Evelyn’s first hand account: As a single woman struggling with anxiety and depression, my sexuality was not a priority in my life. After all, I was single, wasn’t I? As an active and devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my responsibility as I saw it at the time was to avoid and ignore anything related to sex. Whatever my well-meaning youth leaders had intended, the message that I had received from them was that anything related to sex - discussion, acknowledgment, unintended feelings of arousal, etc. - was off limits. The idea that this avoidance might be contributing to my mental health struggles never crossed my mind. In fact, at one point, when asked whether I had a healthy view of sexuality, my answer was “How should I know?” In my mind, even knowing the answer to a question like this was potentially inappropriate, because it would require thinking about sex.
Then came the challenge to make some goals in my life in all areas, including my sexuality. This made me uncomfortable. I have tried to do what is right throughout my life, and this felt like straying a little too close to the fence for me, so I started small. I would just think about my sexuality. That was all. For a few minutes, I would consider that this part of myself that I had isolated, ignored, and disconnected was in fact a legitimate part of me. Over time, this few minutes of thought led to study. I read books written by members of the Church and other Christian authors and considered what they had to say. I prayed about what I was reading and my own questions. I became increasingly certain that sexuality and desire are God-given and an important part of being whole and complete. As I came to this understanding, some truly unexpected things began to happen.
The first noticeable change was that I began to feel differently about certain TV shows. Many comedies use sex as a primary source of humor. Where these shows had not bothered me previously, I began to feel uncomfortable with the way that they were portraying sexuality. Using this gift from God for a cheap laugh began to affect me more. Studying and thinking and acknowledging my own sexuality made it feel more sacred to me, not less. I changed some of my media habits to reflect my new understanding. This led to a closer relationship with God. I also began to feel better about myself. I felt more comfortable in my own skin. I worried less about what others thought about me, and felt less need to hide myself behind a mask of whatever I thought others wanted to see. My symptoms of anxiety and depression began to decrease. This was a shock to me, but I realized that accepting my own sexuality and desires allowed me to stop fragmenting myself. I became more whole and more authentic. My relationships did not suffer for letting go of my carefully constructed mask. I became closer to my roommate as we had vulnerable discussions and talked - and sometimes laughed - together about our shared insecurities. Other relationships also improved. I began to serve others more, and noticed their needs more easily. I felt more comfortable reaching out to comfort and help others in need.
Eventually, I decided to take another step forward in understanding my own sexuality and desires. I decided to explore masturbation. This was not a step that I came to lightly. When it was first suggested during a therapy session, I had a strong negative reaction. I couldn’t possibly do this! It was wrong. I felt anxiety and pressure. I felt torn between a desire to please someone I respected by agreeing to try but also fear that trying this would ruin my relationship with God. As a child, I had stumbled upon the ability to stimulate myself and had done this occasionally for some time before I even understood what it was. The shame I felt when I eventually realized that this was what people meant when they used the term “masturbation” was extreme. I spoke with a bishop about this behavior, and put it behind me as best I knew how, by locking away that part of myself as completely as I possibly could to avoid even entirely unintentional feelings of arousal. Now, the thought that I might choose masturbation on purpose frightened me. I thought about this deeply for some time. Eventually, I made a choice: I would not try masturbation. I shared this in my next session.
Once again, the results were unexpected. I didn’t consider this at the time, but this was the first real choice that I had ever made about my own sexuality. I had always attempted to do the right thing, but it was an effort to do what others told me to do. Never before had I exercised my agency around my sexuality. I had never owned a choice before in regards to this part of myself. I felt empowered. I felt strong. My fear and anxiety decreased, but not because of what I had chosen. They decreased simply because I had chosen. I realized then that I had previously allowed myself to be acted upon, rather than claiming my agency and making my choices. I began to pray and consider the possibility of making the choice to try to better understand and appreciate my own body, my sexuality, and my desire through masturbation. After a period of time, and with significant thought and prayer, I decided that this was something that I would do.
Not long after this, I met the man that I would marry. My experiences had increased my ability to interact and communicate authentically, and I was able to bring my whole self to this relationship in a way that I had not been able to in past relationships. I was able to communicate more honestly about my needs, with less fear. This is not to say that this was easy, or that I was fully prepared to enjoy the sexual relationship with my husband after marriage. I discovered that what my mind and heart believed, my body did not necessarily understand. Like many women, I had to deal with painful sex and difficulty staying in the present moment during intercourse without shame or fear. Gratefully, my husband is a kind and honest communicator who cares about my enjoyment and is patient with me. As we have talked and shared and supported each other, I have felt increased closeness and enjoyment in sex. I know that if I had not begun the process of understanding and appreciating my sexuality and my own body before we married, this process would have been far more difficult. I fear I would not even have been able to talk about it with my loving husband with honesty and awareness, which would have made our intimate experiences together more challenging and our conversations less effective.
I know that my journey is far from complete. I still often feel like I have a long way to go. I also would never presume that someone else should make the same choices I have. Every person needs to make their own decisions thoughtfully and prayerfully. However, I truly believe that my Heavenly Father cares about my relationships and is concerned with my experiences with sex. He doesn't want me to live in fear of my own sexuality, given to me by Him for righteous purposes. He wants me to recognize that this gift is a part of who I am. He wants me to enjoy sex with my husband and use it as an opportunity for us to grow closer together. He wants me to claim the gift of agency and make choices for myself, rather than acting out of fear. I am grateful for the experiences that I have had as I have sought to understand my sexuality. I know that they have helped me to develop my relationships - with myself, with my friends and family, and with God. I know also that they will impact the way that I teach my children about this topic. While I still appreciate the efforts of youth leaders who impacted my life in many ways for good, I want to better prepare my children to understand this powerful gift from their loving Father in Heaven. I hope that by teaching them differently than I was taught, they may be more prepared to fully enjoy and appreciate the blessing of their sexuality.