CW: General discussion of sexual assault
When I was a teenager, my Utah County ward had a “morality talk” for the youth about every six months. (It was only years later that I learned that in other contexts, “morality” had a much broader meaning, and wasn’t just code for “chastity.”) Often they wouldn’t tell us the topic in advance, guessing (probably correctly) that pretty much no one had a great desire to hear yet another morality talk. We would asks our leaders suspiciously, is this going to be about morality again, and they would dodge the question. The talks, usually given by the bishop, tried to emphasize to us the seriousness of engaging in “immorality.” We heard a lot about the sin next to murder, and why sex outside of marriage was so terrible (not, of course, that the word “sex” was ever uttered). Often we would be allowed to submit anonymous questions, most of which turned out to be variants of “how far is too far?” and “how do I know when I need to confess?” There were no clear answers given to these questions, though we did get to hear about the dangers of “necking” and “petting,” terms which no one seemed able to quite define. We watched what we called the river movie a lot (the one in which a bunch of teens go river rafting, and one reckless young man neglects to wear a life jacket, while the voice of Spencer W. Kimball warns about evil.) At the end we would hear about the atonement and the possibility of repentance, with encouragement to come talk to the bishop if necessary. To my leaders’ credit, I don’t recall hearing analogies suggesting that engaging in sexual behavior would cause irreversible spiritual damage that even the atonement couldn’t fix (e.g., leaving you as chewed-up gum or a board with scars from nails). On the other hand, I wasn’t paying all that much attention. One of my friends in a different stake told me that her YW leader had bought them all crystal temples, which, if they remained pure, they were to present to their husbands on their wedding nights. If they slipped, they were supposed to smash the temple. I wasn’t overly aware of the problems in this discourse at that point in my life, but even I thought that was a little weird.
But as a teenage girl who wasn’t interested in boys, the subject mostly just bored me. I was actually a bit resentful, truth be told, that the subject took up so much bandwidth. It didn’t take me long to grasp that my challenges (such as being suicidally depressed) weren’t high on the list of anyone’s priorities. (Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever heard a single word about mental health in my six years as a YW.) It was pretty much taken for granted that the major dilemma confronting teens was that of whether to have sex. One bishop, explaining why we needed to have these morality talks so often, mentioned the statistic that in Utah County, there was an average of one unwed pregnant teenage girl per ward per year. He noted that our ward was right on track with those numbers. Evidently the talks weren’t working all that well.
There are a lot of things that stand out to me looking back at all of that, but this is one of the most unsettling ones: the issue of consent never came up at all. Ever. It was completely off the radar. As young women, we heard that we needed to dress modestly to help the boys control their thoughts and other such gems, but we never talked at all about how to be full agents in our relationship choices.
I’m not going to argue with the church’s standard of chastity; I can see a lot of value in it. But I do think the way the topic is discussed and framed is often fraught with problems. Something that’s been troubling me a lot lately is how often rape essentially gets theologically categorized as being just another violation of the law of chastity. One problem with a paradigm in which any sexual activity outside of marriage is the second-worst possible sin is that it indiscriminately tosses a rather diverse number of activities into the same bucket, from two unmarried adults willingly sleeping together to outright assault. To put it baldly: if the only thing worse than fornication is killing someone, what theological room is left to condemn rape as a much more serious sin? Is it possible that we are giving some youth the impression that there’s not actually much moral difference between consensual unmarried sex and coerced unmarried sex, given that all unmarried sex is deeply transgressive? (And where in that paradigm is any language for condemning coerced married sex?)
Along these lines, in listening to many different Mormon women discuss their experiences over the years, I’ve found myself wondering: when one person forces another to participate in unwanted sexual activity, and the parties end up in the bishop’s office, how is the problem framed? Is it seen solely as a problem of two people having had illicit sexual contact? Put another way, is sexual assault treated as something qualitatively different from engaging in unsanctioned but consensual sexual activity? I imagine that as with many things, leadership roulette comes into play here, but I’m aware of too many cases where the problem has been entirely seen as one of two people breaking the rules about sex, even in cases where consent was clearly lacking. The practice of interrogating rape victims to determine their level of culpability is just one symptom of this problem. I have heard far too many stories from women who talked to their bishops about being sexually assaulted in some way, and were told that they needed to repent. This horrific response seems connected to a framework in which the focus is entirely on whether some particular sexual activity is licit, and questions of consent aren’t even considered.
And I think bringing that question into the conversation is relevant even in cases that don’t involve assault. I had a friend years ago whose story I found somewhat haunting. She’d been sexually abused by a male family member when she was young, and she had a history of doing whatever it took to keep the boys in her life happy. She finally broke down and admitted that she’d had sex with her boyfriend, and dutifully went and confessed to her bishop. At the time, she was maybe 16 or 17, and the guy was a couple of years older. It seemed fairly clear to me that she’d felt pressured into the activity—no, she hadn’t been forced, but nor had it been her idea. From her report, it sounds like it was treated fairly straightforwardly as just another case of a teenager breaking the law of chastity, and her bishop assigned her to read The Miracle of Forgiveness. I remember being a little uneasy with the whole thing, but not totally sure why. Looking back, I think wow—she needed a lot more than to just be told “you’ve committed a terrible sin and you need to repent.” I’m not sure that she really knew that she could say no.
I can see the challenges of talking about this differently, though. It seems a little parallel to the conundrum of how to communicate to teenagers, ideally, don’t have sex—but if you do choose to do so, it would be a good idea to use birth control. Is there a way to say, okay, the optimal path here is to not be sexually active in the first place, but whatever you do, be really really serious about the consent thing? Would it be useful to talk clearly not only about the church’s standards with regard to sexual activity, but also about respect for the autonomy of other people as an absolutely essential component of morality? I do think this is one of many reasons that the catch-all “sin next to murder” framework needs to be completely jettisoned. And I think it would be worthwhile to develop a more robust theology around the importance of getting consent, and respecting boundaries—which of course applies to many more contexts than just questions of sexuality. Do we have a culture in which it’s acceptable for women especially to say no to men? People regularly reassure me that it’s a complete misunderstanding of church teachings when men think that holding the priesthood entitles them to authority over basically all women, but if it’s a misunderstanding, it’s one I’ve encountered far too often.
I had feminist sympathies from a pretty young age, but while I managed to challenge the hierarchical model of gender, I nonetheless uncritically absorbed the message that complete self-sacrifice was the Christian ideal for women in particular (think about all those Conference talks praising women for just that), and setting boundaries was an act of selfishness. I think a message that it was okay to have a self, to have needs and limits and even desires, and that it was legitimate to think about those things in making decisions, would have been tremendously helpful. And I don’t think that’s unrelated to this issue. Because people who don’t have selves, who don’t see themselves as agents, aren’t actually able to consent. Maybe that’s a place to start. But I’d love to hear other ideas.