Elizabeth Smart, Sexual Assault, And The Mormon Church

There's relief this week after three abducted women were found in Ohio. It's an ordeal that kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart knows all too well. She said that abstinence lessons she learned as a child made her feel worthless after being raped by her captor. Host Michel Martin discusses those comments with a Mormon blogger.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are going to stay with this story for a few more minutes, and this is a question you might have asked yourself. Some people are wondering how it is that three women could be held captive for a decade. Why didn't they try to run away? Well, that's a question very few people can answer with personal knowledge, but one person who can is Elizabeth Smart, the young Utah girl who was kidnapped from her bedroom back in 2002 and held for nine months, during which time she was repeatedly raped.

Now she's an activist speaking out against human trafficking, and at a forum earlier this month, she offered some pointed comments about the question we asked earlier. Here she is.

ELIZABETH SMART: She said imagine you're a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that's like getting chewed and then 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?

MARTIN: She's speaking about a teacher that she had who was talking about having premarital sex, and those comments struck a nerve with Kristine Haglund. She is the editor of "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought." She is a lifelong practicing Mormon and she wrote about it on the blog By Common Consent.

Kristine Haglund, thank you so much for joining us.

KRISTINE HAGLUND: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: In your response to Elizabeth Smart's comments, you wrote that you were disheartened to learn that she'd heard this chewed-gum analogy, and you say, quote, "I'm willing to be it was from a seminary or a church teacher, or at least a Mormon schoolteacher." Why did you say that?

HAGLUND: Because I know many Mormon women who have heard stories like this in church. They're not from official manuals, but they come up in the culture. My sister heard about an analogy of a plate of cookies that the teacher smashed, and then put dirt on and said, now, who wants a cookie? So I know that these object lessons get used by teachers who are well-intentioned and wanting to protect kids and help them be safe. And I have teenagers, so I can understand the sort of desperation that would lead you to pick the most viscerally horrifying analogy you could think of to try to scare them straight, as it were, but this is not official teaching, and it's dangerous and harmful, as Elizabeth's talk clearly showed.

MARTIN: You said that, you know, this is not part of official teaching anymore, particularly the idea that if a person is raped, that somehow her chastity or her virtue has been taken from her and she's somehow meant to feel shame and responsibility for that. But you also note that all Mormon girls follow a personal progress manual, and this is where they set out and follow personal and spiritual goals. And you say that this teaches a lot of good things, but there's a reference that's in the very first lesson that you're concerned about.

This is - what? From Moroni 9:9, which describes young women as having lost their virtue, you know, in a time of war after having been raped. And you're saying that this shouldn't be there now. This should just be gone. Tell us a little bit more about that, if you would.

HAGLUND: You know, scriptures are always messy. They're difficult. They need context. And, in the Mormon church particularly, we believe in continuing revelation, which means that the scriptures can be officially reinterpreted and understood in new ways.

And so one current official statement about abuse says this: It says victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sin and do not need to repent. If you've been a victim of abuse, know that you are innocent and that God loves you. Talk to your parents or another trusted adult and seek your bishop's counsel. They can support you spiritually and assist you in getting the protection and help you need. The process of healing may take time. Trust in Jesus. He will heal you and give you peace.

So the official message is this beautiful, clear statement that rape or abuse does not rob one of chastity or virtue, but we have these scriptures that come from a different time. And I think that reading those scriptures is a very useful thing. I'm not saying we should excise, you know, this verse from the canon, but the way that it comes up in the youth curriculum is in this personal progress manual that girls do largely independently.

And so it just says, read and study this. And there's no context given. There's no adult who would necessarily be in the room talking a girl through this scripture. And you can just imagine what it would be like for a young girl who had been abused or raped to confront this and not have any way of understanding that it comes from an older culture, and we don't believe this anymore. You know, I just - I don't think that kids should encounter scriptures like that alone.

MARTIN: You make two points. One is that the clergy in the LDS Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a lay clergy, that there's no one central place where everybody gets their sort of teaching. So there's that piece.

But you also said that this is a micro-aggression that is still prevalent and destructive. Could you talk a little bit more about what you meant there?

HAGLUND: Because it's a lay clergy and also because it is run by a patriarchy, there are a lot of ways that girls and women's experiences are not well understood or not considered in matters of curriculum, just because there aren't necessarily women in the room when those discussions are happening.

So there are lots of tiny things. There are stories about modesty and about the importance of, you know, keeping your shoulders covered because, clearly, you know, tank tops are some sort of gateway drug to promiscuity. And these small, little shaming references about girls and women's bodies are still present. And they - you know, it's not just a Mormon problem. This comes in conservative religious culture, generally. But Mormonism has, I think, a particularly difficult time filtering them out because of this lay clergy.

MARTIN: What response have you gotten to this column? I mean, in reading the comments, I saw a lot of people immediately saying, amen, right on. Thank you for raising this issue. But I also saw people criticizing you for raising this in a public forum, and I'm wondering if you think some people are interpreting this as an attack on the religion.

HAGLUND: Yes. It's definitely not the tone that a nice Mormon girl would address church leaders in, and, in truth, I wrote it in about five minutes. And, you know, the danger of blogs is that you can hit publish before you hear your mother's voice in your head saying, count to 10. You know, sorry, Mom.

So part of it was just that tone, that sort of direct and forceful tone is not what people expect when we're talking about problems in the church. And then the other thing is that Mormons are a proselyting religion and concerned to spread this message that they find joyful and hopeful to everyone. And there's a fear that talking about any problem in the church will make people think that the church isn't something good, or that people will be turned away from Mormonism by any public criticism.

MARTIN: Well, how do you feel now, now that you've put this statement out here? And I'm also particularly interested in Elizabeth Smart's decision to speak publicly about this. I mean, is she someone that you think people will listen to, and - when she put this in such a powerful way?

HAGLUND: Yeah. I think she is. It would be interesting to know for sure, you know, whether that teacher was Mormon, and it was very interesting that she talked about it in the context of school and not the church. You know, she didn't directly indict Mormon culture. You know, it would be interesting to know if she would, if she would see this as partly a Mormon problem. But, yes, I think she has an important voice. She's a remarkable, remarkable woman.

MARTIN: What about you? How do you feel now, now that you put this point of view out there? Do you feel that people are listening? Do you feel that you've changed the conversation?

HAGLUND: I don't know. I - the church usually doesn't change in response to public pressure, and especially not public pressure from critical members. I don't think it's probably the most productive way to have gone about it. It was an expression of frustration more than a constructive attempt to make change, and I regret that a little bit. I do think that forthright conversation is one of the most important things we can do, and in a church where, you know, the central hierarchy is far removed from most members, there really isn't an opportunity to give feedback or to talk to anyone official and say, hey, this is a problem. Could we address it?

MARTIN: Kristine Haglund is the editor of "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought." She was kind enough to join us from Boston. Kristine, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HAGLUND: Thank you.

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