Mormons often congratulate themselves for having a relatively healthy theological view of sexuality, at least within the boundaries of heterosexual marriage. One problem, however, is that this positive theology of (certain kinds of) sex comes at the expense of a positive evaluation of sexual chastity. Let me explain.
It seems to me that in the history of Christianity, one may either value marriage or virginity, but it is hard to do both. In this pair, one is always superior to the other. Paul argued that viriginity and the single life were better than the married life for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Some of the traditions of Jesus’ sayings seem to support the idea that being married is actually second best to virginity. Some later traditions in the NT seek to counter this ascetic tendency, but the voice that marriage is a lesser choice to virginity is certainly strong.
This ascetic tradition takes hold in early Christianity. The precise status of the virginal life, the commitment to long term sexual abstinence as a spiritual practice, was of course debated. Some argued that it was the only acceptable life, and that marriage itself was simply an excuse to sin. Others argued that marriage was okay if you couldn’t handle it, but that virginity was better than marriage. Later compromises suggested that both marriage and virginity were equally good options for different people. Not all were called to be married and not all were called to be virginal. Perhaps we need something along these lines for our own tradition.
The problem with LDS discussions about sexual abstinence is that it is figured always as secondary to marriage. What it lacks is any positive value attached to virginity whatsoever. Sex is the uncontested good in this theology, which can only imagine virginity as the absence of this good. Sexual abstinence is either seen as a period of waiting, sometimes indefinite waiting, for the “better” option of marriage. Even in the afterlife, sexual abstinece is portrayed as a punishment, reserving marriage (and sexual activity) only for the most righteous. Such a portrayal of virginity understands it only as what it is not, what it lacks, namely sexuality, rather than seeing it as a good and virtue in its own right. It has the effect of heightening the status of sexual activity as really the only thing of any value, while sexual abstinence is either just a waiting period or a punishment. One open question is whether it is the uncontested good of sex itself that encourages those who lack it to obtain it outside of marriage.
Ironically, this view of sexual abstinence is thoroughly modern, the reversal of classical ideals where virginity is the greater good. Both Mormonism and the modern sexual revolution take ultimately the same negative view of sexual inactivity. Mormonism and the sexual revolution are not antagonistic, but two halves of the same coin. They share the view that sex is a good and that those who do not have it have failed to achieve their highest potential. Sexual activity is a critical aspect of identity for both Mormonism and modernity.
Sexual abstinence is increasingly a part of Mormon life, in ways that were not previously imagined in earlier cultural moments. Not only is the young single adult segment marrying later and later, but the rise of divorce in LDS communities, not to mention the recent turn to celibacy as the standard for gay Saints, all combine to make large portions of members fall into the category of the long-term sexually abstinent. The theology of seeing sexual abstinence as inferior to marriage, combined with the wide-spread practice of excluding single members from leadership callings reinforces socially and culturally the theological message.
Are there resources in Mormonism that can see long-term sexual abstinence in more positive terms? This is an open question. One idea might be to embrace virginity as its own kind of erotic activity. The erotics of denial are in many ways more intense and consuming than the actual satisfaction of those desires. We can certainly draw on broader Christian traditions that do value virginity as a good in and of itself. And, I’m out of ideas.