Does Our Patriarchal LDS Church Make Men the Absolute Best, or the Absolute Worst? (Or Some of Each?)

Young LDS men come of age in a system that teaches them to respect women by never telling dirty jokes about them…but also teaches them to preside over them, be their portal to God in the temple, know their secret name to call them up at the resurrection, have multiple women as spouses in the eternities, give blessings, extend callings and counsel them with their priesthood authority with no required reciprocity. Is that really the highest version of respect?

Years ago, I read a book about two American women who were kidnapped in Afghanistan. Despite struggling to escape, passerby just turned their heads and looked the other way. Nobody wanted to get involved because it wasn’t their problem.

I went out running the next morning and started thinking about how different my life was in America, and specifically, in LDS central Utah Country. I was wearing a tank top and yoga pants, my most comfortable running outfit, and I knew that it was highly unlikely for anyone to grab me and rape me because they thought I was wearing something too form fitting. And above that, I knew that even if I did ever choose to run in just a sports bra and short shorts, still no one was likely to harass me or say anything. And if someone did attack me, I believed completely that anyone driving by me on the road would stop and help me. The local men that I knew would fight to the death to stop a rapist or killer from hurting a woman that they didn’t know, even if she was dressed “immodestly”. That’s just the type of men I felt surrounded by in my town.

But within a few days of that book and that reflective run, I heard another story from a woman in a nearby stake. At their annual conference, the stake president had given a talk about modesty requirements for the women in their stake. He told everyone about driving home from work in the evenings and seeing women that he knew outside running for exercise on the sidewalks and roads, and that to his disappointment, they were often wearing clothing that was too tight, too short, or impossible to wear their sacred temple garments with. He said he loved and cared about these women and their safety, and he hated that he had to avert his eyes to avoid looking at them in their immodest attire. From that day forward, he offered a challenge to the women in his stake to never exercise in clothing that they couldn’t wear their garments with.

This is just a stock LDS photo from the internet – if you happen to know this man in real life, don’t blame him for this talk because it wasn’t him.

The woman who told me this story was angry with his talk. She thought he was placing the blame for his own perverted thoughts on the women he passed who were just out for an evening run in perfectly appropriate exercise clothing. I was also irritated by his decree, because I worked out and went running regularly enough to know how impractical his suggestion was. In a long race (like a marathon) skin chafing is a big concern and an extra layer of garments and loose material to cover them would make it so much worse. And while some people in some climates could comfortably do what he asked, I imagined I would personally pass out from heat stroke with the extra layers before stripping them off or giving up on exercise completely. His admonishment to wear only garment friendly running clothes seemed as silly and uninformed to me as asking competitive swimmers to wear them under their speedos. It wasn’t my stake, and I was glad.

A couple years later, I heard the story of his talk again, this time from two other women in his stake. At that point I was able to hear the aftermath of what it had caused in their ward. There had been a fairly successful running/walking group in their ward up until his talk (this was in the heyday of those smaller enrichment weekly activity groups). It included women who were active, inactive, and even non-members. They’d meet up for walks, pushing strollers and socializing, and those who were more ambitious would go running together and train for some local races.

After the stake president’s talk about wearing only garment friendly clothing to exercise in, the Relief Society president and bishop decided to make that a rule of this walking club. Because it was church sponsored, the women coming had to now wear sleeves and shorts that went to the knee, whether or not garments were underneath them. This felt silly and downright hostile to some of the women in the group (especially to those who hadn’t even gone through the temple or weren’t church members), while others felt that it was an important and necessary rule to follow. To them it was a test of their faithfulness to God, and anyone who chose to disregard the rule was judged harshly.

With no surprise, the group fell apart shortly after, with bad feelings all around. Some women felt like they were being treated as sex objects by the priesthood leadership – even on a walk around the park with other moms and babies on a weekday morning. Some women felt hurt and judged when they didn’t get the memo fast enough that sleeves were required when running 5ks now. Other women were annoyed or felt self-righteous when other members of their exercise group ignored the counsel they’d received from their leaders. Everyone felt a loss of their fun social group when it inevitably shut down amidst hurt feelings and broken friendships.

Just days after thinking about how incredible LDS men are, I was quickly brought back to the reality that actually, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes their culture, positions of power, and perceived superior connection to God can make them the absolute worst. They sometimes treat Latter-day Saint women like children, and it’s simply infuriating because they are the ones in ultimate authority over everything. No woman could make an arbitrary rule that subsequently breaks up the Elder’s Quorum basketball night because half of them follow it and half of them don’t, because a woman is never in a position of authority over men to do something like that. Even if a woman thinks she knows better than her male peers about how they should dress themselves, she will never have an opportunity to declare her own opinion as the will of the Lord for them over a pulpit.

I’ve been told often (generally by faithful men in my life) about all the times in Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood lessons they were taught to respect women. I believe that’s true, in that they were told to treat us well by their actions and thoughts, and many times I have felt that from them. However, as long as we are all chained to a system that places men perpetually in positions of authority over women, and as long as men write the doctrine, receive the revelation, interpret the scripture, take up the vast majority of general conference talks, preside and speak prominently at our women’s meetings, and are taught leadership skills as youth that girls never get – it doesn’t matter how many times boys are told to respect women. We are bound to a system that inherently disrespects our intellect and ability to lead ourselves and others. 

When the stake president saw women in his stake exercising, rather than just looking away at something that made him feel uncomfortable, he interpreted those feelings as God prompting him to give instruction to all of the women in his stake that would make his discomfort go away. That’s not because he wasn’t told repeatedly throughout his life to respect us, it’s because the system he was completely enmeshed in from childhood led him to believe that his thoughts as a high-ranking priesthood leader were God’s commandments to these women. 

I don’t want that kind of relationship with men, where they’ll respect me by not telling off color jokes in my presence, but simultaneously believe God has called them to direct my life and guide decisions for me through the words they choose to say to me in a priesthood blessing. I want to be met as a true equal, where I could place my hands on their heads and counsel them right back. The older I get, the more anything less than a true respect created from equality in authority and decision-making feels patronizing and condescending. We treat little children well by sheltering them from crude or scary circumstances and making decisions for them about their lives. That should not be the same way we treat adult women. Sisters in the church deserve personal authority, leadership opportunities over all members of the church (male and female), equal time at the pulpit in every meeting of conference, and a direct relationship with God (which includes Heavenly Mother as an equally visible partner to Heavenly Father), free of any middleman they covenant through.

In short, they should be treated like the men. Then it’ll feel like respect.


  1. I bet the stake president didn’t have a problem with the men playing skins vs. shirts basketball in the cultural hall and letting the boys run around shirtless at scout camp. But it’s women who are the problem.

    Modesty culture is toxic. What’s even more toxic is how infantilized women are in the church. Yes, men are taught to respect women, but they’re also taught to treat women like children. It needs to stop.

  2. Oh Abby, this touches one something that has become the absolute biggest thorn in my side. The way we talk about modesty, and how we teach “respecting women” absolutely teaches LDS men to not only infantalize but objectify women all the time. We judge whether women are “righteous” or not based on whether a shoulder is showing and men then categorically assign a label of worthiness on every woman they meet.

    Not only is this wrong, it gives them the excuse that if they had “impure thoughts or intentions” it was because “she is a bad women, showing too much” not because he failed to control himself. Modesty rhetoric is one of the leading contributors to men feeling they are in positions of power or authority to judge women. Add in the harmful jokes about hard working missionaries “earning” a better looking wife and we have a toxic soup of objectification that never places value on any real contributions by women.

    It is no wonder Utah ends up with more plastic surgery per capita than Hollywood. If all that matters is your appearance, but you can’t show any skin, you better make sure your figure is drawing attention fully covered.

  3. I was the “ward mother” of a BYU student ward because the bishop’s wife was antisocial and also because my home wasn’t too far away from where the ward members lived. Our bishop was a real stickler about modesty for the girls in the ward. I finally had to tell him that the once a month modesty/moral sin lectures in RS were too much.

    Many of the girls had already been through the temple or had been on missions and already wore clothes that accommodated wearing garments. The problem was with the guys. They almost exclusively dated the girls who hadn’t been through the temple and wore short shorts, crop or tube tops, form fitting clothes and/or extremely revealing swimsuits in the apartment complex and at the complex’s swimming pool.

    The bishop refused to talk to the guys in PH meeting about the problem because “if the girls didn’t tempt them there wouldn’t be a problem”! I asked him what I was supposed to tell the young ladies who were trying to follow his instructions only to be ignored by the guys in the ward and elsewhere. There was a huge disconnect between following the bishop’s modesty rules (which he told the girls that the guys would respect them for following) and the fact that the guys actually DID prefer the scantily clad girls instead.

    In speaking to the stake RS president I discovered that this was a problem in every ward in our stake and that the stake presidency and other bishops were also treating it as a female problem and not a male one. That made me so angry. I poured out my anger and frustration to my husband, the other counselor and his wife and asked them for suggestions on how to deal with this serious problem.

    When the bishop had to go out of town for a month my husband and the other counselor prepared a series of lessons for PH meeting where they spoke frankly with the young men about sexual attraction vs. love, learning that THEY were the ones who had to exercise self-control, how to treat women respectfully as human beings and not as sex objects and what qualities they should really want in a prospective spouse. Many of the guys had never been spoken to in this frank and open way, not even by their own fathers!

    Of course our bishop was unhappy when my husband and the other counselor told him what they had taught in PH meeting during his absence and what had precipitated it. However, we did begin to see more respectful behavior on the part of some of the guys towards the girls. It was a good start. Unfortunately, not long after that our 3 years of service were up and the entire bishopric was released. I do hope that the PH lessons had an positive impact on the guys in the ward. It’s not fair that girls always get the modesty lectures but the guys never hear that they have the ability and the responsibility to control their urges and behavior. This is patriarchy at its worst.

  4. Am I remembering the New Testament correctly? Did Jesus say “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her should tell her to go change her clothes cause your thoughts are her fault”?

    • First tell her that she’s walking pornography and then tell her to go change her clothes. Also have follow-up lessons in Relief Society about this talk in case the women get uppity and object to being treated like objects. Bonus points if the PH leader is talking to a young woman doing something wild like swimming at girl’s camp without shorts and a t-shirt covering her swimsuit.

  5. “I don’t want that kind of relationship with men, where they’ll respect me by not telling off color jokes in my presence, but simultaneously believe God has called them to direct my life and guide decisions for me through the words they choose to say to me in a priesthood blessing.” Amen!

  6. The chasm between words of treating women respectfully versus policies, behaviors, and attitudes of the LDS church and many members is wide. I married a convert, did not attend BYU, and so was stunned in my 20’s as a newly married, college graduate professional working person to be smacked in the face with these attitudes that so many 20-something males in my ward exhibited. I thought those behaviors and attitudes and long since died out.

    It’s hard to explain how it feels to be treated as less-than-human to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It’s tiny paper cuts that chip away at a soul. Eventually, the attitudes you describe sunk me with depression that led me to therapy. Healing required a significant amount of time, emotional effort, and money. I have encountered more good men out of the church than in. In the last few years, I have had the opportunity to work with men in various professional church capacities who give me hope that some LDS men escape the conditioning to see women as objects.

  7. Responding to A Poor Wayfaring Stranger:

    As disgusting as this whole scenario is I am not remotely surprised. The Lynch pin to the insanity of all of this is that if we didn’t require women to wear men’s underwear from 100 years ago the fact this problem is rooted in our fear of men’s sexuality would become obvious and therefore may actually be addressed. As it stands we will continue to re-enforce the “Madonna/whore complex” and blame the women, men will continue to objectify women, women will continue to internalize they are the problem and spend thousands of dollars to conform to society’s impossible beauty standards and nothing will change.

  8. I’ve heard church leaders encourage women to change back into garments quickly after exercising instead of staying in workout clothes all day — which is bad enough — but telling them to wear garments WHILE exercising is really next level. And yes, perfectly illustrates the rotten fruits of patriarchy.

  9. s spiritual directive without thought to the consequences. Forget community, health, friendship, etc for women. This happens so often.

  10. Outstanding post, Abby. I think you really nail it with the point at the end that the root of the problem is men and women being seen as separate groups, with the men always the presiders and the women the presided over. If instead we just had people, any of whom could temporarily take on a leadership role, it seems far less likely that these patriarchal norms where men blame women for things would develop and persist.

  11. I still remember the horror I felt when I heard Dallin Oaks say in General Conference (April 2005), “Young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.” The attitude is perpetuated throughout the hierarchy – it’s heartbreaking.

  12. My wife told me a story where she was one of the Stake YW leaders in charge of a regional Youth Conference in the EU. Her daughter was bringing a non-member friend from school for the first time. This was back when it was popular for girls to wear short tops that exposed some belly, and this girl wore such a top, though it longer than most, it was the most modest top she owned, and actually wasn’t showing much skin regardless. ALL of the YW leaders had seen it and approved of it. HOWEVER, when the girls walked in there were two HP-age men who took it upon themselves to stand as “gate-keepers”, scrutinizing the YW attire for “appropriateness”. They saw this girl, told her she needed to leave and go home and put on something more modest, and of course she left in tears, and never returned. When my wife learned about this, she unleashed her full fury in the following Stake HC meeting at the men, telling them how utterly out of line they had been, but of course too late for damage control in this case — the girl subsequently had zero interest in attending any other activities. It’s incredible how clueless so many men in leadership are when it comes to this, AS IF it’s not super creepy to have middle aged men ogling each teen girl coming through the door to see if she’s a “temptress” or immodestly dressed, etc. How is this any different than the Taliban — making women cover up completely in shapeless attire so that men are in no way tempted — shifting that responsibility away from telling men to learn self-control? In our Stake at YW camp here in Utah, where swimming and boating in a lake is part of the activities, the girls are required to cover their swimsuits with t-shirts and shorts, so the priesthood-wielding men assigned to attend camp to “protect the women”(!) won’t be tempted by teen girl bodies. The irony and stupidity of this boggles the mind.

  13. That Stake President needs a healthy dose of Dr. Julie Hanks! He is the one with the problem, not the women who were running/exercising.

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