Did Mormon Morality Teachings Really Make it Harder for Elizabeth Smart to Run?

Elizabeth Smart made big news this week—from Associated Press headlines to feminist blogs like Wonkette and Jezebel to the Mormon bloggernacle—when she connected her inability to run from her kidnappers to feelings of worthlessness stemming from harsh sexual morality lessons traditional to Mormon culture.

Speaking to a human trafficking forum at Johns Hopkins University last week, Smart recalled that it was not only fear for the safety of her family that kept her from running but also a sense that rape had ruined her:

“It goes beyond fear. It’s feelings of self worth. Who would ever want me now? I’m worthless. That is what it was for me the first time I was raped. I was raised in a very religious household, one that taught that sex was something very special that only happened between a husband and a wife who loved each other… For that first rape, I felt crushed. ‘Who could want me now?’ I felt so dirty and so filthy. I understand all too well why someone wouldn’t run because of that alone. If you can imagine the most special thing being taken away from you? And feeling not that that was your only value in life, but that devalued you? I remember in school one time I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence, and she said, imagine, you’re a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed, and if you do that lots of times, you’re going to be an old piece of gum, and who’s going to want you after that? And that’s terrible, and nobody should ever say that, but for me, I thought, I’m that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody ever rechews a piece of gum.  …That’s how easy it is to feel that you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would you even bother screaming out?”

(See the footage here.)

That spent piece of chewing gum was immediately recognizable to many Mormon women as a stock object lesson from our own Mormon upbringings.

And so Smart’s remarks and the coverage that has followed have set off a fierce debate among LDS people: is this what we really believe? Is this what we really teach? Or is this kind of object lesson fringe? Isn’t it unfair to pin Smart’s feelings of post-rape worthlessness on her religion?

Fringe it is not. This post at a Mormon women’s blog (and its many comments) document that sexual morality object lessons featuring spent chewing gum, or molested flowers, or damaged cupcakes have indeed been taught in Mormon homes, on Sundays, and in Mormon-saturated cultural contexts. Even Salt Lake City middle schools like the one Elizabeth Smart attended.

Mind you, such lessons are nowhere in the official sex education curriculum of the state of Utah

Nor are they to be found in the current handbooks or youth instructional manuals of the LDS Church.

The most current LDS youth manuals (released in January 2013) reflect a steady effort on the part of LDS Church leaders to revise out especially punitive messages about sexuality, especially those that might compound feelings of guilt or shame in abuse or violence survivors. Says one guide for LDS youth, “Victims of rape, incest, or other sexual abuse are not guilty of sin. If you have been a victim of any of these crimes, know that you are innocent and that God loves you.”

But old teachings die hard. This week, Mormon blogger Kristine Haglund called for the removal from another LDS youth manual of references to a Book of Mormon scripture that depicts sexual purity as something that can be forcibly taken.

Feminist Mormon Housewives blog founder Lisa Butterworth has pointed out other problematic current practices, including required confession of sexual sins by young women to adult male clerical leaders in private one-on-one settings and a renewed emphasis on the teaching of modesty that tends to place greater responsibility for sexual purity on the dress choices of young women while demeaningly constructing young men as helplessly hypersexual.

But Smart’s comments suggest that the greatest challenge may be the persistence of old rank-and-file ways of teaching sexual morality despite efforts from the top to retool the curriculum. No matter what the manuals say, virtually untrained volunteer lay teachers tasked with instructing responsible sexuality to young people will fall back on what they know best—in the worst cases resorting to spent chewing gum, or ruined donuts, or other punitive object lessons.

Punitive and sexist folk doctrine does not in fact reflect the best of Mormon scripture or theology, which takes a positive view of human embodiment including the “fall” of Adam and Eve. And yet punitive rhetoric on sexual morality can be found in the historic writings of LDS leaders like Spencer W. Kimball revered by LDS people as prophets.

It’s a situation that puts me in mind of the way racist doctrinal folklore persisted for decades after the lifting of the Church’s ban on black priesthood ordination in 1978. Long after priesthood racial desegregation, racist defenses of the ban—including justifications tying the ban to the curse of Cain or Ham—have persisted among Mormon people, as last year’s controversy over the remarks of BYU Professor Randy Bott revealed. 

Even as official Church manuals continue to work towards better ways of teaching responsible sexuality to young people—and that’s been no easy charge for any faith tradition—sexist doctrinal folklore persists.

Elizabeth Smart’s remarks last week made it clear that even the punitive sexual purity object lesson is still embedded in Mormon culture and that it needs to be examined and cleared. 

That’s why this difficult discussion is worth having.

Please continue.