Patriarchy, redux

A recent post on a Mormon-themed group blog asked the question What are some of the common themes that emerge in patriarchal societies? It then compared these societies with Mormonism. There were a number of parallels.

To me, the most interesting aspect of this article was what it didn’t mention. Here are the salient items that I thought were missing:

  • Persecution of homosexuals. Iran and Saudi Arabia prescribe the death penalty for homosexuality. Other patriarchal societies criminalize it. In Mormonism, homosexuality is the sin next to murder, and the Church uses its political muscle against gay civil rights.

    Homosexuality, especially male homosexuality, is a repudiation of the patriarchal orders insistence on strict sexual roles. Gender roles, as Elder Bruce Porter recently put it, are woven into the very fabric of the universe for patriarchal cultures. They are the one nonnegotiable item of patriarchal power structures.

    The Churchs most strongly worded statement of patriarchal gender roles, The Family: A Proclamation to the World, was issued in response to increasing civil tolerance for homosexuals. This isnt a coincidence.

  • Male preoccupation with female modesty. Patriarchal societies in the Arab world and elsewhere enforce restrictive clothing standards for women, up to and including full veil.

    In LDS culture, female modesty is a frequent sermon topic. (Male modesty doesnt exist. The shirts and skins basketball game in the Cultural Hall is still around. Male modesty can only jokingly be referred to in LDS circles, usually in relation to homosexuality. Like a lot things in LDS culture, modesty involves gender.)

  • Denial of female sexuality. Patriarchal cultures do not generally do not admit the possibility of women as people with legitimate sexual needs of their own. Instead, women are viewed by their roles as wives (providers of sexual release to men) and mothers (asexual nurturers of children).

    In Mormon culture, you often see women put on the pedestal of motherhood in a way that neglects the existence of female sexual desire and the need for female sexual fulfillment. The sexually empowered woman is not an LDS archetype.

    An odd reflection of the patriarchal denial of female sexuality can be seen in how partriarchal societies treat male homosexuality compared to female homosexuality. In places like Saudi Arabia, female homosexuality is not against the law. Basically, it is not acknowledged to exist. The reason is that the patriarchal view of sex requires a penis to be present. No penis, no sex. No penetration, no sex. In LDS culture, male homosexuality receives the lion’s share of attention. Lesbians are rarely mentioned by Mormon leaders.(Penises are, like, way super important in the dudeocracy.)

  • Polygamy.Patriarchal societies, such as Islam, often practice polygyny (and never polyandry).

    Mormon culture has polygamist roots, and elements of polygamist teachings (D&C 132, along with asymmetrical rules for the sealing ordinance, for example) are still on the books.

  • Placement of responsibility for male sexual behavior upon women. Most patriarchal cultures view male sexual desire for women as a consequence of female seduction. In these cultures, women who are raped are punished for inflaming male desire.

    In LDS culture, there have been recent sermons that tell young women that they are responsible for the moral purity of young men.

I’m probably not alone in finding this list a bit creepy.

23 thoughts on “Patriarchy, redux

  1. Well. I suppose it’s nice to know that people can always change. re: the post on Wheat and Tares–I’ve seen hawkgrrrl argue vociferously in the closed (and ironically named) forum Open Mormon that patriarchy is no big deal and will simply disappear within a generation or two. Wonder what happened to make her see that maybe patriarchy won’t wither and die on its own in time for her grandkids to live in a society with full gender equality.

    But your analysis is terrific, MHH, and I am glad you posted it here.

  2. Homosexuality, especially male homosexuality, is a repudiation of the patriarchal orders insistence on strict sexual roles.

    In places like Saudi Arabia, female homosexuality is not against the law. Basically, it is not acknowledged to exist. The reason is that the patriarchal view of sex requires a penis to be present.

    If the patriarchal view of sex requires a penis to be present, then how can two penises being present (male homosexuality) undo patriarchy?

    Answer: It can’t.

    Ancient Greece had plenty of male homosexuality and plenty of patriarchy. Male homosexuality disrupts gender dualism, not patriarchy. Gender dualism and patriarchy often overlap, but they’re not the same.

    Female homosexuality disrupts patriarchy precisely because a penis is not present. That whole “doesn’t exist” space is actually very important, but I got torn to pieces here before for even begin to suggest that “absence” was important.

  3. MoHoHawaii — Great insights! I was half-following the W&T patriarchy series, but not closely enough to notice what they’d missed.

    Regarding the fact that the brethren hardly bother to denounce lesbian sex (and, really, barely even acknowledge it):

    Women have status in LDS society only as appendages to men. In Mormon society, a man without a wife is like a man who is missing a limb — whereas a Mormon woman without a husband is like a limb lying there on the ground by itself. At best, she’s an object of pity.

    The bretheren don’t need to bother with lesbians because they’re automatically marginalized in LDS society, simply by virtue of not being attached to someone who can have status. So the bretheren label the man-man pairs as defective in order to bar the door of the boy’s club, whereas the women (alone or in pairs) never had a shot at entrance to begin with.

  4. If the patriarchal view of sex requires a penis to be present, then how can two penises being present (male homosexuality) undo patriarchy?

    I spent about 6 months in Saudi Arabia, and here’s what I figured out about the way they think: sex = penile insertion. Period. Therefore, the only M/M sex that can be imagined in this culture has one of the men playing the role of the “woman” and another being the “man.” In fact, a straight-identified Arab man might have anal sex with another man and claim that he is not gay, as long as he was not the one who was penetrated. There might be two penises, but only one of them counts. It’s a very, very weird attitude, and interestingly, it’s one that you sometimes find in very homophobic Americans, including some Mormon men I’ve run into.

    I understand why one might conjecture that F/F sex contradicts Saudi patriarchy, but this was not the feeling I got from my interactions with the culture. I got the sense that F/F sex is completely uninteresting to them (it’s not really sex in their view), except for its usual role as grist for straight-male fantasy. Who’s the “man” when there’s no penis? or so the argument goes.

    The level of sexism in that culture just has to be experienced to be believed. It’s an order of magnitude greater than in the West. I think what helps make sense of this is to realize how profoundly such an extreme patriarchal culture denies female personhood. Female sexual pleasure is of no interest there, except to the extent it amuses and pleases men to witness it. The idea is that sex is what men do to women, and the only imaginable variant is when sex is frighteningly perverted by having another man play the role of the woman.

    (I apologize to any Saudi readers in advance for my dark view of their country’s sexual politics, but I can only speak from the experience I actually had in the Kingdom.)

  5. Re #5, one of the interesting things about the cross-cultural comparison of patriarchal societies is how much they have in common. It’s more a matter of degree than of quality. Hard-line Mormon attitudes are a lot like patriarchal attitudes in the Middle East or Africa or India. (I’ve also spent some time in India, and saw these attitudes first hand.)

    However, I think that LDS patriarchy is greatly tempered by the attitudes of its host culture. (Google “chicken patriarchy.”) These kinds of discussions always come down to the question: is patriarchy fundamental to the core of Mormonism or is it a layer that can eventually be peeled off? Unfortunately, (and unlike hawkgrrl in the original Bloggernacle post) I think it’s too deep to be eradicated. Opinions vary, however. I hope I’m proven wrong.

  6. Its a very, very weird attitude

    Just chiming in to note that at least from what I’ve noticed in Brazilian cinema, there seem to be folks in that country who hold a similar attitude, and I don’t think it’d be considered weird.

  7. Re #4,

    Alan, I have no problem with using the term gender dualism for what gets contradicted by M/M penetration. It’s just that patriarchy requires strong gender dualism in order to function. Contradicting gender dualism contradicts patriarchy for that reason.

    What would really send Saudi men running for the hills would be pegging. :- )

  8. MoHoHawaii — your point @6 (about denying women personhood) is exactly what I was getting at @5. Women in LDS culture aren’t full-fledged adults, they’re some sort of in-between state.

    The priesthood is central to every LDS ritual. A woman needs to turn to a man to baptize her children, to give regular blessings, to preside over meeting, to organize a branch for her (if she’s in an area with few Mormons). Those limitations are very different in degree from, say, not being allowed to leave the house without being accompanied by a male relative, but not so different in character.

    Similarly, female sexuality is interesting to the patriarchy essentially only when it concerns the men of the society, such as modesty (how viewing the female body affects men) and “virtue” (whether a guy would like a fresh, clean cupcake for himself that no other guy has licked).

  9. MMH@6:

    sex = penile insertion. Period. Therefore, the only M/M sex that can be imagined in this culture has one of the men playing the role of the woman and another being the man.

    Mexicans often think this way, too, and it’s created some strange boundaries in US immigration law where a person who claims they are persecuted for being “gay” in Mexico have to be “bottoms” by law. Of course, if they live along the Texan border, there’s a good chance gay simply includes the presence of two men having sex, which creates trouble when Mexican “tops” apply for refugee status.

    I understand why one might conjecture that F/F sex contradicts Saudi patriarchy, but this was not the feeling I got from my interactions with the culture.

    Okay, well, you’re only proving my point. If “two penises” is only understood as the one penis doing the penetrating, then I fail to see how the male homosexuality undoes patriarchy. If anything, patriarchy and male homosexuality are coexisting quite plainly.

    It’s not the “sex” that contradicts the patriarchy, it’s the “lesbian” space: women’s shared spaces, in which lesbian sex will sometimes occur. You’re making harmful assumptions like the presence of a veil on a woman necessarily meaning she is oppressed, when women wearing veils in Saudi Arabia and women wearing veils in Iran have completely different historical specifics; a Saudi woman is not an Iranian woman. But yet you group them together analytically, thereby continuing patriarchy. Do me a favor and read this highly influential essay, beginning at the bottom of page 74, where it says “methodological universalisms; or women’s oppression is a global phenomenon.”

    chanson @11

    Those limitations are very different in degree from, say, not being allowed to leave the house without being accompanied by a male relative, but not so different in character.

    I would also ask that you read what I linked to, if you would please.

  10. Re #11,

    In sacrament meeting a few years ago the High Council speaker mentioned adults, women, and children.

    Unbelievable. It’s like “You Mormons have such beautiful women.”

    Years ago I was on an airplane with my children, who were just entering grade school, and an announcement came across the PA that said: “Put your oxygen mask on first before assisting children.”

    My daughter was incensed. She said, “What if you’re ‘children’? What are you supposed to do? Put your own mask on before assisting adults?”

    Even at a young age, my kids were capable of understanding exclusionary language.

    I agree with you about degree vs quality. Patriarchy denies the personhood of women, and for this reason it’s immoral.

    As a parent I find that LDS “modesty” practices push all my buttons. Nothing teaches body shame faster than modesty lessons, and the one-sided way those lessons are taught reinforces all kinds of patriarchal attitudes.

  11. Its not the sex that contradicts the patriarchy, its the lesbian space: womens shared spaces, in which lesbian sex will sometimes occur.

    Yes, exactly. That’s what I’m saying. The lesbian sex itself is not directly threatening to the patriarchy. However, lesbian sexuality facilitates the formation of female space where women can see that they don’t need a man in their household — and shouldn’t require male assistance to go about their daily lives — which, in turn, leads women to question the gender restrictions on power.

  12. Its not the sex that contradicts the patriarchy, its the lesbian space: womens shared spaces, in which lesbian sex will sometimes occur.

    Yes, exactly. Thats what Im saying. The lesbian sex itself is not directly threatening to the patriarchy. However, lesbian sexuality facilitates the formation of female space where women can see that they dont need a man in their household and shouldnt require male assistance to go about their daily lives which, in turn, leads women to question the gender restrictions on power.

    Bottom line: homosexual sex is far less threatening to patriarchy than stable same-sex relationships, particularly relationships between women, and with children. Families headed by single women are similarly threatening. Elder Porter mentioned the evil of “fatherless families” in his recent Ensign article.

  13. Bottom line: homosexual sex is far less threatening to patriarchy than stable same-sex relationships, particularly relationships between women, and with children.

    Okay, good. So I assume you’re dropping the bit about male homosexuality being more threatening to patriarchy than female homosexuality.

    Families headed by single women are similarly threatening.

    Well, there is the feminization of poverty and the phenomenon of increasing lone mother households. Was Porter talking about this, or was he talking about lesbian households? Or was he conflating both? O_o Either way, the answer is obviously not necessarily “put a man in there.”

    It’s true, though: poor people are a threat to Mormonism, because the “optimal” gender roles require middle-classness.

  14. @16 I’m not sure it’s useful to debate which one more threatening. They’re threatening in different ways, which is part of why they’re treated differently by the patriarchs of the CoJCoL-dS.

    Women’s voices are already marginalized, so all the brethren have to do is keep them marginalized. Adopting an attitude that subjective female sexuality (especially lesbian desire) is irrelevant (or doesn’t exist) is a part of that strategy. OTOH, if you have a man (integrated into the status/power hierarchy of the LDS church) who is openly flouting gender roles, they can’t just close the door in his face because he’s already inside. So their attack on his identity and sexuality is more direct, open, and visible.

  15. I’m no expert on things Mormon, but it seems to me the Church and culture weave together patriarchy and authoritarianism. Not all patriarchies are authoritarian, but Mormonism appears to be authoritarian to a notable degree.

    Next, I’d be willing to wager, on what little I’ve learned of Mormon culture, that even if the Church converted to a Matriarchy, the culture and politics would remain authoritarian to a notable degree.

    Last, to MoHoHawaii’s extraordinary analysis, I would like to suggest adding the “Madonna/Whore Complex”. (That is, unless you wish to see the Complex as simply included in the denial of female sexuality or perhaps better included in the insistence upon female modesty. I tend to see it as discrete from those two categories for reasons too involved to get into at the moment.) However you want to categorize it, there seems to be a pronounced tendency within Mormonism to see women as either Good Girls or Evil Girls based on the extent of their sexual experience. It seems to me it is almost always associated with a cult of virginity.

  16. As other commenters have indicated, the notion that (male) homosexuality is defined by one’s role rather than by the gender of one’s partner is not uncommon in various cultures. George Chauncey’s Gay New York, for example, explores the phenomenon among both Italian immigrants on the Lower East Side and among sailors, both merchant and military, whose sexual availability to gay men has passed beyond common knowledge into clich. (Fleet Week, anyone?)

    If you don’t play the “woman,” you’re not queer.

  17. As other commenters have indicated, the notion that (male) homosexuality is defined by ones role rather than by the gender of ones partner is not uncommon in various cultures.

    I think it makes sense to view it this way in a Mormon context. Mormon eternal gender roles require that one person preside as the patriarch, and that one (or more) serve as help-meet(s). If you choose a partner of your same gender, then you’re rejecting the role you’re supposed to play with respect to your partner (because you can’t both be the leader and you can’t both be the sidekick).

    This is one of the obvious points of common interest that I’d noticed between feminism and gay rights even before I found out that my brother is gay. The feminist movement and the LGBTQ movement both allow for romantic relationships that are equal partnerships instead of having a built-in power imbalance. (One might even argue that gay people are caught in the crossfire of the battle of the sexes — as the patriarchs don’t want the help-meets getting any dangerous ideas about relationship dynamics.)

  18. Mormon eternal gender roles require that one person preside as the patriarch, and that one (or more) serve as help-meet(s).

    This points to why Packer and others have historically conflated homosexuality and transgenderism.

    @17

    Womens voices are already marginalized, so all the brethren have to do is keep them marginalized. … [But] a man (integrated into the status/power hierarchy of the LDS church) who is openly flouting gender roles, they cant just close the door in his face because hes already inside. So their attack on his identity and sexuality is more direct, open, and visible.

    I understand this argument. However, I don’t think that there exists a policy in the Church of intentionally not talking about lesbian sexuality. The reason it’s not talked about is because it’s outside the purview of the patriarchs’ way of seeing the world. It’s already outside. It’s not inside. On the other hand, the gay man is inside, and therefore less in a position to topple the patriarchy. If he misbehaves too much, he’ll get shoved outside the door with all the other nameless others, because the space of power is very limited.

    One way of thinking about this is imagining what it is that is actually affecting the Church’s policy on gays. Is it related to what’s happening inside the Church (which is heteropatriarchal, and is geared toward gays as sick/misguided and women as subservient), or what’s happening outside the Church, which questions these structures? When I suggest that lesbian sexuality is more important in toppling patriarchy than male homosexuality, I am thinking about more than just the Church (even as I think about the Church), since the Church doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

  19. I dont think that there exists a policy in the Church of intentionally not talking about lesbian sexuality. The reason its not talked about is because its outside the purview of the patriarchs way of seeing the world. Its already outside.

    I totally agree. I called it a “strategy”, but I don’t think it’s a conscious or deliberate strategy.

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