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Mormon Men’s Reputation and Purity Are All That Matters

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.

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And the Hobby Lobby Ruling Just Keeps Making Everything Worse

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.

Utah Polygyny Often Intricately Linked with Child Brides

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.

Sextravagana! Not Letting Religion Rule Secular Sexual Ethics

Over the weekend, Thrack and I attended the wonderful “mini-con” Sextravaganza put on by the local Secular Student Alliance affilitate, Secular Humanism Inquiry and Freethought (SHIFT) at the University of Utah. It was awesome and I’m glad we went. I do wish there had been more people there, but as Greta Christina put it, it was competing with the “biggest football game in all human history.” (Rivalry between the University of Utah and Brigham Young University is too deep to be ignored here.)

SHIFT logo

For an event that was expected by religious conservatives to be somewhere between vile orgy and pushing “erotic whimsys,” I fear that permanently offended religious people seeking shocked titillation, Sextravaganza would have been a terrible disappointment to them. I’m almost sad that no such huffy people showed up to protest or express their displeasure. But I suspect deep down they feared learning something too much to come and glare at us all disapprovingly. And there was so much they could have learned.

Of the three speakers at Sextravaganza, I had only heard of one. In fact, if I wasn’t already such a big fan of Greta Christina, I might have missed this event altogether and that would have been a shame.

As SHIFT and other SSA affiliate groups handed out the programs, the first thing that Thrack noted and pointed out to me is that organizers took the time to put a clear and simple harassment policy where everyone would see it right on the back. After the months and months of willfully ignorant shitstorm surrounding the simple request that atheist cons take sexual harassment seriously, it was refreshing and delightful to see the issue handled easily with no fuss. Contrast that with the adversarial and secretive approach at this year’s TAM when victims were surveilled without their consent following any problem. It’s wonderful to show that even for a small event with three speakers and a panel discussion, people can to do it right:

Sexual Harassment Policy, See, wasn't that easy?

What’s more it was wonderful to see that women’s voices were not only considered but valued; you could tell by the panel composition (two women one man) and the fact that the audience had slightly more women than men. The whole purpose was to give a contrasting secular view to sexual ethics and you couldn’t differentiate yourself more clearly in a year when an all-male panel of (partially-celibate) religious leaders was considered experts by congressional leadership.

Dr. Lisa Diamond

The first speaker, Dr. Lisa Diamond, is a professor of psychology here at the University of Utah (in Utah, it’s usually just referred to as “The U” as if there were only one). Dr. Diamond specializes in sexuality and relationship development in adolescents.  Her book, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire (which Thrack bought at the event) followed women over ten years from adolescence to adulthood to study how sexual identity and relationships develop. As a speaker, Diamond was funny, and jovially self-deprecating as she recognized that she was much newer to the discussion than her fellow speakers. And although she acknowledged she is a non-believer, her focus was far less explicitly atheistic.

“I do want to slowly poison and destroy the marriage institution.”

Instead, Diamond wanted to talk about how we have allowed conservative religious ideals about relationships and families to dominate how we present our case for equal rights for same-sex couples. She argues, quite rightly, that by presenting a clean and conservative looking gay couple with kids as the public face, we are buying into the idea that certain types of people and relationships are worthy of protection. Now it’s a strategy that is working and has parallels with other movements, but it has some troubling implications for the long-term because it excludes and marginalizes members of the queer community by default.

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Gubernatorial Appointment Cloaked in Elections

I’ve always known the system was rigged against Utah public school students receiving a thorough and evidence based education, but I had no idea just how broken the structure truly is.  In Utah, while individual school districts have local controls, statewide direction is ultimately up to an elected Board of Education.

The trouble is, while the board members are technically elected, the process by which individuals end up on the ballot is anything but a fair democratic representation of the will of the people.  The first step is a committee, whose members are appointed by the governor.  Their job is to nominate and review individuals to produce three recommendations out of a pool of candidates.  The committee passes on those recommendations to the governor who selects which two will appear on the ballot for Utah voters.  Anyone else see the problem here?

Last year there was a bill passed by the Utah Senate to make school board elections partisan and eliminate the recruitment and nomination committee.  It (as well as a number of other proposed changes to board election law) failed.

The commitee has on multiple occasions removed an incumbent board member from the list submitted to the governor based on their opposition to the governor’s public policies.  From the Salt Lake Tribune, we learn that two incumbent board members have filed suit alleging that the nomination process is violates the United States Constitution.

Utah’s controversial way of picking candidates for the state school board has landed the state and its attorney general in court — again.

And yes, this is not the first lawsuit, more on that in a minute.

Incumbent Carol Murphy was elected by Park City area voters four years ago, but rejected in her re-election bid by the Committee for the Recruitment and Nomination of Members of the Utah State Board of Education last April. She is joined by plaintiffs Carmen Snow, who was rejected as a candidate for the seat representing Washington County, and Stacey McGinnis, who wanted to vote for Snow.

The suit alleges the women were rejected, in violation of their First Amendment rights, because they are advocates of public education rather than what it calls “privatization” of schools via school vouchers and other mechanisms.

According to Utah law, the committee, appointed every two years by the governor, scrutinizes those who want to run for the board and submits to the governor the names of three final candidates for every open seat. The governor then picks the two candidates whose names will appear on the November ballot in state school board districts statewide.

The suit contends the system politicizes the school board. It alleges that the committee is heavily weighted with business interests and lobbyists who favor privatizing education and rejects candidates who don’t pass a conservative litmus test.

“For example, the questionnaire required candidates to state their support or opposition to Utah Core Curriculum Standards and the teaching of sex education in public schools, two highly contentious issues, both of which have been driven by ultra-conservative factions of Utah’s Republican Party,” it said. [Emphasis added]

The Utah Education Association opposes the current near-appointment system, saying that because the decision is “contingent upon the approval of the Governor [it] takes away the voice of the people in the electoral process.”  Moreover, they support keeping the races non-partisan, but making reforms.  The UEA states that removing the governor’s conflict riddled control over the process would “increase accountability to voters and better involve the community in the electoral process” and “allow for implementation of good policy, free from party platforms.”

Some, including Third District Court Judge Anthony Quinn have argued that since the eventual nominees are elected, that there is no issue to be concerned with.  When ruling against ousted member Denis Morill two years ago, Quinn wrote the process is legitimate because the recommendations “are neither binding nor unilateral, since the ultimate decision as to who is elected … is determined by the outcome of a general election by the public.”  Nevermind that the system is gamed from the outset to give voters only the choice the governor’s appointed committee and governor himself choose to give us.

Others will say that because the races are all non-partisan, and we all support our children’s education, we needn’t be bothered too much about a conflict of interest or lack of democratic process in representing the wishes of Utah citizens.  On the contrary, while education policy has always had elements of partisan politics, it is especially politicized in an era of a Republican party that increasingly supports libertarian ideas that government should be out of education, that voucher systems should be allowed to drain public schools of resources, and that hostility to science should be fostered so as not to threaten the religious indoctrination of children.

This shouldn’t be difficult.  It’s obvious that deciding education policy is already a politicized issue; all you have to do is look at how vigorously people dissent about substantive issues for public schooling.  What we have to do now is make sure that the party in control (and in Utah, that party will be the Republican party for a very, very long time) can’t keep a stranglehold on the process without any input from the people they were elected to serve.

I Feel Like a Puppy Has Followed Me Home. And I Don’t Know What to Do About It.

I’ve mentioned I’m going to be laid off, and soon. I have my good days and bad days, and I’m largely tending toward anxiety and stress lately.  There are things I like and hate about my workplace, some of which are generic office things, but many of which have to do with an overtly Mormon office culture.  I have to edit not just my vocabulary for professional standards, which is fine, but I also have to edit out things in my life that would make my workplace extra uncomfortable and filled with judgement.  If someone asks about a weekend where I had a nice time with family or friends, I edit out the parts that include drinking, etc.

One of the few really nice things about my office is there are a number of nice people, some LDS and some not.  I’m on close terms with a number of people here, but I’ll be honest, I’m really not planning on hanging out outside of work.  Because all they know is my office presentation.  I might loosen up slightly around people I know, like and trust somewhat, but I’m pretty sure that were they to actually know what I think about shit, I’d scare the hell out of them.

Which brings me to the lady who reminds me of a lonely puppy.  She was recently hired on in the building maintenance department. She is nice.  And I treated her like I treat anyone else here: like a nice human being.  Basic chatting with her, keeping everything in the relatively superficial office-speech bubble.

Then something weird and a bit off-putting happened.  She announced that I was really cool and nice and interesting, that I treated her with respect (which was unusual, apparently, and that makes me terribly sad), and that she wants to be my friend.  And not just in the “let’s grab lunch together” sort of office friends way.  She demanded that we exchange contact information, which I did mostly because I didn’t know what else to do.  I still don’t.

Here’s the thing: I’m a busy, stressed and currently am a very grumpy curmudgeon.  I feel stressed and hurried most of the time.  I’m planning on taking advantage of not having a job to finish up my education quickly, while hoping the economy has recovered enough by the time I finish law school that I can find a position.  I am not in a place where I’m looking to spend time with someone I don’t even know when I am currently neglecting family and friends I already have.  (My internet friends don’t count here because it’s easier to juggle with other real life stuff.)

She and I are simply not in the same place in life, and that’s bound to make creating a friendship tricky.  What’s more, unless I’ve read this woman very wrong, she and I are not exactly compatible ideologically.  So I feel like she wants to be friends with a perception of who I am, and not me.

I know she’s deeply lonely and she’s just trying to connect with someone who treats her with respect and dignity.  I don’t want to crush her by rejecting her out of hand, but I feel like I’m being dishonest about what she could expect from me outside of the office.  What happens when she finds out that I reject many things that make her feel happy, safe and comfortable?  What happens when she finds out that I’m actually this angry feminist atheist progressive?  I feel like I need a disclaimer:

Warning: you don’t know me.  You don’t have any idea what I am like.  You met me in a professional office where public personas don’t match reality.  Individual is not responsible for unsatisfied acquaintances.

Today’s Fractional Worth of Women

Last week marked Equal Pay Day.  I was too busy to write anything up then, but I want to rectify that now.  The National Women’s Law Center has a great breakdown on this year’s statistics, so go ahead and see how much progress (if any) has been made in your own state.  Let’s start with the current national average of what women across the board are paid versus the gold standard white male.  For every dollar that a white man earns, American women get noticeably less.

77% National Women's Wage Gap

So that’s the national average for women without breakdown by class or ethnicity.  Let’s look at the comparable data for Utah.

69% Average Gap for Utah Women

Well, that’s not very encouraging.  I guess it’s time to move onward to more depressing breakdowns of statistics, first non-latina White women:

66% Non-Latina White Women's Gap

And worse, Latinas in Utah:

49% Latina Wage Gap

Ugh.  African American women?

48% African American Wage Gap

Fucking hell.  Are we all depressed yet?  Let’s start looking at breakdowns by educational level.  First, women with a high school diploma versus men with a high school diploma.

61% High School Diploma Gap

What about men and women with a bachelor’s degree?

59% Bachelor's Degree Gap

In 2011, women made up two thirds of all those paid minimum wage or less.  Although unemployment figures overall have decreased, women’s unemployment rates have actually increased from 2007 to 2011.  And although women rely much more heavily on assistance to get higher education in an attempt to earn living wages, budgetary issues have led to across the board cuts to programs they rely on.  A degree certainly isn’t a guarantee of achieving greater pay parity, but it certainly can help women and families out of poverty.

In fact, the typical Utah woman who has received an associate’s degree or completes some college still isn’t paid as much as the typical Utah man who only graduated from high school.

In a time when conservative politicians tell us there is no war on women, these numbers are a striking slap in the face.  We are told that we imagine hostility to controlling our sexuality and reproduction without social and financial penalty, that we imagine injustice and should look instead at all those women who priotitize families over careers or who don’t ask for raises.  The de-facto nominee for the Republican party won’t tell us whether he supports the tools afforded women by the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and wants us to ignore that all those clamoring to tell us he supports equal pay actually voted against the measure before it became law.

I will not be silent.  And I am not worth less.