Eroticized Wives and Mormonism By Caroline Kline

(cross posted at the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent)

“As the clock approaches the hour of her husband’s return, a nervous housewife readies herself for his arrival. She checks herself one last time in the mirror, smoothes her hair, and practices a sultry pout. Hearing her husband’s car in the driveway, she shuffles, penguin-style, to the front door and waits…

The door swings toward her, her husband takes one step into the house, and then he stops, as if frozen, and gawks. “Welcome home, darling,” she says, batting her eyelashes. His wife stands in the front hall of their home wrapped in nothing but yards and yards of plastic wrap, her middle-aged curves visible, but distorted through layers of transparent film…Served up like a TV dinner for her husband’s consumption, this wife has become what author Marabel Morgan calls a Total Woman, a model of Christian marital perfection.”

As I read these first paragraphs of an article by Rebecca Davis entitled, “Eroticized Wives: Evangelical Marriage Guides and God’s Plan for the Christian Family,” I, like the husband above, guffawed. I admire people putting efforts into spicing up their marriage, but this seemed ludicrous to me.

It was also interesting to note that this Total Woman movement, which flamed to life in the mid 70’s, was at least partially inspired by Mormonism’s own Helen Andelin – author of Fascinating Womanhood – who likewise advocates strong gender roles and performances of feminine weakness and helplessness. But the focus on the man’s erotic pleasure is muted in Andelin’s work, in stark contrast to the Total Woman marriage guide, the focus of which was to encourage women to turn their body into an object of erotic fascination for the husband. As the Total Woman wife undergoes a daily regimen of bodily discipline (which culminates in sex when the husband comes home), Davis enumerates a number of results.

-the home becomes a castle of male gratification

– the wife’s body, adorned with costumes, props, and makeup, affirms his heterosexuality and his dominance in the marriage

-the husband, affirmed in his masculinity, thus follows her on the path to salvation (no adultery, goes to church with the wife)

-the wife’s submissive body “sexes” (inscribes sexual identity upon) the children. The author of Total Woman urges parents to display the erotic rewards of heterosexual marriage to children, and recounts an incident in her own marriage in which she greets her husband coming home from work in a baby doll outfit, which results in her husband chasing her around the dining room table, with her two children watching and giggling all the while.

It was interesting for me to think of this in a Mormon contxt. Despite the Mormon Andelin’s role in sparking this movement, I actually don’t know any Mormons that fall into this dynamic. Perhaps this is because:

a) Mormons are too prudish in general to want to get into sex games, costumes, etc.

b) male dominance is already established in Mormonism’s all male priesthood – therefore there’s no need for women to eroticize their bodies in order to establish a submission/dominance dynamic. (That’s not to say that all Mormon couples do play out such a dynamic, but there’s certainly enough in Mormon teachings to justify it, if that’s what the couple wants.)

c) it takes a lot of time and energy to be constantly performing erotica like this. Perhaps Mormon wives who are working, engaged in good works, or raising children just don’t have the time for it.

d) because of the all male priesthood, men are taught that they are essential to the workings of the church. There are clear roles that only men can carry out on Sunday, so there’s no sense that men need to be drugged with sex into passively follow their women to church.

Despite the fact that this Total Woman marriage dynamic may not resonate with a lot of Mormons and Christians out there, it actually was revolutionary in the Christian world. Because, despite Christianity’s long history of denigrating the body, of seeing it as lowly and base and something that must be transcended, this Total Woman Christian movement actually elevated the body. The woman’s body becomes the vehicle through which she can earn salvation for her husband and children.

Categories: Gender and Sexuality, Mormonism

Tags: , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Caroline, this post is so interesting. The erotic self as salvific to both husband and child is realized by placing her in a Christocentric role is theologically provocative. The problem, which you so clearly argue, is the absolute unbelievability of time and effort required for such role playing. That’s the easy part. The complete absence of pleasing the woman sexually never seems to be an issue for these authors. Still, I’m very intrigued with the concept of elevating the woman’s body to that of a Christ-like figure. Well written and conceived.


  2. “The complete absence of pleasing the woman sexually never seems to be an issue for these authors”

    Yes, it’s not a focus at all. This whole performance of eroticism is purely for male gratification — and to affirm the hierarchy/submission dynamic that they promote between men and women. It is neat to see the body playing this important role in salvation, but it is definitely problematic that the woman, in using her body in this way, completely subjugates herself to her husband. Is there a way to elevate the (female) body’s role in salvation without subjugating the woman like this? Interesting to think about…Thanks for your comment!


  3. Funny, I thought Christians believed salvation comes through a changed character inspired by Christ’s love for us. I would seriously question the validity of a husband’s religious sincerity if he has to be manipulated into it through Pavlovian-style sexual gratification. If merely being physically present at church is all you need to do to be saved, then maybe.

    I’ve always thought that patriarchal Christianity is nothing but a religion of shallow male-focused, self-serving idolatry that makes false martyrs out of women. Don’t they see how twisted and sad it is?

    Also, if patriarchy Christians think men are so childish and weak that they have to be cajoled into the spiritual world by conniving wives who dangle sex in front of their noses the way you’d attempt to teach a dog how to sit – why are they against women’s ordination??? Clearly they think men are stupid, perpetual children and it’s the woman’s job to lead everyone down the right path. But somehow they don’t see this glaring contradiction.


  4. Did they really elevate the female body? It seems that the woman’s body still exists just for the man, not for herself, her wants, her desires, her needs. It is not her own, It is a vessel to keep her husband in line.


  5. I couldn’t resist commenting. Exceptionally well written!


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