Saturday, February 22, 2014

No, that sentence about getting the man we dress for is not okay.

This post is a response to one blogger's response to some of the responses to this article by Elder Tad R. Callister, found on p. 45 of the March 2014 Ensign.

Here, I am responding to the blog post referenced above:

Usually I applaud efforts to calm the firestorm after a controversial statement by a political or religious leader. I don't approve of vilifying our leaders - or anyone - over stray remarks, and I welcome interpretations of such statements that keep in mind the benefit of the doubt.

So I appreciate much of what you have written. In particular, I share your concern that overblown "rape culture" accusations distract us from the real rape culture problems in our society.

But I cannot let your defense of the following sentence stand:

        In the end, most women will get the type of man they dress for.

Because it's not true. It's embarrassing, it's offensive, and I'm too troubled by it to make a clever joke showing how ridiculous it is. (If anyone's interested in that sort of witty comment, you can find plenty of them here.)

For the moment, let's set aside the question of whether it's appropriate for a male ecclesiastical leader to counsel women about how to "dress for" men. Let's also set aside the question of whether a woman's clothing really is a reliable predictor of the type of man she "gets." Let's go straight to the implicit victim shaming, the angle that I find most offensive.

I think that I can see what Elder Callister was trying to get at here, and I believe that there is some merit in the concept. He wants to encourage women to dress modestly so that they will attract attention from the good guys, not the shallow, objectifying type.

But, at best, the claim that most women get the type of man they dress for is naively optimistic. At worst, it's a slap in the face to the legions of women who do not end up happily married to a righteous priesthood holder. And that's about half of the Mormon women I know.

Did the women who have been sexually assaulted get the type of man they dressed for? Did the women whose husbands abused or abandoned them get the men they dressed for? Do the accomplished, intelligent single women who have never had the chance to marry fail to dress right? What about the women who date men who manipulate them and mistreat them? None of these circumstances is exceptional. Put together, these groups probably comprise roughly a third to a half of the women in my ward. 

Please don't defend this statement by pointing to the word "most." Even if, hypothetically, his strategy for finding the right guy works more than 50% of the time - technically most of the time - the women for which it fails are too numerous to write off as tragic exceptions. And for the women who do find happiness, it suggests that the relationship is a reward for dressing correctly.

And, yes, we can argue about the best way to interpret the statement. Maybe get the man or dress for or most women mean something different to Elder Callister than they do to me. Certainly, he didn't intend to hurt or demean. But the sentence is vague, and that's part of the problem. It leaves far too much room for interpretations that have no proper place in our teachings about modesty and sexuality. 

Surely, Elder Callister could have dug a little deeper and found a productive way to say what he meant. The sentence that he came up with does not meet what should be basic standards of thoughtfulness and helpfulness. It lowers the level of discourse, and I'm disappointed that it found its way into an official publication of the Church.

Leaders who make careless remarks like this need thoughtful, measured push-back from the church members who sustain them. As I see it, that's one way that the body of the church, lay members and general authorities alike, will learn to reject the harmful words that we can't afford to harbor.


  1. Genevieve,
    this is really thoughtful and great. thanks so much
    i especially love the last paragraph

  2. Except, I don't appreciate any of what he has written, and think there is a real problem with rape culture in speech, accusation and thinking, and how they play into actions and abuse, and what we let people get away with, and he contributed to it in some of his speech. His intentions were probably not as bad as they seemed, but I really couldn't handle them at all! Oh my. Oh my. I'm so glad thougthful people push back to that type of article in the church.

    1. I wrote the post in a confusing way, so that you probably thought I meant Elder Callister when I said "you." I meant to address the author of the blog post. I'm editing it to reflect that more clearly.

  3. Here is my very favorite article about who is responsible for how men see women
    Seeing a Woman: A conversation between a father and son

  4. Genevieve, thanks so much for writing a thoughtful response to this. I have to say that I am someone who happens to be "happily married to a righteous priesthood holder" and when I read this sentence in the Ensign it felt like a slap in the face. It was from a devotional address at BYU-I and I am surprised it was put in the Ensign without better editing. (I looked up the original transcript, hoping some context would help. It didn't.)
    I just wish the church leaders who decide to talk about sexual morality would choose their words more carefully so that we don't have to look past the hurtful catchphrases to justify that they probably meant well.

  5. Wonderful follow-up Genevieve. I was very disappointed when I read that in the Ensign, and that sentence (and a few other things that were said) certainly has no place in the magazine. I can't believe we are still at this point in this discussion of modesty, honestly. Instead of emphasizing modesty, why not replace it with something like "infinite worth in the eyes of God?" It isn't fair to women, because people can sexualize ANYTHING. How can you measure what is "too tight" or "too low?" It could be different for everyone. Should we just all wear burlap sacks to be safe? But, that doesn't work either. Jeff told me about an infographic he saw recently about the mistreatment and sexual abuse of women, and where it was the highest was in countries where women are covered from head to toe. Obviously how they dress has nothing to do with the horrible men who are abusing and objectifying them.

    We need to instead focus on our hearts and intentions and learn to see everyone as God's children, and to treat them as such. In high school, a member of my bishopric once called women's cleavage "the valley of death" during a combined lesson with the YW & YM. I was mortified that he referred to my God-created body in such a detrimental, demeaning way, and then was even more uncomfortable that he implied that every boy was sexualizing me to some degree. If only he had taught that we are all children of God no matter we wear and we deserve the best and we are all responsible for our own thoughts, what a different lesson that would have been!