On a Sunday morning this past March in Northern Virginia, church began as it always did, with an opening hymn and a prayer. Young worshippers, all in their 20s and 30s, filled the pews, their scriptures beside them or on their laps, the men dressed in crisp shirts and ties and the women in fashionable but modest skirts and dresses. Late arrivals, their hair still wet from showering, slipped into the overflow section at the back of the sanctuary. It was just another meeting at the Langley ward for young single adults, one of many congregations that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)—the Mormon church—established so that its unmarried members could worship together.
Then, during the announcements and church-business portion of the service, the bishop informed the congregation that there would be a number of administrative changes in the near future. He read the policies one by one and then dropped the bombshell: Though the Langley leaders had not been strict about it, singles wards were designated for people between the ages of 21 and 30, and in keeping with the letter of the law, all members of the Langley singles ward age 31 and older would have to leave the singles ward in a few weeks and return to their local family wards.
The new rule took Parley Parker, 31, completely by surprise. The Army reservist had just returned home a few days earlier from a year-and-a-half deployment in the Middle East, eager to get back into a singles ward and start dating again. “I was kind of mad about that,” he says. “Like, what’s up with this? I see plenty of girls who I’d like to date, and they’re telling me to go to a family ward where everybody’s married. What opportunities was I going to have there? It didn’t make sense to me.”
While Parker sat stunned in his pew, fellow ward member Janna Taylor had to restrain herself from turning cartwheels. “Parley was really bummed because he was coming from complete isolation,” says Taylor. “I, of course, was grinning ear to ear, thinking, ‘Oh, good. Finally, I have a really good excuse to get out of here.”
The announcement was a surprise, but it wasn’t extraordinary. After all, the church was simply re-enforcing an existing rule. And it was announced along with a number of other sundry items, such as the redrawing of ward boundaries. Still, the crackdown struck a chord with many of the 40 or more members it displaced. In the days after the announcement, the area church e-mail groups were abuzz with all kinds of chatter about the reasoning behind it.
Life for singles over 30 isn’t always easy. Life for singles over 30 who also happen to be LDS can be truly stressful. The church’s doctrine not only emphasizes marriage and family but practically demands them: It’s not uncommon for young members to go from first date to marriage in less than a year or for 22-year-old couples to be working on their second child.
Taylor believes single women feel more pressure because they have less control over matters. Men are the ones expected to do the asking and the pursuing; if they’re not married, it’s commonly perceived to be by choice. And when they’re unsuccessful, they’re told they simply need to be more proactive. Women, on the other hand, can be as righteous and worthy as humanly possible and still be home alone on a Friday night, left to wonder if they might be doing something wrong.
“If you’re 24 or 25, you’re off the conveyor belt, out of the system,” explains Taylor, who is 33 and recently left her job at a medical-software company to work as a tutor before she attends graduate school this fall. “It’s very difficult, especially when you’ve been told since you were a baby that you’re supposed to be a mother.”
Singles wards grew out of college wards as a sort of nudge-nudge-wink-wink opportunity created by the LDS church for postgraduate singles to share the gospel with others in the same phase of life. The church’s intent is clear: It wants single members to meet other single members so they can become married members and start families. And the best way to increase the odds is to create social opportunities at church.
With thousands of single adults and a half-dozen singles wards, the Washington metro area has a reputation among Mormons as being home to one of the largest concentration of single LDS adults in the country outside of Utah. The Colonial ward for young single adults in Alexandria grew so massive that church leaders split it into two wards of approximately 300 members each. Conventional wisdom states that if you’re LDS and want to get married, you go to one of the Huntington Beach, Calif., wards if you live in the West and the Colonial wards if you live in the East. There’s even a section of Crystal City populated by so many Mormons that church members affectionately refer to it as “Little Provo.”
With all the scoping, socializing, and matchmaking, singles wards aren’t for the faint of heart. An adolescent, self-conscious tension often permeates church services, and members commonly describe singles wards as meat markets. Instead of focusing on the lesson or the speaker, it’s all about checking people out and being checked out—how your hair looks, if she can see you, if you should whisper a funny comment to your buddy that she’ll be able to hear. In some respects, the singles-ward scene is a lot like high school, replete with cliques, unspoken popularity rankings, and a prodigious rumor mill.
This leads to church services that can look more like fashion shows than religious ceremonies. With single women outnumbering single men in the Washington area by as much as a 3-to-1 margin in one ward, competition is keen. “I think also a lot of people, especially at that age, they want to find their eternal companion or something, so they’re willing to do whatever it takes, I guess,” says Parker with a laugh.
Parker remembers giving a ride to a woman who would ask him to help her create an opportunity for her to meet some guy she was interested in. “I was like, ‘How old are you?’” he says. “‘You want me to go up to him and be like, “Uh, I know someone who likes you”?’ No, that’s too retarded.”
Sometimes it’s all too much for a burgeoning relationship to handle, and some singles do their dating on the down low. Like reality-show participants trying to hook up off-camera, they cope with the prying eyes of fellow ward members by maintaining their relationships strictly off church grounds and virtually ignoring each other on Sundays—a practice called “stealth dating.”
For most unmarried church members, singles wards are social and spiritual boons to their lives, offering an immediate, ready-made group of like-minded individuals to associate with. Still, the culture of singles wards is ripe for parody, so it should come as no surprise that it has spawned a movie, titled, appropriately enough, The Singles Ward. The 2002 satire gained a cult following in the Intermountain West by poking fun at the way socializing sometimes usurps spirituality in singles wards.
“People look at it like a prison sentence,” says John E. Moyer, the Utah comedian who penned the script for The Singles Ward. “You’re looking to get out, to find someone and not have to go to a singles ward anymore. You live in this culture where you have to get married. Girls complain that guys are dorks. Guys complain that girls are fat and ugly, the proverbial ‘sweet spirit.’ Of course, they’re all horny.”
Moyer spent three years married to a woman who’d converted to the faith for him. Things fell apart when he came home from class one day to find her with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She looked at him and deadpanned, “John, I think I’m done with this church thing.” After the divorce, Moyer found himself, at age 25, back in a singles ward, where he noticed that the older a church member got without marrying, the more of a curiosity he or she became, especially among the older generation. “That’s what’s so strange about the whole thing,” he says. “They think there’s something wrong with these people.”
The hysteria has doctrinal roots. The LDS church makes no secret of the importance it places on marriage and family. In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” an official church statement issued in 1995, leaders proclaimed that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained by God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.”
Though the ultimate goal is the same, the pressures that single men and women face during the journey vary. In a 1996 interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, All-Pro quarterback Steve Young, a direct descendant of Prophet Brigham Young, tried to explain what it’s like to be 34, single, and Mormon. “You want to talk about the pressure I feel?” Young asked Wallace. “Brigham Young once said…that anyone over 27 years of age that’s not married is a menace to society. So here’s my [great-great-great] grandfather telling me to get with it. You don’t think I feel the pressure? I guarantee it.”
Actually, Brigham Young never said that. The closest thing is something George Q. Cannon, a church apostle, said in 1878: “I am firmly of the opinion that a large number of unmarried men, over the age of 24 years, is a dangerous element in any community….” Still, Steve Young elucidated a very real concern for single Mormons as they get older: Are they failing to fulfill their spiritual duties?
Taylor was so eager to leave that she didn’t even wait until the end-date to stop attending Langley. Singles wards typically skew toward the younger end of their age range, with a strong post-college vibe. Taylor had grown out of the adolescent overtones of singles wards a long time ago and had noticed that as she got older, fewer members seemed to be able to relate to what she had to say. She’d stayed at Langley, she figures, out of complacency.
The knee-jerk impression among the dispersed 31-and-overs was that the church had simply thrown its hands up in the air. After all, most of these members had been attending singles wards for close to 10 years, plenty of time for them to find someone to marry. A common sentiment was that the church didn’t know what else to do with members who emerged from their 20s without a partner.
But it would be unfair to say that the church ostracizes or abandons its singles. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; the family wards take extra pains to ease the transition for their new single members. The church also organizes so many different activities every week that singles could spend practically every waking minute of their lives outside of work at a church activity. Aside from the three hours of church on Sundays, there are Family Home Evenings on Monday nights—families get together to talk about scripture or discuss how current events affect them as Mormons; singles create surrogate families and hang out together—Institute classes (Bible-study sessions) Tuesdays through Thursdays, and social or service activities on Fridays and Saturdays. A staple of all the events is snacks—popsicles or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, for example—to encourage attendees to “munch and mingle.”
In D.C., there are Friday and Saturday dances twice a month. The Friday dances tend to draw the younger crowd, the Saturday ones the widowed and divorced. Both are held at stake centers—churches—on theme-decorated basketball courts and elicit (sometimes painful) teenage memories. Some women bolt for the door as soon as a slow song begins; others exchange awkward glances with still-seated men as the song progresses.
This kind of extended adolescence was part of what drove Taylor’s friend Rachel Morrissey to a family ward long before the Black Sunday in March. Morrissey, also 33, began attending a family ward three years earlier, after a bad breakup with a man in the Langley ward. That, and the seemingly never-ending pity she received for not being married, distracted her from her primary reason for attending church: learning about the gospel. “I hated that part of it,” she says. “You’d get hugs from the bishop who’d say, ‘These men don’t know what they’re missing.’ They don’t know how else to feel. You’re a leftover, and they don’t know why. So you end up with a different kind of pressure, from both sides, to be flawless. You have to be thin and pretty and smart, and you’re not allowed to be sad that you’re not with someone, because that makes you feel like you messed up, but you’re not allowed to be happy about not being with someone, either, because that’s wrong. It’s a hard church to be single in.”
One recent Sunday at her new family ward, Taylor sat through a Relief Society lesson titled “Preparing for an Eternal Marriage and Family.” Several married women decided to share stories of friends who didn’t marry until very late. One by one, these women tearfully tried to boost the spirits of the single women in attendance by talking about girlfriends who persevered until they were finally blessed with marriage at the advanced age of 28. And 31. Taylor couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She squirmed and waited for it to end, but the stories kept coming. Finally, she couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “Thirty-one is not late,” she yelled, exasperated. “Eighty-two is late.”
“They’re living in this dream world, this bubble,” says Taylor. “People try to help single women feel better with these faith-promoting stories about finding marriage, but I still have to sit there and feel like I’m not quite getting something. I don’t have this, and is there something in me that doesn’t want that?”
Such is life for Taylor in a family ward. These days, simply going to church can be a trial for her, where she is surrounded by reminders of the things she wants but does not yet have. On another Sunday, Taylor sits in the chapel of the Arlington family ward wearing a stylish red floral-print skirt with a thin white cardigan and pointed heels. Her bobbed blond hair is streaked with highlights, and she holds her small hands lightly in her lap.
There are a lot of babies in the congregation. During the sacrament meeting, a steady, discordant stream of gurgles, babbles, and cries accompanies the hymns and speakers. Small children wriggle in the laps of their parents, climb over and under pews, wrap themselves in the curtains. Shrieks of “No!” erupt when a parent tries to pull a stubborn child off a precarious position atop a pew. Two rows in front of Taylor, two small, sandaled feet poke from the pew back, their young owner apparently having found a more comfortable way to sit. Just about every woman carries a child or at least wears an engagement ring. Couples sit arm in arm during the service.
A very pregnant young woman totters up to the podium to deliver a talk on fighting impure thoughts. Before she begins her prepared remarks, however, she launches into her bio, ostensibly to introduce herself but effectively a laundry list of her “accomplishments”: She and her hubby, both from Utah, began dating at 17; her husband served a two-year mission in Sweden; they married when he returned, both graduated from Brigham Young University (where the joke is that if you don’t get married by graduation, you get your tuition back), and moved to Washington so her husband could attend law school; they have a 2-year-old boy and are expecting another child in a few weeks. The young woman recounts this with obvious pride. Although she looks as if she could still be in high school, her story is not only unremarkable in the church but also what the vast majority of young Mormon women aspire to.
Taylor snorts. “This is going to sound a little bitter,” she says later, “but her résumé was picture-perfect. There’s a side of me that wants to scream, ‘What the fuck? Why just get up and tell us that?’ I have nothing to say except, ‘I’ve successfully stayed a virgin and I’m 33,’ or ‘I went on three dates last week and nobody touched my boobies.’ I have no other way to show my faithfulness. I’m being really irreverent, but it’s true.”
She pauses as her irritation passes. “As much as hearing that makes me want to tear my hair out, that’s what I want,” she says quietly. “I’m not that person, and intellectually I’d like to be married and have kids, too.”
During Sunday school, the second hour of services, a pen and clipboard get passed through the congregation. It’s a single blue sheet with the month’s calendar. At the top it reads “Elders.” People have left their names and phone numbers in the boxes.
“What’s this?” asks Taylor when she receives the clipboard.
“Feeding the elders,” her seatmate tells her. It’s common for church members to sign up to serve meals to the missionaries working in the local community.
“I’m not allowed to do this,” says Taylor, referring to church protocol. “Not without another man there.” She passes the clipboard on. “Otherwise, I might take advantage of them,” she says, laughing and rolling her eyes.
Even insignificant events at the family ward can remind Taylor that something is missing from her life. During one sacrament meeting when the air conditioning was running full blast, Taylor watched a shivering woman ask her husband for his jacket. He put it around her, and she snuggled up next to him and fell asleep, a perfect image of marital bliss.
“I saw them sitting there with their little temple marriage, and who the fuck cares if she fell asleep in church, because she’s got a husband who’s worthy,” says Taylor. “I got really, really bitter. The fact is, when I’m sitting in church and I’m freezing from the air conditioning, I can’t ask my husband for his coat. I have to sit through this situation every Sunday. I have to remember to bring a sweater, or I have to learn how to deal with the cold.”
Such candor isn’t expected from a church member, and it probably isn’t approved of. But Taylor isn’t your stereotypical Mormon. She grew up outside of Boston, where her parents were involved in progressive, feminist Mormon publications, unsanctioned by the church and considered dangerous and subversive by many members. Her favorite TV show is Sex and the City. (“My life is so different from that,” she says, “but I connect to it in so many ways.”) At George W. Bush’s 2005 inauguration, she stood with a sign that read “Mormons Against Bush” and booed the president. “I was there for seven hours,” she recalls. “It’s a highlight of my life.”
Sometimes Taylor’s reputation precedes her. She attended Langley for five years before getting asked out on a date by a fellow ward member. Once, when a man was interested in her and asked her Relief Society president for the goods on her, all the president would say was that Taylor was a feminist and from a liberal family.
“It’s kind of sad,” says Taylor. “I had a friend say to me, ‘Janna, Mormon men are raised to stay away from you.’ The whole irony of this is that I’m about the most motherly homemaker woman out there. I work with kids, I sew, I make all my food, I bake bread, I do my food-storage thing. I’m a homemaker in my own little hidden heart. I’m very feminine. I go to church every week. I’ve been on a mission. I’ve been a temple worker. I read my scriptures and talk to God every day. But I guess the way that I choose to administer my faith confuses them. I don’t know why Mormon men don’t like me.”
Taylor usually avoids singles activities, but in April, she talked herself into attending an Easter get-together that she says was “crawling with LDS men.” Not one of them talked to her the entire night. “I was one of, if not the most, physically attractive women there,” she says with uncharacteristic vanity. “I was really indignant. I think I’m a pretty good catch.”
Attractive, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and headed to Harvard to pursue a master’s degree in education, Taylor certainly appears to be a keeper—just not usually for Mormons. Taylor says she hasn’t seriously dated a church member in years; she says that non-Mormon men approach her with regularity.
Taylor even had an ex-boyfriend who had something of a Mormon fetish. He wasn’t LDS, but three girlfriends, including Taylor, had been. “We couldn’t figure it out,” laughs Taylor. “I mean, he certainly wasn’t sleeping with them. He just loved Mormon girls.”
“Chastity” is one of Taylor’s least favorite words. Though she is not and has never been sexually active, the word makes her shudder because it implies repression and denial. “It just feels so antiquated and dirty,” she says. “Even though it’s about purity, we always use it in terms of sin and the forbidden. I’d rather people use verbiage that’s more straightforward, because whether or not you’re having sex, you’re a sexual being.”
The church teaches that sex is a positive, even sacred expression of love within a marriage, but singles are expected to adhere to a strict law of chastity. This law probably goes a long way in explaining the short engagements of LDS couples—once they decide to get married, why waste any more time? It also adds another complication to over-30s single life in the church.
Taylor remembers sitting in a Relief Society lesson on chastity that her friend Catherine Ellis (now Catherine Ellis Williams) was leading. Taylor was 28 at the time. “They’re talking about things like ‘Don’t touch the penis,’” she recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Ugh, I know! I’ve been told this since I was 14.’”
So Taylor stood up and vented. “‘We all know what the law of chastity is, and we all know the reasoning behind it,’” she said, getting teary. “‘What I want to know is how I’m supposed to live this law as a 28-year-old virgin. Because the reality of the situation is that every single cell in my body is telling me to have babies.’”
“I’m a sexual being, and that doesn’t change because of my faith,” says Taylor. “The question is how to reconcile that faith with my physical body. How can I embrace my sexuality as a single woman and a Mormon?”
As difficult as it is for Taylor to reconcile, especially because she dates non-Mormon men who don’t necessarily share her views on sex, she says she has never broken off a relationship with a non-Mormon man because of her sexual morality. “It’s a lot harder to say no when you’re in your 30s,” she admits. “Physiologically, you’re halfway there all the time.”
While there are certainly Mormons out there who do everything but have intercourse, Taylor takes care to lay down the ground rules as soon as she senses a relationship with a non-Mormon turning physical. “The talk goes like this: ‘Don’t touch me [in these places], and do you know about garments?’” laughs Taylor. “It’s very sophisticated. But you’ve got to do it if you choose to live your life that way.”
“I definitely think I’m a lot more physical than a lot of other women,” admits Taylor. “Some of them won’t even French-kiss or let guys touch their butt or lie down next to each other. Oh my goodness, puh-lease. I’m 33. I’m allowed to do that.”
Though she embraces herself as a sexual being, Taylor doesn’t always feel sexy. She sums up the reason in one word: garments. Endowed church members (those who have been deemed worthy and who have gone through a series of temple rituals, a prerequisite for a temple marriage) are required to wear sacred undergarments, a symbol of God’s covenant to protect the wearer, at all times except during the three S’s: sports, swimming, and sex. In the old days they looked like long johns, but there’s nothing that frumpy about them these days—male garments resemble longish boxer briefs and T-shirts; female garments look like lacy bike shorts and camisoles. They’re made of all sorts of material; the ones with Lycra woven into them are popular with the younger women, who also tend to wear the snuggest-fitting they can. Still, at the same time that Mormon men are routinely admonished for not giving unfashionably dressed women a shot, the undergarments limit a woman’s fashion choices. Taylor says she looked through eight pages of summer tops at the Ann Taylor Loft online store and found only one she could wear with her garments.
“If I’m not having sex, I want to at least feel sexy, and garments make it harder for you to feel that you’re attractive to men, even though I realize intellectually that attractiveness isn’t about skin,” says Taylor. “Garments aren’t sexy, and every time I go to the bathroom, that’s what I’ve got to look at.”
Luckily for her, the garments haven’t been a deterrent for the men she’s dated. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” she says. “I mean, it’s underwear, so they’re curious.”
Five years ago, Taylor was engaged to a Mormon man she met at Langley. He had signed up to help her move into a new place, and they began dating. Four months later, he proposed. But soon after their engagement, Taylor sensed something amiss. Her intuition was confirmed when she discovered that he had lied about his sexual history. Even though the wedding invitations had already been printed, Taylor called it off. He’s now married to another woman, and they have a baby.
Since then, the only Mormon man that Taylor felt any real connection to was someone in her Arlington ward. They dated a few years ago, but because of their prior friendship, she knew that he was in love with another woman. Against her instincts, and letting her bruised ego guide her decision, she broke up with him. But the feelings never died, and not long ago, she gathered the courage to ask if he wanted to give them a second chance. By then, he already had another girlfriend. Other prospects are slim. Taylor counts five, maybe six single men in her ward and says all but two are gay. “I’m not positively sure they’re gay,” she cautions. “I’m 99.9 percent sure, though.”
So out of disposition and necessity, Taylor dates outside the church. “There are so many amazing, interesting men out there,” she says. “If I was determined to get married in the temple, I’d be depressed every day.”
Taylor also fears she might lose her identity in a traditional Mormon household. “Will [my husband] turn around one day and tell me I’m not being a good Mormon wife?” she wonders.
Taylor’s struggle to carve out a place in Mormonism that feels right to her is admirable to some, disappointing to others. The church loves each individual member, and its teachings are certainly open for interpretation, but it stops short of changing its tenets for individual consumption. To some members, Taylor’s justifications for dating non–church members are simply rationalizations for disobedience. “I’m not going to judge people because they feel that way,” says Matt Wade, a 27-year-old Langley ward member. “But I’d say that’s a little misguided. You should shoot for something higher than that.”
A few months ago, Taylor did give it a shot. A man began sitting next to her at church, and after a number of Sundays, he turned to her after the sacrament meeting and asked if she was planning on going to a fireside chat that former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt was giving at the D.C. temple’s visitor’s center. Taylor wasn’t really into this man, who struck her as too much of a straight-arrow, but she liked his sense of humor and decided to give him a chance.
Taylor had enjoyed testing her Mormon dates on occasion, like ordering coffee-flavored ice cream just to see how they would react (usually not well). But she restrained herself at the fireside, acting demure and letting him do most of the talking. “I’d told myself that I was going to be open, and that there was no need to shock the pants off him,” she says. “That just would’ve been mean.”
The two had a nice time chatting, but Taylor’s date seemed put off when he learned that she was five years older than he. As she got out of the car at the end of the evening, she could tell he wasn’t going to ask her out again. “I have to say I was disappointed, because I said I wasn’t going to judge this book by its cover,” says Taylor. “I felt like I needed to be open. You never know.”
“I worry that I will be that woman, the one that was in my church growing up who was like 45 and unmarried and lived in a single apartment,” says Taylor. “And maybe I will be, I don’t know. I guess if I am, it’ll be OK. The part of my life where I feel like God really micromanages me is my dating life. Why can’t it just be easy? Why does it have to be so hard?”
Someone once asked Taylor how she stayed an active Mormon, with all her contradictions and trouble dating within the faith. She had often wondered herself, and had found comfort in a Winston Churchill quote: “True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.”
Taylor considered the question again. “‘Being a Mormon is a trip,’” Taylor recalls answering. “‘It’s interesting to belong to a minority Christian faith in the United States, and it’s just an interesting way to live your life.’”
Taylor let that sink in, enjoying the mini epiphany before realizing she had left something out. “‘Oh yeah,’” she added. “‘And I believe it.’”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.