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.

  • Amy Grigg

    I mostly agree, though I object to situating rape as a “sexual sin,” as it’s not so much about sex as it is about power and humiliation and assault, sex being just the particular method the assailant has chosen. I think a “mistake” is better than “lost purity,” but perhaps we need something in the middle.

    You say “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?” That’s where I disagree. A victim of a brutal beating didn’t make any mistakes and isn’t morally culpable, but we’re still able to see that they are hurt and that they need healing, possibly even therapy to help with their PTSD. Similarly, we should be able to grasp the idea that a rape victim has been damaged terribly, even without their making mistakes or having moral culpability.

    We just need to be able to see a sexual assault as an actual assault, just as serious as non-sexual attacks, even if committed by a person known to the victim.

    • AlanHurst

      Hi, Amy. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the comment. I’ll cut and paste from my response to a similar objection below:

      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.

      ——-

      But to respond more specifically to your analogy to a severe beating: we know why a beating is so bad because we’ve all suffered physical pain at some point and instinctively know why life and health are so important.

      To understand why rape is so much worse than a beating, even if its physical consequences are often less, we need to have some account of why sex is so important and what’s so awful about someone forcing sex on someone else. We need a theology of sex, at least an implicit one, and that theology will inevitably be tied to the way we teach about chastity and sexual sin. The point of those paragraphs was to argue that a theology of sex built around the idea that sexual sin is just a mistake would lack the resources to say why rape is so bad. (Sorry for the confusion–somehow that last bit posted twice.)

    • Guest

      But to respond more specifically to your analogy to a severe beating: we know why a beating is so bad because we’ve all suffered physical pain at some point and instinctively know why life and health are so important.

      To understand why rape is so much worse than a beating, even if its physical consequences are often less, we need to have some account of why sex is so important and what’s so awful about someone forcing sex on someone else. We need a theology of sex, at least an implicit one, and that theology will inevitably be tied to the way we teach about chastity and sexual sin. The point of those paragraphs was to argue that a theology of sex built around the idea that sexual sin is just a mistake would lack the resources to say why rape is so bad.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shawn-Tucker/1179975007 Shawn Tucker

    Alan, thanks for your thoughtful exploration of this topic. As a lawyer it may interest you to know that well-respected LDS law firms are doing there part to address some of these issues. See this very important recent news article from Zion’s Finest News Source: http://motabenquirer.blogspot.com/2013/05/deseret-legal-announces-new-temple.html

    :)

    In all seriousness, thank you!

  • Rachael

    Absolutely- I agree. I think one of the deeper problems beneath the chastity rhetoric is the conflation of guilt, punishment, and sin– when I think the Book of Mormon most consistently teaches sin as pain, suffering, a departure from “the life of joy” you referred to. I think cutting away the guilt (which is also, in my opinion, tied to views of a God that is somewhat arbitrary and Other) from these issues and focusing on the *actual consequences* (less joy, less trust in relationships, and all the psychological, emotional, not to mention physical baggage that can accumulate), we’d all be a lot better for it.


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