Do Latter-day Saints have and practice a distinctive sense of the erotic? The question is relevant because anthropologists, such as Gilbert Herdt, have called for a comparative study of erotics. Mormons are, on the one hand, part of host societies while, on the other, they build a sense of separation and distinctiveness from the host society.
Sex and the erotic are part of the boundary. From an LDS point of view Mormons attempt to avoid indecency and build lives filled with the divine where the family and reproduction is a critical element. On the outside there are many stereotypes of sexuality that clam to delimit Mormons from ordinary Americans. These fit within a series of hyper-erotic images used to refer to minorities and competitors as the US expanded and consolidated.
Most recently these images raised their head in actions against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They stand accused of having beds in their temple that are used for sexual activity. I first heard this piece of folklore as a teenager that the Salt Lake LDS Temple was wall-to-wall mattresses. This was supposedly known because a woman escaped by jumping out a window into the Great Salt Lake and swimming away. Despite the ridiculousness of the story, narratives such as this and many others that purport to detail the hyper-sexuality of LDS women and men are told in the western United States, and perhaps elsewhere, as means of marking Mormons off as separate and distinctive.
The erotic both functions as a boundary and as a point of encounter, desired or real, between Mormons and mainstream society. This makes the task of grasping a Latter-day Saint erotics all the more difficult at the same time it is all the more important.
Generally anthropologists would do qualitative and quantitative research among people to find out how the sense of the erotic plays out in their lives and how they have organized it. I have done some of that. For now, though, I want to approach the issue by looking briefly at a key text by an LDS General Authority, because of the place General Authorities’ discourse occupies within Latter-day Saint practice and because the text itself is an ethnographic document.
To get to the text it is useful to locate it within the realm of American discourses on the erotic. The sociologist Steven Seidman argues American society has two divergent understandings of sex and its relationship with society. He called these ideologies libertarian and sexual romanticism. The first views sex “as a positive, beneficial, joyous phenomenon. Its expression is connected to personal health, happiness, self fulfillment, and social progress. Sex is said to have multiple meanings; it can be justified as an act of self expression or pleasure, a sign of affection, love, or a procreative act. Sexual expression is said to be legitimate in virtually all adult consensual social exchanges, although most libertarians place sex in a romantic, loving bond at the top of their value hierarchy.” (Steven Seidman, Embattled Eros: Sexual Politics and Ethics in Contemporary America. New York: Routledge. 1992, p. 5-6) In contrast: “The romanticist believes that to harness the beneficial aspects of sex, Eros must be connected to and kept intertwined with emotional, social, and spiritual intimacies. The romanticist holds that sex should always be a way to show affection and love. It should exhibit tender, caring, loving qualities, or qualities that are always respectable of the other as an integrated, whole person. Erotic pleasure should be limited and connected to social and spiritual feelings so as not to reduce the other to a mere body or vessel of pleasure” (p. 6). [This paragraph is borrowed from my paper “ On Mormon Erotics”]
Elder Jeffrey Holland, in his talk “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments” attempts to give positive reasons for LDS constraints on sexuality. He holds the sexual coupling of married individuals to be part of the advancement of souls, a symbol of full unity of heart and mind in the couple, and a sacrament involving unity with God. Although building on a romanticist notion of sex, the way this talk develops these themes already provides an argument for a distinctive Latter-day Saint sense of the erotic as symbol and sacrament.
Elder Holland though, in a long tradition of western discourse, begins by reducing the erotic to the giving of life, and argues a need for proper giving. He contrasts propriety with carelessness, which he assimilates to the taking of life. His concern is with the proper production of children and with the erotic as a sacralized vehicle for producing children. He claims children are “entitled” to birth within a proper family. Improper sex, therefore, becomes a breaking of the right of unborn children to proper LDS homes and families.
Elder Holland continues his argument of moral obligation by stating that using genitals outside the bonds of matrimony is to “give something that is not yours to give”. He says: “We cannot then say in ignorance or defiance, ‘Well it’s my life,’ or worse yet, ‘It’s my body.’ It is not. ‘Ye are not our own.”
While there are many ways of approaching and understanding these statements, one way is to note that they make a direct challenge to standard assumptions that the individual is the owner of their body and that sex, in the liberal discursive fashion identified by Seidman, can be a matter of self realization or self expression. Elder Holland challenges the individualist assumptions that rest under the Romantic notions. He sees the erotic as belonging to something outside the self, in this case the divine that sanctifies the Church.
This is a different erotic self than that allowed by American individualist erotics, whether romantic or liberal. It is a “self as obliged to something else” (Knowlton, “On Mormon Erotics”). It is an opposition to American individualism and sees sex as where a collective, the Church with divine sanction, is constructed as a response. To build this boundary Holland spends a great deal of time in a talk on positives developing dismissive negatives of other ways of being sexual. He builds a warning to Latter-day Saints of the “crushing remorse and guilt” he expects accompany a non-LDS erotics.
The attitude Elder Holland prescribes for understanding sex and the erotic is drawn from Mormon discourse of the sacred. It is reverent and serious. It also has strong limits on how it should be mentioned and when it should be mentioned in discourse. It should be anxiously serious and reverential in mood. Interestingly this mood constrains his discussion of sex and the erotic to something very brief. It is more alluded to than stated. This creates a curious gap in the heart of his talk that is laden with significance.
One aspect of this discursive gap relates to the place of sex in Mormon life and what should and should not be discussed. Sex is a strong ideological force within American society. The vast majority of Americans are sexually active outside of marriage. It is not surprising therefore that large numbers of Latter-day Saints are similarly active, although the percentage is reportedly substantially below that of the nation. There is a question of how people experience the difference between LDS views and common practices. How does this reality relate to Elder Holland’s prescription of “crushing remorse and guilt”?
I do not know, but I suspect that in this is a lot of the drama of inactivity of Young Adults within the Church. It is also a difficult thing to talk about.
Marriage is undoubtedly important. Yet within marriage Latter-day Saints have little, other than the weighty discussion of souls, symbols, and sacrament that can serve as a guide for married couples as they develop their erotic lives. I wonder if there is not some culturally created anxiety around that gap.
Elder Holland’s is but one of many discourses by the Brethren on the erotic and its place in life. Latter-day Saints live complex lives. I wonder how these discourses fit within them.