Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mormon Singles and Sex- a Very Frank Talk

The following was going to run on a different website. At the last minute it was determined that it was too raw and too edgy for that site. I've decided to go ahead an run it here. Some of you will agree, some of you won't. Some of you (non-Mormons in particular) will read this and seriously wonder what the heck is wrong with us.
I'm just telling it like it is.

For the sake of this article I will not use polite alternative language, or pretend we don’t all know what I’m talking about. I will be straightforward and as blunt as possible.
Sex is an incredibly complicated subject. For Mormon singles the subject is even more complicated the more it is engaged in, or the more it is avoided. There is a little secret running through the singles of the Church that the rules for dating and sexual relationships changed over time. No one ever addresses this subject in detail. As a result, many singles have formed their own new rules for appropriate physical relationships that are no longer in harmony with what they were taught at age 16.
When I studied interpersonal communications in college one of the key principles taught was, “everyone is in a relationship.” You may be in a friendly relationship, a married relationship, or a relationship where you do not know each other. Not speaking or avoiding another person, is also a type of relationship. All people everywhere are in some type of relationship with each other. By these same definitions, all people are in a relationship with sex. The type of relationship may change- you actively engage in it, avoid it, have not engaged in it, dislike it, enjoy it, etc. These are all forms of relationships. Everyone is in a relationship with sex.
Mormon singles have the most complicated relationship with sex. And sex complicates all relationships, particularly when sex is to be avoided. To be honest, most dates are planned activities as an alternative to sex. “What can we do to enjoy each other’s presence that won’t lead to sex tonight?” or “How much can we enjoy each other physically before we have to stop ourselves so we don’t have sex?” are the subconscious (and not so subconscious) approaches to dating.) This is what dating is in today’s culture and to think otherwise would be naïve and foolish. You can get to know each other on the phone, through email, etc. Dates are about physical relationships.

What the Youth are Taught
Today we see more sexually arousing images before lunch than our parents saw before their honeymoons. And just like we have been taught since we were twelve years old, the more you are exposed to such things, the more de-sensitized you become.

I work with the young women in my congregation/ward. It is a calling I love and enjoy. I have a great relationship with my girls and it is one I feel a great deal of responsibility for. I know that the girls look to me (whether they realize it or not) to set an example when it comes to dating. I make sure that when I do talk about dating and men that I am careful to only speak the truth, and to speak in uplifting terms. I never degrade men in front of the young women. When the Sunday lesson came up about sexual purity, I was not surprised at all when the girls turned to me for answers. I’ve had classroom conversations with them and private conversations, and the one question I have received from nearly every concerned girl is, “What does virtue mean?” (The definition they have been taught at school, and the very different application of it at church had nearly all of them confused. I think overall, leaders need to be less “light” in their language, and clarify themselves more.) And much to my surprise, several of the girls wanted to know if I was taught the same standards and rules they were taught, and if I kept them- then and now.
The answer is yes, I was taught the same standards. And yes, I kept them and still do. When I was called into the YW program a few years ago I first made the promise to myself that I would not do anything on a date that I wouldn’t allow the young women to do (or would be ashamed if they found out I did), or date a man I wouldn’t want them to look up to, and then later verbalized that same promise to my bishop, and to my girls.
I am upfront and honest with them on the topic of sex. I have told them (more than once) that if you think it is difficult at your age, wait till you are my age! And that if I hadn’t made the decision then to not do certain things I wouldn’t be able to say no to them now.
Youth/teenagers are taught some very strict guidelines for chastity and dating, and have following language from the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet to guide them:
“The Lord’s standard regarding sexual purity is clear and unchanging. 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. It is not. In God’s sight, sexual sins are extremely serious. They defile the sacred power God has given us to create life. The prophet Alma taught that sexual sins are more serious than any other sins except murder or denying the Holy Ghost (see Alma 39:5).”
I am happy to see the terms heavy petting, necking, etc., are no longer the criteria. We now use the words “sexual intimacy and relations.” This phrase covers a myriad of possibilities, and keeps us from having to spell out specifics.
Unfortunately, many singles see this definition as something that was handed out to sixteen year olds, and therefore, it no longer applies to them- the much older, wiser, more jaded, and experienced singles. (Maybe what we need is a “For the Strength of the Singles” handbook!)

I'm No Angel
I wrote and recently published a book, “You Heard It Here First.” I considered it to be clean. While religion is not mentioned, and the characters are not LDS, Mormon standards are found throughout. The heroine is a virgin (a major plot point) and in her mid-thirties. I admit there is a great deal of kissing in the book, but all of the kissing is “above the collar.”
Much to my surprise, an LDS book reviewer told me she enjoyed the book, but could not publish a review or endorse it. Why? She called the character a “technical virgin” and said there were too many “graphic sex scenes, sexual teasing, and heavy petting.” What? She found that in MY book? The raciest thing that happened in my book was the boyfriend kisses her bare shoulder- and then apologized for it!! Heavy petting?? Graphic sex scenes?? I don't even allow the characters to lie down when they make out! But yes, they do make out.
What I wrote was to me an incredibly realistic portrayal of single adult “not-sex” relationships. I came to realize that to this married, older, book reviewer, she expected the physical relationship to be held to the same standards as 16 year olds. (The characters are in their late thirties.)
I asked around to friends closer to my age, if they felt my book was too risqué, and found the exact opposite response. They appreciated a story about a couple that didn’t have sex, but did have a physical relationship that they (the single LDS women) could relate to. (Nonetheless, I dialed it back a bit in my second book.)

The Rules Changed, Did the Standards?
The rules of dating changed somewhere between age 16 and age 36. No one gave us a talk or told us when the rules changed, we had to adjust and figure that out for ourselves. (Women now ask men out almost as often as men ask women out. Women have to be more proactive now than ever before. We have to compete with porn and video games for attention. (And yes, I have heard guys actually say that if he's going to go on a date the woman "has to be more interesting than his video game and/or porn.") And sooner or later your career becomes more interesting than another ward social.) Along with the rules changing, there was also a shift in what is allowed and acceptable physical behavior. A growing mentality of “if it’s not intercourse, it’s not sex, and therefore, it’s okay,” has permeated the singles scene. Add in the divorcees with their sexual experiences, converts, and the more-than-you-would-think-number of singles who have already engaged in sexual relations, and the understanding of what constitutes an acceptable and/or fulfilling physical relationship becomes more complicated than you can imagine.
“Complicated,” it’s a word I keep using. Let’s define it in this context. When I say “it becomes more complicated,” I know some of you are instantly judging and saying, “What’s complicated about it? You’re supposed to say no, and you know that!” Well, yes, that is true. Or “You were taught what is appropriate from the age of 12 up. What part did you not understand?” Ha, well, my body, and let’s face it, his body, were nowhere near as interesting to me at age 12 as it is now. The hormones at age 12, 14, 16, 18, even 22, or 24, were nowhere near as strong or demanding then either. What it takes to make an enjoyable and memorable end of the date kiss at 18, is laughable material now at age 38. When I say things get ‘complicated,’ it includes the ever growing ability to say, “Hey, we can do this, because no one spelled that out as against the rules when we were sixteen!”

The Temptations Don’t Get Any Easier
What we were told not to twenty or thirty years ago can be performed on television during prime time now. Sometimes it is really easy to roll your eyes and say, “I’m not supposed to do it, but they are doing it right there on the TV!” And the next time the situation presents itself and you find yourself considering doing it (whatever it may be), it’s easy to justify, “They can do it on TV!” and allow yourself to do it too.
“Whatever it may be,” – let’s back up for a second here. Let’s back up 3 paragraphs to where it says, “If it’s not intercourse, it’s not sex.” The attitude of “If I’m still a virgin after this, than I (we) didn’t do anything wrong,” is very popular among single adults. I can’t offer an age where this mentality changed or morphed. It wasn’t the mentality when I was still in college, but it has been pretty popular among most singles I know over the age of 30.
Singles, I’m one of you. I get it. I know it isn’t easy to be in our shoes. But there are a lot of mistakes being made out there because we (we the singles as overriding majority) allowed ourselves to justify a few too many things.

Conflicting Reports
We (the singles- and the teenagers for that matter) are given so many conflicting reports about sex that it would make your head spin. From the women who describe it as an unavoidable and not enjoyable chore, to every single song on the radio (a quick glance at the top 10 downloads on iTunes this week says that at least 7 of the 10 songs mix the concept that sex is also love), television, movies, books, billboards, magazines, and everything in between, that tells us it is the greatest thing ever, can you understand why most singles view their relationship with sex as “complicated?”

Can You Have a Fulfilling Physical Relationship Without Sex? (Should You?)
The loose and open-minded attitude of what does or doesn’t constitute sex has gone too far amongst the older singles. And it is time for all singles- men and women- to ask themselves if they have justified too much in the pursuit of a “not-sex, but fulfilling” physical relationship. Ask yourselves if you would want the young men or young women in your ward to do what you think is acceptable for you to do? Discuss with your partner(s) how far back the line was where you felt you had not yet entered the “gray area” of a physical relationship. Only you know where the line is in the definition of “sexual arousal,” and whether or not you have crossed it. Only you know if you are capable of having a fulfilling physical relationship that does not cross the line into sexual arousal or sexual relations. But what you may not know is whether your line for sexual intimacy (or arousal) is at the same place as your partner’s. What you may think is harmless fun, may have crossed another person’s line (who may be having too much fun to say no).
Talk about it and set limits!

In Conclusion
I'm not in any way saying we should let single adults lower and change their standards so they can fulfill their hormonal needs. But it isn't the same now as it was when we were teens. We have a much more in-depth knowledge of our bodies, and a firmer grasp on what is required for a little fun versus "sexual arousal." And that is why we have to make our decisions and commit to what we believe is right and wrong even more now than we ever had to at 16, 18, 20, 22, etc.
Singles need to be more aware of the mentality of other singles when it comes to sexual relations. Youth leaders need to know and understand what the youth will grow up to think, if we do not make it more clear to them that it only gets more difficult with time (and not easier). Bishops and other leaders need to stop leaving chastity discussions with “avoid porn, and keep the commandments” and address this growing mentality more directly.
But most of all, all singles need to take accountability for their own actions, and decide for themselves what is right and wrong. And when entering into new relationships, all singles must promise to themselves to not lower their standards for a new relationship. (It happens every day.) Read the language in “For the Strength of Youth,” and narrow in on the most important words in it, “The Lord’s standard regarding sexual purity is clear and unchanging.” It didn’t change because you turned thirty, had two kids, and got divorced. It didn’t change because you turned forty and haven’t had a boyfriend in ten years. It didn’t change- period.

A Last Note to the Women
Sex talks are often geared towards the men, or about the needs of men. Women are rarely taught much more than how to police a man’s needs. This is a very old school way of thinking. The sexual revolution has liberated women (and girls) who now know what they want sexually, and in many cases, how to get it.
The female body was created and commanded to procreate, and the desire to do so increases with time. Female hormones cause them to reach their sexual peak at about age 35, right before their fertility begins to decrease. Add in loneliness, and the thinning herd of potential mates, and you have a lot of women who don’t think as clearly and intelligently as they once could. Her body she hated because it had too many curves turns into something completely different when there is a man who wants to touch those curves. She knows her body belongs to her, and she suddenly has more than a few well-thought out arguments in her head as to why she would like to use it for her own enjoyment, even if just once or twice.
 At the Academy Awards on Sunday night a song was performed that was aptly titled, “The Boob Song.” (Sorry, if this offends you.) It only took a few minutes for my Facebook and Twitter feed to light up with people discussing whether or not this song was offensive or degrading to women. For those of you who missed it, the song called out and mentioned by name dozens of big name, mainstream actresses who have gone topless in films. The camera cut to several of the women in the audience as their names were called out. Most looked horribly offended or embarrassed, and one actress who was called out for not showing her goods; she smiled and gave herself a thumbs-up.
This is the world we live in. This is what is considered acceptable. This is what is considered normal behavior. A woman’s body is considered public domain, art, a toy, a tool, anything but her own private vessel.
In the Mormon culture we start teaching girls as young as possible that their bodies are sacred and special, and not to be violated. Some people inadvertently teach the idea that a woman’s body is her own until she is married and then it is her husband’s as well. This is not a correct teaching. When she is married her body is something she has the choice to use as a way to comfort, fulfill, and stimulate her husband. A woman’s body is hers and hers alone.
Women own up to your part in setting the standards for a physical relationship. I know of few single women who aren’t active participants in their physical relationships. You are not police. You own your body. You decide what you do with it.

Hey You! Check out my new novels, "You Heard It Here First" and the sequel "This Just In!"


  1. This is an important article and SHOULD be published in an LDS publication. And many more!

    You handled the subject well, I can't imagine how anyone could find offense.

    These are the conversations we need to have, if marriage is going to be delayed for decades.

    Great job.

    1. Thank you, TRS!
      I came across this article today (from 3 years ago). I think you will love it - http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Standards-Night-Is-Substandard-Teaching-Sexuality-to-the-Young-Women.html

  2. Good article - I also agree it should be published in an LDS publication. I don't know if it is just the 30's and above who have trouble with this - I see several YW struggling with this

    1. I agree.
      After writing this post I found myself teaching a very short personal progress lesson on "virtue."
      There were 2 13 year olds in the room. One asked, "WHY WHY WHY do we have to talk about this stuff? I'm still a kid! I still think boys have cooties!"
      I wanted to laugh, because she's the one I actually worry about the most. She's too beautiful for her age. She doesn't look 13. She could pass for much older- not that she tries. She turns heads without effort.
      I explained to the girls that I was 14 the first time I was at a dance, and a boy easily talked me into going out to the parking lot with him. Silly me, I really thought we were going out there to talk!
      He was well into kissing me before it occurred to me what was going on.
      I reminded the girls that I was 14. Nothing "bad" happened. But you know why it didn't happen? Because I had those lessons young, and when the time came, I knew how to stop and say no.
      I made sure they knew there is nothing "bad" about a kiss. I even said, "heck, I like it. It feels good and it is fun. I've been dating for 22 years. I've kissed a lot of men!"
      I could tell from their reactions that some of them liked hearing that. A few others were visibly trying to reconcile the idea that kissing isn't a bad thing to do.
      (There were other comments about not kissing too much, and waiting, etc.)

      We really need to do better at this!

  3. From the side of a 30+, single, Mormon girl who DIDN'T follow the rules, I think this article is great. I think it should have been published as well. I would rather enjoy something like this discussed more.

    Thanks, Erin.

  4. This is a frank discussion that needs to be brought out and not swept under the rug, and I applaud you for beginning to tackle it. There needs to be a realization about the effects mentally on people, including performance anxiety or even frigidity from the teachings that may or not still hold weight and merit. Our bodies are sacred but the idea of a temple that no one ever goes in for fear of ruining the carpet is asinine. Sex, orgasms, and children and a god given benefit, and a right we should all enjoy with the right person. I personally do not think that sex outside marriage should be viewed the same as speaking blasphemy, or worse than stealing. You are correct in that it gets much more complicated, and frankly, it is why I do not date LDS singles. It is too much of a hassle when someone is still naive and in high school when it comes to sexual maturity.

    1. I thought I asked you not to leave any more "anonymous" comments here. If you believe something- put your name on it.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I don't know why this isn't talked about more. It should be a intimate thing, but can be discussed openly. It is almost like people feel that they are committing some sort of sin by even saying the S-E-X word. Everyone just needs to be educated and then decide what they feel is best for them in relation to this!!

  7. Also...well written!!! Tough subject to take on!

    Jess Perry

  8. Anonymous5:42 PM

    I am currently in the planning stages of a Single Adult conference for my Region. I came up with a class called "for the strength of single adults" with the intention of passing out for the strength of youth booklets. We are having it taught by a former SA who was a single father. I'm really excited and thought what you said was spot on.

  9. Erin, Loved this article. Sex is a very complicated subject for us. I find that the habits I developed in my marriage to show affection are what trip me up the most when dating. I also agree that the language needs to get frank and pointed about boundaries, something that is not taught anymore in our culture.

  10. Erin: I echo the other statements that applaud you for writing this brave and necessary article. I absolutely agree that this needs to be talked about more frankly. There's an excellent book on the subject called Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today's Church. It's written by two Christian women with backgrounds and standards very similar to ours. I highly, highly recommend it.

    One thing disappointed me: your statement about how in marriage, a woman can use her body to comfort, fulfill, and stimulate her husband. That's only half the story. A woman's receiving all of that is also necessary. That, of course -- a woman's desire and right to receive pleasure -- is a whole other societal taboo that needs to be exploded.


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