An overarching sense of justice runs through Mormon beliefs. “And thus we see” is usually followed by a nightmare scenario for those who weren’t listening to God in the first place. Our young women stand and chant a mantra every week that includes embracing the virtue of “Choice & Accountability.” And if you paid any attention to the comments on Steve Evans’ post about BYU & rape allegations at BCC (which Mike Austin pointed to as to why more women don’t report their assaults) you noticed that quite a few members of the Church think being sexually assaulted is a natural consequence of breaking the Honor Code.
Since medieval times women have typically been represented as two opposite tropes: either the virginal Mary or the temptress Eve (you should read more about this in Andrea Radke-Moss’ post on patriarchy at JI, which you must read, if you haven’t yet). The notion has long been a part of any cultural psyche based on patriarchy.
In our Mormon culture it plays out in various ways, for this post I’ll use the example of our modesty rhetoric. Two years ago Elder Callister asserted, “In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.” There’s a notion that “if you dress like a lady you will be treated like a lady.” I’ve often heard it in Mormon circles as “if you want to be treated with respect you should respect yourself with how you dress.” Implied in that statement is an approval for men to treat women poorly based on how they dress, ie “you have also given up every right to complain if they don’t treat you with dignity” if your dress doesn’t meet some unnamed “standard” that is different in everyone’s mind (see the leggings vs skinny jeans pants debate).
Based on dress, we sort women into a Mary/Eve dichotomy and then have implied approval to treat them accordingly. Culture is saying, “This is your natural consequence for dressing like that/dancing like that/flirting with him/acting a certain way/etc.” Problem is, there is not one woman who is a Mary or an Eve. Every single woman (and man) I know is filled with a mix of good/bad, light/dark, and virtue/vice. There could be a variety of reasons for a woman, for example, to dress less modestly. She may have problems at home & family or in their upbringing, she could be trying to get attention and have low self-esteem, or she may even just be wearing something they think is appropriate but you think isn’t (many times this is due just to how clothes fit curvy women). Secular feminists often argue that even if they are walking around naked, it is not reasonable that a natural consequence is sexual assault. In a religious perspective, regardless of the reasons someone dresses the way they do — why would we think that any person “deserves” to be treated with less dignity? If we are all children of God, we all deserve to be treated as children of God – regardless of what we wear (or say or do or act).
I just wanted to make a quick point about what the people speaking up on behalf of victims are attempting to accomplish. For too long sexual violence has been seen as a natural consequence for a woman’s small choices. What advocates are trying to do is shift the definition of natural consequence to the perpetrators. Instead of saying “what did he/she expect” when someone is assaulted we should say “what did he/she expect” when they are punished for the assault. We aren’t saying there should be no consequences for actions, we just finally want consequences to be applied to the greater offense (and really if you understand the emotional/psychological effects of being victimized this way you wouldn’t want a victim to go through further trauma).
Right now at the BYUs we have the unintended consequence of people being able to get away with serial assault by putting others in compromising situations (re honor code). I understand people’s reluctance to give blanket immunity to anyone who reports an assault, but I also think we need to acknowledge that law enforcement often waives their right to prosecute smaller crimes in exchange for testimony against someone who has committed the greater crime. This is industry standard. Knowing what kind of uphill battle that would be, my ideal compromise would be to have the Honor Code office waive any investigation whatsoever on a victim, but to just place a warning on their file. Yes, we should be willing to set aside our ability to seek justice and instead show forth an outpouring of mercy. Radical stuff.
PS An important thing to note in this whole debate is that even in cultures where women are required to or choose to cover up a great deal, there is still an incredibly high incidence of rape and sexual violence.
PPS a next natural step for us to help correct this in our culture is to teach that sexuality isn’t to be feared, it’s natural and completely controllable. It is completely within every single person’s power to stop if they are told to stop – at any point. I know of a Mormon man who sexually assaulted someone I know in their youth said “I had come to believe the feelings inside me were an uncontrollable monster that couldn’t be stopped.”
PPS last thing I promise: many people are just confused by what the definition of rape is – they still think a rapist is only someone dressed in black hiding behind a tree that will jump out and get you. Most people are raped by someone they know and trust – and I’d argue that especially in Mormonism, many men who rape (emotionally, verbally, or physically coerce someone) don’t know that they have done so. So the argument to start teaching men not to rape is a good one, especially because it’s been done in Canada, and it led to a 10% decrease in sexual assaults in one year. Source here.