The following article is addressed to several groups: the general public; LDS Church members; LDS leaders, both women and men at all levels; rape victims especially. It is my hope that each group might profit from what is said here.

In May 2016, the nation’s attention was riveted on a case in which a young woman was raped on the Stanford University campus by an ex-Stanford swimmer, Brock Allen Turner. Turner received a six-month sentence. Outrage swept the nation. There were calls for the judge to resign. Especially infuriating was the indication that Turner received a light sentence because he had been a swimmer and because his father put pressure on the judge.

The victim wrote a letter to her attacker which she read at his sentencing.[1] It is a powerful statement of the trauma that rape victims everywhere experience after having been violated—they find themselves afraid where they used to be confident, unable to sleep, insecure where they used to be secure, unsure of human relationships, especially with men. Their trauma continues for years, perhaps for a lifetime. In contrast, the attacker raped for a few minutes of control and pleasure, and though he may be apologetic, he can never fully understand what he has done to the woman he has victimized.

Vice President Joe Biden, himself an advocate for women, wrote a letter to the victim, expressing his sorrow about what had happened.[2] In that letter, he commended the two men who happened by the incident and reported it.

Having had witnesses in this case was a stroke of good fortune. Usually there are no witnesses and the case revolves on which of the two, the attacker or the victim, is believed by the jury. (In many Islamic countries, a charge of rape stands up only if there are four witnesses!) There may be evidence, of course, but sometimes the evidence is ambiguous, or in the worst case, is not analyzed. Many, many “rape kits” have gone unanalyzed due to lack of funds and lack of will.

The classic defense, of course, is that there was consent, even if the victim was injured or if there was considerable evidence supporting her case. Or the defense may state that she invited it in some way. She was drunk and said OK, or her clothing was skimpy, or she led her attacker on. (These, of course, are old myths about rape.)

Another myth that contributes to misunderstanding is the assumption that rapists are strangers who jump out of the bushes. But most rapes are committed by dates or friends.

People are beginning to understand that it is NEVER a woman’s fault, that “no” means “no.” But we have a long way to go. Complicating the matter is the fact that the process of investigation is humiliating to the woman. The physical exam may seem like a rape all over again. Then if she testifies in court she must testify as a “witness” (!) to the event. Police department members may not believe her or may be slow in taking action. (Fortunately, many police departments now have a victims’ advocate who can help the victim through the trauma of the investigative procedure.) And then, after all of that, the defendant may receive a light sentence or be found innocent.

After a rape, a victim does not need advice or judgment. She needs compassion, love, understanding, listening. She needs someone to believe her. But all too often, people have the tendency to blame the victim, despite her innocence. A classic example, recently brought to my attention by an article in “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon thought, is that of Bathsheba, who was raped by King David.[3] I hadn’t realized it before, but Bathsheba is often blamed for that act. An example given in the article notes that the website WomenInTheBible speaks of her as a “clever and unscrupulous woman.” The author of the article, Mel Henderson, gives an example from her own experience. When she was seven or eight years old, her kind, elderly woman Sunday School teacher held up a picture of Bathsheba, beautifully clad in flowing red cloth, (!) and said, “This is Bathsheba. Bathsheba was a beautiful and selfish woman. It was very wrong of her to tempt King David. She kept her selfishness a secret.” (!?) Ah yes; we must protect the male perpetrator at all costs. (As I read this, I was embarrassed to realize that I myself was guilty. The fourth general president of the Relief Society was Bathsheba B. Smith. I had always thought, “Hmm. Unusual that she should be named after Bathsheba in the Bible.” Clearly, her parents thought more of the name than I did.)

In contrast to those who were critical of her, the author notes what a virtuous woman Bathsheba was. She begins the article by stating that Bathsheba was not bathing on the roof, as is often assumed, but was using the mikvah, a recessed private pool for the use of women for cleansing after menstruation. It was David who was on the roof, not Bathsheba. The author goes on to give evidence that Bathsheba was actually the author of the famous Proverbs chapter 31 about a virtuous woman. That chapter begins by saying its words are the words of King Lemuel, which were taught him by his mother. “Lemuel” is possibly another name for Solomon; and who was Solomon’s mother? Bathsheba!

In man-woman relationships, the woman usually comes out second best. Witness the traditional opprobrium cast upon Eve for partaking of the forbidden fruit, or that placed upon Pandora for opening the fateful box. Consider the practice of killing or punishing or exiling a raped woman in Islamic cultures; but even western cultures are not exempt from such behavior.

Rape, though common, is extremely underreported. Estimates vary, but a typical figure is that one in five to ten rapes is reported.[4] (Incidentally, men can also be victims of rape, but we focus on women here.) Reasons for this vary: fear of not being believed, fear of being judged as a willing participant in sexual activity, fear of having to go through the investigation process, fear that the rapist will get off or will get a light sentence, or, in instances where the rapist is a friend, the desire not to expose him.

The incident reported at the beginning of this article took place on a university campus. (Another common venue for rape is the military; that will not be discussed here.) The reader will be aware that campus rapes have been much in the news. Drinking is common at fraternities and sororities, which makes them places for opportunities for sexual assault. There has been considerable criticism of campus presidents and other leaders for alleged insensitivity to the problem, and there have been calls for investigation of policies about it. My own graduate school alma mater, Princeton, discussed it extensively in a recent alumni magazine.

Brigham Young University also has had a controversy about a campus rape, which took place about the same time as the Stanford incident. In the BYU case, the victim reported the rape to the Provo Police Department, also to BYU’s Title IX office. Somehow the report ended up in the hands of the BYU Honor Code Office and she was disciplined for Honor Code violations. After her case became public, other women, who were or had been students at BYU, reported similar incidents in which their police and Title IX reports came to the attention of the Honor Code Office.

Exactly how such leaks occurred is not known, but the BYU administration has undertaken an investigation into what happened. Officials at BYU have stressed that students would never have an Honor Code review for reporting sexual assaults, though in the cases mentioned such reviews obviously occurred. The case resulted in an online petition, which gathered over one hundred thousand signatures, asking for a study of the issue and a clarification of reporting procedures so that no victim is charged with Honor Code violations. The University is currently carefully investigating the matter and promises to straighten it out.

The LDS Church's Position on Rape

While the current LDS Church position on rape is clear, it has not always been so. In Fall 1979 I was appointed to be a member of a BYU committee, the Advisory Committee on Women’s Concerns (ACWC). About that same time there was a news item about a young LDS woman who had accepted a ride from a fellow she knew, only to find out that he was taking her to be raped. She jumped from his car, traveling at fifty miles per hour on the freeway, fortunately escaping with cuts and bruises, and later said she did that because she had been taught that it is better to give up your life than to be raped. Reading that, I thought that can’t be right, and so as a member of the ACWC I undertook to find out the true Church position.

That task turned out to be difficult. I looked through Young Women and Young Men manuals. Nothing. I looked through Church literature. Most of it, I found, seemed to support the archaic notion this young woman had. Part of the problem was a confusion between being raped and losing one’s virtue, which exists in Moroni 9:9. That verse reads, in part, “…after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue-- “ (There is another scripture which is more helpful, Deuteronomy 22:25-26, which reads, “But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay shall die: But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death…”)

That confusion gave rise to examples such as these: Marion G. Romney, in the April 1979 general conference, quoting a First Presidency statement of April 1942: “…better dead, clean, than alive, unclean…”[5] Essentially the same words are found in writings by Harold B. Lee,[6] Bruce R. McConkie,[7] Spencer W. Kimball,[8] and in a quote from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, noted by President McKay.[9] Further confusion arises from basic misunderstanding of rape. Bruce R. McConkie in Mormon Doctrine, in a section on chastity, confuses rape with voluntary sins such as fornication, homosexuality, and masturbation.[10] In The Miracle of Forgiveness, President Kimball, speaking of a woman’s being raped, says, “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 position.”[11] (Several comments made by victims of rape in the recent BYU controversy, stated that their bishop simply handed them a copy of The Miracle of Forgiveness. Fortunately, when I was a bishop in a married BYU ward in the 1980s, I found bishops of my acquaintance to be more understanding and compassionate.)

I spent the winter of 1979-1980 searching for Church statements on rape. A member of our committee finally found two statements by asking at the General Relief Society building (though without attribution, it turned out that they came from a 1975 First Presidency statement.) They essentially stated the view given above, that a woman is free from sin in a rape if she struggles. However, we learned that a Church committee was working on a new statement on rape and we submitted some suggestions for it. In the meantime, two excellent articles on rape came out in the October 1981 Ensign. A First Presidency letter on rape came out to bishops in February 1985 (I believe it was based on the Church committee report), which letter I was privileged to see, being a bishop at the time. That was later condensed into a statement which says simply that a rape victim is free of blame.[12] (A related Church statement indicates that abortion is permissible in cases of rape or incest.)

Needs of Victims

I stated above that a victim of rape needs compassion. She needs understanding, not judgment. Friends, family, and ecclesiastical leaders (such as bishops, Young Women leaders, Relief Society leaders) need to be counseled about how to handle the fact of the rape. (Fortunately, rape crisis centers usually provide such help to the victim’s family.) The victim will be traumatized, insecure, self-accusatory. She will need love and support. She will need help on reporting the crime and how to be a witness should the perpetrator be brought to trial. She will need to be told again and again that she is a daughter of God.

An experience of mine indicated to me that the Lord indeed has compassion for such victims. My wife and I went to the temple. Upon returning, I was motivated, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to write the following poem to a young woman of our ward who I knew had been raped. Originally entitled “To a Victim,” it was published later as the following.[13]

To a Survivor

Oh dear my sister,
Daughter of God,
Not everyone knows you
As we do who know

That you are indeed, dear,
A daughter of God.

When God sent us down
To be here on earth
I am sure that He wept,
As we do at death,
At the long separation
While we are on earth.

Knowing that out of His presence
Many would sin—
Being cruel to each other—
I am sure that He wept
Our loving kind Father,
At the world’s sin.

Our dear Brother Jesus
Also does grieve
Over those here on earth
Who are cruel to each other
Who think He sees not,
Who know not that He grieves.

I grieve for you, sister,
Pure innocent one,
But know that what’s happened
Was not of your choice
And so you are still
A pure innocent one.

Oh dear my sister
Daughter of God
Despite what has happened
You are still my dear sister
And I know you are still
A daughter of God.


While Anne Horton, Barry Johnson, and I were preparing one of the first books on the subject in the LDS community, Confronting Abuse: An LDS Perspective on Understanding and Healing Emotional, Physical, Sexual, Psychological, and Spiritual Abuse (Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 1993), we came across a newsletter, “In Reflection”, published by an LDS woman (Lorraine Janeway) living in Oregon, for adults molested as children. One particular article in it struck us forcefully, and, having obtained permission to do so, I have since made it available to interested persons. Here is the article in its entirety.[14]

A Bishop's Viewpoint

The following piece, submitted and edited by Lorraine Janeway, has been reprinted with the permission from the original author. This article is excerpted from a letter which Bishop McCarty sent to the First Presidency of the Church. The letter was acknowledged by the First Presidency as having been gratefully received. In allowing this to be printed, one caveat is strongly indicated: that while the Spirit directed one course of action in this case, it may well be that for another individual, an opposite course of action would have been prompted. It’s important to realize that whatever the particular situation, we must remember that the Lord knows and loves each one of us, and that if we, as members and teachers in his church, “counsel with the Lord in all [our] doings, he will direct [us] for good.”

Excerpted From a Letter By Bishop Kenneth McCarty

December 10, 1989

I have felt a strong prompting to share a special experience I had as a newly called Bishop in Hillsboro, Oregon, a few years ago.

I was counseling a young wife and mother who confessed of committing adultery with a co-worker who had offered her a ride home. She expressed great remorse and was willing to face whatever action was necessary.

I felt the great pressure that falls on a Bishop in a case like this and decided to hold a Church court in her behalf.

At the court, the circumstances were explained to my counselors and the court clerk. The sister involved shared her remorse and her desire to take the necessary steps to improve her life.

As a new Bishop, I was torn by my responsibility to both help this repentant young sister and to protect the integrity of the Church. After the sister left the room we discussed the options we had regarding her future involvement in the Church. Although we knew the long road back from excommunication, we still felt this might be necessary to help her eternal progress.

After listening to the counsel of those attending the court, I retired to the clerk’s office to petition the Lord for final confirmation of the feelings we were having. We needed to know if excommunication was the step that was needed in her life at this time.

As I knelt to pray, I humbly called upon the Lord to confirm our recommendation that this sister be excommunicated from His Church. As I paused during the course of my prayer to listen for the answer, a voice came to my mind as clear as anyone has ever communicated with me. The voice asked in a firm tone, “Who do you think you are?” I was so taken back because of the strength of the voice that I was overcome with emotion. A second time the voice asked, “Who do you think you are?” With a voice choked with emotion, I answered aloud, “I am your humble servant; I am just trying to determine what you want us to do regarding this good sister’s problem.”

As I listened intently, the voice counseled, “You don’t even know this girl.” (And it was true. She was new to the ward and I had only known her for a short time.) The voice continued, “You don’t know that this girl was molested when she was three, but I do.” The voice said, “You don’t know that this girl was raped when she was sixteen, but I do.” The voice continued, “She is my daughter, do you think that I would let you excommunicate her when she needs my Church now more than anytime in her life?”

As the Spirit distilled on me from heaven, I learned that though I was the Bishop, the Lord was the Judge. He knew this sister better than anyone. Not just what she had confessed, but her whole life—her thoughts, her desires, and all the trials and struggles that she had been through. He wasn’t going to let this young green Bishop make a mistake that would stop His daughter’s progress toward eternal life. The Lord made it clear the best way I could help His daughter was to put her on probation and stay in close contact with her as she worked through this problem. We were not to cut her off from the Church as we had thought we would have to do.

I arose from my knees with a new understanding of “judge not that ye be not judged.” I had the strong feeling that many of us will be surprised at the judgment day when the Savior walks past a few former Stake Presidents and few former Bishops to a young sister in the back of the crowd—a sister with her head down, who is frightened to be in the Lord’s presence because of mistakes she has made in her life. I envision the Savior embracing her and whispering in her ear, “I am so very proud of you. With all the trials you were given, and with all the problems you had to overcome, you made it! Well done thou good and faithful servant, enter into my presence.”

Seven years have come and gone since that night, but I have not forgotten the important lesson that was taught to a new Bishop who was trying to learn his role as a Judge in Israel. [End of excerpt]

The above example illustrates the need for forgiveness when a woman actually is guilty of sin. A poem,[15] cited by Professor Madison U. Sowell in his 22 October 1996 BYU devotional address, illustrates this powerfully:

Forgiveness Flour
When I went to the door, at the whisper of knocking,
I saw Simeon Gantner’s daughter, Kathleen, standing
There, in her shawl and her shame, sent to ask
“Forgiveness Flour” for her bread. “Forgiveness Flour,”
We call it in our corner. It one has erred, one
Is sent to ask for flour of his neighbors. If they loan it
To him, that means he can stay, but if they refuse, he had
Best take himself off. I looked at Kathleen…
What a jewel of a daughter, though not much like her
Father, more’s the pity. “I’ll give you flour,” I
Said, and went to measure it. Measuring was the rub.
If I gave too much, neighbors would think I made sin
Easy, but if I gave too little, they would label me
“Close.” While I stood measuring, Joel, my husband
Came in from the mill, a great bag of flour on his
Shoulder, and seeing her there, shrinking in the
Doorway, he tossed the bag at her feet. “Here, take
All of it.” And so she had flour for many loaves,
While I stood measuring.

Need for Improved Instruction for LDS Church Members and Leaders

Since rape is so common in our culture, it is likely that Church young women and men will become aware of it early in their lives. But it is a sensitive subject and discussing it in polite company is somewhat taboo. I suspect it is not treated much in Church, although my ward Young Women’s president tells me that it has come up in discussions. What I feel is needed is some guidance from Salt Lake about how best to discuss it with young people. Young men need to talk about it, as well as young women, to understand the terribly traumatic effect it has on victims. Perhaps this would be a suitable topic for the bishop to handle in Ward Council, or in a special ward meeting with young men and women, or it could be a subject for a fifth Sunday meeting with adults so they would know how to bring it up in their families, or there simply could be lessons provided in manuals for young people so that they can be educated about the matter. In any case, we must do more as a Church.

A critical need is for guidance in cases in which one ward member abuses another. Anne Horton and I were asked once to advise in a ward in which a young man had been raping girls in the chapel (!). Our meeting with ward members was long and difficult. I am also aware of cases in which male babysitters abused girls whom they were minding. Bishops are sometimes in difficult circumstances, because of the need for confidentiality, when a person confesses to him abuse of another person; when can the bishop go to civil authorities or make known the danger from a predator?

The Church of course is well aware of these problems and has provided advice and procedures to leaders. Upon request, my bishop kindly provided information on the matter. He said, "We are to call a help line in every case, for instruction." He also provided the relevant statement in the Bishop's Handbook: "...If confidential information indicates that a member's abusive activities have violated applicable law, the bishop or stake president should urge the member to report these activities to the appropriate government authorities. Leaders can obtain information about local reporting requirements through the help line.” There may be laws in some states and also in certain nation-states in which bishops are legally required to report crimes, such as child abuse. In 2016, a Church spokesperson stated, “all legal reporting requirements are observed.” Given that D&C 42:84-86 seems to suggest that those who commit serious sin should be delivered up to the “law of the land,” I wonder why there is often (as there is in Utah) an exemption for clergy if they hear about the crime from the perpetrator in confession.

The Church also needs to be concerned about rape in a larger context. Rape is common throughout the world, especially in Africa, but no country is exempt. There are many sources that tell of rape in the world. I mention a few here: Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009); Ann Jones, War Isn’t Over Until It’s Over: Women Speak Out From the Ruins of War (2010); Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanville, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett, Sex and World Peace (2010); Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl, The Hillary Doctrine (2015); and a stomach-churning article from the New York Times on ISIS' "theology of rape": http://nytimes.com/2015/08/14/world/middleeast/isis-enshrines-a-theology-of-rape.html? r=0.

In our modern Church, we have stakes, wards, branches, and missions all over the world. Our leaders, including our women leaders, visit them frequently. While rape is not mentioned in conference addresses, it occurs extensively in countries our leaders visit. I hope both our women leaders and our male leaders are familiarizing themselves with the data, such as that found in the WomanStats project (http://womanstats.org ), so that they will be at least partially able to answer questions that women have on matters such as rape and genital mutilation.

Rape has been with us since the world began. It is to be hoped that this article can contribute in some small way to understanding and eradicating it. There are still too many “cultural weeds” that have obscured Church doctrine on rape; we owe it to the rising generation of young men and young women to clear those away.


[1] See any of several links found by Googling “Stanford rape survivor”. [Back to manuscript].

[2] See any of several links found by Googling “Joe Biden letter to Emily Doe”. [Back to manuscript].

[3] Mel Henderson, “On Virtue: What Bathsheba Taught Me about My Maligned Sisters,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, v. 48, no. 2 (Summer 2015), pp. 67-80. [Back to manuscript].

[4] This statistic is roughly what I found in researching rape in 1979-1980. Figures on rape in Utah are found in Rape in Utah 2007: A Survey of Utah Women, by Christine Mitchell and Benjamin Johnson (Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.) Available online. [Back to manuscript].

[5] Marion G. Romney, Ensign, May 1979, pp. 41-42; Conference Report, April 1942, p. 89. [Back to manuscript].

[6] Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye in Holy Places (Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 1974), pp. 332, 376. [Back to manuscript].

[7] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (second edition) (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1966), p. 124. [Back to manuscript].

[8] Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1969), pp. 63, 66. [Back to manuscript].

[9] Llewelyn R. McKay (compiler), True to the Faith: Sermons and Writings of David O. McKay (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1970), p. 37. [Back to manuscript].

[10] McConkie, p. 708. [Back to manuscript].

[11] Kimball, p. 196. [Back to manuscript].

[12] These statements are discussed in Peggy Fletcher Stack and Erin Alberty, “How outdated Mormon teachings may be aiding and abetting ‘rape culture’ “, Salt Lake Tribune, 6 May 2016. The article, which was written in light of the BYU controversy, notes that the current Church statement says simply, “Rape victims often suffer serious trauma and feelings of guilt and are not guilty of sin. Church leaders should be sensitive to such victims and give caring attention to help them overcome the destructive effects of abuse.” [Back to manuscript].

[13] Anne L. Horton, B. Kent Harrison, and Barry L. Johnson, Confronting Abuse: An LDS Perspective on Understanding and Healing Emotional, Physical, Sexual, Psychological, and Spiritual Abuse (Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 1993), pp. 79-80. [Back to manuscript].

[14] Taken from “In Reflection”, Vol. 1, #3 (March 1991.) [Back to manuscript].

[15] Marguerite Stewart, “Forgiveness Flour,” Religious Studies Center Newsletter 7, no. 3 (May 1993), p. 1. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Harrison, B. Kent (2016) "Rape and LDS Teachings," SquareTwo, Vol. 9 No. 2 (Summer 2016), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHarrisonRape.html, accessed <give access date>.

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