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.

  • Guest

    Some excellent thoughts here, Alan.

  • Rachael Givens

    Great post, Alan. You helped me put my finger on what has been nagging me about the current direction the sexuality conversation is taking. You point out valuable things that the “mistake/performance” metaphor draws our attention to, but nailed why it doesn’t go far enough. But, clearly, neither does the “purity” metaphor. Where the “mistake” metaphor levels sexual sin to the status of other “stumblings” and thus obscures the unique consequences (for good and bad) of sexual activity, the “purity” metaphor abstracts and fragments sexuality into an event or a state that, when ‘triggered’ or ‘taken,’ cannot be undone– and, additionally, doesn’t capture the interconnectedness of sex and the soul and the unfragmentable nature of our sexuality. Jeffrey R. Holland hit on this in the classic “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” but that approach (reaffirming the body is half of the soul, that sexual fragmentation is damaging and unsustainable, etc.) doesn’t seem to have trickled down very well. Do you have a new metaphor in mind for how to talk about sexual sin/sexuality/sex?

    I think we would need to do some deeper groundwork on the concept of ‘sin’ and firmly equate it with ‘suffering,’ not punishment.

    • AlanHurst

      Yeah, I love Holland’s talk, but I think you get at the reason it hasn’t had the influence it should have when you talk about our theology of sin and punishment. I think it’s easy to treat staying chaste as just a commandment you have to keep so that you won’t be punished with the denial of a temple recommend, and when you’re in that mindset, Elder Holland’s talk isn’t likely to mean much.

      As for other metaphors, I don’t know. It’s entirely possible that the answer is to rely less on metaphor and talk more frankly and openly about the thing itself. But there’s a great attempt to come up with more object lessons here:

      I don’t like them all, but the celery object lesson is great.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    I think that there are some worthy insights here. But I’m concerned that some of this is based on the idea that Elizabeth Smart’s emotional reaction to the circumstances of her captivity was driven by her LDS training or beliefs.

    Elizabeth Smart’s internal emotional conflicts as a sexualized captive are scarcely out of the norm for non-LDS victims in similar circumstances. To be sure, that can have to do, at least in part, to broad social constructs regarding women, girls and sexuality. Some other part is simply attributed to the complex psychological relationships which arise between abusers and victims. So, please be careful of viewing Elizabeth’s case too much through an LDS-specific prism.

    • Alice

      She is the one who is saying her reaction was strongly influenced by the religious teachings she learned about purity. Who am I to argue? Yes, most sexual abuse victims feel shame and low self-worth: the purity culture is not solely responsible, but it is also not innocent of wrong-doing because it added heavy stones to the burden she already carried.

      • trytoseeitmyway

        Oh OK. The victim interprets her response in terms of her cultural context, so that gives you license to do so. Got it.

    • AlanHurst

      I agree that it’s part of the nature of the thing for people to feel like she did, and I think the chewed gum metaphor mostly gave expression to and reinforced what she was already feeling.

      The point is that we need to give people in her situation better metaphors, other ways of thinking about what has happened to them so that they can deal with and overcome their feelings of worthlessness. The point of Smart’s remarks was that her sex ed didn’t help her do that.

      • trytoseeitmyway

        I absolutely do think that emphasis on the Atonment is the right answer to all sorts of hurts, and that any religious or other culture that leaves one feeling irreparably damaged even as a result of transgression, let alone victimization, is not beneficial. Happily, I am confident that we don’t teach such a doctrine in the Church. Having said that, probably an extreme case like the abuse suffered by Elizabeth Smart would not be where you would start in considering the theraputic aspects of the Lord’s doctrine.

        • AlanHurst

          Sure. I just think that this extreme case sheds important light on the way we think about sex in the Church and suggests some ways we might improve it.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Even though I’m very much a “the only safe sex is marital sex” point of view, I have always found it rather ludicrous that our abstinence sex education is based more on myth and metaphor than on fact.

    Which gives me an idea- anybody teaching modern Catholic NFP to teenagers yet?

  • Alice

    Well, are there any sins that do not have consequences, are not fraught with implications for who we are, and cannot profoundly influence our identity, desires, well-being, and future family? No! We may not suffer as much from committing small sins as big sins, but sexual sin is not completely different from all other sins. All sins have consequences for us personally. More importantly, all sins hurt other people, whether the damage is bruise-sized or paraplegic-sized. I am very much against treating pre-marital sex as the biggest possible sin when the sin of abuse (sexual, physical, spiritual, or emotional) is the most devastating.

    Plenty of people who have pre-marital sex can still have strong marriages. Perhaps the past will be an obstacle to overcome, but saying their marriages are doomed is a lie and makes couples believe they have no hope. Virginity is no guarantee of awesome sex or an awesome marriage because both take enormous time and practice. I believe one of the reasons the divorce rate is so high is that the Christian culture puts very emphasis on relationship skills because we are too busy promoting virginity and God as the only ingredients necessary for a great marriage.

    We should warn people about the high risks of pre-marital sex, but no more than we should warn people about what may happen to other people and them if they commit any other sin. Besides, aren’t the risks beside the point? Sins are wrong because God says so, not just because of the potential consequences. If we focus too much on the risks, then young people will just say, “Well, I use protection and birth control, and I’ve had sex before and it wasn’t emotionally devastating, so who cares about the risks? Those things won’t happen to me.” Even if they are wrong, that’s what they will say. Maybe they even enjoy doing things that are risky and forbidden.

    Scaring people into good behavior only works for so long.

    Using carrots (Mind-blowing marital sex+relationship) and sticks (emphasizing risk of STDs, pregnancy, etc) is a very flawed approach. There has to be more than that, and we need to not exaggerate.

    As far as having the language to describe what rape victims go through, we should NOT put all sexual sin in the same box. It is insulting and damaging to everyone to compare what rape victims go through to even the most devastating consequences of pre-marital sex. Libby Anne explains this problem well.
    Sexual abuse should be in the same category as physical abuse and other sins where one person seeks to overpower and destroy another person, denying their basic humanity. These sins are not mistakes but the most grievous crimes of all, whether the person is attacked physically, sexually, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or some combination of the above. Of course, sexual abuse is the most devastating because it seeks to control and destroy our sexuality, which is a very personal and beautiful gift of God.

    We should take abuse very seriously, and we should teach people how evil abuse is, but we should not place consensual sexual sin and the sin of abuse anywhere near each other.

    • AlanHurst

      Dear Alice,

      You’re clearly very passionate about this subject, and for good reason, but I think you’re reading some things into my post that I didn’t put there. I never said that other sins don’t have consequences, or that people who have premarital sex can’t have healthy marriages, or that we should use try to scare youngsters about STDs, or that we should promise them that sex in marriage will be amazing if they just wait for it.

      But I should respond in more detail to two issues you raise. First, on sexual sin not being totally different from other sins: I agree. I think it is different in important ways, and I think that one of those ways is that sex plays a more fundamental role in shaping who we are than, say, using foul language or sabbath breaking or (pick your example), and therefore that the consequences of sexual sin are often longer lasting and more profound than the consequences of other sorts of sin. But it’s not totally unlike other sorts of sin, and I actually think that performance failure or mistake metaphors are inadequate for talking about sin generally and not just sexual sin. But I didn’t say that because, well, the post was already 1500 words long.

      (I should emphasize, though, that performance failure metaphors are useful tools for dealing with the debilitating shame that sometimes results from sin. They’re just not adequate for a complete understanding of what sin is and what it does to you.)

      As for rape being different from other sexual sin, I absolutely agree, and I largely agree on how it is different. In fact, I’ve said sometimes that adultery was the most serious sexual sin because it didn’t even occur to me to put rape in that category–I considered it a sin of violence and thus more akin to murder, not a sin of sex and in the same category as adultery.

      That said, Elizabeth Smart’s story makes obvious what I’d never previously realized: that the way we talk about chastity, sex, and marriage has huge implications for the way we understand rape. And it should. You get at this point yourself when you say that “sexual abuse is . . . devastating because it seeks to control and destroy our sexuality, which is a very personal and beautiful gift of God.” The way we teach people about chastity will shape the way we understand sex to be a gift of God, which will in turn shape the way we think about rape. My fear is that teaching people about chastity using only performance failure metaphors will vitiate the teaching that sex is an immensely important gift of God and thereby wrongfully diminish the seriousness we attach to rape.

  • Robert C.

    Very nice, Alan.

    (After some discussion of the post I wrote on this issue, I came to what I think is a somewhat similar position — that these issues hinge critically on how we conceive atonement and trust, including the complex interplay between individuals and their relevant communities, and how we understand public trust, innocence, and culture, and their developments over time, esp. in light of shared experience, joyful joyful or traumatic….)

    • AlanHurst

      Thanks, Robert, and thanks for linking to your post. I haven’t had time to read through the massive discussion on that issue on Herm, even though I agree that the question of what to do with Moroni 9:9 is an interesting and important one. It’s authoritative, accepted as canon by common consent, yet the obvious message to take from it (in our current context, at least) is clearly wrong.

      Anyway, thanks for writing about the problem.

  • left2right

    “I repeat, save for the exception of the very few who defect to
    perdition, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no
    transgression, no apostasy, no crime exempted from the promise of
    complete forgiveness. That is the promise of the atonement of Christ.” Boyd K. Packer, October conference, 1995 (a direct quote from someone allegedly one of the “hardest” “orthodox’ leaders. very clear.)