This post will likely make you uncomfortable. I know that I am going to be uncomfortable writing it.
When I was in Boy Scouts, I washed vans for the Stake President to make money for the troop. He was the head of a plumbing company and there was a vast back lot in which we engaged in water fights and exploration when the washing got dull. One time, some of us found some pornographic magazines in an old container back there. They had something to do with vampires, pregnant ladies, and a whole lot of nudity. All of us snuck a glance, due to the bizarreness of the magazine and the fact of naked ladies. A similar thing happened on another Scout trip to clean up someone’s old homestead. In sorting through all the crap, we found a stash of photographic slides of nudes. All the scouts involved had a look. I’m not proud that I did it, but I’m not terribly surprised that I did it either.
There are certain lessons that we could take from these two anecdotes. Certainly it is appropriate to wonder where the leaders were in all this. I think that they were inside, in the cool, in the plumbing back lot and that they were carefully steered away from the slides by us. Certainly they could have been more vigilant. In this same era I remember that one of the benefits of going on overnight temple trips to Atlanta was the possibility of seeing R rated movies at the hotel, where the chaparones were present. So we could read this as an opportunity to condemn my youth leaders.
Or we could turn it into a critique of pornography in general. I don’t know that the other young men struggled with pornography in the intervening years, but I do know that I am one of only a couple who are still active in the church. Perhaps these brushes with porn began to poison these boys, sapping their connection to the Lord and eventually leading them to reject missions and eventually the church itself. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one who thought about driving out to that homestead and retrieving those slides, which, when you think about it, is about the most inconvenient way to view pornography, especially if you don’t have a slide projector. That said, I often felt like I was. I remember, one time, I told a bishop, in a fit of guilt, that I had masturbated. He looked at me and, stifling a laugh, told me that if everyone who did that came to see him he’d be holding interviews 24/7. He left it to me to figure out my repentance with the Lord.
I think either of these approaches misses the point. I was of sufficient age to understand what pornography was. I had attended umpteen lessons regarding the dangers of porn, its degrading nature, its poisonous influence. I understood that I was a child of God, meant for better things. Yet when the opportunity arose I, like all my peers, partook of the forbidden. I didn’t do it because of my peers (although their participation doubtless didn’t hurt); I did it because I was deeply curious about sex, about what women looked like without clothes on, and about what it meant to be grown up.
It is something of a cliche in the bloggernacle that female sexuality is somewhat stifled in the church and there are plenty of people who enjoy the transgressive nature of posts that offer anonymous sex advice. However, aggressive female sexuality, initially thought of as a feminist triumph, still allows women to be considered primarily as sexual objects. The status of masturbation as a sin is a regularly debated topic (one which that bishop, at least, seems to have resolved for himself). Pornography itself is occasionally treated, usually with kid gloves, because too much empathy may indicate sympathy and too much stringency may indicate judgment beyond one’s pay-grade. Both of these problems within the church are, moreso, symptoms, I think; it might be helpful to treat the cause. The cause, I think, is to a great degree our tendency to ignore the elephant in the room: male sexuality.
This isn’t only an issue of our church; all of American society is gripped with the same issue. At best, we have some notion of the libido in men. My wife tells me that much male sexual behavior and desire can be explained by evolutionary biology and psychology. Freud certainly acknowledged the power of male sexual desire, but I don’t know that we have much progressed beyond his thoughts. Certainly I am no sexologist, but it strikes me that we can have lengthy discussions of the best way for women to masturbate in the bloggernacle, but the opposite simply isn’t true. Male sexuality is a big, powerful mystery and our unwillingness to confront it directly is leading to a lot of trouble.
I feel a need to note that I am not advocating free love, a loosening of sexual taboos, the breaking of commandments, or a weakening of the church’s position on pre-marital sex. That way lies madness (literally, in the case of syphilis) and a host of other social problems. Nor am I interested in hearing about your fantasies, fetishes, or freakishness. This post isn’t about confession; go see your bishop or your counselor if you need to unload. This post is a call for some understanding of why our young men seek sex, in spite of all our well-meaning warnings, with a couple lousy suggestions for improvements in how we teach and talk about sex.
We have a tendency to treat male sexuality as a great untamed beast. This is, I think, setting all our young men up for failure. We take it for granted that a father might tell a son or daughter to not stay out late with their partner “because I know how boys are at your age.” But what is the message sent by that saying? That every boy is a potential rapist? That the father understood that he might have raped someone if he didn’t go to bed by 11:30? Obviously, these scenarios disregard the potential willingness of the girl (we’ll set aside homosexuality for now, although our treatment of it is another symptom of our great fear and unwillingness to directly address male sexuality). But if it is all about what boys at age x are like, we’re ignoring her feelings about the matter anyway. Now, I don’t want to dismiss the problem of acquaintance rape, which is real and happens a lot (at least, that’s the case in Utah valley), but rather I want to emphasize that we treat male sexuality like the Hulk. You don’t know when it will come to the fore, but when it does it will take over everything in your life and the results won’t be pretty.
Another example: it is a commonly held belief amongst my students at UVU that porn leads to serial killing. Everyone knows that Ted Bundy looked at pornography and Bundy said that it was pornography that led him down the path to killing women. They say that in addictive behavior, such as that induced by porn use in conservative communities, the addict escalates. Therefore, after you’ve browsed a Playboy, it won’t be long before you are slaughtering young girls on the hillside. This is, of course, absolute crap. As far as I know, every single boy over 14 in Utah County (possibly in America) has seen porn and yet our serial killing still seems relatively rare. But because male sexuality is the great bear, ready to attack and consume, this is how we understand it.
The problem with this approach is that, of course, once you’ve looked at porn (had sex, wondered what that girl you like would look like without clothes on), then you are obviously in the grip of powers beyond your control. You can’t help yourself now, because the force of the thing is too powerful. Certainly, the libido is a strong force, but the bigger and more intimidating we make it, the less likely young men are going to be able to learn to control it. The less we discuss and consider it, the bigger a problem it is.
When I looked at those magazines, I was interested in the pictures, but I was equally interested in what they represented to me: adulthood. It is crazy to think of pornography as sophisticated, but I did. Sex indicated a new stage of life, the final border to between me and autonomy. It was what grown-ups did and, as a teen, I was determined to assert my ability to be grown up. Of course, the manner in which I did this was deeply childish and selfish (which all pornography is), but I didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t see that. Looking at porn, amongst other things, made me feel strong and in control of my life. That was its allure, as much as or more than the promise of nudity. That’s what Hollywood sells, not sex, but sophistication and autonomy.
It seems to me that, if we want to teach our young men successfully about sexuality, we should focus on what a truly adult approach to sexuality would be. This shouldn’t cloak it in secrecy, but its proper application should be acknowledged. Stable, strong, sexual relationships make us happier. Pornography, sexual deviation, and a lack of reverence for your partner can harm that relationship. Again, I don’t think explicit description is necessary (or helpful), but I think that a sense of the power of a loving, sexual relationship is necessary to convey to young men (and women) why waiting for the one to whom you’d like to be married is necessary. And if providing that sense makes the young men and women deeply uncomfortable and embarassed in the meantime, that might be helpful, too.
On the bus on the way to school the other day, I heard the hoary ol’ saying “If you don’t look, you are not a man. If you look twice, you are a bad (missionary/husband/boy scout).” If being a man has been truly reduced to having the ability to objectify a woman, then we are all in pretty sorry shape. I know this goes contra culture, but what if we did teach kids (and provided examples ourselves) that sex is only a part of healthy relationships, a necessary part, but not the spice. The spice is having someone you trust to put up with your quirks and having the joy of putting up with another’s. The spice is getting to be a part of someone else’s plan without feeling or being used. The spice is giving oneself over to another, taking the risk of intimacy and having it work out. In marriage, sex is often obligatory; trust never is.
I remember President Hinckley once giving an anti-pornography talk about being the person your future spouse wants to marry. That’s the sort of thing that, I think, will help. But our present tendency seems to me to be to treat our young people, involved in sexual sin, as lepers, victims of an eventually fatal, lingering, consumption. If we want male sexuality to stop being our societal cancer, then we need to deal with it directly, instead of stepping lightly around it. After all, cancer is uncontrolled growth; if we actually started teaching boys to direct it properly, what heights could they achieve?