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.
Though she is not immune to letting her stubbornness drive her to overstate her case to the point of absurdity, at her best she does not shrink from poking holes in the arguments of those she sympathizes with. At her best she insists that even those who are right back up their cases with rigor and responsibility, rather than getting a free pass just because they mean well. Throughout this essay I'll be attempting the same.