I was shocked to read the most recent article on sexual morality that was just published in the March 2014 issue of the Ensign by Elder Tad R. Callister regarding a recent fireside he gave at BYU-Idaho, and have spoken with several other LDS professional therapists who were shocked as well. I do not take the critique of a standing General Authority’s position lightly – but I cannot stand silent on what I see as an extremely harmful approach to the sexual education of our members. Here are some of the things I take issue with:
Callister singlehandedly wipes away all evidence-based “best practice” methods or approaches, as well as any personal revelation for self or child by stating that, “One declaration (from God) trumps all the opinions of the lower courts, whether uttered by psychologists, counselors, politicians, friends, parents, or would be moralists of the day.” The problem with this approach, of course (discussed in General Conference by Uchtdorf), is that God’s “declarations” have been communicated and interpreted by fallible men – Callister included. This is why it is so important to rely not only on prophetic teachings but also such doctrinal principles as personal revelation, intellectual study, spiritual study, and the influence of healthy approaches from therapists, parents, loved ones and others who would have our best interests in mind when coming to conclusions on such an important and sacred topic as sexual morality.
- Callister refers to masturbation as “self-abuse.” This is not an appropriate clinical term. Self-abuse is a term currently used to describe unhealthy coping behaviors people use in order to manage overwhelming depression and anxiety (i.e. ritualistic cutting of the skin, pulling of hair, picking of scabs, burning of skin, etc.). If you’re going to take a stand either for or against masturbation – please call it masturbation. Also, to refer to masturbation as self-abuse shames a natural developmental process that begins in the womb and hinders an important relationship with self that needs to be developed in a shame-free environment in order to facilitate the transition into healthy marital sexuality. He states that the Lord “condemns” masturbation – I have seen no evidence of this in any scriptural resource. The only “condemning” has come from a religious culture at large (way before Mormonism even existed) and certain LDS prophets of old who have spoken on the subject (particularly President Kimball and Elder Packer). But even Elder Packer demoted masturbation from “sin” to “transgression” in his address to young men back in the 1970’s.
- Callister uses fear-based language and overall approach that is inconducive to healthy sexual education. Although there is correct principle behind understanding the gravity of sexual responsibility towards others and self – using a fear-based approach to get this point across is not effective and usually contributes to problems rather than solving them. He uses provocative imagery language (such as an Octopus’ tentacles coming to get you) that elicits anxiety, fear and gives Satan more power than he deserves in our daily cognitive existence. When we teach through fear, we increase anxiety. And anxiety increases the probability of unhealthy coping strategies: exactly the opposite of what we want when dealing with sexuality. I cannot stress this enough!!! For a culture that is obsessed with using an addiction paradigm to deal with pornography viewing, for example, we need to recognize that this fear-based approach contributes to the types of behaviors we are so desperately trying to stop. As leaders and educators we need to knock it off!
- Callister allows for no level of arousal or sexual thought outside of a spouse as a natural part of being a mortal human. He speaks of avoiding material that is “pornographic in ANY way.” For many of my OCD clients this becomes an impossible feat (because it is defined rigidly) – they cannot enjoy a museum where fine art depicts the human body, they cannot go to work where there exists “walking pornography” through what is considered immodest dress, they cannot develop any tolerance to the sexual nature of the human experience. This is just not a mature or realistic way to deal with sexuality and it gives sexual imagery more power than it would otherwise have if we could normalize the fact that sexuality has always been and will always be part of the human story – in art, literature, music, science, etc. Again more fear: “No one can claim to be fooled by the effects of pornography, believing there is any such thing as an innocent glance. It is a poisonous, venomous, unforgiving snake that will strike the moment you take your first look and will continue to strike with a full portion of venom with each look thereafter.” Goodness grief! The imagery is just awful and anxiety producing. If anyone spoke to my children like this about any aspect of sexuality – I would be incensed. It uses inappropriate addiction-style language and promotes self-fulfilling prophecies which rob individuals of a more nuanced, agency-friendly approach to sexual experiences they may have had in the past or will continue to have in the future. And even though he uses addiction language, he goes against current addiction treatment (AA approach) by stating “at some point willpower will be an indispensable ingredient—there is not a pill or counseling technique to solve every addiction.” He is just not qualified to make these types of statements that can wreak havoc for those who are legitimately undergoing addiction treatment.
- Callister’s statements on modest dress are sexist and offensive to both men and women. First of all “modesty” is only talked about in the context of clothing and it is only addressed to women. He participates in classic “rape culture” ideology where the woman is responsible for the man’s sexual thoughts and actions. This paragraph was truly shocking: “Women particularly can dress modestly and in the process contribute to their own self respect and to the moral purity of men. In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.” I am literally left speechless.
- Callister speaks of “lust” as the reason why many would choose to have premarital or extramarital sexual experience. First of all, lust need not be demonized as a feeling itself. Lust is just another word for sexual arousal – and there are many times when it is appropriate to feel lust and especially to lust after your spouse: “Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.” Proverbs 5:18-19 Now like any other feeling – if it causes behavior that is harmful to self or another, of course, it should be checked and appropriately managed. Secondly, there are many more complicated issues that contribute to sexual choices than “selfish lust”: past sexual, physical or emotional abuse, personality traits or disorders, mental health diagnoses (i.e. bipolar disorder), trauma of any kind – just to name a few. A very typical scenario I see is that of young women or men who have been sexually abused in their childhood: they are now dealing with complex and confusing dynamics as they try and navigate their own developing sexuality as teens and young adults. Many report feeling like sexual decisions are not theirs to make but to be made upon them – after all, this is what sexual abuse teaches. So they find themselves having “consensual” sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend for reasons that don’t seem genuinely theirs – many report feeling “frozen” or just going along with things until they are over. Others genuinely enjoy sexual contact and seek after it because it helps them feel validated and loved – since “love” was sexualized at an early age. Now they decide to go through the repentance process and only share with their bishop the part where they have had sinful sexual experience. And a well-meaning bishop who has no knowledge of their history inadvertently re-traumatizes them by placing the entire responsibility of their sexual choices on their “lust” or sexual desire – completely bypassing the past trauma’s effects and sexual healing that needs to occur. And please, bishops, do not make the mistake to think that if you ask if there has been a history of abuse that an honest answer will be forthcoming. The act of abuse disclosure is extremely difficult and abuse is often kept secret for decades if not a lifetime. I am deeply concerned as to how many with past sexual trauma might interpret much of this article.
- Callister speaks to the LGBTQ community where a life of celibacy and singleness is the expectation as a condition to worthy participation in the service of the Lord. It is my strong position that this is not a healthy stance for any human who naturally craves and needs the communion of partnership. It sets the Mormon LGBTQ population up for almost guaranteed failure – being put in the position where they are forced to choose between personal/relational health or community acceptance and participation closely tied to their spiritual development and relationship with God (also part of personal health). Are we at all surprised that our Utah LGBTQ youth lead the nation in suicide? But this I do not only fault Callister on – it is the current position of our church and material for a different blog post all together.
- Finally, Callister ends by saying that if we follow the advice given in the talk we will be “eligible for a spouse of like purity.” I cannot emphasize enough how damaging it is for members of the church who have sexually explored outside the realms of marriage, then gone through the appropriate repentance steps to still consider themselves as “impure” because of their past actions. And regardless of how many times we tell them that the atonement covers their sins – as long as we are measuring their worth by how “pure” (translation=virginal) they come to the table, they will suffer. They often express to me their feelings of being ineligible for a “pure” spouse (meaning a virgin) if they themselves are not virgins. And I cannot begin to number the amount of members who have reported either lying to their prospective spouses about their past sexual experiences out of fear of being rejected or having been honest, and then actually being rejected. We put such emphasis on this value of purity that it wreaks havoc for our young adults on every level of the spectrum (whether they have only had one impure thought or they are chronically looking at pornography as a way to self soothe or have had premarital sex). Purity is a principle much grander than behavioral actions we may have taken in the past – and until we start teaching this principle correctly, the honesty potential between couples will suffer and secrecy will thrive. (Side note- Not to mention that tragically many who have been sexually abused, incorrectly perceive themselves or are abusively perceived by others as “impure.”)
The way that sexual standards are presented in this type of talk is unrealistic and sets people up for failure. Very few will be able to achieve them at the level of rigidity in which they are communicated. And if they can, there may be other factors at hand – such as having an asexual response (an entirely different topic altogether). I cannot stress enough how many of these types of rigid, shaming and incorrect sexual teachings are the core reason why so many of our members struggle with healthy sexuality, the ability to claim personal authority and the correct sexual education of the next generation. Although I enjoy the work I do – I do not enjoy the fact that this type of approach coming from this type of authority guarantees that I will have no shortage of business as an LDS sex therapist for many years to come. This article successfully sets us back about 35 years.
I fully recognize that my authority will never trump that of a general authority in the eyes of LDS members – nor should it. I do not hold the priesthood because I am a woman, and my church callings do not include the stewardship over the church membership at large. Therefore, I understand that my opinions shared on this post will largely be held suspect. I accept and recognize this.
At the same time, I would hope that we would be more open in the church to exercise the correct principle of “councils”: the ability to invite others within our midst to dialogue and help with the needs of the church. I would hope that general authorities would be willing to sit down with the many wonderful and faithful mental health professionals we have within our midst, and be open to different ideas and processes that would aid in the healthy sexual education, development and pleasure of our members. After all, we share the same goals: healthy personal sexual development and appropriate, enjoyable sexual expression within the bounds of sacred commitment. We value the Law of Chastity; a beautiful directive meant for our protection, enjoyment, relational health and developmental journey towards becoming Godlike.
Ironically, I agree with Callister’s following quote: “Contrary to much public sentiment, there is nothing negative or restraining about God’s moral standards. Rather, they are positive, uplifting, and liberating. They build relationships of trust, they enhance self esteem, they foster a clear conscience, and they invite the Spirit of the Lord to bless individual and married lives. They are the proven standards for happy marriages and stable communities.” It’s unfortunate his approach didn’t follow suit.
*a few changes to this article were made on 2/16/2014 to integrate some of the thoughts readers have shared
A good example of healthy LDS sexual dialogue between a former bishop and an active LDS therapist (what we should be modeling):
Another problematic issue: