25 Years of Breaking Stereotypes: Jennifer Finlayson-Fife on LDS Female Sexuality

At the Women’s Studies Annual Fall Conference, licensed psychotherapist and BYU women’s studies alumna Jennifer Finlayson-Fife discussed the role the women’s studies program played in her decision to specialize in sex therapy for LDS couples.
img_9168PROVO, Utah (Nov. 4, 2016)—When BYU alumna and psychotherapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife was a student, the women’s studies program provided a haven in which she was able to come to terms with questions that had burdened her as a female member of the Church. At the Women’s Studies Annual Fall Conference: 25 Years of Breaking Stereotypes, Finlayson-Fife shared her research on LDS women’s sexuality and how her women’s studies education prepared her for her career as a sex therapist.

Finlayson-Fife began by recounting how her journey as a young LDS woman and the concerns she held about her role as a woman in the Church led her to pursue a women’s studies minor.

“Its existence was an institutional validation that it was okay to really look at the issues of gender and women’s roles and to question,” she said. “I’d always felt sort of guilty or ashamed for questioning in the first place, and here I had the institutional support to do it and many wise women and other students to do it with.”

Finlayson-Fife added that the women’s studies courses she took exposed her to feminist theory, philosophy and the complexity of women’s experiences, both in the Church and the world at large. As a result, Finlayson-Fife was provided a language and a new lens to make sense of her experiences as an LDS woman.

Soon after Finlayson-Fife graduated she began a Ph.D. program at Boston College, where she was asked to teach an undergraduate course on human sexuality. The textbook they recommended she use dealt with assumptions that sexual liberalism was inherently good and that sexual conservatism was unhealthy. Given her LDS background, Finlayson-Fife struggled with these assumptions.

“When it came time to choose a dissertation topic, these questions were alive in my mind. I valued my sexually conservative tradition,” Finlayson-Fife said. “I liked the idea of sexual exclusivity, and a context of commitment both expressed through the Law of Chastity. But I also saw the challenges. I saw the repression, the fear, in my friends and in myself.”

In her dissertation, Finlayson-Fife examined LDS women’s concept of femininity and how they felt it was tied to their sexuality. “Men are constructed as naturally sexual, and women are taught to be desirable to those men,” she said.

Finlayson-Fife said that a focus on desirability rather than desire creates “non-identification” with women’s self-knowledge of their own desires, a problem she frequently observes in her clients. This also creates a culture in which women are the gatekeepers of sexual relationships. If women internalize the idea that they have no sexual desire, they become the gender that is more suited to manage men’s desires, either through modesty or stopping men from violating chastity.

ws-photoIn her dissertation, Finlayson-Fife concluded that the majority of LDS women she interviewed expressed “feelings of non-agency, that they struggled both pre-maritally and after marriage to navigate what they wanted sexually.” In addition, they believed that femininity and eroticism were incompatible.

“We’re afraid of women’s inherent sexuality,” Finlayson-Fife said. “I think the real deal is that we are afraid of how inherently sexual women are, that women are erotic, earthy creatures. Emotional. They feel deeply. I think that’s because in patriarchy, women’s sexuality scares men. There is a lot of focus on trying to talk about what kind of sexual being you should be, which is really tamped down.”

By contrast, Finlayson-Fife found in her research that LDS women who were comfortable with their sexuality had a gender-neutral expectation of the Law of Chastity. Their marriages were also egalitarian; decision-making was shared. They accepted that sexuality was God-given, and that female desire for passion and pleasure within marriage did not diminish their spirituality.

“The truth is, in our faith we have a beautiful theology that allows for an integration of our sexuality, passion and desire that is completely congruent with our highest principles and of egalitarian marriages,” Finlayson-Fife concluded.
—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)


Sylvia covers events for the women’s studies program for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.