Since October 2017, millions of women have united in a movement exposing the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault across the world using the hashtag “MeToo.” By December 2017, on Twitter alone, 1.7 million people from 85 countries had participated in the #MeToo movement. Mothers, daughters, women in business, tech, and entertainment continue to add their voices to this narrative. Mormon women, however, remain largely silent.
According to a survey by the CDC, one in five women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. One in four American girlswill experience some kind of sexual abuse by the age of 18. While there are no concrete statistics on the number of American Mormon women who have experienced sexual assault, we can assume that the number is on par with national averages. Mormons are not infallible, and Mormon women are not unsusceptible to this all too common affliction of womanhood.
So, why are Mormon women — a demographic of which I am a part — widely absent from the #MeToo movement? Perhaps it is because of the culture surrounding sexuality within the LDS Church. Culturally speaking, Mormons do not discuss sex in any concrete way. While we are encouraged to remain sexually pure and chaste, as is demarcated in the law of chastity, conversations about sexuality are often vague and awkward. It is almost taboo — and at the very least incredibly socially uncomfortable — to talk about sex within the Mormon cultural context.
If sex is taboo in Mormonism, sexual violence is even more so. However, remaining mum only serves to alienate those that deviate from the cultural norm. By acknowledging that many Mormon women are the victims of sexual misconduct, and by teaching the true meaning of purity and the intricacies of the law of chastity, the conversation may begin to take place and the problematic notions of purity, virtue, and virginity can be abandoned.
Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. In church youth classes, topics of sexual violence and appropriateness, and sexuality in general, should be discussed without the cloak of vague generalities. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, young women aged 16-19 are up to four times as likely than the average population to be victims of sexual violence.
Speaking to Mormon youth about the reality of sexual misconduct, while uncomfortable, can only serve to create a culture of openness and awareness to the frequency and magnitude of sexual violence. Allowing Mormon women to feel open to discussing their experiences will promote healing and acceptance instead of shame and secrecy.
While opening a dialogue to the complexity of consent and the harsh reality of sexual violence within our community is imperative, changing the way we speak about sexual purity and the law of chastity itself is even more crucial. Elizabeth Smart, the victim of kidnapping and repeated sexual violence as a teenager, is an outspoken Mormon woman who has voiced the drastic pitfalls of our culture’s view of sexual purity.
In an interview with Broadly, she expressed how damaging equating chastity and worth can be for victims of sexual assault. She stated, “I was kidnapped and raped, and one of the first thoughts I had was, ‘No one is ever going to want to marry me now: I’m worthless, I’m filthy, I’m dirty.’ I think every rape survivor feels those same feelings, but having that with the pressure of faith compound on top—it was almost crippling.”
The way that many Mormons associate sexual purity with righteousness is especially detrimental to those members whose agency was taken from them. Victims of sexual violence did not choose to break the law of chastity, and therefore the cultural narrative surrounding purity is deleterious to the victims’ perception of their self-worth.
Riddled throughout LDS scriptures are potentially harmful notions of sexual purity and innate value. For example, in Moroni 9:9 it states, “For behold, many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue.” What does this verse, which likens a woman’s virginity to that which is “most dear and precious above all things,” teach a sexual assault survivor? It shows them that despite not choosing to break the law of chastity they have still lost their virtue and value. Without clarification and affirmation of innate value — separate from virginity — from both local and general church leaders, verses like this can fill a survivor with immense anguish and devastation.
Similarly, Elizabeth Smart speaks of a lesson she received as a young woman in church, where a woman having sex before marriage was compared to a piece of gum being chewed. She was taught: Who would want a piece of gum that has already been chewed? This analogy only serves to alienate those who deviate from the sexual norm, and it is especially damaging to those whose agency was ripped from them through sexual violence.
Unfortunately, her experience is not singular. During my youth, I underwent many years of unease during Sunday classes where my teachers, unbeknownst to them, shattered my self-esteem by coupling the sanctity of motherhood with chastity before marriage. As a victim of sexual assault, I struggled internally with the idea of being inherently unclean because of the actions of another. I felt vast emptiness at the thought of being perpetually, unceasingly impure.
The practice of identifying virginity with worth, however, is entirely cultural and must be recognized as such and eradicated. The law of chastity is important to Mormons, and Mormon doctrine, and is thus taught frequently in church. Sadly, instead of creating an environment of love and acceptance, the focus on sexual purity within these lessons often leads to shame and silence for those who — for whatever reason — diverge from the sexual norm. This practice is especially harmful when the loss of virginity (or sex out of marriage) is taught in such a way as to promote shame. As Mormons, we need to be aware of the detrimental nature of this cultural definition of purity.
We must have open discussions about sex that do not contribute to the trauma and uncleanliness that a sexual assault survivor already feels. Local church leaders (for it is largely the responsibility of those with direct and frequent contact with members) should not equate chastity with purity in their lessons. They should stress the importance of remaining chaste, but also pointedly state that it is choosing to break the law of chastity that is against the doctrine of the church. Victims of sexual assault have their choice taken from them.
One does not become spiritually unclean or lose spiritual purity if one is assaulted; purity is only lost with intention. Stressing the words “chastity,” “sexual purity,” and “virtue” together only implies that sexual assault victims do not hold those characteristics. Purity and virtue are not determined by virginity, but rather by obedience to commandments and integrity of heart or mind. LDS scripture affirms this, stating: “For I will raise up unto myself a pure people, that will serve me in righteousness” (D&C 136:37). Local lessons need to reflect this principle.
We cannot expect survivors of sexual assault to be able to speak up. Fear, remaining trauma, uncertainty, and a myriad of other factors may inhibit a woman from sharing her experience. Instead, we can change the conversation surrounding sexual purity so that shame and embarrassment are not reasons for their silence. For, it is virtue, not virginity, that determines our worth.
With this understanding gained from a decade of introspection I can now articulate my experience: When I was 10 years old, I was raped by an unworthy priesthood holder. For years I grappled in silence with the law of chastity and all it entails, as someone whose agency was torn from her. But now, now I know that it is my character — not my sexual purity — that determines my worth. I am no less a woman of virtue because of that event. #MeToo.
Rebecca Fetzer is a student at Brigham Young University studying sociocultural anthropology.