Dear 100 Hour Board,
When describing her experience with captivity and sexual assault, Elizabeth Smart mentioned that the chastity lessons she sat through in seminary and Sunday school compounded her feelings of shame because she was no longer a virgin. She cited object lessons that likened unchaste women to chewed gum, licked cake, etc. The thing is, the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet clearly states that rape victims are not guilty of sin and don't need to repent.
Is there a way to teach the importance of sexual purity while also ensuring that young people understand the difference between sexual sin and abuse?
I feel like it's definitely possible. I know for a fact that it's possible because I never received a chastity lesson like that in young men's and we weren't ever confused about the difference between sin and rape. I think it's terrible that young women often get shame centered lessons that lead to some harmful views on sex. Thankfully, I think we as a culture are starting to realize that there are better ways to teach the law of chastity. I am by no means an expert on teaching the law of chastity, but as someone who has grown up in the church and has been subjected to many a chastity lesson I've noticed several things I'd like to share.
- Object Lessons: The thing about object lessons is that they compare people to objects and thereby objectify them. Also, most of them are terrible metaphors. The law of chastity is a very straight forward doctrine so there's no reason to complicate it through dicey metaphors.
- Teach Through Fear or Shame: I feel like these lessons are used as fear tactics to keep people from having sex. It's okay to explain that breaking the law of chastity has consequences, but there's a difference between a warning and threatening or manipulating. If you can't tell it's best to just not say anything and be safe.
- Tie Worth to Purity: Sheebs talks about some problems with the concept of purity and I agree. Tying someone's worth to whether or not they've had sex ties is not consistent with the Gospel view of repentance or the Atonement and unfortunately we do this with many teachings of the church and not just chastity.
- Tie Worth to Purity in Order to Please Men: There is a difference between telling a young women that they will be glad to save themselves for marriage, and between saying they should keep themselves a virgin for their husband. The difference is subtle, but it sends the message that they are a sexual object to satisfy men. It makes it seems as if their own sexuality is for someone else and puts a burden on them of not only having to keep commandments for themselves but also a sense of duty to their future husbands.
- Teach the Doctrine in a Positive Manner: I feel like too often teachers are embarrassed to talk about the law of chastity. We receive great blessings for living a chaste life. Instead of focusing on guilt or shame for not living the law of chastity, talk about the blessings we receive when we do our best to keep it.
- Teach Clearly: You could easily sit through 100 lessons on the law of chastity and what it is, and what it isn't. You could sum it up so quickly "Sex should be reserved between a lawfully wedded man and a women". Sheebs makes a good point about who should be teaching kids about sex. Details about what is and what isn't sex should be left to parents but if you're teaching a lesson you can say the word sex instead of awkwardly avoiding the topic for 50 minutes.
- Teach What Abuse Is: Read For Strength of Youth with them. Ask them if they have questions. Teach them about consent. Read this talk about consent by Benjamin M. Ogles. It's an amazing talk and I think that everyone, men and women, should read this talk.
- Teach Them To Report Sexual Abuse: Teach them the importance of reporting sexual abuse to local police authorities. Teach them to get help. Tell them to report someone who abuses even if it's a family member or ward member. Especially if it's a ward member or family member.
- Believe Them if They Tell You They've Been Abused: Believe them and help them receive the care they need. Don't ask them what they were wearing or what they were doing before hand.
- Testify About the Law of Chastity: If you're teaching in a positive way, avoiding fear, shame, and objectification, testimony is a powerful tool. As a missionary I had to teach the law of chastity to married couples, teenagers, and 80 year old grandmas. Most of the time all I did was give them a one sentence description and testify. The Holy Ghost does not bring feelings of fear, shame, or hate. Those you teach will feel your testimony.
Seriously. Every human being should read this talk about consent by Benjamin Ogles.
Yes, and I think it is very important to teach that distinction. Sexual abuse and/or rape is not a sin for the victim. This should be very clear.
I think if you are open and honest about the law of chastity, like you are in your question, you'll be just fine as you teach it.
-Sunday Night Banter
For what it's worth--and it's not worth much--Elizabeth was in my home ward growing up, and therein neither I or my older sister ever heard the licked cake/chewed gum metaphor. I'm not saying Elizabeth didn't hear this, because she is legit, kind, truthful, and everything, but just that dumb metaphor being shared in church was not the only thing shared in church in that ward.
Anyways, Elizabeth is cool, and I agree that there needs to be a more careful way for this concept to be shared.
This is a slight tangent, but I think a lot of the problem is that the entire concept of sex is stigmatized, so people to some degree see sex itself as sinful. Which is obviously not the case.
The following is completely my opinion and doesn't necessarily reflect the views of the Church, but I also really, really dislike the teaching that sexual sin is third in seriousness, only behind murder and denying the Holy Ghost. If we're going to rank sins, I believe it ought to be done more specifically. For example, raping a child is exponentially worse than masturbating. Hiring a prostitute solely to fulfill lust is worse than two people who genuinely love and respect each other getting carried away.
I'm not denying that sexual sin is serious, but the sexual sins that most people are susceptible to, like sex before marriage, are not comparable with murder (again, in my opinion). Treating all sexual sin equally and comparing it with unforgivable acts is going to give people some unhealthy attitudes even if they aren't told they're like a piece of chewed gum and even if they themselves hold no guilt in the situation.
Dear K.V. Terzaghi,
One of the best talks that I have listened to on the subject of sex is Brad Wilcox's "Sex is Like an Apple". Though he doesn't address sexual abuse or rape, he does talk about some of the other misconceptions (including your chewed gum example), and his address is specifically addressed to youth. Also, who doesn't love Brad Wilcox?
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think we way overemphasize the importance of sexual purity to the point where it's become harmful. Because sexual purity is so crucial, we sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between sexual sin and abuse. There are so many examples of this in our culture. Elizabeth Smart. Elder Cook, who said in General Conference in 2018, "It is commendable that nonconsensual immorality has been exposed and denounced. 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." Moroni 9:9, which says that young women who were raped were deprived of “that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue," implying that being virtuous, or a virgin, is more important than life. In The Miracle of Forgiveness, Spencer W. Kimball wrote, “Also far-reaching is the effect of the loss of chastity. ... It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.”
If sexual sin is in the same category of murder, then raping someone is tantamount to destroying their soul (which seems to be what Moroni and Kimball are implying). And yet we have a culture of blaming the victim. The assault victim was engaging in "nonconsensual immorality", implying he or she was acting in immorality, because the prefix doesn't matter. (Even if someone is "unintentionally sinning" or "unwittingly sinning" they are still sinning.) Or they are blamed because it would have been better for them to die defending their virtue.
I don't think we will be able to teach our cultural view of the high importance of sexual purity without blurring the lines between sexual sin and abuse.
-guppy of doom
I won't keep this response over hours by writing a novel like I usually do*, but I wanted to make a comment extending something that Luciana said. My own experience in the church has been that we tend to massively oversimplify the whole subject of sexual purity.
Probably the most common scriptural reference is Alma 39, which is Alma's lecture to his son Corianton on the seriousness of sexual sin. I think we tend to interpret this scripture too strongly without regard for the context, and as a consequence we end up sort of trying to scare youth into keeping the law of chastity. To paraphrase Brad Wilcox in one of my Book of Mormon lectures, we often hold up chewed gum or ice cream with dirt in it (some other appealing-but-soiled object) and we say "This is YOU when you don't keep the law of chastity!"
This is precisely the opposite message we should be teaching the youth. We tell them, "Don't do this! It's bad and wicked and sinful and sure you can repent I suppose but..." and then we trail off sort of ominously and leave it at that. The whole point of the Atonement of Jesus Christ is that nobody is permanently stained by any sin except those they refuse to repent of. Nobody should ever believe that they're worth less or that they're damaged goods because they made a mistake, even if it's a sexual one. I've never for the life of me understood how the chewed gum metaphor even came to be--it's not an accurate model of the doctrine. I would argue it's in flat contradiction to it. You can't unchew a piece of gum or sift dirt out of a bowl of ice cream, but the central miracle of Christianity is that sin can, in fact, be erased, and the Lord will remember it no more.
Back to Alma 39. Now, like Luciana, I want to make clear that I'm also in no way trying to make light of sexual sin or suggest that it doesn't matter. However, the way we approach a discussion about sex and proper/improper expressions of sexuality needs to be carefully tailored to meet the needs and understanding of the audience, and I think this is where we culturally have a hard time. It's easy to simply read Alma 39 and just say, "Unchastity is next to murder, period" and let the chapter speak for itself. The problem I have with this is that we don't really acknowledge the context of the chapter: Alma is correcting his son for doing something very specific, namely abandoning his missionary assignment to go after a harlot. If a missionary today were to do that, they would almost certainly be sent home and likely face Church discipline to boot. But isn't that on another level of seriousness compared to (for example) masturbation? Are there any grounds for considering the two offenses to be equally serious? I don't think so. Again, the point isn't that sexual sin is inconsequential or no sin at all--but there are clearly different degrees of sin when it comes to improper expression of sexuality; in my experience we really struggle to effectively communicate that.
Furthermore, the sexual landscape of the 21st century is totally incomparable to that of Alma's day, and I think it's helpful to remember that. I don't think Alma ever conceived of a world as awash in free and easily accessible pornographic media and sexual temptation as ours is. While pornography isn't exactly a recent invention, thanks to the Internet, it's totally without parallel in the ancient world in terms of accessibility, scope, and impact. Again, that doesn't make it acceptable, but it does mean we need to be more realistic about how the problem has changed in our time and how depressingly common it is. Corianton's sin didn't involve a Google search five seconds away from his fingertips, but that's the problem facing our youth today. We should be responding accordingly. If you only teach that all sexual sin is next to murder in seriousness, how is the 16 year-old in seminary silently struggling with an unwanted and accidental porn addiction going to feel? You're putting them in Corianton's shoes even though they're not remotely in the same circumstances. Strictly speaking, they're not even committing the same sin. And I'm pretty sure they're probably not wearing the same shoes, either. Did Corianton even have shoes? Does anyone know?
Sorry for the novel (and so soon into my career, too), but this is something I feel quite strongly about. This is all too many words to say that I think a more careful and nuanced reading of Alma 39 is in order. I think the youth of the church especially could use a practical and frank acknowledgement that curiosity and confusion during puberty is a normal part of life and that being the victim of abuse from someone else has no impact whatsoever on their own personal worthiness--where there is no agency, there is no sin. As long as we keep stigmatizing sex itself as the problem like it's some kind of ugly necessary evil, rather than the beautiful God-given gift we always say that it is, I think we'll struggle to make the proper distinction between sin and abuse. For there to be such a thing as sexual abuse, there has to be a normal, understood sexual use. Doctrinally, this is very clear. Culturally--for whatever unfortunate reason--we're not quite there yet. But like the other writers, I'm optimistic that we'll get there.
*I always say this. It never works.