On Elizabeth Smart and Chewing Gum

The Friday Gospels has been out nearly six months now (phew!) and I’ve done a ton of events and had a ton and a half of emails about it. Generally people have been very kind, and more than a few have been curious about the ‘fairy cake’ scene in the first chapter – the story Jeannie tells about her early morning seminary class. (Much of the rest of this post won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the book. Sorry – sucks to be you.)

First, no, I did not make this up (though Jeannie would possibly have been more likely to have this lesson in a women’s only sunday school class or sunday night fireside than a semminary class). This and many other ‘object lessons’ concerning women’s sexual purity were very common in the LDS church for a while, thankfully less so these days – although when I was researching The Friday Gospels I found a sixteen year old who’d been treated to the fairy cake lesson in 2010, so the lessons, and certainly the attitudes behind them, are not dying out altogether.

Not all of the emails I’ve had about the book have been terribly friendly. I’ve been considering quoting some of the high-lights from them here, but decided against it. You’re allowed not to like a book, of course. Even though I personally find the idea a little mad, you’re also allowed to be greatly offended by a novel that you haven’t read. Cool by me. It is kind of gratifying that the mere existence of a book can send people into a tizz and reminds me of why I do what I do. But, in reluctant response to some of those emails: yes, the scene is sort of funny. Yes, it does foreground the lesson itself and the attitudes that lead to it as a bit ridiculous. Experiencing this kind of thing on the receiving end has tuned my sense of humour a little differently to yours, perhaps. It’s a shitty thing to sit in room and be told that reptentance can’t restore sexual purity, and sexual purity is the most significant thing a woman can offer to a man. Shittier still to be so young that you believe it. It’s an act of defiance to find the humour in that situation, and I plan to keep on doing it.

I think I would have let all this pass me by completely (I joyfully retain the Mormon characteristic of being able to tune-out anything I don’t quite like the sound of) if Elizabeth Smart hadn’t returned to the news recently. She’s a US LDS woman who, when she was a young teenager, was kidnapped from her home in Utah and held captive by a FLDS man who considered her to be his plural wife. Recently, she’s spoken out about sexual assault and how the way she’d been taught about sexual purity affected her after she’d been raped. Here’s a quote from an article about her in The Guardian.

“I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence, she said, ‘Imagine you’re a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed, and if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who’s going to want you after that?”

Indeed. Joanna Brooks, a Feminist Mormon writer and thinker on LDS culture and doctrine wrote, I think, a very good piece on Smart’s comments. She rightly says that while most LDS women would recognise the chewing-gum-lesson as one of a host of ‘object lessons’ involving flowers, fruit, cakes, bananas (!), that you wouldn’t find any of these lessons in the official manuals of the church’s various youth education programmes. She identifies this as a kind of persistent folk doctrine, similar to the racism within the church that persists after the 1978 lifting of the ban on full membership for black members. Read the full article here, at Religion Dispatches.

While on the whole I agree with Brooks’ comments, and generally follow what she writes because I consider her to be something that’s rare in LDS land – a faithful, dissenting voice of objective sanity – she doesn’t mention that this year, in the LDS general conference, Elaine Dalton, the woman who is in charge of all the young women’s programmes (that is the overall direction of social activities, religious education and pastoral-style care) around the entire world chose, again, to speak about ‘virtue’. She’s not an extreme kook, or a fringe member of the church. This is a woman endorsed by the highest authorities and in a very rare position of female influence and leadership.

‘Virtue’ – which she glosses as ‘strength’ but consistently uses interchangeably with ‘purity’ and ‘cleanliness’ – is a bit of a pet topic of hers, actually. You can look at her talk A Return to Virtue here. Or one she gave a little later, Guardians of Virtue. To hear her speak to the young women in her care (including women in countries where rape is commonplace – and only three months after the gang-rape and murder of a student on a bus in Dehli) you’d be forgiven for thinking that the most important thing on her mind, the single message she wanted to impart wasn’t about education, or confidence, or self esteem – values that would empower women to make informed choices in many different areas of their lives. No, it’s about sexual purity. In her latest talk (and her last – she’s no longer fulfilling the leadership role with young women that she was), she quoted a scripture from the Book of Mormon that refers to a brutal mass rape enacted as a weapon of war in order to illustrate her point about the importance of sexual purity. You can read it here. Nice.

I don’t usually use my blog or any other forum I have to speak about these kind of things. I decided that if someone wanted to find out about the finer nuances of a minority religion they wouldn’t turn to a novelist to do it, and that was as it should be. But I changed my mind today and the reason why is because I do think these attitudes are slowly, slowly dying out – in part because in recent years women have been able to speak to each other and compare experiences via web forums, blogs and similar – outside the chaperoning influence of the church – and these conversations have assisted in this change. (For example, many faithful Mormon women were offended by Dalton’s latest talk, blogged about it and opened these attitudes up to a process of reflection and, yes, criticism, that is something new in LDS land. And something good.)

By way of contributing to this conversation – here’s Mormon Iconoclast’s take on it, and from the almost-always excellent Feminst Mormon Housewives, a blog in response to Elizabeth Smart’s remarks and another one on Dalton’s talk. Some of these writers accept the premise underlying these talks and lessons – that purity can be measured by how sexually active a woman is, and in what kind of relationships this sexual activity takes place – but examine the varying harmful ways this doctrine is taught. Maybe one day the converstion will move on and sexual education for young people will focus on helping them to make strong, informed choices, understand what consent is and what the shades of coercion might look like, have the information they need to avoid infection, disease and pregnancy, have the information they need to make it a pleasurable experience for all, and to know, for sure, that no measure of value attached to their personhood has anything to do with sexual choices they have made or acts of violence someone else commits against them. Hey, everyone’s allowed a pipe-dream! 

One response to “On Elizabeth Smart and Chewing Gum”

  1. Carys Bray says:

    Agreed, Jenn. Women are not cakes or sandwiches, or boards into which nails are hammered, and they’re not contaminated juice or chewed gum either. The fundamental problem with every one of these object lessons (even the ingenious, less overt lessons that are appearing on the progressive blogs) is that women are human beings, not objects.

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