Jung wrote that the strongest check to sex is stern necessity. But even in a society without contraceptive technology, at the full mercy of the limits of all those basic necessities, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the physical and emotional pleasures attending the procreative act, without deploying the procreative power. With adjustment of cultural mores this can also be done without allowing it to produce too much disruption of social and family life. It's just that the ways societies have devised of doing this (like homosexual acts and ritual prostitution) have been condemned as abominations by the dominant arbiters of mores in Western civilization.
So if the “soft yet mighty powers” of sex are to be held indivisible and not to be divorced from the procreative function, then the use of them as a bonding agent between husband and wife is a deviation. At the very least, those of us who are married have an extraordinary privilege to enjoy some very, very fun things that others can't. Of course people outside the license of marriage see that privilege, and I wonder how many of them see it as unfair, like the license of pasty, pudgy people wearing Sunday clothes in the Church Office Building who can say they live the Word of Wisdom and get their Temple recommends renewed with no trouble, and then waddle down to the cafeteria for prime rib every Thursday and 1300-calorie desserts at a whim.
If there be allowance for the stimulation of nerve clusters and the attendant hormonal effects as expressions of emotional bonding and commitment, decisively separated from the aim to procreate, then what is the reason to only restrict it to couples with procreative ability? And what is the reason for it to be a crime second only to murder in even the most mature, loving and respectful circumstance outside of the solemnization of commitment by ritual?
In a way, there was more honesty in the old prudish teachings of the Church, when married couples were told that to experiment with oral sex or other “perversions” was sinful. Because such things are blatant diversions if not subversions of the natural procreative purpose of human sexuality. The only thing that separates them from fornication and whoredom is the marriage covenant, or, as one ex-fundamentalist blogger puts it, “the magical marriage switch.” LDS marital sex therapy takes for granted that such a recreational approach to sexual relations is congruent with a narrow restriction of the recreation within a relationship originally founded on procreative management. But it's time to admit that this narrow restriction makes it impossible for the the gospel or the Church to be really “sex-positive.”
A truly sex-positive attitude would tell me that I ought to welcome and explore the homosexual potential in myself (which I’ll mention in more detail below), for the sake of living a fuller life and having more joy in sex – as my divinely-given right! A sex-positive outlook centers not on covenant or even commitment but on consent. A sex-positive outlook also recognizes that transgression, or at least novelty, is vital to sexual excitement (an obvious truth from a biological perspective on sex, which nonetheless flummoxes even the best-intentioned of LDS sex therapists who insist on clinging to the “God gave us sex” idea). Sex positivity says that although something special does happen to people who share the bodily intimacy of sex respectfully which can nurture emotional intimacy, it doesn’t have to entail it, and that people can have respectful and enjoyable sex without having to be tied down by commitment.
Barlow introduced his 1986 article with an anecdote of a missionary asked about the Mormon attitude towards sexuality. Quoth the new elder: “We believe in it.”
“We” believe in sexuality the way that the public schools believe in reading: as something to be done in certain times and places, under the proper authorization, with the approved materials and for certain programmed ends. If it is done outside of those bounds that the lord has set, then it is rebellion.
This simile has grave deficiencies: promiscuous sex still threatens life-and-death consequences. But those who read what they can, when and where they can, for the sheer joy of reading and discovery, also find their minds inseminated and infected by ideas outside the approved and intended program of their school, church, family, community or country. Schools make a great show of encouraging reading, but as one who truly loves to read and attended some excellent and well-funded public schools, I am convinced that their purpose is in fact to contain and engineer reading towards predetermined ends. Their purpose is hostile to the free reading and open inquiry which have shown themselves such destabilizing influences against earthly governments.
Well, here is one clear limit of the comparison: unrestricted and promiscuous reading can lead you to freedom. Unrestricted and promiscuous sex can't.
The Church is not and cannot be sex-positive. The restored gospel is sex-restrictive for the sake of being sex-wise. That is what I am reaching for here. Sex positivity is not wisdom. It is just another kind of unbalanced tunnel-vision, and Mormon attempts to assert sex positivity are embarrassing to anyone paying close enough attention.
If we as human beings have legitimate sexual needs and not just drives or desires, then it's understandable that within a lawful marriage, people feel entitled to sexual favors or services and even demand them: in fact, that is inescapable within a religion that restricts sexual relations to marriage. The comments in response to the Matthew Stearmer essay I'm looking at show interesting examples of this, and I take them as corroborating witnesses that religious cultures construct sexual needs as well as secular cultures.
Jewish law considers sexual relations a wife's basic right, which the husband is obligated to provide. There are even rules for how often he must provide it, and if he doesn't it can be grounds for divorce. Following Stearmer's argument, Jewish marriage law thus “removes the potential for open and honest communication which is the hallmark of a unified celestial marriage,” not to mention the traditional Christian marriage according to the traditional interpretations of Ephesians 5: 22-33: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands" etc.
We can object that Paul's instruction to wives to be subject to their husbands is "as unto the Lord" - in the same way that the Church is subject to Christ, and that therefore in this ideal, a husband will invite his wife to come unto him and find rest, and make sure that he gives her an easy yoke and a light burden. But it has been most easy for husbands to stick with a paraphrase of John 15:14: “thou art my wife if thou dost whatsoever I command thee,” without considering the bit about “Henceforth I call you not servants.” Cherry-picking scriptures is a venerable practice, and Mormons continue to be champions at it.
Our radical new ideas of marriage as an equal partnership founded on respect and open, honest communication between a man and a woman would have horrified the learned men of the Enlightenment. Horace Walpole called Mary Wollstonecraft "a hyena in petticoats" after she published her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, most of whose ideas seem so mainstream now. If you haven't read it, you should. It's good. I used to have a nice Penguin Classics edition but I think I lost it. Maybe I should get it in Dover Thrift.
Traditional marriage practices are corrosive to the goal of unity as our new perspective understands it. I feel that this cannot be emphasized enough: traditional marriage practices are against Celestial ideals as we have come to understand them.
Traditional marriage practices, of course, do make sexual relations a duty: to fulfill the other's (generally the husband's) needs. Stearmer's right in saying that it's disrespectful to women to teach them that they're responsible for fulfilling their husbands' sexual needs, but he seems to part company with other voices from the Big Bad World who say the same thing.
After all, if I have sexual needs and can demand their fulfillment from a lawfully-wedded spouse, then I can also demand the right to serve my needs with other people, of the opposite or the same sex. I can assert that today's more permissive culture allows me to meet my legitimate needs in mutually respectful ways with other consenting parties, whether within a marriage of more modern definition or without.
So Stearmer goes beyond the common church argument of "sex is a need but only for marriage" to seemingly try to remove all excuses for any kind of behavior that goes outside of the Law of Chastity. And how neat it seems: none of us have any excuse, especially not gay people.
My missionary buddies and I accepted the strictures of the Law of Chastity. We agreed that masturbation was wrong. But we still looked forward to the day when our sexual needs could be met within marriage.
In the Spring 2013 issue of SquareTwo, S. Matthew Stearmer wrote “A Reflection on the Cultural Construction of Sexual 'Needs.'” He made three important points: 1. “Sex is not intimacy.” 2. “Even in marriage, sex does not necessarily lead to unity . . . it can even become a distraction from our true goal, if we conflate the two.” 3. “No spouse should feel obligated to meet the other’s sexual 'needs.' Such a mistaken sense of obligation removes the potential for open and honest communication, which is the hallmark of a unified celestial marriage.”
These points are well and good, or at least the first two are quite solid, and the first is truer than we might want to admit. They can and should be defended on their own merits. But his essay suffered from the regrettable insistence on defining a need as something that a human organism can't live without, like food or water. A human body can survive indefinitely without sexual intercourse, ergo, there really is no such thing as sexual needs. QED.
It’s easier to condemn men's boorish and selfish behavior towards women when you feel you've taken away any justification for it, but a narrow definition of needs as what you can't live without is simplistic thinking and sets bad precedent. Nor is it quite clear to me exactly how a sense of obligation must remove even the potential for open and honest communication. In those who feel a sense of duty and selflessness (which are much more pervasive messages in church than sexual needs), obligation is of course a formidable obstacle to open and honest expression of their thoughts and feelings, and maybe duty and selflessness are just other faces of obligation. They certainly do walk hand in hand.
It is true that too many people use the word “need” in thoughtless ways, like when a teacher tells a child “you need to sit still in your seat” when what he really means is: “I have the right to tell you what to do and I am going to force you to sit still in that seat that I chose for you in the first place. You have no say in the matter, because I don't trust you or accept your wishes as worthy of respect.” That goes beyond any social construction of needs: that's downright Orwellian.
A teacher might say “I need all your eyes on me!” when what she really means is “I demand that you all watch me because I am in charge!” Of course she may also believe that the children really need to hear whatever she has to say, if they are to learn. She may believe that children are naturally so feckless that they can't think or learn without constant adult supervision, measurement and intervention. Here is where a socially constructed need works the other way: instead of men justifying betrayal or coercion on the basis of their own needs, adults justify coercion on the basis of needs they project onto children. They silence children so that they can speak for those projected needs and feel good about themselves as virtuous, dedicated saviors of children.
Meanwhile, what the children really need is more play. Or do they? After all, they can survive just fine being kept in chairs six hours a day. They should be grateful if you give them recess.
Do children need affection or respect:? Well, the human body can survive indefinitely without smiles, hugs, play, understanding and all those softie sorts of things. We can say that children's so-called “need” for love is just a social construct, a product of the swelling tide of permissiveness that saps our national vigor. Let's have stricter laws, more rigorous school rules and longer hours, and harsher punishments! You could even point to the prowess of military states like Sparta or Prussia as proof that what children really need to make a great nation is a tough and harsh upbringing, unspoiled by soft doting. That is exactly why we have schools where teachers tell children that they “need” to stay in their seats and be quiet, even if they think they're being soft and nurturing by rescuing the children from their natural deficiencies.
Such are the questions we raise when we look past a facile definition of needs, which was clearly not on the agenda in Stearmer's article. My objections along these lines in an earlier draft of this essay elicited this comment from the editorial staff of SquareTwo:
No matter how beautiful, intimate, or bonding sex could be, if it is defined as a need then it inherently comes with the right to demand. As we have counseled with other couples it has been our experience that the definition of sex as a need - when combined with all the complexities of an intimate relationship - this shaky foundation will almost inevitably lead to insecurities, breakdowns, and conflict. . . . If we continue to insist on sex as a need it leads to some rather disturbing conclusions . . . We feel this foundation and its offspring must be rejected. Sex can be something that we desire, it can be important, it can be natural - but if we define it as a need then it moves beyond the negotiated space and begins to place inappropriate demands on the other partner. Always. (Private email)
That got me thinking about another lyrical re-write, this time of that Meat Loaf song:
I want you,
I love you,
there ain't no way I'm ever gonna need you.
Now let's be glad, 'cause 'needing' sex is bad.
(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.