This holiday season, Amazon continues their “Frustration-Free Packaging initiative” in an effort not to lose customers to “wrap rage”! Their boxes are easier to open and their packaging contains fewer excess materials, and who doesn’t appreciate that? As I’ve listened to recent Standards Night lessons with my three teenage children, I’ve realized we could use our own “frustration-free packaging”. Our youth expect the packaging to be as good as the product–it’s a trait that sets them apart from their parents. If we offer them valuable standards wrapped up in onerous, non-doctrinal packaging, they may become so frustrated that they fail to receive the gift.
Last month in General Conference, Elder Ballard pointed out one type of packaging to avoid when he pleaded with church members to “embrace God’s children compassionately and eliminate any prejudice, including . . .sexism.” Later in the session, Elder Anderson repeated Elder Ballard’s plea word for word, with the reminder that “[t]he teachings of general conference are the considerations the Lord would have before us now and in the months ahead. . . . Often His voice directs us to change something in our lives.”
These words got me thinking: what changes should we be making as Church members to implement this inspired mandate to eliminate prejudice and sexism? And how do we get rid of something that can often be hard to identify in the first place?
One place to start is by taking a harder look for sexist undertones in the things we teach and say. We can be sure that our youth are on high alert for it, and that when they find it, it pains them. It blunts the needed impact of our teaching, obscures the light of divine standards in their lives, and may even frustrate them so much that they don’t ever get past the wrapping to see what’s inside.
So in the spirit of following this directive from Elder Ballard and Elder Anderson, here are nine real-world examples of less effective and more effective ways to think about our standards.
Less Effective: A man recounts that in his youth he vowed that he would live right because he loved and respected his mother, and was grateful for all that she sacrificed for him. He says, “I would never have wanted to come home and tell my mother, I robbed a girl of her virtue today.”
This account is problematic for at least three reasons. First, it suggests that the loss of virtue is a burden borne only by women. In fact, it seems as though the young man has nothing to lose by breaking the law of chastity. Why wouldn’t he tell his mother, “I lost my virtue today”? Second, the words in which he reports his behavior are deeply troubling. No one is a willing victim of robbery. These words imply sexual assault. In this instance, the man would need to answer to legal and ecclesiastical authorities, not just his mother. Third, the speaker’s words reinforce erroneous, non-doctrinal stereotypes that men are active sexual agents while women are passive things to be acted upon. By contrast, our theology celebrates the capacity of both men and women for loving, physical intimacy within marriage. Our church leaders have repeatedly emphasized that sexual relations are “a way of strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.”
More Effective: Not only would I never have wanted to come home and tell my mother, I lost my virtue today, but I made a personal commitment to be sexually pure, and by my words and actions, I encouraged others to do the same.
Less Effective: “One reason I don’t swear is because it would make me offensive company for women and children.”
Why: Although meant to be light-hearted, this explanation suggests a double standard. For The Strength Of Youth offers a single standard of language that is applicable to both men and women.
More Effective: I don’t swear because it would make me offensive company.
Less Effective: A speaker shared a story about being at the Conference Center and seeing the “red velvet seats” where the apostles sit. He then admonished the young men about the need for adherence to standards of sexual purity, as they are the future leaders of the Church, including a few who will actually be serving as apostles when the Lord returns.
Why: There is no need to teach the value of chastity in such an unnecessarily exclusive way. Yes, young men will experience blessings now and in the future for choosing to follow God’s standards of morality, but the same is true of our young women as well. The speaker’s example completely discounts the critical contributions that our girls and young women will someday make. And the example is tone-deaf for today’s youth who have been taught to look to external indicators of how women are valued. (How much do female actresses get paid compared to male actors? How many female partners versus male partners are at top law firms? How many Fortune 500 CEOs are women?) We should instead be celebrating the vital ways that all members of the Church can and do serve.
More Effective: This is an easy fix. “Our children and youth are the future leaders of the church.” No need to refer to red velvet seats.
Less Effective: A man relates that he was on a Q&A panel in which he was asked about the role of women in our church. Some panelists responded, “Women in our church can be ministers.” The Mormon answered, “Women in our church can be queens of heaven.”
Why: Although we want all children of God to have a perspective of their eternal destiny, many young people hear this answer as a cop-out. It gives the impression that we don’t value the contributions that women make here and now. Our youth may find more satisfaction in answers like the one given at www.LDS.org/topics/women-in-the-church, which details the responsibilities, work, and service of LDS women.
More Effective: Women in the Church are disciples of Jesus Christ who participate in the work of salvation by ministering and administering. They are called of God and set apart by the laying on of hands. They teach, pray, and speak in meetings at the local and general level. They participate in councils that oversee congregational activities throughout the world. They call upon the powers of heaven and receive revelation in caring for the poor and needy, teaching the gospel, and performing missionary, temple, and family history work.
Less Effective: A young woman puts a quote on her bed stand which she reads each night: “I will not allow the girl I am now to cheat the woman I am becoming of the blessing of giving her children the noble birthright of a virtuous mother.”
Why: This practice is troubling for two reasons. First, it perpetuates the erroneous impression that a woman’s virtue is primarily of value to other people instead of to herself. This mindset undermines a young woman’s ability to own and value her virtue as her own because it externalizes that virtue as something that exists for other people. Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, an LDS marriage and family therapist whose work has been featured on the Mormon Channel and who was a keynote speaker at BYU last year, has spoken extensively on this topic.
Her dissertation examined the attitudes towards sexuality that were held by young women who successfully lived the law of chastity. The mindset that correlated with positive outcomes was that of a young woman who thought of her sexuality as her own, and who made the choice to be morally clean because that was how she wanted to live in relation to God. The mindset that did not correlate with positive outcomes was that of a young woman who thought of her virtue as existing for someone else (e.g., “I need to save this for my future husband. I need to save this for my future children. I need to save this because it’s how my bishop wants me to act.”). Our theology embraces sexual intimacy as a gift that God has given us to bless our marriages. We want our young people to value their God-given sexuality as their own. This helps them to take responsibility for it and to make the determination to use it to as a force for good. It empowers our young people to be chaste now, and to be full, desiring, equal sexual partners once they are married.
Second, we must be so careful not to burden our young men and young women who have erred with the impression that sexual transgressions are beyond repentance. The Savior atoned for all of our sins. He forgives us and expects us to forgive ourselves and each other. Youth who may be broken-hearted today because of sexual missteps will rise up to become the virtuous mothers and fathers of the next generation.
More Effective: “As a child of God, I decide for myself to be morally clean. I have made the choice to follow God’s commandments so that I can have His blessings and power in my life.”
Less Effective: A young woman and a young man are called to the front of the room. The young woman is praised because she has outward beauty, which comes from inward sexual purity. The young man is praised because he uses his hands to break bread at the Sacrament table, and will use them to knock doors as a missionary, and he is cautioned that he must never use those hands to defile a woman.
Why: This construct values women for their passivity and men for their activity. When we focus on women as passive objects of beauty or sexual purity for the benefit of men, we essentially make women into objects for men. By contrast, our theology teaches that women (far from being mere objects) are actors and creators and agents in their families, in the world, and in the body of Christ.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife offers this as an important way of communicating how we value young women, as well as how they might value themselves: namely, for their intrinsic worth as active participants in creating a good world, and not for what they are for men (sexually or otherwise). This comparison is also unfair to our young men. We need to use words and images that make it clear that the attractiveness of our young women and young men are the result of their active choice for virtue and their active choice to be agents for good in their family, their church, and their community.
More Effective: In the church’s “I Choose to Be Pure” video, three young women and three young men of various faiths speak candidly about why they have chosen to be sexually pure. They articulate the conviction that their sexuality is God-given, and that they will use this gift for good. Quoting Elder Bednar, intimate relations are not “merely a curiosity to be explored, an appetite to be satisfied, or a type of recreation or entertainment to be pursued selfishly [nor are they] a conquest to be achieved or simply an act to be performed.” Rather, as President Packer taught, intimate relations are “one of the ultimate expressions of our divine nature” as sons and daughters of God. 
Less Effective: A recent PowerPoint included cartoons with punch lines such as, “Don’t look at the blond, Elder.” “How did you know she was blond?” One of the slides showed an impossibly glamorous female wearing a t-shirt with the logo, “I can’t. I’m a Mormon.”
Why: Very few girls in the room will ever attain to the air-brushed standards of beauty that the model for that t-shirt reached. The unspoken message is, “If you’re this hot, you don’t have to apologize for your standards.” The cartoons objectify the woman (“the blond”).
More Effective: These memes and cartoons may be intended for humorous effect, but they are deeply problematic. Every child of God can claim shelter in God’s standards, regardless of physical appearance. Jesus Christ was a champion of women when he lived on this earth, and we can’t afford to have that truth obscured for our youth today.
Less Effective: A leader says, “The mind of a young man who has viewed pornography is forever altered and will never be the same.”
Why: First, pornography is a temptation for young women as well as young men. In the church video, Pornography Addiction: Is There Hope?, a young woman who struggled with pornography explains the deep shame she felt when her Young Women leaders opened their lessons on pornography with the disclaimer, “I know this doesn’t apply to any of you because you’re all good girls, so I apologize but I have to teach this lesson.” Second, as a matter of statistics we know that the vast majority of our youth—young women and young men—have viewed media that is pornographic at some time. Heaping shame, despair, regret, and fear that this is an incurable problem is not helpful.
More Effective: We have resources. OvercomingPornography.LDS.org shines a bright light on the subject of pornography to bring it out of the darkness and secrecy where it thrives. The site teaches why pornography is harmful, as does the church’s video, What Should I Do When I See Pornography?. It gives action plans with personal inventories for you to consider how well you are taking care of yourself physically and how well you are able to cope with negative emotions. Because stress, loneliness, anger, boredom, and self-pity make you more vulnerable to temptation, the site encourages you to identify and cultivate healthy alternatives for dealing with these emotions instead of turning to pornography.
It advises instead of criticizing yourself, you take time for introspection to identify patterns in what happens before you are tempted to use pornography. If you learn to recognize your triggers, then you will be able to make plans to disrupt the cycle. The site recommends that you discuss your problems openly with appropriate leaders and parents so that you don’t have to carry this burden alone and so that your pornography usage is denied the status of secrecy that perpetuates it.
It proposes that you learn about the real lives of pornography stars (without delving into their pictures and scenes) so that you can understand how even your relatively small personal use of pornography is not harmless to others. It promotes thoughtful reflection. Above all, it provides the hope that you can learn skills and develop strength within yourself and through Jesus Christ to stop using pornography. It urges you to make personally meaningful and significant plans for your future and move boldly forward.
Less Effective: A speaker shares the story of a young full-time sister missionary serving in another country when some men broke into her missionary apartment, tied her up, led her to the bedroom at gunpoint, and told her to get on the bed. She responded, “I’ve lived my life saving my virtue for my future husband, and you are going to have to kill me first.” The men decided to leave her alone and leave her apartment.
Why: The implicit lesson of this story—that it would be better to die than to be raped—is a perilous standard to promote, and utterly heart-wrenching for any person who has been or will be a victim of sexual assault. For the Strength of Youth teaches that “victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sin and do not need to repent.” If a potential victim of sexual abuse wouldn’t be guilty, and need not repent, that victim certainly need not “allow” herself to be killed rather than “allow” herself to be raped. The atonement of Jesus Christ offers the unqualified truth that the young person who has sinned sexually still has infinite worth.
We must also consider that some victims of sexual abuse blame themselves, and wonder if they somehow could or should have done more to prevent the abuse from happening. It can take years for them to realize that they were not at fault. Because not all cases are clear-cut, it is especially worth emphasizing what Primary General President Jones taught in the most recent General Conference: “No matter what, we always have worth in the eyes of our Heavenly Father. Our worth was determined before we ever came to this earth. If we sin, we are less worthy, but we are never worth less!” Again quoting Sister Jones, “The Lord explained the relationship between our worth and His great atoning sacrifice when He said, ‘Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God; For, behold, the Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.”
More Effective: If we are going to tell a story about an attempted rape, then it is critical that we offer compassion and direct victims to the healing balm of Jesus Christ. If you have been the victim of sexual abuse, please know that it is not your fault. You are not guilty of sexual sin. You are not worth less in the eyes of God. You did not deserve to be violated. No matter the circumstances, God loves you and is mindful of you. Please seek help and healing from qualified professionals, from trusted church leaders, and from the Lord.
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Elder Ballard and Elder Anderson have provided life-giving guidance. If we fail to heed it, then we — even in the act of trying to help – may harm the Church and our youth with a well-meaning but outdated embrace. Let us “embrace God’s children compassionately and eliminate any prejudice, including . . . sexism.”
Erin Holsinger McPhie served in the China Hong Kong mission from 1996-1998. She graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in 2000. She and her husband, David, are the parents of five children, and make their home in Southern California.
 https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/04/we-believe-in-being-chaste?lang=eng, emphasis added; see also President Kimball’s and Elder Oak’s teachings in https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/10/the-great-plan-of-happiness?lang=eng