In this post I discuss a particular form of sexual violence, ‘non-volitional sex’. It is a difficult topic and I have tried to discuss it with care and sensitivity. My hope is that we can have a robust and thoughtful conversation about these issues, especially regarding how we can both care for and limit the number of victims. Because those who have experienced sexual violence may find such a post and the such subsequent conversation distressing, I hope any comments can be made with the understanding that you are potentially talking to someone who has experienced non-volitional sex.
The United Nations General Assembly has designated November 25th as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Today (the day after), The Lancet – one of the world’s pre-eminent medical journals – reports that 1 in 10 UK women have reported ‘completed non-volitional sex’ during their lifetime. ‘Non-volitional sex is sexual behavior that violates a person’s right to choose when and with whom to have sex and what sexual behaviors to engage in.’ Further, 1 in 5 women report attempted non-volitional sex. Perhaps what is most astounding is that 6.9% of 16-24 year olds and 9.7% of 25-34 year olds report completed non-volitional sex. The prevalence among men was much lower but still distressing (1 in 100: median age = 16). If ever we thought this was a problem of some bygone era, this evidence proves such an assumption to be sadly mistaken. The evidence overwhelming suggests that intimate partners are the perpetrators of such acts. So, what does this have to do with Mormonism?
Assuming that the population of Mormon women are not somehow radically different from the population of women in UK, then a substantial proportion of our faithful sisters have experienced non-volitional sex during their lifetime. Again, assuming that Mormon women are somewhat similar to those surveyed, then a large proportion of these women would be our Young Women and newly married couples.
Is this assumption justified? What explanations could be offered for why Mormons may be anomalies from this prevalence rate? First, we might argue that the moral teaching of the church leads men and women to eschew such behaviour. While we might hope this is true, Mormons are quite like other people in their propensity to desire and pursue sex. More specifically, as I discuss below, while I believe there are some potential moderating factors of such behaviour, these are not present in Mormon culture – just like they are absent in the UK sexual culture generally. Second, if this were so common then surely we would know about it. Of those who experience non-volitional sex by an intimate partner, 60% never tell anyone and only another 30% tell someone other than the police. Mormon culture may add an additional layer of ecclesiastical complexity which means that discussing these issues publicly may require talking to a male priesthood leader. While I am hopeful that most Bishops would be sensitive and empathic during such conversations, the very act of articulating this experience to another man may prove a difficult obstacle for these women. Third, Mormon women already have a high level of sexual autonomy and are willing to clearly and consistently refuse unwanted sex. Assuming that Mormon women, on average, are not more or less sexually autonomous than other women in the UK, then it is plausible that they too are susceptible of being victims of non-volitional sex. Fourth, alcohol is a risk factor for sexual violence and this may protect Mormon women. Here, there might be some legitimate differences but the data suggest that 9% of women who never or only rarely report drinking excessively have been victims of non-volitional sex. Thus, while completely abstaining from alcohol might protect some women at some moments it is clear that this does not provide absolute protection. In short, because I do not think that Mormonism is neither much better nor much worse than the UK in general in these matters, I believe it is safe to assume than Mormon women are the victims of non-volitional sex in somewhat similar proportions to the women in this survey.
Accepting this assumption (and I am willing to discuss whether this is justified), I wonder whether this important issue is something the church could address in some way. One of the challenges with non-volitional sex is that neither the perpetrators nor victims frame this experience in terms of rape. For example, some men will admit to non-volitional sex when you describe the act rather use its label. Female victims may also struggle to understand their experience in these terms for two reasons: 1) the perpetrator is frequently an intimate partner and 2) the level of coercion or violence (understood as physically forcing someone) is often more ambiguous. Yet, as The Lancet study makes clear, ‘Irrespective of the degree of coercion or force used, it represents a violation of sexual autonomy and is therefore a form of sexual violence.’ Helping people to interpret and understand such interaction in light of new evidence might be one way we could reduce such sexual violence.
Some in the church have tried to address this issue. Chieko Okazaki has spoken in this topic and tried to draw our attention to the frequency of sexual abuse, even in our ward communities. She said: ‘Sexual abuse is a problem for all righteous women and all righteous men everywhere.’
In light of this, one option might be to use produce a church-wide pamphlet, something similar to the material produced by the church in relation to pornography. These topics could be discussed in a careful way drawing on scriptural and theological values, which I believe would label such actions as a sin. Addressing this topic would require great sensitivity but I am optimistic that if we were given better information then we would respond; primarily because I am hopeful (perhaps naively) that if we recognised such acts as violence we would recoil from them. Better information would also empower women by making them aware of their own sexual autonomy. This becomes especially important because non-volitional sex is particularly common among women (and men) with low sexual function. Such a pamphlet might have limited impact immediately but it might be enough to change the culture of the church and how we talk about this issue in quite profound ways.
If we could couple better communication around sex with an improved sense of sexual autonomy, I am optimistic that non-volitional sex would become less common among Mormon women.
Edit: In response to one of the comments I have added a definition of non-volitional sex.
1. While there is evidence of non-volitional sex among men the rates are far lower and so in this post I want to focus on what can be done to lower the rates of non-volitional sex among women.
2. A similar but different dynamic may be at work for the underreporting among men. Sharing this with your Bishop may involve also some fear or embarrassment.
3. Low sexual function can reflect low desire, low enjoyment, and anxiety, pain, or other sexual difficulties.