I was asked by Lisa Butterworth to give my two cents worth on a Feminist Mormon Housewives post regarding a bishop’s sexual education approach to Relief Society sisters. Here is the response I posted. For it to make complete sense, you may have to go and read the original post. I did not attend the meeting in question – therefore, I am only able to comment on what was reported by the original poster.
I’ll start with giving the bishop the benefit of the doubt and point out possible positives while simultaneously sharing concerns with the approach taken.
I want to take into account that many of our sexual views are cultural and generational. In other words, those of us in our 20’s and 30’s have grown up with widely different sexual norms and education than those of us in our 60’s and 70’s. An entire sexual revolution has occurred in the last 45 years alone. It is a fairly recent phenomenon that women are being taught they have a right to not only claim their sexual selves but find sex enjoyable to boot (both within and out of Mormon culture).
However, in this day and age, I am still surprised by the amount of LDS women who come through my office saying things like: “If I don’t want to have sex in my marriage, my husband should be OK with that. He needs to control his passions.” “I have no need for sex – my husband just has to get over it.” “Sex is not necessary for marital happiness.” I see many, many marriages which would be considered sexless (having sex less than 10 times a year) and this is not an arrangement both spouses are usually satisfied with. Stereotypically, the low-libido partner is female and driving this frequency. (Please don’t throw me under the table yet – I will complicate this further as I go – there are many other, legitimate scenarios to consider). So, I’m assuming this bishop has received many complaints from women who have husbands who are requesting more sex, complaints from men who are not getting enough sex, and also seeing many people with pornography viewing behavior (which is easy to incorrectly correlate to non-satisfactory marital intimacy under one overarching umbrella). If he’s not hearing from women who are viewing pornography or women with higher libido – this can usually be attributed to the fact that women in these scenarios, especially in a culture such as ours, think of themselves as weird and alone in their problem. Therefore, in my experience, they just don’t speak to their bishop about these issues. Taking all this into account, I do think it is positive to normalize sexual drive, to understand how biology plays a role no one is at fault for, and to use whatever sex-positive Mormon doctrine and/or scripture we can get our hands on to give credence to the positive effects of healthy sexuality within marriage. Where the presentation fell strikingly short is it only normalized the male drive and ignored the female drive altogether.
As far as the quotes he used from Packer – this stuff is based in evolutionary theory (ironic, no?). And evolutionary theory is fascinating in the context of understanding primary instincts, urges and behavioral patterns of the human race as a whole. Monogamy and marriage based on romantic love are fairly new and primarily western concepts. At the same time, even though I may be programmed to hunker down with my babies to the point of murdering anything that risks harming them, while my husband is programmed to insert sperm in as many women as possible as well as killing children I’ve acquired from sperm other than his; both in an effort to increase our chances of promulgating our DNA – I think we would all agree most of us live in a time and culture with higher standards for accountability than our primal instincts. Yet our instincts and physiological differences still remain. There is research which shows men and women’s brains react differently to visual stimulation. There is research which shows heterosexual men and women are attracted to traits within the opposite sex that are prime for making healthy babies (i.e. wide hips in females, broad shoulders in males, etc.). There is research which shows that a woman’s psychological state plays a larger role in her ability to feel sexually aroused than a man. There is research to support both men and women have sensual thoughts throughout any given day – men usually report more frequency of these than women. There is research to show how different hormones such as testosterone and estrogen affect libido. I could go on. These can be helpful things to know – especially if they normalize our individualized experiences. However, these research findings do not apply to all – and stating “this is the way it is” isolates those who do not fit the mold, potentially and unintentionally damaging many within the sound of such sermons. And to challenge the bishop slightly: many of us have lustful or sensual thoughts we don’t act on, and would never dream of acting on – Mormon or not. This is called fantasy. Also, as Mormons, we unfortunately are not dramatically different in our statistics from the population at large when it comes to problems such as divorce, infidelity, pornography usage, etc.
There is truth in saying that when people are sexually unsatisfied within their relationship, this can cause deeper problems affecting other areas of marital intimacy. These problems can in time, play a role in eroding the foundation of the relationship. As part of coping with these relational issues, people turn to all types of different behaviors (some healthy – some not): overeating, exercise, infidelity, gaming, pornography use, shopping, going out with friends, reading books, etc., etc.). However, the problem with how this was presented is that it ignored that this dynamic can go the other way too: when people are emotionally, spiritually or intellectually unsatisfied in their relationships, deep problems within the realm of physical intimacy can occur. You can “put out” all you want – but if you make each other miserable, the sex isn’t necessarily going to help. It might for a while – but not long term. Now, just because I agree that sexual dissatisfaction can lead to bad coping mechanisms, does not mean I think infidelity or other non-agreed-upon sexual behavior such as pornography use is justified or should be blamed on the spouse with the lower libido. Last time I checked, we are not held responsible for Adam’s transgression (see article of faith #2) - nor Bob’s, James’, Pablo’s, etc.
It is important to recognize that negative sexual behaviors are usually indicators or symptoms of deeper seeded issues. And these can either stem from relational problems (like unsatisfactory marital intimacy) or just as likely, if not even more than likely, individual issues the person has brought with them into the marriage (i.e. shame, trauma/abuse, habits, poor sexual education, communication styles, conflict-resolution styles, etc. etc.). I’ve come across statistics which show that as many as 90% of people who can be legitimately considered “sex addicts” (related to diagnostic criteria) have a history of sexual abuse in their background. 80% come from what are considered “rigid” family backgrounds which offer little flexibility when it comes to exploration which goes beyond the family’s “rules.” And believe me, there are plenty of unspoken “family rules” about sexuality within family dynamics. It doesn’t matter how much sex a spouse offers this type of person – it will not solve the problem because the problem has nothing to do with the spouse. In fact many of these couples are having satisfying and frequent sexual encounters. If this type of couple is not educated on what they are truly facing, they will buy into the lie that their problem is each other. It sounds like this extremely important scenario was not even brought up as a possibility in this discussion – harmful for sure. And if the spouse begins an inappropriate self-blaming dialogue, you can see how easily it is to develop other mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
As far as who “wins” – the lower libido partner or the higher libido partner? It is true that in relatively respectful relationships, the lower libido spouse often trumps – meaning they get their way. Making the assumption in this case that the lower libido partner is the female, I find that “good” Mormon husbands have also been taught they should control their passions at some level and are therefore, willing to sell themselves short because that is the good husbandy type thing to do. Unfortunately, resentment builds along the way consciously or not. However, this is not necessarily true in relationships where there is a negative power differential such as domestic violence or dated patriarchal dynamics where “the husband decides.” Rape happens within marriages. Often a lower libido partner in this scenario will “give in” due to a sense of duty or gender role. In my opinion, any time there is a discussion of who is “winning,” both are losing. More on managing different libidos later.
There is truth in that women’s anatomy usually takes longer to work up to sexual desire than men. And often, if women are willing to engage in sexual play within a healthy relationship, even though they may not feel “horny” when they begin, desire builds in the process – or it can. This, of course, can be true for men as well. But if my numbers are right, men can become sexually excited in as little as 3 to 5 minutes while women usually take about 15-30. If you engage in sex out of duty only – the chances of warming up at all are slim. There needs to be some authenticity in the desire to desire. And as a woman, if you’re not physically excited, you’re not becoming lubricated or physically prepared to enjoy sexual advance – this can lead to painful or uncomfortable intercourse, so forget orgasm at this point – and if this has been a general pattern, why would you desire to desire?
It is best when we desire each other – but being realistic, in a long-term monogamous relationship there are going to be libido ups and downs affected by all kinds of factors: age, childbirth, childcare, stress, hormones, etc. It is best when both partners either naturally or purposefully take turns initiating. It is important for both partners to feel desired and wanted in a sexual way. If this isn’t happening, reasons can be explored. Here is one example of how I try and help couples work through libido differences: a scenario I run into often is when childbirth and/or breastfeeding dramatically lower a woman’s libido. If biology is agreed upon by the couple as the culprit, the husband can be reassured that the issue is not that he is not desired or special to his wife – her biology legitimately doesn’t feel like having sex. They can agree that for an allotted period of time in their marriage he will be the main initiator – taking the pressure off of her to perform in a certain way and taking the pressure off of him that he no longer matters. When he does initiate, she can decide what type of sexual play she can offer at that particular time (the range can be as far on one spectrum as encouraging him to go masturbate in the shower as he thinks of their pre-baby sex life to the other side of the spectrum where they have vaginal intercourse. There is much in between to choose from, such as oral sex, hand jobs, rubbing up against your partner, masturbating next to each other, massage, leaving it to another day, etc., etc.). These are the types of options I try and help couples explore so neither one is feeling like they are holding their sexual relationship hostage. And both can feel good that their partner’s needs are being met without having to sacrifice their own. It’s about being authentic and caring.
I find Laura Brotherson’s book useful and a good place to start understanding one’s sexuality from a religious positive perspective – especially for those who may hold more conservative views on sexuality. Just not sure those books needed to go home in a paper bag. It’s good for our kids to see we take this topic seriously.
Now for the full-out problem areas:
I reject the notion that the key to marital happiness is how we manage sexual drive. Keys to marital happiness deal with communication and conflict-resolution styles. They deal with trust, validation, compromise and good listening skills. They deal with the ability to attach well to one another and the sense of mutual safety. They deal with feeling like one’s spouse has your back and you’ve got theirs. John Gottman and Sue Johnson do great research and writing on marital dynamics and success and I recommend their work. Sex can be affected by the keys – but it’s not the key itself.
Healthy decisions as to why to have sex with your partner should not include being a gatekeeper to your partner’s propensity for sin. Taking the needs of your partner into account is useful as touched on earlier – at the same time, if sexual decisions preside primarily on managing another’s needs, this becomes a very unauthentic way to approach your own needs and feelings, which are equally important.
The slide showing the “numbers” is problematic for me on a number of levels – gossip being primary. I don’t think we need to make our points at other people’s expense – even sexually infamous people. It also heightens the drama, feeding on the frenzy of the anxiety this subject produces, forming a superficial bond – us against them. And how useful is it to have an “us” and “them” when we are all sinners in different ways to begin with?
If a spouse heads elsewhere for sexual gratification – regardless of the underlying reasons – it’s ok to take offense. Sexual boundaries need to be agreed upon within each marriage. They may look different for different couples – they may need to be reworked as you figure out life together and what both your needs are – but for relational health to be optimal, these should be consensual. And if your spouse acts in nonconsensual ways, eroding the trust between you, you have a right to be angry.
If you need to start a fight to have good sex, then I highly suggest marital therapy.
I saw no discussion on how mental or physical health issues can affect sexual desire for either partner. These are legitimate problems spouses need to consider when it comes to realistic expectations and sexual health.
I saw no discussion on what it means to have a “successful” sexual encounter. Many believe that erection, lubrication and orgasm are the only ways to have success. To take the detail further, many have the expectation that orgasm through vaginal intercourse (which only happens for about 35% of women) happening for both partners simultaneously in missionary position is what should happen. I beg to differ. Anything from massage to intercourse to holding hands and snuggling on the couch while watching TV can be considered successful sexuality if framed correctly. And it doesn’t matter who reaches orgasm first as long as the couple has a way to continue the play for the other person if wanted. This is where vibrators/dildos can be highly useful.
It is both the husband and the wife’s responsibility to authentically communicate their needs (sexual or otherwise), to recognize their spouse will not be able to meet all their needs, to be willing to compromise, to have empathy for the other’s position and libido, and to have marriage-friendly ways of getting their needs met. Pitting one gender against the other is just not useful.
I know I have not been able to touch on every single scenario which would apply to every marriage. I hope my examples do not offend – they are not meant to pigeonhole people into different labels or situations. Sexuality is complex and highly individualized to each person’s situation. I see a need for more sexual education and believe it can be done in a helpful way. It saddens me that this bishop’s good intentions translated into some deep discomfort and damage for the original poster and others present. It is difficult to address this topic without having personal biases and experiences as well as cultural framework not play huge roles in its communication. Please feel free to disagree with me or share your own experiences which were not addressed. Open dialogue can be so healthy when it comes to respectfully challenging preconceived sexual notions. Have at it…. :)