This post continues ideas discussed in three earlier posts: Ripe Peaches and Peach Schnapps, Venus Pandemos, and Male Mormon Feminists-–it's Part II of MMF, actually. For background information on all these topics, see Mormon Links.
When the panelists had finished and the session was opened to questions, I was (I think) the first one out of my seat. I thanked the guys for their comments, complimented them on having the courage and the conviction to declare themselves feminists, and said something like this--or rather, this is a more coherent version of what I wish I'd said:
"I've spent most of my adult life in academia in the humanities, which is someplace where almost everyone, male and female, is a feminist. In a graduate program in English or film studies or philosophy or the likes, it's hard to find a man who doesn't call himself a feminist--probably partly because he knows if he doesn't espouse it, chances are good he won't get laid very often. But despite these guys' declarations that they're feminists, they often treat the women they're involved with very badly."
I have dated enough myself and watched enough episodes of Sex and the City that I feel safe asserting that in conventions of heterosexual courtship, seduction and dating, men still retain most of the power of acting and choosing, while women have the role of waiting, and accepting or refusing. It is generally the man who is supposed to say, after a date or after sex, "I'll call you," and it is the man who is generally supposed to call. Certainly, there are women who are take the initiative in sexual matters. But there was only one Samantha to the other three more traditional, passive women in the cast of S&tC--it is not only Mormon women who are trained to be objects rather than subjects.
Of course there are women who treat the men they date very, very badly. But that does not change the basic facts of how power is generally understood and distributed in our society when it comes to courtship and sex.
There are plenty of men in the world who know it is wrong to disempower women politically and economically, but have little compunction about deceiving and demeaning women when it comes to dating and sex. Their reason for doing so is, according to Greg Behrendt, author of He's Just Not That Into You, that most men are willing to sleep with women they don't really like, but not so willing to call them afterwards.
OK, OK, that's a fairly harsh summary. But I did read the book, and Behrendt does provide a fairly long list of really bad behavior that men engage in and women put up with, because... because they hope the guy will change? Because they hope the mixed messages aren't really so mixed? Behrendt's mantra is, "Don't waste the pretty," or don't expect a guy who treats you badly to stop treating you badly, because even if he's the nicest guy in the world, he won't stop--until he meets the right woman. (And supposedly that causes a huge improvement in his character and behavior.)
Well, maybe. Maybe that's true. But if it's true, it's one of the issues feminism needs to confront. Because if a guy finds it OK to treat women with contempt, discourtesy and unkindness in the most personal of relationships, does he really respect women and have an understanding of their lives?
And as I considered issues like these in that session on male Mormon feminists, it occurred to me that perhaps the average Mormon guy, who was probably much less promiscuous than most of his non-LDS counterparts, who might have been (technically, at least) a virgin when he married a woman who was also a virgin, and who might even be extremely faithful to his wife, might also treat her better than the average 20- or 30-something single guy who served as Greg Behrendt's examples of the guys whom smart, pretty women should kick to the curb.
So I tried to say that, or something to the effect that, "It occurs to me that one way in which Mormon women--at least, the ones lucky enough to be married to decent guys with feminist sensibilities--might be treated better than their secular counterparts is when it comes to courtship and sex. I just started thinking about this, and I don't know if it's true. But I want to think about it some more. And I want to ask all of you about it. John is the only one who mentioned sex, but sex and reproduction are pretty fundamental to feminism. So what about sex? How do you reconcile your ideas of being a male Mormon feminist with how you think women should be treated when it comes to sex?"
And then I sat down, and everyone stared at me, and the room was very silent.
The guys on the panel looked at each other. It was becoming obvious to me that I had not phrased my question very well, since no one knew what to do with it. Finally one man took the microphone, and from his answer it was clear that he had interpreted my question to mean, "Do you as a feminist like sex with women?" And while I was glad to know that he did, it wasn't really what I had asked.
It also became clear to me after the panel that I'd phrased the question badly, since throughout the next few days, people approached me and asked me for clarification. But it also became clear to me that a lot of people just didn't get the issue to begin with. One guy asked me what I could have possibly meant, and I said, "Well, it kind of changes how seriously you take a guy as a feminist if he date-rapes you, or bites your nipples until they bleed and won't stop even when you're screaming in pain and begging him to quit, or stops you in the middle of sex and says, ‘I don't really like it when a woman gets that worked up.'" (And yes, all those things happened to me--the last one more than once, in slight variations. I know other women who have heard something similar as well. By no means did the majority of men I slept with express such a sentiment, but still, it's remarkable how many men prefer passive sex partners.)
And the guy said, "Huh. I can see how that would be true, but I never thought of feminism as anything other than a political movement."
And then a bunch of us stood around after the session and had a long argument about feminism, loyalty to the church, and whose family was most terrifyingly conservative, which I have written about in two posts--click here for Part I and here for Part II.