to.
If, indeed, Manti Te’o believed he had a real girlfriend and was the victim in this story then he is only guilty of joining a tradition of Mormon men who have romanticized long-distance relationships. Mormon history is rife with examples of men who have gone out into the larger world, leaving an idealized woman behind. Some of the best Mormon love stories involve famous missionaries like Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, and John H. Groberg who left a loving wife or girlfriend behind. The practice of waiting for a missionary has fallen out of favor somewhat, most likely due to their poor success rates, but there is still cultural acceptance and romanticization for this practice. If Te’o was sincere, his online relationship with Lennay Kekua is really just a modern-day version of the mythic missionary love story.
Either way, Manti Te’o relied on a woman to provide him increased credibility and notoriety and he is certainly not the first Mormon man to do this. Indeed, unless a man is partnered with a woman, he is infantilized and mistrusted in the church. Everybody knows Brigham Young’s famous declaration that an unmarried man older than 25 is a menace to society. And while we laugh at the outrageousness of this opinion, we have instituted it as part of our culture and theology. For example, while both men and women need to be married in order to be exalted, our culture gives more latitude to women as to whether or not this happens in mortality. Additionally, Mormon doctrine at least pays lip service to the idea that the Fall could not have happened without Eve and that Adam only progressed because of her actions. And while both of these examples can be viewed as progressive, they also serve to dehumanize women in some way–namely, because they view women as tools for eternal male progression in ways that are not reciprocated for women.
The darker side to this tradition is that it can lead some men to believe that women owe them eternal progression and so they have the right to own their female partner. This belief is not without merit. The language in D&C 132, a section still canonized as scripture, is “if a man marry a wife”…”she belongeth unto him and no one else.” Research has consistently shown that this type of religious dogma correlates with increased incidence of intimate partner violence and marital rape. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that this doctrine negates women’s humanity and identity as a child of God with their own free agency.
It is doubtful that the non-Mormon world will pick up on the Mormon gender implications of the Manti Te’o story. After all, as I heard one NPR commentator put it, a fake girlfriend is better than a beaten girlfriend or a raped co-ed. But this also doesn’t mean that the gendered implications for Te’o’s fraudulent relationship aren’t there. The cultural and doctrinal imperative that men be attached to women may seem harmless at worst and a societal boon at best, but there is always a darker side when this occurs in the context of patriarchy. We, as participants in this religious tradition, have an obligation to examine our doctrine and consider all the conclusions that could be drawn from them, even if what it tells us about ourself is horrifyingly ugly.