On May 16th, I attended a live Mormon Stories event entitled: “Rape in Mormon Culture.” Donna Kelly, a sex crime prosecutor with more than two decades of experience, explained the concept of consent. She explained that if someone says no, obviously that is not consent. Unfortunately, almost all U.S. jurisdictions operate on a flawed “No means No” standard. However, if someone fails to say “no,” that should not be considered consent for several reasons: They may be afraid. They may be unconscious or otherwise incapable of saying “no.” Likewise, if someone is intimidated into saying yes, that is not consent. For example, the perpetrator may work to overcome a victim’s “No” by repeatedly asking over and over again. If someone’s free will is overcome by repeated asking, that is not consent. The solution? We must adopt a “Yes means Yes” standard of consent. According to Donna Kelly, the “Yes means Yes” standard requires an enthusiastic “Yes!,” with no reservations on the part of the consenting party. Only this “Yes means Yes” standard of consent can guarantee that a person has truly given consent.
Since that night, the “Yes means Yes” concept has captured my attention and caused me to think about consent as it relates both to sexual acts, and also to consent in a broader context. Consent should be a part of all decisions that we make in our lives. Specifically, I have been thinking about the indoctrination of women in my own Mormon culture, and how gender roles undermine the concept of consent.
When I was married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1981, my new “wife” was required to promise to “obey” me as her husband. This language was subsequently changed from “obey” to “harken,” but it carries the same meaning. Women who do not “obey” men cannot be exalted. Rather they face Eternal punishment. For an active, temple attending Mormon woman, this is not a promise made once and forgotten. Active, women make this promise in Mormonism’s holiest space every time they attend an endowment ceremony. But, the story does not start with her first visit to the temple.
For most Mormon women, this vow is the culmination of a lifetime of indoctrination. As a young girl in a Mormon home, she will typically see the patriarchal order exemplified in her family structure. She will be told that her father possesses divine priesthood power, which her mother cannot possess. Thus, her father is the ultimate authority in the home. He may be a benevolent authority, but still the authority in the home.
When she turns eight, she will be taken to the local ward bishop for a baptism. Like her father in her family, she is taught that the bishop is God’s authority over her in her local ward. She quickly learns that the concepts of God, authority and maleness are all integrated. As a female, she learns that her role is always subject to male authority.
At twelve, she will watch her male peers be ordained to the priesthood. As a female, no matter how righteous, how smart, how talented, she will never have the authority given to a twelve-year-old boy in her culture.
As a teenager, even the smallest sexual infraction will subject her to the authority of her male bishop. She will likely be compelled to discuss the most intimate parts of her life behind a closed door, with this middle-aged male authority figure. The message is clear; her sexuality is something to be discussed with and controlled by men.
So, the temple covenant to “obey” (or harken) to the law of her husband is no surprise. It is the culmination of a lifetime of learning, and a lifetime of indoctrination, a lifetime of subjugation.
What does consent look like in this context? Having been robbed of her own voice and threatened with Eternal punishment for failing to obey, acquiescence to male control cannot really be seen as consent. Her religious institutions have conspired during the entirety of her life to deny her real control over her own person.
The work of Ordain Women is sacred. By advocating for ordination and equality in the Church, Ordain Women works to restore the voices of women. Ordain Women is working to strip away the institutions of inequality, which deny women the ability to make choices freely as fully empowered human beings. Only after this system of male domination is dismantled and replaced with institutions of equality can women realize their full potential, and freely consent with an enthusiastic “Yes” that truly means “Yes!”