Back in 2008, pondering yet another Utah scandelette over the sex, I wrote:
There’s a tendency to believe that if the speaker in question . . . means what she says in all seriousness that we are required to treat it seriously. But some claims are simply unserious. Treating them as if they are meaningful or serious does not make them so. It also makes it difficult to sort out what to do in response to the truly serious – i.e. teens in Davis county texting each other nude pictures of themselves.[snip]
Not all concerns about morality are of equal value or weight. That an adult would be so offended by a window display in a shopping mall that she feels she must write a letter to the editor is laughable. Like the people who were mortally offended at Janet Jackson’s boob during the Super Bowl (and who demanded that such family entertainment not be besmirched by boobs) the complaint does not deserve to be treated with any seriousness.
I was reminded of that post when I heard the story on KSL of the parents in Kaysville who were upset because a local shop window displayed lingerie – near a movie theatre. Some daft person from a group calling itself Women for Decency was mentioned in the article:
But Holt said she is concerned that the largest window display in Kaysville features lingerie, and she hopes Allen makes the display “more family-oriented.”
Exactly what is a “family oriented” window display selling bras? Maybe they could show breastfeeding – that’s pretty family oriented. Right? Of course that might involve showing a boob and boobs wreak wanton havoc on families all the time. Simply owning boobs makes women automatically dangerous. Yeah, snark.
The owner of the shop in question had this to say:
Allen said she recently made some changes to the display and will consider other changes, but will not cover the windows. Her shop features bras and lingerie for women of all sizes.
“Once you cover the windows, you enter the realm of the adult shop, and I’m not an adult shop,” Allen told the Standard-Examiner.
She sells women’s underwear. There’s nothing pornographic or indecent about what she sells and I have a difficult time believing her window display was anywhere near indecent, let alone pornographic (nary a plastic nipple in sight!). This incident reveals more about the censors than it does about the content being censored. The censors would have us believe that a window display of lingerie is indecent. By extension, it’s difficult to believe they would find the dress of people at the park on a sunny saturday decent. And therein lies problem - decency (and indecency!) is in the eye of the beholder and the default position being advocated by these decent women is simultaneously hopelessly repressive and absurdly vague. What is a sufficiently “family oriented” means of displaying women’s underwear that wouldn’t offend them? At what point do we say the public square should not cater to the lowest common denominator – either in terms of indecency or decency? We’re not all five years old and there’s no reason the public square should be purged of everything a five year wouldn’t understand.
A quick visit to the website of Women for Decency uncovers sensitivities that make a Hawthorne character seem like a wanton libertine.
I went into the Mexican Grill, Costa Vida, the other day with my husband and another couple…glad to be patronizing this Utah company who recently got a Best of State Award for one of their menu items. Good for them, but even better for them, and for us is their responsible advertising. I did not see their billboard along the Wasatch front on I-15 before it was changed but after hearing from a friend that the model on a surfboard was once in a revealing bathing suit this model is now covered up with-what I believe is called a rash guard. You can faintly make out an added section over the woman’s torso that now sports a red t-shirt (or rash guard) and she looks like an athletic, pretty girl who is out for some surfing rather than a posed model out to sell me something with a sexy image. Thank you Costa Vida. I’m going to tell my friend to try out that award winning entree.
You read that right – a picture of a woman in a two piece bathing suit on a surfboard is too sexy. I belive the woman who wrote this means it with all seriousness – it does not mean we need to treat her concerns seriously. Their website contains a host of complaints about Victoria’s Secret ads, including a set of tips on how to quit receiving the aforementioned ads. A quick search for other mentions of the group online included a complaint about Bath and Body Works sending out an ad with a nude women; I doubt I saw the ad, but the message is clear – nudity is inherently indecent and should offend. The question these decent women never seem to ask themselves is what makes something offensive or indecent versus inoffensive and decent? What is it about decency that is valuable?
I’m reminded of the book I reviewed earlier by Janice Graham (another cultural conservative, a Mormon mom at war with a depraved world) in which she emphasized notions of modesty and decency, in which she called for chastity and modesty as panacea for life’s complicated emotional and relationship problems. Yet in Graham’s book she never once asked or attempted the answer of “What makes something or someone modest and how is it valuabel?” Women for Decency’s website spends a lot of pixels on porn. Their clear framework is the concept of porn as dangerous and addictive. They offer books no doubt filled with bathetic tales of heroic women confronting and defeating porn. (I wonder at the symmetry of supposedly radical feminists and obviously conservative women identifying porn as one of the world’s great enemies. It suggests, at some level, we’re dealing with a gendered issue when discussing porn.)
From the culturally conservative perspective, sexuality is profoundly dangerous and must be contained at every point. When conservatives, such as the Women for Decency group, see a window display of lingerie and bras, they perceive a dangerous crack on the edifice of decency. The display itself isn’t the problem, but rather what it implies to them – the loss of safety. Decency = safety.
Max Blumenthal described such women in his book Republican Gomorrah:
The women who oversee the Christian right’s personal crisis industry are very often products of the same trauma-wracked culture that they mine for recruits. When they advocate for abstinence-only education or against abortion, they stir their audiences with lurid confessions about their own horrific experiences in secular society—their demeaning sexual encounters, their abortions, their shame. (2509)
He even connects their culture of personal crisis to demands for abstinence only education:
Abstinence education propaganda is valuable perhaps only as a document of the philosophy of right-wing women like Unruh. To Unruh, sex for the purpose of pleasure is a satanic act that ultimately harms women. By coercing girls to deny their essential urges, she and her cohorts believe they can protect them from demonic male aggressors on sexual hit-and-run missions. It is no wonder right-wing women insist they are the “true” feminists.(2537)
Almost all the resources provided by Women for Decency focus on pornography. Among their resources are a booklet cloyingly entitled “Learning to Smile Again” described as:
A series of stories of hope and healing published by Women for Decency, is now available for women, ecclesiastical leaders, therapist and counselors. This short booklet contains women’s true stories of how they are coping after discovering their husband’s addiction to pornography.
Blumenthal describes the conservative manhood movement and its response to porn, equally apocalyptic in perspective:
Steve Arterburn and Fred Stoeker, have become leading Christian-right self-help gurus. Their expertise stems not from any academic training but from their ability to describe their own redemption from sexual addiction in accessible, evangelical language.(3661)
The wife in every man’s desktop picture frame is dowdy, dull, and frozen. She is the Christian man’s only permissible outlet for his sexual frustration—and therefore no outlet at all. If she does sleep with her husband, it is only to prevent his descent into total depravity, not to fulfill her own sexual needs.(3683)
Rooted in this retrograde view of human sexuality, cultural conservatives can look at a window display for bras with horror. Why, though, such horror?
Mormonism – like other conservative churches – places a huge emphasis on family. Listening to the rhetoric its difficult to escape the notion that family should be the sole source of emotional connection, well being, succor. It becomes the primary place in which the individual experiences him or herself. Work, church, community, politics are all useful only in so far as they support the family but usually they are a threat, a distraction from the family. Individual identity is inseparable from one’s role in the family. A breach in the family is a devastating blow, disorienting.
Among evangelical Christians, the divorce rate is higher than the rest of the population. In 2009, Utah ranked #1 in online porn subscriptions. Among people who regard the family as the sole acceptable expression for sexuality and the primary avenue of personal fulfillment, such facts are horrifying, signs that their entire world is in danger. The supposedly warm, all encompassing family is suddenly revealed as part of the problem. Without it, the believer is exposed to a world of enormous, unmanageable danger. The family must be protected at all costs because without it, the individual will be lost. When conservatives proclaim the family is the primary social unit, that is what they mean.
The rigid response to a simple shop window display illustrates the moral quandary in which these individuals find themselves. Constantly on guard against a dangerous world, they can never wind down – even at home the must constantly be alert for signs of depravity creeping into the home. Their husband in the basement working on the computer may secretly be buying porn and engaging in a virtual affair that will destroy their family, their children riding the bus to school will see indecent billboards. Constant, wearying vigilance leaves them in a state of perpetual crisis. Threatened from every direction, tragedy never more than a mouse click away, the women engage in a heroic battle to save family, self and soul.
Suddenly, a simple window display is a mortal and moral threat to the family and must be immediately defeated.