Depending on your personal circumstances and inclination to pay attention to stuff that goes on at church, you may or may not be aware that for the last twenty years the Young Women’s program has revolved around seven “Young Women values”: Faith, Divine Nature, Individual Worth, Knowledge, Choice & Accountability, Good Works, and Integrity. Each value has a corresponding color. Faith is white, Divine Nature is…blue…I think. I’m pretty sure Choice & Accountability is orange. I don’t know, I was on my way out of Young Women when they came up with this stuff, so I never really got around to mastering it. Doesn’t matter. The point is that they had these values, see, color-coordinated for the sake of mnemonics and aesthetical pleasure, and over the course of your six years in Young Women, you were to have so many “value experiences” in each of the seven areas, and also compete a project or something in each area. (I, ah, never actually earned my Young Women medallion…but I did listen to a lot of people talk to me about earning it, so I’m kind of like an expert, just not certified.)
Anyway, recently the church announced that they would be adding an eighth Young Women value: Virtue. (Corresponding color: gold—not to be confused with yellow, which is… Knowledge? Or something.) My initial reaction was, “Well, okay. Virtue is good, but it’s kind of gratuitous in the face of Good Works and Integrity, isn’t it? Unless they mean Chastity, of course. Then it’s gratuitous for a whole other reason.” Well, it turns out that as far as the Young Women’s program is concerned, Virtue means “high moral standards, including chastity and moral purity.” Of course.
(Incidentally, when the YW president announced that the young women would now be required to have “Virtue” experiences, I turned to the women next to me and asked, “Isn’t the point not to have experiences?” She didn’t get it.)
Let’s be clear about this much: Chastity is a very good thing. Personally, I’m a fan. If we were on Facebook right now, you’d be getting a notification on your newsfeed: “Rebecca J. has become a fan of Chastity.” (Actually, if you’ve changed your Facebook language to “Pirate,” it would say, “Rebecca J. now be flyin’ the flag o’ Chastity.” Which would be extra fitting, since Young Women are so fond of flags.) Chastity is important, and I don’t have a problem with the Church emphasizing it. I don’t even have a problem insofar as the Church tells young women that they should “help” their priesthood-bearing counterparts remain chaste, for the simple reason that when it comes to illicit and premature sexual activity, young women have more to lose. Some will take issue with this assertion, but I don’t care because that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. I’m just letting you all know how very much I favor teaching Chastity to our young women.
But I’m not a fan of this eighth value, Virtue, and I’ll tell you why.
1. It’s creepy.
Seriously, is it not embarrassing enough to be a young woman without people constantly drawing attention to your purity (insert fancy curlicue lettering)? It’s not that chastity is anything to be ashamed of, or that we need to be squeamish about sexuality, but getting up in church every week and declaring your chaste intentions just seems a little gauche and, well, not very modest.
And somehow the use of “virtue” as a euphemism for sexual “cleanliness” smacks simultaneously of prudery and prurience. If we mean Chastity, why can’t we just say Chastity? Because Chastity reminds us too much of sex? But now Virtue is going to be reminding us of sex. If you ask me, it’s just that much worse, given that Virtue starts with V, which is also the first letter in virginity and vagina. It has sex written all over it, and the flashy gold lettering doesn’t help matters. Sure, I understand that all the good colors were taken—white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple were already representing the original seven values; indigo is too subtle, and brown is too, you know, dirty. So of course they turned to gold, and why not, as Virtue (i.e. Chastity) is most precious? Which brings me to my second, more salient point.
2. It distorts the value of chastity to remove it from the context of an ordered, virtuous (if you’ll pardon the expression) life and make it an end in itself.
As I just said, I do not dispute the importance of chastity. I don’t dispute the importance of honesty, either. I assume we want our young women to be honest just as much as we want them to be “virtuous.” Honesty gets its own temple recommend question, but it doesn’t get its own Young Women value and corresponding color. Why not? Well, duh, it’s implied by these “old” values, like Accountability (yellow?) and Integrity (purple—I’m pretty sure). But so is chastity. So are all the commandments. We don’t have a value and corresponding color for Not Murdering People either. Are you feeling me?
Back when they were first kicking the Seven Values around, Janice Kapp Perry wrote a song especially for the Young Women program called “I Walk by Faith.” We learned it when I was, I think, a Mia Maid. At the time, I didn’t like to sing, and I thought the song was cheesy. I suppose it is cheesy, but I still remember the words:
I walk by faith (FAITH!),
A daughter of heav’nly parents,
DIVINE am I in NATURE by inheritance.
The spirit whispers of my mission,
My INDIVIDUAL WORTH,
So I seek for precious KNOWLEDGE,
For learning and for growth.
I understand the meaning of ACCOUNTABILITY;
Every choice for good or ill is my responsibility.
I want to build the kingdom, so GOOD WORKS is the key.
By doing what I know is right,
I show INTEGRITY.
Please disregard the forced rhymes and incorrect grammar. (It’s a musical, people—go with it!) This verse illustrates how the seven values build upon one another. Faith in the gospel, which teaches one’s divine nature (and destiny!), leads to a sense of one’s individual worth, which in turn leads to a desire for more knowledge, which leads to accountability, which leads to good works, and then the piece de resistance, integrity.
Virtue, as it is being defined for this program—i.e. Chastity—is not a culmination of the preceding seven values. If you have the preceding seven values, Chastity is integrated (I’ll take root words for $200, Alex!) therein, as are Honesty and Saying No to Drugs and Not Hitting People with Sticks. The song makes it clear! And if you thought it was a challenge to fit the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth presidents of the church into the last few bars of “Latter-day Prophets,” try tacking on “By keeping my legs crossed, I protect my Virtue like the golden prize that it is” to this little ditty. (Poor Janice!)
To be fair, I must acknowledge that the program intends Virtue to encompass more than mere abstinence from non-marital sex. From the information on the church’s web site and my extensive training in Mormonism, I infer that “moral purity” consists of abstinence from sex, modesty in dress and general wholesomeness in thought and deed—all very good and useful things. Can I say for a third time that I admire and encourage chastity and everything like unto it? I’m not trying to pick a fight, and yet here I am, about to take issue with Sister Mary N. Cook, first counselor in the General YW presidency, saying, “If you are virtuous, you are strong. It is power and it is strength. It is all derived by being pure.”
I don’t have an issue with the words themselves, which are true. Virtue is strength. That’s what virtue means. But the strength is derived from a purity of heart, from the integrity (that word again!) of one’s soul. I’ve no doubt that Sister Cook would agree with that. But I fear that when we use the word “virtue” as a synonym for “chastity,” young women are apt to take a simplistic (and false) view of chastity as the cause of their virtue, rather than an aspect. It’s not uncommon for our young women who fall short of this ideal—i.e. sexual “purity” (however one defines it) before marriage—to experience a sharp and sustained drop in their sense of self-worth, something that goes beyond the natural (and useful) remorse leading to repentance; in fact it may threaten her future relationships with men as well as with the church (not to mention God).
It isn’t that people shouldn’t feel guilty for sinning. They should. But it’s crucial that they keep their sins–as well as their good works–in perspective. Keeping the commandments makes us strong–and virtuous. But the virtue of chastity should not bear the weight of being Virtue Itself.
In Part Two: What I wish they meant by “virtue.”