Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Correcting sexism in Mormon culture with doctrine

This article focuses on Mormon culture and doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as I understand them). Although its primary intended audience is members of the Church, I hope it will be of interest to all of my readers. We members of the Church are not perfect and our actions and culture do not always measure up to the doctrine we believe in and strive to live by.

A week ago, I attended a discussion with a congregation I frequently visit about dating. It was suggested that it's now 2016 and that women ought to feel free to ask men on dates if they're so inclined. A friend of mine replied that when she's done so, she's been told that asking was outside of her gender role. In some cases, she lost friendships as a result.

My friend feels stuck. She wants to date but isn't currently being asked on dates. Being proactive, it seems, has only caused problems. While I hope that some of my thoughts help her, my primary goal is to change our culture so that it aligns more closely with our doctrine, which I believe to be true.

I take exception to many of the ideas I've come across, but I care about the people who subscribe to these ideas. My purpose is not to tear any person down – but I have no respect for sexism and won't waste words talking around it.

Genuine concerns

I'm sympathetic to men who struggle to deal with situations like this gracefully. It's certainly more common for a woman to ask a man out now than it was a generation ago, but it's still not an everyday occurrence. I'm guessing that most Mormon men who are asked out are caught slightly off guard. In Mormon culture, it's particularly difficult for men to handle situations where they might hurt a woman's feelings; sayings like, "Take care not to make women weep, for God counts their tears," permeate our culture. (The quote itself is taken out of context from a talk by President Monson.)

Even when men aren't worried about hurting feelings because they've been taught to be, they're well aware that if they get in the habit of doing things that are perceived as unkind, word will get around. In a community like the Salt Lake Valley, reputation is golden and many men are careful simply for self-preservation. In smaller communities of single Mormons elsewhere, reputation is even more important.

These concerns are genuine and I feel for the people who find themselves in uncomfortable situations. However, no amount of discomfort or surprise or any other explanation that makes a flaw understandable suffices to make that flaw excusable. We strive for perfection (Matthew 5:48), so it becomes us to find ways to improve when we find that we are at fault.


One fundamental problem here is honesty. Although I have no doubt that the men in question believe in gender roles and such, I imagine that if they were interested in the girl asking them, they'd oblige a little oddity. In many cases, the real reason they're turning down the date is that they're not interested.

I've said before that we owe it to each other to be honest. It's not enough to make statements that are factually true; we must also mean their implications and be honest in our silences.

It's perfectly understandable to be ill at ease when asked on a date you don't want to go on. But hiding that discomfort behind disingenuous statements about gender roles is not just disrespectful; it complicates dating for these women. They may come to fear asking other men out because of the reaction when a clear, gentle rejection might not. It's unfair to these women and to other men.

It's personal

Not everything that's cultural is doctrinal and not everything that is doctrinal is cultural. Furthermore, not every person will apply doctrine in exactly the same way.

The most concise exposition on the doctrine on the family is The Family: A Proclamation to the World. I'll quote the portion of the proclamation that specifically addresses gender roles without abridgement:

By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.

To many of us, this quote conjures pictures of stereotypes from the 1950s. But a careful reading makes it clear that such stereotypes are not justified. The statements about the primary responsibilities of fathers and mothers are immediately followed by two crucial statements: First, that fathers and mothers are equal partners; Second, that some adaptation is necessary.

Since the statement about doctrine specifically allows for individual adaptation (and since not one of us fully knows the circumstances of anyone else's life), we are unjustified in telling anyone else how they should apply these doctrines in their own lives. This means that no man is in a position to tell a woman whether or not she should ask men on dates; not only is nothing said in authoritative statements about who asks whom, we know that individual circumstances necessitate individual adaptation. Every person (or couple) should prayerfully study the doctrines and consider his, her, or their circumstances. As we ask questions like, "What is right?" and "What will bless my family?", we are likely to receive individual guidance.

What are you looking for?

And since husbands and wives are equal partners, any interpretation of gender roles that makes a partner superior or inferior to the other is incorrect – and interpretations that make partners feel superior or inferior are probably incorrect for that couple. Many couples have mom stay at home and that works well for them. Others have circumstances, possibly including emotional issues tied to traditional gender roles, that may change how the ideal fits onto their lives.

I think we all ought to be extremely cautious about any conception of gender roles that makes either sex passive (such as one that requires that men do the asking). Our doctrine makes it clear that "the children of men ... have become free forever ... to act for themselves and not to be acted upon" (2 Nephi 2:26). Sadly, it seems that many Mormon men misunderstand this doctrine and follow instead a culture that teaches them to look for maids instead of wives.


I'm also concerned by the fact that my friend lost friends by asking them on dates. The fact that one person expresses romantic interest in another shouldn't, in most circumstances, prevent their friendship from continuing as it is – and a date needn't always come from romantic interest (see especially page 5). This, of course, requires maturity and good communication. What were these friendships really like? Are we so afraid of frank conversation that we can't get over little hurdles like this? Can men and women be friends without romance, even if one is romantically inclined and the other isn't? We all owe it to ourselves and to our friends to examine the way we approach our friendships. We likely can all focus a little more on other people and less on ourselves.

Be courageous

Interacting with other people, especially when romance gets involved, is tricky and sometimes painful. We can alleviate much of the pain in these interactions by seeking out true doctrine and choosing it, even if following the doctrine means violating social norms. It takes courage but allows us to be true to ourselves, kind to others, and faithful to God.


Ben Peterson said...

"we are unjustified in telling anyone else how they should these doctrines in their own lives. " (word missing)

Peter Aldous said...

Fixed. Thank you!

Ben Peterson said...

No prob Bob.
Great message which is long overdue. Imagine where we would be societally if the women were free to ask men on dates & propose marriage decades ago!