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.