Keli Byers, a sophomore at Brigham Young University, is fed up with the Mormon church’s approach to women’s sexuality. And she’s fighting back in a big way: By publishing her complaints in Cosmopolitan, a magazine that’s become infamous for its coverage of sex.
Students who attend BYU — which describes itself as seeking to provide an education “in an atmosphere consistent with the ideals and principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” — have to adhere to a strict student conduct code that requires them to “live a chaste and virtuous life.” The school bans students from engaging in sexual activity, as well as requires women to adhere to a strict dress code. The young adults who break those agreements could face expulsion from the institution.
But not everyone is happy about those policies on campus. “The Church doesn’t see women as equal to men and how BYU is slut-shaming,” Byers’ piece explains. “The school’s honor code forces women to dress modestly — no skirts above the knee — supposedly to help men control their thoughts.”
According to Byers, the emphasis on sexual purity is particularly problematic within the larger context of the church’s approach to chastity. Byers describes growing up learning that women who become sexually active are dirty and used, like a chewed up piece of gum. Then, when she was sexually assaulted as a teenager, she was essentially blamed for the incident and banned from church for a month. “I was punished because a man had touched me,” Byers recounts.
Once Byers got to BYU, she joined an unaffiliated student group called Young Mormon Feminists, which ultimately helped her process some of her feelings about her sexuality and her relationship to the church. She says “the group helped me reclaim my sexuality and realize my sexual assault wasn’t my fault.”
Byers’ comments echo similar statements from another Mormon woman, Elizabeth Smart, who became a household name after she was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home and held in captivity for nine months. Smart made national headlines last year when she said that growing up with a focus on abstinence made her feel like being sexually assaulted was her fault. She recounted a similar story about being told that girls who aren’t virgins are like chewed gum, and noted that she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped. Smart has continued to speak out about how our society shames victims of sexual assault.
Although Byers and Smart were both raised within the Mormon church, however, their experiences aren’t necessarily unique to the young woman who are part of that faith community. Other conservative Christian denominations have similar approaches to sexuality and chastity, and it’s very common for young girls to take “purity pledges” to commit to remaining abstinent until marriage. These messages are also reinforced in many of our public schools. Across the country, abstinence-only education courses teach kids that sex makes them dirty.
Those lessons are imparted to both boys and girls, but the emphasis on purity ends up having bigger consequences for women, who are expected to bear most of the burden for avoiding tempting men. Byers is among several young women who have been starting to push back against these societal attitudes. Across the United States and Canada, students are demanding an end to “slut shaming” dress codes and abstinence classes that police women’s bodies to prevent them from distracting their male peers.
These types of clashes have particularly coming to a head within Mormonism lately. Feminists have been fighting to expand women’s role in the church, which doesn’t currently allow women to be ordained or take on leadership roles that aren’t primarily “supportive” to men’s work. As part of those efforts, some women are pushing back against the church’s traditional dress codes and gender roles by wearing pants to religious services.
“Talking about this could get me in trouble, but I want to start a discussion about changing an honor code that hurts women,” Byers concludes. “I’d rather be judged and scrutinized than silenced and shamed.”