Mormonism and the male gaze

What did you think of when you read the title of this post? If you’re a feminist, perhaps you thought of the numerous Young Women lessons in which the young women of the church are told to dress modestly so as not to tempt the young men.

Perhaps the now-famous quote from Elder Oaks came to mind:

“. . . young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you” (Dallin H. Oaks, April 2005 General Conference)

You might even say that the male gaze permeates Mormon culture with its ongoing emphasis on modest dress, and the bulk of that emphasis being put on young women over young men. Compare the responsiblities between each as outlined in the For the Strength of Youth publication:

Young women should avoid short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance.

But what do the scriptures say about the male gaze? Do they support our tendency to heap the responsibility of modesty onto the young women? Do they say something different?

Consider the counsel from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (mirrored in the Sermon at Bountiful):

But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman, to lust after her, hath committed adultery already in his heart. (3 Ne 12:28; see also Matt 5:28)

Jesus seems to address the subject of male gaze directly in these scriptures. Traditionally, male gaze has been a phenomenon restricted to film (and increasingly in advertising), but I believe it also applies to everyday phenomena as well. I think that can include leering by construction workers when a woman walks by, or watching the way a woman walks, or “checking her out,” and so on.

Notice Jesus’s specific use of the woman being seeing as the object and his use of the masculine third-person pronoun. He talks clearly of men who look at women. Specifically, he talks of men who use women for their own personal, sexual, lustful desires, and equates that action (combined with those desires) with adultery.

You know, he sort of has a point. Sure, staring at a woman’s breasts is not “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than his or her lawful spouse” (Random House Dictionary 2012), but are the desires the same?

Someone who cheats on his wife with someone else uses that other person for his sexual purposes. What his wife wants or what is right is less important. Someone who “looketh on a woman, to lust after her” likewise uses that person for his sexual purposes, again without any regard for the desires and rights of others or for what is the right thing to do.

Jesus specifically put the onus of the male gaze on the male; he does not blame the female if the male lusts after her. He does not blame the lustfulness on the woman’s dress. He specifically blames the man for his actions, and tells him in the following verse that it is his responsibility to “suffer none of these things to enter into your heart.”

So, if Mormon scripture specifically decries the male gaze, why do we not seem to see it taught in church?