Commentary: Mormon apostle needs to clarify his remarks about ‘nonconsensual immorality,’ because even unintended words can do harm

On Sunday, near the end of the 2018 General Conference, Mormon apostle Quentin L. Cook took a moment to discuss the #MeToo movement.

“It is commendable that nonconsensual immorality has been exposed and denounced,” he said. “Such nonconsensual immorality is against the laws of God and of society. Those who understand God’s plan should also oppose consensual immorality, which is also a sin.”

Harsh reaction to his choice of saying “nonconsensual immorality” instead of rape, assault or abuse swiftly followed online. I tweeted, “Telling victims that they’ve engaged in immorality is victim blaming no matter how many qualifiers you put in front of it.”

As others defended his word choice as just fine in that he obviously was putting the onus on the perpetrator and not the victim, I realized that a quick lesson was in order on why careful words matter, especially in this time when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is working hard to make changes after claims of abuse within the institution.

Chewed gum

Elizabeth Smart decried the use of chewed-gum analogies in teaching about sexual sin because during her captivity, when she was sexually assaulted multiple times, that metaphor was what she remembered.

Smart explained:

“I thought, ‘I’m that chewed-up piece of gum. Nobody rechews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.”

So for many of those who were victims of sexual assault, the church’s teachings seemed to suggest they were garbage and were no longer worthy.

But slowly the culture around these lessons is changing as the church continues to update its resources on abuse and this filters into the youth curriculum.

Moroni 9:9

From the time the “virtue” category was added to the list of values in 2008, in the faith’s Young Women program for teenage girls and included in accompanying lessons was a problematic Book of Mormon scripture — Moroni 9:9 — that stated that the daughters of the Lamanites had been taken prisoner and raped, and that they were deprived of “that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue.”

Virginity in this passage was equated with virtue and seemed to be regarded as more important than these women’s very lives.

I celebrated the removal of this teaching from the curriculum in 2016: “We are no longer teaching a young woman’s virtue can be taken by being raped. Hooray! And thank goodness.” No longer were we equating rape with a loss of virtue to any young woman.

‘Nonconsensual immorality’

That brings us to this past Sunday. In choosing to use the language of “nonconsensual immorality” and further correctly define immorality as “sin,” Cook suggested that people who are the victims of sexual assault or misconduct are somehow implicated.

He then moved directly to decrying “consensual immorality,” declaring that “those who understand God’s plan must also oppose consensual immorality, which is also a sin.” Presumably from this statement he was referring to several behaviors the LDS Church has denounced in the past — from premarital sex to gay relationships.

The fact that he employed the same language suggests equivalency with rape, as though premarital sex and rape are the same level of wrongdoing. The wording has the effect of making his previous comments about “nonconsensual immorality” about the sex, and not about the assault.

Without some clarifying discussion about a victim sharing absolutely none of the sin, he’s implicitly taught that they are somehow a part of the immorality. While this is likely not what he meant — but has been taught by prophets and apostles in the past — he should clarify it in unambiguous terms.

Was Cook trying to be harmful with his rhetoric? Of course not. Were those who taught the chewed-gum analogies and the Book of Mormon story without context trying to do harm or further false teachings? No.

But we have recognized how such rhetoric does do harm, regardless of intent, and made and continue to make corrections. Since Cook’s words will be studied by millions in the coming months, the time is now to make a similar correction, so that the teaching is not perpetuated.

Emily W. Jensen is the web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and co-editor of “A Book of Mormons: Latter-day Saints on a Modern-Day Zion.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.