Zelophehad’s Daughters

What we all secretly wish we’d hear more about at church

Posted by Mike C

This guest post comes to us courtesy of Mike C. You can read his previous guest post here.

The idea for this blog post came to me, as many of my best ideas do, while I was thinking about sex in church. Now please don’t get all huffy. I am aware of the impracticalities: limited privacy, no comfortable places to lie down (I should know, I’ve tried sleeping on the couches while my kids are attending seminary), etc.

OK, that is not what I meant. Nor do I mean that I was sitting in church daydreaming about having sex, although I confess that that may have happened a time or two when I got carried away in the spirit :-)

No, what I mean is that I was thinking about how the manual on Strengthening Marriage does not have a chapter on physical intimacy. Even though we are taught that marriage is of supreme importance and that sexual intimacy is an integral and even sacred part of the marriage relationship, the topic is barely broached in the Church’s manual on marriage.

Why is that, I’ve wondered? I don’t really know, but what I’ve come to suspect is that we don’t have a real message to teach about physical intimacy. We simply don’t know what to say. In the Church, as in much of our society, sex is something we do, not something we talk about.

I should say that we have something to say about sex, but it seems that no one is really satisfied with the messages. Even those giving them seem to sense, at least on some level, that the core is missing. Our messages don’t seem to adequately convey what sex is truly about.

It starts out reasonably enough, with teachings that tend to protect us and help us and those around us be happier. Chastity before marriage and fidelity afterwards. Sex within marriage as a sacrament (although this is never elaborated on much–what sex and sacrament seem to have in common, as far as I can figure out,  is that both experiences can be ruined by crying babies).

But then most other messages about physical intimacy seem to devolve into women protecting their virtue (from the men trying to steal it), mostly by being modest (so that men won’t want to steal it), and men not looking at pornography (which we learn is about the worst sin ever, since very few people have the opportunity or motive for murder, leaving pornography in first place for worst sins that we can realistically expect to commit).

Much has been written about how problematic and even destructive these messages can be. They cast women in the role of objects to be acted upon, rather than agents in their lives. They ignore rather than celebrate women’s sexual desire and sexual needs, which can cause much unhappiness for women and create difficulties within marriage relationships. They vilify rather than normalize sexual desire in men, engendering guilt and shame in men and alienation in the women who love them or want to love them. Above all, they don’t seem to work. It is my understanding that pornography use and premarital sex are about as common among Mormons as among other groups, but among Mormons guilt, shame, and feelings of deep inadequacy are piled on, sometimes leading to self-loathing and in extreme cases even suicide.

It seems to me that a new program is in order. Let’s talk about sex, but let’s talk about it in a new way:

1. Let’s never, ever forget, that it was God who gave us our sexual desires. They are inherently good, they are inherently divine. When we are turned on sexually we need to remember that God created this within us.
2. Sexual desires need to be normalized. Having sexual thoughts and feelings for others we find attractive is completely normal. There is nothing wrong with it. It is normal. It is normal that pornography is attractive to men and women.
3. I want to be clear: normalizing does not mean that anything goes. Of course the inappropriate expression of our sexual desires can hurt others and ourselves. However, the inappropriate expression of sexual desire is not unique in its potential for harm–it does not belong in some special class of sin; equally serious harm can come from pride, selfishness, ridicule, unbridled ambition, dishonesty, anger, or unrighteous dominion. We need to put sexual sin in the proper perspective.
4. Of much greater importance is this: sex allows us to relate to another person in a way that can be incredibly intimate (though sadly it often is not, even within marriage). In so doing, sex can open us to great vulnerability.
5. It is through this vulnerability that we have a tremendous opportunity for emotional and spiritual development. But it requires that we think about sex as a way to grow as humans (and not just below the belt, guys).
6. This means that what we need to understand and learn about physical intimacy, is how to relate emotionally to another person. As we pursue physical intimacy there are many questions we must continually ask ourselves.
7. For me these include: Am I listening to my wife’s needs? Am I sensitive to how she is feeling? Am I kind? Am I thoughtful? Am I patient with her and with myself? Am I ashamed of my own body? Am I willing to accept my body and myself as I am (including the hair that grows in the most annoying places)? Am I willing to be seen, naked before her? Am I willing to make my desires known? Am I willing to own my sexual desires? Am I willing to speak up for what I want and at the same time accept her wants as equally valid, even when they are different from mine? Am I willing to have fun with her, to smile, to laugh, to be myself, to not take myself so seriously? Am I willing to let my flaws show, rather than preserve my carefully constructed self-image? Am I willing to learn not to hide behind a mask as we engage physically? Above all, can I learn to be truly authentic with this person I love more than anyone?

These are the messages about sex I wish we would hear and discuss at church. Let’s move past the tired, uptight, repressive rhetoric. Let’s move toward teaching sex as an important way to develop God-like characteristics. Let’s not wait any longer to implement a healthy approach towards sex. Let’s, in the prophetic words of Marvin Gaye, get it on.

24 Responses to “What we all secretly wish we’d hear more about at church”

  1. 1.

    My father-in-law, a BYU Marriage and Family Life professor, has a book coming out soon along these lines (with some co-authors). I believe the title was going to be “Sex and Salvation” but they didn’t believe they could sell that to anyone who shops at Deseret Book. :D It talks about a theology of sex on the the spiritual, relational, emotional, and physical levels. It’s very good stuff. I should ask him how the publication process is going. Anyway, I agree with all your points.

  2. 2.

    Dear Guest, this post is amazing. Thank you.

  3. 3.

    I completely agree with your post. I was hindered by the way the law of chastity was taught to me as a teenager in Young Women’s classes. For years I hoped for a more open conversation but fear got in the way of it.

    I think the reason we are scared to talk about it, is the vulnerability factor you touch on briefly. In order to talk about it, we have to be vulnerable and truthful, and this takes practice. Until more people practice these principles in discussing physical intimacy, then we are going to keep running blindly into brick walls.

    I recommend the book The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping your Clothes On by Dawn Eden. It’s written from a Christian perspective, and her experiences and insights rang true. It’s the most honest conversation I’ve read about the struggle of being single, living the gospel and striving to be chaste. Hopefully this book and others like it can inspire a more informed and open approach.

  4. 4.

    I’m skipping past the heart of the post itself — which I think is terrific — and wondering about the practical aspects of implementing such discussions. Would such discussions take place in mixed-gender settings? with all (say, 16+) ages present? with both married and single? or segregated in some way?

    I can appreciate the potential value of such discussions to Church members in general, but frankly, as a 54-year-old never-married woman who is extremely unlikely to marry in this life, I can’t imagine a single setting where I would tolerate sitting through even one minute of such a discussion — and not because I’m a warped, dried-up prude (although that may also be true). My Church life is saturated with marriage-and-family, family-and-marriage, nonstop-nothing-to-do-with-my-life as it is. This crosses some line that I refuse to accept.

    But it’s not about me. Carry on.

  5. 5.

    My student ward’s stake presidency was so concerned about this issue that they gave a list of “intimacy” books to engaged couples. Most of the titles were sold at Deseret Book, I believe.

  6. 6.

    “Sex and Salvation” – love the title!

  7. 7.

    Interesting discussion recently in an institute class about how sex is a symbol for the at-one-ment, and the priest entering the holy of holies represented the bride going into her bridegroom on the wedding night–if we could even understand/discuss some of those scriptural symbols better it would help.

  8. 8.

    Wouldn’t it be the other way around, anon? Isn’t the bridegroom the one who goes in?

  9. 9.

    I think #7 illustrates why this could be so hard to implement in a useful way. The idea of sex as a symbol of the atonement or the priest entering the holy of holies totally creeps me out. Ewww. I am not shy about talking about sex. I could easily say the word SEX in church. Many, many people could not. I worry that trying to talk about it would end up as a weird, euphamism laden dance about how it is a sacrament (?), etc. But would anything else be appropriate for a group that is totally mixed in life situations, as Ardis brings up? The kind of frank discussion that would be helpful, as you bring up in the OP, is so far outside the realm of what I could imagine happening on a Sunday morning. Perhaps if there were a Wednesday night marriage prep class, or marriage enrichment class I can imagine useful things being discussed. But it seems that the level of training for a facilitator of such a discussion – to keep things real and honest and open and useful without encouraging salacious oversharing – is outside what I think most church leaders could provide.

  10. 10.

    “… we have something to say about sex, but it seems that no one is really satisfied ….”

    Best line yet.

  11. 11.

    In response to Ardis’s comment, I would say that your thoughts reflect part of the cultural problem, in my mind. As a church, we construct sexuality as something that belongs to a marriage partner, rather than an integral part of ones self. This circumscribed reality is particularly punctuated for women. We limit discussions around sexuality to avoidance of the forbidden, rather than how to have a heathy relationship to our God-given sexuality, to God-given sensuality and to our (God-given) bodies, as single or married women, young or old. Our sexuality is first ours and then we share it. While I agree with the value of saving the fullest expression of sexuality for marriage and commitment, limiting our relationship to sexuality as one of repression of sexual feelings and something that we save for a man and his gratification, doesn’t work well and at a minimum stunts our spirituality,as well as our intimate relationships, in my opinion.
    It also makes life for single members an issue of pretending that their sexuality doesn’t exist or isn’t important. Just my thoughts..

    I appreciate the insightfulness of your comments, Mike C. Thanks for sharing them!

  12. 12.

    Um, yeah. I know you have some standing to say what you said, Jennifer, but I think it is sorely misplaced in this context, and, whether intentionally or not, has the effect of shaming me, personally and publicly. That is uncalled for.

  13. 13.

    Did you ever see the movie Higher Ground starring Vera Farmiga, about a woman in a conservative Christian group losing her faith? There’s a scene in it in which a group of older men, looking very much like our high priests’ group, is sitting in a circle for a lesson. The instructor puts a tape in the tape recorder, which apparently is a series of lessons on Christian sex. The narrator on the tape intones: “Clitoral stimulation is part of God’s plan.” I have to admit I can’t help but smile at imagining such a scene playing out in an LDS ward on Sunday…

  14. 14.

    Thanks for the comments.

    Where could this take place? I think it clearly could happen in the Strengthening Marriage class. We add our own lesson at the end and simply tell everyone that it is our own material, not the curriculum, but that it is based primarily ideas from LDS therapists (like Jennifer). We let them know that it is important enough that we don’t want to ignore the topic. We then encourage them to ignore or disbelieve anything that doesn’t feel right to them (we hope they do this for all the other lessons as well!). We’ve done the sex lesson three times and have received positive feedback each time.

    I think it could also be part of the youth curriculum. I don’t think the meaning and possibilities of physical intimacy (e.g., vulnerability, personal growth, emotional development) are salacious. We already teach the youth about much “racier” things, like pornography, petting (does that weird term still get used?), etc.

    Could it be creepy, especially if the presenters don’t have adequate training? Absolutely. However, we already have plenty of potentially creepy youth lessons on modesty, sex, pornography. I think the solution is better training of teachers rather than ignoring the topic because it is challenging.

    I am also inclined to avoid the sacrament, sacred, scriptural symbols stuff, at least for the most part. I think practical lessons on emotional development through physical intimacy could be incredibly helpful. The rest of the Strengthening Marriage manual is primarily practical and research based, so I think this topic could be treated in the same way.

    My last idea, as I mulled over the post, was a thought on the primacy of sex in the pantheon of sins. I think it might be classified that way in some situations that have a sexual component, such as rape. However, I would not classify rape or sexual abuse as primarily sexual sins, or sins of physical intimacy. Rather, they are sins of violence that are primarily about power, domination, and control. I think it is a stark manifestation of a distorted discourse on sex that an LDS man will hear 100 talks about pornography before he will hear one talk about marital rape or unrighteous sexual dominion in a marriage, even though the latter seem orders of magnitude more abominable.

  15. 15.

    while this discussion would be helpful in certain settings (marriage seminars by trained professionals), I just can’t see it being done well within the current church structure.

    I don’t want youth leaders talking to my kids about sex, or what is appropriate/inappropriate; that’s my job. I have a son who was feeling ridiculously guilty because he helped along his little factory/assembly line a couple of times (name me a boy who hasn’t), and I could tell that he was racked with grief about it. I had to undo some damage and let him know that he’s alright.

  16. 16.

    The notion that sexual sin is second only to murder in aggregiousness is actually a way too common misreading of one verse, Alma 39:5, without reading the rest of Alma’s discourse in that chapter as a whole.

    In verse 5 Alma says Corianton’s (yet unnamed) sin as almost as abominable as the sins of the shedding of innocent blood (consciously causing the untimely physical death of someone else) or denying the Holy Ghost (choosing spiritual death for yourself). In verse 6 he lays out clearly the latter of those two sins and its analogy to the sin of which he accuses Corianton. Watch the parallel.

    “For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once had place in you, and ye know that ye deny I, behold this is a sin which is unpardonable;

    Yea, AND whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness.”

    Alma is telling Corianton that his serious sin has been that of abandoning his calling to teach light and life and, not only that, then acting in ways that actually abet the spiritual death of others. Alma elaborates in verses 11 through 13 when he again warns Corianton not only to avoid Isabel but to avoid being led away by any vain or foolish thing because “Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words. And now the Lord doth say unto me: Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction…turn to the Lord…that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly”.

    The three great sins are not denial of the Holy Ghost (choosing your own spiritual death), murder (causing the physical death of another) and breaking the law of chastity. The three great sins are denial of the Holy Ghost (choosing your own spiritual death), murder (causing the physical death of another) and this third one: aiding and abetting another person’s spiritual death. Christ’s great work for us is the effectuation of redemption from physical death and spiritual death. You can see why it might be therefore that our greatest sins are committed when we work directly against that, causing physical death or spiritual death in ourselves or in others.

    Sexual sin is sin, but it is not, as is mistakenly assumed, what Alma is saying is second only to murder and denying the holy ghost. I wish more members of the church understood this.

  17. 17.

    My Husband and I taught a Strengthening marriage class in our ward. We used VERY powerful magnets as part of our object lesson when we discussed how sexual intimacy has great power to bring couples together and strengthen them. Attraction of the magnets, pull, the right sides of magnets need to be facing them for attraction to work, etc. I know it really opened people’s minds and we actually had responses from class members. If you had the kind of magnets that were so poweful, its harder to pull apart. How is that created? etc.

  18. 18.

    Dr. Horrible, I agree that I am very uncomfortable with leaders talking about sexual sin with children in private interviews, especially not in any degree of detail. I do think certain aspects of sexuality are worth discussing with youth, but like my post indicated, what gets discussed is, in large part, not what is really healthy or helpful. I think messages that are less about the mechanics and less about all the “terrible” things that must be avoided and more about the meaning of sexuality and the positive aspects of sexuality could be done well with proper training and proper curriculum. However, I’m not sure we have either at the present time.

    MB, I agree completely. I think it is a very unfortunate misinterpretation of scripture. And then sexual sin gets interpreted as anything at all that has even the remotest sexual connotation, not just more serious things like adultery. I think this interpretation is bad for a lot of people.

  19. 19.

    i would rather the church get out of our bedrooms all together. Learning about healthy and sustained sex lives should be taught by LDS therapists. Using these therapists, the church could produce a home study manual/workbook and ask couples to use this regularly at a newly crowned Couple Home Evening, or perhaps have home study groups to read/discuss over a period of time. When I served as RS pres. I was shocked to discover how many couples had trouble matching up their libidos and how resentful husbands and wives were when their needs weren’t met, or they felt constant pressure to meet what they perceived were unrelenting needs. There was a great deal of guilt and shame, also. It seemed like a lot of people felt unfulfilled in marriage. Men tended to manifest this through anger, and women tended to manifest through depression. At times I honestly wondered if anyone was really happy. Husbands couldn’t even broach the subject without wives cringing. sometimes it was the opposite and the husband was the one cringing. A lot of couples were waiting for kids to grow up to divorce. And it’s important that half of these couples were in ward and stake leadership positions.

    I believe marriage prep courses should be mandatory for all couples. Marriage doesn’t happen, its a relationship that needs care, nurturing, negotiation, sacrifice, and much effort. Marriage morphs—we need to know about this and how to maturely cope. Most of us need guidance to accomplish these sustained efforts. No one tells you your libidos probably aren’t evenly matched, or that pregnancies can disrupt hormones for indefinite periods of time. Women often don’t realize a trip to the endocrinologist is needed. Couples plug along suffering and growing further apart. It’s very sad. and could be greatly prevented if good counselors could prepare engaged couples, and remind married couples at regular intervals.

    In my opinion, pornography should be addressed at these counselor-prepared sessions. It is harped on at church and GC so much that I think more harm than good is done. Then our leaders could spend their time speaking about uplifting subjects that strengthen and inspire us. Coping with challenges in marriage could be delegated to authorized professional counselors. Bishops have funds for couples in need.

    But Sunday School? Not for me. but thanks for asking. I go to church to worship and to learn more about the Savior. Sunday is a day of worship. But I’m all for sex being addressed in non-Sabbath settings and under the teachings of licensed LDS counselors, meaning their manuals and workbooks.

  20. 20.

    Hey Ardis, I’m sorry if I shamed you in any way. I should have taken more pains to say that I am critiquing how we as a church orient to sexuality in general. To be honest, I would feel exactly the same way as you do. Given the current cultural construction of sexuality, and the over-emphasis on marriage at church, I wouldn’t want to hear another word about sex either as a single woman. Hard enough to hold your dignity in a setting that over-empahsizes motherhood and wifehood. Very sorry that I offended you.

  21. 21.

    [...] What we all secretly wish we’d hear more about at church [...]

  22. 22.

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  23. 23.

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  24. 24.

    […] Mike C, Zelophehad’s Daughters:  Best first sentence of a blog post: “The idea for this blog post came to me, as many of my best ideas do, while I was thinking about sex ….” […]

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