The Harms of Projecting the Mormon Male Gaze Onto Young Women
Last Sunday a male speaker visiting my ward repeated a variation of a joke that always makes me cringe, “the more doors that get slammed in your face as a missionary, the prettier your wife will be.”
All the versions I’ve heard of this joke have something to do with the hardships or accolades a young man experiences as a missionary (knocking doors, saying prayers, being an AP, changing flat tires, days spent fasting, etc) and their inevitable reward of a “pretty” wife for doing so.
My heart rate rushed and my face burned as I heard the congregation titter in response. I looked around to see if I could find any other horrified or embarrassed faces. The young women near the back deadpanned the joke.
I approached the man afterward, thanked him for visiting our ward and for the other nice remarks he made in his talk, then asked, “When you made the joke about slamming doors and pretty wives, what did you mean by that?”
He smiled and told me it was something that he and the other missionaries would say to each other during tough times as a way to keep their spirits up. I was really glad to hear him explain the context and it gave me an appreciation for how difficult it can be for missionaries to stay positive about their work when everything feels like a failure.
I said, “I’ve heard this joke a lot, and I’ve also heard how it affects the young women and girls, including me. It can make us feel like a young man expects to be rewarded with a pretty wife after serving a mission, or that we’re a trophy he earns for enduring hardship. It’s also hurtful because it makes us feel like we’re only valued for our looks, not for our kindness, or our personality, or our spirituality. And for the women who consider their looks to be a little plain, it can make us feel like we’re not deserving of a man who worked hard on his mission.”
The man’s face was instantly compassionate and he said, “Oh, I’m so sorry! I never even thought of it that way, but what you’re saying makes sense. Thank you so much for telling me.”
I continued, “Thank you for hearing what I had to say, it means a lot to me that you’ll consider my experience. From the perspective of the person who is made the butt of the joke, it can really sting. If you’re going to speak to audiences that include women and girls in the future, I’d recommend not using that joke again.”
He said, “Oh, absolutely. You’re totally right. Thank you so much for telling me. I’ll be sure to do that.”
We shook hands, wished each other well, and I breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that he was so receptive to the effects of perpetuating the joke. I have full faith in his integrity that he will think differently about addressing audiences with girls and women present, and I hope he’ll also think of what the young men internalize about women from jokes like that.
The joke described above is one of the ways the Mormon Male Gaze is projected onto the young women of our church.
The Mormon Male Gaze (from ‘male gaze’) is rooted in the flawed idea that a young woman’s body is automatically, inherently sexually alluring to the priesthood holding men all around her. She is alternately seen as a temptation to be eschewed or a reward to be given. Both interpretations objectify the young woman for her body. When the Mormon Male Gaze befalls a girl, the young woman herself bears the burden of being appropriately alluring, so as to be a reward to “worthy” young men, while not being overly alluring to “tempt” other men. According to the many accounts I gathered, the projection of this Mormon Male Gaze is usually done by adult women to younger girls, or by women to each other. The projection of the gaze exists even when the threat of actual gaze does not.
From a young girl’s first lessons on modesty, she is educated in the inevitability of the Mormon Male Gaze being upon her at all times. Girls are informed of this gaze by their parents, church leaders, seminary teachers, and sometimes even by the men or boys themselves. She is told that men and boys will be looking at her, noticing her clothing, appearance and exposed body parts, and likely having sexually arousing thoughts about her if they find her “too” attractive. The effects of this projection are deeply harmful to a young woman’s developing self-esteem, body image and internal sense of worth and beauty. It breeds tremendous amounts of sexual shame, which may follow her throughout her life. It flies in the face of other teachings our young women receive about their individual worth, and emphasizes that man truly does look on the outward appearance, despite assurances that the Lord looketh on the heart.
Projecting the Mormon Male Gaze onto girls is horribly insulting to men and young men as well, as it ungenerously presupposes that all men and young men default to seeing young women primarily as sexual objects. It unfairly characterizes young men as walking erections, waiting to go off at any time, in no control of their own thoughts, and without ability to process their attraction or arousal in appropriate ways. It is debasing to men and young men to speak of them having so little control over their minds and actions.
Here are some examples (as experienced personally by the group of friends I asked) of the ways we must STOP projecting the Mormon Male Gaze onto our girls:
The Lustful Priesthood Guardian Fallacy: Young women leaders often prohibit girls from wearing shorts, tank tops, or swimming suits at Girls’ camp or other activities with the rationale “we don’t want to tempt the Priesthood leaders.”
Priesthood holders are present at Girls’ camp in case of emergency, to assist with Priesthood blessings for sudden illness or injury, and to help with various tasks around the camp. There are excellent reasons for prohibiting certain types of clothing at camp (ticks, poisonous plants, scorpions, sunburn, etc.) But telling young women that the men assigned to help, protect, and bless them are simultaneously titillated by seeing their bare legs or shoulders is alarmingly disturbing.
If a man cannot be trusted to be in control of his own mind when surrounded by girls at Girls’ camp or other youth activities, someone else should be assigned to go. If the men attending Girls’ camp knew they were described as being so easily “tempted,” would they stand for such assaults on their character?
Imagine a gender-swapped version of this: “Young men may not go shirtless at scout camp so they don’t tempt the women” and the utter ridiculousness of the statement is even more apparent.
We harm our girls and denigrate our men when tell young women that their Priesthood leaders are “tempted” by them.
The Pretty/Virgin wife as reward for man’s righteousness fallacy
“The more you pray on your mission, the hotter your wife will be.”
“The more doors you knock, the prettier your wife will be. If you knock doors in the rain, you’ll get 2 wives.”
“Stay pure to give the gift of your virginity to your husband on your wedding night.”
Leaders who require girls to accept the invitation of boys to dance at church dances.
YW activities which emphasize hair, makeup and grooming as ways to attract a husband.
“I bought you dinner and was a perfect gentleman all night; don’t I deserve a kiss?”
When young women hear that the most valuable attribute for attracting a husband is their appearance, and that their virginity can be given to a man like a prize, it reinforces the harmful dynamic that a woman’s power is found in her looks and her sexual availability. It devalues her talent, brains, skill, intelligence, and spirituality. It can actually encourage her to compete with other girls, using her looks and sexual availability to get what she wants. It unnecessarily focuses on what her body looks like as an ornament vs what it can do as an instrument, (including athletics, music, dance, etc.) Girls who don’t feel attractive or who don’t receive attention from boys may consider themselves less valuable as a wife, or less deserving of a loving marriage. Some young women may under-achieve academically or professionally because they perceive their looks to be of higher priority and value for finding a husband. Girls who have been sexually abused may try to make themselves intentionally unattractive to avoid further abuse. They may feel they have no bodily autonomy, that everyone else is in charge of their body except them. Girls who are not virgins on their wedding night may feel unworthy of a kind husband or loving marriage. Young men may assume the faulty premise that they are entitled to an attractive spouse according to the barometer of their own personal righteousness. This sense of entitlement can lead young men into forcing unwanted physical contact on girls.
Men and women, parents leaders of youth, even youth themselves, must stop making jokes about pretty girls being given to men as rewards.
The Modest is Hottest/SexyModest fallacy
In order to be “hot” or “sexy” (alluring) to virtuous Mormon men, a girl must be “modest.” The typical way modesty is addressed in church settings is less about moderation in behavior, demeanor or speech, and almost entirely in relation to hemlines and how much flesh is showing in which places. So while not showing too much flesh in the wrong places, a young woman is told she should still want to be seen as “sexy” or “hot” (read: sexually enticing or arousing) to Mormon young men around her. But, girls are simultaneously told to avoid dressing in a way that will arouse young men. Which is it? What an impossible, confusing mixed message! A young woman can be attractive and fashionable without the burden of being “hot” or “sexy” at the same time.
“Modest is hottest!” as a catch phrase has got to go.
The women as gate-keepers fallacy
“It’s your job to keep the boys from going too far.”
“You don’t want to be the reason why a boy doesn’t go on a mission.”
“You have to keep the brakes on in your relationship. Once he hits the point of no return, he can’t go back.”
Women who dress immodestly “become pornography” to the men who see them. (As though walking-while-female were a sex act.)
When girls are told they are the gate-keepers to men’s chastity, many negative effects can take hold. Some girls avoid participating in sports, exercise or dancing to avoid being seen as a sexual object. Girls may adopt rigid body motions to avoid revealing midriff. They can grow to have an irrational mistrust of men having ulterior motives. Girls may become ashamed of going through puberty, of having their period, or of how their body develops. They may hold an unnatural or poor posture to avoid drawing attention to a large bust line. Girls may intentionally wear unattractive clothing to prevent attention directed to their breasts or hips. These beliefs can grow into unhealthy patterns of sexual shame, including “Good Girl Syndrome” which heightens sexual intimacy problems in marriage. Telling a young woman she has no ‘gas’ is just as bad as telling a young man he has no ‘brakes.’ (Watch this video for more info about sexual “gas” and “brakes.”)
Perhaps the most horrific consequences of this fallacy are that women may not recognize sexual aggression, harassment or assault. Even worse, by believing a man can’t control himself, she may blame herself for the acts of sexual aggression perpetrated against her.
For the safety of all our girls, we must stop telling them that they are the gate-keepers of men’s sexual restraint.
It is possible that some Mormon men and boys may assert their gaze on a young woman and entertain sexual thoughts about her. Those thoughts in their own heads are their own business, and are not the responsibility of the girl. We do not need to constantly remind our girls of the possibility of these thoughts, or even project onto them a gaze which isn’t there. Our girls do not deserve the blame, burden, or insecurity that comes with worrying about what other people think about them. They need freedom to grow, express themselves, explore, exercise, and develop without shame.
Why do adult women body-police and shame girls about the ways men and boys are looking at them? Why do men and young men talk about “pretty wives/virgin wives” as rewards for righteous behaviors? The lingering consequences of non-consensual, oppressive polygamy culture are still hurting us today, especially in the ways young women and their appearances are treated. Some LDS women seem to have it encoded in their pioneer DNA to be threatened at the thought of their husbands seeing beautiful, attractive, fertile young women. Rather than resolving these insecurities with their husbands, some LDS women tell the young women to cover up and to be afraid of men’s thoughts about them. Men and young men have grown up hearing that only the most elite and most righteous men were “given” additional wives in the early days of the church, and the “women as reward” fallacy has been reinforced ever since.
As leaders, parents, teachers and friends, we must stop ourselves and others from perpetuating these harmful ways of speaking to young women and young men. We should encourage our youth toward autonomy of mind and body, of dressing appropriately for their own comfort according to the activity they’re attending. We should build the confidence of our young women by emphasizing their positive attributes and character as the most valuable contributions to their relationships. We must stop projecting our own irrational fears and insecurities onto them.
How do you experience the Mormon Male Gaze? Or how has it been projected onto you?