I’m Glad I’m not 21 Right Now

On Friday I had to walk across our campus to go to my optometrist. This is normally the kind of thing I would drive to, but BYU was hosting its annual Women’s Conference and I didn’t want to lose the parking space right in front of my office. So my 3 minute drive was just a 15 minute walk, and it was a very pleasant day so it was a nice way to spend a lunch hour.

As I was walking, I saw a group of student workers who were part of the paint crew on a touch up assignment. I wasn’t really paying attention to them until I heard one of them say, “so what’s more important to your eternal salvation, serving a mission or getting married in the temple?” It seemed an odd question, so took a quick survey of this group and started listening in on what they were saying. All of them were male, and looked to be returned-missionary age, so it didn’t make sense to me at first why a bunch of men who had served missions would be questioning the value of serving versus other important life events like marriage. My confusion was quickly answered when another one of them answered with, “just because girls can serve at 19 doesn’t mean they’re supposed to.” It dawned on me, they weren’t talking about themselves, they were talking about their female peers. Unfortunately, as I continued to listen in on their conversation, I was dismayed to hear some chauvinistic language casually bandied about in their speech. There was nothing overtly misogynist, but had any woman been within earshot, she certainly wouldn’t have considered going on a date with any of these guys.

Now, for some background and in case you’re unfamiliar with the LDS Church, all young men are called as a matter of priesthood responsibility to serve a mission. For decades, young men could start their mission as early as their 19th birthday, or as late as their 26th with most opting to serve as close to 19 as possible. In October 2012, young men were allowed to start their missions as early as their 18th birthday, so long as their have finished high school (or its local equivalent for young men outside the United States). Young women have been extended the opportunity to serve, but it has always been clarified that they are not obligated to do so; if a young women does not feel personally inclined to serve then local church leaders and/or parents should not put pressure on her, try to persuade, or try and alleviate concerns about serving. Her decision is final. If a young man says he doesn’t want to serve then a level of loving persuasion is acceptable, with the understanding that he still should not serve until he is spiritually prepared to do so. Prior to October 2012 young women could opt to serve at any age 21 or older, now the age is 19 or older. These age changes have sent shockwaves through the church as members and observers have pondered the lasting cultural implications they will have both in the short and long term. Few are arguing that these changes are anything but titanic, especially in light of the fact that the number of active missionaries has ballooned and that young women are serving a rate never before seen in the church. So much is unknown during this time period where the number of young men & young women starting their missions is in huge excess compared to those finishing. In a couple of years, there will be more missionaries ending their missions than starting, and shortly after that, we’ll probably hit some sort of equilibrium again.

With all these big things happening, it is easy to sometimes overlook the little day-to-day impact that this may be having on the 18 to 22 year-old individuals who are on the front lines and most impacted by these changes. Up to this point, I’ve mainly been encouraged. The young men and young women who are leaving at these younger ages seem prepared and excited about their opportunities, and in general being able to complete a mission before getting too wrapped up in college or work is a good thing. I know that many have considered some of the troublesome things that could pop up, such as ostracizing young women who choose not to serve and mission presidents keeping a closer eye on current missionaries to make sure they keep their relationships professional.

Overhearing those young men on Friday opened my eyes to a new one: men returning home from their missions right now are finding few female contemporaries to date and socialize with. I’m worried that after spending two years on a mission with few female peers, and now returning to college with few female peers for at least another 18 months may be too lengthly a time during critical developmental years for our current cohort of returned missionaries to develop appropriate understanding regarding gender equality and respect.

Within our church we have a long tradition of proclaiming that the sexes are “equal but different.” How that equality is to be expressed is constantly an area of debate, and how it is expressed is in a slow but constantly flux. For example, in our most recent General Conference women offered some of the prayers for the first time. Also, these age changes for missionary service are being hailed by those who have been advocating for more equality of service opportunity within the church. The expanded hope is that young men coming home from their missions with so many female missionary peers will be more inclined towards equality when they get home. While many are dismissive of the concerns that some in our church misunderstand the idea of equality, I have had the unfortunate opportunity to counsel women who were wives of men who never got that equality exists between the sexes despite any differences. This is something I have become more concerned about and sensitive to. It is interesting though, that by creating a group of male missionaries who will serve side-by-side with female missionaries, we’ve created a group of young men just a couple years older who have now spent their missions with few female peers, and have returned to college with very few female peers.

I’ve spent the last two days regretting not engaging with those young men, challenging their statements, and encouraging more sensitivity to equality in general (let alone more equality in language). It’s helped me commit though to engaging when I come across this again in the future.