Sunday, February 26, 2012

Towards a Mormon Male Sexuality, Part I

Emma: Do you think about genitals all the time? I do. I think it's odd that everyone has them. Don't you? [...] People act as if they don't have genitals. I mean, how can men and women stand in a room and discuss business without even one reference to their genitals. I mean everybody has them. They just pretend they don't.
--Maria Irene Fornes, Fefu and Her Friends

I. A Night at the Theatre

About a week ago, I attended a staging of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. The production has almost become a tradition at the University of Maryland. They have organized and performed this memory, rant, and prayer for 13 years now. This is the case across many campuses because Ensler has permitted her work to be used in a larger effort to recognize V-Day: a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. Rather than collect royalties for the use of her script, Ensler permits groups to stage her play if they follow some strict guidelines that she outlines (like which monologues must be used) as well as donate the proceeds to a cause which addresses violence committed against women. At the University of Maryland, the ticket sales of the annual performances of The Vagina Monologues have consistently supplied the majority of the operating budget of SARPP: the university's Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Program. Beyond providing education and workshops to prevent assault, SARPP also addresses some very practical concerns like the initial medical bills that victims of sexual abuse accrue or the cost of changing locks on doors. These are organized responses which hope to confront the troubling dynamics of rape culture on the macroscopic level of society while helping women, men, and children as individuals according to their own needs.

I could say much about Ensler's politics and her play--she is the stuff of dissertations and OpEds--however, I would like to focus on one aspect of the performance I walked away with: I was stunned with the quality of the actresses. Allow me to explain the awe. The program for the evening provided biographies for each of the twenty women participating in the evening's event; none of them had Theatre listed as their major. Now certainly, it's quite probable that most or all of them had taken a drama class or four in high school. There were auditions where other girls were turned away and these women were selected. Plus, with Ensler's writings and the right cast in the hands of a talented director, there's a good chance that little could go wrong. I think all of that was at play. But I was stunned how powerful and articulate and grounded each of the actresses was in their character, delivery, and discovery. It probably goes without saying that some monologues worked better than others; there were mistakes and tripped-over-lines here and there. Yet, knowing that none (or possibly few) of the women have any aspirations of pursuing traditional professional acting as a career path made the event incredible. Ensler's text allowed these women to explore issues regarding their own bodies and bodies of other women. I saw The Vagina Monologues empower amateurs because it is designed to require all involved to engage in thoughtful dialogue with our physical fulness.

UMD's Vagina Monologues Cast

For those unfamiliar with The Vagina Monologues, they are a collection of monologues based on interviews Ensler conducted with women. After asking questions and recording responses, she would shape the interviews into monologues. So there tends to be both an "authentic" individual quality behind each character, but you can also tell there is the presence of an artist's hand crafting the story. Ensler basically just asked women to talk about their vaginas: their experiences with it, their feelings towards it, how its impacted their lives. She asked every woman two questions: (1) If your vagina could speak, what would it say (in two words)? and (2) what would it wear?

Eve Ensler: Wouldn't you want to talk her about your genitals?

Part of Ensler's project confronted her own dislike for the word "vagina." That it is just an un-sexy word; that society comes up with so many different words and euphemisms to speak around vaginas. That it is difficult for women to see their own vaginas. That there's a lot of cultural baggage from everything between the religious icons of the Virgin Mary, Eve the Mother of all Living, and the Whores of all the Earth to Freud defining vaginas as very real lacks.

We live in a historical moment where there is on one hand a past of so many people defining vaginas for women, but on the other hand a recognition that that no longer needs to be the case. And I appreciate that Ensler does not ignore the ambiguity or the difficulty of being in that moment of tension, because quite honestly that's probably not a tension which will change anytime soon. We are forever caught between imbibing and perpetuating definitions and perspectives which are given to us and the responsibility to generate and effect definitions and perspectives of our own volition, while knowing what we have to work with has been given to us by our own particular moment and circumstances. The point is, though, women who were at once uncomfortable talking with Eve, soon began to share . . . and share a lot. That initial resistance or discomfort almost always gave way to the fact that women loved talking about their vaginas and had plenty to say, if for no other reason than no one had ever bothered to ask them.

I believe this dynamic affected the women in the production I saw. Sixteen years later, we still have a society that is uncomfortable discussing or contemplating vaginas. So as the actresses were preparing to perform, the discoveries of their characters could have guided and given voice to their own contemplations and insights. As an audience member, I could see lamentations and epiphanies because they were as genuine and fresh as they were performed. We struggle to find a language to discuss these things. We have faith that such a language exists to speak to our own experiences, yet it's through the birthing pains and travail of seeking that language which allows us to create that discourse. I enjoyed the play and its politics, but I liked seeing how it gave voice and power to the women embodying it.

II. Concerns about Mormon Male Sexuality

Not too long after seeing the play, I had cause to contemplate my relationship with my own sexuality. Particularly, I'm interested in how this relationship is informed by my religious identity and beliefs. This is on my mind a lot because . . . well, it's just usually on my mind, but this semester I'm also taking a class on the History of Sexuality in America. Also, this train of thought and inquiry were fueled by a posting I saw on the Mormon Stories Facebook support group for Young Single Adults. A young man expressed the following:
"This morning I realized I feel like my experience of church culture socialized me to suppress my heterosexuality and put my effort into passing as an asexual. Does anyone else feel this way?
It's taking a lot of effort to even be aware of positive masculine behaviors to model. I feel so far behind having missed out on this part of adolescence. What have you done to catch up?"
Something about this really resonated with me. For my own experience, I grew up incredibly uncomfortable participating in sex-based conversations with my peers, not because the thought of sex acts or sexual organs was in any way off-putting to me--please, I'm fine talking about sex itself--but because I did not know how to relate to my own sexuality. This was generally only an issue when it came to social or cultural interactions. Just for clarification, I was uncomfortable being with men talk about women because I felt any discussion like that was objectifying and harmful. Part of this came from my inexplicably ardent feminism (I'm still not sure where that came from) and part from discourse regarding sexuality generated by the LDS Church. Though I'm still not sure asexuality is the best term to describe how I felt through adolescence, it will do for now. So I've been thinking about can we, as Mormons, draw from our tradition of faith to answer that question about healthy role models for males and sexuality? How can we replicate that miracle of empowerment which I witnessed for the women participating in The Vagina Monologues for Mormon males?

This is actually a complicated question, especially for a feminist sympathizer. Because here's the thing: the male is highly privileged in LDS Church culture. There is simply no denying that. So why would anyone want to spend time being concerned about finding ways to empower men in a system which already does a lot to privilege men? This was an idea that I found articulated quite well in an episode of Mormon Matters about young single adults. One participant expressed her concern that she was unable to find a "men rock!" quote from a general authority which mirrored all of the "women are amazing!!!" quotes we hear all the time. But it's just not there. But the reason that the quote is not there is because the baseline assumption is that the male is the predominate speaker and hearer in Mormonism, so addressing men and only men is already embedded in the language.

And it's actually in that point that I think my purpose resides. See in fancy graduate school we have a nifty word for that kind of a system of language which privileges males to such a degree that it actually obscures the fact that females and female ways of knowing are marginalized within the system. We call it "phallogocentrism." Cool, huh? So here's the break down: phallus, logos, center. In other words, all language comes from and is designed for the sole purpose of maintaining the centrality and power of the phallus or masculine/patriarchal institutions.

Want an example? Try Freud's theory of penis envy. See in the psychosexual development of women, there comes a point where a woman realizes that she does not have a penis; she lacks it. This impacts her development and she spends the rest of her life in search of a penis which she can only (kind of) obtain through bearing sons. In this theory, what is at the center is the penis and its significance. Even when it's missing, it's still the thing that is important. The vagina is not defined by its own characteristics but only by its existence of "not-penis-ness." This is what concerns Mormon feminists about priesthood only being conferred to male members of the church. It sets up cultural practices which establishes a hierarchy and inequality among sexes; and then a language or discourse is created to explain why that inequality exists. The language not only marginalizes females and female ways of knowing, but it also makes a certain arrangement of power look natural--as if that's the only way things can or ought to be.

I do try to be a scholar folks. I like to think all this book learning is actually applicable.

And here's my point. Stepping away from issues regarding priesthood authority, I believe phallogocentrism has severely limited our definitions and understandings of the biological, cultural, and historical meanings and possibilities of vaginas. This is the case inside and outside of the LDS Church. This has in turn impacted--and at times (like in the case of rape) warped--our ideas of female sex, sex acts, sexuality, sexual desire and gender (if anyone is interested, I would be willing to parse through the definitions). But I also believe that phallogocentrism, as much as it has privileged the male has also limited our definitions and understanding of the multiple meanings of male genitalia, sexuality, and sexual identity. It is only after the penis or phallus is decentralized, removed from its position of meaning making, that we can begin to approach a richer comprehension of the meaning it and male sexuality can create. And that it can be done in a way akin to Ensler's sentiment rather than tacky or chauvinistic phallic worship. Furthermore, it is actually my hope and prayer that my faith tradition can be a source of rich insights to light the path to a more excellent way. And since I'm a heterosexual feminist, I hope for one for me which is neither patriarchal nor asexual.

III. To Be Continued

I have begun to see that this entry is running a bit longer than I anticipated, I am going to wrap up here with some indications of where the next part of this exploration will go. I am concerned about the discourse within the LDS Church culture which defines male sexuality as uncontrollable and untrustworthy. I realize that this has been interrogated in other places and in a much better way than I will possibly do. I intend to wrestle it in the future; however, I do so to reach a point that is more important to me.

While I am occasionally disappointed in the role the institutional LDS Church plays in perpetuating discourses that I find either unhelpful or harmful in regards to male sexuality, I no longer believe that it is the sole responsibility of Institutional Mormonism to "correct its actions." At the very least, I must strive for humility and must admit that I do not know the direction the Church should take in things. But more importantly, I desire to be an agent that acts rather than object which is acted upon. This principle includes my relationship to my sexuality and my Church. I am responsible for struggling to receive the revelation that might tell me how I might negotiate, define, and understand my Mormon Male sexuality. We are in charge of gathering and voicing our memories, rants, and prayers. So it is my hope that when I pick this topic up again next time, that will happen. Any comments you may provide here to help shape that exploration would be greatly appreciated. I've already been reading and listening to a lot to inform my thoughts and certainly would be open to more. What has been your experience with male sexuality, in general or in the LDS church? If you believe that Mormonism impacts male sexuality, in what ways do you think that happens? What are your feelings or opinions regarding those observations.

Until next time . . . you know . . . when I bring sexy back and stuff.