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.
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.
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
Professor Myers has already more than adequately addressed two remarkable cases of strong individuals speaking against rape, but I can’t get over the injustice and horror involved in the account of Ms. Elizabeth Seccuro.
She is simultaneously one of the most courageous people I can imagine and typifies everything that is wrong with how our society and legal system approaches the unique and terrible crime of rape*. She was always a strong, proud heroic woman with incredible integrity, who was denied even token justice immediately after the rape. When her rapists arrogantly re-inserted himself into her life by making contact 20 years later, the “justice” she received just shows how far we are from where we need to be.
* Hint: stop treating it like a property crime, or a beating/assault of a non-sexual type. It’s not. It is the total violation, dehumanization and assault on another person’s self. I view it pretty much on par with murder on the bad to evil continuum of behavior.
I went to lunch today, and as I often do while driving, listened to NPR. When I was almost back my office, I heard a statement that made me cringe.
For context: They were discussing the transfer of Saudis from Gitmo to the de-radicalization programs meant to prevent return to violent movements through education, job training, etc. The guest was explaining the attempts to counter to bitter anger that would lead young men to jihadist movements, by giving them opportunities they had previously lacked, but what she said was this.
They gave them jobs, homes, wives.
Are you fucking kidding me? They gave these young men other human beings? Or do you mean that they arranged marriages, matches, etc. according to a local practice? Because one is fucking slavery and the other, while not a Western norm, is not actually the barbaric evil I used to think*.
I really hope the commenter simply slipped, but it’s certainly indicative of something important when we can speak in this way.
* I had this assumption challenged in a sociology class. I had always figured that arranged marriages would be uniformly terrible, because I value the freedom to marry for love (and I still do, but I recognize it’s not a norm everywhere). What changed my view came from a story my professor told about a previous student whose marriage had been arranged.
She commented that she thought it was sad that American fathers didn’t love their daughters. Her reasoning was that American fathers abandoned their daughters to the winds of chance at finding a good husband who is responsible, respectful, kind, etc. while fathers like hers took pains to ensure their children were taken care of. She claimed that she didn’t understand men, but her father did, and so he would be able to choose one who was a good man. Now, this is a depressing (and anti-feminist) view of the sexes as practically different species; but our culture isn’t far better, look at dating advice in magazines, books that couch interactions in terms of fucking alien races and such. While I would love for all cultures to recognize that human beings are first and foremost people, and not their gender, I can accept that there could be some value in cultural traditions of arranged marriages when spouses are selected on criteria of who will be good to and for their children. (I keep on caveat, though, if these traditions are not used this way in practice, and young women are traded more politically or monetarily, then it truly is an evil.)
Over the weekend, I ran a bunch of errands with my mom, including a trip to the local petstore where we got Beaky years ago. (Wanted to get a couple new toys before we go out of town for a wedding in couple weeks.) Mom and I both found some nice, well-made local toys that we knew our parrots would love, and got a chance to flirt with some cute conures, a Senegal, a beautiful Amazon and a baby African grey.
When I was checking out, the cashier noticed the swat bunnies shirt I was wearing. She asked if it was rabbits on my shirt, but then seemed terribly flustered. I didn’t think much of her discomfiture, and explained the idea behind the shirt, which I found charming. As we were driving away, my mom pointed out the reason the clerk was so nervous was that in order to notice the large bunny on the front, she had had to *gasp* look at my left breast. And you shouldn’t look at breasts, that’s bad and dirty and besides, she shouldn’t notice boobs because she isn’t gay or anything. [Yes, I’m guessing, but given the area that this store is in, all the employees are likely to be good conservative Mormons.] It hadn’t even occurred to me that this was an issue, because well, they’re boobs, half the population has them, including the nervous clerk. Why should we be ashamed about our bodies? It’s not as if I was walking around topless or anything, I simply happen to have sizable breasts. And if she had noticed because she’s gay, why would it matter?
In short, prudish people are weird.