“Don’t Touch” — Addressing Sexual Taboos In The LDS Faith Part 6

Previous Chapter: 5. A New Culture Is Born: “Doctrine And Addiction” And Returning To The 1700s

Purity, Modesty And Moral Ambiguity

A quick word on purity and modesty and how it’s negatively feeding into our perception/paradigm and preventing healthy solutions. These are probably two of the most ambiguous terms I hear in the context of sexuality. Possibly due to the misunderstanding of lust and coveting in Matthew 5:27–8, purity is most often used in the context of naiveté. Jason A. Staples Ph.D., professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at NC State University addresses this topic well: “Whoever Looks at a Woman With Lust”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages.” Also see “Modesty: I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means” by Rachel Held Evans and “The Costs of Misunderstanding Modesty” by Julie de Azevedo Hanks.

Our current paradigm, I believe, is a product of our reincorporating 1700s ideas into our cultural belief system. A phrase parents use in “sharing too much” with their children is they must “protect their purity.” Some parents have described how exposure to various media and forms of pornography puts their children’s purity at risk. The “For the Strength of Youth” (FSOY) reinforces this idea in its section on “Sexual Purity.” it reads,

Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body. Pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit so that you can be clean and virtuous. The Spirit of the Lord will withdraw from one who is in sexual transgression.

Avoid situations that invite increased temptation, such as late-night or overnight activities away from home or activities where there is a lack of adult supervision. Do not participate in discussions or any media that arouse sexual feelings. Do not participate in any type of pornography. The Spirit can help you know when you are at risk and give you the strength to remove yourself from the situation. Have faith in and be obedient to the righteous counsel of your parents and leaders.[1]

I believe there is great wisdom in the cautions given in this guidance while at the same time it seems to communicate a confusing paradox. It placed parents and youth in a potentially double bind predicament. Will discussing sexual development, sexual desire, exploring concerns, curiosities, questions, discoveries intentionally or unintentionally lead to “arousing sexual feelings”? As loving parents, we would never want to make our children impure. I have worked with youth and adults who “remove” themselves from therapeutic discussions involving sexually related topics. One wife experienced this paradox when she sought out help for “intimate issues” in her marriage, but refused to discuss or explore any sexually-related details. Unfortunately, soon after she stopped coming to therapy.

Biologically, pubescent youth will, without any intent at all, experience arousal. It’s not just expected; it’s normal and healthy. YAY! Their body is functioning exactly as designed. Will discussing sexuality lead youth (or adults) to experience some sort of arousal? Maybe, yes. This predicament appears to leave parents, youth, and leaders with ONE option: “Have faith in and be obedient to the righteous counsel of your parents and leaders.” Which is to not do any of the above or anything that will potentially increase your temptation.

As one insightful YSA woman observed, “Leaving all the confusion, arousal, blame of inadvertent arousal, and curiosities to fester inside the child in silence. Building up fear in the child of themselves, their body and the thought to seek answers. Resulting in the child either repressing the natural curiosity that it is to understand their body or seeking the answers out through individuals who may not have the right intentions in mind — or accurate understanding of it themselves (kids to kids or kids to porn, or to experience it themselves just to understand).”

Under this interpretation, I do not fault parents’ fear of harming their child's purity.

But I don’t believe this is the intent of the message of sexual purity. I don’t believe it discourages meaningful, preparatory discussions with our children or those we have stewardship over. The above message is a warning against engaging in sexual relationships. The FSOY is providing a definition of sexual purity in the context of physical relationships with others. “Do not have any sexual relations before marriage, and be completely faithful to your spouse after marriage. Do not allow the media, your peers, or others to persuade you that sexual intimacy before marriage is acceptable.”

As for the part that says “Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body,” at best, this is confusing and at worst fosters anxiety, depression, guilt and sexual dissociation. This can lead to tragic consequences which are medically substantiated and unfortunately occurred in the case of Kip Eliason, in the early ‘'80s.

The Church has made leaps and bounds in updating its material and pulling away from the moral absolutes of President Kimball and Elder McConkie, not to mention the decades of Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone’s personal mission to purge masturbation from the earth, with his quoting from President Clark and teaching medically incorrect information. In a somewhat bizarre lecture to a group of Latter-day Saint counselors at an Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists (AMCAP) meeting, Elder Featherstone makes some bold and impossible-to-substantiate claims about the missionaries he presided over. Further he called a married couple to repentance for participating in masturbation together as a couple.[2] The interviewing behavior he described appeared to be in conflict with a First Presidency letter in January 5 and October 15, 1982, that stated “When interviewing married persons, the one doing the interviewing should scrupulously avoid indelicate inquiries…” and interviews were to precisely follow as outlined in the “temple recommend book.” Further, no one should ever “inquire into personal, intimate matters involving marital relations between a man and his wife ... if in the course of such interviews a member asks questions about the propriety of specific conduct, you should not pursue the matter …”

Nonetheless, the hard-hitting, absolute statements made in the ‘60s and ‘70s are culturally difficult for people to part from. Ironically, as often as we boast in the uniqueness of our faith by repeating the Prophet Joseph Smith’s “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves,” we are a very directive people. We crave black and white answers. These absolutes are spoken with such conviction as to either be interpreted as doctrine or literally taught as doctrine. As in the case of this mission president in 2003, who is teaching “doctrine” while clearly not knowing what he is talking about. Saying “the brethren call that ‘self abuse’ instead of masturbation. It’s a little softer word. It’s more dignified.” What’s even more surprising is that this mission president is also an OB/GYN physician. He should know better. It’s more dignified? Culture is difficult to change. But these statements are becoming less and less frequent. Is anyone else excited we haven’t heard a single mention of porn in priesthood conference the last couple years?! Why? Because it’s a poor and ineffective approach.

Therefore, simply saying “Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings,” etc., is confusing and sets youth up for failure. Based on the previous comments and our cultural understanding of purity, ANYTHING can arouse sexual feelings. For a 14-year-old boy, mind pumping full of hormones, walking into a donut shop can elicit all sorts of sexual feelings. Not to be silly, but real and honest. Does that innocent boy now swear off all donut shops? By the way, that’s a real example. Youth (and adults) struggle to differentiate between intentional arousal and the biological experience they are naturally having.

I have often wondered why the Lord would “bless” a child so young to experience something so powerful as sexual desires and arousal. One youth expressed, “I’m two different people: the worthy priesthood holder passing the sacrament and the other a dark, isolated kid who enjoys these ‘feelings’.”

Furthermore, what FSOY doesn’t address is what to do when you do nothing that “arouses sexual feelings,” and a young boy has an erection for going on for hours and all he did was wake up. What about the young girl who experience butterflies in her stomach and can’t seem to shake the urge? Furthermore, and I say this in the most sincere and respectful tone, have faith and be obedient to what righteous counsel of parents and leaders? Even if the child was unashamed and fortunate enough to have adults in their lives who could discuss the topic, what are they putting their faith and obedience into?

As a result from these teachings, you leave children with a couple of options. One, somehow completely suppress the feelings. Two, spend years battling the compulsion. These are such negative perspectives and have lasting consequences as previously discussed. There are more options than sucky choice A and sucky choice B, as my wife so often says.

Next Chapter: 7. Solution: Real Self-Mastery Cultivating Sexuality

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] https://www.lds.org/youth/for-the-strength-of-youth/sexual-purity?lang=eng

[2] Featherstone, Vaughn (1 October 1990). "However Faint the Light May Glow". Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy. 16 (1): 65–66 http://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1311&context=irp