Rape and Marriage in Mormon History

By September 10, 2012

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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Cheap shot, Madam. Objecting to obscenity has little to do with immaturity and everything to do with being Mormon.

    Comment by A Reader — September 10, 2012 @ 10:22 am

  2. Sorry you feel that way…. let’s just say I was shocked at yesterday’s responses, which were immature. My feelings are nicely summed up by the documentary on Clean Flicks, which everyone should see. And now, back to the topic at hand which is rape, not curse words.

    Comment by Amanda — September 10, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  3. Great post, Amanda. Really gave me food for thought as I think about how we teach the youth in my ward, how I will prepare my daughters to interact with young men and dating, and even the role of sexual intimacy in my own marriage.

    Comment by Ryan Mullen — September 10, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

  4. Thanks, Amanda. A quick search in the Mormon Bib for “rape” indicates that essentially nothing has been done on this subject. With all the recent work on rape in the South (which you note above), I think that there’s plenty to do in Utah/Mormon history here.

    Comment by David G. — September 10, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

  5. Good thoughts Amanda. Really a lot of potential work here.

    I think that rapes during the Missouri period is an interesting foil. Rape is always a difficult thing to quantify–and Mormon women are particularly veiled, but the number of rapes during the Missouri period could have easily been used as political fodder by men yet to my knowledge they were never used in that manner.

    Comment by JJohnson — September 10, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

  6. Janiece’s comment reminds me that rape in MO is another angle of potential research here. I expect that this will be a key part of Andrea’s research on Mormon women in MO. I know Hyrum Smith mentioned a rape occurring in his 1843 testimony before the Nauvoo Municipal Court, although he refrained from naming the woman. I think specific instances appear in a few other sources, although I’d have to go back through my material. Seems like an instance of MO rape came up in conference a few years ago, with a speaker saying that one of his ancestors had been raped there, but I can’t remember details now.

    Comment by David G. — September 10, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

  7. Important and insightful questions, Amanda; thanks for bringing up this crucial discussion.

    This really hits at the nexus of several important themes at that women’s conference: how is agency to be understood within certain circumstances? Most importantly, how much agency do women employ inside 19th century’s marital system, in which women’s bodies were often objectified and possessed by patriarchs? Reading through Turner’s excellent bio of Brigham young brought this idea of marital complexities to the fore, as Turner does a wonderful job outlining the complex and porous marital culture Young initiated in early Utah.

    Comment by Ben P — September 10, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

  8. David G., I think that was Joseph Johnstun. He has done a lot of work on some particular rapes in MO.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 10, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

  9. Amanda–wow, thought-provoking questions.

    Anybody know if Kathy Daynes has addressed any of these themes? I haven’t spent any time reading her work, but it seems in line with what I understood she had been investigating.

    Comment by Nate R. — September 10, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

  10. Nate, it’s been several years since I read More Wives than One, so I had to check the index. No entry under “rape,” but that may just be the quality of the index or it may be under another term.

    Comment by David G. — September 10, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

  11. JJohnson, the rapes in the Missouri period are what immediately came to my mind as well, partially because I attended the panel that David mentions, though I don’t remember any details from it. Nate and David, I don’t remember Kathy Daynes addressing it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Ben, the question of agency and rape is interesting here — I think that rape is a denial of women’s agency and personhood. Rape is always partially about power and denies the ability of women to even claim their own bodies. Part of the problem with our current culture is that in denying women’s sexual agency, it denies them both the ability to say “no” and the ability to say “yes.”

    Comment by Amanda — September 10, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

  12. A search through More Wives Than One on Amazon and Google books only produces one result for “rape,” and that in reference to accusations against the modern polygamist Tom Green.

    Comment by Christopher — September 10, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

  13. Fascinating post, Amanda. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — September 10, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

  14. This is a great idea, Amanda. I can’t wait to see what deeper searching uncovers.

    Comment by Max — September 10, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

  15. Amanda, a very thought provoking piece. I don’t know enough about the historiography, but any unwanted or pressurised sexual intimacy, whether by force or other is as soul destroying whether it is male on female, female on male, male on male, female on female. Each is down to exercising power over someone else seeking to dominate. It was not uncommon for conquering armies to sexually brutalise males by victorious soldiers simply as a demonstration of power, and not considering it as a sexual act.

    It is a very complex, emotive and difficult subject.

    Comment by David M. Morris — September 10, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

  16. Amanda– an interesting and important post that deserves further exploration.

    JJohnson above could be Joseph Johnstun, who has done amazing legwork on uncovering all of the extant accounts of Missouri rapes, and who has generously shared some of his findings with me. I am interested in the rapes in Missouri as part of a larger project on how Mormon women responded to all levels of violence in Missouri. While we have numerous second-hand, contemporary accounts from MEN of Mormon women being raped by the Missouri mobs, from eyewitnesses like Hyrum Smith and others who gave legal affidavits or testimony to the fact, still there is not even ONE primary account by a Mormon woman telling of her own rape. I’m fascinated by the absence of those voices, and I’d be curious, Amanda, how you would place that female silence in the context that you’re working from. It’s interesting to me that Mormon men take on the role of accusers and testifiers on behalf of Mormon women, but to the end of demanding justice for the group, and not for individuals.

    I’m still working on other conclusions about the Missouri rapes, but I’ll withhold those for now, to share on a later post or in published form.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — September 10, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

  17. David — all very true, in fact, there is some fascinating work on the power dynamics of sexual assault on men.

    Andrea — I can’t wait for your work on rape in Missouri. One of the things that Sharon Block brings up is that rape was considered an assault on male property rights, and that in many countries and time periods, it was men who brought suits about rape rather than women. I can’t speak to the particular dynamics of 19th century Missouri but I also wonder about what rape would have done for a woman’s public reputation? Was it considered shameful and something to be hidden? Something that just wasn’t talked about? I don’t know.

    Comment by Amanda — September 10, 2012 @ 7:35 pm

  18. Wow. This has given me a lot to think about.

    Amanda, have you found anything to tie into your dissertation? Are there any distinctions made between how to treat European women as opposed to Polynesian women?

    Comment by J Stuart — September 10, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

  19. Amanda,

    I think you’ve identified a very important topic to be expanded. Also, a link about the Missouri rapes: Emily W. Jensen: Were Mormon women assaulted in 1838?

    Comment by Tod Robbins — September 11, 2012 @ 12:20 am

  20. Amanda, I was just thinking, a modern day, abduction and rape of a Mormon missionary happened in Surrey, England in 1977. Joyce McKinney and an accomplice took Kirk Anderson to Devon and raped him. An interesting note that ties in s the face that the Sexual Offences Act 1956 did not make it a crime of rape against a male and regarded it as an indecent assault only.

    I don’t have my notes to hand but the whole jist can be found on a fairly accurate wiki. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_sex_in_chains_case

    Comment by David M. Morris — September 11, 2012 @ 12:30 am

  21. Thought provoking and very important. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about (and being upset about) perceptions of female sexuality and sexual violence in religious cultures, but I hadn’t really thought about the historical implications of these acts. I’m very interested to see what you come up with.

    Comment by Saskia T — September 11, 2012 @ 3:35 am

  22. David — I heard about that case. When I initially decided to work on Mormon history, one of the faculty members who is from Great Britain immediately volunteered that information. It sounds like a horrific story.

    Joseph — I haven’t done any research on rape in Hawai’i or in Tahiti, so I’m not sure if there was a difference on how Polynesian and white women were treated. I am guessing that stories about rape are more likely to figure into my chapters on the settlement of the west and on the women’s rights movements in Utah.

    Saskia — Thanks! It was actually my first course in graduate school that introduced me to the historiography. The co-chair of my dissertation works on religious violence, so she spends a lot of time thinking about rape, massacres, etc.

    Comment by Amanda — September 11, 2012 @ 9:08 am

  23. This is a really thought-provoking post, Amanda. Thank you.

    I think this is probably just an interesting aside, but your comment that the concept of rape was used to delegitimize Mormon marriages in the 19th century caught my attention. In something of a reversal, during the mid-twentieth century the rape of Mormon women in MO and IL was routinely depicted in fiction by Mormons, ex-Mormons, and non-Mormons alike and used to explain later Mormon isolationism and violence. So there was a shift from making the accusation of rape as a weapon against 19th-century Mormonism to making the accusation as a sort of defense of Mormons. Of course this reversal doesn’t change the fact that women’s experiences aren’t the focus, but rather are used as part of a larger political and social narrative explaining actions largely governed by men…

    Comment by Cristine — September 12, 2012 @ 9:31 am

  24. Cristine — Interesting! Those discourses about MO and IL rape are present in the 19th C as well. Any read of the Woman’s Exponent will produce dozens of examples of that narrative and explanation. The types of rape narratives that I highlight in the post are also still present in contemporary discourse. Just read any memoir or expose of the FLDS. Carolyn Jessop talks about her marriage as a kind of rape and do so in a way that delegitimizes the marriages within fundamentalist culture.

    Comment by Amanda — September 12, 2012 @ 9:46 am


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