When Harry and Sally met Mormonism

June 2, 2013    By: Jacob J @ 12:39 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices

I rarely use this forum to complain about Mormon culture, but today I make an exception. I will keep it short and sweet. It drives me crazy that we have created a culture which assumes that men and women cannot interact on anything more than a superficial level without great risk of fornication or adultery. This attitude is manifest in a hundred ways large and small. If I were to suggest introducing the possibility of mixed gender Primary or Sunday School presidencies, the “it is improper for men and women to work together” objection would come up almost immediately. From people I work with who are not members, I see examples of mixed-gender friendships which seem entirely appropriate. While there are easily discernible limits within US culture to what degree of friendship is acceptable among married adults of different genders, my perception is that the limits within Mormon culture are noticeably more restrictive.

I am not naive. I realize that people do have affairs and that being alone for any reason could open someone up to a false allegation. But at the same time, I don’t think I am in the minority when I say that I am not remotely interested in having sex with someone other than my wife. Putting me in a close interaction with a woman is not playing with fire. The things that keep me chaste have much deeper roots than simply removing any possibility to fornicate by separating me physically and emotionally from people of the opposite gender. Furthermore, for the people who are going to commit adultery, I don’t get the sense that all of our restrictions are a sufficient guard rail. It is sad to me that we are conditioned such that the suggestion of a mixed-gender Sunday School presidency triggers an almost immediate concern that it would be improper for men and women to work together in a presidency. Even if Harry is right (which he is, obviously), this seems to be taking things to an unhealthy extreme.


  1. It seemed like an unhealthy extreme to my husband I too! Until my husband had an affair with the woman he was car-pooling with while participating in a stake production!
    Your perception changes after an experience like that.

    Comment by honey — June 2, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  2. Yes, I expect that would change your perspective. I’m sorry that happened to you.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 2, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

  3. Yeah, I never thought it would happen to me, but a Pig, literally a Fat Pig of a former Bishop, had an affair with my wife, also during a Stake Production. So I’m a bit jaded.

    Comment by anon — June 2, 2013 @ 3:19 pm

  4. Sounds like we should ban stake productions, geez.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 2, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

  5. I think the appropriate response here is that all policies and habits open up some opportunities while closing down others. This is pretty obvious if we distance ourselves from individuals and focus on trends. If we started mixing up all the genders together, the fact of the matter is that there would be an upward trend in fornication and adultery. No matter how you want to assign responsibility and blame, I think that this trend would exist is indisputable.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 2, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

  6. Perhaps we could cut down on adultery by some additional restrictions to prevent any association between men and women at all. It is just not an approach that appeals to my core principles.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 2, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

  7. Jacob J,

    I agree. If people let something like a mixed-gender presidency or other cooperative effort lead them to an affair or whatever, then they have a disgusting integrity problem. But I don’t see why the whole organization should suffer as a result. Studies in the corporate world show that all kinds of good things happen when men and women work together on projects. You can’t get that synergistic effect without both sexes. We’re missing out needlessly.

    Comment by DavidF — June 2, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

  8. Or we could drop all such all-or-nothing statements and recognize that there is a balance which must be struck.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 2, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

  9. I agree that this exaggerated segregation is hard on us all. It’s hard to accept that two Latter-day Saints would so forget themselves and their covenants — one maybe, but two simultaneously? — and we’re all paying for it. The Church seems to respond to specific instances, though, rather than generalities (that is, if a particularly high profile Latter-day Saint had conducted his affair over email rather than in parked cars, there’d probably be a rule against men and women emailing each other rather against riding in cars together). So, thanks a lot, adulterers. You’ve ruined it for all of us.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 2, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

  10. If we stop acting and talking like men and women when left alone will always fornicate, perhaps we could limit these instances. Maybe instead we could act and talk about how to be professional, courteous, and develop appropriate friendships with the not-my-spouse-opposite-sex.

    Upon returning to BYU one year I was left without my ride from the SLC airport. I saw someone I knew from a previous ward (who was now married) and they offered to give me a ride back to Provo. On the way back, they decided that they needed to drop the husband off at work right away for some reason. And I was told that since it would be inappropriate for me to be in the car with his wife alone, would I please just walk the rest of the way to my apartment (2 miles) with all my luggage? So I walked.

    A few weeks later I ran into an old female friend from a BYU ward and when I went to give her a hug, she refused the hug, shoved her engagement ring in my face and said “Sorry, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression. I’m engaged now.”

    So yeah. Let’s fix this somehow.

    Comment by Greg Neil — June 2, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

  11. Jeff, I agree there is a balance to be struck, I’m just saying things are leaning too far in one direction for my tastes.

    Ardis, Greg, well said.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 2, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

  12. Ardis is right, except that we don’t _all_ pay for it. Women (especially single women) pay for it, by being excluded from more leadership opportunities, from jobs working for the Church and professional networking opportunities lost because some Mormon men insist on treating them first as potential sex objects and second (hopefully) as human beings.

    Comment by Kristine — June 2, 2013 @ 8:28 pm

  13. So, there is no wisdom in this; it’s just an arcane, foolish tradition that binds us down?

    Comment by mondo cool — June 2, 2013 @ 8:54 pm

  14. Hard to dismiss the two examples that started this thread. Stuff happens. In this case it is stuff that we Mormons consider spiritually disastrous. The costs of laxity on these things are considered far greater than the costs of unusually high vigilance. Seems to me that these mostly unwritten rules about keeping our distance in non group situations are kind of like seat belt laws; inconvenient, but certainly not without real merit.

    Having said that, there will always be some overzealous saints who take things too far. Sometimes the ox is in the mire.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 2, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

  15. Paul’s warning about eating meat sacrificed to idols is worth remembering. Paul points out that it really doesn’t matter if you do eat meat sacrificed to idols… BUT… if eating that meat makes some brother in the faith think he is not being valiant, then he will eat no meat.
    1 Cor. 8, especially v. 13

    Comment by Zen — June 2, 2013 @ 11:47 pm

  16. There’s a rule?????? So when my “then Relief Society President” wife and the Bishop crossed the Canada / US border to visit a less-active sister in the bar where that sister worked, I should have been worried??????

    Comment by Glenn Smith — June 3, 2013 @ 7:15 am

  17. The two examples of affairs cited in the comments above are tragic, but as has been said elsewhere, the plural of anecdote is not data. The two situations were tragic and obviously avoidable, but were of four people that gave into temptation and would have done by them under another situation. The fact that thy rode together did not make them act on the temptation they entertained and gave in to.
    I hate the part of Mormon “culture” that makes it possible to place blame on the situation rather than the actor. We have evolved into a group that manages to sexualize primary girls if they wear a tank top. We have leadership that still has Elder Richard Lyman very much in their collective memory (which is a good thing), but it has translated into the creation of a group mindset that makes helping a lone woman into a sexually tempting situation in men’s minds. It makes it so men don’t feel responsible for being tempted, but shift it to the woman (or girl) because she is needing help or wearing clothing that we’ve been taught invites sexual thoughts.
    We need to teach the Joseph method of temptation: run from it. Instead, as a culture we teach that Bathseeba had it coming because she was bathing where David could see her.
    A young woman said it beautifully at our Stake Trek when she was spraying on bug spray: Oh, you’re getting turned on because you can see my knee? Then you better look away.
    We need to learn to not sexualize shoulders and knees. We need to teach our youth (not just young men) and our adults (not just men) to control our thoughts. We can’t assign blame to “the situation” and not the person that can’t turn away. The creep BYU male student that counted the co-eds visible knees and then reported on it last year in the student newspaper, should have been disciplined by the University. If I knew he included my daughter in his “study,” I would have administered some rough justice on and a little discipline of my own to him.
    Billy Crystal’s line in “When Harry Met Sally” about men wanting to “nail” even their friends who are women may be a sad statement about male attitudes in general, but it shouldn’t be (and needn’t be) our “Mormon culture” attitude.

    Comment by pablo — June 3, 2013 @ 7:39 am

  18. Reading this discussion is the most depressing thing I’ve done in a long time. It makes us sound juvenile.

    Comment by Jan — June 3, 2013 @ 8:42 am

  19. Oh good grief.

    This “rule” is not really a rule. It is a commonly followed tradition. If all y’all want to spend long hours working closely and alone with someone of the opposite sex that is a risk you are free to take. In most cases nothing will happen. Men and women are free to choose after all. But don’t get all huffy because the tradition in Mormonism takes a very Mormon-ish “better safe than sorry” approach on things like these.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 3, 2013 @ 9:38 am

  20. For the record, I am not getting all huffy.

    Further, I don’t object to common sense traditions (or even rules for that matter) to help people avoid situations which invite trouble. I am definitely not advocating your (obviously hyperbolic) situation of working long hours closely and alone.

    As it turns out, I have counselors in my sunday school presidency and I don’t work with them long hours or alone. If I swapped one out with a woman tomorrow, it would not require me to change anything in order to have a very “above board” interaction with them. Perhaps this is a key point that is being missed by many of the objections to this post.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 3, 2013 @ 10:00 pm

  21. Yeah, I know you aren’t huffy, Jacob. I was referring to the whiny tone in comments 16-18.

    I actually think you are right about mixed gender Sunday school presidencies not mattering. But that is mostly because there is virtually no need for multi-person Sunday school presidencies to begin with since one person can handle that work without breaking a sweat.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 4, 2013 @ 11:57 am

  22. Compromise: Men and women can serve together in presidencies, but the less-attractive people have to serve with more-attractive people, and always maintain an imbalance of the sexes.


    Comment by Riley — June 4, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

  23. Or, another Compromise: have same gender presidencies for Sunday School or Primary (all male or all female).

    Comment by mondo cool — June 4, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

  24. A couple of years ago our RS president family was down to one car for a couple of weeks. For the Sundays it meant her leaving Ward Council early to return to her home and get her family for the block of meetings. During the second week I called and offered to pick her up on Sunday morning for Ward council to save her the hassle of making two trips between her house and the chapel. Her home was on my way to the chapel. She thanked me for the offer and then said she had to ask her husband if it was all right for her to ride alone with me to the chapel. (I was the HPGL at the time.) Her husband gave her permisson to ride with me. We enjoyed a 20-minute ride to Church until she started in on her Tea Party lunacy. I then accelerated to get to the chapel as fast as I could.

    She’s a nice, smart, college educated (BYU) woman and her husband is very nice, smart and reasonable man, also a BYU grad. Not sure why she would feel the need to get her husband’s permission to do anything. I, on the other hand, wondered in awe how this guy got his wife to do that. Not sure if my wife would laugh or explode if I were to have similar expectations with respect to her interactions with men.

    Maybe they heard that silly talk at BYU about a Bishop refusing to stop his car in the rain to offer a RS president a ride b/c they would have been all alone in a car for a brief period of time. Of course, that talk may be a bloggernacle urban legend. I have not bothered to double check the accuracy of the various references to that talk. But, if that is where a person feels he or she needs to establish boundaries, that is fine for the person. I don’t think it is fair, however, to generalize that kind of extremity onto the bulk of the Church population.

    Comment by rbc — June 4, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

  25. I suspect that your story is pretty common, rbc. The tradition in Mormonism is to try to avoid riding in cars alone with the opposites sex but exceptions arise pretty regularly. Also, just because the wife wanted to chat with her husband about it doesn’t mean she was getting “permission”. Many close couples prefer to be sure they are in sync before committing to arrangements like that.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 4, 2013 @ 11:13 pm

  26. This is another area where the Burkean wisdom of the Mormon community gets it right. Messily and with some inconvenience for all concerned, but its better than a hard and fast rule or no rule at all.

    Comment by Adam G. — June 5, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

  27. Here’s another way of looking at it. What does this practice teach? Some of what it teaches is a little crazy, like that men and women are sex-crazed horndogs (notice I said ‘a little crazy,’ not ‘a lot crazy). But some of what it teaches is great, like that marriage is desperately important and that preserving marriages is everyone’s concern, meriting even the kind of constant, tedious hygienic measures that disease outbreak might. Whether or not this kind of practice is justified, its existence is a sign of the fundamental health of the Mormon sociality.

    Comment by Adam G. — June 5, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

  28. Word, Adam G. Word.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 5, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

  29. I think another appropriate response is that Church Leaders have often seen the worst and have policies in place because of that collective experience.

    Oddly enough, I have faith and trust them, much more than strange text whose source I know not. Kind of expected in a church that believes in divine leadership, no?

    Comment by h_nu — June 20, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

  30. Great post, Jacob!

    Comment by Ziff — June 26, 2013 @ 8:03 am

  31. I (a woman) work in an extremely male dominated field. I regularly travel long distances with unrelated men or even share hotel rooms with them. No one at work bats an eye and it has never been a problem for me. Then I go to church and am sometimes very startled by the expectations for cross-gender relations among other members. Some men won’t be alone with me or give me a ride alone. One Bishop was fine giving me a ride, but asked me to duck if I saw a ward member so he wouldn’t get questioned about it later. He was only mostly joking.

    Comment by Cowgirl — July 3, 2013 @ 2:40 pm