Most families (and most individuals) lug a couple of proverbial storage trunks around with them. Into these, we pack the unpleasantries. The first trunk hides away the things we hope go unnoticed, often facts about our history we’d rather no one realize or things we’d like to forget. In the second trunk, we store our unexamined behavior and ignorance because out of sight and out of mind seem to belong together. We don’t reach into the first often, but we reach into the other too often. It shouldn’t surprise us that Mormonism also hauls around the same two trunks; after all, Mormonism is a collection of human beings, each linked as family in the way of strong cultures. The existence of these two storage trunks in Mormonism doesn’t diminish the many wonderful things each openly displays, like our love for God and one another. Yet, we can’t fully know ourselves unless we examine the things we’d prefer not to look at, nor can we grow fully.
In Mormonism, that second trunk—the one that stores our unexamined behavior and/or ignorance—has my mind today because it was recently (and publicly) opened. You’ve heard the story. A stake president reached into this trunk and pulled out two common, but rarely-recognized Mormon views he’s been storing—rape culture and might-makes-right thinking. He overstepped when he denied temple recommends to a married couple after each rejected his directive that she cover completely while breastfeeding in common areas of church buildings, explaining that her nursing risked inflaming sexual desire in the congregation’s males. Abuse of authority: Check. Rape culture: Check.
But when the story became public, I caught sight of a third problematic perspective, wedged right there between abuse of authority and rape culture. I saw polygamy culture.
Because the term is relatively new, I offer a definition. Polygamy culture is rooted in the expectation that, for the purpose of promoting salvation, a male priesthood holder possesses the God-given right (or authority) to manage, direct, control, and define a woman’s sexuality, especially in ways that aren’t specific to that particular woman but that are generalized in begging-the-question-style for all women.
Under that definition, polygamy culture is clearly discernible in the recent controversy. It’s evident in the way this stake president views his calling as divine authority to define for a woman when her breasts are or are not sexual, as well as the way he punitively removes her access to the proxy salvational rites of the temple, all for her own spiritual welfare.
But as the story went viral, I noticed that many LDS women were supporting the rape culture thinking of the stake president, rather than decrying it, and, even more strangely, supporting his punishment of the couple even while admitting he had overreached. This looks like codependency and leaves me wondering in what ways women enable polygamy culture and why.
I began to reflect on the regularity with which I have encountered women who argue that a woman must dress a certain way to protect men from sexual thoughts. I thought about my own history of supporting that thinking. I thought about how women police the sexuality of teenage girls at camp or other church activities, and how I’ve done it as a Young Women’s president. I thought about how women will judge one another poorly when an LDS woman spends too much time in her work-out clothes or wears the wrong sort of bathing suit. This I have done as well. Is this also part of polygamy culture?
In an era when rape culture is clearly defined and rejected by most in contemporary society, why are so many LDS women still holding to it? You’d think, in a religion that values choice and accountability, Mormon women would recognize that men have both choice and accountability regarding their sexual impulses and that women are not, as Dallin Oaks suggested from the General Conference pulpit in May of 2005, magnifying problems for men by becoming “walking pornography.” Yet, we haven’t turned that corner.
Keep that thought in mind and let me take you now to Mormon Trauma Mama, a group which includes mental health professionals who are dedicated to helping sexual abuse victims heal. Danna Hartline, who is currently completing a Master’s degree in Pastoral Counseling from California Southern University, explains this about a heritage of dysfunction:
When we are talking about trauma, we are talking about families. No man is an island. When you hit a mother, you hit a family. And this is often generational. If we are honest and are careful to not canonize our Church heritage and the people in it, we have to face the fact that there is lots of trauma in our church history—nearly right from the onset—particularly with women and minorities. And studies show that children connect vicariously with the pain and suffering of their parents. And perhaps this is more prevalent than we realize—symptoms of depression, anxiety, grief, for example, are carried down generationally.
It’s fair to say that the historical record affirms that the early Mormon practice of polygamy was traumatic, especially for women. Love ceased to be the reason for marriage. When an increase in procreation was offered as the motive for polygamy, the value of a woman in marriage was primarily reduced to intercourse. Put those two together and you find unloved women valued for sexual compliance.
That’s traumatic enough. But add to that the perilous sense that your husband may, on any day, announce he is marrying another woman, or, if I’m completely frank, announce he has been assigned to marry another woman. If you were a woman in love, this would be emotionally crippling. If you were a woman unloved, it’s reasonable that you’d feel every inch of your insecure position amplified. No matter how faithful or how devoted to the cause of Mormonism a pioneer woman was, the lived experience of polygamy had to be incredibly distressful and painful. The question now is, are contemporary women still experiencing generational trauma because of Mormon historic polygamy?
This may put some readers in mind of “the mother wound,” which is commonly defined as the pain passed down to a daughter by an unloving mother, pain that is rooted in the experience of life in a patriarchal society. The wounds often manifest as things like a lack of trust and/or confidence, the inability to establish boundaries, avoidance behaviors, and an absence of self-awareness.
I see these as common traits in many LDS women, particularly the boundary and trust issues. After all, when women police the wardrobes of other females, they demonstrate an inability to respect boundaries. When they suggest a girl’s navel or shoulder might tempt a male to sinful thought, they demonstrate a lack of trust in both genders and seem to signify their lack of confidence in their own abilities to keep male sexual attachment in its proper place.
Surely unloving Mormon mothers exist, both now and in the past, but the mother wound focuses on the pain passed down from a specific mother to a specific daughter. In Mormonism, the wound of polygamy is passed down to new generations of women through the veneration of the Mormon pioneer, including to those daughters who do not have a direct line back to the practice of polygamy. Mormon women don’t simply crave the love of our mothers: we work to control our faith-sisters under the direction of men and for their benefit. This, too, is a definitional aspect of polygamy culture.
LDS polygamy most certainly traumatized the earliest generations of Mormon women, even if they escaped the “call” to a polygamous marriage or were not born into one. But the patriarchal system maintained in Mormonism is established on the assertion that priesthood holders possess a God-given authority to manage, direct, control and define a woman’s sexuality in salvational ways. As a result, our system has institutionalized rape culture and then charged women in both families and the Young Women and Relief Society organizations to enact it in the guise of maintaining “standards.”
This is how Mormon women show obedience to God—by enabling their own misuse. It is astonishing that women comply, unless one considers the wounds passed down through polygamy. It’s passed time for a careful and thorough unpacking of the unexamined behaviors and ignorance that is polygamy culture. Only a thorough airing will help heal the wounds historic polygamy has inflicted on Mormon women and help us and our daughters grow forward in healthy ways.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Corinthians 13:12
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