For Mormon Women, Saying #metoo Presents a Particular Challenge
By Andrea Smardon
November 29, 2017
When Carol was eight years old, she was baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon church. But she refused to stand up in front of the congregation and bear her testimony – to make a declaration about how she knew that God, the Heavenly Father, loved her.
Her father punished her by raping her.
Carol only remembered this years later, in her 20s, while working with a therapist who specialized in childhood trauma. She gradually came to realize that she had been abused since she was a very young child. Her father justified sexual abuse by using an example from the Bible.
“He told me that Mary was impregnated by God the Father. That’s why Mary had to have sex with God,” Carol said.
Now, at age 56, Carol (not her real name) has watched her Facebook feed fill up with messages of women saying #metoo. She thought these very small words held huge stories. As she read others’ experiences, she decided to write her own post.
“It’s almost impossible to describe how heinous this crime is, especially when perpetrated against a child. There’s a reason we call these crimes ‘unspeakable’ … I have no sweeping answer about how to stop the violence. But I have this voice. And I was born to tell the truth,” her post read.
Telling the truth about sexual abuse is hard for anyone, but it has particular challenges in the conservative, Mormon community of Utah where Carol was raised for most of her life and where she now lives. Carol, who identifies as a Mormon feminist, sees a parallel with powerful men in Hollywood and those in the Mormon church.
“It’s men in power taking advantage of their positions of authority,” she said. “In the LDS church or any patriarchal religious community, it’s even more condensed and insulated, and there’s a lot of pressure to forgive and to not rock the boat.”
‘In the hands of God’
On paper, the rules are clear. “The Church’s position is that abuse cannot be tolerated in any form,” reads the official church policy handbook. “Those who abuse or are cruel to their spouses, children, other family members, or anyone else violate the laws of God and man … Members who have abused others are subject to Church discipline.”
But Carol’s father was not disciplined after Carol and her sister, who also remembers being raped by him, reported the abuse to local church leaders. It was 1990; Carol was 29 years old by then, and her father had since remarried and moved to another state.
According to a three-page letter (read it in its entirety here) addressed to Carol, church leaders confronted her father, and he denied it.
“I had fasted and prayed, as to how I should proceed … If he had admitted the transgressions and confessed them, the course of action would have been clear,” the stake president (the lay leader of the Mormon equivalent of a diocese) wrote to Carol. Having informed the father’s current wife and her adult daughter about the allegations, church leaders decided they could do nothing more to help him repent and reform, leaving him “in the hands of God”.
“In conclusion, I pray the Lord’s blessings upon you,” the letter to Carol closes. “With all that you have been through, I hope that he will pour out his spirit, and richest blessings upon you and your family.”
Carol remembers feeling devastated at the time.
“I had a period of disillusionment about the church,” she said. “If God is in it, you would think the truth of something like this would be worth taking some kind of action on.”
She decided not to bring her rape to the attention of an even higher church authority or to take legal action. Instead, she focused on her own healing, and she says her Mormon community has been instrumental in that.
“When I was in the deepest grief, despair, and loneliness in dealing with residual horrors of assaults, I opened myself to a profound and hope-filled relationship with Jesus,” Carol wrote on her Facebook wall. Over decades, she says she has had many positive relationships within the church, including some supportive local bishops. She is committed now to helping to contribute to these difficult conversations among her fellow Mormons.
‘Our culture objectifies women’s bodies’
One of the most high-profile cases of sexual abuse in the Mormon community was the abduction and repeated rape of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart by a religious fanatic in 2002.
Smart spoke publicly at Johns Hopkins University in 2013 about how she was taught that a woman who has sex out of wedlock is like a “chewed-up piece of gum”. Smart has said those teachings contributed to her sense of hopelessness. At the time, she feared she was ruined, not worth saving.
Since that time, a controversial verse from the Book of Mormon has been removed from a workbook on virtue for Mormon girls. Chapter nine of the Book of Moroni describes rape as a depravation of “that which was most dear and precious among all things, chastity and virtue”.
While the church continues to teach chastity and abstinence, spokesman Eric Hawkins says victims of abuse should be assured that they are not to blame.
“They do not need to feel guilt,” Hawkins said. “If they have been a victim of rape or other sexual abuse, whether they have been abused by an acquaintance, a stranger, or even a family member, victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sexual sin.”
|Tara Tulley, a therapist whose patients are mormon women who are victims of sexual abuse and struggle with finding support in their church communities. Photograph: Kim Raff for The Guardian|
But the shame persists among victims, and it can create a ripe environment for abuse, according to Tara Tulley, a therapist practicing in the predominantly Mormon community of Utah County.
“It helps perpetrators to keep victims quiet,” said Tulley, a survivor of sexual abuse herself.
According to Uniform Crime Reports, the rape rate in Utah has been consistently higher than the US rate; it’s the only violent crime in Utah that occurs at a higher rate than the rest of the nation. Tulley said these reported rapes represent only a small portion of the actual numbers. In Utah, she said, the internalized shame runs deep.
“Our [Mormon] culture objectifies women’s bodies. You’re told that if you’re wearing something immodest, you are walking pornography. It’s your responsibility to control how men see you,” Tulley said.
This is reflected in Mormon literature: “Central to the command to be modest is an understanding of the sacred power of procreation, the ability to bring children into the world,” reads the official church website at lds.org. “Revealing and sexually suggestive clothing, which includes short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, and shirts that do not cover the stomach, can stimulate desires and actions that violate the Lord’s law of chastity.”
The website also advises members to always be neat and clean in appearance, and not to disfigure themselves with tattoos or body piercings. Tulley does not look like a typical Mormon with her purple hair and tattooed skin. She says many women here feel pressure to appear perfect, to avoid showing any vulnerability.
“We have that internal pain and we don’t know what to do with it so we put it on our bodies. If we look good enough, if we are appealing enough, then people will like us, and people won’t be able to see what we feel like is broken inside.”
Tulley encourages people to seek healthy support. Often in the Mormon community, people’s first response is to talk to their local bishop, but Tulley says a bishop may not be educated about how to deal with sexual assault. Church leaders are instructed to work with the victim in ensuring the abuse is reported to authorities, and they have access to a 24-hour help line provided by the church, but Tulley says a well-meaning bishop can sometimes give psychologically damaging messages to a vulnerable person.
“If you’ve been abused, you’re often told you need to forgive,” Tulley said. “That’s putting the responsibility on the victim.”
‘The message to be a witness comes from God’
|Carol poses for a portrait at her home. Photograph: Kim Raff for The Guardian|
Sometimes, talking about assault can have real costs for survivors.
At Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, several students spoke last year to the media about how they were afraid to report sexual assault because it meant putting themselves at risk of investigations into their own conduct.
Students at the church-owned school must sign the Honor Code, which prohibits use of alcohol and illicit drugs and sexual intercourse before marriage. If students reporting sexual assault were found to be in violation of the Honor Code, they could be disciplined – even barred from attending the school. After investigations by the Salt Lake Tribune and the federal Office for Civil Rights, the school changed its policies in June last year to give accusers amnesty from Honor Code investigations.
A survey conducted in March this year on BYU campus revealed that most students who said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact did not report it. If they did talk to anyone, they were most likely to speak to a religious leader like a local bishop. Survey committee leaders determined that more work needed to be done to educate students about reporting, sexual assault policies and support services. The school now has a new full-time Title IX coordinator and an advocate for victims of sexual assault. For the first time this fall, BYU trained new students on consent at orientation.
“The attention that has come because of that case at BYU, I think things have changed,” said Holly Richardson, a Mormon columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune and a former Utah Republican legislator. “I’m glad to see that there’s more conversation around it. I would love to live in a society where victims are believed and not shamed or blamed.”
Richardson wrote in a recent column about how she posted #metoo on her social media feed. She said the very first comment on her post was, “Have you really or are you just jumping on the bandwagon to add your voice?”
“The way we’re going to stop the shame culture is believing people when they speak up,” Richardson said.
She would like to see a response from the highest levels of the LDS church, to create opportunities and training for members to talk about sexual harassment and assault in a church setting.
|A Mormon ward near the Draper temple. Photograph: Kim Raff for The Guardian|
At this point in her life, Carol says she would be happy to never speak of her father and the abuse again, but she feels a moral responsibility to do so.
“The message to be a witness comes from God,” she said. She’s made a vow that when the opportunity to talk about her experience arises, she will say yes. That includes church meetings, where it may be hard for people to hear what she has to say.
“There is an emphasis in the [Mormon] community to focus on ‘the good’, to affirm the innate goodness of the human spirit,” said Carol. Through her difficulties at home, it was this community and her belief in God that affirmed her sense of self-worth, but she says, there is a dangerous and hurtful flip side.
“Those elements are also used to ignore and deny the bad. Sharing these types of truths in the Mormon community, there is a social pressure or expectation that you just don’t bring it up. People want to believe it’s not a problem in their community, certainly not in God’s chosen church.”
In a religion where you are supposed to spend eternity with your family, she adds, “it’s hard for people to hear about how your dad is a pedophile”.
But Carol knows she is not the only one in the room who has been abused. She speaks for them, and others in a position to help them.
“If it’s truth, there’s something about it that is important,” Carol said. “Truth is light, even when it looks like darkness.”
Andrea Smardon is an award-winning reporter and contributor to National Public Radio based in Utah and executive producer of the podcast Changing Our Stories