Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Rape in our Church curriculum

Rape of Dinah, Giuliano Bugiardini

In my last post, I wrote, "I am frustrated that, as Mormons, we aren't doing a better job of teaching young men and women about rape: what it is, what it isn't, what to do if it happens, that being raped doesn't make you dirty or worthless, that rape is fully the responsibility of the rapist and not the victim." In this post, I expand that idea.

Julie Smith recently wrote an excellent post for Times and Seasons titled, "Rape Culture in the Gospels." She brings our attention to specific teachings of Jesus that are profoundly opposed to rape culture. It is important to recognize what the New Testament has to say about respecting women, helping victims, and holding criminals responsible for their crimes.

But try looking for material that specifically addresses rapenot broad Gospel principles, but rape itselfand the scriptures present a painful collection of outdated teachings and heartbreaking stories. Here is a non-exhaustive list:
  • Moroni 9:9. The soldiers in Moriantum rape the Lamanite women that they are holding captive. This is described as "depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue." 
  • Genesis 19:4-11. The men of Sodom surround Lot's house and demand to be allowed to rape his two guests, who are visiting angels. Lot offers his virginal daughters instead.
  • Genesis 34. Shechem "defiles" Dinah, a daughter of Jacob. Modern translations such as the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version use the word "rape." Dinah's brothers retaliate by killing Shechemite males and enslaving their wives. 
  • Numbers 31:15-18.  Moses instructs the army to destroy the Midianites, saving only the young female virgins. Those, he says, you may "keep alive for yourselves."
  • 2 Samuel 13. Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar and is killed by Absalom.
  • Deuteronomy 22:22-27. The law says that a woman should not be punished for being raped, as long as the rape occurred in a field, where no one would have heard her if she screamed.

It is hard to imagine a less helpful set of scriptural passages. But the real shame is that our manuals, in some cases, do further harm:
  • Commenting on the story of Shechem and Dinah, the Gospel Doctrine teacher's manual says, "If Shechem had truly loved Dinah, he would not have defiled her." That is indeed an important principle. But while the word "defile" may have been appropriate in Elizabethan English, it is no longer appropriate today. To "defile" is to sully or to spoil. Words matter. 
  • And here's how the Gospel Doctrine manual describes 2 Samuel 13:15: "Amnon was attracted to Tamar and forced her to commit fornication with him." The manual goes on to give us this contextually inappropriate quote from Elder Gordon B. Hinckley: "I heard Elder John A. Widtsoe . . . say, 'It is my observation that a young man and a young woman who violate the principles of morality soon end up hating each other.' I have observed the same thing. There may be words of love now, but there will be words of hatred and bitterness later." As commentary on the story of a man raping his sister, this is breathtakingly awful. No, Amnon did not force Tamar to "commit fornication." No, they are not examples of young people who violated the principles of morality. 
  • Moroni 9:9 is in the Personal Progress manual as part of the first required value experience for Virtue. Young women are instructed to use this verse to "[s]tudy the meaning and importance of chastity and virtue." To be clear, they are to study a passage of scripture that seems to teach that one's chastity and virtue can be taken away by another person. From a more mature perspective, it is apparent this verse is presenting us with a euphemism: "Chastity and virtue" most likely stand in for virginity in this verse. But if we don't really mean "chastity and virtue" here, then why are we using this verse to teach young women about chastity and virtue? At best, it's confusing. At worst, it teaches girls damaging lessons about sexuality.

We can do better than this. We can be careful to use words that are consistent with our 21st-century beliefs about sexual assault. We can more clearly teach the difference between rape and consensual sex, and the difference between virginity and virtue. It is irresponsibledangerously soto emphasize sexual purity without teaching those lessons.

We don't need to throw out the scriptures, but we do need to provide guidance on language and cultural context for teachers and learners. And we must stop making excuses for any artifacts of rape culture that we find in the scriptures. As a Church, we must prioritize standing up for what's right over defending everything that we read in the scriptures. We are not fundamentalists. We can say, "Not everything in the Bible is of God." That will do far less harm to the faith than trying to reconcile sexual enslavement with the loving God that we know.

And while we're disavowing errors of the past, it is high time that we disavow the devastating statements about rape in Spencer W. Kimball's 1969 book, The Miracle of Forgiveness. We can love and honor President Kimball without condoning the teaching that, "It is better to die in defending one's virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle."

I have great hope that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will more fully engage in the work of educating its members about rape and sexual assault. Rape happens to our brothers and sisters. When we teach chastity without also teaching the concepts of rape, assault, and consent, we are setting up victims for enormous amounts of shame and confusion. We must do better.

I recently wrote about my experience of rape as a BYU student here and here.

Sexual assault: Further thoughts

This is a follow-up to the post that I wrote three weeks ago. I realized that I had more to say: questions that I had left unanswered, pieces of the story that I wanted to fill in, and additional thoughts on sexual assault that I wanted to share. 

The question-and-answer format is for my own convenience. These aren't questions that people have actually asked me (people are generally reluctant to ask about what happened), but questions that I wanted to answer nonetheless.

Whatever happened to the rapist?

He made an unsuccessful attempt at a second rape, running away when the victim screamed. Later, someone called the police when they saw him behaving suspiciously in a dark parking lot and noticed his resemblance to the composite sketch that was in the papers. With a mountain of evidence against him, he confessed and received a prison sentence. I don't remember how long the sentence was, but it was certainly years, not months.

He was not a BYU student, though he was apparently an active Mormon. He was also a father and a husband.

Did I ever heal from the rape?

Yes, completely.

It was hard. But in many ways, I was fortunate: I was believed and supported. My attacker went to jail. I was an adult, not a child. The rape was a single incident, not an ongoing pattern of abuse. I sustained no permanent physical injuries. Had any of that been different, my path to recovery would undoubtedly have been harder.

Was I able to forgive the rapist? 

Anger is a healthy, normal part of the grieving process for survivors of rape, or any kind of abuse. I expected anger. I even wanted to feel angry. But the anger toward my rapist never came. It felt like my brain was refusing to engage in any emotion directed toward him, not even anger. I must have made a subconsciousand totally involuntarydecision that getting mad at my attacker would be humanizing him in a way that I wasn't prepared to handle.

And because he was a stranger to me, I had that option. I didn't have to think about him as a person, as one of the characters in my life. He wasn't part of my circle of friends. He wasn't in any of my classes at school. He wasn't sitting across the dinner table at family gatherings. I was lucky.

I am horrified that most rapists attack their own friends, acquaintances, and family members: people that they know, people that they're supposed to care about.

But rape is rare, especially in the LDS community, right?

Because most rapes go unreported, and most survivors don't talk about their experiences publicly, we are able to live with the comfortable illusion that rape is rare. It's not. 

In the last several weeks, six of my friends (five of them LDS) have told me that they are survivors of rape or sexual assault. I had already known of a small number of friends who were survivors, and somehowsomehowI wasn't expecting six more. On an intellectual level, I knew the statistics on rape and sexual assault. But emotionally, it is difficult to believe that this happens so frequently, that it's happening to my friends, to people I worship with, to neighbors, colleagues, and associates.

I have to confront the likelihood that I know many other survivors: friends and acquaintances who carry stories they haven't shared with me. Worse, I must confront the likelihood that many more in my acquaintance will be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetime. 

I'm angry about it. I'm angry that sexual assault is so common. I'm angry that it keeps happening. I'm angry that some in our midst still don't understand what consent is. I'm angry that so many human beings are willing to exploit their relationships for sexual violence.  

And I am frustrated that, as Mormons, we aren't doing a better job of teaching young men and women about rape: what it is, what it isn't, what to do if it happens, that being raped doesn't make you dirty or worthless, that rape is fully the responsibility of the rapist and not the victim. 

Talking about rape is embarrassing and uncomfortable; it defies deeply entrenched taboos, especially within our church community. But it is essential work.

Let's go back to talking about anger. Was anger an issue at all after the rape?

Yes, but not in the way I would have expected. 

The psychological effects from the rape didn't come to me all at once. They accumulated over time, as if I were piece-by-piece building some sort of horrifying collection of brokenness. My mind did strange things, things that I hated, things that made me ashamed. 

Eventually, there was anger. But I didn't direct my anger toward the rapist. Instead, my mind linked angerordinary, everyday frustrationswith rape. They were in the same box in my brain, and they came out of the box together. Quick flashes of anger over, say, someone's rudeness at the supermarket were often accompanied by terrifying thoughts of rape. This lasted for many years. I wondered what kind of person I had become, and I wondered if this would ever pass. 

It did pass, but only after I stopped feeling ashamed of what I was experiencing. I had to stop seeing this distressing thought pattern as a moral failing, and start seeing it for what it was: a psychological injury resulting from a crime committed against me.

Finally, one more detail for the record: Did the rapist have a knife?

He said that he had a knife, but I never saw it or felt the blade. The realization that he probably had not had a knife became one more weapon in my arsenal of self-blame. I had fallen for an empty threat, and it took me a long time to forgive myself for that. But in the end I did.

I learned to replace self-shaming with self-compassion and, finally, with peace.

Perhaps our collective outrage toward rape and rapists, our compassion toward survivors, and our adamant refusal to excuse sexual assault or to tolerate victim-blaming will help those who have not yet found peace.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Sexual assault at BYU: My own story

In 1997, during my last year at Brigham Young University (BYU), I was raped just off campus by a stranger who approached me and asked for the time. He said he had a knife, and I did not resist the attack. I was frozen with fear. I didn't kick or bite or try to run away. I couldn't scream; I couldn't make even one sound of protest. For years, I would replay the attack over and over in my mind, trying to imagine a different outcome, trying to imagine myself fighting off the rapist. Even in my imagination, I could never escape from the rape. I couldn't make myself fight hard enough.

I was a young, devout Mormon woman with no prior sexual experience, and the rape left me with overwhelming guilt and shame. Self-blame was accompanied by a lingering feeling that I had lost some important part of myself, something that I wasn't sure I could ever regain. I had the sense that everything in my world was somehow tainted and dirty. For months, I hated my sexual organs, so horrified was I by what had happened to them and to me.

But here is the part of the story that I remember with gratitude: When I reported the rape, everybody believed me. Every single person. And nobody blamed me. Nobody asked me why I stopped to talk to a strange man on a dark street. Nobody wondered why I didn't scream or run when I had the chance. When I apologized, sobbing, to the police officer on duty for being stupid enough to walk home alone in the dark, his response was emphatic: "You had every right to walk down that street, " he said. "This wasn't your fault." When I asked my bishop whether God would forgive me, he told me as many times as I needed to hear it that there was nothing to forgive. When I asked my roommates whether they were disappointed in me, they told me that they were angry. Not at me, but at the rapist.

So many people during those first few hours and days were there to give me the support I needed: the group of young men—strangers to me—who called the police for me when I burst into their house after the attack, the detectives who questioned me, the doctors and nurse who examined me, my bishop who showed up to give me a priesthood blessing, my roommates who took me home, the dean of students who called me the next day to tell me how sorry she was that this had happened, the family members who loved me fiercely and protectively, the BYU psychologist who provided counseling services. It felt like I was being wrapped in successive layers of healing love by everyone I came into contact with. During the long months ahead, as I worked through my own trauma and shame, I knew that I could lean on people around me—people who saw me as worthy of respect and love, even when I couldn't respect or love myself.

Every survivor needs this kind of support. Rape victims should not have to prove that they are perfect rule-followers in order to get the help that they need. They shouldn't have to prove that they struggled and fought. And though this should be obvious to everyone, it's worth saying again: Rape victims who know their attacker should be treated with as much respect as victims of strangers. Date rape should outrage us as much as, if not more than, the less-common stranger-in-a-dark-alley scenario.

Reading the stories in the last few weeks of sexual assault victims who were treated poorly at BYU has been painfully eye-opening. It horrifies me that, while I was believed and supported, others have been blamed and censured because of suspected Honor Code infractions. Being raped was bad enough. I do not know how I would have survived had I also been shamed and punished.

I plead with university administrators to make reasonable changes in the university's policies and practices: Please do not punish victims of sexual assault for Honor Code violations that come to light over the course of the investigation of the assault. This puts victims in a terrible position, forcing them to choose between putting their academic career in jeopardy and letting their assailant go free. Please do not make policing Honor Code violations a higher priority than finding and prosecuting rapists.

Please do not add to victims' trauma by opening up an investigation into their behavior. Please give them the supporting services that they need to heal. Please let all students know that they are safe to report sexual assault.

Finally, please consider issuing an apology for the harm already done to students. As administrators of a university that affirms the Gospel of Christ, you have an opportunity to teach us all a lesson in humility and self-reflection. To this end, the newly-formed sexual assault advisory council and the website asking for feedback from the BYU community are wonderful first steps. Admissions of error will not make the university look weak or foolish. Rather, they have the potential to be a beautiful testament to the power of redemption and our universal need for grace.

Three weeks after publishing this post, I wrote a follow-up piece. You may read it here.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Vacuous Truths at the Dinner Table with My Preschooler

Sanzio 01.jpg
By Raphael - Stitched together from, Public Domain,

I told Johnny that he should change one sentence that he wrote on his second-grade homework assignment. He had written,"The sun is the biggest star in the solar system." But the sun is the only star in the solar system, so that sentence doesn't mean much.

But of course, the original statement, in a mathematical sense, is true. It's not very helpful, but it's true. I mean, let's say the sun won first place in the sculpture category of the community art show. Even if it was the only entry in its category, it would still have won the contest.

Our dinner conversation that night went something like this:

Me: "Well, saying that the sun is the biggest start in the solar system is truebecause it's the only star in the solar systembut it's kind of silly. I mean, what if my  teacher told me to write about my family, and I wrote, 'All of my husbands work at NASA, and Owen is my biggest husband'?"

Everyone laughs and laughs.

I go on, "And Rosemary [who is not married] could also say truthfully that all of her husbands work at NASA. That statement is mathematically true."

Owen questions this, but then has an "aha" moment when he realizes that you can say that all members of the empty set are *fill in the blank,* and the statement is always true. 

"Well, it's mathematically true, but not linguistically true," he says.

Four-year-old Ezekiel is quiet during the whole exchange. Finally, he says, "Daddy, daddy, I have a math problem. All of my macaroni and cheese has a cousin, and the cousin's name is  . . . Glasses!"