This is the fourth of a series of guest posts on learning about sex within different religious contexts. Here’s a link to our guest post invitation.
Last year, a friend sent me a YouTube video from the church entitled: “Chastity: What Are the Limits?“
He knew that I have serious concerns about the church’s approach to chastity, which I feel is excessively negative and shame-based. Many people I know, myself included, have experienced difficulty coming to terms with their adult sexuality thanks to the messages they received in youth. My friend hoped that I’d see this video as a step in the right direction.
While I appreciate that it’s more positive–and that it avoids comparing girls to food like so many of the lessons I heard in Young Women–its underlying assumptions are still damaging. I believe that until we can reframe the discussion entirely, we won’t be able to eliminate the sexual anxiety that pervades our culture.
Here are some of the damaging assumptions I identified in the video, and my attempt at reframing them in more positive ways.
ASSUMPTION: Sex is dangerous. In the video, sex is compared to crashing an airplane in the trees — not exactly a reassuring image. If our assumption is that sex results in a bloody, fiery mess of carnage, no wonder we’ve got problems.
REFRAME: Sex is powerful. Instead of teaching that sex is dangerous, teach that it is powerful. Like all power, it can be used in positive or negative ways. Emphasize that, as free agents, we have the capacity to exercise sexual power to our own benefit (or detriment). Instead of something that happens to us, like an accident, this empowers us to exercise dominion over our own sexuality.
ASSUMPTION: Sexual sin is worse than other sin. While not explicitly stated in this particular video, this is a common assertion in LDS teachings. Sexual sin is the “sin next to murder”. It requires special confession to ecclesiastical leaders. We “otherize” those who fall outside proscribed sexual behavioral standards. But because the struggle to harness sexual power in positive ways is universal, this makes pretty much everyone feel alienated from their community and their God at some point. Not awesome if we want happy, healthy sexual adults.
REFRAME: Sexual sin is less morally reprehensible than other sins, but carries potentially more serious consequences. Setting aside cases of sexual abuse, coercion, or marital infidelity (which I believe belong in different categories), “garden variety” sexual sin between consenting, unmarried singles is about passion and appetite. It’s time to get rid of the “sin next to murder” rhetoric: a closer reading of the text in Alma suggests that Corianton’s real sin is religious hypocrisy, not simply sleeping around.
While an important aspect of spiritual growth is learning to harness physical passion, even true disciples of Christ can find it difficult to do so (see Matthew 26:41). Sins of deliberate cruelty are far more spiritually damaging than adolescent fumbling at zippers and bra clasps. As C.S. Lewis said:
The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: … the pleasures of power, and hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.
Having said that, sex outside of marriage can have consequences that are more life-altering than their diabolical counterparts, including unwanted pregnancy, disease and infection, and emotional trauma. We can be frank about this without piling on guilt and shame.
ASSUMPTION: Teens should set standards based on other people’s level of comfort. In the video, teens are told to set standards based on this criterion: “Would I feel comfortable doing this in the presence of my parents?” This encourages kids to base their decisions on other people’s values, instead of their own, and can be especially problematic if their parents have unhealthy attitudes about sex.
REFRAME: Teens should be empowered to define their own standards. Joseph Smith famously said that we’re to teach correct principles and let people govern themselves. By teaching principles of love, self-respect, and natural consequences, folks can decide for themselves where to draw the line.
Does this mean they’ll make mistakes and draw the line in the wrong places?
Yup. Welcome to life.
ASSUMPTION: Arousal is bad. In the video, teens are instructed to avoid anything that arouses sexual feelings. Ummm…I don’t know if the person who made this video has ever been a human being, let alone a teenager, but sexual feelings are often aroused quite randomly and without invitation. This is a literally unattainable standard that only leads to discouragement.
REFRAME: Arousal is good. Teach kids that sexual feelings are good and natural. They come from God. To feel them means that their bodies work and that’s something to celebrate (How’s that for a Sunday School lesson? “So, boys, do a little dance every time you get a boner!”). Of course, harnessing sexual feelings is important because letting them run wild can cause damage. But we can harness them without hating them.
ASSUMPTION: Sex is about orgasm. At the very bottom of this is the subtle assumption that sex is ultimately about orgasm. Those “powerful feelings” (a.k.a. orgasm) are only for marriage! Don’t get aroused! Don’t masturbate! Don’t feel what your body is designed to feel! This misses the mark entirely and creates dysfunction.
REFRAME: Sex is about union. Teach the higher message: sex is about union. It’s about bringing two souls together and forming one entity, eternally united. Orgasm is not The Point, and if you make it so, you miss what is sacred and divine about sex. Orgasm is not wrong (obviously!), but without union, it can be lonely, unfulfilling, even addicting. Teach kids not to try to fill their emptiness with orgasms, but with the love of God. It will make all the difference.
[Last post in the Teaching Sex guest post series: Two Tables?]