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Mormon Men’s Reputation and Purity Are All That Matters

Cache County Mountains

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.

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.

The Basic Problem is They Don’t Respect Our Agency

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.

BULLSHIT.

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.

Do We Need Penicillin, Mr. Gohmert?

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.

  • antibiotics
  • air conditioning
  • glasses/contacts
  • television
  • safe potable water
  • roads
  • modern sanitation
  • safe surgical procedures
  • football
  • guns
  • computers
  • injectable insulin
  • cars
  • airplanes
  • boats
  • painkillers
  • blood transfusions
  • washing machines
  • restaurants
  • radio
  • deodorant
  • CPR
  • formalized education
  • agriculture
  • domesticated animals
  • electricity
  • representative government
  • chemotherapy
  • phones
  • birth control
  • movies
  • pharmacology
  • soap
  • coffee
  • refrigeration
  • chocolate

Chuck Hagel and Our Diverse Military

As a county, the United States is beginning to wrap up the longest war in our history. And while operational decisions are and will continue to be a priority, at the end of two massive wars, greater focus needs to be placed on the needs of our military personnel and veterans.

To be frank, I cannot believe that Senator Hagel is likely to even consider many of the pressing needs of our military and veterans a priority, let alone take proactive steps to address our problems.  Hagel, while he has shown a willingness to challenge unnecessary waste of lives and spending, nevertheless has a history indicating a great deal of negative baggage toward some of those whose lives and futures would be in his hands as Secretary of Defense.

We have only been without a total ban of gay, lesbian and bisexual service-members for just over two years.  And although they’re no longer forced to either lie or be kicked out of the military, we still deny equal benefits and compensation to same-sex families under DOMA.  Local support groups for military spouses still work to deny support to the loved ones of LGB military waiting while their spouses, parents and partners are deployed. The Pentagon has recently been blocking a whole host of LGBT related websites (while failing to filter their anti-gay counterparts) and responding to questions with bizarre obfuscation about “operational security.”

Yet the same Democratic president that removed the injustice of DADT did not see a history of anti-gay bigotry by Senator Hagel to be a problem.  Because, well, that ambassador he attacked publicly for being “openly, aggressively gay” Hagel totally apologized. To a television camera. I might give Hagel more credit if he’d had the guts to contact James Hormel personally and apologize (something Hormel himself observed when he refused to accept a public show-apology).

I have not received an apology. I thought this so-called apology, which I haven’t received but which was made public, had the air of being a defensive move on his part… made only in service of his attempt to get the nomination.
If [his original comment] were made today, it would be clearly disqualifying.

In making his apology a matter of public comment with no indication he wanted to make personal amends, I don’t believe Senator Hagel has even begun to shed his bigoted ideas about gay people. Certainly not when his description of the 1998 attack was to call his words “insensitive.” The mere fact that he thought that his vicious attack was merely insensitive and not indicative of serious prejudice shows he hasn’t moved on at all.  No amount of lip service is going to count; I expect to see real action to show his convictions have changed.

Senator Hagel voted multiple times against adding sexual orientation protections to hate crimes legislation. This combined with the fact that three separate times he earned a 0% rating from the Human Rights Campaign* on his voting record on LGBT issues including hate crimes legislation and employment protections, means I regard his newfound public thoughtfulness about gay military families with extraordinary suspicion.

We have a military with pervasive and systemic sexual harm toward women.  A terrifying percentage of women deployed in combat zones reported sexual assault and rape. Reporting in December of a Veterans Affairs study indicated that in war zone deployment nearly 23% of women reported being sexually assaulted or raped; almost 49% reported being sexually harassed. It also found that 47% of those surveyed reported the individual who attacked or harassed them was a superior officer, leaving them very little recourse. Read More…

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.

Read More…