EVERY MONTH OR so, I haunt the shelves of the Provo Deseret Industries store. In the furthest corner of the room under the florescent lights I find rows of Mormon books—many old, many fading, many out-of-date. Given away by families and ward libraries and grandparents’ estates.
I could flip through these books for hours—and I don’t just look either. I feel a compulsion to buy them by the dozens. To own them and keep them in my already-crowded house. Illustrated children’s versions of Missouri-period mob violence, advice books for newlyweds, long-retired Family Home Evening manuals—at some point I’ve loaded them all in my cart and brought them home.
Last week, between illustrated editions of Mormon history and dozens of homemaking tomes, I found a book called Virtue Makes Sense! written in the early ’70s by Elder Mark E. Peterson and Emma Marr Peterson (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1973). Within moments of first opening it, I couldn’t stop myself from whispering passages aloud to my husband, in an incredulous voice, while a young man nearby shot me concerned glances.
In the chapter called “Petting is Evil,” the authors conceive of sexual touching as an almost one-sided loss of a girl’s virtue that is deserving of shame not only from a girl’s community but also from the boy who did the touching. I waited until some middle schoolers passed by before sharing this passage:
Girls, you must realize that boys do talk, sometimes boastfully, advertising to their boy friends how far they went with a certain date that night. . . . Often it becomes locker-room gossip, then a subject of joking. The boys laugh about it, ridicule and make fun of the girl who had no more self-respect than to allow a boy to paw her, and pet her, and humble her.
Flipping to a chapter entitled “Modesty Protects Virtue,” I saw the authors give what they consider to be evidence that “at least half of the reported rape cases could have been avoided had the victim showed more discretion and good judgment.” They explain:
Do you know what tempts boys to molest girls today more than any other one thing? It is the mode of dress of girls who wear extremely abbreviated clothing even on the streets. . . . When the boys are coming into their teens and reaching maturity, and such sights are placed before their eyes, almost like an invitation, can we blame them— any more than we would the girls who tempt them—if they take advantage of those girls?
As we pulled into the parking lot only a half hour earlier, my husband and I had been discussing the recent onslaught of rapes in India encouraged by a victim-blaming culture. We were almost patting ourselves on the back that, of course, our own culture would never tolerate such extreme thinking. I knew that previous generations of Latter-day Saints had been a bit more inclined towards victim-blaming, but when I read these passages in a book once published for teenagers by Church-owned Deseret Book, the social changes our culture and Church have undergone became vivid.
While the positive changes we’ve made may not have gone as far as many of us would like them to have, it is important to recognize that the way we talk about issues such as sex and sexual violence has, in fact, changed dramatically over the years. But it didn’t change by itself or through a revelation. It changed because people worked to change it. These were people who were sometimes frightened, but they worked up the courage to speak up even when it was scary and unpopular and often unpleasant. Under harsh criticism and sometimes even threat of excommunication, Mormon feminists and others with clear-eyed vision about these issues spoke up. And now much of their thinking has been accepted; not accepted as a revolutionary change but accepted as something that has always been. Now we say “of course.” “Of course” half of all sexual assaults cannot be prevented by the wearing of sleeves. Of course we’ve always thought that way.
After thousands prayed and wrote letters and spoke up about blacks holding the priesthood and enjoying the blessings of the temple, “of course” we extend equal rights and access to our temples regardless of skin color. After disenfranchised Mormons marched in parades and started blogs and spoke to their bishops, “of course” we believe having homosexual feelings is not a sin. “Of course” our gay family members should not be kicked out of their homes and shamed and altogether shunned.
I have often asked myself why I keep buying books like Virtue Makes Sense! I think I buy them because I fear that our stories of change are being lost. I worry that we choose to forget about the changes that have come before. Perhaps we cling so tightly to a rigid notion of restoration that we view any story of shift or change (especially one from the bottom up) as a threat. We push the collective recognition of change down the memory hole and tell ourselves that things were always the way they are now. That we always thought the way we think now. As one who grew up without many of these stories of change, I find myself acting as a kind of curator of stories I am afraid will be forgotten. I worry about the changes people sacrificed and strived for that I still do not know about. The ones I take for granted, not knowing that it was ever any other way.
I worry that one day I will make a change that will be forgotten. I know I haven’t done anything yet. But maybe I will. Maybe I will be inspired by the women and men who came before me, drawn to speaking on behalf of the vulnerable. Maybe I will draw up the courage to take a stand that won’t be comfortable. To ask questions about the way we do things. To stop sitting quietly in the back of the Sunday School room or leaving early or staying home altogether. Maybe I will speak up and change something. I worry that my children and my children’s children will just assume that my fuss was for nothing, and that the changes that resulted are the way things have always been. And they won’t see the need to speak up themselves.
And so, I gather. I trade my $4 for a fading, hardcover book about “virtue” and add it to the dusty pile by an already-full shelf crammed in the hallway.
And, I remember.