Female Sexual Agency in Patriarchal Culture : The Case of Mormon Women
Chestnut Hill, MA
Author's abstract: 'Critiques of patriarchy and its effects on women's sexuality have constituted a central focus in contemporary feminist theory. Radical feminism, in particular, has faulted patriarchal societies for restricting women's autonomy through the regulation of their sexuality, by shaming erotic desire, constraining sexual behavior, and limiting reproductive control, patriarchy has profoundly undermined women in their achievement of sexual agency. This study explores the applicability of this critique to Mormon women's experiences. While Mormon women develop sexual identity within a patriarchal religion and subculture, Mormonism demonstrates the potential to support female sexual agency in its ability to domesticate the sexual behavior of Mormon men. With data collected through qualitative interview with 16 married, church-participating women born into Mormon families, the relationship between the patriarchal church's gender and sexual code and Mormon women's sexual agency is examined. Themes of sexual agency and non-agency emerge suggesting the limited applicability of the radical feminist critique: Just as radical feminism predicts, most Mormon women's accounts reflect the experience of a double standard around sexual legitimacy inside and outside of marriage that interferes with women's sexual agency. At the same time, a subgroup of women demonstrates sexual agency that is accounted for in part by the religious (and patriarchal) structures around sexuality that coincide with these women's wants in the sexual realm. Specifically, women report protection from male sexual exploitation through the community's expectation of exclusive, committed male sexuality as well as ideological and divine support for their orthodox sexual wishes when at odds with men's desires. Furthermore, a subgroup of women demonstrates the ability to act with agency in spite of and within patriarchal ideology. In light of these findings, a reexamination of the link between patriarchy and female sexual oppression is undertaken, as is a reexamination of feminist models in their accounting for conservative religious women's experiences. The need for an expansion of feminist theory to include multicultural variation is also discussed. '