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Lithium Rihanna, Freud, and Mormon porn: religious fetishism in pop culture

Dec. 11, 2020
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The 2020 Savage X Fenty Show was a huge success, receiving high praise for inclusion, style, and body positivity—until Muslim fans on social media pointed out the use of a Hadith verse in the show’s runway music. In an interview with CNN, Columbia student and viral tweeter Myesha Choudhury said, “Personally, I felt very disrespected, especially since the show was supposed to be revolutionarily inclusive. While I do extremely appreciate how the show showcased all types of races, ethnicities, and body types, I was disappointed that such an inclusive show would alienate its Muslim audience.” The song in question, “Doom” by Coucou Chloe, contained a remix of a sacred text and has since been removed from all streaming platforms. Rihanna has also released a statement on her Instagram story apologizing and promising to edit their video, available on Amazon, accordingly. 

Both the brand and the musician’s apologies plead ignorance as an excuse; Coucou Chloe, born Erika Jane, tweeted that she “was not aware that these samples used text from an Islamic Hadith.” Jane’s response, however, shows that she is guilty of choosing tracks because of their “foreign” or “exotic” appeal without researching their meaning. As for Savage X Fenty, the co-opting of Muslim components is not a new phenomenon. After the brand’s inaugural fashion show, Savage X Fenty Volume One, Rihanna dressed non-hijabi models such as Bella Hadid in head coverings that closely resembled hijabs, eliciting more Twitter outrage. Is lingerie always objectifying the wearer? Absolutely not. In Savage X Fenty’s case, their mission statement is empowerment. But the brand’s choice to use the music outside of its intended context, whatever that context, was inappropriate and disrespectful. Plus, it adds a certain level of irony that a company whose inclusive brand of “fuck the patriarchy” is profiting from fetishizing and aestheticizing sacred texts and symbols.  

We don’t usually talk about Rihanna and Mormon porn in the same breath, but in this case, I think it’s appropriate. Mormon porn, for those who don’t know, is a genre of pornography that depicts sex between actors impersonating members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, a Christian sect that is notoriously strict and sex-negative. Mormon porn eroticizes virginity, polygamy, and, sometimes, molestation. A typical scene is played out by multiple young women—usually blonde, nubile, and dressed in white clothes reminiscent of temple garments—and one or two older men implied to hold positions of authority within the church. The men instruct the women to perform sexual acts, remove their clothing, and force them into subjugative sexual positions. 

“Muslim porn” is also a category on adult sites, albeit one that has received less mainstream attention. What these two genres have in common is that it’s not really the religion that is being eroticized—it’s the power dynamics. More specifically, it’s the perceived submissiveness of women who adhere to these religions. An even more insidious take is that the appeal of this type of porn lies in the idea of violating a woman’s choice to control the visibility of her own body, through modest clothing or abstinence.  

The fetishism of religion in American pop culture often fails to take into consideration the ability of women to maintain agency and have faith. Organized religion often works in conjunction with the patriarchy, but faith can also be personal. In recent years, many young Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab have publicly shared their reasons to do so, and a common theme is empowerment. In a 2015 video for BBC, Hinna Amaani refers to wearing the hijab as “taking your body back.” We can’t ignore hundreds of years of homophobia, misogyny, and disenfranchisement by religious institutions, but we can examine how the history of religion affects contemporary conceptions of sex and how those conceptions are changing. Sexualization of religious faith, as it manifests now in America, relies on its homogenization, on the erasure of independent sexual choice by religious women, as well as the myth of virginity and male-centered ideals of sexual repression. 

The purity myth conflates virginity with female virtue and is traditionally present in and associated with orthodox religions—for example, the 2019 Netflix movie Yes, God, Yes featuring Natalia Dyer. Think secretly using cell phones on the vibration setting to masturbate, covert fellatio in the woods, and a huge amount of slut-shaming. The common thread is the idea of repression. 

So, let’s talk about Freud. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory relies heavily on the existence of a subconscious into which unwanted desires, thoughts, and experiences are pushed or repressed. Freud also theorized that sexual repression was the biggest source of problems in Westerm society. Freudian discourse runs deep in American pop culture, from colloquialisms—Oedipus complex, libido, anal retentive—to Netflix shows and movies fraught with daddy issues. The idea of female sexual repression, especially in conjunction with the additional boundaries of religious aesthetics, implies that the female sex object is freaky behind closed doors in a way that contributes to a more powerful participant’s pleasure. In many cases, the more powerful participant is male. 

It’s difficult to draw a line between kink and objectionable material. The founders of the two original Mormon porn sites claim that this form of expression seems to them to undermine the institution. The creator of MormonBoyz.com, pseudonym Legrand Wolf, told Vice that the site was an expression of what his sexual life might have been had he been allowed to explore it fully while a part of the church. One major difference is that MormonBoyz deals exclusively in homoerotic desire that can’t exist publicly in any form within the Church of Latter-Day Saints—its expression undermines Mormon “values.” Heterosexual Mormon porn reinforces the patriarchal structure of the Church by reinforcing the image of the sexually passive Mormon girl, ready to be defiled. 

The choices made by religious women, such as dressing modestly or following sacred texts, do not represent repression; it’s the collective myth of sexual repression that empowers people to disrespect these choices by imagining that they were not made with agency. Savage X Fenty’s runway blunders and the heterosexual Mormon porn industry are only symptoms of a system which buys into a false Freudian causality. Religious fetishism doesn’t happen because religion is intrinsically sexually repressive, however it may manifest within patriarchal institutions, but because it is believed to be.
Illustration by Sarah Lawrence for Vox