“Don’t Touch” — Addressing Sexual Taboos In The LDS Faith Part 3

Previous Chapter: 2. Context Is Important: A Brief History Of Masturbation Beliefs Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Cultivating Versus Condemning

In spite of these popular moral and medical views on sexuality and masturbation, which persisted well into the mid 1900s, The Church leaders embraced a progressively healthier view that focused more on self-mastery and cultivating the Godly desire of sexuality (versus the shame and fear-based medical and religious ideas of the time). Among the many beautiful doctrines the Restoration ushered into this new dispensation, the true nature of the Fall was revealed — this while Christendom viewed the fall of Adam and Eve, the “original sin,” as a sexual betrayal of God's commandments.

“As recounted in Mormon’s text, Adam and Eve were instructed from the very outset to ‘have seed.’ Fulfillment of this divine command depended on the commission of a (nonsexual) transgression which brought with it both mortality and fertility … The early Mormons view went far beyond a simple rejection of a devilish origin of sex. Like ‘knowledge of good and evil,’ reproductive sexuality itself was soon held to be an attribute of deity.[1]

However, there were a few early leaders who warned in private meetings about the dangers of “self-abuse.” These comments were usually tied directly to serious abuses or individuals who expressed their opinions on the topic.

An example of condemning masturbation in connection with abuse, and one of the first times anything is recorded about masturbation, is from the personal diary of Apostle Rudger Clawson in 1902. Church leaders discussed educating parents about The Church leaders’ beliefs regarding masturbation:

At a meeting in the Temple with the Twelve, Joseph F. Smith was recorded as stating in 1902: that the practice of masturbation was indulged in by many young people in the church schools. Pres. Smith remarked that this was a most damnable and pernicious practice, and the face of every apostle, president of a stake, and high councillor [sic] should be set as flint against it. The priesthood should be called together at the stake conferences and the brethren and parents should be instructed and warned in relation to this matter.’[2]

President Smith's admonition to warn, and the leadership’s vocal increase might have been indicated in the the above quote: “Many young people in the church schools …” During this time and years previous, there were abuses of leadership involving children and group masturbations. In one case, a little more than a decade previous (1886), the polygamous leader of Salt Lake City’s Fourteenth Ward, Bishop Thomas Taylor “was excommunicated for masturbating with several young men in southern Utah” (O’Donovan, 1994, p.135). There might have been continuing issues with similar behavior, if not with adults, then with the students engaging in this behavior together. This type of behavior is definitely not in keeping with the beauty and direction the Lord has established. In this case, it is absolutely within reason to condemn the practice of masturbation and similar behaviors. This context, I believe, is important to understand on two fronts: it wasn’t masturbation or sexual desires as much as it was orgy and pedophile behaviors that were evil. Their focus specifically on masturbation might be reinforcing the scientific belief of the time that the “indulging” in masturbation would ultimately lead to types of “mental illnesses” and sin.

In the following example Apostle Rudger Clawson wrote of a meeting of the general board of education of the church:

“[Wednesday, 24 June 1903] Salt Lake City. Clear and mild. I spent the forenoon at the President’s office. At 2:30 p.m. attended a meeting of the general board of education of the church. During the meeting I called attention to the importance of the study of the science of life, which I thought was being neglected in our schools. It seemed to me, I said, that [more] of [the] young people should receive instruction in relation to love, courtship, and marriage, and should be warned against self-abuse and kindred evils. Many of the young people acquire the habit of self-abuse without knowing its baneful effect upon the health.”[3]

Elder Clawson’s wording is particularly interesting here, as it mirrors the medical guidance of his time. This is indicated by his emphasis on “the importance of the study of the science of life” and “its baneful effect upon the health.” What baneful health concerns would he have? “Insanity,” “homosexuality,” and mental/physical health. These ideas would persist well into the new century. These, among other documented comments, appear to be more medically informed than doctrinally established.

With exception to these few occasions, the Church as a whole cultivated sexuality in harmony with the restored knowledge. As time went on, the medical field gradually rejected the prior quackery and published evidence-based sexual guides, and the early church leadership embraced the medical field again. The healthy view of sexuality among the saints was obviously visible:

“The late 1920s and most of the 1930s saw a more explicit ‘sex education’ in church lessons, to a degree not matched before or since. As one invited speaker explained to a general conference of the Relief Society, adults needed to realize that ‘you and I have been brought up in a generation where we just could not talk about sex. Not so our youngsters. They are talking and thinking about sex as frankly as anything else, and so far as I can discover, as wholesomely.’ Official church manuals endorsed secular books about sexuality and suggested that sexual interests be guided rather than inhibited. During this time masturbation did not always carry the same onus that it does in the popular Mormon literature of today. Rather than focusing on abstinence supervision as is practiced today with current church youth interviewing policies, lessons instead warned parents that they could create emotional problems in their adolescents by an ‘unintelligent’ over-response to their masturbation (Bush, 1993).”[4]

For all the criticism The Church and its leadership gets for failing to address sexuality in a healthy way, the leadership — at least in the beginning of the Restoration— were insightful and ahead of their time. This would become evident at the turn of the century when a few brave individuals in the medical field began to refute the established science.

Austrian physician Wilhelm Stekel confronted the medical field in the early 1900s about the dangers of prescribing masturbation abstinence and the unsupported diseases associated with it. He later published his findings in his 1953 book “Auto-Erotism: A Psychiatric Study of Onanism and Neurosis,” informing the general reader of the medical misconception of sexuality. His keen insight and observations clearly identify the underlying problem:

“Suicide represents merely the extreme consequence of abstinence. It is possible to construct a scale, approximately as follows: anxiety, neurosis, hypochondria, moodiness, depression, melancholia, suicide. From the day masturbation is given up life ceases to be worth while[sic] for these persons.

“The inexperienced inquirer may raise the question: why do these persons fail to find gratification upon the allerotic [focused on another] path? Why do they not seek their libido in normal sexual intercourse, or even in perverse acts with other persons? Precisely because masturbation is the only possible adequate form of gratification for them ...”

I have personally observed the concept “adequate form of gratification,” as Stekel will point out. There is this emotional, moral and spiritual conflict that individuals raised in a rigid moral system experience. Bottling up and resisting doesn’t always work, but they also know that acting out on another is viewed more seriously. Also, those who are avoiding masturbation are not sick, disturbed or going insane as the doctors of the time were saying. A good individual who loves the Lord and desires to do right still struggles. Many viewed masturbation as the only “adequate” way to deal with this struggle. But when they stopped, in the hopes to end the “addiction,” it escalated:

“We have seen that the neurosis breaks out as soon as the masturbation is given up and that the consequences of the abstinence are then regarded as the result of the habit … These cases demonstrate to our satisfaction that many persons are unable to live without masturbating and that they would rather renounce living altogether than try to get along without the customary gratification.

“... I only want to emphasize that the warnings by which parents attempt to scare children away from the practice of masturbation frequently have the opposite effect

“There are persons who have lost the courage to love, who have been inculcated by well-meaning but mischievous parents, and such persons are unable to experience pleasure without a sense of guilt.”[5]

It was these scientific findings that were taught within The Church in the early 1900s. For example, in the official instruction manual for Latter-day Saints, “Community health and hygiene: a study-course for adult-education” on page 138, the Latter-day Saints were taught,

“The pernicious fallacy that insanity is the result of excessive masturbation. The facts do not support any such view, and if they did, the attempt to control self-abuse — injurious as it is — by capitalizing the child's fear of insanity, would still be morally reprehensible and mentally unhygienic.”[6]

Next Chapter: 4. What Went Wrong?

Table of Contents:
0. Introduction
1. Background — It Happened Again
2. Context Is Important: A Brief History Of Masturbation Beliefs Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
3. Cultivating Versus Condemning
4. What Went Wrong?
5. A New Culture Is Born: “Doctrine and Addiction” And Returning To The 1700s
6. Purity, Modesty, And Moral Ambiguity
7. Solution: Real Self-Mastery Cultivating Sexuality

Additional Resources

Facebook Group "Improving Intimacy in Mormon Marriages"

Blog, "Mormon Marriages"

[1] Health and Medicine among the Latter-day Saints: Science, Sense, and Scripture by Lester E. Bush, Jr pg. 140

[2] The Apostolic Diaries of Rudger Clawson,” http://signaturebookslibrary.org/confidences-held-sacred/

[3] The Apostolic Diaries of Rudger Clawson,” http://signaturebookslibrary.org/balancing-the-ledger/

[4] Health and Medicine among the Latter-day Saints: Science, Sense, and Scripture by Lester E. Bush, Jr pg. 144

[5] Wilhelm Stekel Auto-Erotism - A Psychiatric Study of Onanism and Neurosis

[6] “Community health and hygiene; a study-course for adult-education” https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89097565964;view=1up;seq=144