On non-volitional sex

In this post I discuss a particular form of sexual violence, ‘non-volitional sex’. It is a difficult topic and I have tried to discuss it with care and sensitivity. My hope is that we can have a robust and thoughtful conversation about these issues, especially regarding how we can both care for and limit the number of victims. Because those who have experienced sexual violence may find such a post and the such subsequent conversation distressing, I hope any comments can be made with the understanding that you are potentially talking to someone who has experienced non-volitional sex.

The United Nations General Assembly has designated November 25th as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Today (the day after), The Lancet – one of the world’s pre-eminent medical journals – reports that 1 in 10 UK women have reported ‘completed non-volitional sex’ during their lifetime. ‘Non-volitional sex is sexual behavior that violates a person’s right to choose when and with whom to have sex and what sexual behaviors to engage in.’ Further, 1 in 5 women report attempted non-volitional sex. Perhaps what is most astounding is that 6.9% of 16-24 year olds and 9.7% of 25-34 year olds report completed non-volitional sex. The prevalence among men was much lower but still distressing (1 in 100: median age = 16).[1] If ever we thought this was a problem of some bygone era, this evidence proves such an assumption to be sadly mistaken. The evidence overwhelming suggests that intimate partners are the perpetrators of such acts. So, what does this have to do with Mormonism?

Assuming that the population of Mormon women are not somehow radically different from the population of women in UK, then a substantial proportion of our faithful sisters have experienced non-volitional sex during their lifetime. Again, assuming that Mormon women are somewhat similar to those surveyed, then a large proportion of these women would be our Young Women and newly married couples.

Is this assumption justified? What explanations could be offered for why Mormons may be anomalies from this prevalence rate? First, we might argue that the moral teaching of the church leads men and women to eschew such behaviour. While we might hope this is true, Mormons are quite like other people in their propensity to desire and pursue sex. More specifically, as I discuss below, while I believe there are some potential moderating factors of such behaviour, these are not present in Mormon culture – just like they are absent in the UK sexual culture generally. Second, if this were so common then surely we would know about it. Of those who experience non-volitional sex by an intimate partner, 60% never tell anyone and only another 30% tell someone other than the police. Mormon culture may add an additional layer of ecclesiastical complexity which means that discussing these issues publicly may require talking to a male priesthood leader. While I am hopeful that most Bishops would be sensitive and empathic during such conversations, the very act of articulating this experience to another man may prove a difficult obstacle for these women.[2] Third, Mormon women already have a high level of sexual autonomy and are willing to clearly and consistently refuse unwanted sex. Assuming that Mormon women, on average, are not more or less sexually autonomous than other women in the UK, then it is plausible that they too are susceptible of being victims of non-volitional sex. Fourth, alcohol is a risk factor for sexual violence and this may protect Mormon women. Here, there might be some legitimate differences but the data suggest that 9% of women who never or only rarely report drinking excessively have been victims of non-volitional sex. Thus, while completely abstaining from alcohol might protect some women at some moments it is clear that this does not provide absolute protection. In short, because I do not think that Mormonism is neither much better nor much worse than the UK in general in these matters, I believe it is safe to assume than Mormon women are the victims of non-volitional sex in somewhat similar proportions to the women in this survey.

Accepting this assumption (and I am willing to discuss whether this is justified), I wonder whether this important issue is something the church could address in some way. One of the challenges with non-volitional sex is that neither the perpetrators nor victims frame this experience in terms of rape. For example, some men will admit to non-volitional sex when you describe the act rather use its label. Female victims may also struggle to understand their experience in these terms for two reasons: 1) the perpetrator is frequently an intimate partner and 2) the level of coercion or violence (understood as physically forcing someone) is often more ambiguous. Yet, as The Lancet study makes clear, ‘Irrespective of the degree of coercion or force used, it represents a violation of sexual autonomy and is therefore a form of sexual violence.’ Helping people to interpret and understand such interaction in light of new evidence might be one way we could reduce such sexual violence.

Some in the church have tried to address this issue. Chieko Okazaki has spoken in this topic and tried to draw our attention to the frequency of sexual abuse, even in our ward communities. She said: ‘Sexual abuse is a problem for all righteous women and all righteous men everywhere.’

In light of this, one option might be to use produce a church-wide pamphlet, something similar to the material produced by the church in relation to pornography. These topics could be discussed in a careful way drawing on scriptural and theological values, which I believe would label such actions as a sin. Addressing this topic would require great sensitivity but I am optimistic that if we were given better information then we would respond; primarily because I am hopeful (perhaps naively) that if we recognised such acts as violence we would recoil from them. Better information would also empower women by making them aware of their own sexual autonomy. This becomes especially important because non-volitional sex is particularly common among women (and men) with low sexual function.[3] Such a pamphlet might have limited impact immediately but it might be enough to change the culture of the church and how we talk about this issue in quite profound ways.

If we could couple better communication around sex with an improved sense of sexual autonomy, I am optimistic that non-volitional sex would become less common among Mormon women.

Edit: In response to one of the comments I have added a definition of non-volitional sex.

Notes:

1. While there is evidence of non-volitional sex among men the rates are far lower and so in this post I want to focus on what can be done to lower the rates of non-volitional sex among women.

2. A similar but different dynamic may be at work for the underreporting among men. Sharing this with your Bishop may involve also some fear or embarrassment.

3. Low sexual function can reflect low desire, low enjoyment, and anxiety, pain, or other sexual difficulties.

Comments

  1. Well done, Aaron. Thanks.

  2. I think a major part of the problem is that we, as Church members, are very bad at talking frankly and openly about sexual matters. Abuse too, but sex in general (and in particular).

  3. I think a definition of what constitutes non-volitional sex might be useful in this post–it will be too easy to dismiss this as “other people’s problems” if a clear definition isn’t given. I’ve experienced some negative sexual behavior in my (temple) marriage and one of the most freeing moments was when a therapist told me that I did not have to have sex unless I wanted to. I felt a deep spiritual confirmation in that moment, like my spirit had known all along but the external pressure to not upset my husband had overshadowed that truth. I think we need to teach that sexual restraint isn’t only for singles–just because you are married and have someone who you can have sex with doesn’t mean that you can have sex whenever you want. The sexual relationship is a highly emotional one, and we do no favors by abandoning people to figure out how to negotiate it for themselves.

  4. Anon, that would have been helpful. I have now edited the post to include a definition. Thank you for pointing out that oversight and for sharing your experience with us.

  5. When we were engaged, my wonderful bishop (and friend), someone I had known since I was 11 or 12 and who I quite viewed as my “Church dad”, since my own parents weren’t members, counseled us quite a bit. We arrived one evening at the topic of “what if he’s in the mood and she’s not?” Sadly the counsel I received was that a woman really should not say no to her husband, because “a man just gets a special feeling when he makes love to his wife.” Thankfully I was master enough of my own will that I did an inner eye-roll, thinking, “oh, HELL no.” And even more so– I was very blessed in my husband, as he has always respected my boundaries, moods, fatigue, whatever, and without resentment. At the time, I thought it was just “old-guy opinion”, and this bishop had never before or since shown me anything other than wisdom, progressive attitude, kindness, and wonderful humor. Now I wonder if perhaps this could be more prevalent than would be commonly thought. We have such a patriarchal culture in the church, and those attitudes die hard. How many women have felt “coerced” into sex because they too were taught that a woman should never say no to her husband?

  6. Aaron, SO happy you brought this up in this forum. I think, given the way we teach youth about sex and the fact that men are considered the heads of Mormon households, we should be very concerned about how potentially frequent and hidden this issue must be in our communities. Think of the most recent article that went viral on the web – the YSA Bishop ‘counseling’ young women on the law of chastity that amounted to nothing more than blaming women’s immodesty for men’s sexual transgressions. There was no discussion that perhaps women themselves have sexual impulses. In the church, women are talked of as having the ‘errand of angels,’ we are the ‘moral force in the home.’ Things like sex are reserved for men, and it is up to us to control it. I wonder how many young women, fed this rhetoric from age 12, marry and think – ‘oh! So now I’m married, it must be up to me to give into my husband’s sexual urges as I was once meant to suppress them! After all, he is the sexual creature here. I have no voice or needs. Besides, he IS the head of the household.’

    And think of the numerous cases reported of women whose husbands are addicted to pornography, and are then counseled by Priesthood leaders to dress up more to become more attractive to their husbands. Again, a woman’s needs are seconded to the ways in which she pleasures (or does not pleasure) her husband. It is an incredibly disturbing rhetoric, and the fact that the only way women could likely report such acts of non-volitional sex in a church setting would be to another adult male – as you say – begs the question of how many women would want to be put into that position.

    Bottom line: we need to talk about sex in much more honest and open terms. And more equally between young women and young men. We need to get out of the Victorian era, and stop telling youth that men are ultimately sexual deviants who have little control, and women are mere angels. Surely this only exacerbates issues of consent and sexual domination later on.

  7. Thank you, Anon. This: “the external pressure to not upset my husband” is a huge issue that I think is not necessarily more prevalent in Mormon culture, but is certainly another layer of complexity. Every discussion on sexuality in RS I’ve ever attended has boiled down to “you have to give that to your man because he needs it.”

    At the risk of TMI, I was a victim of “non-volitional sex” by my ex-husband several times, but one would certainly qualify as marital rape. As rapes go, it wasn’t particularly traumatic. There was no physical violence. It was simply that I had communicated to him that I didn’t want to do something again, and he pressured me until I did it. Even though it wasn’t traumatic, I remember feeling like filth. I remember feeling like I was similar to a tissue, providing function but without any value of my own. To be honest, that is part of the fear I have regarding the potential of marrying again.

    In the singles’ ward, being a person who frequently participates in socially uncomfortable discussions, I’ve counseled someone who didn’t even realize she wasn’t at fault for what happened to her. The stories of sexual assault, from being kissed by dates without forewarning or expectation to coerced oral services (and other things just short of the act that can lead to pregnancy,) are legion. So many singles, even in the 30-45 age range that I’m in, think that sex only “counts” if it could potentially make a baby without precautions. It is horrifying to me. And that lack of understanding leads to so much heartache.

    We women are often taught unofficially that our bodies are something that is owed to men to help them be happier or more comfortable. “Chore sex” is the essence of non-volitional. People think they CAN’T say no, so they don’t, even if they want to. So many newly married men wonder why their previously amorous wives are suddenly cold after the marriage. Sex isn’t sexy when it’s a chore.

    I love that you point out that sex isn’t a right, even after marriage. It must never violate agency or become a duty if it is to become truly sacred and binding.

  8. I really appreciate the comments on this post. Having been fortunate enough to not have had negative experiences along these lines, and given the fact that this is a sensitive issue that people are reluctant to discuss openly—especially if they have experienced it in their own lives—I find it difficult to gauge how prevalent the issue is.

    That being said, I can aaabsolutely see how misconceptions and mismatched expectations (due perhaps in part to lack of understanding and in part to a lack of empathy) combined with a misplaced sense of entitlement could do a lot of damage, without individuals even realizing the exact nature of what they are doing or experiencing.

    I also feel like one more potentially complicating factor surrounds how some youth are taught the Law of Chastity. If we place so much focus on fear, sin and uncleanliness (in worst cases with horribly flawed metaphors involving wilted roses or chewed gum), without teaching them the underlying principles (including the fact that it is a beautiful, healthy, vital part of a marriage relationship) how can we expect them to suddenly acquire a healthy perspective when they get married? If a woman views sex as an evil that will leave her tarnished and unclean, and a man views sex as the prize for his abstinence before marriage, it’s no wonder the two would run into problems.

    (Also, KerBearRN, I’m not one for confrontation, but if a bishop had ever similarly counseled me and my now-husband, I’m pretty sure I would have had a thing or two to say. In the kindest way possible. But seriously.)

  9. Yes, yes, yes. I had NO idea that this would be an issue for me in my marriage. And, oh, has it been. And Good Girl Syndrome has abso-freakin-lutely nothing to do with it.
    I THOUGHT I was sex positive before I got married. But my parents never talked to me about sex. In YW, I got both messages – sex is so great within the bonds of marriage AND that my role is to be support staff for my husband (lessons on how to be a good wife and mother and not much else).
    My husband got the male side of the same programming – if you stay chaste before marriage then your reward is sex anytime you want once you get married! All the sex you want! Just don’t cross the line and then you get your reward!
    I HATE Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments with a passion – there is nothing sacred or divine about sex in my marriage. And I have thought my entire marriage that this is how it is for everyone – I never talked to anyone about this, I never saw healthy sexuality modeled, how could I know differently? I just learned to hate sex.
    To give a little background – I am in my early 30s, went to BYU, served a mission, have an advanced degree, I consider myself a feminist, and my DH has a very visible church calling. I think what you describe here is prolific.

  10. For what it’s worth, I don’t always think it’s wrong for a woman to go through with sex when she is not one hundred percent in the mood. It’s not always wrong for a man, either. But I’d be hard pressed to define where the line is between “I love you and I am going to do this for you” and “well you own my body so I don’t have the right to say no.”

    J.P., you make an excellent point about a man regarding sex as the prize for abstinence before marriage. Church culture does have a tendency to turn women into objects or prizes, which is unfortunate. My husband likes to tell me that a common saying on his mission was that the harder you worked as a missionary, the hotter your wife would be. (He means it as a compliment, and I try to take this comment in the spirit in which it was given, but it is a teeny bit creepy all the same.)

  11. I do think it’s wrong if someone isn’t 100% into it. I just think that if that’s the case, a man and a woman owe it to the marriage to try to figure out why, try to solve the problem any way possible, and not just leave it at that. If it’s as simple as “I’m too tired,” then maybe they can discuss how to get some time to recharge. If it’s more complicated, it may take counseling or more extreme measures. But every time someone “gives” sex as a duty, it is so likely to damage the relationship over time.

  12. Thanks for this. My experiences as a missionary and now in my profession have put me in a position to hear some incredibly difficult stories involving non-volitional sex. This problem is much bigger than most people realize. Of the handful of incidents I know about, not one perpetrator was ever charged, and only one was even reported to the police. If we want to reduce rates–far too high, even in LDS communities–we need to encourage victims to report non-volitional sex just as they would a mugging or other form of non-sexual violence, and we need to let married couples know that such behavior between them is not only not okay, but is criminal.

  13. While I am fortunate to have a happy and healthy relationship, I definitely would not say that everything has come easily. Were it not for 1) my husband’s love, patience and sensitivity to my needs (physically, emotionally and spiritually, since all factor into a healthy relationship), and for 2) our shared recognition that a sexual relationship is one that can evolve, change, and improve over time, I think ours could be a painful and strained relationship.

    It’s a tricky thing to navigate, but I think if both the husband and the wife are 1) able to articulate their feelings without fear of guilt or manipulation, and 2) anxiously engaged in putting the happiness and well-being of their spouse first and foremost, couples can work things out.

    One of my favorite quotes is from President Hinckley: “I am satisfied that happiness in marriage is not so much a matter of romance as it is an anxious concern for the comfort and well-being of one’s companion. Any man who will make his wife’s comfort his first concern will stay in love with her throughout their lives and through the eternity yet to come.”

    I believe the greatest happiness is found when both a husband and wife are anxiously concerned for the well-being of their spouse. To the extent that an individual gets wrapped up in their own needs, wants and expectations, they are only left feeling dissatisfied and their spouse is likely left feeling used and unappreciated.

  14. I like the idea of addressing sex and nuance better within the church. Like it’s just assumed that once a couple is married, the sex is all good. I’m a young Mormon woman and I’ve struggled a lot with Mormon ideals of sex and marriage since getting married a few years ago, although in a somewhat different way than is being discussed here. My husband lost his job soon after the wedding, had a huge emotional breakdown, and has been on anti-depressants ever since. We’ve been through therapy and he’s tried different medications, but his sex drive and desire for physical contact are still pretty much non-existent. On the rare occasion that I can talk him into fooling around, I feel bad asking him to lavish any special attention on me, since he’s already “doing me a favor” by getting naked at all. Besides I have so little experience with sex myself that it’s hard to explain what I want, although I definitely want it. My husband enjoys things in bed that I find uncomfortable, but if I ask him to slow down or do anything differently, he’ll look bummed, get up, and go watch TV or something. I usually say nothing, since I’d rather have painful sex than none at all. At one point, a few years ago, I tried to explain the problem to a bishop (totally humiliating, but I wasn’t sure who to talk to). He seemed confused and gave the following advice: don’t have sex unless you’re both into it, don’t masturbate, don’t get divorced. I guess bishops aren’t really meant to give counsel on those kinds of issues.

    My husband also has a strange habit of sneaking up and groping my chest or my crotch unexpectedly and then laughing like a little kid when I jump in surprise and discomfort. I’ve told him I really don’t like it, over and over, but he still does it. He’s a sweet guy and I know it’s not meant to be mean, but seriously. Not cool.

  15. “laughing like a little kid when I jump in surprise and discomfort….it’s not meant to be mean” does not compute….

  16. The first anon from 11:07 says:

    Joni – I agree with you–I think it can be a kind, loving act for a spouse who isn’t 100% in the mood to have sex. That being said, I think there is a line drawn in the way it makes the participant feel. I felt like my husband was using my body as an “acceptable” way to masturbate–my emotional connectivity was unnecessary to him and I was merely a receptacle. That’s the line. That’s the difference between rote, uninterested yet willing sex and non-volitional, coerced sex.

    Incidentally, since am already oversharing, I’d tell you that after several years of therapy, LDS Recovery program, and the enabling power of the Atonement, our marriage is a hundred times better. My husband experienced a near-miraculous change of heart and I have been able to forgive him and feel an inordinate amount of peace. And because of the taboos on speaking about this topic, I can only share this amazing gift that I’ve experienced anonymously on the internet.

  17. Oh how I wish that there would be a culture in Church where it’s more okay to talk about sex. After all it’s all over the scriptures anyway, and it sure is awkward when it comes up and you don’t know what to do. I did not want to be the Primary teacher that umms and ahs and is all uncomfortable when the kids asked “what was Corianton’s serious sin” in Alma 39, but I was that because I wasn’t sure how okay it is to teach other people’s children what prostitution is :/ And the manual actually said “don’t tell”.

    I’ve actually toyed with the idea of doing a thing (like a fireside or a book or something) that teaches sex ed from the scriptures: starting with Adam and Eve and how they had genitals and what they were called, through the Old Testament with Onan and how pulling out really isn’t a very effective way of birth control (though it worked for him) and about rape and consent, and the more beautiful side of it in the Song of Solomon and so on. It really is all over the scriptures.

  18. My wife and I (married 20 years) started attending a marriage class at the LDS Institute as soon as we were engaged and for a year or two after. The teacher was an institute teacher, bishop and professional counselor. His advice about sex didn’t cover every base discussed in the original post, but it covered a lot of them:

    “Sex is something that should never be demanded, never withheld as punishment and never given as a reward for desired behaviors.”

    Again, that leaves some important ground uncovered, but I hope that’s a good starting point for most couples.

  19. Also factor in the lack of good sex education, modeling, and (gasp!) experimentation. Much sexual knowledge is gained via pornography – which displays sexual technique in a decidedly unromantic fashion. Porn, for example, teaches a man that his wife will surely enjoy fellatio followed by ejaculation on her face. And the overwhelming joys of anal sex. Plus bondage. Not all women are taught that such actions are part of their expected repertoire. If there is a YW lesson that includes such topics, I’m not aware of it.

  20. I’ve also heard (and experienced) that the sexual relationship can often be a microcosm of the larger relationship. So much give-and-take, need for unselfishness on both sides, need for self-denial from both parties, negotiation of different desires and needs. So much need for communication and sensitivity. The sexual relationship can be both the place a lot of these attributes are developed. It’s also a potential canary in the coal mine.

    A man who mistreats his wife or inflicts non-volitional sex upon her has got to have significant issues outside of the sexual relationship — how else could he have so little regard for his wife’s own self-determination? But my understanding is that bishops are counseled to avoid getting into discussions of what goes on in marital bedroom, or at least the nitty-gritty details. (Non-volitional sex is not a “detail” so much as an entity unto itself.) But there’s an awful lot of counsel a bishop or other leader can give to both parties about persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness and love unfeigned.

    I’ve got a hunch that the men who understand and believe the persuasion and meekness thing aren’t guilty of non-volitional sexual activity. How far into the marital bedroom need the church go to have any impact on such a phenomenon? (And if men of the church have internalized D&C 121 at least in some measure, could it be that the problem is less severe than in the U.K.?)

  21. You guys really are a bunch of turkeys. (timely insult!)
    The world lieth in sin, abounds in iniquity and we think the solution is to be more liberal and open in our sexual communication. The plague is a lustful self-seeking pride which evidences itself in pornography, pre-marital sex, entertainment, advertising, music, fashion, prostitution and other strip clubs etc. We are a sex saturated and sex obsessed culture.

    Take a real stand for something and call for more purity and holiness in our attitudes toward sex.

    There is no way this epidemic is getting better unless we approach the issue in a more godlike way. That doesn’t mean ignoring sex, but placing sex exactly in the context that God intends it — a sacred procreative power between a husband and wife with the joy and intimacy to become united as one flesh.

  22. The problem with non-volitional sex as brilliantly highlighted in the OP is the secrecy and silence surrounding it, victims being afraid to come forth, victim blaming etc… The answer to these sorts of “secret combinations” isn’t to just hunker down and try not to get muddled in them in your personal life, the answer is to broadcast them from the rooftops.

  23. Regarding masturbation (@ first anon esp.): One reason I think the non-volitional sex problem is esp. problematic among Mormons is that they are taught that masturbation is such a serious sin (e.g., temple recommends were withheld in the last singles ward I was in). So, for example, whereas a non-Mormon husband might masturbate instead of attempting non-volitional sex, a Mormon husband would be more likely to think the latter act the lesser of evils….

  24. As a Rape Recovery Center educator and mother of a rape survivor, I respectfully suggest that “non-volitional sex” is a euphemism for rape. We as Church members and leaders could do a more effective job in teaching our youth what rape is. I have talked to many youth in juvenile detention and school settings that believe is a young woman is seductively dressed, drunk, or sexually alluring, she wants to have sex, even when she says “no.”

    Recently, the FBI definition for rape has become more strict. (If you are a survivor and are triggered by definitions, please do not read the following): “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

    There is great shame perpetrated by too many teachers and leaders in the Church upon rape survivors. We must never tell a woman or man, girl or boy, that they lack virtue, did not fight hard enough, would be better off dead, or lack purity after they have been raped. Sometimes the smartest victims, like Elizabeth Smart, go along with the perpetrator and survive. I look forward to the day when Church leaders celebrate the countless numbers of rape survivors for the true heroes and heroines that they are. After going through spiritual and physical warfare, they exhibit a courage that is remarkable and rare.

  25. Thank you for your comments and for sharing your experiences. Many important points have been made and I appreciate the additional insight I have gained.

    DQ, are you suggesting that discussing non-volitional sex is not standing up for purity and holiness? Or, are you arguing that concerns regarding ‘non-volitional sex’ are a product of a sex-obsessed culture? Your comment came perilously close to making both claims. Just in case you are making those claims, I would argue: 1) Drawing attention to those sins that break the hearts of our ‘tender wives’ and other women is standing up for purity and holiness and 2) Teaching women and men about these boundaries is needed precisely because it is a critique of the sex-obsessed culture in which we find ourselves.

    On top of that, labeling people ‘turkeys’ may not be offensive but it does dismiss or make light of some quite raw experiences shared in the comments (unless you meant only turkey – me – but then please use the singular).

  26. @Aaron, I don’t think DQ was doing either of those. He/she is coming at it from a different perspective from most of the other commentators here, but I think there’s something to take away.

    This is the point I think DQ is highlighting: we can as easily see non-volitional-sex as a result of pride of the offending party, rather than a Church taboo on talking about sex.

    Reading the many anon and non-anon comments, I’m wondering what comments could be made in public discussions in church relative to this. The President Hinckley quote and of course D&C 121 are good ones.

    (I’d like to add advocating more empathy/less pride in relationships; sadly, studies on domestic violence show how this can be hijacked: ‘I wish you were less selfish! I have needs too!’)

  27. Sam, because this is such a difficult topic to discuss publicly I have recommended another avenue through which this conversation could occur. The problem with approaching this solely from the pride angle is that unless we make these boundaries clear most people will not see it precisely because pride is especially good at deceiving itself.

  28. The first anon from 11:07 says:

    DQ is right–pride and selfishness can be major factors in non-volitional sex. It was in mine, as was pornography. However, Sam and Aaron hit the nail on the head: any generic message on pride in marriage can strengthen an offender’s position, as my husband was convinced that he was the victim of my selfishness. Being more specific in addressing the topic is vital. No more euphemisms like “procreative power” when the vast majority of sex is purely recreational. No more conflating “sacred” with “secret.” More blunt talk about sex, not less, is crucial. If we have to get our magic decoder rings out to decipher a message about sex, then we can almost guarantee that the lesson will be misinterpreted by the very people who need to hear it most.

  29. Not entirely off-topic, this article came to mind: https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/when-virgins-collide/

    “When Virgins Collide”

  30. >>So, for example, whereas a non-Mormon husband might masturbate instead of attempting non-volitional sex, a Mormon husband would be more likely to think the latter act the lesser of evils….<<
    This is true and, I think, shows how skewed our LDS perspectives on sex have become. I feel certain that the Lord does not see non-volitional sex as the lesser of two sins when compared with masturbation. Yes, masturbation can be selfish and one-sided but so can sex. At the very least it seems Pharisaical to split hairs and declare selfish sexual encounters sinful or non-sinful depending on the number of people involved.

    I wish that our non-official, implicit ban on masturbation could somehow be lifted, at least in the context of marriage. I don't know that it's necessarily a problem between married couples when explicit consent is given. (I've informed my husband that if I die suddenly tomorrow, he should feel free to take care of business on an as-needed basis. That's decased we are talking about, I don't know that anyone can live without it for so long.)

    And as a side note, the timing of this post is interesting – there seems to be a convergence of discussions on Mormon sexual attitudes here and on at least two other blogs/message boards that I frequent. It's certainly made for some interesting discussions in my home.

  31. I mean decades. Wow. Nice spelling.

  32. I never said no to my husband when I was married, but neither was I ever coerced or forced into it. This may be TMI, but I thought sex was the best thing since sliced bread. During my marriage, we had sex at least once every day, except during “that time of the month.” So, while I am totally against non-volitional sex, I have a hard time understanding why any woman would want to say no. Are there really people out there who don’t like sex?

  33. Sharee, the issue, as far as I understand it, is not necessarily to do with whether sex is enjoyable (although that may be part of it for some people) but rather that even those people who enjoy sex do not necessarily want to have sex at precisely those moments when their partners might. It is in those circumstances (and they may be longer than a few days), when these problems may arise.

  34. President David O. McKay

    “Let us instruct young people who come to us, first, young men throughout the Church, to know that a woman should be queen of her own body. The marriage covenant does not give the man the right to enslave her, or to abuse her, or to use her merely for the gratification of his passion. Your marriage ceremony does not give you that right” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1952, 86).

  35. I find coercion a major turn off, husbands who use it run a high risk of emotionally shutting down their wives and/or the couple’s sex life. If he has a strong sex drive there are two states a man can leave the house in: loaded or unloaded. Unloaded he can better concentrate on work while thinking loving thoughts about his eternal companion, loaded he tends to concentrate more on the luscious female forms around him even when/if he doesn’t necessarily want to, taken far enough this can easily threaten a marriage. This creates an envelope that the couple need to manage through communication, empathy and understanding but it’s not often easily done.

  36. Sharee, I don’t know if you have kids, but after having babies, for about year each time, I found sex really undesirable. And that’s pretty common. It was miserable for both of us. My husband had a really hard time coping with my lack of libido and I resented his constant need. It can be a really difficult balance to manage.

  37. I am so, so sorry that Jett Atwood’s illustrations to that Sunstone article to which Ann Porter referred seem to be not showing up. I can only imagine . . .

    I am constantly amazed at the ways people can screw themselves and their relationships up, and I am no exception. My dear wife and I have always communicated fairly well about sex, possibly because I was a convert during my college years and didn’t grow up with the LDS taboo millstone around my neck (I shed my Catholic taboo millstone at an early age). Nonetheless, it hasn’t been all catawba juice and roses for us. I do think, however, that we’ve never been in the “non-volitional” realm. I don’t think she was ever counseled that it was her “wifely duty” to grin and bear it, or if she was, her mother set that straight – and like KerBearRN, she’s never had a problem making her needs and feelings known to me. We are fortunate to operate with a great deal of mutual respect in that regard.

  38. I am honored to be part of such a thoughtful discussion of a subject so important and sacred. We all want to reach our foreordained potential in priesthood service, including the proper use of seduction and sex for their rightful purposes, including but not limited to recreation and recreation. The choices we make in applying the God-given sex drive do cause waves from here to eternity. Any pain to God’s little ones will float on those waves. (Did I steal that from Elder Holland?) We are all his little ones.

    New to marriage, we are children marrying children. Yes, frank advice would help. Yes, a psychiatrist in your pocket would also help.

    In the first year of my marriage, 39 years ago, my 20-year-old wife would go to relief society and complain about me and our situation, drawing laughs at her naivete. She considered her differences from me, a typical guy with a touch of mission-inspired-narcissism, and believed I was an evil person, needing to be exposed. She also had a list of relatives with whom she shared all my of my intimate secrets. All of her openness of feelings probably did help her avoid some pain as it made me hypervigilant of my every action. It also made me lonely, but don’t call me a quitter. Using the patience of a horsewhisperer, I (we) managed to have a child born to us after a year of marriage.

    During our early years, there was pain in groin areas of both, sometimes due to her experimentations and other times due to mine. Enduring pain is often a healthy part of overcoming our phobias and pettiness and putting on appropriate and constructive maturity. With mutual consent, we experimented with sexual practices found in the outside world, like oral sex, and eventually adopted or rejected them. Oral sex is out but not by my vote. Risk of humiliation, is always part of the game. This leeway for experimentation is a sacred right, as is the obligation to care with love unfeigned, and it continues throughout the marriage as bodies and circumstances change. By experimentation, I also include the ebb and flow of sex drive and hormones. If at some point your spouse demonstrates pervasive behaviours, which make them unfit or unworthy of such delicate experimentation with your body and mine, you owe it to yourself to get professional help, consider a change of partners, or shut down the lab.

    Marriage is a great sifting floor to identify our strong and weak parts. We must be committed to and capable of making changes required for maturing into our full potential under God, and marriage is among the best means for such. We are not all fit for such rigors, but, if not, God will make it right with us, his little ones.

  39. One thing we should be careful about is the idea that anyone “needs” sex. No one is going to die or end up in an asylum just because they don’t get sex, with or without another person.

    Making it into a need gives ammunition to those using it to coerce someone else into providing it for them. It also puts pressure on those who don’t feel this “need” as often as they perceive in others.

  40. “Are there really people out there who don’t like sex?”
    Yes, there are people who don’t like sex. And out of people who do like sex, there are people who don’t want it ALL the time.
    Physically – Time of the month, or post baby or other hormonal changes in a woman’s lifetime can make it less enjoyable because of lower sex drive. Also, feeling sick can make someone not want to engage in something physical. Sex can be uncomfortable for some people (good foreplay helps of course). Sex can be a lot of work to please your partner.
    Emotionally – Being upset at your partner can make you not want to be intimate physically. Being preoccupied with other things can make it difficult to mentally get into it and therefore foreplay doesn’t work. Some people don’t switch gears quickly so if they are in the middle of making dinner it is difficult to abandon that activity for sex.
    Sex is messy. Sex is invasive. Sex is time consuming and there are sometimes other priorities.
    Hard to imagine a marriage of never saying no. I say no because I’m tired, have digestive issues, have too much to do, I’m menstrating, I’m really enjoying something else that I’m doing, I have to leave in a minute and don’t have time to get into it, I’m feeling anxious/depressed, etc. My husband pretty much never says no and always is up for it so I spend my life trying to find times that I am willing to say yes because there are so many “No, I can’t right now.” I live in a marriage with me having a lower than average sex drive and my husband having an above average sex drive. Luckily, we are kind to each other and when I turn him down he is kind about it and I am kind about trying to inititiate and say yes as much as possible because it is so important to him.

  41. I think this post is well-crafted, and I agree completely with the commenter above: “non-volitional sex” is a euphemism for rape. Marital rape, date rape, rape rape. We shy away from the word because it naturally creates a “rapist” and “rape victim” and we are reluctant to label our good husbands or others as such. Yet, indeed, good husband, if you coerse your spouse into sex when she says “no”, well, that is rape. If you are a bishop or elder’s quorum president, then it’s still rape.

    It bothers me that we are not willing to use this word. It bothers me that we intellectualize and postulate and use lots of big words to talk about something like this. I understand that the OP is being careful and respectful. I agree that as a community of saints we have an obligation to treat the subject with care. And yes, we should do something about this problem. And it is a prevelant problem. I don’t need empirical evidence to see it. My own experience and that of many, many other women who, over the years have shared such private matters in confidence with me tells me it is a significant problem among Latter-day Saints. Admit it. Own it. Change behavior. Stop people from doing it. Assist people who need help in stopping people from doing it to them.

    Personally, I have experienced marital rape. Does that make my perspective less valid? Perhaps it makes my perspective more valid for this discussion. The secrecy and discomfort surrounding this issue, both within the church and without, is part of the rich foundation from which rape springs.

    Let’s talk about it in YW, YM, RS, and PQ. Can this happen? Good question. I don’t know.

  42. P.S. Where are the good men who would beat the hell out of another man who would “engage in non-volitional sex” with a woman? We like to keep things clean and tidy and non-violent around here. At least on the outside. That is why so many women are still “engaging in non-volitional sex.”

    This whole discussion lacks the sort of passion required to make meaningful change. Whatever happened to the “emnity” that God gave us to recognize destructive behavior and be willing to crush it? If we can’t get angry about this, what are we willing to get angry about?

  43. “enmity”. damn. now I’m really angry.

  44. melodynew, thank you for your comments. Passion can be very helpful in such discussions but I have actively resisted the urge to write in that way for two reasons: 1) I believe Mormon men would be less inclined to pursue this type of behaviour if they were aware of it and could see it in themselves and 2) they would be more inclined to see themselves as guilty, like the men described in the OP, if we use terms other than rape. While I agree that rape has its place in these discussions it may not be the best way to get the message across to this particular group. Those may both be incorrect but they were at least my reasons. I hope this fairly passionless post does not completely obscure how strongly I feel about these issues.

  45. Aaron, I understood your reasons for writing this piece in a relatively passionless tone. The fact that you wrote it at all indicates you care about these issues. I appreciate you for that. The OP is well thought out and brilliantly articulated.

    I responded freely and passionately because I feel it is important for our community to hear impassioned voices, which are usually silent, due in part to the sensitive nature of this subject. (Also due to the likelihood that everyone in the vicinity will duct-and-cover when someone tells it like it is. That is possibly the biggest problem I see within our community. Which, again, I understand, is partly why your wrote the way you did.) Thank you for responding to my comments. And for opening this conversation here at BCC.

    I would suggest that the particular men to whom you are trying to get the message across are unlikely to see themselves as perpetrators of non-volitional sex, regardless of what you call it. But I applaud your attempt. For the rest of the LDS community who read this blog, it is a valuable OP. I see its value more in terms of validating victims and raising awareness of the problem within the LDS community.

    For anyone (especially women who might need help right now in their lives) who is interested in understanding more about men who engage in behaviors such as non-volitional sex, the book “Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft, is a wonderful resource. Mr. Bancroft writes from several decades of professional experience in the field of intimate partner violence. He uses concrete examples and case studies to illuminate intimate partner violence in all its subtleties. This book is one of the resources I found – via a caring, concerned LDS friend – that helped me identify what was happening in my marriage.

    Thank you again for writing and responding, Aaron. Have a lovely Thanksgiving day.

  46. I am a husband who has lived through many years of having a wife too tired from being a mom to have much interest in sex. During these years, I was always very shy about asking for sex, and I would neither engage in non-volitional sex nor masturbate.

    Even when my wife would give consent, she was often too tired to enjoy it, and I knew she wasn’t enjoying it, and so I felt bad for inconveniencing her. So, I seldom asked.

    I tried not to resent her lack of interest in sex, but I did. It became very difficult to feel close to her, and it was a very difficult issue for me to talk about.

    This issue almost destroyed our marriage. Fortunately, we were able to work things out. In fact, my wife and I are very lucky to have a fantastic marriage — but the experience has made me very aware of how difficult and painful these issues can be for couples to work through.

    I’m glad that most of the comments in this discussion are respectful and rooted in compassion for the different challenges faced by different parties and circumstances. Thank you.

  47. One more thing, regarding secrecy vs. sacredness: I understand that talking more openly about these kind of problems can be a good thing. However, I’m sure I’m not alone in being extremely sensitive and self-conscious with regard to sexual matters.

    If my wife had talked casually or jokingly with her friends about our sexual relationship, it would’ve crushed me. I don’t trust others easily (partly because I grew up with a certain sense of machismo…), and if I had ever heard my wife joke about, say, premature ejaculation, or even just wanting sex more than her, I think I would’ve become very emotionally distant and hardened.

    So, openness can of course be very good and healthy, but openness must be counterbalanced with discretion, confidentiality, trust, sensitivity, compassion, etc.

  48. melodynew, “I responded freely and passionately because I feel it is important for our community to hear impassioned voices, which are usually silent, due in part to the sensitive nature of this subject.” — yes, and thank you.

    anon99, thank you for sharing something on the male perspective here and you are right to raise some of the challenges with being more open.

  49. The “wife too tired” dynamic is so common. What I don’t understand is why, if she is too exhausted/distracted and the man wants some energy spent on him, he doesn’t give her a day off to regenerate or take on some of her work in an ongoing sense.

    Who in their right mind, after being spit up on and pawed at all day would be enthusiastic about more of the same? Gentlemen, you’re trying to draw from an empty well. Wouldn’t the most logical step be to give it some time to refill?

    Granted, it wouldn’t help if there was more going on, but I’d bet that if women had an hour to themselves every evening when their men come home, more of them would be in the mood much more often.

    I know it’s not popular to say these things, but masturbation, even with permission, isn’t worth the price. Sex shouldn’t be about filling needs like scratching an itch or eating. It shouldn’t even be solely about physical release.

    We are taught self control over physical needs by the gospel through fasting. Fasting makes us more powerful. If we reserve sexual gratification to be only used in bonding with our spouse, we will be stronger and our bonds more powerful.

    Rather than a need to be met (and the threat of inevitably wandering eyes if the need isn’t met is inherently coercive, by the way) sex becomes a choice, made with power and love. A sacrament. The way, I feel, it was intended by God to be used by beings with the capacity to be more than mortal urges.

  50. Howard. I found your comment very hard to read. “loaded he tends to concentrate more on the luscious female forms around him even when/if he doesn’t necessarily want to, taken far enough this can easily threaten a marriage”

    I understand you mean this to be informative. I read it as manipulative and creepy. Women should not be described as luscious female forms. Now perhaps I am wrong and you are surrounded by chocolate manaquins, in which case…weird. But if you are surrounded by actual women…eww. Your thoughts are your choice. Your partner is not responsible to make sure you leave the house empty to save the marriage from this threat. You are an adult. Adults do the right thing even when it is difficult. Noticing is one thing…concentrating is a choice. You are onto to pavlov’s dog, you are human. Your partner is not giving you an open door to threaten your marriage if she needs to sleep in or be at an early morning meeting, or perish the thought is busy cleaning up throw up instead if ensuring you are empty for the day.

    To the OP. This is difficult to discuss in a public setting. I love the Brigham young quote. I think talk of respect and kindness go a far way, as well as presenting the power of sex to unite a couple…when both people are happy. http://www.familylifeeducation.org/gilliland/procgroup/Souls.htm is a great talk.

    I highly suggest everyone have a marriage and family therapist for a mom. ;) I got married highly informed and well able to communicated about sex. Though we were both completely inexperienced…figuring it out together and working through the give and take of pregnancies and depression(for both of us), death of parents, job loss, surgery, hormonal mood swing, moves and many many children….it has served us well to communicate and be grateful and sensitive to the initiating partner for being willing to put themselves out there. I felt our lack of experience was really experience in self control and respect, which we both found highly relevant experience in marriage.

    There are challenges to a patriarchal society and equality in ALL aspects of marriage. Declaring one person is the presider and declaring both are equal is difficult to wrap my brain around. even if we accept a leader, We tend to cling to the world’s concept of dominant leader instead of the Doctrine and covenants 121 model which presents a servant leader, a humble, thoughtful, considerate, Jesus like leader. So if we are to have man as the leader…we should push this model much more thoroughly. If we are not…the constant confusion gives men a lot of material to justify dominance. Women can also demand and manipulate using eternal marriage as a weapon instead of a hope.

    That said. modern dating/hook up culture doesn’t doesn’t exactly encourage respect, thoughtfulness, patience and sensitivity. I agree with the concept that sex is not a NEED. Food and water and air are needs. When we consider sex a need or a right…we easily get into trouble.

  51. Britt, yes it was offered as informative. I’m a life coach so I’m exposed to a lot of personal lives and how those people think. You can moralize about how men *should* or *should not* think but the truth is this IS the way many men think although few would admit it in a discussion like this.

    Sometimes “too tired” means too tired, sometimes it means too depressed, sometimes it means I don’t want to, sometimes it means I’m mad at you, sometimes it means I don’t like you and it often means; just leave me alone. It takes digging and communication to get to the bottom of “too tired” and work out the right solution.

  52. “sometimes it means too depressed, sometimes it means I don’t want to, sometimes it means I’m mad at you, sometimes it means I don’t like you and it often means; just leave me alone.”

    And all of those are also legit reasons to not have sex.

  53. a man anon says:

    A comment: sex is a need as much as food. No food, death in a couple of weeks, no sex, death of the species in a generation. It is possible, both, to go without food or sex. The outcome is not necessarily good. Sex is necessary for the survival of the species.

    This is why sex is so problematic: It is an imperative for the continuation of the human race, but to be good sex, it requires the consent of all parties. To add to the difficulty, God seems to have given the demand to the men and the supply to the women, for the most part. (On this thread there are very few men complaining about too much sex, although it may happen occasionally.) That being said, if rape were the only option, sex would be rape. (Read Napoleon Chagnon’s memoir on his 30 year research with the Yanomamo on the Orinoco River.)

    This whole issue is an example of God, seemingly intentionally, creating a situation fraught with conflict, and then giving us a chance to work it out ourselves.

    As for me, personally, Coach Lavell Edwards was our bishop. He, to his credit, counseled me not to be a bull in the china shop. This was his only advice, bless his soul. We generally loved sex, except for about 5 years with lots of little kids. There may have been some browbeaten and guilt laden sex during these years. At the end of that, we both resolved to do better, particularly me not demanding, and sex again became fabulous. (At the end of that bad five years, I woke up one morning realizing that I had been living with a person I did not really know very well. I had been projecting on her my idea of who she was. When I realized that and started to really get to know her, after 10 years of marriage, did the marriage really begin, and the sex became good again.)

    Modern brain theory says that if you don’t use it you loose it. Sex is fully in that category. If you do not use it often enough, those brain cells will be certainly taken over by another function. About 20 years in, when sex became substantially infrequent because of all the demands on time and energy, I, the man, could feel it going. After years of abstinence, I decided I needed to masturbate to keep my sex drive alive. It worked, so about 2 orgasms of 3 were solo. It took so much pressure off her and allowed me to continue to show her as much interest as she could stand. (Only one in three were great.)

    After long time passing, I understood that women were supposed to be attractive and that I was supposed to be attracted, worshipful and grateful that this woman would actually like me and want to have my children. It finally sank in that it was not about me and my wants, and I was satisfied to love and be grateful for this wonderful person, so attractive, who liked being with me and sharing our bed.

  54. Sure, Nona I agree I’m just pointing out it isn’t always as simple as “giving her the day off” and the couple will never get to the bottom of the issue by ignoring the real problem.

  55. Armand Mauss says:

    While non-volitional sex before marriage (sexual abuse) is a different issue in some ways from non-volitional sex during marriage, the two issues are related in some ways. See the Dialogue article (Summer 1996) on the pre-marital aspect by Dynette Ivie Reynolds.

  56. One other thing men might want to keep in mind during “dry spells”–I had a lot of “non-volitional sex” during my post-partum years and even now, when things are better, my drive is recovered and forgiveness has been sought and given for past mistakes–those experiences still frequently interfere with my ability to enjoy sex. Those experiences leave impressions on a woman’s soul and on the make up of a relationship which last for a very very long time.

  57. Sex may be a need for a species, but it is not a daily need for individuals.

  58. Armand,
    Your comment suggests it’s not sexual abuse if it’s within marriage. I’m not sure that’s what you meant but, if it is, I can’t imagine a better way to underscore the problem the OP set out to address.

    Melodynew
    I respectfully disagree with your comment “I would suggest that the particular men to whom you are trying to get the message across are unlikely to see themselves as perpetrators of non-volitional sex, regardless of what you call it.” I think men in 1952 could understand the impressively direct David O. McKay quote (DavidH, November 27 at 11:35 am), and they can understand today when told “If she doesn’t want sex, it is very wrong for you to demand or coerce or insist.” The fact that the problem isn’t eradicated after the telling doesn’t mean it can’t be understood. I think hearing about it over the pulpit (much) more often than once every few decades could go a long way.

  59. One of the striking things about this discussion is how quick women are to tell men how they should view/feel about their sex drives and vice versa, when it’s pretty clear that (as a general rule), women and men are built much, much differently in this department.

  60. This discussion strikes me as a “think-in” about how to keep beta-provider males down. Gents–if your wife doesn’t want to have sex with you, you are acting too beta!

  61. I agree that sex is certainly a privilege, not a right or something to demand, but I have to respectfully disagree with the commenters above who think that any time one partner isn’t in the mood, for whatever reason, it’s wrong to have sex. That line of thinking quickly lowers the frequency of a couple’s sex to the ideal for whichever spouse has the lower libido and can be very frustrating for the other partner, often but not always the husband. It takes two to tango, but that doesn’t mean equal enthusiasm on both parts can be expected every time, and expecting a spouse who’s not into it at the moment to put out can be as valid an option as expecting the other spouse to refrain, depending on circumstance.

  62. One of the problems I see with this discussion is that it easily drifts away from the issue of intimate partner violence into a conversation about sex. This happens frequently when this subject is broached. Non-volitional sex has nothing to do with sex drives. It’s about power and control. Always has been.

    I’ll try to explain what I mean — If a man sees a woman as being responsible for meeting his “need” and if that man, because of his social, cultural, political or personal position, feels he is entitled to have that need met by her, and if he uses his position to get what he wants, regardless of her wish for a different time, place or type of sexual exchange, it is an abuse of power. This is non-volitional sex and it is violent. Period.

    A Mormon husband may not see himself as a rapist who gets a charge out of over-powering and raping a woman, but he may very well be perpetrating violence by using subtle or not-so-subtle tactics to feed a falsely-held belief of personal (or patriarchal) entitlement. As Nona, above, so poignantly states “Those [non-volitional sex] experiences leave impressions on a woman’s soul and on the make up of a relationship which last for a very very long time.”

    The conversation about perceived differences in sex drives between loving, respectful spouses – and how to address the challenges of those differences – is an entirely different conversation. It is unrelated to intimate partner violence. A man who sees his partner as an equal, and who respects her need to NOT have sex as much as his need TO have sex is a good partner who struggles like anyone else.

    If a man finds himself defending his need for sex – his perceived biological imperative for sex – AND couples his defense with a sense of entitlement or expectation that it is his wife’s responsibility to deal with that need in the way he feels it should be dealt with, then he is crossing the line from good partner to power-abuser. I think this is where the OP is trying to lead us.

    And if a man has crossed that line and is able to identify this in himself and ask for help from the Lord and from a professional counselor to begin to change the way he uses his power, then that is a very good thing for all concerned.

  63. melodynew while I agree with your narrow construction, when sex is witheld for longer periods than allowed in your second paragraph some of the Mormon men I’ve communicated with feel pretty trapped by the lack of loving cooperation from their spouce, the boundaries of their marriage and enforcement by the church should they step out of line or even be caught masterbating or using porn. In short a temple marriage can become a prison in hell for a man with a high sex drive that in his youth due to love, innocense and navite chooses a wife who turns out to have little or no interest. These pressures can work on a man resulting in behaviour that otherwise would not take place. The church is short sighted to constrain him so tightly, look at the result of celebacy for Catholic clergy. This is something that must be worked out within the marriage or a great distance is created between them, the issue cannot be simply put away with the conclusion that it is wrong for him to act that way. It isn’t a different subject it is a continuation of the same issue.

  64. Thanks to everyone for their comments, this a conversation we will need to revisit another time.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,832 other followers