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Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday sexytimes

In her latest post, Sulli at We Were Going To Be Queens talks about sex and the (LDS) church, including a quotation for discussion from Alison Bechdel to kick things off: "Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death."

I think this is an elegant summation of one of US society's most trenchant issues. Being raised in the Mormon church, I found that this broader perennial problem was percolated to a fine brew of feverish guilt Kool-Aid. It's probably the same in other churches, but as ever I can only speak to my own experience. As Sulli points out, in LDS doctrine sexual sin is second only to murder in God's Litany of Bad Things; in this case, "sexual sin" covers everything from cheating on a spouse to non-standard relationships--such as polyamory, ironically enough--to homosexuality to sexual abuse to masturbation to French kissing your boyfriend and possibly even oral sex within the bounds of marriage, depending on who you talk to.

This doesn't mean that church members in good standing never ever do these things (I recall overhearing gossip among the married women in my ward back home which singed my precious teenage ears). It certainly doesn't mean that sexual abuse never occurs or that Mormon babies are never born out of wedlock. What it did mean for me was that a disconnect grew between how I thought about sex on an everyday basis and what I expected would occur once I got married. Mormon youth are bombarded with messages about how their sexuality should manifest and express itself and what should be done about sexual urges. Effectively a good Mormon has no erogenous zones until a wedding ring appears on the left hand. Body shame is instilled early and reinforced often, and LDS members are expected to bounce from "sin second only to murder" to participating in and enjoying conjugal activities once married. I can't provide any real insight on Mormon marriages and sex lives, since I skedaddled before that happened--not that it was likely to. But I did get to go through the process of learning about my body and sexuality outside the confines of LDS doctrine. Thankfully, I had libraries and Internets full of health information to guide me, because no mistake, one of the most real consequences of the LDS attitude toward sex is teenage mothers. As I recall from my ward growing up, there were three teenage girls who became pregnant while I was nearing teenagehood myself. THIS CAN BE AVOIDED. It is frankly criminal negligence to lie to children about sex and the facts of life in the twenty-first century modern world. I was lucky in that I managed to rip out most of the shame I associated with sex all by myself, though sometimes remnants of it still surface. I was not ashamed enough to not find out everything I could about the way my body worked; I read tons of books, surfed Scarleteen, and talked to my more experienced friends. But what about the young men and women who are overwhelmed by that shame, who are afraid to ask questions or have no one to ask?

Doctrines of shame do no service to anyone save those in power.
The death which stems from sexual shame is the death of part of a person's self. Shame is inherently about hating yourself; guilt is about the things that you do--it's easy to see where the two intertwine. A church that teaches its children, youth, and adults to hate themselves does not come from a place of divinity. Another death is that of a person's sex drive, for how are we to repress a thing for many years (many, many years depending on when a church member gets married) and then suddenly expect it to flourish?
I recall a woman in my ward who was single and had never been married; I remember my mother saying that she was "angry"; and now I think to myself, Of course she was angry! She was in her forties and probably had never gotten any! Had I kept on in that church, I likely also would have become angry and depressed, since by the age of twenty no right-thinking LDS man had shown any interest. I mean, sweet Zombie Jesus, I was practically an old maid! Another death resulting from sexual shame is in the realm of self-love, and I don't even mean the Divinyls kind, although let us be clear: jerking it occasionally is important for most people. Self-love here refers to love and reverence for ourselves as humans. My experience as an LDS youth was a cycle of perceived sin and repentance, and apparently this is how it should be; keep in mind that I never actually had the opportunity to do anything tragically bad--I never dated anyone, let alone got close enough to do some sinnin'. I never masturbated. I didn't read or look at porn (except on accident, like when I discovered the novelization of The Wicker Man. O was that ever a night for repenting!). But that shame was there, always. I knew even thinking about kissing the cute guy in physics class was wrong. We are not whole humans if we can't acknowledge all parts of ourselves. Shame leads to fear, fear leads to hate...we know where this goes. So much hate manifests in the LDS church from the shame associated with sex: hate of homosexual people, hate of interracial marriages, hate of those who choose to marry outside the church.

Body and sexual shame forces bodies to be battlegrounds, and though I might
joke about it, it's serious business.
Sexual shame demonizes bodies, both male and female bodies. It lays blame for rape at the feet of victims. It places the onus of responsibility on women while creating men as animalistic and out of control ("You should dress more modestly to help men's thoughts remain pure"). Once upon a time I refused to be ashamed any longer and though it is a continual process of reworking and relearning, I will never look back. I am not ashamed of my breasts or my legs or my ass or my hair. I am not ashamed of my desires. I am not ashamed of my opinions and beliefs and morals. I am not ashamed of how my face and body look when I'm getting busy. I am not ashamed to embrace myself, to tell my gentleman that he's sexy and I want him, right now. I am not ashamed to bring a basket of condoms to the CVS checkout counter, and frankly I hope someday to be utterly shameless.


the_bardologist said...

I can honestly say as I went to a Catholic High school that if I had not been dragged to Women's Hospital for sex education (I would not have known anything about it) I knew at least one classmate who ended up pregnant and I think in no small part due to that pressure. They always made it seem shameful to have any sexual feelings. I felt that it was inherent that sex was only for procreation. I felt very out of place at my school since it seemed like I was the only non-catholic in the whole school. I felt also that according to the school's way of thinking being an independent feminist was a bad thing and that did not sit well with me. This was not helped with the male classmates who objectified the girls and created the atmosphere that if you should sleep with them and when they did they were sluts. Needless to say I was happy to leave that place.

Donna Banta said...

Diana, this is a great post. It's also ironic that all the repression ultimately leads to unsafe sex and sometimes promiscuous behavior -- then the requisite self loathing. It's no wonder the porn industry is so popular within the LDS community. The "sex is dirty" message is very damaging.

Diana said...

Sara--people who manage to emerge from Catholic school relatively unscathed amaze me. It seems even more pernicious than the average church setting because it's SCHOOL; there's no getting away from the dogma if it's in your curriculum. Blah.

Donna, thanks! Man, was I ever surprised to learn that porn is a big problem amongst the LDS populace, particularly in Zion. Oddly enough, the rudest parts of my awakening occurred after I left the church. o.O

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