Buening: Utah Needs to Destigmatize Women’s Issues

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Brooklyn Critchley

A student poses in front of the fountain located at the Marriott Library Plaza in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 18, 2021 (Photo by Brooklyn Critchley | The Daily Utah Chronicle) 

By Sarah Buening, Opinion Writer

 

I recently sat in a focus group for an advertising project rebranding a type of tampon. A random group of men and women were asked questions to encourage open communication. During this gathering, I witnessed Utahns’ utter lack of awareness about women’s issues. It was disturbing to see the participants’ blatant distaste for the topic, especially the men. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised, but frustrated.

Society has historically disregarded women. It’s exhausting having to constantly defend my support for my own rights. I and other women are tired of feeling unable to openly discuss our own issues for fear of confrontation and belittlement.

Essentially, women should not be controversial. Stigmatization runs rampant, especially in Utah. Our state enforces a taboo around women’s issues through its educational, religious, social and political stances — and it hurts all involved. We must change how these issues are addressed by tackling the source: cultural norms interwoven within hyper-traditional religious values.

Utah’s Stats

Utah’s established values drastically affect the way state’s government and communities operate, making it nearly impossible for the state to hide its atrocious handling of gender equality issues. A 2020 study from WalletHub ranked the best states for women’s equality in the U.S. Utah placed terribly in many categories, including second for largest income gap, first for largest educational attainment gap and second for largest political representation gap.

Unsurprisingly, Utah placed dead last in this study, which is nothing to celebrate. These disproportionate statistics indicate how powerful and foundational damaging cultural values can be.

Sexism and taboo culture are ingrained within the members of Utah society. The indoctrination of these ideals stems from Utah’s inherent homogeneity. 86.43% of the population is white. 60.68% belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the state largely leans conservative.

The LDS Church’s Impact on Women

The regularity of religious permeation in such a uniform majority creates a problem, especially considering the LDS church’s enforcement of patriarchal standards. Structurally, male members hold positions of high authority within the church. The church stresses that women are child-bearers, while they give men the responsibility of “head of the household.” As a result, Utah women get married at the youngest average age in the country and have the highest average number of children per family.

Consequently, Utah women see themselves in the restrictive roles they are taught. Women who deviate from these expectations are criticized and sometimes punished by religious authority. In 1993, Lavina Anderson was excommunicated for advocating against ecclesiastical abuse she saw in the church. Kate Kelly was excommunicated in 2014 for her role in the Ordain Women movement, which attempted to remove gender inequality within the church’s positions of authority. And this year, sex therapist Natasha Helfer was excommunicated for challenging the church’s strict rules regarding sexuality.

Such extreme actions silence women’s voices. The church maintains shame-culture as they forcefully and publicly remove women from the state’s most distinguishable organization. As a Utah woman who was raised LDS, I’ve both witnessed and experienced the antagonization, shaming and isolation that accompanies standing up to these standards.

The Harm of Utah’s Stigmas

Unfortunately, many women have become complacent to the stigmas placed upon them. Such stigmas aren’t only enforced by men in our state’s environment, but by women with internalized, misogynistic views. In 2018, Utah women were surveyed as being even more sexist than Utah men. This has resulted in an intergenerational cycle of continued stigmatization. In droves, men and women alike show support for representatives and cultural behaviors that perpetuate the problem.

These stigmas not only permeate religious circumstances. The white, Christian, conservative demographic tends to support topics such as abstinence education, the pro-life agenda and restricted access to contraceptives, all of which negatively impact women. Utah’s refusal to acknowledge these issues is unacceptable considering the negative impacts. Women face real danger when they don’t feel comfortable discussing health concerns specific to them. Their issues shouldn’t be treated in the same way or with less importance than men’s issues.

For example, the lack of comprehensive sex education threatens women more than men. Misunderstanding the definition of consent perpetuates rape culture. Utah’s tendency to ignore sexual issues contributes to its statistics of increased sexual assault. Women also face the possibility of unplanned pregnancies which, thanks to Utah lawmakers constantly challenging bodily autonomy rights, leave them with few viable options.

Also, neglect for women’s health contributes to misdiagnosis, prolonged medical ailments and sub-par treatments. Medical research rarely tailors to women specifically when compared to the research done on men’s health. It’s scary enough that most women don’t have this information readily available to them. Utah makes it scarier by nurturing an environment in which they don’t feel comfortable pursuing the information at all.

Looking Forward

Stigmatization has extremely harmful effects. This year, the Utah legislature is more male, Republican and white than it has ever been. I cannot stand idly by as stigmatizing culture continues to damage its constituents. Utah needs to see a complete social and idealistic turnaround when it comes to addressing women’s issues. We must fight for this despite the difficulties that come with battling such strong opposition.

Whether it’s through media attention, political action, personal influence or something else, apply persistent action. If we can begin removing stigmas around women’s health, we can create a more progressive and beneficial future for ourselves. Maybe then I, along with countless other women, could finally start feeling less tired.

 

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@sarah_buening