Book review: And It Was Very Good

I seem to recall an episode of All in the Family (or possibly Archie Bunker’s Place) where Archie states his disapproval of sex education in the schools. “Kids should learn about sex the same place I did—the streets!” My own sex education did not happen in school, for the most part. Nor did it happen in the home. When I was about 10, my mother told me about menstruation, but that was pretty much the last conversation we had about reproduction. (At least in the educational sense.) My first school-based sex ed was in 7th grade; my mother wouldn’t sign the paperwork to get me out of it. “You have to learn about it sometime,” she said. And I was like, are you kidding me with this?* (I mean, I didn’t say it aloud. I suspected she might not want to know that I’d cobbled together my own version of sex ed from third-grade gossip and The Thorn Birds.) Despite my initial reluctance, I was kind of hoping—since I was stuck in the class anyway—that school would fill in some gaps in my knowledge. I mean, I was only thirteen; I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but I was hoping that I didn’t know it all.

Alas, school would disappoint me on this count. The only new information I learned had to do with sexually transmitted diseases. Not that my teachers neglected to tell me how babies were made; they did. But so had The Thorn Birds (in a much more interesting way). This was when AIDS was still considered a “gay disease,” so the filmstrip starring Captain Condom and Auntie Biotic covered only syphilis, gonorrhea, and genital warts. (I’ve never really understood the push for “abstinence-based” sex ed. One look at what syphilis can do to a body, not to mention the mere concept of genital warts, was enough to put me off sex for quite a long time, Captain Condom notwithstanding.) They must have covered birth control too—teen pregnancy was pretty popular in those days—but I think most of my knowledge of that was also gleaned from books and magazine articles. My parents didn’t tell me anything.

Well, I knew when I became a parent myself that I’d have to do a little better than my parents did on the sex ed thing. And I think I have. In fairness, that was a pretty low bar.* Not the lowest bar, of course; at least my parents never obstructed my learning about sex. (They were the ones who let me have a library card.) But I did clear it. My oldest child made it easy for me. One day she asked a question about how babies were made or how women got pregnant or whatever, and I answered it. She seemed to take it well. I was pretty pleased with myself until a couple years later, when she asked the question again. I answered again, and she responded something like, “Really?” “Don’t you remember me telling you this a couple years ago?” I asked. She did not. She seemed somewhat incredulous, in fact, that she could possibly have forgotten such a thing. She asked if I was sure that conversation had really taken place. I assured her that it had. I asked if she thought she’d remember it this time, and she assured me that she would.

That was just the first of many, many conversations that my daughter and I would have about sex over the next several years. I know several friends who make a big deal of their first sex talks with their kids. Apparently around these parts it’s fairly common practice when your kid turns eight to take them for a weekend at the beach and give them the good news about God’s plan for us. (One friend’s daughter’s reaction: “In there? I’m never doing that!”*) For years my husband and I referred to any discussion of the birds and bees as “a trip to the coast.” But not everyone gets the benefit of comprehensive sex education in school or at home (or in salacious novels they are probably too young to be reading).

Latter-day Saints are not famous for our open discussions of sexuality, beyond the usual exhortations not to do sex or anything like unto it until you’re married to your eternal companion. From our youth we are taught that our sexual desires and urges, while God-given and beautiful, are incredibly destructive if indulged prematurely. We’re taught to avoid arousing sexual feelings in ourselves and others, lest we find ourselves on a slippery slope to serious sin. While repentance is possible through the Atonement (also God-given and beautiful), sexual sin has consequences that can alter the trajectories of our lives and may even endanger our eternal salvation. The good news is that once you’re married, your sexuality magically transforms from an enemy to a friend, and you and your spouse will dance off into the sunset to enjoy the wholesome recreational activities you have reserved for this holiest of states.

Unfortunately, not every Latter-day Saint couple who has waited for marriage ends up with such a happy ending, if you catch my meaning. If you’ve been repressing your sexual desires for years, you may find it difficult to give them free rein even after you’ve been given permission. Also, you may have no freaking idea what you’re doing.* This sort of ignorance can lead to frustration, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and disappointment; what is meant to bring couples closer together instead drives a wedge between them. There are resources available to improve your sex life, but a lot of them may be too…let’s say worldly…for some Latter-day Saints, who want to avoid things that are un-lovely and of bad report and porny. They want information, but from a perspective compatible with their values.

This has been a long introduction to my review of a recently published book, And It Was Very Good: A Latter-day Saint’s Guide to Lovemaking, a “marital intimacy” book for Latter-day Saint couples in need. I will be painfully honest with you kids: I don’t usually judge a book by its cover, but sometimes I do, and my initial reaction to that title was not positive. (It doesn’t help that the words “very good” and “lovemaking” are printed in a much larger font than the other words, so at first glance it looks like you’re reading something called VERY GOOD LOVEMAKING, which certainly is a statement for the coffee table.) I appreciate the attempts that have been made over the years to write sex manuals for my people, but as for keeping the sexytimes holy, I have always been a skeptic. However, I saw that And It Was Very Good was endorsed by both Jennifer Finlayson-Fife (“Ask a Mormon Sex Therapist”) and Natasha Helfer Parker (“Mormon Sex Info”), and it didn’t seem possible that these good sisters could steer a fellow Saint wrong. (I mean, one or the other…but surely not both!*)

As it happens, And It Was Very Good offers frank, detailed, and accurate information about sexuality, as well as good counsel about relationships and communication. The anonymous authors are credited as “Earthly Parents”; the introduction frames the book as advice that loving parents would give to ensure that you have joy in your marriage. Personally, I would rather not imagine my parents when receiving detailed sex advice (rejected blog post title: “What If Your Parents Wrote a Sex Manual and No One Came?”), but then again, you’ve seen the dire consequences my upbringing hath wrought. [1] I imagine it’s tricky when writing a sex manual to strike the right balance; you don’t want to be too clinical or too flippant. The Earthly Parents are not without a sense of humor, but they are also earnest and respectful, never crass. Aside from a firm admonition against involving third parties (i.e. no threesomes or pornography—sorry, kids), they are non-judgmental. They also acknowledge that you may not agree with where they’ve drawn the line between “appropriate” and “inappropriate”: “Married sex is actually one of the least rule-bound areas of the gospel. It’s largely left to you and your spouse to work out how to use your sexuality to bless each other.” The information and advice in this book is curated from a variety of sources to save you the hassle and the horrors of Google.

I appreciate that the book begins by talking about the importance of consent in marriage and the inevitability of differing libidos at any given time. Consent is not an afterthought; it is at the forefront of the discussion. Husband and wife are equally responsible for communicating their desires honestly and lovingly. Nobody “owes” sex to anyone, ever; likewise, withholding sex to punish or manipulate your partner is disrespectful and cruel. The discussion goes on to explain the two sexual arousal systems, the “excitation” system (think gas pedal/accelerator) and the “inhibition” system (think emergency brake), and how these systems work together to help you have sex only “with the right person in the right place at the right time.” Generally speaking, men have an easier time releasing their brake than women do (this makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, if you want to think about it that way), but both partners have a responsibility to release the emergency brake; it isn’t just the job of the partner whose brake is currently engaged. “Remove distractions. Make your sex space a safe space. … This is not wasted time. This is sex.”

The book is light on illustrations and goes to great lengths to avoid anything that could be construed as pornographic. There is a diagram of a vulva. This is helpful, if you’re a visual learner. The Earthly Parents explain what the clitoris is, how it works, and where to find it. (See also: diagram.) One chapter covers various sexual positions, which are illustrated with photographs of articulated wooden mannequins of the type used for figure drawing. [2] These are not remotely helpful, but the thought is nice. (It should be clear enough from the text what’s going on, but one of them still seemed highly unlikely to me.) There are several how-to chapters, including one on oral sex. There are tips on avoiding a disastrous wedding night and on birth control, as well as where to buy a vibrator. (I guess they are stocked at Target and Wal-Mart, but apparently not at Costco. Who knew?) There is also a chapter on sexual dysfunction and when professional help is warranted. A bibliography is provided if you seek further study and wisdom.

I consider myself a fairly well-read person, but I confess I have not read a great many sex manuals (my well-stocked romance novel shelf on Goodreads notwithstanding), so I can’t tell you how this one compares to others, secular or otherwise. I do know that I am constantly amazed by stories of young adult Latter-day Saints’ sexual naivete that I find online and elsewhere. I used to think it was impossible to be a sentient being of at least average intelligence born after, say, 1980 without absorbing at least some of the abundant sexual information that seems ubiquitous in our society. But it seems plenty of Latter-day Saints manage to keep themselves unspotted from the world in a way that I did not. (To be fair, I didn’t try all that hard.) Even those who consider themselves reasonably knowledgeable about sex can have difficulty transitioning from life-long (so far) abstinence to sexual activity. This book is a good resource for couples who are approaching their first sexual experience; such couples seem to be the target audience, given how the discussion is framed, but couples who have already been married for some time may also find it edifying, particularly if sex is a point of conflict for them. It takes a holistic approach to married sexuality that emphasizes emotional as well as physical intimacy.

As the Earthly Parents put it, “Every couple will have to take leaps of faith for the marriage to thrive sexually. But leaping is only half the act. Spouses also have to catch.” If your sex life is already awesome (or better), you don’t need this book, as it won’t tell you anything new. (I mean, I hope not.) There may be much better sex manuals out there, as far as…I dunno…technical expertise goes. But for Latter-day Saints who want good information and advice about sex, who might be reluctant to seek it out because they don’t know safe places to look or safe people to ask, And It Was Very Good is a very good place to start. [3]

Interested readers may write to earthlyparents@gmail.com to request a complimentary electronic copy of And It Was Very Good. Paperback and Kindle versions are also available at Amazon.

…..……………………..

[1] Other rejected titles for this post:

  • Sex Manuals of the Restored Gospel
  • Discovering Your Secret Parts
  • Yes, Brigham, That Is the Place
  • The G(ospel) Spot
  • Let Us All Get It On
  • Birds Do It, Bees Do It, Even Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Do It

[2] See here. And no, “articulated” is not the same as “anatomically correct.” (I said figure drawing, not prurient puppetry!)

[3] This was meant to be a Valentine’s Day post, but I couldn’t get it up in time.*

 

*That’s what she said.

 

Comments

  1. I too am continuously amazed, in 2019, of the stunning gaps in sexual knowledge among my Mormon peers — even long-time married Mormon peers! Thanks for the review!

  2. Sara Snarr says:

    Love this! lol! We need more of these conversations. Laura M. Brotherson’s “And They Were Not Ashamed” is also an excellent resource that is well-written and research-based. https://www.amazon.com/They-Were-Not-Ashamed-Strengthening/dp/1587830345

  3. I had the philosophy of teaching my kids a little at a time, especially in response to their questions. However, my husband is old school and was upset that I told our 5YO just that it takes a “mom and dad.” He seriously fed our kids the stork story. When he finally agreed our oldest was old enough (around 10, I think), our oldest was also old enough to be uncomfortable and tell me he didn’t want to talk about it, so I didn’t get very far. Now he’s 12 and, after going through his texts, I realize his friends have more than filled in the gaps. I resolved to not make the same mistake with our younger son, but when I delayed answering his questions because my husband was in the room, my older son took it on himself to pull him aside and tell him. So I’ve missed the chance with both our older two to hear things from me, and I’m mad at myself over it. We’ve basically made it clear to our kids that we are not credible sources for this kind of thing, and they should go to their friends instead.

  4. That book title is pretty atrocious- but I think I’ll have to get a copy and shelve for my kids as they come of age. I have started discussions about sex with my oldest, but it’s hard to teach that it’s ok and a good thing, but to never explore it and ignore any urges until married. Where’s the middle ground?

    I didn’t join the church until I was 19, so I wasn’t taught (scarred according to some) by the church teachings on sex. I feel like I developed a healthy attitude regarding myself, sexually speaking. But that was also largely self taught- my parents did very little in teaching sex Ed, and the school system didn’t do much better. However, I do recall an 8th grade teacher supporting the idea that a woman can become pregnant from anal sex (and it probably is a freak occurance that is technically possible).

  5. DoubtingTom says:

    Not to endorse a specific product, but the discussion about this book reminds me of a series of cards my wife and I got to discuss this topic with our kids and we’ve loved them. For those interested in, they are called “30 days of sex talks for ages…”

    There are little cards with the talking points and different depths of discussion to keep things age appropriate. We do these regularly with our kids, either at night before family prayer or with the older kids once the younger ones are in bed. We just call it “body talk” time and the kids don’t mind at all. It’s not all about sex – some just about the body, safe touching, privacy, etc.

    Our idealistic goal is to create an environment in the home where this sort of stuff is discussed more openly and without embarrassment and where our kids feel comfortable asking us any questions. I’m sure our ideal won’t be reached perfectly but these conversation cards have been an awesome help for getting us started.

  6. Roses are red
    But I don’t want
    LDS specifics
    Of advice in bed

    In all seriousness, I’m sure it’s a good book and of course I fully support any open discussion which leads to a better relationship in couples.

  7. Laurel – Oh boy, that’s upsetting. It’s complicated when you and your spouse are not on the same page. This is something parents should definitely agree on before these situations come up.

  8. I’m glad the book sounds as useful as it does, because the cover makes it look like it was ripped from Deseret Book’s shelves in the 70s. Also, excellent use of the asterisked footnote.

  9. OK, OK. Changing the cover. Thanks VERY MUCH for the candor, Rebecca and Carolyn. Thanks also for your private messages that helped us course correct on it. And also a huge thanks for not stopping reading because the cover was offputting. You made the book better.

    If anyone got the old art, it’s sure to be a collector’s item someday—like beaded curtains, the Ford Pinto, or Alf.

    P.S., Your rejected titles killed us.

  10. Billy Possum says:

    This is hilarious! And the book sounds great (err, very good). Thanks, Rebecca.

  11. More rejected title suggestions: “Come, come ye saints”

  12. Youraveragemormon says:

    I guffawed at all your asterisks, especially the alternate titles! Hilarious!

  13. One glaring omission from nearly all LDS sex books is the topic of garment wearing. Yes, yes, I know no one wears them during intercourse, but it is the margins of intercourse that become the point of contention. Dressed-down cuddling without coital intent? Putting the day’s dirty G’s back on ASAP after orgasm? Falling asleep together?

    There are all topics that can cause serious issues in marriages. Physical marital commitment can feel compromised when one party is eager to re-introduce a physical barrier to intimacy as soon as possible. Suggesting that they don’t becomes construed as a temptation to be unfaithful to spiritual temple commitments and church loyalty.

    But just as some never realize foreplay is a thing, the concept of non-climax-oriented marital intimacy raises many (apparently) unanswerable questions about garment wearing for LDS couples.

  14. It’s in there :)

  15. Kristin Brown says:

    I read the electronic copy which confirmed I was a very good wife.

  16. I’m curious about the reason why the author’s refer to themselves as ‘Earthly Parents’? For me, the fact that they are annoyomous further communicates the message that it’s ‘not okay’ to talk about this subject. Even if the content of the book is ‘open’ it feels as though there is still shame. I would be interested if anyone can shed some light on this. Many thanks in advance!

  17. @Hannah: Earthly Parents wrote a guest post for Times & Seasons that explains why they wrote the book and why they wrote under the pen name: https://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php/2019/02/why-i-wrote-a-sex-manual-for-mormons/ I suggest we do our best to take the good from the book without insisting that anyone who ever writes anything about sex must sign their real name to the document before we will consider it valuable.

  18. @Hannah @Dave I do in the T&S article when I’m using a pen name. My wife made the request that I remain anonymous publicly. I’m honoring her wishes. She’s just more private than I am. I agree it runs the risk you noted. There is also that it makes the work a bit more universal, but that’s not the primary reason I’m hiding behind a pen name. I’m not ashamed, but I understand my actions are indistinguishable from cowardice about a subject that deserves public advocates and not even a hint of shame. The last thing I’d want is for the meta-message that sex is shameful to be received by anyone. It may be that another author without the constraints I have chosen to accept would serve better than I for this message.

  19. I do say in the T&S article why I’m using a pen name, rather.

  20. @Dave, thank you for sharing the link to the article. @EP I’m sincerely grateful for your reply. I value your transparency in explaining the reason why you are anonymous, your priority to honour the wishes of your wife and also your acknowledgment that this is an area in the church that is strengthened by having public advocates. I have begun reading your book and love that it has been written first as a gift for your children!

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