Lies My Laurel Advisers (and Elder Callister) Told Me
It was deadly silent in the Young Women’s room where I was sitting as a Laurel some twenty years ago. The Young Women president, whom I loved dearly, was reading a letter. It was an open letter to the Young Women of the church, long before the days of open letters on the internet. This letter was from a woman who had been raped, and it was written to us, the Young Women of the church. She said she invited the rape because her makeup was too much, her sleeves were too little, her skirt was too short and her nails were too long. She was alone, in the wrong place, and dressed “inappropriately.” It was her fault because of her dress, she told us. She had asked for it. And she was paying for it.
We sat in reverence and shock at the close of the letter. “This girl was nineteen, but it could happen to you….” That could happen to me! I felt sick, but… something felt… wrong. Something twinged in me… because, well… didn’t the man who attacked her—didn’t he have a choice? I mean, wasn’t HE the rapist? I sat feeling confused and a little angry. I felt like I should question this… but I didn’t know why. And I was scared. Because no one wants to be raped.
In conclusion, the Young Women’s first counsellor reverently added, “Because men really do have less control in this than women.” BAM. That was it!! That is what was bothering me! The Plan of Salvation. Agency. Because I was being taught that we all had agency…. And this was teaching me that men do NOT have agency. At least when it comes to sex. And this didn’t make sense. This was not the gospel I knew and loved. This was false doctrine. But I didn’t challenge my Young Women’s leaders…. even if what they were teaching me was opposite to what I was being taught in rape prevention classes at school.
Sadly, Elder Tad Callister’s article in the Liahona and Ensign repeats the lie that men have less, restricted or even no agency in regard to their own sexual urges. He claims that “The dress of a woman has a powerful impact upon the minds and passions of men. If it is too low or too high or too tight, it may prompt improper thoughts, even in the mind of a young man who is striving to be pure.” Yes, this is true. For some men. But that is what self-control is all about. And when we teach Young Men that they are not allocated agency, then we teach them to see women as walking porn, even when we are dressed modestly.
Callister’s horrifying piece has been so heavily contradicted that my voice is but a reverberation. (My favs include Holly Welker, Natasha Helfer Parker and a nod from the Exponent’s own Libby), and yet.. in reading it, I became a Laurel again. Triggered to that moment when I was first taught that the Plan of Salvation didn’t apply to males. In this, I think of a friend who was refused entry to a church dance. She was dressed modestly– her dress was longer in length and had a higher neckline than mine. But she also had long flowing blond hair, and a perfect figure. She was gorgeous. The adult leader at the door deemed her inappropriately dressed, and refused her entry. We were shocked, given my nearly sleeveless top, and left. But I could not shake the thought that HE- the adult leader- found her attractive. Because she was beautiful. And he was creepy.
I don’t know if that was the day that solidified my feminism, or the day when I first learned that the Plan of Salvation and law of agency didn’t apply to men, according to this singular teaching. But it made a lasting impression on me. My mother’s teachings echoed what I was learning at church, but she added information about not trusting boys whom I didn’t know well, and making smart choices about who to spend time with, especially if we were alone. She was concerned with conservative dress, but supported me in performing in the local community theater and school plays, wherein I often was required to wear “immodest clothing.” You know the kind. The bodysuit that was required for dance lessons was… well, a bodysuit.
Feminism or not, what I do know is that this teaching was—and still is false. The idea that a woman’s appearance forces a man to lose his agency is in contradiction to what is taught in the Book of Moses, Chapter 4. Specifically, verse 3 teaches “that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him.” This verse is often interpreted to mean that when women dress “provocatively”- that we forcibly remove agency from men, who then are coerced into raping us. But there is perversion in this line of thinking, because it implies, nay—the idea declares– that women remove the agency of men based on the choices that women make for themselves, i.e. in clothing. In contrast, in situations where men sexually assault women, men remove the agency of the woman only in using physical force against the woman. In this, the interpretation of the law of agency becomes flexible– which really means is cannot be a law.
No mortal can intellectually remove agency from another; that is the imperative part of the Plan of Salvation. It is the key to the Atonement, and the purpose for our earth lives. This is exactly why Satan was cast out; he wanted to use force, rather than give us agency. Hence, he was cast out (Moses 4:4) and we were given the gift of agency: “Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life.” (2 Nephi 10:23 ) We were not given limited agency; there is not a common asterix in agency scriptures which notes that sexual agency is limited to females, even though this seems to be the common teaching in church rhetoric.
Like many church leaders, I think Callister is likely teaching what he has been taught as a youth. He was probably taught—like my brothers—that agency is lost when men are around women unless they are in authority and the women are dressed modestly. That males do not have the luxury of the full Plan of Salvation, and that male agency is negated in sexual situations. In this line of though, I believe he is repeating the sins of his fathers, the sin that teaches that rape is an acceptable part the victorious celebration of war, that the clothes a woman chooses for herself can remove the agency of men, and that the battle of the sexes in Mormon culture means that the male should be the conqueror—meaning he is sometimes forced to rape. In this ideology, he has little need to try to exert agency when it comes to his own sexual impulses.
This line of thought teaches that women have agency in choosing what to wear, but men have no, or very little, agency. This is how, and for whatever reason, Callister and those like him, is teaching that the Plan of Salvation is not real based on his divine revelation that intellectual agency is limited to women. Is it not apostasy to teach something in such deep contraction to gospel fundamentals? Does this ideology not challenge the sacred nature of the Atonement? I think it does.
There are many church teachings that are contradictory and problematic. But this contradiction of agency challenges the core point of doctrine that is rooted before the layers of Eden, marriage and The Fall even came to be. It has been an issue of mine for the majority of my life, and makes me question the authenticity of those who would teach that my morality is more harshly judged because of the foreordained ideology that females have bettered agency than males. As a female, I have no authority in this church, and what I say will mean nothing to Callister, or those who teach that the Plan of Salvation has different rules based on gender. But I still have agency. And with my agency, I reject this doctrine of plural Plans of Salvation, because this implies two saviours, and so far as I know, the angel who rejected the concept of agency was cast out. Maybe someone needs to mention that fact to Callister.