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I was 28 years old when I got married – an old maid by Mormon cultural standards. But in all the dates I went on before meeting my husband, all the relationships I was in, no date ever tried to pressure me to have sex. No date tried to put his hand up my shirt or grab my butt or pressure me into performing oral sex. In fact, most of the guys I dated respected my commitment to not so much as French kiss before marriage. Most. But I also exclusively dated Mormons, with the exception of a high school boyfriend who was Catholic.
So, do Mormons have an edge on secular culture when it comes to consent?
In some ways I was fortunate – I’ve heard horror stories from Mormon women whose active, temple-recommend-holding Mormon dates sexually assaulted them. And there is a whole slew of valid articles out there about the many ways we Mormons contribute to rape culture. Like pretty much all of humanity, we have a very long way to go when it comes to combatting sexual assault and rape culture in general.
At the same time, there’s a lot that we Mormons get right. I was taught young that I had every right to say “no” to unwanted physical intimacy and was encouraged to make a plan ahead of time on how to respond if I found myself in a situation where someone tried to use peer pressure to get me to engage in crude or inappropriate sexual behavior. And there were times where that preparation came in handy. For instance, when I was in 6th grade I went to an end-of-year party at a classmate’s home. She’d invited the entire class over, and at some point we started playing Truth or Dare.
I must have chosen Dare (I’m a notoriously bad liar, so it probably seemed safest), because a boy dared me to make out with a life-sized stuffed animal in front of everyone. I refused, and as kids shouted “You have to! Those are the rules!” I left the room and asked to call my mom, who came to pick me up early.
The boy apologized shortly after, and he seemed genuinely contrite. He didn’t mean anything unkind – he was 12 and didn’t understand the hurtful and uncomfortable situation he was putting me in. But his dare was also a violation, and I think he learned something important at a much younger age than most straight men do. If I had given into the peer pressure, it wouldn’t have been true consent.
So, yes, my experience at church gave me strength and protected me from the humiliation of making out with a stuffed animal in front of my entire class. If I hadn’t believed that “making out” with that doll was morally wrong, and hadn’t sat through lessons where I’d learned that I could stand up for my values, even in the face of peer pressure, I could easily have given in. 6th grade had been a rough year for me, and it included a lot of social bullying.
On the other hand, even the church lesson that had protected me came with mixed messages – when I shared the story in Beehives later on, it was seen as admirable and heroic to say no to a boy who wanted me to do something crude. But not necessarily because I said no to something I was personally uncomfortable with. In the same setting, we were also taught that if a boy asked a girl to dance, she should say ‘yes’ in order to avoid hurting his feelings, at least the first time he asked, even though dancing meant letting him put his hand on her hip, which can feel awfully intimate and uncomfortable.
As I grew older, that encouragement to say “yes” to boys in order to protect their feelings extended to dating as well – at times church leaders directly instructed women to accept every first date that came their way and then turn down a second date if uninterested. The things we were encouraged to turn down weren’t determined by our own comfort level, but rather by universal standards spelled out in the “For the Strength of the Youth” pamphlet.
In other words, what I learned about consent at church was that it had very little to do with what I wanted. The first time I recall a leader saying that we shouldn’t pressure any youth to dance with someone they didn’t want to, was in a meeting where the topic of girls asking boys to dance had come up. A male leader said, “We can’t make the boys dance with someone they don’t want to,” as if we hadn’t been telling the girls to do that very thing for years.
The problem wasn’t ultimately what my leaders taught me – I was fortunate to have incredible leaders while I was growing up, and I mostly encountered fantastic leaders as a young single adult as well. Even their instruction to say “yes” the first time usually included a caveat of “unless he makes you really uncomfortable.” The problem was what most of my well-meaning, loving, wise-in-so-many-ways leaders didn’t teach me and the other girls: that I could say ‘no’ to a boy’s physical contact at any time and for any reason.
They certainly never told us that we could say ‘no’ in marriage.
Again, don’t get me wrong – they also never said I couldn’t say ‘no’ to physical intimacy in marriage. It just wasn’t a topic in the lesson manuals, despite how much time those manuals devoted to the topic of marriage. And perhaps they didn’t think we needed to be taught that we could say ‘no’ to a husband’s sexual advances. We were teenagers, more interested in having a first kiss with a cute boy.
But I took two marriage prep courses in college. One a religion course, the other in the social sciences. Neither professor ever instructed the students that either partner had the right to say “no” after being married. One of the professors said the solution to one spouse being aroused while the other wasn’t was simply for the aroused person to help their spouse get aroused. It would have been great advice if it had been paired with a discussion of consent.
Perhaps worse, a few leaders at church taught me that sexual pleasure was primarily about men.
There were exceptions, of course, like the wonderful Young Women leader who told us on a weekly basis that sex was, and I quote, “the best thing since sliced bread.” But over the years, a few local leaders at church created a myopic, male-centered view:
One bishop, for instance, taught my YSA ward Relief Society about the law of chastity through an extended metaphor about fishing, which he started by telling us that, while boys broke the law of chastity because they liked sex, girls only broke it because they cared about the boy, who wanted them to.
Many Mormon women internalize these messages. For instance, one time a friend suggested that if men and women lived together as roommates it would be difficult for women to say ‘no’ to a male roommate who wanted sex because, as she put it, “Men have that need.” In another example, a few weeks before my wedding, a friend told me that most of the time I’d have sex for my husband’s benefit and not mine. She spoke as if it were simply a fact.
To be clear, that is not the case in my marriage, as my husband would be the very first person to tell you. (It probably breaks his heart a little that his reserved New England wife isn’t going to sing more of his praises than that).
But here’s what worries me – I’d hazard a guess that my friend’s matter-of-fact prediction was informed not just by her own experience but also by her conversations with many married women who feel the same way. And I’d also guess that before her own wedding, nobody spoke with her about sexual consent within marriage. And even if a couple understands that “no means no,” it’s difficult to foster a true spirit of consent if one partner’s needs are always prioritized.
But there’s something much more frightening than the fact that we’re not actively teaching Mormon women and girls about consent within marriage: we’re not teaching men and boys.
Long before I met my husband, I had decided that when I did eventually get married, I wasn’t going to rush into sexual intimacy. To go from just holding hands and kissing to suddenly having intercourse, all overnight, seemed overwhelming, especially given my experience with PTSD. So I decided that when I did get married, we would ease into that part of our relationship. Over time, I told several friends about that plan for my eventual honeymoon. While some of the women were skeptical that I’d follow through, all of them understood why I wanted to. A few even told me that they wanted to do the same thing. After all, wouldn’t it be nice if, the first time you experienced sexual intimacy with your new spouse, you could experience it without the risk of pain in such a vulnerable, sensitive area of the body?
In other words, wouldn’t it be nice if a woman had as little pain on her wedding night as her husband?
The few Mormon guy friends I told couldn’t fathom my plan. One, I recall, shook his head and said with a knowing look, “Your husband is going to need that release.”
In his mind, my future husband’s “need” for one particular form of sexual release trumped my need to avoid physical pain and to feel emotionally safe on my wedding night, in the very first sexual encounter of my life.
As much as I’d like to dismiss that friend’s remark as an aberration, it’s far more likely that his attitude is common among Mormon men. It wasn’t that my friend thought it was okay to hurt women. He simply hadn’t thought through the physical pain that whatever woman he married was likely to experience. He certainly hadn’t considered the potential psychological pain of that sudden transition.
That’s a dangerous blind spot in Mormon culture. If we ignore that blind spot, we might be tempted to pat ourselves on the back when we hear MeToo stories related to hook up culture and say, “See? If you just followed our example and taught men not to have sex before marriage, they wouldn’t be pressuring women to have sex on the first date.” But there are plenty of predatory Mormon men out there.
For instance, I dated a returned missionary at BYU who pursued other forms of physical intimacy by slowly wearing down a woman’s resistance over time. I would physically push him away and tell him not to do something. He’d agree, seem genuinely sorry, and then five minutes later try the same thing, only to stop when I told him to… and then try again 10 minutes later. It was exhausting, and he treated every boundary I set as a challenge. All while holding a temple recommend, just weeks after completing his mission. When I accepted that he was simply lying each time he promised to stop (yes, it took me awhile – I was that naive), I broke things off. But I later heard firsthand accounts from several women he had pursued in the same way.
Most Mormon men aren’t predatory the way that ex was, but I’ve heard horror stories from friends: like a friend whose husband used the excuse that masturbation would be a sin, to have sex with his unwilling wife while she was asleep, or to badger her into having sex, by simply asking and guilt-tripping until she gave in. A man who considers coercing an unwilling spouse preferable to masturbation has no real grasp on the Law of Chastity. That should go without saying, but apparently some people need to hear it.
And based on my conversations with other Mormon women, it’s clear there are even more couples who’ve found themselves in miscommunications, thanks to a pervasive cultural view in the world at large that male pleasure is more important than female pain. If our culture prioritizes men’s pleasure over women’s physical pain, it’s no surprise that male pleasure is also prioritized over women’s psychological and emotional health.
Our failure to teach Mormon men the nature of consent has consequences. And we are absolutely failing to teach this concept.
When I asked my husband what sort of conversations about sex had come up in his Elders Quorum meetings prior to our marriage, he described lessons that laid down blanket rules – they weren’t to even attempt anything that would break the Law of Chastity. But the long list of things that didn’t technically break that law? No instruction on that topic. The closest his leaders came to teaching about consent was to list particular acts that a husband shouldn’t ask a wife to perform because they believed those acts were degrading to women. While I appreciate that those leaders taught the principle of not doing anything degrading to a sexual partner, there wasn’t necessarily any instruction on how to communicate about what his future wife as an individual was and wasn’t comfortable doing.
Now, I’m a feminist, and I married a man who aspires to be a feminist as well, so of course we both went into our marriage with the expectation and commitment that our physical intimacy would be a positive, enjoyable experience for both of us. And it is! But we also had a lot of cultural baggage to work through – we’d both been inundated by years of interactions with people and institutions who viewed sex through a male gaze, where intimacy automatically equals intercourse. But again, I married a caring man, so while he was surprised when I told him in advance about my “not on the wedding night” boundary, he supported my decision.
Like any decent spouse should.
Due to my own history with trauma and disassociation, we had been communicating about physical intimacy from the start of our relationship. Even before we held hands for the first time, I explained that we would need to communicate, every step of the way, in order to avoid episodes where I dissociated. In the past, there had been several occasions where a male friend or date made an unexpected move – whether a hug or holding my hand or simply trying to lean against me – and I had responded with panic. On one occasion, I screamed “Don’t touch me!” at a friend who had only been trying to hug me. A friend I liked and trusted. As I’ve said before, trauma really sucks.
While I certainly don’t have all the answers, years of having to communicate about any and all forms of physical intimacy have one silver lining: I’ve had to learn how to communicate about it, out of necessity. So here are a few suggestions, based on a culmination of research, conversations with other Mormon women, and my own experiences:
- Communicate every step of the way. That means asking before trying a new form of physical intimacy, even if it’s a first kiss. While that advice applies to men and women alike, I know there’s a strong cultural current that specifically tells hetero men not to ask before making a move, at the risk of killing the moment. But tell me this, men: would you rather risk killing the mood in the moment or leave a date feeling violated?
After I wrote this post, I was delighted to discover that BYU Magazine had published an article advocating for this very practice.
- Be ready to slow down. Despite what pop culture would have us believe, there is no set timeline for how soon a couple needs to become physically intimate. And that applies to married Mormon couples as well – the fact that you’re legally married doesn’t mean you’re obligated to go through specific steps within 24 hours. Rushing a partner who’s not ready, just because it’s a cultural expectation, can have long-lasting repercussions, so please, please, please do not be afraid to take your time!
- Use your active listening skills. As critics of babe.net’s Aziz Ansari story have been quick to point out, trying to figure out a person’s interest based on body language alone can be impossible, and yeah, some people do get quiet simply because they’re caught up in the moment. But that’s not an excuse to continue whatever you’re doing just because there’s no audible “stop.” Check in. Ask questions. Make sure your partner is still on board, even if it’s not the first time you’ve been intimate. Even if you’re not having intercourse.
- Don’t assume that intercourse (or even orgasm) has to be the end goal of each sexual encounter. Even if there’s no sexual penetration during the encounter, there are many other things a married couple can do for sexual release. And a couple can develop physical intimacy even without sexual release. So-called foreplay can be the main event too.
- When there is pain or discomfort during sex, STOP. If you’re the one in pain, say something. It’s better to communicate that than to push through it. I speak from experience here. And if you’re the partner in that scenario, be fully supportive of their decision to stop. That’s not a moment to gripe or complain. It’s an opportunity to communicate that you love your spouse and value their health more than your own pleasure. Keep in mind that if you pressure your spouse to continue and push through the pain, you’re communicating the opposite. You’re sending the message that your pleasure outweighs the fact that your spouse is bleeding or having a panic attack or simply uncomfortable.
- When a miscommunication happens – and it will – talk about it afterwards, and make a plan on how to avoid the problem in the future. It may take multiple tries to figure out the problem and find a foolproof way to avoid it. For some people, for instance, asking a yes/no question during sex may not be as effective as asking open-ended questions. Figure out what works for you.
- If you’re regularly experiencing physical pain during sex, talk to a doctor. There may be an underlying health condition that needs treatment. Even if there isn’t, a simple suggestion like switching to a different position or a different type of lube, can make a world of difference.
- Be open to therapy. There’s an unfortunate stereotype that couple’s therapy is a last-ditch effort for bad marriages or couples on the verge of divorce. But just as a strong individual can benefit from therapy, a strong marriage can as well (I can hear all my friends who are therapists shouting “Amen!” across the country). So if there’s an ongoing need that one person feels isn’t being met for them, but their partner isn’t comfortable meeting it, that might me a good moment to seek some extra support with a therapist both partners trust. If a new wife doesn’t feel comfortable consummating her marriage, for instance, and her husband is anxious to move to that stage, they may reach a point where therapy is the best way to work through those differences.
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, by Judith Herman