Like many progressive Mormons, I’ve enjoyed Robert Kirby’s self-deprecating humor ever since a friend introduced me to his column. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a hero, he was certainly someone whose writing I admired. When he published a bizarre defense of the men who manhandled Denson, I was confused. What was the point of that piece? Unlike his usual stuff, it wasn’t funny, and it’s also not like those men were in need of defending.
But I was willing to chalk it up to an area where Kirby and I simply disagreed, until Courtney Kendrick (better known as CJane) shared her account of Kirby’s misconduct when he met her at the Sunstone Conference. Subsequently, the Salt Lake Tribune placed him on an unpaid suspension. In a nutshell, here’s what happened when they met: Kirby immediately suggested she pretend to be an escort he had hired, rather than treating her like a colleague. After encouraging her to take an edible because he thought she seemed nervous, he then publicly told many people that she was “high” and that it was because he had given her an edible, without asking whether it was okay to share.
I don’t want to get into the question of whether Kendrick should have walked away, told him “no,” etc. Not having been in her shoes, I can’t make that judgment call. And honestly, even if we disagree on that point, we can still agree about a much more important matter: Kirby’s behavior was sexist and completely inappropriate in that setting.
And while Kirby eventually apologized, here’s how Kendrick describes that development:
“1st he responded sarcastically (I’m SO ashamed) then he directed his followers to go to my post as a joke, & then he “apologized.” We have all the screen grabs.”
Even the apology itself slipped in the suggestion that she just didn’t get his sense of humor.
While it’s not something I’ve personally encountered often, it’s basically an open secret that progressive Mormon men frequently make inappropriate sexual comments to progressive Mormon women. Mormon feminist groups sometimes come up with stringent rules in reaction to all the crap they’ve encountered – from basic mansplaining to unsolicited comments on women’s bodies, to pressuring a spouse into an open relationship or threesome that they’re not actually okay with.
I have a theory on why this kind of behavior is so common in progressive Mormon men, and it all goes back to an earlier post, which questioned whether Mormon men truly understood consent. My worry, as expressed in that post, is that Mormon men are learning a list of things not to do to women based on what other men tell them is okay. They aren’t taught how to also make sure it’s something the woman, as an individual, is comfortable doing. A man could reasonably go throughout his whole life without ever once hearing the word “consent” in a lesson about the Law of Chastity. And I’m a believer in the Law of Chastity, for the record! I just don’t believe it starts and ends with, “Only if you’re married to her.”
So what happens when a man internalizes the idea that a list of behaviors is off limits, and that it’s off limits based on the authority of the priesthood leaders who tell him so? If that’s the only reason why he refrains from things like suggesting a woman pretend to be a prostitute, commenting on how a stranger’s shirt showcases her breasts, having sex on a first date, etc. then what happens when he no longer believes that those men in suits speak with God’s authority?
For some men, the habits are so ingrained that they still won’t think of even approaching those lines. For others, they insert new forms of authority to fill that gap – things like HR policies or a culture of consent. But for men like Kirby, it seems that they throw out the old rule book without ever finding an adequate replacement.
While I don’t know what Kirby was thinking during that exchange, I’d guess he was thinking something along these lines: “I’m not like those stuffy orthodox Mormon men. I’m not so afraid of the appearance of evil that I refuse to talk with a female colleague. Not only will I sit with her – I’m so edgy that I’ll make a big joke out of how she’s so hot compared to me, that the only way anyone would believe she would willingly sit with me was if they thought she was an escort I’d hired. I’m cool. I push boundaries. I break social norms.”
What he forgot along the way is that there was still a power dynamic working in his favor. And that a professional setting like a conference is one where a woman deserves to be seen as a colleague, not have a man make a spectacle out of her appearance. So, men, whether you’re progressive or not, here’s my advice: foster a culture of consent everywhere you go. Respect professional boundaries, and don’t make sexually suggestive comments to a woman you’ve just met or comment on a female colleague’s level of attractiveness. She’s there to work, not to be your eye candy.