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?

 

11 thoughts on “Mormonism and the male gaze”

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

    Just as the average man in the Church may not hear a lot of talks given to girls and women about modesty and all the details about their dress, woman may not hear all that may be told to men about their behavior.

    All the talk of pornography has to do with men and ‘where they look’ and what they look at. There has certainly been a lot of talk about that in church. I recall a conference talk where they specifically told men to be careful ‘where they look’, saying we need to keep our eyes in the right place.

    I’ve been on this planet for over six decades and I’ve never heard a female explanation for how they dress except it includes the words ‘attractive’, ‘beautiful’, and even ‘sexy’ etc. so I imagine dress for women is a way to make them feel good about themselves, along with being attractive to men, their man, or perhaps to other women. (Isn’t there some competition in dress among women?)

    Do young unmarried women or women in general really know what effect dressing attractive or sexy has on males? Of course, males have to be attracted to women in some way or the race would have died long ago. So men, particularly religious men, from the beginning, have been cautioned about how they look upon women. How we see and treat women is a constant theme in messages to the Priesthood.

    So, perhap we should all read Romans 14:13 where Paul says, “…Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man[or woman] put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s [or sister’s] way.” emphasis added

    There are also biological reasons for the counsel given to women and men. Testosterone is the harmone that makes a male a ‘man’, aggressive, competitive, fighter, protector, fertile, etc, just as estrogen makes a women feminine. When a man sees an attractive and perhaps sexy woman it can raise his testosterone levels and if the woman is his wife maybe that is a good thing but… if not his wife… could that be a “stumblingblock”? That is where all the counsel we receive from the Brethren comes to mind and everyone deals with that increase in testosterone in his own way and some do a better job than others.

    Just my .02 worth… no offense intended…

  2. Ok, so what you are saying, Miskky, is that women are responsible for what men do. So if a woman exists, gets raped because she happens to be in the path of an aggressive male, that’s her fault. She ‘put a stumbling block in his path’. Or a child. Same thing. A little girl running around with no top on, she is responsible if she gets molested by a boy or a grown man? A senior woman, who gets attacked and raped in her own home, because she opens the door to a man who she innocently assumes is harmless, that’s also her fault? And , oh wait, she was in her nightgown, so that was provocative. She made him do it.

    Biological reasons? Hmmm. Ok, so biologically, I am wired to be able to get pregnant. I guess I can just go find anyone I want and have sex so I can keep having babies, is that what you are saying? Or maybe…just maybe, I can exert some self control, put that estrogen to good use and be faithful to my husband.

    Hormones or not, we have agency. We are still responsible for our own actions and we will not be able to use the excuse, at the judgment, that so and so was wearing a skimpy skirt, or so and so was ‘looking sexy’,for thoughts or actions taken.

    The counsel should really focus on our own personal responsibility for what we do and how we behave. I want my children, daughters and sons, to be modest for their OWN sakes. For personal respect. Not to stop someone else from targeting them for sexual abuse or objectification. It’s time men stopped passing the buck for their own bad behaviour.

  3. Miskky, you wrote, “When a man sees an attractive and perhaps sexy woman it can raise his testosterone levels and if the woman is his wife maybe that is a good thing but… if not his wife… could that be a ‘stumblingblock’?”

    This sentence, at least to me, seems to be saying that a woman, simply by existing and being even the least bit attractive, is a stumbling block. I’m just not sure how to deal with all these woman walking around, daring to exist, unless the male gaze falls under the responsibility of males.

  4. Ok, Miskky, you’re on! Tell me that in those man-attended-meetings the guys are being counseled to not blame the women for their lustful, impure or prurient thoughts. Document just one incident and I will swallow my foot, I promise.

  5. “Do young unmarried women or women in general really know what effect dressing attractive or sexy has on males?”

    Oh my gosh, I am SO sick of hearing this. YES. YES, we know! It is shoved in our faces absolutely constantly, and completely inescapably. We know! You think women never get sexually aroused? You think we’re all foolishly naive little dears who have no idea about the adult world?

    We know. And we’re still asking -you- to be responsible for you.

    I have sympathy for the fact that it can be a struggle, especially for someone who has picked up on the (erroneous) idea that attraction and arousal are in and of themselves sinful. Lots of sympathy there, let’s teach those poor people that it’s not going to damn them to experience sexual attraction. It happens, it’s normal.

    BUT. My sympathy completely dries up when whatever blame, guilt, and responsibility exists on the male side gets blasted at all of the women he might ever cross paths with. You are a sexual being, you learn to deal with it. YOU. Learn to deal with it. Women absolutely cannot be expected to be responsible for the incredibly varied sexual proclivities of every man they encounter, we cannot be expected to just put ourselves away for men’s sake.

    And, no, it’s not wrong to want to dress attractively, for men or women.

    And re-read that “stumbling block” passage again. You think that judging women as being culpable for men’s behavior doesn’t set a whole host of morally-weighted booby-traps in their lives? That is doesn’t litter their paths with unavoidable blame and guilt for other people’s sins and supposed sins? Good grief, you cannot win at that game. You’re imposing yourself in front of your sisters and calling them sinners when they trip over you. Men can control their reactions to their own testosterone, which is not an external “stumbling block” set up for them by others: it’s their own flipping body. You learn to deal with it, or you stay away from people.

    How about NOT judging women as being men’s downfall–as delightfully classically post-Nicean Christian as that is–as per that Romans passage. Don’t set women up to take the fall for other people’s choices, reactions, and behaviors.

  6. The Second Article of Faith says “we believe man will be punished for his own sins…” his OWN sins. Elder Oaks and his “walking p0rn0graphy bollocks notwithstanding.

  7. Miskky: A lack of evidence (especially within only one person’s experience) does not constitute evidence. Let me tell you: there are many situations in which my primary reason for dressing is not to be attractive, beautiful, or sexy. As a teenage soccer player in Louisiana, I didn’t roll up my sleeves to be sleeveless so I could be sexy while playing soccer. I did that because it was hot. As an adolescent, I intuitively understood the male gaze, and I hated it. I didn’t relish being a sex object (“benevolently” for the males who were allowed to be attracted to me to a certain degree or sinisterly as women are often made out to do). I actually resisted even trying to be attractive because it felt like such a trap: if you’re not beautiful enough, men won’t bother. If you’re too beautiful, you risk getting unwanted attention or being seen as a stumbling block. In intuitively realizing how these scenarios never posited me as the agent of my own life, I just wanted to withdraw. I didn’t want to compete. I just wanted to be myself, judged by my character, actions, and talents rather than how I portrayed my body.

    Since I’m not male, I suppose at the deepest level, I don’t know exactly “what effect dressing attractive” has on men. But believe me, I know what effect men say it has, the effects used to justify the groping on a middle school bus, the unwanted attention I received as a pubescent 5th grader, the deeply inculcated shame at seeing breasts–any breasts–even though I’m not male and not attracted to them. It was a bizarre day when I realized I view the female body through a (Mormon) male lens of distrust and caution. And then I consciously left that perspective behind, because instead of seeing individual children of God, my scrupulous attitudes towards modesty meant I was only seeing bodies and potential temptation.

    As Rune points out, there is no shame in sexual attraction. There is a difference between acknowledging someone is attractive, and obsessing or fantasizing about that attractiveness to the point of losing sight of that individual’s personhood. There is shame in saying you are so unable to control your own thoughts that you must dictate the choices of others around you. And while I’m all for modesty in terms of not flaunting (whether that be your body, your car, your wealth, your home), I’m just as much for agency and individual control. Appearances may be a fun way to communicate to the world around you–or it may simply be a way to functionally prepare for a hot soccer practice, a cold fall day, or a professional presentation. And at the end of the day, appearances are a terribly shortsighted way to read other people. Which is probably why scripture tells us that the Lord looketh upon the heart.

  8. I would like to point out that it’s equally important for socially dominant men not to stand up in front of women and speak with confidence and charm. Woman, for their part, must not pay any attention to such men lest their thoughts wander. Especially at conference.

  9. It’s true that women and girls have been chastised ad nauseum for immodest dress, which is actually a bit relative. My neighbor thought it was immodest to have her girls in shirts without sleeves. And I was going to say, Kim, that the reason we DON’T hear about your question is that “we” ie, the men of the church, are too busy blaming women. I sat in a meeting once with the mothers of girls who had been sexually abused by a young man in the ward. His stepfather taught the lesson on David and Bathsheba and over and over talked about how Bathsheba–(yes, he said that specifically) tempted David and girls tempt boys. I’ve since lost respect for him.

    There’s another issue, too. I guess guys think about sex more. Oh, I just cracked myself up. But seeing a beautiful or sexy woman and having the thought cross a guy’s mind is fairly normal and mostly (?) harmless. Pondering, yearning, playing with the thought—that takes it further. Women don’t do that as much. At least I and the women I know do not. You might see a very handsome and charming man and think how handsome he is, but you do not think of sleeping with him. As a rule.

    So I guess guys are the weaker sex that way. But it’s one thing to say “don’t let your boobs fall out of your dress” and another to blame every thought in a guy’s head on women.

  10. His stepfather taught the lesson on David and Bathsheba and over and over talked about how Bathsheba–(yes, he said that specifically) tempted David and girls tempt boys.

    I fail to see how anyone who has studied this story as it appears in the scriptures can interpret it to be anything but David’s fault. His fault for not going with his armies to war, his fault for having idle time, his fault for not averting his eyes, his fault for using his authority to take advantage of an innocent women, and so on.

    I guess guys think about sex more.

    Of course they do; they’ve allowed themselves to use women as their sexual objects, even if only mentally. They feel they have the freedom to use anyone they want for whatever mental purposes they want. After all, no one gets hurt, they think.

    But seeing a beautiful or sexy woman and having the thought cross a guy’s mind is fairly normal and mostly (?) harmless.

    Being normal is not the same thing as being right. BIologically, men are designed to impregnate many woman in order to spread around his DNA and ensure genetic diversity, ultimately guaranteeing the human species can develop traits to allow it to be naturally selected to fill ecological niches and survive catastrophic events. Monogamy fights against that. Just because sleeping around is biologically normal and monogamy is not does not mean the former is right and the latter wrong. I would argue that the entire point of coming to earth was to overcome what is natural and replace it with the spiritual.

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