The Salt Lake Tribune recently published an article called “How outdated Mormon teachings may be aiding and abetting ‘rape culture.'”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.”
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.