not in Primary anymore

mormons, sex, and not so hilarious consequences

by Hannah Wheelwright

content warning: this post includes frank discussions of sex, and mentions of sexual violence

BYU and Mormons in general make the news fairly frequently for sex stuff. Most of the time I roll my eyes, because the articles are so often just titillating clickbait, dramatic sort of surface level journalism that aren’t interested in truly understanding the issues but actually just want to get their jimmies rustled by reading about a conservative religion’s complicated relationship with sex.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, and I think discussing that relationship can be informative- and talking about it openly can help us identify ways to encourage healthier attitudes and behaviors surrounding sex. So here goes.

Recently Time magazine published an excerpt of a new book, Dateonomics, which provides research and analysis on gender ratios and their effect on romantic relationships in America today, arguing that there’s currently a surplus of women with not enough men to go around. I’m quoted in this excerpt, from a chapter discussing the Mormon and Orthodox Jewish communities. I’d like to expand on part of it:

“To be sure, the Mormon dating scene at BYU—or in Utah in general—will never be confused with Sex and the City. As I said, premarital sex is still taboo for Mormons. Yet, just as Bowman suggested, the undersupply of men does seem to be loosening Mormon sexual mores. ‘At BYU, a lot of Mormons my age don’t consider oral sex to be sex,’ said Wheelwright.”

I keep expecting hordes of angry Mormons to fill up my inbox with rants about how wrong I am but so far I’ve only seen sparse upset tweets. It’s made me wonder if the reality/urban legend has become so common that people can’t deny it, or if they consider it so absurd it’s not even worth responding to. I’d like to make the case here that it’s the former, and discuss some related topics that contribute to the situation. I eagerly await the day when there’s solid research on this and many other topics related to Mormonism, but in the meantime you’ll have to survey my compilation of anecdotal stories, news references, and statements by BYU administrators and ecclesiastical leaders.

For starters, it’s not new for young Mormons to rationalize ways around LDS teachings or statements on sex. See this quote from an online lesson by BYU-Idaho religion professor Lon A. Pyper:

“While I was a graduate student at Brigham Young University, and I understand this continues to be true today, there were some students who had adopted the slogan, ‘Stay moral, go oral.’”

I’ve talked with folks who were students around that time and they’ve verified that the slogan was common, and refuted at at least one fireside on chastity in the HFAC.

I find it fascinating that this seems to have been going on a long time and perhaps is growing more common today. Below is the gist of the situation as I understand it:

  • Considering how vague most direction on sex is in the church (what is petting, anyways?), many young Mormons feel the lack of specifics creates a loophole for them to engage in oral or anal sex and still claim before bishops that they’re keeping the law of chastity. Everyone I’ve personally talked to who did this *knew* that it wasn’t a real loophole and that it contradicted the law of chastity, but pushed that aside to keep doing it.
  • However there are many stories of people who apparently truly did not consider oral or anal to be “intercourse” and thus felt justified that they weren’t breaking the law of chastity.
  • A common theme in many of the stories of people using this logic is that they felt the vagina was supposed to be saved for marriage- because raising children should only be done within the bonds of marriage. Therefore by just engaging in oral or anal, they don’t risk having a baby, and they still save the special hole for marriage. Comedian Larry Wilmore, in his show Race, Religion, and Sex in Utah briefly discusses this, and some anecdotal examples of this can be found here and
  • Another way many Mormons try to get around the prohibition on sexual intercourse is through “soaking,” or “floating,” in which the penis goes in the vagina but doesn’t move or thrust, hence the name. The satirical site Beehive Bugle discusses it here. Other anecdotal descriptions can be found here. Discussions of soaking, and the related but more loosely accepted “Levi loving” (rubbing jeans up against each other for stimulation), tend to get a lot of attention as they’re laughed at and mocked for how far they go in trying to skirt prohibitions on sex.
  • It’s unclear how often this happens, but some BYU students (and probably other young Mormons as well) go to Vegas to get secretly hitched for a weekend or few months so that they can have guilt free sex before mutually divorcing and going on their merry way. Anecdotal examples here. Notable quotes:
    • “In the mid 1960’s and again during the early 1970’s when I was at BYU it was called a ‘Wendover Wedding Weekend’. The couple would zip over the border to Wendover, get hitched and then have sex all they wanted back at BYU. Still lived apart and if they were caught, they were ‘legally married’. Would file for either an annulment or a divorce with a cheap lawyer after a bit and then go find another partner to hitch up with.”
    • “I was at BYU when this was going on. They read a letter in sacrament meeting one Sunday denouncing the practice. The gist of the letter was that while technically the practice was avoiding fornication, the church authorities considered it fornication anyway.”
  • There’s not a ton of information available on the topic, but it seems like discipline at BYU surrounding sex is disproportionate when it comes to race. The Salt Lake Tribune covered analysis on the discrepancies here.

Beyond these practices there are lots of LDS teachings and statements about sex that sometimes attract attention but are rarely examined for how damaging they can truly be. Examples include the teaching that sexual transgression is a sin second only to murder (found in Alma 39:5 as well as in Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments 1988 devotional address), the declaration of homosexual relations as perverted, and the prohibition against masturbation (famously found in Elder Boyd K. Packer’s manual “To Young Men Only”- more information here). Considering these statements I think it’s unsurprising that so many Mormons grow up both extremely sexually frustrated and entirely lacking the skills to handle their frustrations.

Despite that paradox, I think anyone raised as an active Mormon in the U.S. would agree that there isn’t really any gray area on whether oral or anal sex is “okay” before marriage in the church. But younger Mormons especially might not be aware that the church has in the past stated that oral sex is never okay, not even within the bounds of marriage. On January 5th, 1982, the First Presidency issued an Official Declaration that included the declaration, “The First Presidency has interpreted oral sex as constituting an unnatural, impure, or unholy practice.” While only scattered images of the letter can be found online, the document can also be found in the Special Collections section at the BYU library.

There seems to be growing consensus that the church doesn’t have a policy on this anymore- that what happens in the marriage chambers is between the partners involved. But I find this to be another example of willfully selecting what the church leaders direct vs what is no longer their stance; there’s a long history of statements on appropriate sexual practices, and to crown them with an Official Declaration but not have any statements since renouncing it suggests to me that the ensuing silence merely allows priesthood leader roulette to exact punishment on individuals and couples, often involving extremely inappropriate probing questions from the bishop to both married couples and teenagers. If something becomes doctrine because it’s been repeated by apostles of God over the pulpit over many years, surely an Official Declaration is all else you need to cement it as…official. I certainly wish this was not the case, as I think personal sexual practices should be out of bounds for church leaders to ever involve themselves in beyond caring for survivors of sexual violence. But it’s fascinating to me watching members attempt to either defend that oral sex is wrong (a bizarre conversation in and of itself) or defend that the church no longer teaches this when such an argument strikes me as utterly at odds with current understanding of doctrine vs policy.

This nebulous space for vastly varying punishments across wards and stakes doesn’t just result in inconsistent discipline. It also contributes to a gap of sexual education regarding basic health practices and safe behaviors due to the taboo of discussing it openly and the punishment when you do. It’s not the role of LDS leaders to provide this education- but this conflicting meld of information, cultural attitudes, and yes, even gender ratios has serious effects on many people. I strongly believe that meld is tied to why Utah is seeing skyrocketing rates of sexually transmitted infections (with gonorrhea infections up 700% for women); because people from the most devout Mormon to the exMormon who can’t seem to escape the culture they were raised with are still affected by this complicated and at times toxic environment for promoting accurate information and healthy behaviors both in the actual practice of sex and in the attitudes surrounding it.

But it’s not just STD rates that are shockingly high in Utah- the rate of sexual violence is also higher in Utah than the national rate. Underreporting of sexual violence is common across the U.S.- but from my research and talking to many people on the subject while at BYU, from students to the BYU Women’s Resource Center to former employees of the Provo Police Department, I think it’s particularly a problem in Mormon communities. I don’t know all the reasons and wish there was more research on the subject- but I would guess it has to do with a culture with inherent male authority, a taboo barring all discussion of sex including healthy consensual practices and communication, the stigma of people who have had sex (causing even survivors of sexual violence to see themselves as complicit in the sin next to murder), and the actual discipline of survivors of sexual violence by their bishops. Each of those suggested reasons are loaded, I know- but there could be whole books written about each, and probably play some role in creating this environment. Again, it’s not the role of LDS leaders to educate members how to have sex; but this web of policies, the effect of taboo and shame and conflicting doctrinal and cultural beliefs, and the inconsistent discipline surrounding sexual practices is having serious harmful consequences every day.

At BYU if you’re engaged, you can take a class through the BYU Health Center to help you prepare for the sex you’ll have when you’re married. They cover a range of topics and often offer dilators to women to help them stretch their vaginas, in the hopes of having a more comfortable first time with vaginal intercourse. Some folks find this helpful; others feel it misses the mark on educating the attendees on healthy sexual practices (the idea that if you’re doing sex “right,” you shouldn’t need help stretching out your vagina). Most people I’ve talked to who attended this class said they found it helpful, though it does speak again to this complex environment in which LDS young people are trying to get information about sex.

The BYU Student Health Center itself does dispense contraceptives at its onsite pharmacy, but BYU health plans do not cover contraception. And notably, as of this coming Monday August 31st the BYU Student Health Plan will no longer meet the minimum requirements to be in compliance with the Affordable Care Act. It doesn’t list a reason; but as a student at BYU I once talked to the director of the Student Health Center who insisted to me that they were currently fighting the requirements regarding providing contraceptives, because as Mormons we know that contraception is contrary to God’s plan, and it’s such a good thing BYU was exempt from that part of Obamacare. He honestly felt that no one should ever use contraception, not even married couples who want to plan their kids, because we know the importance of families.

Amidst this mess of contradicting information, obstructions in access to basic healthcare, outdated if not actively harmful policies and teachings, and taboo pressures restricting open dialogue on sex, I don’t think it’s hard to see why so many Mormons resort to doing oral or anal to save the vagina baby hole for marriage, or why STD rates and rates of sexual violence are so high in predominantly Mormon communities. There needs to be serious reforms in terms of LDS teachings, trainings for ecclesiastical leaders, changes in BYU’s healthcare policies, shifts in cultural attitudes, opened dialogues, and more- but it’ll require us to stop just laughing about how ridiculous all this is, and actually instituting changes at every level.

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13 Responses to “mormons, sex, and not so hilarious consequences”

  1. Elle

    I think the main solution and responsibility lies with parents. My parents did an excellent job of teaching me, giving me age-appropriate books to read, etc, from the time I was eight.

    Reply
    • kelsbird

      But when the parents fail to do the job or fail to take that responsibility, what then? A secondary source as significant as the church could do a great deal of good if it could institute changes such as the ones Hannah mentioned in the last paragraph and try to encourage a more healthy dialogue when it comes sex, chastity, etc.

      Reply
  2. Anonymous

    BYU’s health insurance does cover birth control for medical issues though – just not for pure contraception. I had tons of friends who were on it for acne, painful periods, PMS and even some older gals started taking it to preserve fertility – very smart btw. When I was newly married my doctor at the health center asked if I wanted a prescription for BC, I said yes please and picked it up at the BYU pharmacy – it was covered. At the end of the day the doctors at the health center serve the health of the students.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth

      What BYU’s insurance doesn’t do, however, is cover birth control for its faculty members. My parents both teach at BYU, and though I will get married next April and can remain on their otherwise outstanding insurance until I’m 26, birth control is not covered. If I want an IUD, I’m paying out of pocket 🙂 This seems totally archaic, and unfair to BYU faculty members.

      Reply
  3. Paglia Noir

    Utah’s STD rates are neither “high” nor “shocking”. The rate of gonorrhea in Utah, despite a recent increase, is 33.3 per 100,000, or 44th out of 50 States. Oregon, ruled by benevolent secularists rather than troglodyte Mormon dolts, has a rate of 44.3 per 100,000.

    The national average is 106.1 per 100,000. Utah’s increased rate is concerning, and should be addressed. The absolute rate it is still low. I wonder why?

    The story is the same for other STDs. Utah ranks 48th in chamydia rates, at 263.9 per 100,000. Compare this to New Mexico, with far fewer LDS, at 587.3 per 100,000. New Mexico is presumable unencumbered by the sexist, toxic LDS culture; how do you explain their sky-high chlamydia rate?

    Primary and secondary syphilis is likewise relatively rare in Utah: 2.6 per 100,000, compared with, say, New York at 7.5 per 100,000. Largely untainted by homophobic, ubermensch Mormons, why is syphilis so much more common in New York?

    You blame misogynistic Mormonism for “shockingly high” STD rate, but the CDC says that the rates are actually quite low. How do you explain this?

    This is exactly the mendacity I’ve come to expect from the Ordain Women crowd.

    Reply
    • hannahwheelwright

      Hi Paglia- I make no claims that Utah’s STD rate is higher than any other state. I point out that the rates are increasing and share many different factors and examples of LDS discourse on sex and express my belief that these things are connected- not that they’re necessarily the overwhelming driving force. Putting the overall rates in context with other states doesn’t explain away the recent significant increase; even if the meld I’ve attempted to chart out isn’t the explanation, clearly something is (or a mix of things are). I do find Utah’s rate to be shockingly high for a state with over half of its inhabitants identifying with a religion that prohibits extra-marital sex, and a 700% gonorrhea increase seems like quite a jump to rationalize away in my view.

      Reply
      • Paglia Noir

        Thanks for the reply.

        “I make no claims that Utah’s STD rate is higher than any other state.”

        So they’re “shockingly high” compared to what?

        Isn’t it possible that Utah’s detestable culture is keeping STD rates low?

        “Putting the overall rates in context with other states doesn’t explain away the recent significant increase;”

        True, but I didn’t try to “explain away” anything.

        Continuing assimilation into the broader American culture, with it’s 3-fold higher gonorrhea rate, seems like a reasonable explanation.

        Also, the influence of LDS culture was unchanged when the gonorrhea rate increased, so I doubt the Mormons caused a gonorrhea epidemic. Utah still has among the lowest gonorrhea rates in the U.S. despite the recent, troubling increase.

    • kelsbird

      Your generalization seems to puzzle me. If you’re concluding that this kind of post is influenced toward that perspective because it’s coming from the “Ordain Women crowd”, then you should probably be made aware that not all Mormon feminists are members/supporters of OW, and I haven’t heard of anything that has to do with Ordain Women mentioned in this post, so I don’t understand why you are pinning your dislike of this post on them. “Blaming misogynistic Mormonism for ‘shockingly high’ STD rates” is not a calling card of Ordain Women, and I think that you believing that this belief exists because of Ordain Women is incorrect.

      I think you happen to be exaggerating when you use the terms “troglodyte Mormon dolts”, “sexist, toxic LDS culture” and “homophobic, ubermensch Mormons”. Mormon feminists (and/or Ordain Women members, if you’re still thinking about them) are not man-hating, church bashing angry anti-Mormon feminists hyper-criticizing the church’s every fault, contrary to what some may think. I don’t think the spirit behind this post was to suggest that the church is the direct reason STD cases are climbing (e.g. as you said, …unencumbered by the sexist, toxic LDS culture; how do you explain their [New Mexico’s] sky-high chlamydia rate?” and “Largely untainted by homophobic, ubermensch Mormons, why is syphilis so much more common in New York?”). You make it sound as if the post says STD rates of the nation are to be blamed on Mormon influence, and the sarcastic church insults included in your comment in my opinion incorrectly criminalize the general attitude/opinion held by this post.

      Reply
      • Paglia Noir

        Thanks for the reply.

        The author is a prominent member of Ordain Women. Thus, her comments come from “the Ordain Women crowd”.

        k: “I don’t think the spirit behind this post was to suggest that the church is the direct reason STD cases are climbing…”

        I don’t know what the “spirit behind this post” is, but it’s thesis is Mormonism –> STDs (and sexual violence).

        The title of the post is “mormons, sex, and not so hilarious consequences”. It’s not subtle.

        k: “You make it sound as if the post says STD rates of the nation are to be blamed on Mormon influence…”

        No. The post claims that Utah’s “shockingly high” STD rates are due to Mormon influence. This claim is not only wrong, it’s exactly backwards: Utah’s rates are very low, despite a recent, troubling increase.

        k: “… the sarcastic church insults included in your comment in my opinion incorrectly criminalize the general attitude/opinion held by this post.”

        Criminalize? I’m not calling the cops, if that what you mean. The “insults” fit the tone of Young Mormon Feminists.

  4. Michael Fletcher

    This doesn’t change the point of your article really but the “Letter from the First Presidency” isn’t strictly speaking an “Official Declaration” in the formal sense. I think if you wrote it uncapitalized it would be more accurate. The term “Official Declaration” as used throughout the history of the church is used to declare official doctrine or practice… Like Official Declaration 1 & 2 found in the Doctrine & Covenants that ended (mostly) polygamy and allowed all men to be ordained to the priesthood. The church also uses the term Proclamation in a similar way. Letters from the First Presidency are certainly weighty and the effects you discribe are probably valid but “Letters” are generally more instructional or to clarify a position, practice or policy… Sometime to clarify doctrine… But are certainly more transitory in nature and rarely, if ever, meant as doctrinally binding. They are not canon. In the modern church (last 50 years-ish) declarations of doctrine will bear the signatures of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Something like the Proclamation on the Family is much closer to canon (though not actual canon either) than a letter for example.

    Just sayin’. ; )

    Reply
  5. Elizabeth

    Hey Hannah, I know I’m commenting late, but thanks for writing this. Regardless of whether Mormon parents want to teach good sex practices to their children, they so often don’t. My well-meaning, left-leaning parents gave me ONE talk when I was in the 4th grade. Did they think I wouldn’t have questions after that? Whenever I did ask a question, my mom would giggle and tease me. Obviously, this is all anecdotal, but when I hear that sexual sins are only second to murder (which is something I heard at church all growing up) how am I supposed to feel about sex? Luckily, I became informed through other means (the internet, manually looking up different terms in a dictionary on our family bookshelf). It’s complicated, and I personally don’t believe I should have to discuss my sexual transgressions with a man I do not know (alone in a room, for that matter) beyond actually breaking the law of chastity. But what does THAT even mean?… And who decided?… So problematic 😦

    Reply

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