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Mormon leader’s comments about ‘nonconsensual immorality’ draw fire

Elder Quentin L. Cook speaks during a Sunday session of the 183rd semiannual General Conference on Oct. 6, 2013. Photo courtesy of Intellectual Reserve Inc. 

A guest post by Emily Jensen

(RNS) — On Sunday (April 1) near the end of the 2018 General Conference, Mormon Elder Quentin L. Cook took a moment to discuss the #metoo movement.

It is commendable that nonconsensual immorality has been exposed and denounced. Such nonconsensual immorality is against the laws of God and of society. Those who understand God’s plan should also oppose consensual immorality, which is also a sin.

Harsh reaction to his choice of saying “nonconsensual immorality” instead of rape, assault or abuse swiftly followed online. I tweeted, “Telling victims that they’ve engaged in immorality is victim blaming no matter how many qualifiers you put in front of it. #ldsconf.”

As others defended his word choice as just fine in that he obviously was putting the onus on the perpetrator and not the victim, I realized that a quick lesson was in order on why careful words matter, especially in this time when the Mormon church is working hard to make changes after claims of abuse within the institution.

Chewed gum

Elizabeth Smart decried the use of chewed-gum analogies in teaching about sexual sin because during her captivity, when she was sexually assaulted multiple times, that metaphor was what she remembered. Smart explained:

I thought, “I’m that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.” And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.

So for many of those who were victims of sexual assault, the church’s teachings seemed to suggest they were garbage and were no longer worthy.

But slowly the culture around these lessons is changing as the church continues to update its resources on abuse and this filters into the youth curriculum.

Moroni 9:9

From the time the Virtue category was added to the Young Women’s list of values in 2008, included in the Personal Progress study and accompanying lessons was a problematic scripture — Moroni 9:9  which stated that the daughters of the Lamanites had been taken prisoner and raped, and that they were deprived of “that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue.”

Virginity in this passage was equated with virtue, and seemed to be regarded as more important than these women’s very lives.

I celebrated the removal of this teaching from the curriculum in 2016: “We are no longer teaching a young woman’s virtue can be taken by being raped. Hooray! And thank goodness.” No longer were we equating rape with a loss of virtue to any young woman.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Nonconsensual immorality

That brings us to this past Sunday. In choosing to use the language of “nonconsensual immorality” and further correctly define immorality as “sin,” Elder Cook suggested that people who are the victims of sexual assault or misconduct are somehow implicated.

He then moved directly to decrying “consensual immorality,” declaring that “those who understand God’s plan must also oppose consensual immorality, which is also a sin.” Presumably from this statement he was referring to several behaviors the LDS Church has denounced in the past, from premarital sex to gay relationships.

The fact that he employed the same language suggests equivalency with rape, as though premarital sex and rape are the same level of wrongdoing.  The wording has the effect of making his previous comments about “nonconsensual immorality” about the sex, and not about the assault.

And without some clarifying discussion about a victim sharing absolutely none of the sin, he’s implicitly taught that they are somehow a part of the immorality. While is this likely not what he meant, but has been taught by prophets and apostles in the past, he should clarify it in unambiguous terms.

Was Elder Cook trying to be harmful with his rhetoric? Of course not. Were those who taught the chewed-gum analogies and the Book of Mormon story without context trying to do harm or further false teachings? No.

But we have recognized how such rhetoric does do harm, regardless of intent, and made and continue to make corrections. Since Elder Cook’s words will be studied by millions in the coming months, the time is now to make a similar correction, so that the teaching is not perpetuated.

(Emily W. Jensen is the web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and co-editor of “A Book of Mormons: Latter-day Saints on a Modern-Day Zion.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

23 Comments

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  • “But slowly the culture around these lessons is changing as the church continues to update its resources on abuse and this filters into the youth curriculum.”

    Not because of inspiration or any command of God, but only because more and more members and non-members are willing to push back on such asshat comments and the continuing threat of legal action. Why oh why is the church so late to the party so often?

  • It was a horrible mistake on Cook’s part.Stupid is the only way I can describe the words he chose to use.

  • In other words, Prophet Profit, everyone should just do what you tell us to do.

    But ya know what? Since, like so many moralizing busybodies who think they speak for god, youobviously don’t understand morality at all, I think I’ll just pass.

  • The brethren still don’t get it, do they? And the harm to women over the decades continues.

  • Whatever, I’m glad he endorsed consensual immorality. Now my friend and I can feel free to commit the robberies we were thinking of, but didn’t do beccause they were immoral. Holding a gun, we will task he clerks if they consent to hand the money over to us. When they hand over the mthe whole thing will be consensual, Amen. Alleluiah!

  • I wonder if the LDS church regards race hatred as immoral. Or is it just sex-related behavior that engages the attention of the top men?

  • This nonsense is simply another example of looking for offense where none is intended. Like I suspect vast majority of the audience, I took Cook’s words to mean the entire range of immoral actions inflicted on others from the lewd comment and pat on the ass to rape, and certainly not the heretical teaching that the victim of such actions is also a sinner.

  • “I took Cook’s words to mean the entire range of immoral actions inflicted on others”

    But would only be non consensual for those on the receiving end. Your excuse is terrible. It still amounts entirely to victim blaming.

  • Immorality, by definition, is always consensual. There is no such thing as accidental immorality, and people who are forced into actions against their will are not, in any way, engaging in immoral behavior. Cook should know that.

  • This is incoherent. Specifically, it is untrue to say that immorality by definition is always consensual.

  • The criticism here is nonsense. “Non-consensual immorality” might be an awkward phrase, but it is intended to include immoral behavior of all types which victimize based on the absence of consent. It is impossible to understand an objection to condemning such behavior, so the guest blogger wisely doesn’t try. Instead the objection is reduced to the idea that somehow some things are being put on the same level as other things (no, they’re not) or that the phrase somehow had something to do with something different (“chewed gum”) which it clearly didn’t. The entire column was a lot of nothing but, c’mon, we all know that, don’t we?

    I began a vacation from the Jana Riess column a year or so ago, because it was (if anyone is noting customer comments) always so negative. I checked back to see if anything had changed. Nope. Too bad.

  • Traditional Christian teaching states that the morality of an act is dependent upon the act itself, the intention of the person acting and the circumstances. If one does not intend to do something immoral — in other words, if one does not consent to an act, such as in the case of a person who is sexually assaulted — that person is not morally responsible.

  • It will be interesting to see if Elder Cook clarifies in the transcript. The overall point is one that I have taught in lessons before: if you’re living the commandments, you won’t even be in a position to commit the crimes and other misdeeds of men caught up in #metoo style accusations. If your standard is that sexual relations are reserved for marriage, you avoid the apparently difficult-for-some-men questions that come up in sexually permissive cultures, such as what actions communicate consent, what people in work or social networks are off limits, how drunk is too drunk, etc. (That, on its own, does not clear up questions of spousal rape, but other gospel principles should make clear that such heinous action constitutes abuse of spouse, for which perpetrator “will one day stand accountable before God”)

    Having said that, the unfortunate choice of words requires clarification in order to not be misunderstood.

  • Confused by this: “he’s implicitly taught that they are somehow a part of the immorality. While is this likely not what he meant, but has been taught by prophets and apostles in the past” followed by a link to Elder Scott’s “Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse.”

    Here are some lines from that talk:

    “Unless healed by the Lord, mental, physical, or sexual abuse can cause you serious, enduring consequences. As a victim you have experienced some of them. They include fear, depression, guilt, self-hatred, destruction of self-esteem, and alienation from normal human relationships.” Besides healing by the Lord specifically, I don’t think any psychologist would argue with this statement.

    “To be helped, you must understand some things about eternal law. Your abuse results from another’s unrighteous attack on your freedom. Since all of Father in Heaven’s children enjoy agency, there can be some who choose willfully to violate the commandments and harm you. Such acts temporarily restrict your freedom. In justice, and to compensate, the Lord has provided a way for you to overcome the destructive results of others’ acts against your will.” Seems pretty clear that abusers are the guilty party.

    “I solemnly testify that when another’s acts of violence, perversion, or incest hurt you terribly, against your will, you are not responsible and you must not feel guilty.” Again, couldn’t be clearer.

    “The victim must do all in his or her power to stop the abuse. Most often, the victim is innocent because of being disabled by fear or the power or authority of the offender. At some point in time, however, the Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse. Your priesthood leader will help assess your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed. Otherwise the seeds of guilt will remain and sprout into bitter fruit. Yet no matter what degree of responsibility, from absolutely none to increasing consent, the healing power of the atonement of Jesus Christ can provide a complete cure.” Ah, here we go. Sandwiched in between assurances that most victims of abuse have no culpability is the notion that some people may have a kernel of wrongdoing somewhere in the process. Ripped entirely out of context, one could conclude that Elder Scott was saying that being the victim involves some sin on the part of the victim. In context, however, it’s clear that Elder Scott is saying that if a victim is guilty of some wrongdoing that is in some way connected to the situation surrounding the abuse (e.g. drug or alcohol abuse, coming into contact with the abuser through some other immoral behavior, etc.) the victim should find forgiveness for their own faults as part of the process of seeking healing. Two things are clear (to me anyway): most victims of abuse are not in such a situation and those who are are not guilty because of the abuse.

  • Elder Cook was vague which left his comment to interpretation. It is fair to say that he should of defined “nonconsensual” which would have decreased the chances of the negative reaction occurring . I feel like Ms. Jensen is putting words in his mouth based on past experiences of certain Church leaders unfairly blaming victims of sexual abuse.

  • Who’s this guy Elder Cook ?
    Elders Price and Cunningham will teach you ALL you need to know about Mormonism.
    And they’ve grossed over $500 million….

  • Since I’m assuming the “nonconsential immorality” only refers to instances of rape or sexual abuse and is not extended to other immoral acts, like murder, why can’t he just say the words that leave no room for interpretation. “It is commendable that sexual abuse and/or rape have been exposed and denounced. Such behavior is against the laws of God and of society.” Seriously, how hard would that have been to say?

  • If he had said rape people would be upset that he didn’t talk about sexual assault or some other form of nonconsensual sexual misconduct. His phrasing actually includes the whole host of forcible misconduct fairly well. There is no such thing as a consensual, nonconsensual act and without consent sin is impossible.
    Futhermore, I believe he chose the wording he did not because he was secretly condeming the victims of rape but because young children were watching and many may object to such language in front of them.

  • Elder Cook is a former attorney. Either we assume him incompetent, or he left it deliberately vague. Choose your poison.

  • The Sealed Portion has been published. Please, Please read it just like you did The Book Of Mormon. This is really happening, and the church leaders are leading us astray. PLEASE PLEASE READ THE SEALED PORTION PUBLISHED IN 2004!! WE HAVE BEEN WARNED ABOUT CHURCH LEADERS IN THE BOOK OF MORMON!! DO NOT DENY THE HOLY GHOST!! READ THE SEALED PORTION PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE

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