Hot Topic: Abstinence

7 May

About a week ago, Elizabeth Smart gave a speech at Johns Hopkins University about sex-trafficking, and seemingly out of nowhere my Facebook news feed was filled with a flurry of posts about how abstinence education caused her prolonged captivity and repeated rapes.  Ms. Smart was raised in Utah–a place where abstinence does not carry quite the same stigma of being “out-dated” as it does in other parts of the country–and she was raised (and still is) a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–a church that teaches the undeviating standard of chastity.  So growing up, Ms. Smart was taught about abstinence and chastity. She was taught that her virtue–not merely her virginity, rather her virtue–was priceless.  And so, when she gave her speech at Johns Hopkins, some critics of abstinence education, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), and the greater principles of virtue and chastity took her words, twisted them up, and blamed the whole idea of sexual moral education for Ms. Smart’s suffering.

Self-proclaimed Mormon spokeswoman, Joanna Brooks, wrote a post for Religion Dispatches titled, “Traditional Mormon Sexual Purity Lesson Contributed to Captivity, Elizabeth Smart Tells University Audience.”  In her article, Ms. Brooks elaborates on what she considers to be the ills of LDS instruction regarding chastity.  But in order to do so, Ms. Brooks twists the facts and projects her own frustrations with the LDS Church onto Ms. Smart’s experiences.  Elizabeth Smart said in her speech that being raped made her feel like a chewed up piece of gum, and she attributed that imagery to an object lesson she received at the hands of a teacher in school.  If you don’t believe me, watch her speech.  Seriously, watch it here.  You don’t have to take my word for it, and you don’t have to wonder if I’m twisting Elizabeth Smart’s words because you think I’m blindly tooting the horn of my church.

But back to Facebook and the flurry of anti-abstinence/chastity posts.  This speech seems to have started a chain of people wanting to “speak up” about how abstinence education and teaching chastity makes women feel badly when they get raped.  Some women have gone so far as to call for the removal of scriptures about virtue from LDS Church materials.  In “Dear church leaders, fix this now.” you have a (presumably) LDS woman demanding that a scripture condemning rape be removed from the materials teaching women about virtue.  Read that again.  The LDS Church teaches about the importance of virtue.  It teaches that rape is abhorrent, that it unjustly strips a woman of that which is most precious, and that those who commit such abominations will face the wrath of God.  That’s what the Church teaches and you’ve got women up in arms because they think that kind of talk makes women feel badly.

Let’s get something straight.  First of all, a crazy lunatic kidnapped and raped Elizabeth Smart.  HE caused her pain.  His actions caused her to feel worthless.  Why?  For precisely the reason anyone ever thought to teach abstinence, chastity, or virtue–our virtue is precious, it is central to our identity, and it is a crime to deprive someone of their virtue.  I won’t attribute my own feelings to Elizabeth Smart as so many other commentators have done, but I will speak for myself.  I think it’s atrocious that in criticizing abstinence education in our schools and the doctrine of chastity being taught in the LDS Church we are essentially letting a rapist off the hook for the excruciating pain he caused to a young girl.

Beyond this particular case though, let’s get to the deeper issue.  People have a problem with teaching the youth of the world abstinence and chastity.  Why? Because those two concepts squarely put to rest the idea that you can do whatever you want, with whomever you want, and not face consequences.  Whether by rape or by choice, unchaste relationships bring heartache.  That is why modern prophets warn that “[o]bedience to the law of chastity will increase our happiness in mortality and make possible our progress in eternity.”  This is a message given not just to young girls or young boys.  This is a message given to everyone.  Every single person that lives on this earth be they LDS or not, be they married or not, be they young or old.  It’s one standard.  It applies to everyone.

But let’s put morality and religion aside.  Say you really don’t believe that sexual relationships outside of marriage have any bearing on your feelings of self-worth.  What of abstinence education in our schools?  Is there any value or validity in that?

A few months ago I watched a Frontline special on the AIDS epidemic.  AIDS is a terrible disease, one worthy of fighting and trying to eradicate.  I’m not sure you can say that anyone who suffers from AIDS deserves it.  That’s certainly not my call to make.  But I can say that some people who suffer from AIDS definitely do not deserve it.  They did everything right, but someone else did something wrong and now the innocent party is paying the price.  People get raped.  People cheat on their spouses.  People lie about what sexually transmitted disease they have.  And innocent people get hurt.  But in a lot of scenarios, people get AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, pregnant, etc. because they refused to acknowledge that choosing abstinence and other forms of “safe sex” significantly reduce your likelihood of experiencing one of the negative consequences of engaging in unprotected sex.

The Frontline special poo-pooed the idea of abstinence education, saying it is not enough or that it doesn’t work.  But it went on to poo-poo the idea of using condoms.  The special featured two young men, engaged in a homosexual relationship, with one of the young men openly admitting at the beginning of the relationship that he had AIDS.  The young man with AIDS had told his partner about his disease before they engaged in sexual activity.  At first they used condoms, but after awhile they stopped because it was inconvenient, and the second young man also contracted AIDS.  Frontline made this out to be a tragedy, and it is undeniably regrettable.  But it was also entirely avoidable.

We will never eliminate the sadness that comes from sexual activity until we acknowledge that there are consequences for our actions.  We do not get to choose the consequences of our actions.  Sometimes we do not get to choose the actions that cause the consequences we face.  Like Elizabeth Smart, there are far too many (even one would be too many) people who suffer because someone else makes the wrong choice to engage in rape.  That does not make abstinence or chastity wrong.  It makes rape wrong.  For all the detractors of the LDS faith, the Church makes clear that: “Victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sin and do not need to repent.  If you have been a victim of abuse, know that you are innocent and that God loves you.”  (For the Strength of Youth, p. 36.)

Now, for those who suffer emotionally and spiritually for their own actions or the actions of others, let it be known that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also unequivocally proclaims the doctrine of the Atonement, particularly its power to heal.  With specific regard to victims of sexual abuse, the Church teaches, “Trust in the Savior.  He will heal you and give you peace.”  (For the Strength of Youth, p. 37.)  With regard to those who have committed sexual sin and would like to repent, the Church teaches, “From the Atonement of the Savior flows the soothing salve that can heal our spiritual wounds and remove guilt.  However, this salve can only be applied through the principles of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repentance, and consistent obedience.”  (We Believe in Being Chaste, General Conference address by Elder David A. Bednar, April 2013.)

Teachings of abstinence and chastity, if followed, help all of us avoid unnecessary pain and heartache.  In those situations where a person’s agency is unjustly taken from them and abuse occurs, it is not the fault of true principles being taught.  It is the fault of the perpetrator.  Complete truth, encompassing the healing power of the Atonement, is the only thing that will allow the necessary healing to occur for sexual abuse victims.  Don’t let a detractor’s agenda mislead you into believing otherwise.

7 Responses to “Hot Topic: Abstinence”

  1. Meg Larsen May 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    great commentary, as always. I read that “dear church leaders” post and at first found it totally ridiculous. I glanced through the comments and I can see SOME point to what they are saying, not that we should strike out that scripture from the cannon or even from the personal progress manual, but that if you use that scripture to describe how rape is abominable, you have to make sure you teach impressionable young girls that while they may feel a whole range of emotions, they are STILL virtuous and pure before the Lord. Being told that someone can take away your virtue, even if you are also told that rape is wrong, can propagate the “chewing gum” model that you are broken or somehow worth less.

  2. JustAnAverageMormon May 9, 2013 at 7:05 am #

    It’s nice to see someone raise a voice of reason on this topic. I especially loved your references to For the Strength of Youth and Elder Bednar’s conference address. I don’t know how anyone familiar with the doctrine of Jesus Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints could arrive at the conclusion that an individual is responsible for someone else’s sins, or that someone else’s sins somehow make a victim of those sins of less worth. And I am grateful to be a member of a Church which reaches out to those victims to help them heal and move forward–not letting someone else’s actions define them.

  3. aj May 9, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

    I think that Elizabeth’s statement was taking out of context , slgihtly yes, but I also think that I disagree with your article. Virtue is not something that can be taken away. Period. It doesn’t matter if you are not a virgin, if you were raped you are as clean as one, if you have repented from breaking the law of chastity, you are just as clean. I feel like the reason people are upset about the Moroni scripture being used is that the scripture says that virtue can be taken. The thing is in Moroni’s time that was another way of saying they raped them, not that they were no longer clean.

    As someone who has been sexually abused I remember reading that scripture in Moroni, I remember going to YW’s and having the chastity talk and feeling like that chewed up piece of gum (we had that metaphor in our classes too). I was positive that I was going to hell because I wasn’t going to tell anyone what had happened. This is an issue. I have talked with enough women within and outside of the church that have felt the same way. The quote in the Strength of Youth pamphlet isn’t enough. I was not clean, i was not a virgin and i was going to hell.

    I do believe that abstinence education is important, but it needs to be taught with the atonement of Jesus Christ in the foreground. If you break the law of chastity it’s a mistake, you can be forgiven and you can be as clean as anyone else. If you are abused you are not at fault there is nothing to be forgiven of and you again, are as pure and clean as anyone else.

    • meganmneedham May 9, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

      AJ, I’m sorry for the pain you’ve had to go through. I haven’t dealt with those challenges in my life, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be. I also completely agree with you that the Atonement should always be stressed, and the thing I love most about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that we stress the Atonement and its healing, enabling, and redemptive powers more than any church I know. I have never once in my nearly three decades in the Church heard a single leader, teacher, or even a friend say that anyone was going to hell. Compared to any other Church “hell” has virtually no place in our vocabulary. Unequivocally I have always been taught that in order to be cast into Outer Darkness, the LDS term for “hell,” you first have to be so righteous to receive a sure witness from God and then deny it. So I’ve just never worried about it.

      Again, I completely agree that there can never be too much emphasis on the Atonement of Christ. I know of one stake president at BYU who required every sacrament talk, Sunday School lesson, and Relief Society and Priesthood lesson to tie back to the Atonement. Why? Because every doctrine of Christ’s restored gospel does in fact go back to the Atonement. Still, I don’t think that more lessons on the Atonement will make sexual abuse “okay.” I think it still hurts even when you have the tools to overcome the hurt. I know people who suffer from challenges like depression and wonder, “well if the Atonement can heal all pain, why am I still hurting?” Even with the Atonement, overcoming pain in this life, whether we cause it to ourselves or others cause it to us, is a process and there is pain in the process.

      Similarly, I don’t think that chastity lessons or abstinence education cause the root pain experienced by abuse and rape victims because I think people who couldn’t care less about sexual morality and who may have never heard any lessons on chastity or abstinence still feel pain when they are raped or abused. Unfortunately, without the standard of chastity, you similarly miss out on the beauty of the Atonement–the only thing that can truly heal that pain.

      The standard matters. It is certainly a message to be delivered with sensitivity and with the perspective of the Atonement, but ignoring the message of chastity and the realities of abstinence serves no one.

  4. ML May 9, 2013 at 9:24 pm #

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I assume you realize this, but you seem to be dealing largely with a question of semantics (re: your paragraphs 3 and 4). At issue is the meaning of the word “virtue,” whether to Moroni or to us in the modern day. Moroni seems to equate a loss of “virtue” in these poor rape victims with a loss of innocence. (Indeed!) Modern day “virtue” seems more tied in with purity. I think people will continue to be upset about the church materials until the disparate meanings are cleared up.

    • aj May 9, 2013 at 11:45 pm #

      Yes, ML you are correct. The semantics are importnat here, it’s important for people to realise what virture means, especially in Moroni.

      Megan, the issue is that in most chastity lessons rape instead even mentioned nor is the idea that if you mess you can repent and sti be virtuous. I use the word hell in a general Christian way, meaning not heaven.

  5. Lloyd Lofthouse June 16, 2013 at 10:44 am #

    Individuals should be exposed to all sides of any issue, educate themselves, debate the issue, and then be allowed to choose the path they walk on their own. If he or she makes a mistake in his or her choices, then he or she has to live with that mistake.

    Religions and/or government should not legislate all aspects of life one way or the other and young people—all people actually—should be exposed to knowledge through a complete education so he or she may make choices based on all of the opinions and information available on any issue instead of focusing only on one side of it and being blocked through some form of censorship to the other side.

    Abstinence should be taught alongside all aspects of sex education. No one is free to choose unless he or she knows all the facts and moral choices available.

    Ignorance is bondage of the worse sort because we have given the power of choice to someone else be it a government or religious leader. And the use of fear as a weapon has been used often by religion and/or government to manipulate the choices people make.

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