When people in my social media circles began posting links a couple of weeks ago to “The Lord’s Standard of Morality,” Elder Tad R. Callister’s 2013 talk at BYU-Idaho reprinted in the March issue of the Ensign, I read it and sighed heavily. Callister boldly claims that his talk encapsulates God’s word and “trumps all the opinions” on sex and morality, including those of “psychologists, counselors, politicians, friends, parents, or would-be moralists of the day.”
To recap: sex is allowed only within heterosexual marriage; masturbation is “self-abuse”; pornography is “any picture or narrative that feeds the carnal man within” and is “repulsive to the Spirit of the Lord;” and women must dress modestly because their clothes have “a powerful impact on the minds of men,” and because “in the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.”
“Lust is motivated by disobedience, self-gratification, and lack of discipline,” Callister states after discussing all the sexual behavior righteous human beings must avoid. Really? When people feel lust for their spouses, they’re in the grips of disobedience, self-gratification, and lack of discipline? Lust after all is a powerful bonding agent for couples, and the great motivator when it comes to procreation, which Callister has nothing but awe for:
It is almost unbelievable to think that God has given to His children the power that is most prized and sacred to Him—the power to create life.
It’s such a vacuous notion of sexuality. Why is it “almost unbelievable” that human beings procreate? After all, to name only a few, ducks, toads and sewer rats do too. What else would God do: let each generation die out, then create each subsequent generation anew out of dirt and the occasional spare rib?
Right away, responses began appearing—see in particular this terrific critique from Natasha Helfer Parker on her Mormon Therapist blog. Parker responds in detail to some of Callister’s most egregious statements because she can’t remain silent about “an extremely harmful approach to the sexual education of our members.”
Last week the conversation moved off Mormon blogs and onto local Utah news, where it was critiqued for the way it dismisses the wisdom of professional studies of human sexuality, promotes rape culture, and “set women back some 35 years.” Given that I think The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does participate in rape culture, I was heartened by the development: it means that objections to rhetoric like Callister’s might finally be loud and pervasive enough that the leaders will have no choice but to hear them—because some of us have been talking about these things for a very long time.
When I arrived at the Missionary Training Center in 1985, sisters had to attend a 6 a.m. gym class. Even though it ended early enough that we were the only ones on the sidewalks during the very short trip back to our dorms, we still had to wear either sweat pants or shorts with tights under them—no bare legs—so that in the unlikely event that a young man ventured from his dorm early, he would not be overcome by lust at the inadvertent sight of a naked female thigh.
Male missionaries, however, had gym classes scheduled throughout the day. They could and often did walk to and from their classes clad only in the skimpiest of shorts, their T-shirts in their hands or tossed over one shoulder. No one worried about the effect on young women of running into a gang of half-naked men—perhaps because we weren’t considered capable of any action that might endanger either them or us, or perhaps because our souls simply weren’t as important as male convenience and comfort.
That’s only one small example of how the church’s routine sexism was on steroids at the MTC.
After a very inappropriate verbal confrontation engineered by a teacher I’ll call Elder Collins, I told his supervisor, whom I’ll call Elder Norton, that the church encouraged rape culture. I didn’t use that term, because if that term existed in 1985, I hadn’t heard it yet. But I did discuss attitudes toward rape and sexual assault within the larger context of sexism and misogyny.
Elder Norton stared at me, his face impassive. “Sister Welker,” he asked, “has anyone raped you here?”
“No!” I said. “But that’s not the point. The point is the way men think they’re entitled—”
“I think that is the point,” he said. “That simply can’t happen at the MTC. Women here are free from dangers like that. All the sisters here are treated with respect—including you.”
My companion wasn’t present for that conversation; it was just me and two men in their 20s admonishing me about how I was treated with so much “respect” and why that meant I needed to be more submissive. When I told her what had happened, she agreed that the entire business was thoroughly improper and insisted we see Elder Norton’s supervisor.
Him I’ll call Elder Montez, and he was awesome. He sympathized, took us seriously, and told us that Elder Collins seemed to have a problem with women: in each class he taught, he singled out one woman and set out to tame, shame and humiliate her—which, I must point out, are among the things internet trolls make clear they hope to accomplish when they threaten some uppity woman with sexual violence.
Callister would probably recoil at the idea that his talk not merely enables but encourages the mistreatment and devaluation of women, but it does.
When women talk about inequality in the church, they’re not just referring to the fact that men have the priesthood and women don’t, that men have opportunities and encouragement to practice the supposedly divine activities of leading, deciding and governing, while women are encouraged to practice the decidedly non-divine activity of submitting oneself to another’s will.
When women talk about inequality, they’re also referring to the fact that when it comes to sex, women are made responsible for men’s actions—even as women are told to follow and support rather than initiate and lead. Women have less agency but more culpability. It is ultimately women’s clothing, rape culture and the church both tell us, not men’s belief that it’s OK to sexualize and objectify women, that is behind the objectification and abuse of women.
They’re referring to the fact that it is always men who admonish both women and men about sexual purity, that men and women are often treated very differently in disciplinary actions, that in church courts, women are forced to confess sexual sins to sometimes as many as 15 men, who judge them and administer their punishment.
Despite Callister’s arrogant claim that his pronouncements trump what anyone else has to say about sexual morality, our collective understanding of ethical sexual behavior has grown enough that we can see that his views are not only wrong but harmful.
It will be interesting to see if the men speaking on this topic will be sufficiently empathetic, insightful, wise and, given that they claim they are prophets, prophetic, to figure out how discuss human sexuality in a way that finally grants women the dignity and respect they deserve.