20th Century LDS Thought on Sexual Assault: Some Context

The Salt Lake Tribune recently published an article called “How outdated Mormon teachings may be aiding and abetting ‘rape culture.'” While I am also concerned about ways in which Mormon culture may encourage rape culture (see here and here and here), I want to push back against one portion of the article.

Here’s how the article begins:

Better dead clean, than alive unclean.

That Mormon mantra apparently was ringing in a young Brigham Young University student’s mind in 1979 as she leapt from a would-be attacker’s car on the freeway.

Being raped, the student believed, would rob her of “virtue” — virginity — a prize she could never regain. Her life would be over, so why not jump?

This message was preached repeatedly by LDS leaders of that era and in a widely read church volume, President Spencer W. Kimball’s “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” It was encapsulated in a 1974 LDS First Presidency statement, which asserted that only if a woman resisted an attacker “with all her strength and energy” would she not be “guilty of unchastity.”

I couldn’t remember hearing about this 1974 First Presidency letter before, and I was aghast at this policy, so I decided to do a little digging. As Dave discovered for me:

I happen to own a copy of the Signature Books volume “Statements of the LDS First Presidency” (2007) edited by Gary Bergera. It contains portions of both FP Letters cited and selectively quoted by Waterman. The 1985 letter was a “Dear Brethren” letter (circulated to general and local leaders). The 1974 letter was noted as “First Presidency to BSB,” so it was a private or particular letter (to BSB), not a general statement of the FP for distribution to general and local leaders, like the 1985 letter. . . . .I’ll share what the book provides.
Here are two paragraphs from the 1985 letter, kind of a mixed bag:
“Victims of rape or sexual abuse frequently experience serious trauma and unnecessary feelings of guilt. Church officers should handle such cases with sensitivity and concern, reassuring such victims that they, as victims of the evil acts of others, are not guilty of sin, helping them to overcome feelings of guilt and to regain their self-esteem and their confidence in personal relationships.
“Of course, a mature person who willingly consents to sexual relations must share responsibility for the act, even though the other participant was the aggressor. Persons who consciously invite sexual advances also have a share of responsibility for the behavior that follows. But persons who are truly forced into sexual relations are victims and are not guilty of any sexual sin. Whether a person was forced in this manner depends on so many individual circumstances that Church officers should normally refrain from assigning moral guilt to a victim who has been subject to significant force or credible threats, leaving final judgment to the omniscience of the Lord.”
Here is one additional paragraph from the 1985 letter given in the book:
“Persons threatened with rape or forcible sexual abuse should resist to the maximum extent possible or necessary under the circumstances. The extent of resistance required to establish that the victim has not willingly consented is left to the judgment of the victim, who is best acquainted with the total circumstances and their effect on his or her will.”
Here are three paragraphs from the private (could have been to a stake president or just some guy) 1974 letter:
“The degree of resistance necessary to prevent a rape will, of course, vary with the circumstances. One attacker may be deterred by mere words of pleading or ridicule, while another may be do determined and violent that nothing short of death would deter him. WE would be reluctant, therefore, to define precisely the form or degree of resistance which a woman should make to a threatened rape.
“It is conceivable that a woman could be so terrified by mere threats of violence or death made by an attacker that her sense of agency would be overpowered, causing her to submit without making a real show of resistance. On this account, it would be difficult, even presumptuous, for another to judge the moral guilt or culpability of a person attacked, absent, of course, a confirmation through the Spirit that she is guilty or culpable.
“Under these circumstances, we feel that the safe course is for leaders of the Church to urge sisters who are threatened with rape to resist to the maximum extent possible or necessary under the circumstances, leaving it to their own conscience and good judgment as to the degree of such resistance. Furthermore, because of lack of knowledge of the circumstances involved, which only the parties to the rape would know, we should not presume to judge a woman who has been raped and who survived, leaving such judgment to the omniscience of the Lord.”
First of all, there is a difference between a First Presidency statement and a letter from the First Presidency. I realize that might sound as if I am slicing the bologna pretty thin, but there is a difference between their private correspondence (which is not intended for public consumption, which may have been specific advice for a specific instance the details of which are unknown to us, and which is not intended as official policy for the church) and a First Presidency letter/statement which is sent to all local leaders, usually to be read out loud in sacrament meeting, and is understood to constitute the official position of the church. So the framing in the Trib article was, at least for me, misleading.
Secondly, the way the 1974 letter was quoted in the Trib article left me with the impression that the First Presidency did not consider an incident to be rape unless the victim fought back. But the longer quotes Dave provides suggest that that was not entirely their position.
Which is not to say that this solved the problem for me. Then Nate chimed in:
The resistance requirement was a legal element of the crime of rape until recently and I think that this forms the background in part of these statements. Against that background, the FP letters are actually less demanding of victims than was the law. This isn’t a defense of these statements, but it does provide some context. It suggests leaders cautiously relaxing the pressure normally placed on victims rather than adopting a draconian standard unknown among the enlightened public.
Here’s an article that gives you a sense of the state of the resistance requirement debate in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  It had clearly been subject to serious criticism by that time, but it remained part of the law in some jurisdictions and had been more or less universally applied before say that 1960s or 1970s. To be technical, resistance was not necessarily technically an element of the crime of rape, but as an evidentiary matter was often necessary in order to demonstrate the absence of consent.  This article’s discussion of the Model Penal Code gives you a sense of where mainstream legal opinion was in the mid-twentieth century.  Part II of this article provides a quick and dirty summary.  Until, 1981, for example, California’s rape statute required resistance.
This context is very helpful to me. (This is why I keep law professors around.) To my mind, there is a big difference whether (1) the culture is saying “get affirmative consent” and the church is saying “it isn’t rape if you don’t fight” and (2) the culture is saying “it isn’t rape if you don’t fight” and the church is saying “well, it’s a little more complicated than that.”
Now please don’t read me as approving of this counsel, especially for 2016. But I think the context is important: you would rightly regard someone who referred to “the Negros” in 2016 as a racist neanderthal, but you certainly don’t regard MLK that way when he used exactly the same language.
Let’s be clear about relegating the attitude that one must fight a rapist or be guilty of sexual sin to the dustbin of history, but let’s not see that attitude as worse than it was in its context.
And, on a more personal level, I felt punched in the gut when I read that Tribune article because I was so disappointed in the church’s position. If I were a different kind of person, this might have been the straw which broke the back of my commitment to a church with which I sometimes disagree on policy matters. I realize that not everyone is blessed with brilliant, nerdy friends who can provide important context and background on these matters, but in this case, knowing about the rest of the letter and the legal context radically alters the way in which I view this statement. May we all remember the need to seek out more information when we encounter bits and pieces of the church which we dislike.

26 comments for “20th Century LDS Thought on Sexual Assault: Some Context

  1. Kristine A
    May 8, 2016 at 12:23 am

    Thanks for this Julie. Sometimes (usually) we need to slow down and think like a historian.

  2. Brad L
    May 8, 2016 at 1:05 am

    Thanks for this Julie. When I read the Trib article, I thought it was ignoring some important context.

  3. Darn it
    May 8, 2016 at 6:49 am

    So this is another example where the First Presidency teaching does not reflect an eternal, divine law from Deity–but is rather a reflection of their culture? That’s not a terrible thing, but let’s not parade around calling our leaders “prophets, seers, and revelators” when they’re really tweaking the margins of upper middle class, white, pre-civil rights American culture.

  4. May 8, 2016 at 7:32 am

    Bravo, Julie.

  5. Julie M. Smith
    May 8, 2016 at 8:45 am

    Darn It–

    I’m not convinced that an either-or (“either eternal law OR culture”) is the best way to frame the issue. I like the watchman-on-the-tower metaphor frequently used in scripture: by virtue of the position of the watchman, he can see things that other people can’t yet see, but no one thinks he can see through rain/fog/night/clouds, can see things thousands of miles away, or isn’t shaped by his culture in terms of how he interprets and communicates what he sees. A watchman is useful even though he isn’t perfect.

  6. JKC
    May 8, 2016 at 9:49 am

    Why not both?

  7. Independent Mind
    May 8, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    Julie, that metaphor would be easier to accept if the watchman didn’t regularly insist on your obedience because they are in a position of perfect vision, and only claim ‘fog and rain’ when caught in obvious errors.

    It really is one or the other. They have a direct link to truth and can logically require obedience, or they are a flawed vessel, and while they may dispense usually reliable advice, you are free to question without fear of retribution. Today if you publicly question, you are subject to disciplinary action (only free to question if you keep it within the confines of your mind).

    Why would God put Prophets here to lead us, and then play the game of ‘telephone’ when communicating with them? Why do it in a way where the messages are regularly garbled between Him and the rest of us as they pass through His messenger. Sorry, it makes no sense. It’s just not that hard for the Lord to make sure his message is clearly understood. And even if you have one Prophet that might have misunderstood, how do you (as the Lord) justify letting a succession of a dozen Prophets keep making the same mistake (e.g. blacks and the priesthood)? If a dozen keep making the same rather significant mistake, based on cultural influences, when the error becomes obvious to the rest of society, then exactly what value to they really add?

  8. Darn it
    May 8, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Got it, Julie. So you are saying that it is is not “either eternal law OR culture” – but rather that eternal law was actually enshrined in some way in upper middle class, white, pre-civil rights American culture to which mormonism aspires? This is a Mother’s Day treat for my aging mother whose favorite politician of all time was Barry Goldwater.

    You say that we’re blessed to have watchmen who see things others can’t yet see. Perhaps that is a valid analogy for prophets of the scripture. With respect to our modern leaders, however, I think the historical evidence is just about exactly opposite – that they miss things that virtually everyone else has the ability to see (racism, etc.). Our leaders don’t seem to “lead” in morality so much as “react,” perhaps because they are looking through the “rain/fog/night/clouds” caused by their own cultural prejudices, rather than responding to humanity’s common Father.

  9. ji
    May 8, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    There is nothing in “Mormon culture” that contributes to rape culture. There is nothing in the doctrine, teachings, or practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that contributes to rape culture. Rape is the action of individual persons who disregard the overwhelming cultural message that rape is wrong.


    The above link to a Time Magazine article might be helpful to anyone interested in learning about rape culture in modern thought.

  10. Julie M. Smith
    May 8, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    Independent Mind and Darn It, these are great comments and questions–for a different post. *This* post is about the larger background of one particular statement about sexual assault. I was going to respond to your comments but then decided it would be silly to derail my own conversation. I wish you well.

  11. Julie M. Smith
    May 8, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    ji, I wish your comment were true. You might want to spend some time listening to Mormons who have survived sexual assault and see if that helps you appreciate the work that we have left to do on this topic. It’s something Elder Holland addressed (see my link in the OP)–he saw the seeds of rape culture in Mormonism and used his voice to smack it down hard. I hope we can find ways to reiterate the message he felt needed to be given.

  12. ji
    May 8, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    Before quoting Elder Holland, you wrote: “At any rate, Mormonism is–and should be–extremely hostile to rape culture.” My comment is true: There is nothing in “Mormon culture” that contributes to rape culture. There is nothing in the doctrine, teachings, or practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that contributes to rape culture. Rape is the action of individual persons who disregard the overwhelming cultural message that rape is wrong.

    There may be some very few Latter-day Saint men who rape, but that is individuals making bad decisions. No act of rape can be blamed on any of the doctrines, teachings, or principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To the degree any rape committed by a Latter-day Saint is the product of the rapist’s culture, it would have to be the rapist’s larger national or ethnic culture — even then, blaming culture is a stretch. Blame the individual, not his or her culture. Certainly, don’t blame the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  13. Caryn
    May 8, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    As a former Rape Recovery Center volunteer, I worked with youth in correctional facilities and schools. I discovered that many survivors of rape feel they are responsible for the rape and that many perpetrators believe their victims are responsible for the rape. This faulty thinking creates unspeakable suffering for rape survivors and allows perpetrators to rape without remorse.

    My challenge was to help survivors realize they were not responsible for being raped and to help perpetrators recognize that they were. This work required respectful, open dialogue with youth. I observed some rapists eventually recognize that they had inflicted horrific suffering on someone who did not deserve nor want to be abused. I also saw rape victims reclaim their power when they realized that they did not deserve to be raped.

    Rape survivors deserve and need the support of those they trust—whether it is family members, university officials, or clergymen—to help them recover. Often they need the help of skilled mental health professionals along with caring friends and family members. Recovery for rape survivors is often difficult and takes time, but it is possible.

  14. Mindy
    May 8, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    I can’t find the link you’re referring to…where Elder Holland addressed the issue. Please provide.

  15. FarSide
    May 8, 2016 at 8:34 pm

    Thanks for this, Julie. I think a letter to the editor of the Tribune is in order.

  16. Eliza
    May 8, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    This provides useful context for why this advice would have been relevant and even useful in the era in which it was given. And yet…where is the counsel for our time? Why did the Trib. article have to go back more than 3 decades to find anything even remotely resembling an “official”statement on rape and culpability?
    I appreciate the additional information, but the fact remains that it does not, in reality, improve our current situation. We are still actively revictimizing sexual assault survivors because of this counsel. I don’t want our leaders making decisions and passing judgements based on advice that may have seemed compassionate 30 years ago. We know now these attitudes are deeply flawed and inherently harmful. So, why haven’t they been updated, clearly and directly? We deserve better. While the Trib. article may not tell the “whole” story, it certainly captures the crux of the problem. Hopefully, the additional attention and scrutiny the article brings will finally motivate action. It would be decades overdue and can’t come too soon.

  17. LBK
    May 8, 2016 at 11:40 pm

    The words of recent Church leaders are very nice. However, the realities of the world may not change as fast as we would like. Look at the racism in Mormonism and the Unites States today. It is over 38 years since Blacks were “given” the Priesthood and nearly 53 years from the date Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a Dream speech,” But the evil is still with us.

    I, unfortunately, had to deal with the reality of this a number of years after the two letters referred to were sent out. A young sister was raped by a relative. The Bishop had asked that it not be reported to authorities because it “would ruin the guys life.” The solution: he arranged for both the brother and sister receive psychological help from the the Church

    The rapist stopped going after one session. as he said he did not need it. The sister, regretabbly, went for a month or two. She started to develop problems, the most obvious ones being low grades, inexplainable crying jags, and refusing to stay at home. She finally opened up to a Relief Society President about what the difficulty was. The supposed Shrink had virtually insisted she write a letter to her rapist asking forgiveness for doing whatever she supposedly did to entice him to assault her and for not taking her responsibility for the rape. Devastating.

    I only got involved because the Relief Society President knew that through my job in the School District I might be able to help her obtain some good help. I was able to get her a well qualified rape therapist through the County. Part of her new therapy, pardon the expression, was “to get the hell out of Dodge.” She was able to move in with a relative in a nearby city, attend a new ward, c there and take the community college bus to finish her senior year at our school. She is now happily married living 600 miles away in Utah,

  18. May 8, 2016 at 11:42 pm

    Great article Julie. Thanks for doing the digging.

  19. Simon K.
    May 8, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    Eliza, the Tribune article quotes from the current Church Handbook of Instructions. You may want to re-read the article if you missed it.

  20. EBK
    May 9, 2016 at 10:39 am

    In this context, the statements by the church sound much more compassionate than the law. But let’s keep in mind that they laws referred to determined whether an accused rapist went to jail or not. That law was not to determine punishment for the victim. Our legal system is set up in favor of those who have been accused. Our standard for compassion to victims should by miles and miles above our standard for proving an accused guilty. The fact that these statements give slightly more wiggle room to declare something a rape for the benefit of the victim only compared to declaring something a rape to put someone in prison, does not sound like a plethora of compassion to me.

  21. Clark Goble
    May 9, 2016 at 10:55 am

    I think the focus should always be healing. That is bringing people back through the atonement.

    What I think sometimes happens is people confuse issues of healing/sanctifying from issues of retribution and punishment. They’re focused on making sure the appropriate level of punishment is made in acts regardless of consequences. While I can understand this drive (which frankly is throughout our western culture) it’s unfortunate to say the least when it gets the upper hand.

    My sense, perhaps incorrect, is that the brethren of this era were making a drive to move the focus away from punishment concerns. I completely agree with you that it doesn’t sound compassionate. However I suspect in part that’s because the cultural views of America in the 1960’s were very incompassionate to say the least. It’s a sign of how far we’ve come as a culture that we worry about this. But clearly if the handbook hasn’t been significantly updated since then, it needs some updating. I suspect most bishops will follow the spirit and compassion. However we have the handbook because not all do that.

  22. EBK
    May 9, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    I’m with you on the idea that these statements are reflections of the larger culture. The 1960’s weren’t exactly a super woman friendly time. I think my hang up is in the fact that the church as an institution (and a lot of the culture behind it) seem to be so much slower to change that everywhere else. We end up prolonging hurt that has been done away with (or at least reduced) in most other spheres. How do we fix that? I’m not sure I have any answers.

  23. Clark Goble
    May 9, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    I think there’s definitely some truth to that due to the conservative (small c) rate of change in the church. That said, I think overall there are some benefits to wanting unanimity among the brethren, having them largely be experienced people of the older generation (now baby boomers). Looking at how things develop in contemporary universities I think there are costs to going too fast as well.

    That said I obviously in hindsight wish the Church got the revelation on priesthood in 1968 rather than 1978. While only 10 – 15 years after when most other churches liberalized on these matters I think it affected how the Church gets perceived. On the other hand I’m glad I’m not in a position to make such decisions and I definitely don’t have the big picture view the Lord has.

    What I worry about honestly is that the apostles have so much to do just handling the administrative side of the church that they don’t have as much time to worry about such matters. That is this may reflect being swamped by practical administration matters which means such big pictures issues don’t get the attention they deserve until controversy flares up. Now I’m not sure that’s true. At least some of the brethren seem to be very aware of what’s going on socially. (Elder Oaks in particular) So I’m not sure I want to say they *are* overloaded with work. However I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find they are. This in turn would then tie in with scaling issues. Of course the usual solution to such matters is to adopt more of the structures of the corporate world – the very thing many want to get away from.

    So like you I don’t have any answers and feel myself glad I don’t have to supply answers. I am confident the brethren are looking at the issue and seeking the spirit. As I think these are places change is overdue.

  24. Clark Goble
    May 9, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    I’d add that the other problem is the old centralization/correlation vs. decentralization. Ideally Bishops would follow the spirit and these egregious examples we hear about where victims are punished would never happen. I suspect they are the minority, but we have no real way of knowing that. However it’s precisely because of the Bishops who seem unable to follow the spirit in such matters that things get spelled out in the Handbook of Instructions. That is the Church because of abuses of individual Bishops and Stake Presidents cracks down on them giving less flexibility.

    The problem is that if the Church is doing that then it really needs to update the handbook to reflect their current views. Note I’m saying this with no knowledge of how the handbook is phrased on such matters – I might be wrong about how it’s crafted. I’m more going by comments above along with the fact I think we’ve all met people with bad experiences with their Bishops. Added into the complexity of course is that even with correlation, training, and these handbooks, it’s not that uncommon for leaders to ignore them.

  25. stephenchardy
    May 9, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    Julie: Thank you for your characteristic generosity. You don’t flinch from the truth but your careful analysis is helpful. Thanks so much.

  26. janis nuckolls
    May 22, 2016 at 7:34 am

    Thanks so much for this, Julie! I am a big fan of your care and sensitivity when interpreting language and thought.

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