Elizabeth Smart was just 14 when she was kidnapped from her bedroom in Salt Lake City in June, 2002. She was rescued by police after nine months of being held by Wanda Barzee and her husband Brian David Mitchell, who was later charged with raping her multiple times.
After her release, Smart said that one of the reasons she didn’t try and escape was because, after enduring so much sexual assault and emotional abuse, she felt like a “chewed-up piece of gum” and that “nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.”
In 2013, blogger Kristine Haglund lashed out against the LDS Church as having engrained in girls like Elizabeth Smart that they were worthless after being violated. According to her, it was victim blaming at its finest.
“The very first scripture girls are required to study in their Personal Progress work on the value of Virtue is Moroni 9:9, which describes young women as having lost their virtue by being raped,” Haglund wrote. “That scripture reference needs to go, NOW. And we need to start explicitly teaching that this scripture reflects a cultural mistake among Book of Mormon peoples in their understanding of virtue, one which fails to properly apply the principle of agency and denies the power of the Atonement. The chastity in which the Lord delights (Jacob 2) is not merely virginity, and cannot be taken away by another person, especially not by violence or abuse.
“Take this reference out of the Personal Progress manual. Do it now.
Thankfully, people began to listen.
Following Elizabeth Smart’s ordeal, she was personally comforted by then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, who reassured her that none of what happened to her was her fault. Other Church leaders and spokespeople began to acknowledge this truth, which was stated in the official Church Handbook as “Victims of sexual abuse (including rape) often suffer serious trauma and feelings of guilt. Victims of the evil acts of others are not guilty of sin.”
Sadly, even as these feelings of atonement grew, the institutional change did not come fast enough. Over the past few years, several female students at Brigham Young University have been punished for being raped.
In harrowing stories reported by the New York Times, NPR, and other sources, the Honor Code that BYU students have to sign can also be used against them when they are most in need of the school’s help.
According to these reports, several young women who reported being raped at school suffered academically, socially, and emotionally after the school informed them their sexual assault counted as a violation of the Honor Code, which focuses on the Mormon doctrines of honesty and chastity.
One 20-year-old student received a letter from the associate dean of students fourth months after reporting her rape that said, “You are being suspended from Brigham Young University because of your violation of the Honor Code including continued illegal drug use and consensual sex, effective immediately.” The female students’ own police reports were being used against them.
“They treated me in such an un-Christlike way, like I was some sinner,” recounted the student. “There was no forgiveness and mercy.”
These reports were received with outrage by many in the LDS Church as well as by people from many different faiths, especially by women across the country.
Their anger paid off.
The Good News
This week, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Latter-day Saints Church spokesman Eric Hawkins announced that the harmful words of Moroni 9:9 were being removed from girls’ Personal Progress workbooks, starting with the English translation.
Though the workbooks will still emphasize the importance of chastity and virtue, it will not indoctrinate feelings of guilt into survivors of sexual assault or victim-blame them in any way. Both women and men both inside and outside of the Church couldn’t be happier with the progress.
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