I’m teaching the 12-14 year old girls this Sunday. The lesson is about the law of chastity and the textual basis is
David and Bathsheba’s adultery David’s rape of Bathsheba and subsequent cover-up.
While I understand that the correlated Come Follow Me™ curriculum writers need to shoehorn LDS rules and commandments into lessons that purportedly draw from ancient texts, I am troubled that a story of rape, deceit, and murder is being treated as if it is about chastity. I’m troubled by the message that sends to youth about the “greater sin” of David’s misdeeds as well as its complete ignorance of the fact that Bathsheba in all likelihood could not and did not consent to King David’s entreaties. At worst, this was a rape; at best, David is a Harvey Weinstein of his day (although with actually quite a bit more powerful than even Weinstein). An opportunity that could be used to teach students about consent and integrity is instead being used to hammer home messages around sexual purity as if David and Bathsheba’s relationship was a consensual if adulterous affair.
I’ve also been thinking a lot this year about how much sexual violence LDS folks are exposed to through our study of the scripture. The Old Testament certainly takes the cake, with horrifying sexual violence casually described in story after story after story and, worse yet, an extended metaphor where God is a husband and Israel / Jerusalem is described as a sexually promiscuous wife whose infedility is harshly punished (including by public shaming and physical and sexual violence).
But the Old Testament hardly has a monopoly on sexual violence. Carol Lynne Pearson’s essay “Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites?” outlines numerous examples of problematic treatment of women in the Book of Mormon. While some of this treatment (like rape and murder) is at the hands of “the bad guys,” there is still an astounding amount of sexual shaming and women-silencing even among “the good guys.” Of the only three women characters unique to the Book of Mormon, one is a “harlot.” In the Doctrine & Covenants, Section 132 is essentially canonized abuse of Emma; By Common Consent did an excellent, detailed series on it last year here. And even the New Testament, which supposedly presents a kinder, gentler God, uses sexual violence as a metaphor (or to some interpretations, literal) way that God punishes the unrighteous.
This point of this post isn’t to do a feminist analysis of these books of scripture. What I have been thinking about instead is: what impact does it have on LDS women (and men) to read stories of sexual violence and exploitation of women dozens or more times over their lifetime, including during formative years where they are crystallizing their own concepts of gender and sexual identity?
To make matters worse, since we encourage members only to view “clean” media and to avoid media that makes immorality look “exciting”, many LDS folks do not grow up with any sex-positive models in the media or otherwise. Don’t get me wrong–I am not suggesting that we all go out and watch pornography, or that sexually explicit content in the media is a good thing–it’s certainly not when it exploits women. At the same time, I have to wonder how any LDS woman who follows all of the rules–which means she’s reading tons of accounts of sexual violence and zero accounts of sexual encounters that were pleasant for the woman–is going to develop a sex-positive view or an image of herself as a sexual agent. While I think on the whole we are getting better at saying it’s OK to have sexual feelings and not shaming those feelings, where are we actually demonstrating that? What positive role models or stories do we have of that at all?
I’ve listened to plenty of podcasts by LDS sex therapists like Jennifer Finlayson-Fife and Natasha Helfer Parker. Finlayson-Fife and Carol Lynne Pearson have both addressed ways that polygamy (even our currently-practiced spiritual polygamy) drives a wedge in intimacy, and other ways we talk about chastity that can increase shame and anxiety around sex. But in my research, I’ve not heard anyone address the specific issue of our continued exposure to stories of sexual violence-as-scripture with no countervailing sex-positive literature.
We also lack role models or instruction on consent. I’ve sat through MANY lessons on chastity – some better than others. But I cannot think of a single time, ever, that I heard a Church lesson on consent. So we teach kids that premarital sex is really, really bad–close to murder–but we don’t actually teach them they have any choice in it or how to exercise that agency (before or after marriage).
Of course, this is all the worse for queer folks for whom there are also numerous accounts of scriptural violence against them and no positive talk around queer sexual relationships whatsoever. In fact, apparently some religious folks who seem to have no problem exposing their kids to extensive sexual violence in scripture object to a chaste on-screen same-sex kiss between married women.
Anyway, I don’t have any answers so look forward to hearing you chime in on this topic & the questions below. I’m looking forward to teaching my YW this week, but we will be using David & Bathsheba as an entrance point to talk about consent, not chastity, and my chastity materials will be coming from an LDS sex therapist who wrote a helpful outline (including carefully editing some of the quotes from conference talks so that they aren’t anti-queer but still use some of the materials from the manual). It’s the least I can do.
- Do you think David & Bathsheba are an appropriate text for teaching chastity? If you were teaching this week, what would you focus on?
- Have you ever heard a chastity lesson about consent? What could we do better to teach LDS kids about consent?
- Do you think often-casual treatment of sexual violence in continued study of the scriptures (without critical analysis) leads to negative views of sex and sexuality? If you’ve seen any resources on this, I’d love to see – please share.