My son will turn twelve next week. Last Saturday he held a girl’s hand as he escorted her to the center of the gym in a Stockton Stake Center to learn the Waltz. “Were you nervous?” I asked. He wasn’t.
“But she was. I could tell.” And then I remembered being a twelve-year-old girl, wearing pink Chapstick and mascara, and using Avon Self-Tanning Lotion that made orange streaks on my legs. I remembered Robbie, the freckled boy up the street that I had a crush on. He liked me back. One night I snuck out of the window with almost all the girls at my slumber party and we ran up the street in our pajamas to meet him. He and I snuck away for a few moments to the secluded corner of his carport where he asked me the long awaited question, “Will you go with me?” I was delighted to say no, almost as delighted as I was to have him ask. The satisfaction that he had asked, that somehow I had wiled him into liking me, was enormous. I was desirable. I was in control.
In Kathryn Soper’s brilliant article Why Standard Nights are Substandard, and subsequent essay Emergence she begins by exploring the way chastity is almost always addressed within LDS culture.
Our standards nights and chastity lessons usually focus on the dangers of strong sexual desire. Predictably, we exhort young men to bridle their libidos, which we describe as wild beasts that must be restrained until domestication in marriage, and we caution young women to avoid arousing and indulging the young men — tempting the beast out of its cage, so to speak.
It’s a troubling model for a number of reasons, but I’ll address just one: by focusing on physiological motivators for teenage sex, we completely overlook significant psychological motivators. This oversight shortchanges all youth, and exacerbates the risk of young women’s needs flying under the standards night radar completely. After dismissing libido as a serious issue for them (which may be a mistake in and of itself), we turn their attention to assisting their male peers without even considering other compelling reasons for sexual behavior. In our outreach we miss the mark by emphasizing virtue, modesty, and chastity without considering what might motivate a young woman to eschew the same.
Here Kathryn touches on an important point, the psychological factors that play into the sexual development of adolescent girls. One psychological motivator is the desire for autonomy. Sexuality portends to offer a girl proof that she is more adult than child, and proof that she is in control of situations and decisions around her; even cajoling that new womanhood offers her control over the emotions and actions of the men and boys that admire her. This false reign over the desires of others masquerades as the sovereignty and freedom that is truly desired. This sexual power within our religious community is most often only addressed as the power to procreate or the lack of will-power that is touted as inherent to the male sex drive. Referring to herself and her girlfriends as adolescents, Kathryn writes:
Our increasingly voluptuous bodies were reliable tools of status and control. The power was heady, but confusing, because wielding it always left us feeling empty and weak. And it was treacherous, because its force attracted not only the male peers we were aiming for, but also troubled stepfathers and leering strangers. But by the time we realized the perils, we’d grown dependent on this means of power. Of course it didn’t yield true power, because it didn’t originate within ourselves: it originated within the perceptions of the boys and men we hoped to entice. Yet in our economy of success, sexual attraction was the only currency we thought we held. And counterfeit money was better than nothing.
Increasingly, sexual proclivities plaster billboards, fill the pages of fashion magazine and showcase wealthy women who draw plenty of attention to themselves and even invite donations to the United Nations. Yet this power remains defined by the sexual prowess ascribed to women by others—a sham that doesn’t grant any real value to women as individuals.
As we step into our roles as mothers an Young Women leaders, and women, mquestion iswhat and how does one teach their girls about power and the lies that the world tells—meaning, every male that gives them attention for their body starting in elementary school? What experiences can teach a girl to truly feel power, without having to use her body for the imitation of it?