Monkeys and Gods: Male Objectification in Mormon History

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50 Shades of Gray
has no want of customers in Utah.  The insanely popular Twilight series, written by a Mormon housewife, is perhaps one of the raciest novels of our time in which the romantic leads keep it all on until wedding night.  Thirty-something Mormon moms apparently have a Thing going.

Warnings about lust and lust-inspiring acts are hardly unique to the Mormon experience.  In New Testament times, Paul told newly-converted Christian women to veil their hair to avoid appearing like prostitutes.  Martin Luther was not at a loss of words about the evils of seductive women. But it begs the question: why would a woman seduce a man at all? For kicks? For power? Money? Perhaps, yes, and certainly.  But there’s yet another reason, one that eludes modern discussions.  It’s not revolutionary, strange, or a-scriptural.  It’s arguably one of the oldest impulses in mankind’s sordid history: simple, unadorned lust…

Wait, what? Isn’t there some kind of bubble around Mormon women protecting them from such things?  Based on the experiences of some Mormon women, you would think so.  But it was not ever thus.  Whatever benefits men and women have reaped from notions of benevolent patriarchy, it has also given rise to a giant cataract on the eye of the Mormon people.   Chastity talks often boil down to “Sorry-The-Men-Are-Horny” talks, overlooking the probability that Mormon women must grapple with these feelings as well. Occasionally, a brave sister from LDS addiction recovery services might dare to give some BYU students a presentation on 50 Shades of Gray or Twilight.  The response, as one unfortunate BYU student told me, is a mixture of “gratitude,” “earnest wide-eyes and nodding heads,” and a general feeling of disturbed bewilderment.  A few tried to “hide their discomfort and act like it was totally normally and good for us to have such an unusually explicit lesson on topics we (at least as women) never hear directed towards us otherwise” (Conversation with BYU student, July 12, 2013).   For the past half-century, Mormon women have generally managed to dodge such talk, as singles’ wards bishops typically prefer to save their ammunition for those dirty men in their ward. It’s tempting to wonder at why we would tell this story through the Mormon lens; after all, wasn’t this happening everywhere in America? Indeed, it was.

And that is the point.

My Affectionate Emma

The origins of Mormon female-on-male lust are not immediate apparent.  In nineteenth-century America, Victorian morality precluded most public discussions of intimate affairs, certainly of the female libido.  Studies of nineteenth-century women’s attitudes towards intimacy indicate that women sought it primarily as a means of child-bearing, even if they found it enjoyable in other ways (Intimate Matters, 80). Respectable women were almost expected to be a little cool at first; Dr. Pierre Garnier advised men not to expect much: good women “taste the surplus voluptuous feelings more in her heart and soul.” Intimacy for women, Garnier said “much more moral than physical.” Yet in 1879, a pregnant Mabel Todd recorded the exhilaration of an evening with her husband, culminating in “a thrilling sort of breathlessness…the same beautiful climax of feeling I knew so well” (Intimate Matters, 79).

Unlike the Shakers, Mormons never saw healthy physical attraction as related to  the New Tesatment’s or the Doctrine and Covenants’ condemnation of lustful thoughts.  For Victorian women, engaging in such talk indicated that one was not fit for respectable society. Emma Smith had been raised as a respectable daughter of a country gentleman; public expression of sexual attraction would have been a public embarrassment difficult to recover from.  But visitors to the area agreed that she conveyed a powerful presence.  The aggressiveness and passion with which she handled the Relief Society hints at the passion with which she approached all aspects of her life.  Yet even in the midst of plural marriage scandals, Joseph continued to refer to her as “My affectionate Emma” (Joseph Smith, Letter to Emma Smith, November 12, 1838)

Untimely Associations

Several Mormon women  enjoyed a strong libido; they simply saw it as a means to increase their childbearing capacities. John Taylor’s sister, Agnes Taylor, was the second wife for John Benbow, leader of the United Brethren whose entire congregation joined the Saints en masse in 1841.  Having fallen ill, he turned impotent. “On acct  of weakness,” he admitted, “I could not give her satisfaction.”   Agnes refused to live with him “unless she co[uld] [h]av[e] children.” She filed for a divorce and for financial resources from a Church court.    After losing substantially during the first hearing, Benbow appealed to Brigham Young for redress.  Young sympathized with Agnes: “She naturally is a healthy woman that she wd. not be as happy without children.”  For a woman to live in “such a situation of impotency,” Young claimed, was “death to her.” He admitted that he “could not live 3 weeks in such a sit[uation].”  Apostle Erastus Snow cracked half-jokingly that Agnes’s reasoning made him “very much afraid of the ague on acct. of my wife.” (Meeting Minutes, January 27, 1849)

Child-bearing appears to have dominated women’s interests in sexuality for most of the Utah years.  In 1854, Parley P. Pratt’s second wife, Belinda, wrote that “indulgence should not be merely for pleasure, or wanton desires, but mainly for the purpose of procreation.”  While pregnant, the woman’s “heart should be pure, her thoughts and affections chaste, her mind calm, her passions without excitement.”  Intercourse during pregnancy was an “untimely association…forbidden in the great constitutional laws of female nature.”  As recipients–not initiators–Mormon women were to submit to their husbands.  Propriety dictated that they not openly discuss how much they enjoyed it (Belinda Pratt, Defence of Polygamy, 4, 8).

As Mormons became increasingly Americanized, national influences affect young women’s views on sexuality.  Dance halls sprouted up, and waltzing became the new fad.  The close bodily contact of the dance sexually charged the dance floor in ways that square dances and reels never had.  Yet women remained aloof.  When Alice Dinwoody attended a party in 1883, she waited in vain for Charles Whitney to approach her.  Whitney went home frustrated, since Alice “didn’t speak to him.”  But Alice was playing coy; the following day, she asked Charles why he hadn’t approached her (Godfrey, “Charles S. Whitney’s Diary,” 236).

I Detest Homely Men

By the turn of the century, Mormon women had begun to speak, talk, and read like the rest of the country on matters of male attractiveness. The Victorian consensus of womanhood was beginning to fall apart, and technology gave at-home women time for other endeavors. Now able to enter the workforce and acquire wealth of their own, it put them in a position to exercise more personal preference about their personal tastes in men, tastes often manifested in their physical preferences.    Newly-empowered, women were able to express their aesthetic choices more freely–a discourse that made its into the Utah press.

Humor columns turned the male body into an object of ridicule.  One told of a “man in the grey suit” who complained to a woman about a “howling brat” of a son. She responded swiftly with an attack on his appearance:  “If I’m any judge, it doesn’t howl half as much as you did at its age, going by the looks of you.”  While the man “wriggled uneasily,” the woman dug in: “Baby, see the ugly man?…see the monkey-ponkey, gorilla man, what might take a first prize at a beauty show for the horriblest face?” Embarrassed, the man “bolted” (Davis County Clipper, October 8, 1909).  The “gorilla” comparison up again when a young girl told an “ugly man” in shock: “I seen you at the zoo yesterday without your clothes on!” (Davis County Clipper, May 27, 1927; Murray Eagle, May 26, 1927; Millard County Progress, May 27, 1927). The Wasatch Wave expressed wonder at the “curious tastes” of a Polish princess who ran away with a man who had a “crooked nose, red hair, and dresses wretchedly”(Wasatch Wave, August 1, 1902). Women openly pitied–or ridiculed–the “bow legged little man with the faded eyes” who ogled women as they walked by.  “The queen of Sheba,” a columnist sneered, “could step down off her throne and tell the fat little man that she was dying of love for him. And he wouldn’t be a bit surprised…He’d just sparkle his tired eyes and twist his faded mustache and look as much like a conquering hero as he could” (Salt Lake Telegram, September 24, 1913).  One story told of a “Mr. Plain” tells a beautiful woman that her beau is a “strikingly handsome man.”  The woman thoughtlessly responds that she’s “glad he is” since she “simply detest[s] homely men” (Marysvale Free Lance, June 5, 1903).

Francis Bushman, Salt Lake Telegram, June 13, 1915

Francis Bushman, Salt Lake Telegram, June 13, 1915

Male beauty also came to define public discourse. In 1894, George Q. Cannon portrayed Joseph Smith’s body as a “fitting habitation for an exalted spirit.” His head was “crowned with a mass of soft wavy hair.” The “full strength and beauty of his countenance impressed all beholders at a glance.” His mouth, continued Cannon, “was one of mingled power and sweetness.” Strangers “knew him the moment their eyes beheld his person” (Cannon, The Life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, xxvi-xxvii).  Athletes such as George Hackendschmidt were widely publicized as a man “whose figure compares favorably with that of any existing Greek statuary” (Intermountain Republican, December 27, 1908).  Actor Francis Xavier Bushman was publicized cinema’s “handsomemest man” and “one of the few men in moving pictures who can wear fine clothes without seeming to be conscious of the distinction the garb implies” (Salt Lake Telegram, June 13, 1915).

Utah residents became increasingly self-aware of how male beauty affected their personal relationships. The Box Elder News poked fun at handsome men: “No matter how much he is admired, he isn’t allowed to interfere with practical enterprises,” a jab that drew on the burgeoning preservationist movement (Box Elder News, March 17, 1916).  Logan Mormons read of an American woman who found a husband while touring Berlin: “How fine looking he is!” she told her friend.  “I wouldn’t mind being married to a German if I could get such a handsome one.”  The man overheard their conversation, and they married soon after (Logan Republican, July 25, 1906).  Another Utah woman, feeling herself homely, admitted that she “couldn’t feel sure of keeping a handsome man” (Salt Lake Telegram, August 3, 1907).  It became widely-recognized that male beauty won the handsome man “admiring glances and pleased smiles.”  Many women “consider[ed] only the shapeliness of his hands, the color of his hair, and the ‘lovely voice’ as he warbles ‘soul stirring’ sentimental compositions.” The Deseret News urged female readers to marry an “ugly man,” for then she could “be certain that her love is not a mere fancy of the moment rising out of her admiration for a well cut nose and chiseled mouth” (Deseret News, April 27, 1910).  

Both men and women began to see objectification as a non-gender specific activity. In “Confessions of a Wife,” an anonymous columnist admitted that  “no matter how high you set your ideals, there is always a hankering for the physical…we are yet only maladjusted animals.”  Men were even less aware of this impulse than women: “”Men, most men, hardly recognize it in themselves, and they would think they had committed the unpardonable sin against the ancient order of chivalry if they talked of it when the name of woman was mentioned.”  The author took care to contrast the womanly drive with those “very beautiful, sympathetic relationship[s] in which there is not a hint of sexual attraction” (Salt Lake Telegram, February 15, 1917). According to syndicated psychologist and Freudian, Dr. George Dorsey, opening the field had created a “world of sexually unadjusted: unmarried, divorces, oft-marrieds, courteseans, prostitutes, homosexuals, loveless marriagess [and] childless marriages.”  “Both men and women,” he argued “can become such habitual flirts that they are abnormal; they are sex perverts.”  Women left unfulfilled had become “not immoral but amoral.” Her once vibrant sex drive had “turned into love for adventure, clothes, theater, attention, distinction, freedom.  And some discover that the only means they have to realize these acquired appetites is their sex.” With increased employment opportunities, women would no longer be bound by such strictures. “Until recently, women had almost no incentive to attempt achievement in male fields. Why should she when for every woman there was a purchaser; for some, many bidders” (Duchesne County News May 5, 1930). His columns found considerable ink in the Utah press.

Salt Lake Telegram, October 17, 1926

Salt Lake Telegram, October 17, 1926

By the 1920s, the role of physical attraction and the allure of male beauty had become the standard in Utah.  In addition to increased earning power, women now had the vote and showed no hesitation about publicly assessing a man’s masculine fitness, and they could read commentary on it regularly. A Mormon fraternity sponsored a male beauty contest in 1929 (Salt Lake Telegram, February 27, 1979). Actress Mary Boland rattled off her list of preferred traits to the Public Ledger: “Clean-cut features, very clear blue eyes, medium height, and rather stockier than the average Englishman, very good teeth.” Producer Rosalie Stewart felt dark-haired men “are more interesting and sympathetic.”  But red-headed men? “Too bizarre to be popular” (reprinted in Salt Lake Telegram, October 17, 1926).

Novelist Joseph Hergesheimer summed up the crisis of manhood.  The world had once been a “masculine one, founded on the assumption that men were superior in strength and in mental equipment to men.”  Women “no longer regard men as gods, nor is marriage their one and ultimate goal….If a husband is going to hold his wife, he must be an amusing companion, an intelligent and understanding friend and a satisfactory lover.”  Men were “losing their virility and physical attractiveness as well. They have become too weak to hold her” (Salt Lake Telegram, May 26, 1929). With the end of Mormon polygamy, the older generation would have felt the sting of Hergesheimer’s words a little more strongly than most.

By the 1930s, the Great Depression would further strip men of any lingering hope they had to hold onto women by virtue of their economic resources.  Caroline Bird has pointed out how the Great Depression furthered the process of inverting the gendered hierarchy, leaving women as the primary breadwinners while unemployed men struggled to hold onto their sense of masculinity (Caroline Bird, Invisible Scar).  World War II furthered Mormon women’s opportunities to serve as family breadwinners as their husbands were sent off to war.  Mormon men continued to objectify the female population, as they had for some time; when they returned from war, women returned home and started  to create a new feminine identity for themselves and the Mormon people.  As women were sent back to the home, so began the entrenched pattern of silence about women’s sexual preferences that has lasted for nearly three generations.

But the game had changed.  Where women had little choice but to take the choices of stability and perhaps fertility, financial independence enabled them to exercise some choice in their courtship decisions.   Though silenced, the desire for choice and satisfaction has endured.

And that story must wait for another time.

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