Question: Do Mormons believe that sexual assault victims ought to fight to the death?

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Question: Do Mormons believe that sexual assault victims ought to fight to the death?

As far as we can determine, no senior Church leader has ever used the words "fight to the death" to describe how members should respond to sexual assault or abuse

Critics of the LDS Church have complained that Church leaders have commanded members – particularly women -- to “fight to the death” in order to protect ourselves from sexual assault. The claims go on to insist that LDS survivors of sexual abuse and assault must feel guilty to be alive.

As far as we can determine, no senior Church leader has ever used the words "fight to the death" to describe how members should respond to sexual assault or abuse. The Church's position is that victims are not guilty. Past Church leaders have compared the value of "virtue" to the value of one's life. However, current Church statements are clear that victims of sexual assault and abuse are to be treated with love and compassion, not condemnation.

Statements from Church Sources

As far as we have been able to determine, there is no record of the phrase “fight to the death” ever being used by a senior Church leader when counseling members about how to respond to sexual assault. This exact phrase is a sensationalized exaggeration that does not reflect current church teachings on this sensitive topic.

The Church’s position on the culpability of victims of sexual assault is available on the official Church website:

Victims of abuse should be assured that they are not to blame for the harmful behavior of others. They do not need to feel guilt. If they have been a victim of rape or other sexual abuse, whether they have been abused by an acquaintance, a stranger, or even a family member, victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sexual sin. [1]

Speaking in the Church’s General Conference in 1992, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Richard G. Scott restated the Church’s position in strong and personal terms:

I solemnly testify that when another’s acts of violence, perversion, or incest hurt you terribly, against your will, you are not responsible and you must not feel guilty. [2]

In the early LDS Church, violent opponents of the Church in Missouri used rape as a weapon. Crimes like these are alluded to in the Doctrine and Covenants (See DC 123:1-17) and are utterly denounced as “dark and hellish.”

The Church’s most basic statement of beliefs, The Articles of Faith, states that people are accountable for their own sins and not for mistakes made by others. AoF 1:2

Elizabeth Smart and the Stick of Chewing Gum

On May 1, 2013, kidnap and rape survivor, Elizabeth Smart, gave a speech at Johns Hopkins University. [3] She was invited there for a conference on sexual abuse and human trafficking. She spoke of the crimes committed against her when she was fourteen years old and living in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time of her abduction and rape, and at the date of this writing, Smart was and is a member of the LDS Church.

In her speech, Smart recalled a lesson taught in school where a used stick of chewing gum was put forward as an analogy for a person who had chosen not to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage. The analogy is grim and loathsome. "No one should ever say that," Smart said. As Smart herself stated, the chewing gum analogy was not part of her religious education. In the LDS Church, parents are considered the chief spiritual educators and guides of their own children. Smart recalled being taught by her LDS parents that virginity was precious but, she added,

I remember thinking of my parents and after, realizing that they would still love me; that just because I had been chained, just because I had been kidnapped, just because all these things had happened to me -- that wouldn’t change their love. And I feel so fortunate in that I was able to realize that.

Some media have characterized Smart's 2013 speech as an indictment of her religious roots. It was touted in headlines as a speech denouncing abstinence education and advancing the idea that sexual purity is dangerous and universally untenable. However, a full examination of Smart's speech reveals the details wherein lie the truth. Her speech did not address issues of consensual sexual behavior. It was about reaching out to victims of violence and abuse and affirming their worth. It was about offering hope and healing to people like herself who'd had their choices taken from them. As seen in quotations from LDS leaders noted above, Smart's comments were exactly in line with Church teachings about victims of sexual abuse being free from guilt and being precious to God, their church community, and everyone else.

Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness

The following statement does appear in the 1969 book The Miracle of Forgiveness written by member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Spencer W. Kimball.

Also far-reaching is the effect of loss of chastity. Once given or taken or stolen it can never be regained. Even in forced contact such as rape or incest, the injured one is greatly outraged. If she has not cooperated and contributed to the foul deed, she is of course in a more favorable position. There is no condemnation where there is absolutely no voluntary participation. It is better to die in defending one's virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle. [4]

Kimball would later be called as President of the Church and The Miracle of Forgiveness was widely read among LDS membership. It is the statement quoted above that is most often used to support the claim that the term “fight to the death” was expected in a sexual assault.

The phrase is used by critics of the Church but it also sometimes appears as a folk-saying among members. Particularly people of the Baby Boom generation who lived in the American heartland of the Church may remember hearing this phrase when they were young. Sometimes it came complete with clumsy but colorful and memorable object lessons similar to the stick-of-gum Elizabeth Smart mentioned in her 2013 speech. However, it’s important to distinguish unofficial slogans and crude demonstrations from what Church leaders in positions to pronounce an official stance on the issue actually said. Well-meaning but badly mangled interpretations passed around by provincial teachers and leaders aren’t uncommon in an organization like the Church which turns most of its administration over to non-professional volunteers. But being common doesn’t make these interpretations into official Church positions.

Feminist scholars outside the LDS Church have noted that the notion of victims of sexual assault being expected to fight to the death existed outside the Church in mainstream American social and legal culture.

White men...had a virtual license to rape, as the law required "true" victims to be ultimately innocent ladies who would rather fight to the death than give up their virginity. [5]

Further, the argument is made that this underlying assumption about victims was powerful and prevalent enough to shape sexual assault laws up until the Women's Movement demanded something better. Though LDS leaders spoke of sexual integrity in terms of life and death they cannot be held responsible for inventing it. The idea had a cultural momentum that existed independently of the comments of LDS leaders.

By now, Kimball and the other twentieth century Church leaders he quoted in The Miracle of Forgiveness have been dead for decades. They are no longer available to clarify what they meant when they spoke about chastity in general and about the innocence of victims of sexual assault in particular. This uncertainty means there can be more than one interpretation of what their comments could mean.

One interpretation does indeed seem to suggest that people who have survived sexual assault ought to have gone to extreme lengths to resist. It’s true that colorful and sometimes exaggerated rhetorical devices were used by past Church leaders to impress upon members the importance of preserving virtue and to describe the heinousness of sexual abuse and assault.

The Lord himself used rhetorical hyperbole when teaching about sexual morality. In the section of the Sermon on the Mount where he denounced adultery and lust, Jesus told his disciples “if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out.” Mat 5:29 This passage is not taken literally. We understand that Jesus was using powerful figurative language to convey a message about how dangerous and damaging sexual sin is. Hyperbole like this is a common device in all kinds of rhetoric and particularly in religious rhetoric.

Other interpretations of Kimballs’ statement also exist. For instance, Kimball recommends “a struggle” against sexual assault but he does not demand that the struggle continue until the victim dies in order for her or him to escape “condemnation.” Perhaps Kimball was saying it might be easier for the victim to avoid future feelings of guilt and regret if he or she decisively resisted the attack. As a longtime ecclesiastical minister, Kimball would have been familiar with the typical feelings of guilt and shame that often afflict victims of sexual assault and abuse. In order for victims to be better able to overcome these feelings, he may have wanted victims to be able to assure themselves there was “absolutely no voluntary participation” on their part.

This interpretation springs on the fact that Kimball did not say it is better to die defending one’s virtue than it is to live. Precisely what he said was, “it is better to die defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.” Perhaps Kimball was warning that it is better to die than to not resist an assault. This is a very different thing than saying it is better to die than to survive a sexual assault.

The second interpretation may sound jarring to twenty-first century readers. However, Kimball was not writing from the best of all possible worlds but from a real-world social and legal climate that was much more steeped in sexism than the one most of us inhabit today. A look at American rape law during Kimball's time shows a disturbingly sexist system where courts would not convict men of sexual assault when the complaint was uncorroborated. [6] Complaints of sexual assault are often uncorroborated since they usually happen in private where there are no witnesses besides the attacker and the victim. This meant the courts could demand more gruesome and concrete evidence than a woman's testimony alone in order to convict.

As a non-LDS feminist scholar explains:

Sexist gender norms were woven into the very fabric of rape law in the form of iniquitous obstacles to prosecution such as resistance and corroboration requirements...these rules tended to privilege rape defendants. [7]

It may be disgusting, but if a victim could show she was injured in the course of the attack, her attacker was less able to claim he had her consent and less likely to be acquitted. That was the reality of rape laws in America for most of the twentieth century. Kimball did not invent these laws. He did not foresee any change in them. He could only speak of the reality of world in which he lived. And the reality was that, before the law, the victim of sexual assault who had physically resisted her attacker was "in a more favorable position."

Other Church Leaders

Other quotations by other early and mid-twentieth century Church leaders are also referred to by critics insisting the Church wants victims of sexual assault to “fight to the death.”

In The Miracle of Forgiveness, Kimball quotes Church President David O. McKay saying:

Your virtue is worth more than your life. Please young folk, preserve your virtue even if you lose your lives. Do not tamper with sin . . . do not permit yourselves to be led into temptation. Conduct yourselves seemly and with due regard, particularly you young boys, to the sanctity of womanhood. Do not pollute it." [8]

President McKay does not directly address a situation of sexual assault in this passage from a section of the book called “Dangers to Youth”. In introducing the quote, Kimball addresses normal social situations like dating relationships where normal urges and temptation are the issues, not violent criminal acts.

In this context, McKay is making a point about not mistaking feelings and behaviors that may be acceptable to the rest of society as being acceptable to the Church’s moral code. He is concerned that the true gravity of sexual misconduct has been lost and he’s trying to restore it by comparing it to a life-or-death situation. In McKay’s view, sexual sin was worse than physical death since, unrepented of, it brought on a more lasting and tragic spiritual death. In that way, it was a life-or-death situation.

Apostle J. Reuben Clark also made comments comparing the value of chastity to the value of life.

Mothers in Israel, teach your sons to honor and revere, to protect to the last, pure womanhood; teach your daughters that their most priceless jewel is a clean, undefiled body; teach both sons and daughters that chastity is worth more than life itself.” [9]

Clark speaks of the value of an “undefiled body” but it’s accepted in religious parlance that people are able to defile themselves. (See Dan 1:8, Matt 15:11) It’s also possible for people to defile other people’s bodies with their full consent. Like McKay, Clark is not necessarily speaking of protecting ourselves from sexual assault. Rather, he’s warning us to choose righteously. Those who are assaulted remain chaste and “not guilty.” [10]

Virtue vs. Virginity

Critics point to a place where the issue of sexual assault gets murky in the Book of Mormon. To fairly understand this passage (See Moro 9:9-10) we must try to see the situation as Mormon, the writer, saw it himself. We do not usually refer to the Law of Moses in the modern Church. It was discontinued over two thousand years ago and has never been used in the restored Church. However, the non-Jaredite peoples of the Book of Mormon had both cultural and religious roots in the Law of Moses and these must be accounted for when making sense of their history.

According to the Law of Moses, when a woman was sexually assaulted, she was considered innocent by God and her fellow men and women (See Deut 22:25-26). The prophet Mormon lived about 400 years after the end of the Law of Moses. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the Book of Mormon to show to what extent the Law of Moses once practiced by Mormon’s people might have still been influencing the way he understood and spoke about the world. The old law might have had no influence at all or it might have retained some power to color his interpretations and his expressions. If the Law of Moses was still part of Mormon’s cultural memory, he might have had an understanding of the state of a rape victim’s virtue – her state of moral cleanliness – that’s nuanced differently than the understanding we have now. When mourning the violent sex crimes of his people at Moriantum, Mormon used the words “chastity and virtue” to describe what the daughters of the Lamanites had lost when they were assaulted instead of simply saying “virginity.”

And notwithstanding this great abomination of the Lamanites, it doth not exceed that of our people in Moriantum. For behold, many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue— And after they had done this thing, they did murder them in a most cruel manner, torturing their bodies even unto death; and after they have done this, they devour their flesh like unto wild beasts, because of the hardness of their hearts; and they do it for a token of bravery. Moro 9:9-10

Even though the wording might be muddled by the limited vocabulary or perhaps by the sensibilities of the times in which Mormon or his translator lived in, Mormon’s sorrow for what happened to the women is unmistakable. He wrote of an atrocity. Mormon did not condemn the women for being kidnapped, raped, tortured, murdered, and cannibalized. He did condemn the “great abominations” of their attackers.

If Mormon was influenced by cultural traces of the Law of Moses, he would have believed that when a woman was forcibly deprived of her virginity, she remained innocent. Despite the wording, he would have believed they had lost their virginity, not their virtue. In the Law of Moses, penalties against attackers were put in place to serve a purpose similar to restitution. (See Deut 22:25-29) Once the Law was satisfied, it was as if the victim’s former state – her “chastity and virtue” -- was restored. However, the men who victimized women at Moriantum were never lawfully penalized.

Perhaps part of what Mormon lamented was the fact that the injustices would remain unaddressed. Maybe, as he saw it, the crimes against the women were deepened because no legal version of “restitution” would ever be made. In this way, the legal construct of the women’s “chastity and virtue” was never restored even though their true spiritual virtue could remain intact. Perhaps the problem with this passage is not, as critics suggest, that Mormon equated virtue with virginity but that his cultural sense of the efficacy of legal restitution prompted him to overstate what was lost.

Lingering Controversy

As we have progressed through history, people in general – both inside and outside the Church -- have become more sensitized to sexual crimes. We use a more sympathetic vocabulary and much of the societal stigma that victims of sexual crimes have suffered has disappeared. What was once cloaked in flowery rhetoric can now be discussed in more precise and compassionate terms. This shift in language has been critical in assisting victims in the necessary healing after sexual assault and abuse.

Despite the current clarity of the Church’s position on sexual assault, the controversy still flares to life. Although older statements from church leaders have been interpreted in various ways and are of historical interest, it is incumbent upon those addressing this topic to keep original contexts in mind and to ultimately use current statements when describing the position of the modern church.


Notes

  1. "Gospel Topics, "Abuse"," lds.org website.
  2. Richard G. Scott, "Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse," Ensign (May 1992). (emphasis in original)
  3. Elizabeth Smart, Speech, Johns Hopkins University, 1 May 2013. http://foxbaltimore.com/news/features/raw-news/stories/elizabeth-smart-speaks-at-johns-hopkins-human-trafficking-forum-486.shtml#.UYqpjrUslX3
  4. Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1969). ISBN 0884944441. ISBN 0884941922.
  5. Aya Gruber, "Rape, Feminism, and the War on Crime," Washington Law Review, Vol 84. 2009(581-658).
  6. Aya Gruber, "Rape, Feminism, and the War on Crime," Washington Law Review, Vol 84. 2009(581-658).
  7. Aya Gruber, "Rape, Feminism, and the War on Crime," Washington Law Review, Vol 84. 2009(581-658).
  8. Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1969). ISBN 0884944441. ISBN 0884941922.
  9. J. Reuben Clark, Conference Report (April 1940), 21.
  10. "Gospel Topics, "Abuse"," lds.org website.