Boyd Packer About Sex, Gender and the Priesthood

I want to thank my friend Todd for inspiring this post.

After excommunicating the group of LDS historians and feminist theologians known as the September Six, LDS Apostle Boyd Packer explained why in his opinion women do not need the priesthood during the 1993 October General Conference.

Once a man received as his inheritance two keys. The first key, he was told, would open a vault which he must protect at all cost. The second key was to a safe within the vault which contained a priceless treasure. He was to open this safe and freely use the precious things which were stored therein. He was warned that many would seek to rob him of his inheritance. He was promised that if he used the treasure worthily, it would be replenished and never be diminished, not in all eternity. He would be tested. If he used it to benefit others, his own blessings and joy would increase.

The man went alone to the vault. His first key opened the door. He tried to unlock the treasure with the other key, but he could not, for there were two locks on the safe. His key alone would not open it. No matter how he tried, he could not open it. He was puzzled. He had been given the keys. He knew the treasure was rightfully his. He had obeyed instructions, but he could not open the safe.

In due time, there came a woman into the vault. She, too, held a key. It was noticeably different from the key he held. Her key fit the other lock. It humbled him to learn that he could not obtain his rightful inheritance without her.

They made a covenant that together they would open the treasure and, as instructed, he would watch over the vault and protect it; she would watch over the treasure. She was not concerned that, as guardian of the vault, he held two keys, for his full purpose was to see that she was safe as she watched over that which was most precious to them both. Together they opened the safe and partook of their inheritance. They rejoiced for, as promised, it replenished itself.

According to Packer, women don’t need to worry about the priesthood because procreation requires their cooperation.

If we were to restate Packer’s argument in the language of analytical political science then he says that men have two veto points and women have one veto point. Insofar as each veto needs to be yielded to accomplish anything, women should not have anything to worry about.

The fact that sex may provide leverage is an old and powerful theme. In 411 before Christ, the Greek poet Aristophanes staged the comedy Lysistrata where the women of Sparta and Corinth swear an oath to withhold sex until their husbands lay down their arms.

That is an intriguing idea, which apparently has contributed to a truce in American gang wars. On the other hand, women have always been essential for sex and yet have had to tolerate male domination in various forms throughout most of the last four thousand years.

I doubt that sex can actually be a veto point. First of all, sex is a drive, not a choice. Insofar as humans do have choices about sex, they are at the margins, which is why celibacy does not work.

In other words, a sex boycott hurts women as well as men, which undermines their ability to sustain the boycott over time.

Second, men will use their power to get sex. When women are in a subservient position that means by definition that men have a lot of levers to impose their will, most importantly, the ability to satisfy their sexual needs elsewhere. In the old days there was polygamy. Today, there is a vast surplus of marriageable LDS women.

I don’t believe that sex provides much leverage. Whatever our experience of male lust suggests, the historical record rules out.

Males, on the other hand, can provide or withhold priesthood services at will without any pain to themselves but feelings of guilt.

Of course, any woman whose husband withholds priesthold blessings can simply go to her home teacher or bishop. That’s true of the laying on of hands as well as the sacramental blessings. Even for eternal marriage, there is always a substitute husband available. Rather than assuring eternal devotion to each other, eternal marriage turns out to be a Damocles sword threatening postmortal separation.

If the priesthood is a veto point then husbands do not control it.

Rather the priesthood is a veto point that the leaders of the LDS Church control. They decide who gets to partake of the sacrament and who does not. Of course, they delegate these tasks to local officers. But these always answer to the fifteen.

It turns out that men don’t get much of a key either. Their key is a construct in their mind, which allows them to lock themselves into the room rather than remaining a free creature in God’s creation. We are locking ourselves into a cage, which is not even gold.

Promising the Saints power, Packer is pulling a bait and switch on men and women. He and his colleagues are the only ones who enjoy sufficient autonomy to properly describe their condition as powerful and humane.

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10 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    There’s been tons of interesting discussion on the whole motherhood/priesthood parallel in the bloggernacle. (A quick search turned up this one and this one, and I know there are lots of others…)

    Seeing it in terms of power and how much leverage each partner has is an interesting new take.

  2. JohnHamer says:

    At a certain point, priesthood denial on the basis of gender is equivalent to priesthood denial on the basis of race. It’s a historic practice based on past eras that isn’t justifiable in the 21st century.

    I had dinner with 2 of the Community of Christ’s 4 female apostles last Friday. Apostle Susan Skoor was the keynote speaker at our historian’s association Spring Banquet and she spoke on the topic of “Women in the Priesthood.” What an inspiring speaker — and what a dynamic leader! What a waste it would be if the church refused to make use of her as a resource due to some out-moded 19th century conception of gender roles.

  3. JulieAnn says:

    I think that with Mormon women it goes even deeper than this. I think about all of those men in power (the fifteen), and as a woman my first question is, ‘are these men supplicating to God about women and the prieshood like they did with blacks in the priesthood?’ My answer to that, is no. Why? Because deep down I know that the Mormon God the Father has denied it to me. I am denied that blessing. Where is my Mother? Why hasn’t she spoken to me, given me guidance in the scriptures? Why isn’t there a bible or Book of Mormon just for women, with women’s stories of valor, struggle, godliness? Why? Are we less important? Are we overlooked on purpose? Why? Because a man wrote it, that’s why; a man, and men wrote those books, and the subtle way in which women are denigrated through the eyes of their male God is palpable once you truly see it for what it is.

    Male-God-centered religions have been sticking it to us since poor Lilith wanted to be on top. What would the world look like today if the paradigm shifted incontrovertibly, with absolute proof positive that God was a Woman (hypothetically). Do you think the men would bow down and say “Woops, we made a boo-boo”?I can just imagine the war and fear that would spread, all of those men with their tiny little shriveled up triple-combinations thumping in the wind, desperately trying to hold on to their power and control. It would be a sight, and they would not go quietly.

  4. dug says:

    some would go quietly some would not. i venture that if you took a poll of mormon men, many, if not most, would be for giving the priesthood to women.

    of course, most also would defer to the fifteen. as in, “well, i’m for it if god’s for it.”

    you can have mine.

  5. Hellmut says:

    That’s an interesting way to look at it, Dug. You are probably right that many Mormon men would extend the priesthood to women today if the fifteen don’t get into the way.

  6. Hellmut says:

    JulieAnn, I find your argument fascinating. Nothing would transform the Mormon cosmogony as fundamentally as extending the priesthood to women.

    On the other hand, it is easy to underestimate the role of race for white male traditionalist identity. Imagine a gay hating bigot and the value that his hate added to his identity. That’s how some people used to feel about race.

    Speaking of homosexuality, if women were to get the priesthood, I am convinced that people’s feelings about homosexuality would change as well. Once women have the priesthood everything regarding gender would have to change. Given that in Mormonism salvation is about marriage, the consequences would have to be sweeping.

  7. JulieAnn says:

    Hellmut, that is a very interesting spin. I guess a part of me still hopes that ‘my church’ from my childhood will grow up and learn to love everyone as brothers and sisters. Even considering your scenario makes me flutter to think that maybe, some day, they will change and what would that look like for everyone here? Fascinating…

    dug, thanks for reminding me to not generalize.:0) What one needs to consider is the priesthood becomes part and parcel of a man’s identity within the church. I’m not sure if many are willing to share that special privilege, given a real choice. If you asked them, some forward thinking men might say ‘sure, why not’; but the old school, hard core men of Mormondom? No way. And if they were actually faced with it, no way in “heck”! As far as having your priestood, no thanks, I’m good.:0)

  8. dug says:

    julieann, but if the 15 actually said, like kimball did back in the 70s, the priesthood is now extended to all worthy people over the age of 12? you think there would be a revolt?

    i think there would be celebration. the revolt would come, if it came, from a fringe group that should have been shed long ago anyway.

  9. Jonathan says:


    If the Brethren made that announcement today, I think there would be quite a large revolt, bigger than would justify the label ”fringe”. My former self of just two years ago would probably have revolted (not my current self, though). Perhaps I’m projecting my own past feelings onto the members of the Church, but I imagine that most of the faithful members believe with their whole heart that the segregation of the sexes in the Church is God’s will and would be shocked if the rug were pulled out from under them. How could it be God’s eternal will yesterday and today its old news?

    It would take a lot of re√ɬęducation to keep them in the fold and the announcement would likely strengthen various Mormon fundamentalist movements.

  10. dug says:

    jonathon, maybe you’re right. i don’t think you are, but i would love to find out. now THAT would be interesting. much more interesting than “don’t look at porn” and “don’t do drugs” and “make sure you’re neat and tidy.”

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