Teaching Consent in the Mormon Context
A woman raised her hand in Relief Society class. Prefacing her comment with, “I have never done this, but I have a friend who…,” she went on to tell us about a mother of teenage sons who had a “Modesty Closet.” If one of her sons’ dates was dressed in spaghetti straps or something else they felt was too revealing, they would make her choose a sweater from the Modesty Closet to cover herself up before continuing the date. The commenter finished her story by asking, “What do you think of that?”
There were audible gasps of horror from the women in the classroom during the Modesty Closet account followed by awkward silence. I wanted to say something but I had no words. Fortunately, someone else, another mother of teenage sons, eventually broke the silence and explained that boys should be taught to exercise self-control and to take responsibility for their own thoughts and actions, regardless of what a girl is wearing.
I was relieved, but there was something more about this scenario that bothered me. Something else I didn’t have a word to describe.
That word is consent.
Consent is often absent from Mormon discussions. Because we teach sexual abstinence before marriage, some assume that the concept of consent is not relevant; singles will not be having sex, so they don’t need to learn how to obtain consent before sexual acts. Besides the obvious rebuttal that both rape and consensual, premarital sex actually do occur in Mormon communities, I would like to propose another reason that we should teach consent: consent applies to platonic relationships as well as sexual ones.
The woman with the Modesty Closet was teaching her sons that while on dates, they had the right to dictate the behavior of the girls they dated—in this case, by demanding that they cover their shoulders. Because men are more likely to plan and pay for dates in our culture, some feel that men have a right to control the date to a certain extent and some women feel obligated to go along with their dates’ wishes. This pattern can have relatively harmless results—such as a woman watching a man’s preferred movie instead of the one she would prefer—but it can also lead to more serious situations including date rape.
Suggestions for Teaching Consent in the Mormon Context
Teach Mormons that they must respect the autonomy of those they date, even in dating situations that fall within the accepted boundaries of Mormon chastity guidelines. No one has the right to exert control over the personal choices of people they date, such as their wardrobe. Accepting a date does not obligate a person to provide any kind of intimacy, even acts allowed by church standards such as kissing. “No” and “Stop” must be honored, and not only with regards to sexual intimacy. People have the right to decline date requests, to stop unwanted romantic advances and to end dates early if they so choose.
Teach Mormons that sex without consent is rape. As a Mormon teen, I often heard the message, “Don’t consent to sex.” This message is clearly laid out in our church curriculum. I also heard the message, “If someone performs a sexual act with you without your consent, that is rape” but I came from a Mormon family that was educated about rape the hard way—one of my relatives was a predator. I don’t think I ever heard the message, “If you perform a sexual act with someone without that person’s consent, you are a rapist.” This vital message should not be left out.
As Mormon women have shared their stories about being raped during their time as students at BYU, it has become clear that not all Mormons are taught to recognize sex without consent as rape. Some victims of rape did not know to define what happened to them as rape. Some of the ecclesiastical leaders and school administrators they reported to did not appear to understand that nonconsensual sex with a victim’s boyfriend is actually rape.
Eliminate the myth that spontaneous sex is less sinful than premeditated sex. In comprehensive sex education programs, students learn how to navigate sexuality responsibly. In addition to asking for consent before sexual acts, they learn to communicate about the decision to have sex and to plan accordingly, using condoms and contraception to reduce the likelihood of disease transmission and pregnancy.
Mormons are taught that it is sinful to procreate outside the bonds of marriage. And yet, it seems that many Mormons believe that a sin “of passion” —in other words, losing control and having sex without any prior discussion and planning—is more forgivable than “premeditated” sin, even though planned sex with appropriate precautions taken is less likely to result in unwed pregnancy. Some Mormon ecclesiastical leaders may even invoke harsher disciplinary action to parishioners who planned for sex. A culture that discourages communication about sex between partners creates a barrier to consent.
In teachings and policy, differentiate between the severity of sexual sins. Careless statements implying that any sexual sin is “the sin next to murder” leave no room to differentiate between consensual premarital sex and the much more serious sin of rape. The revelation that BYU has been punishing rape victims for honor code violations, acknowledging and accepting the chilling effect on rape reporting, is a case study in misplaced priorities. Our policies need to prioritize identifying rapists and protecting people from being raped over identifying and punishing rule-breakers.
Here are some videos about rape at BYU for reference: