I apologize for the delay in this series. First semester grades and comments were due this past month, and work takes priority over blogging. But here’s a new post, and there will be more to come…
I have been obedient to the law of chastity for my entire dating life. I’ve skirted the boundaries once or twice, but I’ve never done anything that necessitated a serious talk with my bishop. While this has not necessarily been easy, I can unreservedly say it’s been the right path for me to follow. Let me start by mentioning my personal reasons.
To make a long story short, I have a tendency to get strongly attached to people and to have strong emotional reactions to friendships and relationships. This can be beneficial for maintaining friendships even when things get rocky, but it can make dating and romantic relationships (which are good at causing intense emotions by their very nature) more emotionally volatile. Looking back at the emotional turmoil I’ve experienced stemming from the few relationships and almost-relationships I’ve had, I am immensely grateful that the emotional complications of sex were not added to already difficult and painful situations.
Also, while there are questions I do have about the law of chastity, I generally think that sexuality is treated too lightly and casually by the culture at large. I’m not in the “sex is only for procreation” camp by any means, but in addition to recognizing the very real consequences that come from being sexually active, I firmly believe that sex should be a meaningful act of intimacy. It is the act through which we create life, and it symbolizes the union of two people, and should not be treated casually. Elder Holland’s thoughts on this subject (primarily in his book Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments) really do resonate with me.
There have been times in my life when I was ready to throw the law of chastity to the wind. Let me tell you about why I struggle. (Please read these as honest attempts to grapple with a difficult commandment to live and understand rather than an attempt to justify sinful behavior.)
Challenge #1: Living the law of chastity is hard. Our bodies are designed to want and take pleasure in sexual feelings, and as I discussed in one of my previous posts in this series, trying to deny or repress these feelings for years and decades presents challenges.
Negotiating the law of chastity when you’re dating makes things even more complicated. Many singles find themselves in a geographic area, life situation, age bracket, etc., where there are no or few people for them to date in in church circles (see my post on dating). If they actually want to be dating, and don’t want to try and find someone long-distance (which presents its own set of challenges), these singles often choose to date non-members.
I’ve tried doing this on a few occasions, and it’s challenging for a variety of reasons, but one of the reasons is the law of chastity. It is possible to find singles outside the church who do not treat sex casually, who understand its physical and emotional consequences, and who view it as a manifestation of commitment. However, there is not a large population of singles that believe in something akin to our law of chastity, and if you’re trying to expand your dating horizons, the majority of people you meet aren’t going to understand this aspect of your religious life. Even those people who may share some similar values on this issue are probably going to be baffled at why we believe sex can’t happen in a committed relationship that is not marriage. And even if they care about you and respect you, it’s a difficult issue to negotiate.
Let me refer you to a comment (on a recent thread by Kevin Barney at BCC) by the commenter “in the trenches”:
Take me. I’m 30 and single. I can count on one hand the single LDS men I’ve gone on dates with since I graduated at 21 from BYU because I’ve lived in areas with very few single members and therefore have been in family wards for basically all of my 20s. I’m cute. I’m smart and independent and have a really great career. I get asked out ALL the TIME by non-member guys, cute, nice ones. I’m human. I want to go on dates with nice, cute boys. But I also have 14 years of dating experience and I can tell you, it is a CONSTANT walk on a tightrope to date non-member guys, because it’s not just intercourse, it’s everything else that leads up to intercourse, too. It is EXHAUSTING constantly trying to enforce those boundaries, even with very well-intentioned and respectful guys, and it is difficult if not impossible to do it successfully 100 percent of the time. (I would say that is also true with two LDS people once you get past your mid-20s … it is just a different deal when you are 27 than when you are 17 or even 22 or 23. I’m sorry, but it is. Trying to give a relationship time to develop the way it should to enter into a marriage and also walk that line is HARD, no matter who is involved.)
What I think “in the trenches” is trying to get at is that, for better or worse, older singles (both inside and outside the church) tend to be cautious about jumping into marriage. At the same time, they’re typically looking for relationships with serious commitment. And trying to obey the law of chastity when you’re in a committed relationship with someone that you care about (especially if you’re trying to give the relationship time to develop) is pretty darn tricky. And if one of those people isn’t fully committed to the law of chastity, well, then, it makes it that much more difficult. Even if he/she is trying their hardest to be respectful, he/she doesn’t emotionally understand why such caution is necessary. And then when you pit that against strong sexual desires…
Challenge #2: Even though I do not view sex as something to be treated casually or lightly, I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand the law of chastity.
One of the main reasons I struggle to understand the law of chastity is because I see a disconnect between what our leaders teach us and what is happening around me in the daily lives of my non-member friends. While I do see the problematic consequences that can come from casual sex, sexual infidelity, etc., that’s not all I see. I also see adults who are not abstinent making wise and careful decisions about their sex lives in ways that bring them happiness and fulfillment and that don’t necessarily lead to horrible physical and emotional consequences. Take Stella’s story on my previous thread about “no sex”, for a specific example:
…I finally decided, at 30, that I would figure out my sexuality on my own. It’s been freeing in many ways….It didn’t lead to any addictions of any kind. It didn’t lead to thoughts of guilt or evil. It didn’t put a rift between God and myself, though I can’t go to the temple anymore, I’m ok with that because the temple, honestly, was never a place I felt really good in….I have come to realize that it is possible to feel close to God and not deny my sexuality as well.
It is a hard road to travel. When you’re not married you have to take into account the other people your partners have been with. It takes a lot of guts to tell the man you love to go and get tested before anything is going to happen. And still, even then, you have to be very careful in avoiding a lot of things that are just not worth the chances. You have to learn about condoms and birth control and so many things you didn’t deal with when being abstinent. However, there are very good and logical ways to do this and that has been a good education for myself.
One night stands were never ok for me and so it still does take a lot of work to actually get to a place of intimacy and sex. I have more understanding and empathy for married couples who find themselves in bad sexual situations. Truth be told, from what I’ve seen, there are more bad sexual relationships going on in marriages than good. I wonder if it’s because one or the other isn’t sure what they want/like etc….because even the thoughts of sex were off limits.
For me, learning what I like and don’t like, learning about sex in general has been very rewarding and satisfying. I know this isn’t helping the post at all, I just wanted to share the fact that having sex, for me, didn’t do so many things I had been taught that it would. I always heard that once you had it it became SO much easier to have it again and again and to get careless. That’s not true. Its just as easy or not easy to control it as it was before I started having sex. It’s helped me better understand problems in sex. I’ve now had a few partners and honestly, only one of them was a really good match sexually. This makes me grateful that I know more things to see and understand when finding a life partner. It helps to go into a relationship knowing my limits and desires. It has helped me know the frustrations and figure out ways to deal with them ( I dated a man who only wanted to have sex once a week and that was a huge struggle between us) et etc etc.
It’s, in all honesty, made me feel normal and aware instead of infantile and repressed. And while I don’t have a boyfriend now, it’s still a struggle to not have sex, but at the same time, I am in control and I know myself and my body. I know how to handle things and I am not frustrated anymore. It’s been the best decision I’ve made the past two years.
I’m not sure what to do with stories and experiences like this. I know that the gut reaction of many in the church would be to say something like “you can find happiness in sin, but you can find more happiness in living a higher law,” but to me statements like this feel too simplistic to describe the reality on the ground. Many people I know seem authentically and deeply happier (*not* in a “ooh, look I’m sinning”) kind of way from having sex. And they are not necessarily facing all the horrible consequences I was told about by my YW leaders, and it makes me wonder.
I fully acknowledge that I don’t fully understand all these issues. Additionally, I take my covenants with God extremely seriously, and I’m choosing to live the law of chastity even though I don’t fully understand it because of the covenants I’ve made. These covenants are something that I cannot easily set aside. And like I said initially, I have no doubts that obeying the law of chastity has been the correct decision for me.
But I also want to say that my personal decisions regarding the law of chastity are open to future revision. Currently, the best choice for me is to be sexually abstinent, and there’s a very good chance this won’t change until I’m married. Now that I’m dating again, I will not allow others to pressure me into any kind of sexual actions (or any degree of physical intimacy) that make me uncomfortable. But I reserve the right in my future relationships to make decisions about my sexuality that are right for me, whatever those decisions may be.
A final note: While I realize this issue produces strong feelings, and I encourage people from divergent positions to express their thoughts, opinions, experiences, etc., I do not want to see any judgments about other people’s experiences or thoughts if they differ from your own. You can disagree, question assumptions, etc., but any calls to repentance, name-calling, etc., will be deleted. Let’s all assume that those of who have made different decisions regarding this issue are doing so for real, meaningful reasons.