Your Body is Not Your Own
The chocolate was already mangled by the time it got to her. Unwrapped and increasingly melted as it passed from hand to hand. The message, taught by her Sunday school teacher, quickly sunk in as a new, unwrapped chocolate bar was brought out. “No one wants a handled piece of chocolate. Be pure and save yourself for marriage.”
For Breanna*, a survivor of rape, it was also the moment when feelings of worthlessness entrenched in her soul.
I never got the melted chocolate or chewed gum examples. I do remember the licked cupcake object lesson, but more than anything I remember being told to save myself for marriage. My virginity was commodified.
Fortunately, I think we have mostly moved beyond object lessons that compare women to damaged goods. Yet as I reflect on what I was taught (and not taught) about sexuality growing up and what I want to teach my own children, I notice the more subtle ways that women are objectified and myths perpetuated that women belong to men. Does how we currently speak of saving oneself for marriage or the importance of “virtue” (a term often used to mean sexual purity or virginity) relate to ancient ideas of women as property and losing their value if they weren’t a virgin?
Someone’s value can never change, and if we believe in an infinite Atonement, sins of scarlet can truly become white as snow. But by talking about virginity the focus becomes desirability not value. Do our messages reflect the law of chastity or controlling women’s bodies? If a woman’s sexuality is only measured in relation to a man’s, can it ever truly be her own? If the way we speak about women measures their value by their relationship status, can they truly internalize their divine nature?
I believe there are many benefits to the law of chastity, but keeping oneself worthy of a future spouse isn’t one of them. In the case that my daughters don’t have the chance or choose not to get married, I will definitely not tell them to abstain from sex for life so they can be rewarded as some man’s virgin in the next life.
Last week, Exponent blogger Violadiva outlined the fallacies of polygamy culture, including the idea that women are subordinate possessions of men. The idea of men owning women recently hit me hard when my friend (one of twelve kids) revealed that her mom never wanted to have that many kids, but never felt she could say no. She believed she belonged to her husband and it was part of her duty as a wife to submit. Consent in marriage was not talked about in her generation.
There is also the problem of claiming authority from God to dictate how a woman should procreate, dress, speak, behave and use her body, without examining the influence of culture on those claims. This is not to say I think God doesn’t care how we act. But like journalist Heidi Stevens, I hope, “We can, with some good faith effort, figure out how to give women unconditional, unassailable agency over their bodies and therefore, their humanity. We can examine the biases that have kept that from happening thus far, and we can ask, honestly, why we’re so reluctant to dislodge them.”
Female autonomy is not just about the body and I hope to also see a shift in the way we talk about education and employment as part of the development and fulfillment of a human being, rather than an “in case you never get married or something happens to your husband.” I hope to see a continued shift in how marginalized groups are treated and an expanded dialogue that promotes the freedom of all people. I believe in a God who cares about our bodies, our minds and about our agency.
*name has been changed. This is a true story and the Sunday school teacher happened to be her father and aware of her history of assault. He was not aware of how this affected her. It is likely that we are often unaware of abuse victims among us and unintentionally re-traumatize victims by the way we speak. See D&C 132:64  Stevens, Heidi. “Why do women get all attractive if they don’t want to be harassed? Glad you asked.” Chicago Tribune, Nov 2, 2017. http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/stevens/ct-life-stevens-sunday-why-do-women-make-themselves-attractive-1105-story.html