Pornography, Modesty, and LDS Pharisees

The teaser: maybe we should be chastising men who wear nice suits to church, drive nice cars, or demonstrate “leadership.” Okay, on with my rant du jour.

We Mormons are kind of obsessed with pornography: lamenting its terrible influence, warning about its dangers, etc. Porn is bad, no question. However, I worry that we members place too much emphasis on personal spirituality and not enough on the consequences of pornography consumption to others, and that both ends of that imbalance have bad consequences. I also worry that “personal spirituality” means, as is too often the case, male spirituality. This is going to veer right on into the modesty issue, BTW, which is kind of predictable.

The more I read, see, and think, the more I feel that our pornography-centered moral panic is problematic for several reasons (in roughly increasing order of rantiness):

1. Misinformation.

I think porn is a terrible thing, but not necessarily for all the reasons we often claim it is. There have been a lot of misleading or false claims repeated on this issue; we pile extra, often made-up “reasons” for opposing pornography use on top of the very good real reasons. To clear the air: pornography does not make people gay, and it probably doesn’t turn anyone into a rapist or child molester*. As always, I have problems with agendas being pushed using falsehoods. Now that we know these have little or no empirical support, we should stop parroting them as if they were irrefutable truths.

2. Woman-blaming and control.

It would be inaccurate to claim we’re exactly like Saudi clerics blaming insufficiently-burqua’d babies for child molestation, but when we perseverate on the modesty issue, we’re arguably dipping our toes in that pool. There’s a direct connection between our pornography obsession and our modesty obsession, perhaps best exemplified by some members’ love of repeating the claim that immodestly-dressed young women “become pornography.” I’m one of the many people currently on the bandwagon of criticizing our over-emphasis on modesty in women. I think such over-emphasis leads to bad consequences, independent of any benefits it may bestow, and no matter what motivates it. Research and boatloads of anecdotes convince me that these consequences can include increases in blaming victims of sexual abuse and in sex-based prejudice. The modesty/porn panic also leads, I think, to a subtle but real transfer of social power from women to men in the church. If women’s modesty is seen by members as causing spiritual problems, exclusively to the men of the church, then it stands to reason that the men (or other leaders) may feel entitled to regulate women’s (or young women’s, or single women’s) behavior to protect the community. The way we approach the porn and the modesty issues can lead to social control of women, backed by a feeling of righteous justification. Not too different from an ultra-conservative Muslim cleric insisting that women “invite seduction” by showing both eyes through their niqab, eh?

3. Navel-gazing Pharisaism.

Is ‘Pharisaism’ a word? What I mean is that we (laudably, I think) focus on porn consumption as a threat to one’s internal spiritual state (“worthiness”), which has potential advantages but, unless balanced by a focus on consequences to those outside our little mini-world, also has at least two disadvantages. First, it leads our focus away from the human consequences of supporting the porn industry. These are clearly some serious consequences–spiritual, psychological, material, and societal. We can’t validly ignore these consequences; think of all the excuses someone might make for doing so and realize that not one is valid, either in this domain or as justifications for any other bad behavior. People other than the producers and actors are harmed by porn consumption, too: the women around consumers who are objectified and treated less equitably and less kindly because of the consumer’s porn use. Yeah, there’s research on that; it’s real, and it sucks.

The consequences of porn to other people are at least as serious as the personal spiritual consequences to the consumer, and they propagate outward like ripples in a pond, reinforced by other porn users’ ripples and other ugly factors in our communities. We are not ignorant of these consequences but–despite messages from our leaders–we tend to focus disproportionately on the personal morality/worthiness issues when we try to motivate people (i.e., men) to avoid pornography. Without going into details, I’ll say I’ve seen this solipsistic self-focus (meaning: male focus) in the modesty panic, too. Even on the occasions when we acknowledge the consequences to others in our motivational speeches, we too often do it by patronizing and stereotyping women (How can you harm your pure, caring sisters whose feelings are so tender and vulnerable?), but at least, then, we recognize the existence and worth of others’ experiences.

I think this imbalance in emphases is exactly the kind of thing for which Jesus chastised the Pharisees. Sure, the poor are suffering; but I ritually washed all seven times, and I didn’t take too many steps on the Sabbath, and I made sure not to touch any sinners, so it’s not my problem; I’m pure. Jesus called them “whited sepulchres” and vessels filthy on the inside but clean on the outside. He accused them of straining at gnats but swallowing camels. The society of circa 30 a.d. Jerusalem deserved to be criticized for the turn it had apparently taken toward this variety of hypocrisy. I don’t think Latter-day Saints are equivalent to the Pharisee-dominated regime of that time, but our porn and modesty obsession sometimes looks disturbingly like their dynamic. Not a solid spiritual footing. Not  the buliding blocks of Zion.

4. Androcentrism and marginalizing of women.

A condemnation of pornography doesn’t necessarily cause this–but our personal-worthiness-centered, blame-the-immodest-women way of going about it does. It perpetuates stereotypes of women as beautiful creatures–temptresses, objects for visual or tactile consumption, toxic commodities; and of men as not responsible for their own behavior when sex is involved. There is often little or no consideration of the impact on the young women when the leaders repeatedly counsel them to stop exposing their delectable female bodies to the young men. In many of the talks I’ve heard like this, even if nominally focused on the young men, I was left with an impression that women were assumed to exist, first and foremost, to serve the men, and that the problem was that they weren’t doing a good enough job. They weren’t anticipating the men’s needs–they were not thinking hard enough about how the details of their behavior might affect the men’s thoughts. Note: this approach to personal behavior is somewhere between “excessive” and “insane.” It feels more appropriate for dealing with a problematic Victorian house servant than for communicating with an equal. It’s also, puzzlingly, at odds with our much-vaunted (recently and in the US) cultural libertarianism. Hmm.

Maybe you disagree. Maybe you didn’t get that impression from any of the modesty or porn talks you’ve heard. Fair enough, but try to estimate the number of times you’ve heard messages directly or indirectly instructing women (especially young ones) in how to better help the young men achieve their spiritual goals. Now estimate the number of times you’ve heard the reverse: men (especially the young ones) instructed in how to better help the women achieve their spiritual goals. In my experience there is a massive imbalance there; in fact, I have a hard time thinking of any talks falling into the latter category.

I don’t know how to fix this; I think backing off the modesty lectures is a start, but I think a longer-term solution has to lie, as many people smarter than me have said, in truly dedicating resources–not just money, but our hearts, mights, minds, and strength (and organizational structure)–to providing the women of the church with opportunities, and helping the rest of the ward (both women and men) deeply internalize the need to support the women’s spiritual growth. Supporting women’s growth, however that is defined, needs to be as clearly, solidly, and immovably baked into us as the need to support “the Priesthood” (in quotes because I mean the men, not the power or the institution, in this instance). These need to be real opportunities that yield the same kinds of satisfaction, growth, and variety as those that are built into the system for men. In fact, given the antagonism of the external culture to these things, perhaps our focus should be even stronger than it is for men.

A Gender-Reversed Modesty-Panic and Porn-Panic Agenda.

If visual images of women’s bodies are evolutionarily-loaded spiritual kryptonite for men, maybe evolutionary psychology gives us a clue about what the female analog to visible cleavage or a tight skirt might be: social status and resource potential. I think many women have a strong (sinfully strong?) reaction to a not-unattractive man, expensively groomed, in a nicely-tailored, expensive suit, stepping out of an expensive car, commanding the respect of other men. In fact, one might argue that men like this are threatening the female members’ spirituality the way women wearing low-cut dresses are threatening the men’s.

If that’s valid, then the remedy would be for the women in the ward–especially the YW and Relief Society leadership–to keep a close eye on this kind of lewdness in men, to make sure it doesn’t begin to threaten the spiritual development of the sisters or cause them to have impure thoughts (i.e., wondering what it would be like if their future husband–or current husband–looked that good in a suit, or had a job with a nice expense account, or had the respect and admiration of the men in the ward). After all, women are potential mothers, and that’s the most important job ever, so their spirituality must be protected at all costs. If some men should forget themselves, start looking a little too worldly, and begin to tempt the sistren, then they (sometimes as a group, in sacrament meeting talks) should be lovingly but firmly chastised for their thoughtless, selfish behavior and strongly counseled to change it. It shouldn’t matter that the other men at work look and act like that. They need to avoid the worldly standards around them. Maybe they should stop wearing such nice suits–maybe suits of any kind should be avoided, just to be on the safe side. Maybe some among them–they know who they are–should avoid too much socializing and let their personal grooming get a little shaggy and unkempt, lest their visible social status lead the women of the ward astray. And for heaven’s sake no righteous man should drive a nice vehicle. They should get a used one. With dents. American-made. Some men–I know this is hard–might want to think about getting less lucrative jobs or ask for a demotion; after all, which is more valuable–a few extra dollars a month or the spiritual well-being of the future mothers of the church?

And for heaven’s sake, women need to safeguard their own personal spirituality. How can they think they’re worthy to serve their fellow members on Sunday if they watched James Bond strut in his fancy suit on Saturday night? Or if they watched the Academy Awards with all those rich, successful, resource-oozing males? Remember: Just because something is on TV doesn’t mean it’s morally acceptable.


* This is a complicated topic, and there is a lot of research out there. However, one quick and memorable check on the “porn causes sexual offense” idea is that, as the internet–and pornography availability–has expanded in Europe and North America, sex offense rates have not increased; in fact, they seem to have decreased, despite record numbers of people watching a lot of pr0n on their computers. Rule 34 is in force, of course–there is a lot of nasty $#!* out there–but most people, most of the time, watch non-hardcore porn. The apparent association between porn and sexual offending may be an artifact of bad research methodology: if you interview a thousand sex offenders, you will find that they overwhelmingly consumed pornogrpahy. However, if you interview a thousand randomly-selected people who are not sex offenders, you’ll find the same thing. This research field does not yet enjoy a true, clear consensus, but it is certainly impossible to state with any real support that there is evidence of a clear pornography-sex offense link.