A Good Analogy for . . . Repentance? Chastity? The Atonement?

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Just about any Mormon of a certain age experienced a classroom analogy that goes like this:  A tray or plate is passed around the room with several sticks of gum on it, all of which are wrapped and ready to be chewed, except one that has been chewed prior to the class and put back on the plate.  The moral of the story is “Don’t be the chewed piece of gum.”  In other words don’t have sex before your married, because a person who has been abstinent up to that point won’t want to marry someone who failed to also do so.  I’m not sure how popular this analogy is anymore, my sense is that its use is down, but I’m sure it is still in circulation.

As shock lessons go . . . well, you kinda have a winner with this one.  As good analogies go, this is at best problematic since it leaves out critical components of the atonement while at the same time possibly encouraging a judgmental attitude towards those who need to repent.  On top of that, should one find him or herself needing to repent having a viewpoint in your head that you are now as worthless as a chewed up piece of gum can serve as a hindrance to beginning the repentance process.  So, I guess we should actually conclude that it is worse than problematic and is in fact antithetical to the more important truths that should be the focus of a Sunday School curriculum: Christ, the atonement, forgiveness, being forgiving, etc.

I bring this up because this analogy has been thrust into the national spotlight thanks to some serendipitous timing of kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart addressing Johns Hopkins on human trafficking with the rescue of three more kidnap victims in Cleveland Ohio from what appears to have been 10 years of captivity in a sex dungeon.  Ms. Smart spoke about feeling dirty after being raped during her months long kidnap ordeal and stated that an over emphasis on sexual purity within a rape victim can give the perpetrator a measure of power over the victim, since he has now “used her up.”  This is definitely one of preeminent examples of who this poor analogy can actually hurt those it is meant to help, because rape victims have not done anything wrong. Period.

Within hours of the news articles going live with Ms. Smart’s comments I saw a wave of discussions/arguments break out across social media.  For the most part I find myself on the side of those who want to banish this analogy and I think the tide of history and social attitude within the Mormon community is on my side.  Yet as I read through some of the people who offered a measure of support for it (I don’t think one comment I read was in full support of it), I wondered about some of the motivations behind this analogy, and it made me wonder.  If, by looking at the motivations behind the creation of this analogy and the desired behavior that it is supposed to encourage, and then comparing those to true doctrinal principles, could a better analogy be made?  I’ll stop any curious folks from scrolling to the bottom right now and say that I did not come up with one, but if you’re interested in the thought experiment, feel free to continue reading.

Now the desired behavior that we want to foster in our community is this: that a person will remain sexually abstinent until marriage, and then have a healthy sexual relationship with his/her spouse that fosters companionship, love, and enjoyment.  Since most people begin puberty between 9-14 and don’t marry until sometime in their 20’s, means that your average Mormon individual will physically capable of having sex, with all the desires, appetites, and motivations thereof, for 10-20 years before engaging in the behavior, assuming everything goes to plan.  Unfortunately, there are a number of obstacles that make accomplishing this feat difficult:

  • Modern day media has no respect for the abstinence-until-marriage lifestyle and openly mocks it.
  • This mockery extended into the most recent presidential election.
  • School administrators and teachers who do not share this value do not feel the need to support parents who desire it.
  • Modern anti-bullying campaign often deride and condemn “slut-shaming” but are silent to the equally-abhorrent virgin-shaming that takes place in schools.
  • Pressure from peer groups to be part of the “norm.”
  • A constant barrage of sexual themes in advertisement for everyday, non-sexual items.

So, it is hard to keep kids from having sex and we need tools that encourage abstinence in the face of an active anti-abstinence campaign,  However, these tools need to also need to take the into account that once sexual behavior begins after marriage, it must be healthy and positive, so it cannot:

  • instill sham in either partner for utilizing their genitals for pleasure
  • create a power differential between husband and wife in their sexual relationship
  • allow a pleasure differential to exist between the husband and wife
  • instill fear in the couple to openly discuss sexual desires and/or problems with each other and, if necessary, an ecclesiastical leader or counseling professional

In addition to keeping these end goals in mind we also need to be careful to avoid over-guilting these young men and women during their single years in the event that mistakes do take place, and we need to be abundantly clear that rape or sexual abuse is not the victim’s fault and that she or he has nothing to repent of (on a side note, rape and sexual abuse create a whole host of other issues beyond guilt, so even having preemptive information on this given, it will likely not negate the need for spiritual and mental health counseling for victims).  So, now we have our goals clarified.

What though, were the motivations of those who came up with this whole chewing gum analogy in the first place? Or, for that matter, what’s the big deal with sexual behavior anyway versus other sins?  Well, there’s a lot of ways to sin, there’s murder, stealing, lying, rudeness, hatred, impure thoughts, recreational drug use, and so on, and so on.  Now the whole reason for the atonement is that we mortals cannot make reparations for a number of our sins.  We have been taught that part of the repentance process is making up for the bad things that we do, so if we stole we should return the stolen item or pay its value, if we lied we should correct with a confession of truth, etc.  But what do we do if the we cannot return the equivalent value of what we stole, or the opportunity to confess a lie isn’t possible, well that’s the whole idea of an atonement; it is there to make up the difference in areas where we come up short.  In the past, one of the emphases on sexual sin was the need to preserve “virginity,” since supposedly, once virginity is taken it is one of the things that can never be restored.  Well, I personally don’t like that one, it creates a power differential between men and women due to physiological differences.  To put it bluntly, that chewed piece of gum was to represent a broken hymen.  This is what encourages hymen preservation and female circumcision in many world cultures, and despite cultural relativism these are practices that should be universally condemned.  Additionally, we need to be cautious of anything that would allow such perversions of male/female relations to enter our society.

Where I grew up, and by the time I was a teenager the chewed piece of gum came to no longer represent a broken hymen and was discussed within the idea that experimenting with sexual sin was more likely to put a person in a situation where despite the existence of the atonement, one was risking permanent mortal repercussions.  So sexual behavior was compared to recreational drug use.  Experimenting with drugs can get you addicted and mess up your life.  Being sexual active outside of marriage can get you an STD or you could get some girl pregnant which could pretty much mess up your life.  I’m not sure how fair that direct comparison is; there may be similarities but I wouldn’t call them equivalencies.  Still though, it is important to remind youth that thinking with your genitals instead of your brain might bring about permanent mortal consequences.  At the same time, the Law of Chastity is not given to simply define the dos and do-nots of sexual behavior and to protect us from STDs or unintended premarital procreation.  All commandments are given to help us in our progression to become more godlike.  How chastity as defined by our Church helps us become more godlike requires future discussion, but I think even with just that brief reminder we should remember that our overall focus should be on growing towards the most positive aspects of sex, and that protecting us from the negative aspects should be secondary.  Anything short of that encourages the type of teenage behavior we hear about where teens try just about every sexual experience possible short of vaginal intercourse in order to preserve their “virtue.”

All of this still needs to come back to the atonement.  The whole idea of the atonement is that in an eternal sense, sins can be washed away paving a path into eternal life.  Within mortality too, relying on the atonement can take people out of terrible situations and circumstances and turn those horrible experiences into a source of power instead of pain.  Yet, the atonement can never unmake a sin in our memory, nor can it fully absolve us of lifelong responsibilities and/or consequences of  engaging in some sins.  In fact, our continued reliance on the atonement is somewhat conditioned on us taking on those responsibilities and consequences.   (Related to this paragraph, but on a different note: one of the reasons that being the perpetrator of forcible sexual sin, i.e. rape and sexual abuse, is that even though the victims are blameless for the sin, they often have lifelong consequences.  This is why the need for mental health counseling and community support is so vital.)

So, in review, these are the attributes of a better analogy for sexual sin if we can ever come up with one :

  • It must have the principles of the atonement at its core
  • It must promote abstinence prior to marriage
  • It must encourage a healthy sexual relationship following marriage
  • It should encourage repentance if mistakes are made
  • It should remind youth that while sins can be eternally forgiven, there may be lasting mortal consequences
  • It should not impede the recovery of those who have been victims of sexual crimes

Given that the chewing gum analogy really only addresses the second of the above 6 criteria, I think it’s time it be retired.  If you, or someone you know, has an analogy that you believe properly addresses all 6 criteria please share it in the comments below.

I’m Glad I’m not 21 Right Now

On Friday I had to walk across our campus to go to my optometrist. This is normally the kind of thing I would drive to, but BYU was hosting its annual Women’s Conference and I didn’t want to lose the parking space right in front of my office. So my 3 minute drive was just a 15 minute walk, and it was a very pleasant day so it was a nice way to spend a lunch hour.

As I was walking, I saw a group of student workers who were part of the paint crew on a touch up assignment. I wasn’t really paying attention to them until I heard one of them say, “so what’s more important to your eternal salvation, serving a mission or getting married in the temple?” It seemed an odd question, so took a quick survey of this group and started listening in on what they were saying. All of them were male, and looked to be returned-missionary age, so it didn’t make sense to me at first why a bunch of men who had served missions would be questioning the value of serving versus other important life events like marriage. My confusion was quickly answered when another one of them answered with, “just because girls can serve at 19 doesn’t mean they’re supposed to.” It dawned on me, they weren’t talking about themselves, they were talking about their female peers. Unfortunately, as I continued to listen in on their conversation, I was dismayed to hear some chauvinistic language casually bandied about in their speech. There was nothing overtly misogynist, but had any woman been within earshot, she certainly wouldn’t have considered going on a date with any of these guys.

Now, for some background and in case you’re unfamiliar with the LDS Church, all young men are called as a matter of priesthood responsibility to serve a mission. For decades, young men could start their mission as early as their 19th birthday, or as late as their 26th with most opting to serve as close to 19 as possible. In October 2012, young men were allowed to start their missions as early as their 18th birthday, so long as their have finished high school (or its local equivalent for young men outside the United States). Young women have been extended the opportunity to serve, but it has always been clarified that they are not obligated to do so; if a young women does not feel personally inclined to serve then local church leaders and/or parents should not put pressure on her, try to persuade, or try and alleviate concerns about serving. Her decision is final. If a young man says he doesn’t want to serve then a level of loving persuasion is acceptable, with the understanding that he still should not serve until he is spiritually prepared to do so. Prior to October 2012 young women could opt to serve at any age 21 or older, now the age is 19 or older. These age changes have sent shockwaves through the church as members and observers have pondered the lasting cultural implications they will have both in the short and long term. Few are arguing that these changes are anything but titanic, especially in light of the fact that the number of active missionaries has ballooned and that young women are serving a rate never before seen in the church. So much is unknown during this time period where the number of young men & young women starting their missions is in huge excess compared to those finishing. In a couple of years, there will be more missionaries ending their missions than starting, and shortly after that, we’ll probably hit some sort of equilibrium again.

With all these big things happening, it is easy to sometimes overlook the little day-to-day impact that this may be having on the 18 to 22 year-old individuals who are on the front lines and most impacted by these changes. Up to this point, I’ve mainly been encouraged. The young men and young women who are leaving at these younger ages seem prepared and excited about their opportunities, and in general being able to complete a mission before getting too wrapped up in college or work is a good thing. I know that many have considered some of the troublesome things that could pop up, such as ostracizing young women who choose not to serve and mission presidents keeping a closer eye on current missionaries to make sure they keep their relationships professional.

Overhearing those young men on Friday opened my eyes to a new one: men returning home from their missions right now are finding few female contemporaries to date and socialize with. I’m worried that after spending two years on a mission with few female peers, and now returning to college with few female peers for at least another 18 months may be too lengthly a time during critical developmental years for our current cohort of returned missionaries to develop appropriate understanding regarding gender equality and respect.

Within our church we have a long tradition of proclaiming that the sexes are “equal but different.” How that equality is to be expressed is constantly an area of debate, and how it is expressed is in a slow but constantly flux. For example, in our most recent General Conference women offered some of the prayers for the first time. Also, these age changes for missionary service are being hailed by those who have been advocating for more equality of service opportunity within the church. The expanded hope is that young men coming home from their missions with so many female missionary peers will be more inclined towards equality when they get home. While many are dismissive of the concerns that some in our church misunderstand the idea of equality, I have had the unfortunate opportunity to counsel women who were wives of men who never got that equality exists between the sexes despite any differences. This is something I have become more concerned about and sensitive to. It is interesting though, that by creating a group of male missionaries who will serve side-by-side with female missionaries, we’ve created a group of young men just a couple years older who have now spent their missions with few female peers, and have returned to college with very few female peers.

I’ve spent the last two days regretting not engaging with those young men, challenging their statements, and encouraging more sensitivity to equality in general (let alone more equality in language). It’s helped me commit though to engaging when I come across this again in the future.