I think a lot about sex—-although maybe not in the way that some people do. In particular, I think a lot about why people like and don’t like to have sex, what ignites desire and what suffocates it. As a therapist, I meet with people almost daily who are trying to figure out why they don’t like to have sex, why their spouse doesn’t like to have sex, or why their spouse does like to have it. It is an elusive question sometimes as well as a painful one for many couples.
My dissertation research focused on the question of Mormon women’s sexual agency. That is, Mormon women’s capacity to be actors in the sexual realm—to act on their own behalf in a context of sexual conservatism and patriarchy. While some LDS women thrived (a subject I take up here [link to interview]), most of the women in my research were undermined in their relationship to their own sexuality as they had internalized a message that eroticism and desire are unfeminine and risky to their desirability—a trait essential to femininity. According to radical feminism (a primary framework in my research) patriarchies oppress women through gender role ideology; notions of proper female comportment undermine women’s relationship to their sexuality and to themselves. For example, in patriarchy, men are constructed as naturally dominant, assertive, strong and inherently sexual, while women are constructed as nurturing, selfless, deferential and virtuous. That is to say, women are taught that they are naturally less sexual than men—inherently lacking hedonistic desire, and even morally superior to the supposed depravity of male sexuality. While superficially approving of women’s nature, this cultural prescription leaves women little room to legitimately experience, express or integrate their own eroticism. To be feminine is to suppress or disconnect from sexual desire, or feel ashamed of its presence.
This theorized suppression of sexual desire and knowledge aligned with the experiences of most LDS women in my research. It also fits with much of my LDS clientele. In my experience, many if not most LDS women struggle pre-maritally and in marriage to integrate a sense of legitimate sexuality and desire. Many women are naïve about their own capacity for pleasure and allow themselves little room to explore and take ownership of this part of themselves, even when husbands are encouraging and openly long for more sexual connection. This sexual immaturity can, of course, cause deep frustration with a higher desire marital partner; but a bigger problem, in my mind, is that it represents a fractured relationship with oneself, an unwillingness to be in a mature relationship with one’s own body, one’s own sexuality, and an important source of strength.
While many LDS women struggle to claim and integrate their sexuality because of the cultural invalidation of female eroticism, other LDS women know their capacity for pleasure and may even know what they long for sexually, but nonetheless lack desire for their spouse. What I want to write about is the issue of women’s selfhood (also deeply affected by patriarchy) as an additional factor in sexual desire. According to author and clinician Dr. David Schnarch, selfhood is a stronger determinant in sexual desire than biological drive, for men and women. In Schnarch’s thinking, it doesn’t matter how much physical desire we feel, if we believe the act of wanting another person or having sex with them will diminish us in some way, we won’t let ourselves want. Or conversely, if we believe having sex or wanting will add to our sense of self, we will desire. For example, it is easy to desire when we are dating, because in addition to the libido-increasing factors of novelty and uncertainty inherent to an early relationship, we also perceive that merger with the other will add to our sense of self. The validation of our beloved’s reciprocated desire makes us feel more whole, more significant—so we want. In marriage, however, sexual merger with a higher desire spouse can quickly make us feel like we are losing ourselves through having sex—like one is capitulating to the desires and expectations of the other, folding into their reality and affirming them at our own expense. It isn’t exciting.
A man is no more willing to lose himself in chronic accommodation of his wife’s sexual desire than a woman is to a man. This is why some men prefer objectified forms of sex (e.g. pornography) over sexual intimacy with their spouse—there is less vulnerability, less perceived loss of self. That said, LDS women in a context of patriarchy and robust gender role ideology in my experience are more likely to feel like the partner with less power in the marriage. Many Mormon women have not only less economic and social power relative to their husbands (who function as providers and leaders), they are also more likely to feel pressured to forsake their desires to comply with what others want from them. This is part of women’s prescribed goodness in church-cultural thinking, her “inherent” feminine selflessness. As Elder Richard G. Scott said in reference to the many sacrifices that wives and mothers make for their husbands and children, “you do all of these things willingly because you are a woman.” (“The Joy of Living the Great Plan of Happiness, General Conference, October 1996). While this accommodating role may give women status for being what is expected and may offer some security through pleasing those around them, women cannot earn through systematic deference to the desires of others a robust sense of self. Deferring to others’ wishes in order to fend off criticism or scrutiny is not an act of generosity or strength. It is instead a reflection of one’s inability to validate her own legitimacy, and it breeds resentment and stabilizes immaturity in marriage, at a minimum.
Plenty of women in this position have sex with their higher desire spouse. They are dutiful and accommodate, but they are not passionate. It is very difficult to make love to, open your heart up to, or desire, someone whom you believe is above you or stronger than you, or that you perceive takes from you because you are unwilling to challenge them. Feeling like one exists for someone else’s pleasure seldom inspires women to explore or discover their own eroticism and desire. It is too costly. If I come to discover (or expose) this part of myself, will I then be more obligated to you sexually? Will I be even more possessed by you because now I no longer have the excuse of a nonexistent sex drive to fend you off? And if I reveal this part of myself, doesn’t it just validate you as the stronger, more able one—the one who always knew I was sexually immature or repressed? Many women in the face of these questions would rather hold a sense of self by stripping themselves and the relationship of their sexuality—a very costly act of defiance to the loss of self that patriarchy demands.
As much as many marriages have modernized in the church and function in more egalitarian ways relative to a generation ago, I am still struck by how much the dynamic of inequality persists in many LDS marriages. While immaturity in marriage and the challenges to selfhood that marriage evokes are not problems specific to Mormons, the institutionalized support for glorified under-functioning in women is indeed a Mormon cultural problem. We need to stop acting like real strength in women undermines marriages and mothering. We need to stop embracing impotence in women as a kind of goodness, much in the way that we regard children as good—innocent, powerless, and harmless. We strip women of their strength and autonomy in the gender narrative and then ask men to take care of them. This may create an ethic of dependency and deference in women, and therefore potentially less overt conflict in marriages. However it does not, in my experience, create strong people, strong families, or passionate, stable marriages.
Want to hear more Jennifer? Of course you do:
Dr. Fife is offering for Valentines Day a special on her Relationship and Sexuality Course Recordings for LDS Couples at a 20% discount until February 15th. See her link for details: Dr. Fife’s Blog