An Offender for a Word

Elder Cook’s talk on Sunday afternoon began by matter-of-factly quoting a woman as a spiritual authority (thanks for pointing this out, Ardis!). He focused much of the final portion of the talk on unity and equality among the Saints. He described an ideal of sisters and brothers bound by covenant to love and care for each other and not splintered into -ites  by  -isms, and the temple as the place where we can reach for this ideal. There is a lot to appreciate and learn from this address.

But sometimes rhetoric runs away with good thinking. I suspect that’s partly what happened in the now infamous portion of Elder Cook’s talk. He was making the point that we should be concerned about ALL sex outside of marriage, not just sexual assault outside of marriage. It’s a reasonable point, given the LDS commitment to chastity, and I appreciated his condemnation of “the objectification of women.” But rhetorically, setting up a comparison between “consensual immorality” and “non-consensual immorality” is a disaster. It blurred his praise of the #metoo moment, which we would be applauding, if only he had not gotten hoist with his own euphemism.

One problem with his framing is that it blurred two discursive universes. Blogger Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism has created a helpful shorthand she calls the “two boxes” schema, by which the classification of sexual acts as moral or immoral can occur. For many religious believers, the only thing in the box labeled “moral” is marital sex, with the justification that that is the only kind of sex God (or Scripture) explicitly allows. In a more secular system, sexual acts are sorted into the two boxes based on whether they are consensual or non-consensual, so marital sex, gay sex, premarital sex, and polyamory could all potentially be considered moral, while pedophilia and rape would always be considered immoral because they are non-consensual. [1] Elder Cook’s aim, I think, was to remind Latter-day Saints which system of boxes we are supposed to use–that, in fact, mere consent is not enough to define a moral context for sex. “Consensual immorality” could possibly work as a critique of morality based on consent, but it’s a risky rhetorical gambit, and it would take a lot more explanation than Elder Cook had time for (in what was, after all, not a major focus of his talk). The real trouble, though, is with then using the same word–“immorality”–to mean something else in “non-consensual immorality.” By equivocating about the morality of consensual sex and non-consensual sex, his terminology hopelessly smashes all the boxes of the two-box schema together. It elides the fact that sex without consent is categorically different, in moral terms, than sex with consent. Where there is consent, one may believe the act to be sinful or not, but both parties are responsible/culpable. Where there is no consent, one party is guilty of coercion and violence (as well as whatever sin may be imputed to the sexual act), and the other party is blameless, in either a moral system based on consent or one based on sin. It ought to go without saying that rape is categorically different from adultery.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite go without saying in a Mormon context. We have scripture that problematically conflates virginity and virtue. Our church-owned bookstore sells books with a statement by a beloved prophet that suggest rape victims ought to prefer losing their lives to being forcibly raped:

Also far-reaching is the effect of loss of chastity. Once given or taken or stolen it can never be regained. Even in a forced contact such as rape or incest, the injured one is greatly outraged. If she has not cooperated and contributed to the foul deed, she is of course in a more favorable position. There is no condemnation where there is no voluntary participation. It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.

Even more recently, an apostle suggested that bishops may help survivors of abuse determine their own degree of culpability and invoke the power of atonement to repent of it:

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.

And nobody needs to be reminded that a very high profile Latter-day Saint was just ousted from a key White House job because he abused not one, but two wives. Although it is seemingly thousands of news cycles ago, it was actually quite recently that Brigham Young University (with help from local–mostly Mormon–police) was in the habit of punishing victims of assault for whatever infractions of the Honor Code (and yes, those are heavily inflected scare quotes, to be read in a tone of sneering disgust) they might have committed at the time of the assault or even long in the past. We are currently watching this same kind of victim-blaming smear campaign play out in the case of Joseph Bishop.

I believe in a hermeneutic of charity, and in other circumstances, I think it might be right to excuse Elder Cook’s mistake as just spectacularly infelicitous phrasing. But the circumstances and the context of his remarks absolutely necessitate extremely careful and direct speech. Of course it’s awful to have to say “rape” and “sexual assault” and “hitting and choking women” in General Conference, when children may be listening. But the discomfort of the speaker is nothing compared to the pain of victims. And hearing the words is not as bad as saying them and having them disbelieved or twisted into a euphemism that gives cover to the wicked.

Because of our history, our contributions to rape culture, Mormons cannot afford to excuse language that even hints that a victim has done something immoral. We have to do better. Fortunately, we have scriptural precedent for that, too:

And also it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God, which thing is pleasing unto God;

And it supposeth me that they have come up hither to hear the pleasing word of God, yea, the word which healeth the wounded soul.

Wherefore, it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained, because of the strict commandment which I have received from God, to admonish you according to your crimes, to enlarge the wounds of those who are already wounded, instead of consoling and healing their wounds; and those who have not been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds.

But, notwithstanding the greatness of the task, I must do according to the strict commands of God, and tell you concerning your wickedness and abominations, in the presence of the pure in heart, and the broken heart, and under the glance of the piercing eye of the Almighty God.



ETA: Here’s a more recent example of addressing the topic helpfully:


  1. An excellent breakdown. Spot on.

  2. Excellent. You’re the right person for this job, Kristine.

  3. I agree with the premise of this blog post, Kristine. It’s well done and well written. However, I guess I just see the term “Non-consensual immorality” as a Mormony way of referencing sexual misconduct. The words rape, sexual misconduct, sexual abuse, etc have all been used many times by church leaders. I feel like making a euphemism a point of divisive debate seems like splitting hairs when there is a much bigger picture to discuss.

    Cook’s meaning is clear, even though he used a term people aren’t fond of. Can’t we focus on what we know he was talking about? We can even use other words we like in place of “Non-consensual immorality” but let’s not get caught up in the weeds.

    The church MUST make some serious and substantial changes regarding training, identifying, and changing policy in order to make sure all people feel safe and secure speaking with their priesthood leaders. The changes I think we need to make will probably seem a radical to others, but what I can say is that my wife and I will never let one of our children be alone with a priesthood leader for an interview (even a PH leader we trust) until our children are old enough to completely understand when they are in a dangerous situation (which may not be until after their 18). Even then, we will be right outside an unlocked door as long as we have stewardship over them.

  4. Thanks for this. Our leaders have a difficult rhetorical needle to thread here, and I’m inclined to agree that the solution involves leaning even harder into prophetic witness. Euphemism, after all, is a way of pulling punches. I trust in the Spirit’s ability to teach us ways of talking about sexual violence and abuse—as our cultural moment suggests that we desperately need to do—that empower and heal more than they wound. Elder Cook made a good-faith attempt, but good faith alone isn’t enough. I pray that the occasion of his infelicitous phrase will help us collectively work toward the better ones we need.

  5. Kristine says:

    No, Eli, we can’t “focus on what we know he was talking about,” because his euphemism re-opens the question of whether victims are partially to blame. The “immorality” of rape is very different than the “immorality” of fornication, and using the same word for both makes it possible to equivocate about guilt, which we have done in the past and absolutely have to stop doing now. I think this is a case where getting the words right is an essential precondition for taking the right actions.

  6. Builderwill says:

    “It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.”

    Really? You’re trying to explain why Cook’s message was good inspite of what can most charitably be called an akward delivery and you trot out this most despicable of chestnuts? I think you need some remedial training in empathy. This kind of rhetoric completely ignores the trauma that victims experience and puts the blame for the attack on them if they are too scared to fight back. You should be ashamed of having written such putrid garbage.

  7. Builderwill, I think you read a different post from the present one.

  8. My best guess is that Elder Cook was considering the “tender and chaste” “children” by using the language he did, rather than have them ask parents, “What is rape?”

    Certainly, children need to know what rape is, but perhaps not when they are 5 years old.

    7 And also it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God, which thing is pleasing unto God;

  9. Kristine says:

    Builderwill–you’ve entirely missed my point.

  10. Kristine says:

    t008a–It is necessary to read the entire passage. Jacob saw that it was necessary to speak clearly, despite his desire not to for the sake of the women and children present.

  11. One of the many problems with Elder Cook’s euphemism is that it is NOT clear. That’s a cost of euphemisms. I think I know what he would decry and that it includes everything I want it to. But it is all too easy to imagine someone turning the phrase into a perverse “rape is wrong but if I manipulate a consent then it isn’t what he’s talking about.” As the OP says this is topic that calls for clarity.

  12. I don’t think it’s fair to single Elder Cook out for special condemnation (and I don’t see Kristine as doing that). But I’ve had a longstanding objection to using “immorality” as a euphemism for sex.

    I’ve heard people say it’s necessary to prevent little kids from hearing the words “rape” or “sexual assault” and to prevent parents from having to have an uncomfortable conversation with their kids when they ask them what those words mean. Why? How is your kids asking you “what does nonconsensual immorality mean?” any different? Nobody has been able to answer this.

    I celebrate Elder Cook for celebrating the justice that the #metoo movement has brought about. I celebrate him for condemning the objectification of women. I don’t doubt his good intent. In fact, that’s why I think it’s important to make it clear that he could not have meant that consensual non-marital sexual activity and non-consensual marital activity are morally comparable, and that to the extent his words suggest that, they were the wrong words for what he meant.

    “I glory in plainness.”

  13. Loursat says:

    “Hearing the words is not as bad as saying them.”

    By using euphemisms for sex and sexual violence, we solve a superficial problem: we allow speakers to avoid feeling awkward or embarrassed, and we let parents avoid the discomfort of talking about these things with their children. The price of these euphemisms is not worth this momentary, illusive benefit. How much better it would be for speakers to speak as adults and not to shy away from their responsibility as teachers.

  14. Plainness also has the virtue of empowering people (of whatever age) who are experiencing abuse. It lets them know that what’s happening to them isn’t ok. And, done right, it can empower their peers who aren’t experiencing abuse to reach out empathetically. A phrase like “non-consensual immorality” just leaves everyone wondering what exactly he meant (even if we get the general idea).

  15. Karen H. says:

    Kristine, since this talk was given, I keep coming back to the thought that we are once again suffering from the lack of inclusion of women’s viewpoints. It occurred to me that Elder Cook could have been entirely focusing on the male perspective of morality. Therefore, non-consensual immorality could have been meant as a condemnation of the man who forces himself upon a woman. (Yes, I recognize how problematic it is to reduce all rapist/victim narratives to male/female.) If only focusing on the culpability of men committing the very grievous sin of sexual assault, a term of non-consensual immorality would be an apt euphemism. BUT…it is utterly blind to the experience of the victim–just as the BYU and Bishop scandals were utterly blind to the experiences of the victim. It’s slightly less awful blindness, but it is just assuming away the experience of women. Just reading this talk to a woman with minimal awareness of the topic of sexual assault would have hit the alarm bell on the phrase. But I just don’t think that even crosses the minds of an entirely male leadership raised in a system of male leadership that is devoid of meaningful interaction with female leaders and voices. This is why representation matters.

  16. Kristine says:

    Karen, I also thought about that as he was rhapsodizing about how everyone has the same experience in the temple. He was so evidently sincere, and so completely blind to the experience of women. It was a little heartbreaking.

  17. Kristine says:

    Loursat–I don’t disagree with the point you are making, but it’s not quite what I meant with that sentence. I guess I am not good at following my own advice about plainness! What I was thinking was that it is not as bad for victims to hear the words (one of Jacob’s concerns was re-opening their wounds) as it is for them to say “I was assaulted,” “I was raped,” and not be believed, or have their experience glossed over by some vague, General Conference-approved word.

  18. melodynew says:

    Well done, Kristine! Thank you.

    Elder Cook could have avoided his self-created mess by avoiding the Mormon propensity toward using “immorality” to mean sexual sin alone (rather than immorality meaning sin or wickedness generally.) When will LDS leaders stop this? It’s a bad habit. A habit fraught with potential disaster as this otherwise decent conference talk so plainly demonstrates.

  19. I would have loved for Benjamin Ogles to give the same speech he made at January 30th’s BYU Devotional at General Conference. I think that would speak much better to it than an odd phrase like “non-consensual immorality.”

  20. Loursat says:

    Thanks, Kristine.Glad I could contribute to clarifying your point, which is more important than the one I made.

  21. Elizabeth says:

    Builderwill, she was repeating “this most despicable of chestnuts” as you called, as an erroneous old belief, not advocating it. After all the happy, merry, joy-joy of having a new prophet I was grateful to have Elder Cook address such a serious subject as sexual abuse, even briefly, and even if his word choice was perhaps strange. We knew what he was talking about. I took “non-consensual immorality” to be immorality on the part of the perpetrator, not on the victim.

  22. Kristine says:

    Yes, thanks, Brandt. I’m going to add that link to the post in hopes that more people will see it!

  23. As always, Kristine explains beautifully – informed by an empathetic ear for the victimized and oppressed and a sympathetic ear for the speaker’s fallible word choice.

  24. your food allergy is fake says:

    Kristine, please consider writing a letter to Elder Cook explaining these issues. I am confident you would be able to do it with the right tone. I think there’s a good chance he would read it and consider it.

  25. Thank you Kristine for putting a helpful context around this and plainly explaining why the language used was so problematic.

    Plain speech matters here and it matters for the whole Church to hear it. Sometimes I believe we are simply too protective for our own good. My wife and I have frank conversations with our children about sex, consent, and abuse because they need to hear them regularly and consistently as part of helping them put on the full armor of God.

    I think our leadership needs to think about this concept of helping protect our children and vulnerable members in the context of putting on the whole armor of God as well. The prophets and Apostles have spoken extremely plainly in Priesthood session about how the young men should protect themselves. Consider Pres Eldon Tanner’s assertion in his April 1979 talk:

    [blockquote]It is important that we make up our minds early in life as to what we will do and what we will not do. Long before the moment of temptation comes we should have determined that we will resist that cigarette, that drink of whiskey, that act of immorality, or anything that will keep us from enjoying the companionship of the Spirit of the Lord.[/blockquote]

    I could go back and pull up quotes from President Hinckley that were simply blunt in addressing very serious issues among our members, whether it was racism:
    [blockquote] I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color, is ineligible?[/blockquote]

    Or domestic abuse:

    [blockquote]How tragic and disgusting a phenomenon is wife abuse. Any man in this Church who abuses his wife, who demeans her, who insults her, who exercises unrighteous dominion over her is unworthy to hold the priesthood. Though he may have been ordained, the heavens will withdraw, the Spirit of the Lord will be grieved, and it will be amen to the authority of the priesthood of that man. Any man who engages in this practice is unworthy to hold a temple recommend. I regret to say that I see too much of this ugly phenomenon. There are men who cuff their wives about, both verbally and physically. What a tragedy when a man demeans the mother of his children.[/blockquote]

    But it begins to fall apart in the context of sex because talking about it makes us uncomfortable. Well armor can be uncomfortable even though it is highly necessary to protect the vulnerable. We arm them with knowledge only if we speak plainly so that all might be edified and uplifted with a spirit of understanding. Yes, the Mormon MeToo calls for further discussion among adults but don’t we bring children to sacrament meeting so they can better appreciate the atonement? And should we not lead by example?

    It is just frustrating because so much good can be accomplished when our leadership are straightforward in acknowledging change that needs to happen and setting forth the vision for accomplishing this. We had two masterful examples of it around the announcements of the change in Priesthood Quorums and the shift to Ministering where two speakers followed with very direct explanation and then an even more detailed letter was sent out immediately following the Conference sessions.

  26. There’s a missed opportunity element here as well. I understand it to be common understanding (and certainly my understanding) that the rape-sexual assault-abuse spectrum is better understood and dealt with in the conceptual box of violence or use of power, than in the conceptual box of sex. (Side note that the shift is a particularly important one to make in fundamentally patriarchal settings where there is always a power play.) I suspect but do not know that Elder Cook would agree, at least pragmatically. If I had the rewrite pen I would try to make this distinction.

  27. Kristine: I think there is also sincere blindness underlying what I take to be his overarching sentiment: It’s frustrating for me as an apostle to see such massive social outrage generated against powerful male sexual predators (even though it’s kind of nice when they’re Hollywood liberals), when we church leaders seem to be increasingly unable to generate any social outrage against gay marriage or young people living together before marriage.

  28. all these people wringing their hands over their children hearing the word “rape” or “sexual abuse” over the pulpit, but no one seems to mind the word “pornography” that pops up in every conference, including I think this very same session. Major eye roll emoji here.

  29. JKC: “How is your kids asking you ‘what does nonconsensual immorality mean?’ any different?”

    Exactly! Besides, we have plenty of uncomfortable language in scripture. As an example: I remember, as a little kid, asking my parents in daily scripture study what a “whoredom” was. They responded, “A very bad sin.” So for several years I though “whoredom” was a generic term for particularly grievous sins, and not a specific type thereof!

  30. Bro. Jones says:

    MJP: Nailed it. Part of the reason that there’s so much steering towards vague language in these sorts of talks is that leadership is still trying to condemn a host of behaviors that they want to condemn, and trying to cover all of it in as few words as possible.

  31. @Mandi (9:22 AM)

    An interesting side-note with regards to the usage of “pornography” at General Conference.

    “Pornography” was used 74 times at General Conference in the 1970s, 43 times in the 1980s, 62 times in the 1990s, 165 times in the 2000s, and (so far) 61 times in the 2010s (excluding last Sunday’s General Conference).

    Even if you were to isolate the 2010s, it was used 19 times in 2010, 4 times in 2011, 7 times in 2012, 7 times in 2013, 10 times in 2014, 8 times in 2015, 1 time in 2016 and 4 times in 2017 (based on a very quick count). I didn’t catch any mentions of pornography at April’s conference, but then again, there were times I was only half-listening.

    If anything, it’s interesting to look at the declining trend of that word in General Conference.

  32. Not a Cougar says:

    MJP, I concur. My response would be that as well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to convince modern society that consensual sexual activity is morally wrong.

    That attitude then makes its way into the membership. Leaving same sex marriage alone for the moment, the members will nod in agreement that pre- and extra-marital sex is wrong, but what exactly are they going to do about it besides not participate and teach their kids not to participate? And what happens when the kids do participate? Do we shun them and/or castigate them so that they run away from home and Church? It’s kind of the same stance as on alcohol. We’re not going to condone its use, but neither are we out in the streets fighting for a return of the 18th Amendment and certainly not for criminalization of extra-marital sex.

  33. east of the mississippi says:

    @brandt… I noticed the same thing, heard it used only once. I sensed a conscious effort all conference to steer away from admonishing, and to concentrate on training and uplifting the saints.

  34. I think Elder Cook did a good job in covering all bases. It’s possible that if he said sexual assault someone in need of repenting might have thought “I’m not assaulting the girls that I’m requesting that they expose themselves to me. No physical contact is happening. I’m not doing anything wrong”. But with Elders Cooks phrasing he eliminated a lot of possible justifications.

  35. Leonard R says:

    To the contrary, jader3rd, that’s exactly how Joseph Bishop excused his assault of a sister missionary under his care. He told the police that he asked her to expose her breasts, and she consented. Yet to pretend that even if that was all he did (which is doubtful) that it absolved him of engaging in sexual assault is offensive. Unfortunately, Elder Cook’s word choice could be used to do exactly that.

  36. MDearest says:

    I’m not scholarly but I love to see it done well, even though I had to look up ‘elide.’ And an appropriate dose of levity is welcome – ‘heavily inflected scare quotes’? ‘spectacularly infelicitous phrasing’? got a snort and cackle. But this is not a laughing matter. I can only hope that Elder Cook meant perps and not victims, but knowing what I do about Mormon culture, for reasons made plain in the post above, it’s not clear that he was speaking of only the perpetrator involved in an assault. If I’m wrong in my charitable take, it gives shelter to predators, and we must stop protecting sexual predators, and sheltering them among the good men (and good women) at church. This is the sermon we need.

  37. This post is fantastic, Kristine. Thank you so much for writing this.

  38. Kristine, very eloquent.

    I wrote Elder Scott after his talk was published as I did not believe what I heard in real time. In essence I said the survivor did not sin. I sent copies to my local leaders. For good or bad, no one responded. I hope it would be different today.

  39. Really excellent response to Elder Cook’s talk, Kristine — thank you!

    What bothered me most about the new phrase Elder Cook coined for the talk is what it reveals about Mormon attitudes about “morality.” It is further evidence that Church leaders mainly are referring to sex when they talk about immorality, even though morality is so much broader, touches on so many more issues. In a formulation like “non-consensual immorality,” the *sex* part of “sexual assault” is the problem, not the assault. The “immorality” in “non-consensual immorality” means “sex”, not “rape” or “assault,” because “rape” or “assault” are the “non-consensual” part. This makes it seem like the real problem in sexual assault or rape is that sex occurred. The violence, coercion, victimization is a mere qualifier, and it is placed on equal footing and in the same category as “consensual immorality” (which means “consensual extra- or pre-marital sex” — it doesn’t mean any of the other myriad things “immorality” could, should, and in real language *does* properly refer to — like stealing or lying or grinding the face of the poor, etc.). In either case, the *sex* part was immoral.

    But does *sex* really even occur in a rape or sexual assault? Elder Cook thinks so based on this euphemism. I am persuaded that rape and sexual assault aren’t in the same category as sex. The violation can’t properly be categorized as sex. It is pure violence and abuse. The victim hasn’t had sex. The perpetrator also hasn’t really had sex — what the perpetrator has done is something else entirely. We shouldn’t call it sex. We should call it rape or sexual assault. No parsing of terms.

    In any event, rape and sexual assault are far more immoral than consensual sexual behavior just as a baseline to begin with — do Church leaders see it this way? Does Elder Cook? We simply don’t know based on grouping rape and consensual sexual activity into the same category. That’s unfortunate.

  40. @Leonard, why is it doubtful that coerced exposure is all that Bishop did? I haven’t heard of any of his victims claiming otherwise.
    I’m still of the opinion that Elder Cook’s language was broad enough to cover what Bishop did, and what many others do in struggling with their sex drive. If Elder Cook had made a list, he might of missed one of the many ways in which someone sins.

  41. Kristine says:

    ” in struggling with their sex drive”

    Well, now, there’s a spectacularly infelicitous choice of phrasing, if ever there was one! It’s not about the man’s sex drive, jader3rd; it’s about the woman’s humanity.

  42. it's a series of tubes says:

    Wow, jader, that’s among the most indefensible language I’ve ever seen posted here, and that’s saying something. Bravo, Kristine, for your spot-on response.

  43. I really wish one could e-mail an apostle and we could e-mail each other. I think we could keep things more in line with D&C 42:88. You know, talking things out on a personal level. But then the title of this post is “an offender for a word” and I suppose everyone qualifies.

  44. Rachel SUSAN Pauli says:

    His word choice was a train wreck. Especially since rape is not immorality in the “sex sense” at all. It is violence. When I was trained as a rape crisis counselor the instructor said “when you hit someone with a pan you don’t call it cooking” It is violence.

  45. Amen Rachel.

  46. Not a Cougar says:

    john f., I’m struggling to understand what you mean when you say rape isn’t sexual assault. While it depends on the jurisdiction (I’m only familiar with U.S. states and U.S. federal criminal law), the term sexual assault is often used as a catchall for various types of non-consensual sexual acts, contact, or other touchings, including rape. Rape is sex, albeit, non-consensually obtained. The offender is violating the victim on the most intimate of levels, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Thus the reason we punish the offender severely (assuming we do indeed prosecute and are successful which is often a big if).

  47. Not a Cougar says:

    jader, go listen to the audio recording. I believe a fair listening will result in a conclusion that Bishop did more than just coerce a sister missionary into exposing herself to him.

  48. Kristine says:

    Not a Cougar–I might be misreading, but my understanding of what john f. was saying is that rape is not *sex*, that is, the “assault” part of “sexual assault” makes it a categorically different thing than “sex,” which generally implies some mutuality.

  49. Rexicorn says:

    @Greg J, Elder Scott gave another talk on healing from abuse in 2008 that omitted anything about victims/survivors sharing guilt. I’ve always thought of it as evidence that he evolved on the subject:

    I always hate that the 2008 talk gets so little attention; it meant so much to me when I was coping with my own trauma at the time.

  50. Paul Ritchey says:

    1. Great thoughts and words, Kristine. And many of the comments are good.

    2. As to JKC’s point about why some object to kids hearing words like “rape” this is at least one relevant difference: As the parent of four-year-old twins, I know for certain that my children (who know nothing about sex) would not be able to pronounce, much less remember or ask about, the phrase “non-consensual immorality.” They would certainly remember the word “rape,” if they heard it. That would start an extremely uncomfortable conversation (I wonder if it might adversely affect any nascent understanding of sex that such a discussion would entail), and it seems that precisely that discomfort is what Elder Cook was trying to avoid by his Victorian euphemism. He might have skipped the subject entirely when he became uncomfortable with utter plainness, but would that have been the right choice? Is addressing a vital message, even in less-than-plain terms, I think he was trying to strike a balance. And though Jacob’s approach is different, that doesn’t imply that there are only two options (plain-speak or no speak).

    2. This post is SO aptly titled.

  51. Kristine says:

    Rexicorn–you’re right, and I think this was something Elder Scott was deeply compassionate about, and wanted to get right. Here’s the 2008 talk:

  52. Excellent response, Kristine. This may be repeating what has already been said, but what worries me most is that statements like this kind of suggest that Church leaders don’t believe in rape at all. That is, they’re inclined to think that rape victims are always at least somewhat at fault (as in the awful SWK quote you cite), and so it’s not really ever actually rape. It’s a temptress and a man giving in to her wicked allure. It may be non-consensual, but it’s still immorality.

    This conclusion is bolstered by the endless rhetoric we hear from the Church on modesty (for women only, pretty much) and how it’s so important for women and teen girls to cover themselves so that boys and men will have pure thoughts. It’s a small step from this type of rhetoric to blaming victims of sexual assault.

  53. A major problem with the “non-consensual immorality” framing is that it even if we charitably assume he didn’t mean immorality on the part of the victim [1], it seems to entirely preclude the possibility of marital rape. That is because it seems to say there are two problems with rape: (1) it is “non-consensual” and (2) it is “immorality” because, like “consensual immorality,” it is outside of marriage.

    [1] I agree with everyone saying that he meant the right thing there, even if I think their focus on defending Cook is too often at the expense of supporting victims who say the ambiguity is still problematic.

  54. Think of this as responding to and agreeing with John F.

    As a matter of word choice, when I start with “assault” and treat “sex” as an aggravating factor, as a modifier, the language works for me. But when I imagine starting with “sex” and treating “assault” as a modifier, things go sideways fast. Among other things, bastardizations like “non-consensual immorality” become imaginable.

    But here’s the problem. When I start with assault and treat sex as a modifier, there isn’t a mental pathway that ends up at “non-consensual immorality.” It just doesn’t happen. So I’m back to uncertainty about what Elder Cook really meant. That’s something that should be fixed.

  55. I don’t know, Paul. I guess I can see where you’re coming from, but I’m still not convinced that such a conversation needs to be uncomfortable. I know if my kids asked what sexual assault or rape is, I might not give a detailed description of the mechanics of intercourse with my youngest kids, but I wouldn’t have a problem discussing the topic with them. Off the top of my head, I’d probably say something like “you know how we’ve talked about how it’s wrong for someone to touch your private parts? Well those are words for when someone forces you to let them touch your private parts. It’s very bad and very wrong. If anyone ever tries to do that, you tell us right away.” Why should that be uncomfortable? And more importantly, even if it is uncomfortable, why should we let that stop us from having that conversation?

  56. Not a cougar, I never said rape isn’t sexual assault. I said in Elder Cook’s formulation, the “immorality” refers to sex, which means that in this formulation, the thing that is immoral for him is the sex part of sexual assault, not the assault part. The assault part is a modifier: “non-consensual”, but the thing that is referred to by “immorality” in Elder Cook’s talk is the same whether consensual or non-consensual: sex. But my comment asks if you’re really having sex when you get raped. My point is you’re not having sex, whether you’re the victim or the rapist. Rather, you’re doing an action that is distinguishable from sex. It is an act of violence. Rape is rape, not sex. Sexual assault is assault, not sex.

  57. Nonconsensual immorality cannot apply to the perpetrator, for he or she consents to be a perpetrator. Nonconsensual immorality cannot apply to the survivor, for he or she is not immoral when he or she is raped or molested. The phrase is a misnomer.

  58. Well said, Jan.

  59. I don’t think that it’s a misnomer because the perpetrator is causing the nonconsensual event to happen.

  60. Irritated at generational blame for the world's problems says:

    One perspective not given yet is how exactly would the child who is being sexually abused by a family member interpret this? Well, before lots of therapy and after hearing all kinds of lessons about chewed gum and licked cupcakes, I would have heard this as meaning that even though I had not consented, that I was still guilty of immorality.

    That should be the biggest problem with this hares is how do victims really hear it, and I can tell you that they hear it as they have been immoral. This is why we should draw and quarter Elder Cook, because no matter how people who have never been sexually assaulted hear it, if those who have been hear it as blaming them, then what he said is about the worst thing ever to come out of conference. The man needs to be told in no uncertain terms, that he just told rape victims that they are immoral.

  61. Right! When our cultural practice is to say “immorality” instead of “sex”, this is the result.

  62. Mark-Mark says:

    I think it is interesting that so many people are so interested in finding fault in a church leader because of one phrase while his talk is focused on the work of salvation moving forth and one’s accountability to God while the world moves further away from Him. While one commenter is trying to redefine rape when the definition is non-consensual sex, the OP is pointing out the fact that rape and fornication are different types of immoral behavior, of course they are; there is a whole spectrum of immorality from a “little white lie” to murder. Elder Cook didn’t equate the two or accuse victims of immoral behavior. His very next sentence was quoting the Family Proclamation, ” ‘individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring’ or for that matter, anyone else, will one day stand accountable before God.”
    And as for the pornography data, Elder Cook referred to it in his follow up discussion of how much of society today doesn’t show reverence to God or his prophets.
    Sorry but all I hear are beams and motes.
    (My two cents)

  63. Thank you for sharing your opinion that a rape victim is having sex when being raped.

    The quote from the Family Proclamation is also relevant — that perpetrators of abuse will one day stand accountable before God. What the #metoo movement (including the Mormon #metoo movement that has been escalating for the last couple of years and particularly since information about how the Church has handled the victims of Joseph Bishop’s sexual assaults and abuse) emphasizes is that perpetrators should stand accountable before civil authorities for their crimes. And held accountable by the Church as an institution.

  64. Awesome breakdown, Kristine.

    Mandy and Brandt: Cook actually mentions pornography less than a minute after saying “consensual immorality.”

    I’m with John F. and Rachel: Sex involving coercion or force is not just a different kind of sex. Rape is like consensual unmarried sex somewhat in the way that getting shanked is like an emergency appendectomy.

    Cynthia L. and JKC: Yes.

  65. Kristine N says:

    Thank you Kristine. This is well-said.

    I don’t get why he didn’t just say ‘sexual assault’ or ‘rape.’ On the plus side the euphemism is broad enough to include everything from minor sexual harassment to rape, but that same broadness makes it unclear what he’s actually talking about and yeah, implies that the victim is in some way responsible for what happened.

    Otherwise, I loved his talk. I appreciate that you highlight the good points in his talk. I also appreciate the way you’ve framed the sexual immorality vs consent argument. That’s a discussion I can see coming down the pike with my kids and this is a framing I think will help in talking to them.

  66. SandyfromSandy says:

    I feel like I have been in an English class critiquing an article. This reminds me of the words found in Ether-
    And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing…when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.
    …the Lord spake unto me, saying: Fools mock, but they shall mourn
    I know…that if the Gentiles have not charity, because of our weakness, that thou wilt prove them, and take away their talent

  67. Kristine says:

    Sandy, there’s no mocking here. Only a wish for great care in a situation where words matter very much.

  68. SandyfromSandy says:

    There has been a ripping and shredding of the weakness you find in Elder Cook’s two words. I am grateful he said anything, for I have been abused. I hope there will be changes. Priesthood leaders believed my lying husband and there have been no consequences for his sins. I believe most listening understood what Elder Cook meant. That’s all. They are humble men who deal with so much criticism. Give the man a break.

  69. Thank you to those who directed me to later remarks by Elder Scott.

  70. No, we don’t all know what Elder Cook meant. We can speculate on what he probably meant, and perhaps quite accurately, but save for clarification from him, we don’t know. Even my husband and I disagree on how broadly immorality was being defined (he suspects flirting outside of marriage is in the consensual immorality category per Cook).
    As for children, even ones like mine who are aware of rape and abuse, there’s no guarantee they’ve picked up on it at all. “Is it like when you accidentally see porn stuff on? Compared to when you go looking for it, or don’t turn it off?”

  71. I wouldn’t be surprised if Elder Cook edits this phrase for clarity for the written publication. I hope he does. I think he was going for a poetically parrallel, catchy (for lack of a better word) phrase.

  72. Xander Harris says:

    When I read this, I said “daaaaaaamn!” out loud and cheered irreverently. Do I need to repent?

  73. Apparently someone was listening to conference with the intent to find something to write about on their blog to cause a discussion and debate instead of listening with the intent of letting the Spirit speak through the Lord’s living servants. “What I have spoken, I have spoken, whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same.” Would you also criticize Christ’s words and choice of wording, or would you listen intently and let the Spirit reveal the meaning of all things to you? I would hope your answer is the latter, but you actually just did criticize Christ’s words and wrote a critique that was not uplifting but rather has the potential to do spiritual harm to your readers. Perhaps you were so busy looking for something to critique you missed this gem from our new prophet that you could have focused on to actually help bring others TO Christ rather than risk drawing them away from Him. “In coming days it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, and comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.” (P.S. Lest anyone say or think, “clearly this person has never experienced the pain of abuse and the re-abuse that other’s thoughtless words can cause” let me set the record straight right here. I have been sexually assaulted as a child, raped repeatedly by my 1st husband for years, re-abused many times and many ways through the thoughtless words of others. However, Christ is what brings me comfort and peace through it all in spite of the imperfections of men (and women); in Him I have hope, and I would never want to do anything that might draw others away from Him. He Lives, and because He lives we shall all live, healed from the wounds and wrongs of this world, to enjoy eternal life with a Father and an elder brother who knows us completely, and loves us still~)

  74. lastlemming says:

    The text is out, and the phrase was neither edited nor clarified in a footnote.

    On the subject of unintended messages, however, let me point out that saying “rape is not sex” would allow someone to conclude that a woman can get pregnant without having sex. In effect, you have narrowed the definition of sex in the same way Mormon culture has narrowed the definition of immorality. Better to stick to the biological definition of the former and the broader philosophical definition of the latter.

  75. Kristine says:

    Sharilee–thanks for the beautiful testimony in your PS.

  76. Elizabeth says:

    Over the years I have read so many complaints at BCC about taking scriptures out of context in order to prove whatever point the speaker/writer is trying to make. Isn’t that what is being done to Elder Cook’s use of those two words? Look at it in the paragraph,
    “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. The family proclamation to the world warns “that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring [or, for that matter, anyone else] … will one day stand accountable before God.”
    It seems to me what he is saying is clear and people are wresting it into something else to suit their own agenda. SandyinSandy and Sharilee have given the best responses of all. Listen to them.

  77. Kristine says:

    Elizabeth–I’m sorry that’s the impression you got from my post. The title was meant to be double-edged, since the scripture it’s taken from condemns making someone an offender for a word. I was trying to be fair to what I believe Elder Cook meant to accomplish in the talk, and to limit my criticism to explaining what was problematic about the two words that are now unfortunately overshadowing his intent. It is exactly because I think his intended message is so important that I think it’s worthwhile to spend time doing careful linguistic analysis.

  78. Kristine, I don’t know you, but want to commend you on this op. It is right and true. Cook’s statement, along with many other statements from “the Brethren,” is and have been far too equivocal in regards to sexual sin and evil. Our culture, like many others, does not understand evil well and often does not address the problems with evil in a moral way. As a result, we do get instances like that poor young woman at BYU being punished by the HCO instead of being supported in such a devastating and life-changing event.

    Goodness, without wisdom, causes as much suffering as malintent.

    I thought Cook’s talk was good but marred by this clumsy rhetorical metaphor. It is altogether appropriate and good to call this out in order to sustain the truth. We must do this as members consistently and must see this as an appropriate way to sustain “the Brethren,” from the bottom up.

  79. I appreciate the thoughts communicated here. One question, why leave out the names of the GA’s you’ve quoted here (other than Cook)? I see a couple good reasons to name them and no good reasons to allow them anonymity within the post.

  80. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    The rhetorical gymnastics necessary to rescue Elder Cook’s clumsy talk is exhausting. I’m sympathetic to Kristine’s desire to offer constructive criticism without overshadowing what was a genuine effort by Elder Cook to address a profoundly important topic. It’s not an easy balance. However, the required effort to do so is evidence that the talk fell far short of the required mark. Rape and assault are real words, with existing meaning, and are perfectly adequate to the task of conveying what (I hope) Elder Cook was trying to talk about. Not using those terms was a deliberate decision, with a predictable obfuscation of something that the Church has been reluctant to name. Not naming this issue contributes to the problem – and they still won’t name it!

  81. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    ‘Non-consensual immorality’ is problematic in the way that Moroni 9:9 is problematic. It leaves open the possible interpretation that victims of non-consensual immorality are deprived of virtue and chastity, which should never be the interpretation.

  82. Well said, Turtle.

  83. Heptaparaparshinokh says:


    “We are talking about S-E-X in front of the C-H-I-L-D-R-E-N!”
    “Sex Cauldron? I thought they shut that place down!”

    The unwillingness of LDS leadership to talk about sex and sexual issues in an adult manner (see also: “the little factory”) is going to be the end of us, I swear.

  84. Aussie Mormon says:

    Ok, let’s make a hypothetical change to his wording then.
    “It’s good that people are speaking out against rape is a sin. It would be good if people spoke out against consensual sex outside of a marital relationship, which is also a sin.”

    If he’d said that, can you honestly tell me that he wouldn’t be getting 10x the amount of criticism he already is.

  85. Aussie Mormon says:

    just to correct the sentence… add add a “which” after the word rape.

  86. SandyfromSandy says:

    Who’s Ardis? Several authors refer to Ardis, but she is not listed as an author. Who’s Ardis?

  87. LatamGirl says:

    “Aussie Mormon on April 4, 2018 at 5:30 pm
    Ok, let’s make a hypothetical change to his wording then.
    “It’s good that people are speaking out against rape is a sin. It would be good if people spoke out against consensual sex outside of a marital relationship, which is also a sin.”

    If he’d said that, can you honestly tell me that he wouldn’t be getting 10x the amount of criticism he already is.”

    I’m trying to see how he would get more criticism for this. Are you referring to the idea that rape is a sin? (Because I would read that statement as rape is a sin for the rapist and not for the victim.) if you’re referring to a hypothetical negative reaction to the idea of consensual sex being a sin, how would that be problematic? I think the standard for the law of chastity in that regard is fairly clear and people either agree with it and follow it or they don’t, but they don’t necessarily try to convince the Church writ large to change the doctrine.

  88. Kristine says:

    Ardis Parshall, an excellent Mormon historian, and author of the best Mormon history blog ever:

    Aussie Mormon, I think LatamGirl is correct. Most people who are troubled by this wording (including me) are not objecting to the law of chastity. As I said, “He was making the point that we should be concerned about ALL sex outside of marriage, not just sexual assault outside of marriage. It’s a reasonable point, given the LDS commitment to chastity, and I appreciated his condemnation of “the objectification of women.”

  89. Aussie Mormon says:

    It wasn’t about objecting to the law of chastity, it was that it would be seen as putting raping someone on-par with having willingly having sex with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Both are sins, and no one should have issue with an apostle calling both of them sins. However coupling those two so close, and in clear distinct terms, would attract criticism, not just from the bloggernacle, exmormon circles, and the salt lake tribune readers, but even groups which have nothing to do with mormonism. Heck, even Mormons would want the rapist to receive a harsher punishment than a couple of teenagers that dropped the ball.

    At the very least, the current wording allows mormons to know (or infer) what he was getting at (and I agree with your comments on what that was), without having to start making lists. Unfortunately, the wording has turned a fairly standard section on chastity/family/commandments, into a discussion that focusses on less than 2% of his talk. (Much like the unfortunate Packer incident several years ago).)

    I think the point I’m getting at, is that just swapping in the term rape and/or assault isn’t necessarily enough on its own.

  90. LatamGirl says:

    “Heck, even Mormons would want the rapist to receive a harsher punishment than a couple of teenagers that dropped the ball.”

    Aussie Mormon, that makes sense. I see where you’re coming from in that we would want to make the distinction that rape is worse.

  91. Could it be that “nonconsensual immorality” is an intentionally broader term than “rape” in the views of some. Groping, verbal harassment, etc., etc. might be excluded from the term “rape” by some. Perhaps Elder Cook was just trying to be clear that all that stuff is really bad. I get the potential for looping the victim into that. But I cannot imagine Elder Cook intended that. And I personally give him the benefit of the doubt on this. There may be many people (mostly men) who heard that and thought “I don’t rape, but gosh I do force some nonconsensual immorality on a lot of people.”

    Perhaps . . .

  92. There are a pair of excellent broader terms that are particularly specific for what you’re trying to describe rd, they are sexual assault and sexual harassment. Given his previous life as a corporate attorney and CEO I have no doubt that Elder Cook is very familiar with those terms. 9/10 odds this was intended as Heptaparaparshinokh and Turtle said to obfuscate the language to ensure a softer landing in mixed company.

    If church is to be the place where we come together to speak with one another concerning the welfare of our souls then transparent and plain speech should be fundamental.

  93. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Elder Holland spoke in conference about a bumper sticker, but another bumper sticker comes to mind for the clunky phrase in this talk: “Eschew Obfuscation”

  94. SandyfromSandy says:

    Kristine, Thank you for the information on Ardis. She is a woman worth noting and following. I went to her website and listened to the podcast on the Neal Maxwell Institute website. I better understand why contributors reference her work. I will better note her comments. Thanks!

  95. Kristine says:

    SandyfromSandy–I’m glad you found Ardis, even if it was through a post you didn’t like. She is a treasure!

  96. In the midst of reading Ogles’ talk, which I wish had been around when I was a student. Here’s a phrase from his talk that sums up my feelings on Elder Cook’s:

    “Instead of guessing or assuming, we can rely on direct information.”

    Plain speech would have made this easier. I understand not wanting to have some discussions suddenly become necessary, but I’d rather it were due to inconvenience/awkwardness than because someone was hurt and having to untangle what that assault meant about their relationship to God and sex.

  97. Richard says:

    I find it interesting that the people who have issues with Cook’s words (which in my opinion are plain, unambiguous, and not offensive) are (for the most part) the same people who are quick to let us know that they have “open and candid discussions with their kids about sex, consent, and rape.” That being the case, if you feel there is ambiguity in his words, just let your kids know how to interpret this quote and move on. Your throwing an apostle repeatedly under the bus is doing your kids far more harm than Cook’s words that you are parsing and turning from molehill to mountain. One commenter above said: “Sometimes I believe we are simply too protective for our own good”… and then went on to eviscerate an apostle and the church bureaucracy for its lack of empathy. Pot, meet kettle. I get it–Elizabeth Smart felt like a chewed up piece of gum because of what she had been taught growing up. That was wrong, but those teachings are also firmly in our past. I know for a fact that no curriculum currently exists that even hints at that. The problem of victim blaming and shaming does not systemically exist any more in the church. In isolated instances? Of course. Trying to force Cook’s round-peg comments into your square-hole conclusion falls flat. The glass really is half full if you just look hard enough.

  98. Richard,
    Sorry I’ve just got to correct your statement ” That was wrong, but those teachings are also firmly in our past.” Just last fall, my nephew tried to correct a BYUI professor who brought up a “crushed flower” analogy during his religion class. The professor told him, basically, I’m sorry but this is what my curriculum requires me to teach. So he went to the Religion Dept. head and brought up his concern. Gratefully, THAT man recognized the mistake and told my nephew he was absolutely right and that it would be corrected. So, unfortunately “those teachings” are not yet firmly in our past.

  99. Also the Church’s initial newsroom statement on the accuser in the Joseph Bishop scandal – which called her a former member and said that it was “not surprising” that her story and his were not the same, their decision to give the results of a legal investigation into the accuser’s past to Joseph Bishop’s lawyer, and the lack of consequences for leadership who did not take seriously the accusers concern are clear indications that victim blaming and shaming is still indeed a systemic, institutional problem.

  100. Leadership is only partly about making official changes in the curriculum. The other, harder part of leading is understanding that it’s a long process to really fix the problem. It’s great that they’ve changed the curriculum. Rooting out the problem and helping people change their attitudes requires a lot more.

    This is one of the big issues for the church. When the church gets this wrong, hearts are broken and lives are laid waste. It’s no comfort to claim that these tragedies are isolated instances. I’m not surprised that an apostle’s words on this are carefully scrutinized. It’s important to a lot of people that he should get it right.

  101. SandyfromSandy says:

    Richard, well said. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  102. I gave Elder Cooks remarks to a psychologist I know that specializes in working with sex abuse and ptsd survivors. She was not impressed.

  103. Shannon, I’d like to see proof that the “crushed flower” curriculum a) exists, and b) is “required” to be taught. Simply put: I don’t believe it.

  104. Richard, you seem to have misunderstood Shannon’s story. The point is not that there is still a “crushed flower” official curriculum. Shannon does not claim that there is such a curriculum. The point is that errors such as this are not “firmly in our past.”

  105. Meredith says:

    He was crucified on Calvary’s cross and rose the third day as the first resurrected being of our Heavenly Father’s children. I love Him and testify that He lives! It is He who leads and guides His Church. President Nelson April 2018

  106. Meredith says:

    Opps! My comment was to be placed on one of your other posts..sorry.

  107. I also choose to come from a perspective of charity and see Elder Cook’s use of “non-consensual immorality” as an unfortunate phrase, used to avoid saying “rape” or “sexual assault” at a meeting which would be watched by children. That being said, the issue absolutely needs to be addressed, clearly, starkly and without pulling any punches. I would love to see a General Authority give a talk on male sexual entitlement at the next Priesthood session of General Conference. Everyone in attendance would be male and over the age of 12. There would be no need for euphemisms and a real need for plain talk, not just about chastity and sin, but about consent and truly respecting women as daughters of God and not as sexual conveniences.

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