It’s a breezy mid-May morning up in Northern Utah, and I’m standing at the edge of a wheat field enjoying bird calls and fresh air smelling of green growing wheat stalks. I’m waiting to meet up with a client for work to conduct their annual inspection. I’ve never met the main contact for this company, just corresponded by email before meeting here in what is basically the middle of the nowhere most of the way to the Idaho border.
I hear the rumble of an engine and turn toward the end of the road to see a truck coming to meet me. In it are two men. One introduces himself as my contact, and he introduces the other as his brother. I get in the truck and we begin a tour of the farm.
So much has been written about Mormon purity culture in Utah, and it’s almost difficult to know where to start unpacking and explaining what’s going on in this meeting. Most commonly we talk about the purity culture in Utah from the standpoint of keeping students ignorant of their own bodies and sexuality or just flat out slut shaming women. Those are important elements certainly, but what is at play here is both uniquely tied into Mormon sexual culture and very, very old.
Simply put, I represent the medieval demonic temptress who wants nothing more than to destroy men’s vulnerable souls. My very presence is read as sexually contaminating the morality and reputation of the man I’m here to meet for business. And that is why he brought protection: another man to chaperone and preserve religiously based moral authority and honor.
When I return to the office a female coworker asks me who the client brought with him. Because she knows. Because he did it to her last year, as have many of our other clients. Another customer I met with last week also made sure I wasn’t alone with him. They don’t bring along chaperones to meet with our male inspectors. It’s always about our presence being dangerous, so they’ll defend themselves in ways no one talks about or acknowledges.
A couple years ago, a male inspector was in training to do these kinds of inspections and needed to shadow someone experienced on an inspection. That inspector refused to carpool in a fleet vehicle with my female coworker for a commute that was over an hour long because “he is a bishop.” Her potential sexual availability him (despite being married and being universally professional) is taken as a given, one that has to be protected against because his reputation can’t survive it. There is no question of what seems obvious to people unfamiliar with the overwhelming influence of Mormonism on Utah question: that men and women can work together professionally without sex being implied.
His religious misogyny was given accommodation and two vehicles were allocated to send two employees from the main office to the site. His religious authority allowed him to refuse to work following the same rules as everyone else and let him implicitly state my coworker was a sexual threat to him. By allowing this, management reinforced that my coworker’s dignity and professionalism are beneath his comfort.
The truly exhausting and angering part of this from my point of view is that there actually is an issue of potential risk and safety at play when I meet with clients out in the field, and it is given no consideration or value whatsoever by these Very Concerned men. Mine. The gender safety gap is something inextricably tied into male privilege and rape culture, but it’s impossible for me not to factor the potential vulnerability of driving far into empty spaces without so much a nearby occupied house to meet with a man I have never met alone. My feelings or comparative vulnerability weren’t even considered at this appointment. The client decided not just to meet me on his land far away from anywhere with indeterminate cellular reception, but to meet me with another man I don’t know and didn’t know was coming. If he had considered it, would he have made the same decision to bring another male stranger?
I’m not actively afraid and don’t think I’m likely to be harmed, of course. But that initial hesitation is still here. It’s the same reason I make sure before I go out in the field I tell my spouse where I’m going to be, even if I say it halfway as a joke. The same reason I text to check in at lunchtime afterward. Just to be safe. Because in Utah, one of the crime rates that’s universally higher than the national average is sexual violence. I can’t forget that when I’m living my life here in Utah. It colors everything I do in subtle ways.
When I initially talked about this on Twitter, a man outside of Utah was confused why the chaperone the client brought along wasn’t a woman. Elizabeth Mitchell (@Pixelfish on Twitter) replied first, explaining that this would mean he would be alone with the female chaperone before and after meeting me. Which is true, although it’s also more than that as well; in a lot of ways, bringing another man along for when you’re going to be alone with a women is an extension of companionship on an LDS mission.
Adult men in the general congregation in Mormonism are considered to have religious authority purely due to their gender. Men who would be considered laymen in other religions are considered to have priesthood and that is also part of what’s happening here. Bringing along a male peer is bringing along someone with moral and religious authority who watches your behavior to help you behave righteously. If you brought a woman, you wouldn’t have that aura of upright & moral behavior to counter any sense of sexual tainting by working with a woman.
The most frustrating thing about this is I’m not even surprised anymore when this happens to me. This is my life as a woman in Utah. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to quietly accept sexist garbage as inevitable.
While the horribleness of this July’s Supreme Court ruling on the Hobby Lobby case is dreadful enough on its own, it just keeps being used to allow people to do and get away with evil bullshit through a truly disturbing elevation of religious privilege. This week, it’s being used to let FLDS officials legally avoid any questioning during investigation of hundreds of children working in violation of child labor laws in 2012.
It’s so good to know that not only is the court’s decision being used to hurt women in favor of protecting powerful men, but it is now also set up to ensure they can dodge questions from the Department of Labor about kids. Because if you can’t use religious authority to control and coerce the powerless and vulnerable, what good is it?
“It is not for the Court to “inquir[e] into the theological merit of the belief in question,” Sam wrote, citing the Hobby Lobby decision. “The determination of what is a ‘religious’ belief or practice is more often than not a difficult and delicate task …. However, the resolution of that question is not to turn upon a judicial perception of the particular belief or practice in question; religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”
The idea that religion is increasingly allowing people to exempt themselves from following laws should be chilling. Yet instead I see more and more reluctance to actually justly enforce laws (including basic protections for children) with staggering deference to religious claims without examination.
Growing up in Utah, my biases about polygamy and polyamory were deeply marked by the oppressive religious practice of control and child rape practiced by some splinter sects of the LDS faith. The obvious difference is consent, but I had to unlearn years of association of polyamory with coercion and abuse.
It’s easy to condemn those in other places that condone child rape through marriage. It’s safe and comfortable. But the painful fact is, I live in a state where child brides have been (and almost certainly continue to be) part of an ongoing system of abuse. I have a deep rage that the communities where it happens are calculatedly isolated, and they exert total control over the lives of growing children, who have even less capacity for autonomy & consent than most.
We are talking about the kind of subculture that has literally burned books intended for a local library to keep control and maintain ignorance. It’s been almost impossible to find and prosecute the child
marriages rapes because the communities have their own police and shunning the outside world is a religious imperative.
What’s even worse, even men who have admitted their child rape may not even be eligible for prosecution because within the last decade Utah’s legal code allowed the rape of girls as young as 14 so long as their parents consent.
At the time, Utah’s marriage age was 14 with parental consent. In 2005, the Utah State Legislature changed it to 16. In 2003, the legislature made any polygamous marriage involving anyone under 18 a felony of child bigamy.
Shit like this shows just how uninterested our judicial system really is in prioritizing the protection of adolescents from predators using religious coercion. When as recently as 10 years ago, parents’ will could substitute for full legal consent to sexual activity, it’s clear that far from being the enlightened moral actors we make ourselves out to be, we are just beginning to question living in the dark ages.
A criticism (I believe fairly) lodged against more moderate religious voices is they give cover to, and downplay the abuse of more extreme versions because they find criticism of religiously backed abuses uncomfortable. There is no more clear example in our modern backyard than the fact that a man like Winston Blackmore may not even have committed a crime under our laws.
Whether it’s when we’re demanding our right to control our own bodies and fertility, including full abortion rights, or we’re asking those who proclaim themselves our allies to recognize how important it is they always recognize our rights, autonomy and agency without debate, it’s become clear that the problem we face is on a basic level, they don’t recognize that we are the sole owners of our bodies, our time, our energy and our feelings.
Now, those who claim they’re our allies and offer the most insipid & milquetoast kind of pro-choice attitudes insist they’re not like those bad people who’d force us to give birth against our will. They respect us and our choices. But must we always be so adversarial about it? So dogmatic? What’s so horrible about allowing debate or other viewpoints about abortion? It’s not as clear cut a secular advocacy issue as equal marriage rights, after all.
Because every time they tell us we have to support and endorse movements that include and welcome those that devalue us, they are telling us we have to defend our most basic rights of self over and over again. It means that our supposed allies don’t respect our rights to own our time.
They are displaying the same toxic underlying male privilege assumptions they claim to denounce. They are saying with their actions that they do feel they or others are entitled to our time. And that our justifiably angry response to that imposition is wrong.
Let me be clear if you do not consistently support or respect the basic bodily rights and autonomy of people who can become pregnant, I don’t care if you are nominally pro-choice. You may think standard medical care like abortion care should be legal, but you haven’t shown you any respect for my agency. You have shown what you truly think is important, and it is you and your comfort above me and my actual life.
This week has been so packed with important, groundbreaking and openly discriminatory news that is has been overwhelming. But there is one underreported thing from the start of George Zimmerman’s trial on Monday that leaves me so angry, outraged and sad that it bears mentioning.
Many places have reported with shock that Mr. Zimmerman’s defense counsel included a knock-knock joke in his opening statements. And it was offensive bullshit, so it’s understandable that people are talking about it alongside Don West’s shitty treatment of Rachel Jeantel in an attempt to make the super white jury think she’s not worth listening to.
But what still makes me feel ill when I think about it is the assertion West made in opening statements that the murdered teenager was not actually unarmed. Dead high schooler Trayvon Martin purportedly “armed himself with a concrete sidewalk and used it to smash George Zimmerman’s head.”
George Zimmerman, we were told, was simply a helpful citizen who was savaged by an out-of-place black kid. He had no choice but to shoot and kill this minor. This idea makes me so angry still that I want to smash things into little pieces.
I cannot believe anyone could be so transparently dishonest to try to contort the simple concept of weaponry and being armed in such a way that no one can ever be “unarmed” because there is always something that can be claimed as a weapon, including the ground you stand on. This is not just insulting, but asks us to throw out any legal standards of proportional response. It asks us to use the self-defensive, desperate tactics of victims as an excuse for their attack or murder.
This asks the jury to ignore the vast differentials in power and physical threat that exist here. Mr. Zimmerman used his vehicle, his age, his assumed justification as a neighborhood vigilante to intimidate and frighten a young man who will now never see adulthood. He’s now using the claim of injuries after he stalked and harassed Trayvon Martin to excuse his murder.
I desperately want to be wrong, but I have strong suspicions that Mr. Zimmerman will not face conviction and prison for profiling, stalking and murdering a minor. This makes me so helplessly angry it brings tears of rage to my eyes. I want to be wrong. I want there to be justice for Trayvon.
On Monday, Texas Representative Louie Gohmert made a deeply disingenuous argument to ensure that having sex remains as shameful and risky as possible to continue a long standing history of backing up religious hang-ups with healthy sexuality with intentionally created risk.
His statements on the conservative radio show, WallBuilders:
You don’t have to force this sexuality stuff into their life at such a point. It was never intended to be that way. They’ll find out soon enough. Mankind has existed for a pretty long time without anyone ever having to give a sex-ed lesson to anybody.
This got me thinking about all the things that humans have existed without for “a pretty long time” and which of these important modern developments Representative Gohmert thinks we don’t really need either. Of course, the obvious answer is that we’re only supposed to follow shitty antiquated levels of ignorance and suffering when it comes to the sex, but I’d really like to get him to own up to that.
Here’s is a extremely incomplete list just off the top of my head of things that humans as a species have done perfectly well without.
- air conditioning
- safe potable water
- modern sanitation
- safe surgical procedures
- injectable insulin
- blood transfusions
- washing machines
- formalized education
- domesticated animals
- representative government
- birth control
For the last several weeks, I’ve felt growing jealousy toward those friends and acquaintances who have had the opportunity to attend the second Women In Secularism conference. I felt that twinge of envy die back considerably watching the twitter and liveblogging reactions of surprise and disappointment when the conference kicked off with the remarks of Ron Lindsay, who is the president and CEO of the conference’s sponsoring organization, the Center for Inquiry. Now while I still wish I could have been present for those panels, in many ways I’m relieved I have not given (for my budget, considerable) funds to an organization whose highest leadership seems to fundamentally not understand the purpose of something that means so much to me.
I’d also like to extend my greatest sympathies and support to Melody Hensley, whose task in successfully managing this event has been made harder and harder by the management of her own organization. It is absolutely not her fault that this has become disastrously mismanaged, and my admiration for her dedicated work has only grown in the face of this “PR disaster” as she described it last night (can’t direct link to the comment, which is #40 on this latest doubling down by Lindsay). Ms. Hensley said,
Half of the Slymepit have shown up to support these series of blogs. These are not our supporters or donors. They are harassers and sexists.
I’m completely embarrassed. I feel betrayed that that my allies are upset and the people that wish me ill will are cheering this on. I wish we could go back in time and delete this PR disaster.
I agree. And while I’ve watched this in increasing frustration, the thought occurred to me that maybe Ron Lindsay never actually read far enough to understand what’s supposed to happen after someone with privilege shuts up long enough to listen to the experience of someone who has a better view of the social and legal deck stacking in society. In the hopes that he can learn to listen long enough for understanding, I’ll try to give him a concrete example of how this is supposed to work.
Privilege is one of those remarkably sneaky things where it’s inherently part of having privilege that it is hard to see how you are benefited and how a thousand little things create the microaggressions that wear others down every single day. It can be something as simple as not having choices created with you in mind because you are not considered the default.
A while back, Greta Christina wrote about something that drives her crazy. (Me too!) When organizers for events order merchandise, somehow it seldom seems to occur to them to order t-shirts in women’s styles for their female attendees.
Here’s where the shutting up and listening portion comes in: my spouse, after hearing about this concern, one he never would have known about had he not been receptive enough to listen and learn (the shutting up and listening part), realized he’s seen this done on a particularly egregious scale in his own professional life.
Spouse’s office has to do with programs that feed children, and so disproportionately deals with women rather than men. Far more women than men attend their conferences and training sessions. Yet every single time they’ve ordered shirts for these, events, they’ve ordered
unisex men’s t-shirts. How is it that for years, it had never occurred to anyone to order women’s style shirts for these events when they vastly comprise those they work with?
Simply put, shutting up long enough to be receptive to a criticism of Greta Christina’s, spouse has learned something he can be aware of and implement that will make one less message these women will receive in their day that men are the default and nothing can be done about it. It makes their lives slightly better and costs my spouse nothing but a moment of consideration during the planning stages of events. This isn’t about silencing. It’s about caring enough to learn how to be a better person.
Now I realize that Lindsay does not believe his opening remarks were primarily about how he fears privilege is used to silence critics. He may certainly not have intended his speech to launch Women in Secularism to tell attendees, speakers and panelists to say that asking others to check their privilege is a silencing tactic, but that is what he did.
I’ve read his prepared remarks. They open by discussing religious traditions of deliberately disempowering and silencing women, move on to telling this audience he does not welcome them because there’s too much work to do, then express concern over what kind of feminist foundation is being built in the secular movement before they get directly into criticism of the critically important concept of privilege. Your remarks are about how uncomfortable you are with how many of us use privilege as a key tool to educate and change behavior. There is a clear line of reasoning (that you yourself cite!) that links the opening statements of religious silencing tradition with the straw-stuffed explanation of privilege checking in your remarks.
Mr. Lindsay, I ask you to take this opportunity to stop, listen, reflect and learn. Stop and consider that the criticism of your remarks came from your own hosted panelists as well as attendees at at the conference while the loudest applause you are getting is coming from the very people who want to tear down the work of Women In Secularism and the dedicated efforts of those in your own organization.