Women, Desire, and the Hidden Discourse

Recently a fine pair of essays on Mormon women's sexuality has made an autumn progress through the LDS blog world.  Both make the argument that LDS discourse on women and sex is impoverished, either because it is merely absent or because it affixes a male model of sexuality to female experience. Either way, it is suggested, women and girls are unlikely to identify with or benefit from church teachings about sexual sin.

I don't disagree with these points as they stand, and neither do I necessarily object to the proposed fixes: to talk more and more directly to women about their sexual experience in church settings, on the one hand, or on the other to emphasize positive themes of female empowerment.  I would welcome, I think, well-done fifth-Sunday Relief Society lessons on women and sexual temptation, though I can also imagine it, cringingly, going very wrong. And girl-power messages in Young Women probably do no harm, though I'm not convinced that they do a lot of good. Ultimately I think that each of these approaches, well-intentioned and benign as they are, represents a bit of a red herring.

In the first place, I'm not persuaded that we aren't talking to women about female desire and sin -- in fact I would argue that we have a rather robust discourse on women's sexuality, but we simply don't recognize it as such. It's concealed in part by a conflation of lust with libido, as if libido were the single species of desire.  Here's the obligatory qualification: women do, of course, experience positive, subject-centered physical desire, what we generally think of as libido, and they can experience it very strongly. But libido does not exhaust the ecology of female desire; it ebbs, rarefies, and morphs in entirely viable, which is to say healthful and normal, ways.

So Kathryn Soper makes a crucial point when she suggests that we must acknowledge the psychological inflection of women's sexual experience, and I'm pleased that her piece has been read so widely. And she may also be right that some women's sexuality takes the form of a manipulative drive for power and status within her social environment.  But I think that's only part of the story of female desire, and indeed it may be only a small part.  Those of us who, for example, are not the bombshell in the room, which is to say most of us, find that our powers of attraction fall somewhat short of the steering wheel.

I would suggest that another psychological mode of female sexuality is, to put it inelegantly, the desire to be desired by another person. If the sexual drive for power and status is understood as a surfeit of the self or the ego, then what I'm describing can be seen as its flip side, a penury of the self-as-subject.  This kind of desire seeks not to contemplate or possess an objectified other, but rather to be contemplated as the object of desire itself.  It's a kind of self-objectification, if you'll pardon the unlovely theory-speak.

What I'm suggesting is, I hope, more subtle than the familiar claims that female desire is more discursive, or emotional, or whatever. And it certainly is not a claim that women are naturally less carnal-minded than men. Make no mistake, subject-poor female desire is desire all the same, sometimes overwhelming and destructive, and to seek its gratification improperly is to sin. I would go so far as to argue that self-objectifying desire is inferior to subject-centered libido, because it disorders the soul in relation to God and community in ways that libido does not.

All this is to say that it is a mistake to look for female lust only at the scene of flagrante delicto. Women also express themselves sexually in what they say, what they wear, and how they behave. (Emphatically, however, and obviously, one hopes, this does not mean that a women seeks sexual attention from all lookers; no, the short skirt does not mean she was asking for it from you.) And all that is to finally bring me to my point: when we talk about modesty, as we do with some regularity, we are talking about female sexuality -- even if we don't realize it.

Allow me to restate: when we talk about modesty we could be talking about female sexuality, if we enjoyed a more expansive and representative discourse of modesty -- if, for example, we emphasized modesty in speech and manner as well as modesty in dress; if we recognized that modesty is a deeply relevant issue even for endowed women wearing the garment; and if, above all, we realized that the primary bourn of modesty for women is the cultivation and protection of an ordered, subject-centered female sexuality, not the bridling of the male libido.  This kind of modesty discourse would allow us to talk forthrightly about both a healthy female sexuality and about the consequences of women's sexual temptation and sin for our own spiritual welfare, topics that are distorted or effaced by our current lexicon of ideas. 

We're already talking about female sexuality, a lot, but we don't recognize it.  We don't need to do it more; we need to do it better.