Thoughts on “Sexual Purity”

Earlier this week, Elizabeth Smart shared memories of her abduction that sent a powerful message about the way we should teach youth about sex. She said that after she had been raped, she had little motivation to escape her captor: “[it was easy] to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.” She thought she was a “chewed-up piece of gum” that deserved to be thrown away.

Smart’s story called attention to several troubling aspects of the way we educate youth about sex.  Perhaps the most obvious of these is the unstated equation of sexual purity with virginity, which gives the false impression that sexual purity is something that can be taken away by force. Kristine Haglund points out that this impression is reinforced by the Personal Progress manual’s use of Moroni 9:9, which describes rape as depriving women of their “chastity and virtue.”

More subtle is the problem of talking about sexual ethics in terms of “purity” at all. Joanna Brooks and Jana Riess both point out that talking about sex in terms of purity sends the message that a woman’s worth as a human being depends on her virginity, while psychologist Richard Beck argues that the chief characteristic of the “purity” metaphor is purity’s irretrievability: drop a cockroach in a glass of juice and it becomes permanently impure. No one will drink it, even after you remove the cockroach and sterilize the juice.

Together, talking about sex in terms of sexual purity and equating sexual purity with virginity send the horrifying messages that rape victims are damaged goods and that women who commit sexual sin can’t repent–neither of which, as Brooks points out, is consistent with the teachings of the Church.

The point to a lot of this criticism is that we should stop talking about sexual sin in terms of purity and start talking about it (in Beck’s words) as a “performance failure”–as making a mistake, stumbling, or falling down. This approach has several huge advantages. It emphasizes that illicit sex must be chosen in order to be sinful, hopefully saving victims like Smart from thinking they have sinned by being raped. It emphasizes that sexual sin is not permanent, thereby sending young men and women the message that those who commit sexual sin can repent. And most importantly, it distances the sin from the value of the person who committed it by shifting the emphasis from what people are to what they do. A young woman who thinks she is impure might think of herself as “chewed-up gum,” but a young woman who thinks of what she has done as “making a mistake” or “stumbling” is likely to pick herself up and try to do better next time.

These are all good messages, but I think they’re missing part of the story. To be theological about it, I think they’re all directed at sexual sin as a source of guilt, of moral culpability. If the point of teaching youth about sex is to help them avoid becoming morally culpable through their sexual behavior, then “mistake” is a very attractive paradigm for our moral teaching. Because moral culpability arises from what we do and not what is done to us, obviously we want to send the message that to be raped is not to commit sexual sin. Because we believe that Jesus died for our sins, obviously we want to send the message that people who commit sexual sin aren’t lost or worthless. We’re all sinners, and we all need to repent.

The one weakness I see in this approach is that teaching youth about sex isn’t just about helping them avoid moral culpability. It’s about preparing them for a healthy sex life as part of a healthy marriage and a healthy family. And unfortunately, when it comes to this aspect of our teachings about sex, the messages of the “mistake” paradigm aren’t quite as accurate.

As I said above, calling sexual sin a mistake implies that sex is something one does, not something one is. This is a helpful message insofar as it teaches the absolutely essential truth that losing one’s virginity does not destroy one’s worth as a child of God. But this version of the message is incomplete–sex may be something one does, but (as the gay rights movement has argued for decades) it is fraught with implications for who we are. Whether, how, and with whom to have sex are decisions that can profoundly influence our identity and desires; our physical, mental, and spiritual health; and, crucially for Mormon teachings about sex, our ability to have a healthy marriage and a healthy family life.

Calling sexual sin a mistake also teaches the crucial truth that sexual sin is something that can be repented of, that those who violate the law of chastity can be saved through the Atonement just like those who violate other principles of the Gospel. But if we are not careful, too much emphasis on this truth can obscure another: that sexual sin, more than most temptations, can have consequences that far outlast any guilt it creates. Repentance may absolve from sin, but it does not cure HIV or restore fertility lost to chlamydia. It may lead to renewed ritual worthiness and a temple recommend, but it only begins the long work of fixing attitudes toward sex that have been warped by pornography or promiscuity. And, of course, it won’t make a teenage pregnancy disappear, or eliminate the burden teenage pregnancy puts on the young parents and those close to them. If our teachings about sex are to help youth have healthy families later in life, we need to be frank about the potential consequences of sexual sin in a way that calling it a mistake just doesn’t capture.

On to the last and most painful point: talking about sexual sin as a mistake sends the absolutely crucial message that being raped does not make a person morally culpable. Was Elizabeth Smart “damaged goods” after her abduction and rape? Absolutely not. She wasn’t “goods” at all, and that men sometimes see women as “goods” is one of the deep problems we have to deal with here.

But leave off the “goods” part–was she “damaged”? The terrible truth is that yes, of course she was. I say this not out of any knowledge about Smart specifically, but from the academic literature on sexual assault and my personal friendships with sexual assault victims. Many victims of sexual assault cannot form healthy relationships with the opposite sex for years or decades. Some become emotionally stuck, unable to mature until their trauma has been dealt with through long work with mental health professionals. And sexual assault victims who fail to work through these problems before marrying and starting families risk passing the damage they suffered on to their spouses and children.

Talking about sexual sin in terms of performance failure does not give us the language to talk about the awful damage that sexual assault victims suffer: they didn’t make any mistakes, they aren’t morally culpable, so what’s their issue? Worse, describing sexual sin as a mistake can even belittle the seriousness of the sexual sin of rape, as in this devastating Onion satire about a college basketball player heroically overcoming a tragic rape he committed. After all, what are mistakes for, if not to be put behind us and overcome? Our discourse about sex needs to let women know that rape cannot take away their chastity and virtue, but we also need it to explain just what rape does take away, and how frighteningly serious the sin of rape is.

Elizabeth Smart has taught us that trying to express the complicated nature of sexual sin in terms of purity can have disastrous consequences, and we need to find some way to avoid sending the messages that she unfortunately received. But I’m not convinced that conceiving of sexual sin solely as a mistake is up to the task. The “mistake” metaphor says a lot of good things we should learn from. But I’m convinced there’s just too much it doesn’t say.

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