Adultery, Agency, and Innocence
by Jennifer Roach
“The two carried on an affair that spanned 3 years.” I was as shocked as anyone to see it in print, and to hear it put that way. An affair? I felt like I was reading about someone else – some couple who knew the boundaries, and willingly broke them. These were people to be punished and kicked out of the church. And then I realized it was talking about me.
But it couldn’t be – I was 14 years old.
The document I was reading had been unearthed as part of a court case. I was suing my childhood church (I was raised outside of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) for the sexual abuse I experienced there. If you care to know the details a quick Google search of my name will lead you to a series of articles printed on the front page of my hometown newspaper. Taking my church to court had never been part of my plan. And I was well aware that the statute of limitations had long ran out on this crime. But over the years I had tried to get the church to take some kind of responsibility for what happened. They never would. I found a way to take them to court despite the statute of limitations being over. Everything in my experience told me that was abuse, it was not my fault. I was a victim – many people who have been through sexual abuse avoid that term, but I’m okay with it. It’s accurate. A terrible thing happened to me. I’ve done the work to heal from it. But it will always be a terrible thing that I did not ask for.
So, I was shocked that they conceptualized my abuse as, “an affair.” To have an affair implies that both parties are willingly stepping over a line; that there was a conspiratorial relationship between them where they work to deceive those around them. While sexual abuse implies that one person has more power than the other and uses their power to gratify themselves, regardless of the damage it causes to the other.
I was disheartened and confused. Had I actually been having an affair as a teenager? Was I responsible for this sin?
Revelation from a Modern Prophet
In Doctrine and Covenants 63:14-15 Joseph Smith receives a revelation from the Lord:
14 There were among you adulterers and adulteresses; some of whom have turned away from you, and others remain with you that hereafter shall be revealed.
15 Let such beware and repent speedily, lest judgment shall come upon them as a snare, and their folly shall be made manifest, and their works shall follow them in the eyes of the people.
Joseph continues giving the voice of the Lord to people who have committed sexual sin, and he rightly calls them to repentance. He echoes the words of Jesus by saying that anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has committed adultery in their heart and shall not have the Spirit. They will, “have their part in that lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” It’s a harsh warning, but a needed one. Nothing destroys families more than sexual sin.
But this is a complicated passage for victims of sexual abuse. What I’ve learned since my court case is that many victims are told that their abuse was an affair and that they were partially to blame. They wore the wrong thing or acted too familiar with their abuser and gave him the wrong idea. When their abuser asked (overtly or otherwise) for them to keep quiet, they did. People who want to blame victims see this as proof that the victim was an active participant who was covering up their sin out of guilt.
And so reading passages of scripture like this can be hard and disorienting. Sometimes abuse victims stop reading scripture and leave their faith communities because the pressure is just too much for them. It’s a tragic consequence of abuse – along with losing innocence, many victims also lose faith. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Judgement Shall Come Upon Them as a Snare
In 1831, when this passage of scripture was given, society did not talk much about sexual abuse – not because it wasn’t happening, but because they had very little language to discuss it. They didn’t have the same kind of psychological world-view that Westerners have today. Women and children belonged to the man of the house and he did with them as he saw fit. There were no laws to prevent this. The only time a man could be punished for such things would be if he acted in a way as to cheat another man out of his possessions, that is his wife or children. But they often conceptualized it as a crime against the man who owned the woman and children, not against the woman or children themselves. Doctrine and Covenants 63 is a passage of scripture given to people who live at that time. The only two categories Joseph has to work with are those who have affairs and those who do not; the guilty and the innocent.
Still, even knowing this, part of me wishes Joseph would have said something like, “The people who have affairs are sinful, but the people who are abused against their will are innocent.” But to wish for such a thing is to impose our modern-day understanding of abuse back onto the society of 1831 when they didn’t have such categories. So, we are left with just 2 categories: the guilty and the innocent.
In verse 15 we read that judgment shall come upon them (the guilty) as a snare. A snare is a trap that has been set and is just waiting for someone to step into it. Judgment – that is, the pronouncement that an action is wrong – and all of the consequences that follow, is very much like a patiently waiting trap that the guilty will eventually fall into. And because of some quirk of human nature, we know that misery loves company. It’s something about trying to spread the guilt around. If both of us are guilty, then one doesn’t have to bear as much alone. It shouldn’t be surprising when abusers, or those who enable them, would like the opportunity to spread the guilt around. And so, abuse victims get told they had “an affair.” It’s the final act of betrayal against a victim, telling her that the abuse was her own fault. And they get dragged into the snare despite their innocence.
He That Endureth In Faith
63:20 Nevertheless, he that endureth in faith and doeth my will, the same shall overcome, and shall receive an inheritance upon the earth when the day of transfiguration shall come.
It’s unclear in this verse if the Lord, through Joseph, is talking to the guilty or the innocent, the abuser or the abused. My modern way of thinking wants Joseph to say, “Those who have been abused….shall receive an inheritance upon the earth.” But he doesn’t. He only says that those who, “endurth in faith and do my will” will overcome and receive an inheritance. The abuser must overcome his sin of abuse. But the one who has been abused must grow too – not because she was at fault for the abuse, but because she must fight against the effects of abuse diminishing her into something smaller than she was intended to be. She must endure in faith too. The atonement must be efficacious for both parties, the one who has sinned and the one who has been sinned against.
Agency is Required
And so, we come to the crux of the matter: What is the difference between the one who is guilty of an affair, and one who has been abused?
Their path to repentance is different because their use of agency is different.
The adulterer or adulteress, or the one who has caused abuse, must repent of their own sins. Modern-day scriptures rarely use the language of threatening fire and brimstone if the sinner does not repent, but they use it here:
63:17 Wherefore, I, the Lord, have said that the fearful, and the unbelieving, and all liars, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie, and the whoremonger, and the sorcerer, shall have their part in that lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
The victim of abuse can be given no such threat. She may have developed poor coping strategies because of the abuse or have incredible difficulties in relationships that cause pain and heartbreak, but those are in response to the sin caused by another. The abuse victim does not take on responsibility for the abuse being caused, but she must take on responsibility of healing the damage. The abuser cannot do that for her. It’s a bit like if I ran someone over with my car – I am responsible for their broken legs. It is 100% my fault. But I am not the one who is responsible for healing the person’s broken legs. They must do the work of going to physical therapy and learning to walk again. No one else can do it for them. It’s unfair. But it’s true. For the abuse victim this is both their burden and their privilege. They get to do the work of finding healing anytime they are ready for it. They don’t have to wait for the abuser to be sorry and apologize. They don’t have to wait until some external force takes action – they can take action themselves and use their own agency to find healing without regard for what the abuser is saying or doing about the incident.
Elder Richard G. Scott said it well in his 2008 General Conference Talk titled, “To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse.”
If you have been abused, Satan will strive to convince you that there is no solution. Yet he knows perfectly well that there is. Satan recognizes that healing comes through the unwavering love of Heavenly Father for each of His children. He also understands that the power of healing is inherent in the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Therefore, his strategy is to do all possible to separate you from your Father and His Son. Do not let Satan convince you that you are beyond help.
Satan uses your abuse to undermine your self-confidence, destroy trust in authority, create fear, and generate feelings of despair. Abuse can damage your ability to form healthy human relationships. You must have faith that all of these negative consequences can be resolved; otherwise they will keep you from full recovery. While these outcomes have powerful influence in your life, they do not define the real you.
“All of these negative consequences can be resolved.” These are important words for the abuse victim to hear. When victims are told that they have had an affair the situation is complicated. As Elder Scott says, “Satan will strive to convince you that there is no solution.” Differentiating marital infidelity from sexual abuse is important.
The Wisdom of Modesty
Now I will turn my attention to something that happens more frequently than calling abuse an affair, and that is calling women responsible for men’s lustful thoughts.
I can almost hear the grumbling now.
Girls and women should dress with modesty. If you don’t want to be abused, shouldn’t you do everything you can to prevent it?
Which is responded to with,
Girls are not responsible to keep boys from assaulting them. Boys must learn to control themselves using their own agency.
And the fight goes on and on – with both sides missing the point.
It’s true that girls and women in Western culture are given a very difficult line to walk. Be pretty – but not so pretty that you draw the wrong kind of attention. Have fun – but don’t act in ways that will make boys or men think you’re too much fun. Dress in a way that is flattering to your body – but if you miscalculate the amount of skin you show by even an inch you will be ogled and seen as someone who has questionable morals.
Some think the answer to this dilemma is to say that modesty shouldn’t matter anymore. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Modesty is as important as ever – but not because it is a girl’s responsibility to keep a boy’s thoughts in check. I’ve talked about this idea in public several times in the last couple of years. I always get blank stares that seem to say, “If modesty isn’t about girls keeping themselves dressed in a way so as not to be too tempting, what is it about?”
In 1872 Brigham Young gave a General Conference addressed title, “The Saints Should Sustain Themselves.” In which he complains, as only Young could, that the women in the church were becoming immodest in their dress. His proof? A woman could buy a dress pattern that required 7 yards of fabric to create the sleeves. 7 yards is a lot of fabric, roughly 21 feet long. A more modest dress pattern could produce sleeves with just 1 yard of fabric, frequently less. His complaint was not that women were failing to use fabric to cover up, but that they were using too much fabric in an attempt to draw attention to their sense of fashion and wealth.
The whole point of modesty is not that a girl must fight off would-be sexual assaults, the point is that she should distinguish herself by her character traits. Getting attention for showing too much skin (or for wearing dresses with sleeves requiring 7 yards of fabric!) is easy. Girls and women are urged to forgo the easy attention in pursuit of developing godly character and allowing those characteristics to draw people to her. This is what Paul went on about in 1 Timothy 2 when he encourages women to focus on doing good deeds and being decent human beings.
This is hard work for young women, especially in the age of Instagram, where seeking approval for how one looks is practically the point. Young women are unsure of themselves by nature and have a longing to be told that they belong, that they are valued and that they are accepted. Instagram and other social media dangle this carrot – and then we judge the young women for falling prey to it.
The Weight of Glory
In this article I have attempted to bring sanity to the conversation. People who have suffered sexual abuse are not adulterers – and no matter how unfair it is, they are responsible for seeking healing. Their abuser can’t do that for them. And women (of all ages, not just the young!) are responsible to obtain the godly qualities that draw others to them – they should not go for the quick rush of getting attention through their looks or dress.
But the rest of us also need to have compassion, not judgment. We, the onlookers, must practice modesty too – we must be modest in our judgement of others whether that be a woman who was sexually abused, or a woman who is wearing what we judge to be inappropriate.
It is, as the Lord says through Joseph in the last verse of Section 63, that we overcome these things through patience as we all hope to receive a more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.