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Religion Library: Mormonism

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Stephen Taysom

The Mormon Church has always held that men and women bear different responsibilities in ecclesiastical, social, and home life. In 1995, the Church issued a proclamation stating that gender is an essential, eternal part of individual identity.

A divine sanction is understood also to apply to gender roles. Only men hold the Church's priesthood, which means that the Church's hierarchy is exclusively male. On a practical level, however, women play a large role in Mormon congregations as part of the work done by the Church's auxiliary for women, called the Relief Society, the children's Primary organization, and in various teaching roles.

Mormonism holds that men bear the responsibility of providing for the family while the wife stays in the home and cares for the children. While Church leaders have acknowledged that some circumstances may render the ideal arrangement impossible, they also emphasize that in cases where men are physically able to work, women should not seek employment outside of the home. This commitment to clearly defined gender roles informed the Church's opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970s. In several states, the Church organized meetings and took other steps to help defeat the amendment, which Church leaders believed would encourage women to explore options beyond stay-at-home motherhood and thus erode the structure of the family. Modern Mormon women are encouraged to obtain as much education as they can before they are married, but the admonition to be educated is often couched in terms of preparation to provide for a family in case a woman never marries or her husband is physically unable to work.

Sexual morality is a major area of emphasis for Mormons. The Church requires that individuals abstain from all sexual activity, including the use of pornography, before marriage and that once wed they remain completely faithful to the marriage covenant. For Mormons, sins against the law of chastity are second to murder in moral gravity. During the 1970s, Church leaders made statements suggesting that certain sexual practices, such as oral sex, between married persons were considered "impure" and that bishops and stake presidents should refuse admittance to the Church's temples if applicants were guilty of such activity. In recent years, however, the Church has made it a matter of policy to preclude local leaders from asking married persons anything about their private sexual lives beyond the general question about fidelity to a spouse.

A similar shift has occurred in the case of birth control. Until the 1980s, Church leaders actively condemned any practice that limited family size, including the use of artificial birth control. Today, the Church remains silent on the issue, except to say that the number of children a family has is an intimate matter to be decided between the wife, the husband, and God. Accompanying this shift is a redefinition of the purpose of sex between married persons, which is now seen not only as a means of conceiving children, but also as an important element in the emotional life of a couple.

 

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