“Don’t Touch” — Addressing Sexual Taboos In The LDS Faith Part 2

Previous Chapter: 1. Background — It Happened Again

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

"Some persons have supposed that our natural affections were the results of a fallen and corrupt nature, and that they are 'carnal, sensual, and devilish,' and therefore ought to be resisted, subdued, or overcome as so many evils which prevent our perfection, or progress in the spiritual life...Such persons have mistaken the source and fountain of happiness altogether." —Elder Parley P. Pratt, Essential Parley P. Pratt Ch 10, p.124a[1]

In reading through the goggles of presentism, this quote is unimpressive and obvious; but in historical context, it’s revolutionary, progressive and controversial. Dr. Mark Kim Malan, in “Historical Development of New Masturbation Attitudes in Mormon Culture: Silence, Secular Conformity, Counterrevolution, and Emerging Reform,” asserts that the Latter-day Saint view on sexuality — specifically masturbation in the ‘60s — was the first time “the moral views of popular church culture were now at odds with modern medical science.” (pg 97) But Elder Pratt’s quote would suggest it wasn’t the first time.

As Latter-day Saint medical historian Lester Bush notes,

“The procreative process is so central to Mormonism’s cosmic view that at one time or another developments in every issue here addressed have been measured in terms of their impact on ... LDS thought ... on sexuality and sex education, birth control, abortion, sterilization, infertility, homosexuality, and sex change surgery [masturbation, eugenics, reproductive technologies, birth defects, and ‘ensoulment’ of the fetus are also treated]. As with nearly all other LDS teachings, those related to birth and sexuality can be understood only in the context of a considerable historical legacy …”[1] As such, exploring the historical ‘legacy’ of masturbation is critical to informing how we view it culturally and ‘doctrinally’ within the LDS faith today.”

The medical, scientific and religious knowledge of masturbation in the 1800s (and culturally within the faith today) are deeply rooted in quackery. Masturbation is often described as “self-abuse,” which was a term coined and popularized in a British pamphlet, “Onania; or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution.” “Onania” or “Onanism” refers to Onan in the Old Testament (Genesis 38:9-10). It was a predominant belief at the time (and is still held by many today) that “Onan’s sin” and punishment of death was a result of him masturbating. Therefore, individuals who masturbated were committing the sin of Onan. However, as Ben Spackman points out in a nuanced reading of the scripture, he suggests that the sin of Onan wasn’t masturbating but “Onan’s actions vis-à-vis Tamar were particularly heinous in Israelite eyes: ‘By frustrating the purpose of the levirate institution, Onan has placed his sexual relationship with his sister-in-law in the category of incest—a capital offense.'[21] Thus the death of Onan at the hand of the Lord.

“Onania” was published under an anonymous author in the early 1700s, later identified as John Marten: “an imposing, cheating quack, and an ignorant pretender, and that his Letters, Stories of Cures, pretended Medical Secrets, etc.” (pg 112) John Marten’s sensational quackery, not unlike pseudo-science today, fed on the worst fears of the reader while providing a miracle cure which could be purchased at enormous cost. Although not unique to the topic of sexuality, the modern day “sex addiction” intervention programs mirror Marten’s model of capitalizing on an illness they invented. Such programs like Fight the New Drug (FTND), Sons of Helaman, and In-patient sex treatments, can cost easily $30,000 dollars a month and with little or no statistical evidence of success to justify the treatment other than unconfirmed testimonials. You’d think at such a cost, and with the best resources and treatment available, there would be at the very least a high level of transparency into its success-failure rate.

Ironically, Marten detailed these illnesses and treatments with voyeuristic testimonials. Marten’s persuasiveness and fear-laced pamphlet told readers that masturbation would lead to essentially every illness and life-threatening disease, ranging from the common headache to rheumatism, short-sightedness, bowel disorders and gonorrhea. If left unrestrained, the habit would inevitably lead to a lonely and agonizing death. (Sound familiar?) His only avoidance to equating masturbation and its resulting emissions to murder is because, “What is wafted might prove a Child; if it were, all Nocturnal Pollutions, which No-body can prevent, would be so many Murders; but, because the Seed is wafted in a sinful Manner, it is a Crime which God hath punished with Death.”[2] Although not logically consistent, he at least acknowledged there were biological exceptions and that there are some things one has no control over.

The wide acceptance of this pamphlet would later infiltrate reputable science and medical practitioners who would expand on Marten’s quackery. In the mid 1700s, well-respected Swiss doctor Samuel Tissot would latch onto this hysteria and validate it with his credentials. Tissot’s recognition and influence reached American medical practitioners, making masturbation an official health hazard. Tissot further argued that ANY orgasm, whether induced by masturbation or marital sex, was medically dangerous. This belief persists today among those who still believe that sex should only be engaged in for the purpose of conceiving children.

For Tissot, the very worst kind of sexual activity was the solitary orgasm since it could be indulged in so conveniently and at such a tender age that excess was inevitable and the resulting supposed nerve damage irreparable. Let me again interject, there is a persistent paradigm today, among even the most “sex positive” members of the church, who believe that masturbation only leads to pornagraphic, indulgent, erotic and selfish thoughts. This idea is also rooted in early quackery. Although the correlation does occur, I believe it's because we are predisposed to believe it will occur. I’ll address this specifically in the solution section.

Tissot medically advanced the ideas associated in the dangers of wasted semen to include weakness, cloudiness of ideas, madness, decay of bodily powers, pains in the head, rheumatic pains, aching numbness, pimples, blisters, itching, impotence, premature ejaculation, gonorrhea, priapism, tumors and hemorrhoids. His association of masturbation with weakness and an almost endless list of symptoms were particularly frightening to his readers, which led to hysteria and initiated popular new belief that came to be known as “masturbatory insanity.” One medical solution was circumcision. It was believed that exposing the head of the penis would eventually deaden its sensitivity, preventing arousal. “In the 1890s, it became a popular technique to prevent, or cure, masturbatory insanity.”[3] For women — and get this irony — you know what the solution was for female hysteria (which was believed to be in the uterus floating around in the body)? Orgasm — which could only be performed by a medical doctor. There is some evidence that the vibrator was invented to aid the practitioner in this “cure” because it was taxing on the doctor to routinely perform this treatment, but was apparently safer for the practitioner to perform than patients self-stimulating for fear of increasing the risk of insanity or death.

Ergo, the use of the phrase “self-abuse” is a medically archaic belief that orgasms led to illness and even death. By the 1830s, religionists were embracing, popularizing and capitalizing on what they believed to be the harmful effects of masturbation. Sylvester Graham gave public lectures about Tissot’s findings and expounded on those beliefs when he published “A Lecture to Young Men on Chastity,” wherein he warned about the scourge of masturbation and the perilous nature of excessive sexuality.

He agreed with Tissot’s claim that the loss of semen was a major cause of mental, physical, and societal ills:

“Semen may be called the essential oil of animal liquors … [It] contributes to the support of the nerves ... [Semen] imparts to the body, peculiar sprightliness, vivacity, muscular strength, and general vigor and energy … that it causes the beard, hair, and nails to grow — gives depth of tone, and masculine scope and power to the voice—and manliness and dignity to the countenance and person; and energy, and ardor, and noble daring to the mind.

“Enfeebles the body more than the loss of 20 times the same quantity of blood … [H]ence the frequent and excessive loss of it, cannot fail to produce the most extreme debility, and disorder, and wretchedness of both body and mind.”[4]

Graham — like Tissot with Marten’s ideas — took the concept further, asserting that sex-induced orgasms were equally dangerous:

“[It] rapidly exhausts the vital properties of the tissues, and impairs the functional powers of the organs: and consequently, that it, in a greater degree than any other cause, deteriorates all the vital processes of nutrition, from beginning to end; and therefore, more injuriously affects the character and condition of all the fluids and solids of the body.”[5]

In 1877, Dr. Kellogg published “Plain facts for old and young: embracing the natural history and hygiene of organic life.” Stating his beliefs and medical solutions to the “heinous sin” of masturbation, he said,

“If illicit commerce of the sexes is a heinous sin, self-pollution, or masturbation, is a crime doubly abominable. As a sin against nature [again current ideas of what constitutes a sin against nature rooted in archaic science], it has no parallel except in sodomy (see Gen. 19:5; Judges 19:22). It is the most dangerous of all sexual abuses because the most extensively practiced. The vice consists in an excitement of the genital organs produced otherwise than in the natural way. It is known by the terms, self-pollution, self-abuse, masturbation, onanism, manustupration, voluntary pollution, and solitary or secret vice. The vice is the more extensive because there are almost no bounds to its indulgence. Its frequent repetition fastens it upon the victim with a fascination almost irresistible. It may be begun in earliest infancy and may continue through life.”[6]

But it was Kellogg whose solutions to preventing masturbation were sadistic and mutilating, including sewing the foreskin of the penis closed and using metal constraints to prevent erections (to be used if his intentionally bland cereal — created for the purpose of preventing arousal — didn’t work). Although these devices didn’t become universally used, it wasn’t rejected and is evidence of the fear associated with the practice of masturbation. This was the sexual climate during the time period of the Restoration of The Church.
What Kellogg did would become known as aversion therapy. This aversion-type treatment, although not mutilating, was used in one form or another for another century. "Steps in Overcoming Masturbation” by Mark E. Petersen is an example of aversion therapy approaches. Essentially, it's a “method in which a person is conditioned to dislike a certain stimulus due to its repeated pairing with an unpleasant stimulus.” Aversion therapy not only doesn’t work but the process of this type of therapy (also known as reparative therapy or conversion therapy) can lead to negative effects. As an American Psychological Association Task Force noted, conversion therapy can lead to “loss of sexual feeling, depression, suicidality, and anxiety.”[7]

I CANNOT emphasize this enough. The anxiety, stress and sexual confusion that is associated with any type of aversion treatment is damaging and unhealthy. The damaging results are the same whether it be “think[ing] of having to bathe in a tub of worms, and eat several of them as you do the act,” to prevent masturbating or using fear/pain in any way to avoid the behavior. Even the fear that if you masturbate you’ll have to tell the bishop again is unhealthy. Some aversion techniques use pacts with friends — that you have to pay money to them if you engage in the behavior. These are all varieties of using fear and pain to avert from what should be a beautiful, natural and God-given desire. Even the teaching that masturbating is addictive and will lead to impotence, cancer — or whatever FTND’s flavor of fear is for the month — is driven by fear and pain and often done under the pretense of “informing.”

There are very real consequences that are long lasting and often unseen for decades from aversion treatments, usually later identified in marital relationships. Many have attempted to convince me that, “it will be worked out in marriage when it's condoned by the Lord to explore sexuality.” That is both naive and dangerous thinking. I believe there is significant sexual dysfunction in Latter-day Saint couples. What further complicates this dysfunction is that our culture views a lot of it as “normal” and even healthy. These issues will be addressed in my upcoming book and possibly in a separate post, but for the purpose of this post, there is sufficient evidence that aversion therapy approaches have lasting and damaging consequences.

As for the leaders who used these approaches, please don’t misunderstand me; I am not criticizing Elder Petersen or other leadership. I believe our leaders were doing the best they could in the context of what they understood — especially in the ‘70s. Even though there was evidence that this technique wasn’t effective, it was still commonly used in drug treatment. But again, I address these topics in great detail in my book. Back to the historical context.

To further demonstrate the widely accepted sexual views of the time, in 1850, an editorial in the New Orleans Medical & Surgical Journal inveighs against self-abuse: “Neither plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor a crowd of similar evils, have resulted more disastrously for humanity than the habit of masturbation: it is the destroying element of civilized society.”

And finally, the issue with polygamy might have had more to do with the secular view of disease than religiosity itself (I am not an expert on polygamy). It could be argued too that the religionist and medical practitioners of the time were one in the same. Nonetheless, the climate of fear and rejection of polygamy appear to be in line with the belief that increased sexual activity (more orgasms) caused and spread illness and disease of all sorts. This was at least one of the arguments made by Dr. Robert Bartholow, an army surgeon who published a paper on the “physical deterioration” of the Mormons despite the “excellent climate of Utah:

“He attributed this to the practice of polygamy, which subjected them to debilitating diseases and produced genetically poor offspring. He stated that this religious practice had made ‘Mormon people a congress of lunatics.’ In his paper, entitled The Physiological Aspects of Mormonism, he described the typical Mormon as "lean and weak of body, depraved[sic] of mind (with) … the cadaverous face, the sensual countenance, the ill-developed chest, the long feeble legs, and weak muscular system: typical of a hyperactive sex life. He attributed a rapidly diminishing population to lack of male virility and a high infant death rate. The number of defective children born in the community increased each year as well. Only new converts brought in from Europe and Canada prevented the complete and rapid disappearance of Mormonism.”[8]

As you’d expect, it was much to the surprise of those making these claims to see the members when they arrived in Utah. They found no ill-developed youth. They were in fact met with a thriving population of healthy and happy Latter-day Saints.

Next Chapter: 3. Cultivating Versus Condemning

Table of Contents:
0. Introduction
1. Background — It Happened Again
2. Context Is Important: A Brief History Of Masturbation Beliefs Within The LDS Church
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. 139

[2] “Onania; or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution” https://archive.org/details/b20442348

[3] Paige KE (May 1978). "The Ritual of Circumcision". Human Nature: 40–8. http://www.noharmm.org/paige.htm

[4] Graham S. (1834) A lecture to young men. Providence, RI: Weeden & Cory pg 52

[5] Graham S. (1834) A lecture to young men. Providence, RI: Weeden & Cory pg 56

[6] Kellogg, John Harvey “Plain facts for old and young : embracing the natural history and hygiene of organic life” pg 231 https://archive.org/details/plainfaorold00kell

[7] American Psychological Association. (2009). Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. Pg. 3 Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/therapeutic-response.pdf?utm_source=LifeSiteNews.com+Daily+Newsletter&utm_campaign=635da942bd-LifeSiteNews_com_Intl_Full_Text_02_26_2013&utm_medium=email

[8] E. Victoria Grover-Swank “Sex, Sickness and Statehood: The Influence of Victorian Medical Opinion on Self-Government in Utah” pg 64 http://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5729&context=etd