An Answer for Daniel Peterson

Brother Peterson,

You asked a question on your blog that I will answer here.

But first let me say: thank you. Thank you for all of the important scholarly work you have done—on Islam, on the Book of Mormon, on apologetics. And thank you for asking the question, especially in the way that you did, which acknowledges that the average woman might bring a different perspective to this issue than the average man.

Let me start by saying that, thinking just about the title of your post, I absolutely do not believe that the Lord’s standard of morality promotes rape culture. Just to be clear, “The Lord’s Standard of Morality” is the title of an article; one sentence of that article (a sentence which I do not believe reflects the Lord’s standard of morality) may possibly promote rape culture in a very limited way.

So short answer to your question is, yes, a faithful LDS woman can find validity to the accusation of promoting rape culture in a statement that was recently published in the Ensign.

Longer answer: let’s start with the definition of rape culture. I’d say it is something like this: anything that in any way justifies sexual assault. And let me hasten to add that I probably would not use the phrase “rape culture” if it hadn’t already entered the conversation; I think something like “might unintentionally send confusing messages to the youth and to victims of sexual assault” is a far better way to describe what could happen here, but you invade with the army you have, not the one you wish you had.

At any rate, Mormonism is–and should be–extremely hostile to rape culture. The attitude has best been expressed in a statement by Elder Holland:

 I have heard all my life that it is the young woman who has to assume the responsibility for controlling the limits of intimacy in courtship because a young man cannot. What an unacceptable response to such a serious issue! What kind of man is he, what priesthood or power or strength or self-control does this man have that lets him develop in society, grow to the age of mature accountability, perhaps even pursue a university education and prepare to affect the future of colleagues and kingdoms and the course of the world, but yet does not have the mental capacity or the moral will to say, “I will not do that thing”? No, this sorry drugstore psychology would have us say, “He just can’t help himself. His glands have complete control over his life–his mind, his will, his entire future.” To say that a young woman in such a relationship has to bear her responsibility and that of the young man’s too is the least fair assertion I can imagine.

What I hear Elder Holland saying here is that when a man commits any immoral sexual act (consensual or otherwise), we are not going to place the blame for that act on anyone other than that man. (A woman who consents to it will shoulder her own blame.) Any attitude that suggests that men cannot control their sexual urges and, therefore, women should be blamed for the subsequent sexual act, is wrong. Really, really wrong. I see Elder Holland denouncing rape culture in all of its forms here. To me, that is the baseline Mormon approach to this issue, founded on our ideas about agency and personal responsibility.

With that backdrop, let’s turn to the disputed statement in the recent article:

 “In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.”

Can this statement be read to suggest that a man might not be fully responsible for assaulting a woman? Possibly. Note that he says “get,” not “marry.” That opens the door for some people to read “get” and think “get a non-consensual relationship with.” Now, to be fair, he does say “most women.” But he nonetheless suggests that the type of man that a woman ends up with is determined by how she dresses.[ftnt 1] Therefore, if a woman “gets” a rapist (a “type of man” that one might “get”), it is because of how she dressed. Therefore, a woman is at least partially responsible if she is sexually assaulted; she ended up with him because of how she dressed. This statement is therefore problematic. Let me now address what I think are three likely objections to what I have argued in this paragraph:

  1. Magnitude and context. I freely acknowledge that there are way, way, way worse manifestations of rape culture than this statement. You wouldn’t need to look very far in our broader culture to find not only the exoneration of rapists but the celebration of them. But if we were to rate “statements that support rape culture” on a 0-100 scale, the fact that #93 exists does not imply that #5 does not exist. And I’d call this statement, when it was originally delivered to a mixed-gender group of college students by a mid-ranking religious leader, maybe a #3. When it was reprinted as the cover story in the church’s general magazine, it became about a #5. This is still an extremely mild manifestation of rape culture, especially in a world where I don’t think we go a week without seeing a new example of #90+ in the general media. But I would hope that the LDS Church would have a zero-tolerance policy and that we wouldn’t ever be able to find even a #1 in our discourse. I could compare this to drug culture, for which I think the LDS church (officially and locally, formally and informally) does have a zero-tolerance policy: I just can’t imagine a stake president giving a talk where he told a funny story about his youthful pot use before moving on to his larger point of encouraging obedience to the Word of Wisdom. We just don’t tolerate any of that—it is unthinkable, even in its mildest and most limited forms. I wish we had the same attitude toward statements that, though equally mild, could be construed to partially exonerate those who sexually assault others. And as my pot-smoking stake president example suggests, the context cannot make it acceptable: the fact that the rest of his talk was a strong advocacy of the Word of Wisdom does not change the fact that referring to pot use for a laugh is not OK. So a denunciation of all forms of sexual relations outside of marriage (which obviously includes rape) elsewhere in the talk doesn’t excuse the disputed statement.
  1. Frame of Reference. Sexual assault isn’t generally on the radar of most LDS men. The ones I know are more likely to chew off their own arm than even think about raping someone. They may have never had a female discuss her experience of sexual assault with them. They don’t consume media that depicts it. So the topic of rape is very distant to them. I don’t have real statistics here, but I’d ballpark that the average active, normal, boring, 40-year-old LDS woman has had, over the course of her life, maybe a dozen women tell her of their experiences as a victim of some form of sexual abuse. Those stories, as you may imagine, sear the soul. I don’t think I’ve forgotten a single detail of the ones that I have heard. I don’t think that I am abnormal in that I think about them sometimes when I walk across a dark parking lot alone at night, or answer the door bell when no one else is home, or when I got in a car with a man I didn’t know well on a date. In other words, the idea of sexual assault is simply much, much closer to the frame of reference for (most) women than it is for (most) men—because women are usually the victims, they usually tell their stories to other women, and all women know that they personally are vulnerable to sexual assault. So our thoughts do go there when we hear anything that could be, even on the margins, even in the tamest of ways, related to the promotion of an ethic that could even just theoretically exonerate rapists, even just in part.
  2. Intention. Perhaps you object: Elder Callister would never, ever advocate rape culture. I completely agree with this sentiment. I am convinced that it was not his intention. But as every writer knows, the work that you intend for your words to do and the work that they actually do can be two entirely separate things. One thing that I have always admired about Elder Holland, for example, is that he will frequently clarify his teachings by saying something along the lines of “now let me be clear . . . I am not suggesting that . . .” I think this kind of careful phrasing is very important, especially on a topic this sensitive. President Harold B. Lee told teachers of the gospel that they should teach “not so plain that they can just understand, but you must teach the doctrines of the Church so plainly that no one can misunderstand.” I don’t think the statement in question was so plain that no one could misunderstand it.

Look, I’m a big fan of modesty. A big fan. And I have, in my own family, observed it in a strict manner (when my boys were even just toddlers, I would not let them out of the house wearing anything that did not cover their shoulders and their legs to the knees). But how we talk about modesty is very important because of the messages about one’s body that always tag along. Here’s an exaggerated example to make my point:

A: You should dress modestly because decent people deserve to be protected from the sight of your shameful, repugnant body.

B: You should dress modestly because your body is a temple: sacred, glorious, and private.

Now, I’ve never heard anything like statement A in LDS culture (although it has, as I am sure you know, existed in other cultures). But it should be clear that while both A and B advocate modesty, the reason articulated will create a very different impression of the hearer’s body and its relation to the world in her mind. Similarly, when we talk about modesty in ways that might shift the responsibility for a sexual encounter away from the attacker and onto the attacked, we are sending a message and that message is wrong.

Ftnt 1: There are a lot of other objections that could be raised to this statement (mainly: the reduction of men’s choice of a woman solely to the woman’s dress), but since you only asked about rape culture, that’s all I am going to address here.

Note: I’ve closed comments because I think the Bloggernacle has talked about this one enough already.