My musing over the last week week have lead me to write this post about sex and Mormons. I’m a product of an illicit sexual liaison between a less active Mormon boy and my teen mother who joined the church after getting pregnant with me. I grew up being called both a bastard and illegitimate. My identity was effectively constituted within a discourse about sex, not just in the church but outside as well. I remember however being somewhat liberated by a wonderful church leader who gave me the word ‘ex-nuptial’ to define my family origins. It went someway to relieving the burden of living with other people’s sexual experiences as part of my social identity. So while I draw attention in the post to some challenges with respect to Mormons and the practice of talking about sex, I would say that there are some very healthy and appropriate conversations about sex happening in the context of the Mormon community. I just wish they were more the rule than the exception.
Mormons are past masters at alluding to sex, disciplining for illicit sex, instructing with respect to sex, without ever mentioning the word s.e.x. As a youth we were told not to ‘neck or to pet’ – which are silly American terms which we had no understanding of. If they had said, ‘don’t feel each other up and don’t pash’ then that would have had some resonance. But nobody ever told us what necking and petting meant because, I can only imagine, they were worried about being ‘indelicate’. And so my peers proceeded to have rampant sex with each other at youth camps, and I was snogging my boyfriend with unmitigated commitment because the language of sex in our Mormon community wasn’t coming out of the reality of the social context in which we were living.
As Mormons we seem to be at this strange discursive cross-roads between an historically situated phenomenon where multiple sex partners was the order of the day, an era of Victorian prudery which demanded a certain social veneer of restraint when it comes to sex, a contemporary social context where satisfying monogamous sex is the the buzz topic, a consistent interest at church in highlighting the evils of pornography, and a trend at the periphery (and sometimes at the centre) of ‘ward adultery’.
As a community we have inherited multiple trajectories of discourse about sex which seem at some levels to compete, or seem irrelevant, out of date, or just confused. Excuse the pun, but I think we Mormons are a bit screwed up with the respect to sex! I don’t intend to have the last word to say about Mormon sex and I’m certainly not interested in liberating one and all to have as much sex as they want with whom ever they want I just want to untangle some threads.
This difficulty with ‘copulation confusion’ doesn’t simply belong to the church. For example, sexual relationships in Māori communities were traditionally a lot more flexible. If a family wanted a particular liaison to occur they might place a young couple side by side in the whare in the hopes that they would ‘get it on’. When the Christian missionaries arrived in New Zealand they noticed this phenomenon and sermonized at what they saw as flagrant sexuality (except Thomas Kendall who effused that so ‘sublime’ were the practices of the natives ‘methinks I want to be a heathen’ – at which point he started doing the chief’s daughter). So rather than flexy sex, remaining a socially accepted practice it was brandished a heathen and ungodly habit and was rendered unacceptable in these now Christianizing communities.
But old habits die hard so what you ended up with was on the outside the sheen of sexual decorum, but in private more flexible habits reminiscent of traditional approaches to sex. Nobody who had been through their youth in the NZ church in 70’s and 80’s would have been oblivious to the shenanigans happening at CCNZ which I put down to the heady combination of good looking clean cut adolescents, attendance at a coed boarding school, a poverty stricken discourse about sex, and the intergenerational transmission of the dominant ethnic group’s habit of more ductile sexual arrangements!
And that’s my point. Sex isn’t just an urge, its also a cultural practice which we inherit, and the way its constructed both across time and in the different contexts that we might inhabit needs more conversation and clarity than the pulpit directives; ‘Be chaste, dress modestly, don’t neck and pet, wait till you get married, and lets not talk about how many women Brigham Young was banging at the same time’.
Sex in our Mormon culture is everywhere but nowhere. It lurks about in this great wash of unsaidness. It seems to be this mammoth beast which hangs over our community, and our strategy to deal with it has been to talk about it with fear or to talk only about the wonders of abstinence. I for one think this is unbelievably unhealthy. Look at where many men (and probably some women) in the church are turning for their sex education! So much so that pornography is presently a topic frequently addressed in General Conference. I heard a rumour that Utah had one of the highest rates of paid subscriptions to internet porn sites than any state in the U.S. That’s probably because most Mormon’s are too honest to get the illegal stuff, but I suppose that’s beside the point.
This has lead me to wonder on more than one occasion how the heck we are ever going to engage with the topic of sex in ways that are useful for adolescents who are developing sexually; for young couples who are suddenly launched into bed with each other with only a Young Women’s lesson on chastity to guide them; for married couples who have simply forgotten how; or for dissatisfied spouses who think they will be liberated from the constraints of marriage by doing it with someone else.
I want to demonstrate a couple of examples of the kinds of fear our unhealthy ‘churched’ sex discourse is imbued with. Last year we had a group of BYU students visit our ward. They were here in New Zealand on some kind of cultural tour. This wonderful young woman (who had obviously never been to church outside of Utah) pronounced to us that her Bishop had asked everyone woman in the ward to wear pantyhose. She reported that while she found the prospect of wearing pantyhose slightly uncomfortable she was nonetheless acquiescent as a sign of her faith. She admitted to feeling somewhat bewildered but felt pleased with her decision to obey.
The reason that I made an assumption that she had never been to church outside of Utah before was because of the look of satisfaction on her face after she said it. It was a beatific smile with a nod of agreement with herself in anticipation of everyone else taking comfort and solace in her faith promoting story. Like I say, she’d never been to church in New Zealand before because to her great surprise we were just flabbergasted (at least I was and I’m egocentric enough to conflate ‘we’ with ‘I’). I didn’t know where to start except to tell her that she needs to tell her bishop to mind his own damned business about what she was wearing under her skirt. I mean, what the heck? There were too many words of indignation bubbling up inside of me to be even vaguely comprehensible. But my overwhelming question was directed at the kind of unhealthy message this was sending to these beautiful young women. That without a tertiary layer of covering between panties and the outside world the imaginations of the men at church could be distressed? And how on earth is that the responsibility of the women? So here she was being sexually disciplined for her innocent part in the potential arousal of the males in her ward community. But given that its unlikely that many men approached the Bishop as a contingent representing the ‘girls must wear pantyhose brigade’, I have to wonder if the Bishop was advocating for support of his own ‘challenge areas’.
Another story. A couple of years ago Nathan was asked to give a talk at a temple fireside. He mentioned in his address that one of the best things about eternal marriage was the prospect of eternal sex (What could be better? he pronounced). The Bishop just about fell off his chair, went quite white knuckled and looked like he was going to pass out, various disapproving members at the meeting looked down in embarrassment and those who knew our family laughed loudly at first then a little more self-consciously as they recognised the mood of the majority. When the Bishop pulled him aside to chastise him Nathan alerted him to a sacrament talk he was due to give the following week which might not be satisfactory because it contained references to sex as well. Bishop felt it best that he censor the talk before it was delivered, at which point Nathan went home and inserted as many references to healthy marital sex as possible and sent it off to him. Yes, he was yanking his chain and he’s very naughty for doing so, but we were heartened by the Bishop’s diligence when the talk came back to him with about 1/2 of it highlighted as areas to ‘revise’.
Bishop’s explanation was that there were young men in the congregation and that talking about sex might derail them. He was very anxious that they might actually contemplate the possibility that old Mormon couples are having frisky and happy sex and decide to jump in the sack instead of going on their missions. Puhleese!! Frankly if virile young boys get turned on by older married couples having fun in the sun then thats a bit of a worry right there. More likely they’ll be turned off as more stable, long term couples reclaim sex as the terrain of the mature. We’d take the ‘cool’ out of it!
I do believe that we need a healthy, honest and forthright Mormon discourse about sex. We need to untangle the knots and surface our cultural anxieties and fears. We need to make our conversations about sex relevant, thoughtful and contextual. This isn’t to say that we need to be talking up sex in Relief Society or sharing our most intimate experiences in the ward newsletter, but we do need to find a healthy language for acknowledging that some youths might be gagging for it; some couples are struggling with it; some of those who have made mistakes are being constantly vilified for it; some of those who have been betrayed are experiencing hurt because of it; those who are divorced or single aren’t getting it; and those who are absolutely loving it can’t talk about it!!
Mormonism is potentially big enough to shuck off our myopic views, including those about sex.