Sexual violence, virtue, and Sister Dalton’s talk

It’s General Conference time, which I always like; I enjoy going to Church in my pajamas.  And while the stentorian Voice at the beginning of the broadcast always uses the adjective ‘historic’ before each session, this one really did feel historic.  For the first time in the history of the Church, a woman was going to give one of the prayers at the beginning or conclusion of the session.  And when Sister Jean Stephens, first counselor in the general Primary Presidency gave the closing prayer at the end of this morning’s session, well, it managed to be both quotidian and awesome.  It’s not like we’ve never heard a woman pray in Church, after all.  And she gave a lovely, most appropriate prayer.

A number of friends on Facebook responded more negatively, however, to an earlier talk in the session, also by a woman.  Sister Elaine S. Dalton, general Young Women president, gave a talk entitled ‘We are daughters of our Heavenly Father.’  It was a lovely talk, for the most part.  She talked about her mother, who was widowed as a young woman, who raised her family while working as a school teacher.  It reminded me of my grandmother, who was likewise widowed much too young, and who also had to struggle to raise her family alone.

But then, Sister Dalton began to talk about virtue.  And she quoted Moroni 9: 9, about how the Nephites had deprived the daughters of the Lamanites “of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue.”  The point she was making was that virtue–chastity–is dear and precious.

But as a number of my friends on Facebook pointed out, that’s not what Mormon is talking about in that scripture.  Moroni 9 is a letter Moroni has gotten from his father, probably the saddest chapter in the Book of Mormon, a recitation of war atrocities, including rape and cannibalism.  The phrase, ‘deprived them of . . . their chastity’ is a 19th century way of talking about rape.  What Mormon is saying in those verses is that his own people, the Nephites, a people he has served as a political leader, a prophet and a commanding general, have become so depraved, they have raped and tortured and abused and even cannibalized captured Lamanite women.  He’s horrified by what he’s seen. He is overcome by it.  And this is his lament

O my beloved son, how can a people like this, that are without civilization— (And only a few years have passed away, and they were a civil and a delightsome people) But O my son, how can a people like this, whose delight is in so much abomination—How can we expect that God will stay his hand in judgment against us? Behold, my heart cries: Wo unto this people. Come out in judgment, O God, and hide their sins, and wickedness, and abominations from before thy face!  (Moroni 9:11-15)

Without civilization.  That’s how Mormon has come to see his people, his friends and countrymen, as people without civilization.  It’s a stunning condemnation of blood lust and violence.

The phrase ‘deprived of their virtue,’ however, poorly describes the values of our civilization about rape.  In the 19th century, women who were raped were described that way, as ‘having been deprived of their virtue.’  They were no longer virgins, they were no longer, therefore, pure.  This was also the Biblical standard.  In the Old Testament, women are encouraged to give their own lives rather than allow themselves to be raped.  Young unmarried women were commanded to marry their rapists.  Check out Deuteronomy 22–all sorts of crazy stuff in there about virginity and stoning people, stuff we don’t worry about anymore.  It’s there, in the scripture, as a reminder of how far culture has advanced.  But we don’t see it that way anymore, nor should we.

Civilization has changed, and very much for the better.  We see ‘virtue’ as something no one can take from you; something that can only be surrendered voluntarily.  A woman who has been raped is, in our eyes, a victim of violence, and completely virtuous in every sense.  Our counsel to a young woman who has been the victim of sexual assault would be that she has been attacked by a violent criminal, and that there is no sense whatever in which she is at fault.

I don’t doubt for one second that Sister Dalton would be horrified if someone were to say to her that her talk suggested that rape victims are in any way morally culpable.  Her use of Moroni 9: 9 was surely intended only to suggest the value of chastity, not to, in any way, minimize the horrors attached to acts of sexual violence.  May I gently suggest, however, that the use of Moroni 9: 9 in the context in which it appeared could only be described as unfortunate.

And yet, it would appear that that scripture is generally intended to be used precisely as Sister Dalton used it.  On LDS.org, the Young Women’s Personal Progress program urges our girls to have ‘value experiences’ in each of the eight Young Women’s values.  One of those values is Virtue, and one of the scriptures recommended to the girls is Moroni 9: 9.

Seriously?  Do we genuinely want our young women, age 12-18, to think that a woman who has been forcibly and violently raped has been ‘deprived of her virtue?’  That a scripture about war crimes will encourage young women to think about how important virtue is?

It gets worse.  82 percent of rapes involve an acquaintance, a friend or family member.  Let’s suppose that a young woman is on a date, and he rapes her, or in a study session with a guy who attacks her.  According to Moroni 9: 9, she’s been deprived of her virtue.  She has been rendered non-virtuous.  Wouldn’t that tend to make her less likely to tell someone, less likely to report it to her parents or a teacher or a Church leader, or the cops?  Wouldn’t that compound whatever feelings of wrong she may be experiencing?

I honestly don’t think any of this is intentional.  I don’t think the Young Women’s program is insensitive to rape.  I think most likely someone did a scripture search for the word ‘virtue,’ and when Moroni 9: 9 popped up, went ‘hey, there’s a strong scripture about how important virtue is, let’s use that,’ without thinking it through.  I think it’s also possible that this usage may reflect the unconscious values of an older generation taught to think of a rape victim as being deprived of her virtue.  And I’m not knocking Moroni.  It’s a terrific scripture, about the kinds of horrors that can take place when a culture loses its moral bearings.  It just doesn’t make sense as a scripture intended to persuade young woman to live chastely.  And may I suggest that it’s time for that usage to go away.

18 thoughts on “Sexual violence, virtue, and Sister Dalton’s talk

  1. Rita Cagle Broderick

    I have always had difficulty with reading that particular part of the BoM. It talks about rape, cannibalism, the mutilation of women after they were murdered (if I remember correctly, their breasts were cut off by their attackers) and a myriad of other atrocities. With my own personal experience, my anger has been one of righteousness (IMO) and I have questioned how we, as a culture, are supposed to teach our daughters (and sons) the importance of virtue, and how atrocious it is when someone forcibly steals it from you, if our own spiritual leaders do not take the reporting of such atrocities and discipline those responsible for a woman’s loss of her “virtue”. We are to live the higher law, we are to live in the world, but not of it. Our marital relationships are not meant to give a husband (or wife) inherent power over their spouse, nor is it to make one feel subservient to the other. Yet how am I supposed to feel, when MY VIRTUE was taken from me, by my husband, while my spiritual leaders do nothing? I wasn’t a virgin, I had 3 children. I was virtuous, however, and that being taken from me, with no one being righteously indignant over MY loss, I was left to lose all self worth AND lose faith in my leaders. They were supposed to protect me, protect MY virtue, but they were not there, and even after the fact, I was made to feel even more a pariah when I went “off the reservation”, so to speak, after finally speaking with my local authorities. Their main concern was not for me, my emotional, psychological, or spiritual well being; it was for that of my attacker (my husband) and was I going to be willing to support him while he went through a 12 step program for addiction. It took me 5 years to feel comfortable enough to report it to a local authority, and and only one sentence from my bishop to make it all unravel, “There will be no disciplinary action unless you press formal charges”. People want to know why I don’t go to church that much. That’s why. No one cared enough to hurt for me. My own mother says that since she wasn’t there, she can’t make assertions as to what “really” happened. So where is my virtue in all this? Where is the Priesthood that I was taught to hold dear because it is right, and that having a Priesthood holder in my home will protect me from the evils of the world? He WAS the evil of the world, duped by Satan, and my broken heart and spirit have been the inevitable consequence of his actions. Has my testimony wavered? Never. Do I have faith in my leaders anymore? Not really.

    Reply
    1. Beth

      I can’t stand it! You should not have to fight to get a priesthood leader to listen to you, defend you, and recognize who is in the wrong. Is there a strong woman in your ward or a friend who would speak for you to these leaders? Possibly they really just don’t know the right thing to do. My heart goes out to you too.

      Reply
  2. emig

    I’m sure that those who use this verse are focused on the phrase “most dear and precious above all things” referring to chastity and virtue. But this is exactly why teaching the scriptures in context is so important. I have the same problem with Jacob 2:28 as well, which is also used as a reference verse for Virtue in the Personal Progress program. The chapter talks about the lack of chastity/virtue that the *men* in the society are displaying, not the women…

    Reply
  3. Mungagungadin

    I had been thinking that poor Sis Dalton had borne so much heat for her “women don’t need to lobby for rights” phrase that she should be granted some leniency. No one could make such a mistake -so much tone deafness- twice. Then Moroni 9:9 today just threw me. Apparently, she is tone deaf.

    Reply
  4. juliathepoet

    My comment got so long it will have to be a post. I will say that as a rape victim and now a mentor to other rape victims, most who are LDS do not get love and support from LDS leaders. Most LDS young men see girls/women who have been raped as having lost their virtue. Rape victims are the locked cupcake. They are the chewed stick of gum. They are the broken glass, the stained shirt. We teach men and women to see virtue in this context. It is not a mistake or a misunderstood passage. Between this and the Miracle of Forgiveness demanding that a woman fight to the death to defend her virtue, the message is very clear. Surviving a rape is not virtuous. It is why so many of us attempt suicide. Not all are as lucky as me. Many of them survived their rapists, but died from suicide by Mormon doctrine.

    Reply
    1. B.H.

      This is so well said. I remember attending a fireside were a piece of gum was chewed and the lecturer made it very clear to every youth in the audience that no one ever wants to have that chewed piece of gum. There is no way that it will ever gain it’s taste or appearance after it has been chewed. The lecturer might have thought it was a clever way to teach an already wrong principle considering that we are supposed to believe that Christ can make the scarlet red to be pure white again but it made the rape victims feel like somehow they could never have their life back. What makes this particular speaker such a phony is that he had raped his daughter’s for years.

      Reply
      1. admin Post author

        Plus, he’s teaching false doctrine. He’s leaving out the most important doctrine of all–repentance. Wouldn’t a better metaphor be ‘though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.’

        Reply
        1. juliathepoet

          I would love it if that is what was taught. I have personally spoken to at least 20 women who pinpointed a similar lesson, where the YM and YW combined, were taught that “you can never be whole again,” as the final blow that brought them to decide to leave the church.

          Statistically, 1 in 4 women will be raped or sexually assaulted. Most researchers not only believe it is higher in Utah, but that it is so under reported that statistics really aren’t reliable. This means it is a problem for not just females, but for the male predators, who feel justified by the condemnation of the women in Mormon culture, and the virtual free ride that young men expect.

          Reply
        2. Julie Saunders

          Exactly! For people who have chosen to have sexual contact, the “chewed gum” lesson tells them they’re irredeemable and should quit trying. Which is, you know, blasphemy, really.

          Assuming that nobody in your audience has any sexual experience – consensual or not – is always a dangerously naive thing to do.

          Reply
  5. CGWH

    “We see ‘virtue’ as something no one can take from you; something that can only be surrendered voluntarily. A woman who has been raped is, in our eyes, a victim of violence, and completely virtuous in every sense.”

    This. Thank you.

    Reply
  6. jeanikins

    People tend to equate virtue with virginity. An intact hymen used to be the standard for determining that, so if one’s hymen is not intact that seems to equal ‘no longer a virgin’. This is very silly, it is well known today that there are many ways a hymen can be broken. The first time a male or a female chooses to have sexual intercourse they are no longer virgins.
    In the case of rape, she had NO choice – she was attacked. What if the rapist used her mouth or her anus but not her vagina; would she still be a virgin?

    Reply
    1. juliathepoet

      Jeanikins,
      The answer to your questions *should* be contained in your previous statement. No one who is raped has *lost* her “Virginity” but every rape victim has lost their innocence. Which orifice(s) are used in a rape does not change that a rape occurred.

      Virginity, as you are using the term, is never something that is lost, or misplaced for a while. It is either a gift, freely given, or it is stolen. If it is taken, without consent, it is rape. Rape doesn’t only happen when someone is a virgin. It happens to women of all ages, races, without regard to marital status, level of education, job title, type or weight of body size, or level of training in protecting themselves.

      Trust me, no matter which orifice a rapist chooses, it is not a sexual act, but one of violence and power!

      Reply
  7. Ben Luthi

    So what I would like to know is why you’re singling Sister Dalton out. Elder Bednar used the same scripture in his talk. The unfortunate thing about all this is that the general authorities shouldn’t need to worry about all the different angles of how someone could possibly take something they say. They mean what they mean, and if you focus on that rather than trying to find some way to be offended, you can actually enjoy the talk!

    It’s very important not to take scriptures out of context. We see it happen all the time without the church as well as within. But in this case, all I see is her making a point of is the precious nature of virtue and chastity, and she was using a prophet’s words rather than her own to describe it. It’s the same point that Elder Bednar makes. We don’t need to check the context or even cross-reference another scripture to make sure what they said is correct, and we also don’t need to waste our time trying to find alternate meanings in everything the general authorities say.

    Reply
    1. Terry Miller

      Obviously said by an individual who has never felt “less than” through no fault of [their] own. Seemingly so or not, Sis. Dalton’s words marginalized how someone already weakened felt. Yes, as a Church leader, she and all other leaders should carefully, oh so carefully, measure their words. I am sure that Sis. Dalton felt deeply for all the young women of the Church; she needed to feel just as deeply for each young woman. Simply put, that’s what Christ would do.

      Reply
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