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.