One of our popular Primary songs goes like this in one part: “If the Savior stood beside me, would I do the things I do?” In one of my more sarcastic moods I imagined an alternate ending to that verse: “would I have sex with my husband? Would I dare to poop or pee? If I could see the Savior standing nigh, watching over me.”
Right now I'm not being sarcastic. When I hear sermons about not doing anything as parents that we wouldn't want our children to see, I invariably think “oh yeah? What about having sex?” Or using the toilet, as I just mentioned? (The first time I went to the Temple to do baptisms for the dead I was honestly surprised, for just a moment, to see toilets in the bathroom there. People were shitting in the Temple! I'm absolutely serious: it was a shock.)
Now older and wiser, I can't imagine a happy three-year-old being ashamed at the thought of Jesus seeing him on the potty. “Look, Jesus! I made poops! Can you wipe me?” Nor do I imagine my Lord and my God being offended in the slightest by that. Children are whole from the foundation of the world.
Someone might say: “of course you shouldn't let your children see you having sex. Of course you should still have it. That's obvious.” Obvious things are the things you don't have to talk about. But too often, what we don't talk about becomes not so much obvious as unclear, and the silence surrounding it breeds all sorts of fear, shame and confusion, or violence, such as the ecological damage and waste perpetuated by the export of first-world lifestyles into ecosystems around the globe.
Sex is still one of those shadow realms in church, couched in clumsy and obfuscating euphemisms like “morality,” “virtue,” “sacred powers of procreation” and “intimacy.” I don't know which of these euphemisms I dislike the most, but they're all terribly misleading. “Sacred powers of procreation” comes closest to being honest, but it sounds to me at least like a relic of the Middle Ages or the stereotypical Puritans (do it only to get pregnant and don't enjoy it too much). Sex continues to shame us, or at least to disturb us, and to some extent that's only as it should be.
What would it do to your relationship with your spouse, to imagine Jesus standing by the side of your bed watching you have sex? Or the spirits of your departed ancestors? Would the sight of two bodies coupled in “Venus shameful chaine” (Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene Book I Canto II) scandalize those who went through sex and childbearing in their time, as well as maybe the horrors of war and plague? Would your Heavenly Parents blush to see the nakedness of a body created in Their image? When sexual intercourse between a married couple results in conception, do unseen angels gather around to applaud that supreme sacrament? There's a hieros gamos for you!
When I was about six years old my friend and I were discussing penises, and we both agreed that Jesus didn't have one. After all, how could a divine being have such a shameful thing on his body? I grew up afraid to look at – or wash – that shameful part of mine. At around age eight a girl from my ward tried to seduce me, and God only knows how the guilt from that repressed episode has colored my views of sex in the years since (almost 30 years have gone by before I could talk about it). Still, I see questions that should be considered, and not having seen others in the Church consider them fully, I attempt it here.
When I turned 12 I read the pamphlet For Young Men Only. Of course the main thrust of it was telling us not to masturbate, but what really brought me up short was reading this: “Never be ashamed of your body.”
All my life I had been steeped in messages of shame for my body, which I understood in every way as part and parcel of a morally upright, righteous gospel life. At least the shame I felt for my genitals was moral. The shame of my body as a whole came from being overweight. Still, I honestly didn't see the difference between the teachings we got about chastity and modesty and shame for the body. I'm glad so many others are pointing out that pervasive problem. Maybe it's not supposed to be in the doctrine, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't been so thoroughly conflated with doctrinal teachings as to make no practical difference.
While I was on my mission, I worried about what I read in Leviticus 15:16-17:
And if any man's seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall wash all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the even. And every garment, and every skin, whereon is the seed of copulation, shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the even.
So if an Elder had a wet dream, was he worthy to go out and do the Lord's work that day? My mission president told me not to worry about it. It was part of the old Law of Moses anyway; I ate a lot of pork chops on my mission and never felt unworthy for that. But it was still disconcerting to deal with the biology of our sexually-frustrated bodies. My companions and I looked forward to marriage, when there would no longer be a need to spontaneously emit surplus semen in our sleep (I remembered reading in the Durants' The Story of Civilization as a teenager about medieval monks awakening to find that they had been visited by a succubus). We agreed that if a married man has nocturnal emissions then there's something wrong with the marriage – the wife must not be doing her job.
(This essay was written on OpenOffice and other open-source, free software.)
At the root of most conversations about sexuality I have witnessed among LDS people is the notion that sexuality is a gift from God (excuse me, I mean Heavenly Father) to help each person have a fulness of joy.
This notion is promoted with a crescendo of voices, as an antidote to the frigidity and shame that (oops!) our tenacious Puritan heritage inculcates in Mormon girls, causing so much frustration. This “sex-positive” idea could be expressed in a riff on Lehi's famous words: “sex is that men might have joy.” Sex is good and sacred in its sweet purity, in this view: the shame, sin and dirtiness are all perversion and corruption brought on by Satan and The World.
Brace yourselves: I am going to attack this idea.
Human sexuality is not a neat, tidy gift of joy. It is not something that God put in us to naturally bind monogamous married couples together if only kept pure until marriage. It is a biological inheritance that is messy, chaotic, and – I cannot emphasize this enough – disruptive. It is a melee of misaligned, conflicting desires that may be used to thrill, and further channeled to bind.
Sex in its purity is not God's icing on the marriage cake for magically-animated clay dolls. It is a pragmatic and unsentimental means of reproduction basic to all complex life forms. The huge and bewildering genetic chain of life (whether you believe that humans evolved from lower animals or not) has piled complicated layers of practice and sign on top of that primitive purity of sex, all the way up to homo sapiens. As a result, to experience sexuality as a human is indeed to face something so awesome/awful in its power and richness that what else can our mythopoetic imagination do but to call it divine? Certainly it is a power greater and more terrible than the human ego's limited understanding.
I believe in eternal progression, in the eternity of intelligence, in the existence of exalted Beings who organize, ordain and plan for the progression of our souls to become like Them. To contemplate this in light of scientific fact is an act of faith, but to hold to some of the views about sex I hear taught in church “makes reason stare.”
Of course, The World has its own teachings about sex. We can imagine another riff on Lehi's line: “sex is, that human beings, who may or may not conform to binary sexual divisions or socially constructed gender identities, and irrespective of their sexual orientation, might have joy, liberated from obsolete social norms, each using their gifts as they see fit.” We might condemn this as a product of Satan's perversion of the truth, yea, a mingling of scriptural truth with human philosophies. But if The Truth is defended simply as "sex is that men and women might have joy," then the door is wide open to the perversion, and people will go through.
The Romantic Movement in Western culture not only popularized the ideal of loving companionship in marriage (so often mistakenly conflated with “traditional marriage”) and promoted a growing respect for children, but also re-awakened the sexual permissiveness that is mythically cast as a late 20th-century disruptor of a formerly stable American moral consensus.
Reading the 1994 essay “No Law in the Arena: a Pagan Theory of Sexuality” by the man-loving atheist feminist Camille Paglia kicked me in the tail to start this effort of articulating these thoughts. Though she is an atheist, Paglia has tremendous respect for religion (“God is man's greatest idea”) and a psychologically-informed dedication to pagan philosophies and ethics. I find her work well worth reading from the perspective of a gospel still trying to be restored from apostasy.
The restoration that Joseph Smith opened up has made overtures towards a long-overdue reconciliation not too different from the one that William Blake tried to make, between archetypes whose gendered nature and treatment in historical religions have made those religions so unsustainable in any culture where women gain social power and equality. Doctrines about divine femininity can help carry our social and psychic evolution forward through post-modern secular societies. Reading Paglia has helped me understand how and why such doctrines have been so slow in coming. I agree with many of her arguments. My knowledge of the reality of God veers me away from others but they still offer useful perspectives. She is a role model in tackling questions of sex because she is unafraid to report what makes sense in light of her observations, without feeling beholden to any received dogma, old or new. Even if we can't share some of her moral conclusions, the observations she bases them on can be useful to us if we let go of our fear of being seen as heretics.
I'm a married Mormon man and a BYU grad. I'm a writer by vocation and have paid for some of my needs by that craft. I'm well enough educated to know that I still have much to learn.