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.