Note: In response to the complaints in response to Saskia’s blog post and its use of a few curse words, I feel obligated to warn readers that this post and its responses may contain some light vulgarity and adult topics. Anyone not mature enough to handle such language or topics should not read the post.
A few weeks ago, I went to a conference on Mormon women held at the University of Utah. The room was filled with elderly feminists who had advocated for a more liberal Mormon view of women in the 1980s, middle-aged women who had commandeered their husbands into watching the kids for a few hours, and graduate students dressed in jeans and t-shirts. The panels were varied but held together by a common focus on Mormon women and a desire to make some sort-of change in the way that women are treated in a church that privileges male experience and male members. One of the presentations that was particularly poignant was Jennifer Finlayson-Fife’s presentation on the sexuality of Mormon women. She described the difficulty created by expectations that young women be sexually attractive and chaste at the same. When unwanted sexual intimacy occurs, Mormon girls are stuck between allowing him to continue, risking their purity and standing before God, and saying “no” and losing his interest. As a result, many Mormon women feel guilty for sexual contact they neither wanted nor consented to.
Her talk caused me to think about my own sexual experiences and those of my immediate friends. In high school, I felt pressure to be attractive to men but I never felt pressured to have sex. The boys that I dated shared the expectation that people should remain chaste before marriage. In college, though, I felt pressured to have sex. One boyfriend even told me that it was nice that I wanted to wait until marriage to have sex but he didn’t want to. He placed an ultimatum before me: either have sex or break up. Looking back, I recognize that he was an ass but at the time, I was deeply hurt and confused. Another friend had an incident when an older man took her home after a particularly long night of drinking. No one, including her, is quite certain what happened after that.
After Fife’s talk, I was particularly attuned to issues of sexuality, desire, and consent, so imagine my disgust when a few days later, Republican Congressman Todd Akin announced that women could not become pregnant if they were legitimately raped. Akin’s comments, which were biologically naive and oddly reminiscent of seventeenth-century understandings of orgasm as being necessary to conception, set off a maelstrom of comments from women who were angry about his insinuations about the legitimacy of their rapes. At Times and Seasons, Rachel Whipple described her own experience at BYU when a returned missionary held her against his body and began to touch her. Although his concern about his ability to renew his temple recommend kept him from actually raping her, Rachel felt violated and used the experience as an opportunity to talk about the validity of women’s experiences regardless of others’ interpretations of them or beliefs about how rape should be defined.
As a feminist, I had conflicted emotions about the uproar concerning women’s sexuality and consent. On the one hand, I was overjoyed to see discussions of women’s issue receiving front page attention and coverage in the mainstream media. On the other hand, Fife’s talk suggested that Mormon women still occupied a difficult position within the church and struggled to reconcile an expectation that they be alluring, beautiful, and attractive with the requirements of chastity. Akin’s comments were even more troubling because it suggested that many Republican men still sought to define women’s sexuality for them and only accepted women’s protests that they hadn’t wanted or encouraged sexual contact if there were bruises or other evidence that they had fought back.
Such struggles to define women’s sexual experiences aren’t new. For nearly a decade, women’s historians have tried to understand the meaning of rape and its consequences for individual communities. In her book Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, Sharon Block argues that it was almost impossible for black women to convict white men of rape in the eighteenth century because colonial law did not recognize their ability to withhold consent. Moreover, men could use their positions as heads of households to demand sex from the women living under their care. As a result, the lines between consensual and nonconsensual sex were porous. One man was said to have boasted that he would not keep a maid unless she consented to have sex with him, while officers on slave ships routinely took multiple women as their sexual partners on the voyage to the Americas. Although such acts rarely involved overt violence, neither were they completely consensual. White, upper class men had the ability not only to freely rape women of color and servants, but also to define what constituted rape. Hannah Rosen’s Terror in the Heart of Freedom demonstrates that sex remained part of attempts to control black women long after slavery had ended. During Reconstruction, white men routinely raped black women, in part to demonstrate to black communities that the end of slavery had changed nothing and white men still had unfettered access to black women’s bodies. Erika Eichelberger’s excellent article at Mother Jones reminds us that the relationship between rape and sexual power was not limited to the United States or debates over slavery. While black women’s control over their bodies was particularly politicized, other women found themselves denied the ability to define their experiences as rape. Until 1993, there were places in the United States where a woman could not be raped if she was found to be “impure.” Apparently, women who had too frequently consented to sex could not later withhold their consent. Reading the history of attempts to define rape should make us ask a few crucial questions when presented with statements like Akin’s: Who has the power here? What does he have to gain in making such statements? And, finally, why is he making these statements at this particular moment rather than at another one?
Attempts to define rape and sexual consent were important in Mormon history as well. Allegations of rape were part and parcel of nineteenth-century debates about polygamy. Women who had once been involved in polygamous marriages often claimed that their husbands had forced them into marriage and then sex. Perhaps the most famous woman to make such claims was Ann Eliza Young, who claimed that Brigham Young had blackmailed her into marriage and then refused to support her financially. In her memoir Wife No. 19, she described how she felt when she realized the Prophet had developed feelings for her. Far from feeling flattered, she was horrified at the thought of “giving” herself to a man “older [than] her father.” When she refused to marry him, he bankrupted her family. She claimed that her marriage had occurred out of her love for her family, which overruled her disgust at marrying an older man. Although it is easy to dismiss Ann Eliza’s claims as outrageous or bald fabrications, it is less easy to dismiss other accusations of rape. In my family history, there is a set of sisters born two years apart who were married to the same man on the same day. One was fourteen; the other, twelve. It is possible that both girls welcomed the marriage and the entrance into adulthood it represented. Whenever I think of the two of them on their wedding day, however, it is difficult to cast it as anything less than statutory rape. Even in the nineteenth century, twelve was considered young for marriage. It offers a little comfort to know that I am descended from the fourteen year old, but it’s a cold comfort.
Although accusations of rape may initially seem to play a radically different role in Mormon history than they did in the ante and postbellum South, there are similarities between the two. In both cases, rape was used to invalidate families and familial relationships. In the American South, white men committed sexually violent acts in order to deny black men the status of husbands and fathers. In Utah, on the other hand, non-Mormons sought to define Mormon marriages as rape. In so doing, they declared such marriages illegitimate and denied them legal sanction. In neither of these two cases were the desires and experiences of women considered important. According to Rosen, white men raped black women in the South not out of a sense of overwhelming desire but in order to prove their sexual and political power. In Utah, the experiences of Mormon women mattered only if they fit into larger political narratives. The same could be said of Congressman Akin’s comments a few weeks ago. What is important for Akin is not the amount of fear that a woman experienced as she found herself the subject of unwanted sexual advances but whether or not she conceived and what would happen to the fetus afterwards. The question is about politics and abortion rather than a woman’s mental and physical health. Ultimately, it is time to shift the discourse to women’s experiences and their definitions of what is happening to them. In so doing, we might also do something to address the situation that Fife described in her presentation at the Mormon women’s conference in which young women struggle to say “no” to a man’s advances because doing so might upset him.