Excessive Mormon prudery comes in at least two (admittedly overlapping) flavors. First, there’s the sex. “Making love” — to say nothing of “having sex” — often becomes “being intimate” in our lexicon. Infamous stories of marital lovemaking with one’s garments on aren’t entirely apocryphal, believe it or not. And I’m told that “intimacy” manuals for LDS audiences often turn euphemism into a high art. Sexual prudishness is not uniquely Mormon, of course. But I suspect some of it’s odd manifestations do come in unique Mormon forms, though perhaps my ignorance of other conservative faith communities skews my perceptions here somewhat.
Next is our silly oversensitivity to “bad words,” many of which are scatological, and some of which are sexual (thus the overlap). Balaam’s ass is regularly described as Balaam’s donkey in our Old Testament Gospel Doctrine manual, despite the additional gallons of ink such a word choice requires. I fondly recall my LDS classmate in 6th grade who couldn’t bring herself to read aloud the words “pooh-pooh” (as in “Jack pooh-poohed Jill’s choice of hill”), because it sounded, you know, like “poo-poo.” I’ve known LDS families who won’t even use the phrase “Number 2” — to say nothing of “poop” or “crap” — to describe their bowel movements because this sounds too casual, preferring instead to teach little Johnnie and Sally to use phrases like, well, “bowel movement” (which sounds oddly clinical coming from the mouth of a 6-year old and actually focuses inordinate attention on the operations of the digestive tract, but whatever). Again, I don’t know if hypersensitivity to words that describe body parts or functions is particularly Mormon, but in my limited experience it seems to be.
My all-time favorite incident of bizarre Mormon sexual prudery took place a number of years ago in one of my Los Angeles wards. A young deacon or pre-deacon was playing soccer with fellow ward members on the lawn. Presumably having just learned about Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals and Homo Erectus in school, he insulted a fellow player by calling him a “Homo Erection.” Unfortunately for the boy, his parents were standing near-by and overheard his outburst. An understandably mortified father approached his son, grabbed him by the arm and proceeded to verbally accost him. I expected a short, brusque speech about vulgar language and being worthy to hold the priesthood. What I didn’t expect was:
“Jonathan! What have we taught you? ERECTIONS ARE SACRED !!!!”
WOW. All I could do was stand there in amazement, and imagine being a teenage boy having his excitable genitals regularly hallowed and sanctified by Mom and Dad. Please tell me this phrase wasn’t lifted from the Young Men’s manual. (I was also immediately overcome by the desire for someone to cross-stitch “Erections Are Sacred” on a pillow for me, surrounded by a lovely floral pattern, so I could put it on my couch).
My all-time favorite example of bizarre Mormon verbal prudery involves a friend of one of my BYU roommates. Before his mission he was apparently a typical teenager, who liked to use the slang term “Bad Ass” a lot. But post-mission, he decided he was too mature and spiritual to say this anymore. So, rather than excising it from his vocabulary completely, he decided to replace it with … wait for it … “Bad Butt.” He’d use it constantly in conversation:
“Dude, that is soooo bad butt!”
“Did you see how John beat the crap out of Travis yesterday? John is one serious bad butt!”
“Oh my gosh, the rims on your truck are totally bad butt, dude!”
All these years later, I still cringe whenever I remember the bad butt guy. I just don’t have the words to describe how silly he was. Who sanitizes their rebellious banter in order to avoid pronunciation of a word that is really no more offensive than the one replacing it? On what planet is this verbal distinction thought to be morally significant? On ours, it seems.
Now, I realize that what counts as “excessive” is a matter of opinion. Some will draw the line differently than me. But I hope we can all agree that there are some instances of Mormon prudery that really are excessive, even if we’re destined to disagree at the margins. Also, I remember and share these particular examples because they are so wacky. And perhaps they are wacky because they are outliers — extreme examples of trends that aren’t representative of the norm. But I don’t know. There are so many additional instances of prudery-run-amok I could have shared that I’m not convinced I’ve gone out on a limb here. You tell me.
Mormons have the justified reputation of being unusually wholesome, chaste and morally upright in our personal lives. Good for us; I have no interest in devaluing or denigrating the qualities from which this reputation is derived. But I wonder about the cause-effect relationship between our sexual and moral conservatism and our seemingly silly taboos. Do the taboos help us maintain our conservatism? Or are they merely a by-product of that conservatism which, while perhaps unsurprising, shouldn’t be confused with the norms of chastity, purity, etc. that we extol? Can we exude a little less prudishness (please!), and still retain our moral virtue, or are the two destined to go together like stink on
shit crap bowel movement?