Two weeks ago Elizabeth Smart made a public comment about a lesson she learned as a child. Elizabeth revealed that an object lesson made her feel unworthy to return to her family after being violated by a sexual perpetrator. Of all the discussions that could be prompted by such a remark, the media decided to initiate a discussion about whether or not it is healthy for the Mormon Church to teach abstinence before marriage.
Of course Latter-day Saints should teach abstinence. We cannot and will not compromise our belief that abstinence before marriage is the Church’s standard, and also the Lord’s standard. Therefore, we need not even ask the question the media proposed, “Should Latter-day Saints teach abstinence?” We can, however, take this opportunity to ask ourselves another question, “How should we teach abstinence?”
I was asked to be a guest on radio station KUER when their morning talk show focused on Elizabeth’s comment. As I mentioned in my KUER interview, there are two must-includes in an abstinence conversation:
#1 Sexual abuse has nothing to do with breaking the law of chastity. Elizabeth Smart was not the one who broke a moral law. Her perpetrator did. She was as innocent, as clean, and as wholesome before the violation as she was afterward. She did not choose to violate the Lord’s commandments. She had nothing to repent of. Abuse is in an entirely different category than consensual sex. We absolutely must teach our youth the difference.
Young women who are victims of date rape may also believe they have violated the law of chastity and they may erroneously believe they are guilty and in need of repentance. Date rape is a crime just like violent, forcible rape. Our young women need to understand that, where they might need to repent of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or of breaking the Word of Wisdom, or any number of actual sins, they are not guilty of sexual sin when a man forces himself on them.
It is not uncommon for young women who have been sexually abused as children to become promiscuous in their adolescence. While the childhood abuse was outside their control, the promiscuity is within their control. Often the reason abuse victims become promiscuous is because they have not been taught that victims are innocent. Chances are they were not taught anything about abuse at all.
We need to do a far better job educating our children, not just our young women, but our primary age children, about sexual abuse. The conversation about good touches and bad touches can’t begin early enough. Many abuse victims become victimized before they even enter pre-school. They have no idea what is happening to them and they have no idea what to think about it. In a very sensitive, and non-alarmist way, we need to introduce children to the topic of good touches and bad touches. We need to help them feel safe talking to us about these topics and completely eliminate any semblance of shame associated with the conversation.
We can’t have a conversation about the “birds and the bees,” teaching proper marital sex, without also teaching about Satan’s counterfeit, illicit, abusive, selfish, or non-consensual sex.
#2 Abstinence before marriage is the Lord’s standard. However, if you have, of your own free will and choice, chosen to break the law of chastity, the atonement is real, it works, and you CAN be washed clean again. We should never teach chastity without teaching, in the same lesson, repentance. In my experience, Latter-day Saints do this very well. I can’t think of a single talk in recent years where chastity was mentioned, and repentance wasn’t. The two topics go together like two sides of a coin. They are inseparable. They belong together, and from what I observe, we generally teach them together.
What then, about the young lady who has had sex before marriage, and has repented and been cleansed by the miracle of the atonement? Does her worth diminish because she had sex before marriage? Is she less valuable as a wife because she is not a virgin? Is she like the chewed up piece of gum that nobody wants?
A man who has a testimony of the atonement, who believes that the blood of Christ washes away our sins, will not view a repentant non-virgin any differently than he does a virgin. He will see a pure, virtuous, worthy, daughter of God, full of faith, and heroic for exercising that faith. If he sees anything different, where is his faith? If any man considers a repentant daughter of God less valuable because she is not a virgin, that says something very significant about that man.
Ultimately the question is not whether or not to teach abstinence. The question is how to teach abstinence. Clearly we don’t want to give a message that there is no repentance, no way back to purity, that once violated, always violated. The inappropriate object lesson of chewed gum teaches just that. Such lessons are nothing but scare tactics, and have no place in Latter-day Saint classrooms.
Object lessons can be extremely powerful. Sometimes object lessons are so powerful that the object is remembered and the lesson is entirely forgotten. Many of us are visual learners, and when a teacher brings a visual into a classroom, it may burrow itself into our memories with far more vigor than a verbal lesson. Those of us who teach, especially those of who teach youth, must be exceptionally careful not to simply teach the truth, but to not teach a lie.
It would be easy to encourage a ban on object lessons all together, but that might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Remember the Savior taught with parables because they are such a powerful teaching tool. But we must be extremely careful than ever that whatever method we use to teach, we always teach the truth.
JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance available at www.unsteadydating.com