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.