On Chastity and Closed Doors

kelly-sikkema-23486-unsplash

I have a fondness for cheesy Christian romance novels.   Their plots feature all of the emotional turmoil and external drama of harlequin romance novels – but they add faith crises and subtract sex.

One trope in these novels is to set up a wicked foil to the wholesome protagonist.  In-need-of-repentance characters lurk in the subplots, steeped in dark allusions and transgressed boundaries.  Think of Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice.  Jane Austen evinces plenty of scandal, yet there are zero explicit mentions of sex.

In order to stay “clean,” Christian novelists have learned to invoke religiously-tinged shame by writing proxies for sex.  All “sin” happens off-screen.  A common scene is the chance encounter after dark.  A woman stands in the shadows, heart pounding, face lit by candlelight.  A man with a half-unbuttoned shirt leans against a doorframe.  After two pages of banter, he steps across the threshold.  The door shuts.  The chapter ends.  At that moment, the reader is cued to assume the characters had sex.

As a teenager reading Christian romance novels on lazy summer afternoons, the scandalous implications of shut doors worked.  They matched the vagaries I had learned at church about “celestial dating” and chastity.   Do not set foot into an opposite-gender bedroom.  Do not lie down next to each other while watching a movie.  Do not stay out after midnight.  Do not park a car just to “talk” on a starlit mountaintop.  Those paths lead to sex and sin.

So great is the danger of shut doors, the BYU Honor Code and Residential Standards infamously ban these proxies-for-sin themselves, separate and apart from actual acts of immorality.  Those proxies rest at the center of recent BYU sexual assault scandals.  Years of sex-euphemisms conditioned campus to accept the twisted logic. “Everyone knows crossing the line-of-chastity in an apartment is a proxy for sex, so why were you surprised when even though you told him you just wanted to talk, he forced you to have sex?”

But here’s the problem.  Shut doors do not equal sex.  Shut doors are not facades for sex.  Shut doors do not equal consent to sex.  Shut doors are not sins.

When I look back at my aged 15-25 exclusively-Christian-romance-reading-self, I’m stunned by my ignorance.  When doors shut, my knowledge ceased.  I didn’t know what emotionally or physically happened behind relationships’ closed doors.  My Christian romance novels and my Young Women’s / Young Single Adult lessons omitted those conversations.

Instead, I had heard repeated warnings that any sort of deep conversation with a romantic interest, and especially any discussion of sex itself, might accidentally tempt us into sex.  In one notable example, an institute leader warned me against reading the scriptures with my boyfriend.  Apparently, spiritual gospel conversations threatened such a depth of emotional intimacy we would invariably proceed to sex.  Even Bible studies should be reserved for marriage.

Physically, I was committed to strict For the Strength of Youth adherence.  I consumed only “clean” media.  I willfully refused to read or watch sex scenes in any form in any context.   (One notable byproduct? I, like Elder Cook, struggled to differentiate between rape and fornication – after all, they both shared the underlying sin of “sex.”)  I believed even academic knowledge about the physical mechanisms of sex might be so titillating as to inspire me to commit curious sins.  So I avoided learning anything beyond “a penis in a vagina makes a baby.”

In my ignorance about the physicality of sex, my mind defaulted to a binary physical classification: Spencer W. Kimball approved kissing vs. the basic biological mechanics of penetrative sex.  Kissing was approved for dating, sex was approved for marriage.  I had no concept of how kissing physically progressed to sex, except that closed doors and privacy were dangerous and there was “hazard in the horizontal.”

This had hilarious results.  At the age of 21 I once prayed for forgiveness because I had a scandalous dream where my then-boyfriend unbuttoned the top two buttons of my blouse.  (Literally. That’s it.)  My college friends were amused to discover I had no idea what the words “foreplay” or “orgasm” meant.  I was well into my 20s when I learned from a crass joke that female masturbation even existed.  I was slightly more knowledgeable than Grover but not by much.

Based on my limited knowledge, my brain decided to file the sin of “sex” next to the sin of “getting drunk.” I conceptualized sex as the inverse of alcohol-consumption rules.  An average man “holds his liquor” better and an average woman “holds her libido” better.  The way I envisioned it, if a man and I started kissing he risked getting “drunk” on sex-hormones faster than me.  That’s why it was my job as a woman to wear modest clothes and not become walking pornography.  My modesty helped reduce (but not eliminate) male sex-drunkenness.

Sex-drunkenness was also why it was my responsibility to police boundaries.  As a woman with a presumptively lesser libido, it was my job to tell a date to stop kissing me the moment he seemed excited.  Any soft sound of enjoyment was a warning sign that his uncontrollable drunkenness was kicking in.  If I didn’t tell him to stop immediately then his penis would get erect and he would lose all mental capacity and even if I said no later he would by that point have become physically incapable of backing off and would justifiably get angry if I stopped him and anything and everything that followed would be my fault.

Even worse, if I agreed to keep kissing, I risked getting “drunk” myself.  If “drunk” lust hormones overtook both of us, we were doomed.  We would both completely lose control.  I imagined sex as the moment when kissing morphed into “blacking out.”  A fog of animalism would kick in, conversation would cease, our clothes would get ripped off, neither one of us would have the brain power to remember condoms, and the next morning I would wake up naked, diseased, and pregnant.

This was the danger of closed doors.

Frankly, my understanding of how sex would work in marriage wasn’t much different.  I understood marriage vows as an upfront exercise of agency to forever agree to sex. The commitment of marriage was necessary because exercising agency amidst uncontrollable sex-drunkenness was otherwise impossible.  I interpreted the widespread silence about sex from family and church members as an indication that even within marriage, sex was so physically overwhelming it was effectively impossible to converse about rationally.

Even regarding marriage, I had absorbed the message that a man’s uncontrollable sex drive was overpowering and terrifying. (I didn’t learn about “marital rape” until law school, and was surprised the concept existed.)  I accepted that even if not “in the mood,” married women had a religious duty to satisfy their husband’s sex-drunken demands. Even within marriage, women were supposed to minimize themselves in order to maximize their husband’s pleasure.  Even within marriage, women were solely responsible for using birth control to prevent pregnancy.  A married woman might be able to say “no” occasionally, but if she said “no” too often it would be her fault if her husband ever turned to pornography or had an affair.

Sex was an omnipresent threat.  Church and cultural instruction perpetuated my assumptions about its unassailable power.  After all, the Handbook bans mixed-gender travel.  The Church discourages mixed-gender business trips.  Conservative religious culture (not unique to our faith) frowns upon unrelated men and women meeting for meals.  The Eternal Marriage manual lists “being alone” in offices or cars as a serious threat to fidelity.

The assumption, once again, is that closed doors are proxies for sex.

– – – – – –

Imagine my surprise when I got married at 25 and discovered that sex looks nothing like blacking out with uncontrollable drunkenness.

Closed doors do not turn adults into sex fiends.  Sexual arousal does not radically change people’s personalities. Sexual arousal is not overwhelming.  We are always alert.  We are always in control.  We are always able to respect boundaries.  We are always capable of dialogue.  We are always able to pay attention to our partner’s words, body language, and comfort.  We are always capable of stopping.  If you think otherwise, you’re wrong.  If your partner insists otherwise, that’s abuse.

The bleak messages I had learned about chastity, sex, temptations and closed doors all teemed with lies.

One divorce, a second marriage, seven years of feminist readings, and 18 months of the #MeToo movement later, I’ve come to realize the magnitude of the gaps in my youthful chastity education.  I had no vision of what realistic emotional conversations and progressive physical interactions looked like the moment a bedroom door closed.   “Consent” should not have been a radical concept – but it was.

We are so paranoid that conversations behind closed doors might lead to sex outside of marriage, we refuse to teach true chastity.  We’re so committed to setting up false proxies for sex, we’ve accepted physical ignorance and the stunting of healthy dialogue as collateral damage.  We claim that marriages and forever families are our paramount goals, but we’re failing to equip our members with both the knowledge and the communications skills necessary for marriages to succeed.

I hope I can make a feeble effort to correct that for the next generation.  So now in my thirties, here’s the message I want to send about chastity.

– – – – – –

I have a fondness for feminist romance novels.  I discovered them after my divorce.  Their plots feature all of the emotional turmoil and external drama of bodice-ripping romance novels – but they add education, empowerment, and empathy.

One trope in these novels is to have a protagonist with a massive hang-up around sex.  Maybe they were abused as a child or in a prior relationship.  Maybe they were sexually assaulted.  Maybe they were betrayed.  Maybe they lost the love of their life and are afraid to ever be vulnerable again.  Maybe they have a physical condition that makes intercourse difficult or painful.  Maybe they struggle with infertility.  Maybe they are just beginning to understand their sexual orientation.  Maybe they were raised in a religiously or socially oppressive environment.  Maybe they have suffered through a series of miscarriages and the idea of getting pregnant again is terrifying.  Maybe they fear childbirth could kill them.

These are real conflicts.  These are fraught conversations.  And in the novels, they get solved with radical patience, love, and consent.  One chapter in one novel in particular reduced me to tears. A scientist rejects a proposal because she is too broken from too much sexual abuse to ever marry again.  Her suitor responds with kindness.  He holds her close and tells her to take all the time she needs to heal.  Even if penetrative sex will never be an option in their relationship, he loves her, and he still wants to marry her.  He hopes to explore a hundred ways of making her feel both emotionally safe and sexually satisfied that have zero risk of pain or pregnancy.

I re-read the chapter three times.  I couldn’t believe the emotion of it.  Fiction, in that scene, had gone too far. This was the vulnerable conversation that happened behind a closed door?  Instead of having sex, the couple discussed not having sex, recognized their emotional limitations, and respected each other’s physical boundaries?

What else was possible behind closed doors?  I peppered trusted friends with questions.  Yes Carolyn, they responded, that’s what true love and healthy relationships look like.  Anything else is selfishness, a sin, or a crime.

Reading the scriptures, I realized Galatians 5 and 1 Corinthians 13 provide helpful models for relationships. As Christians we should strive to develop patience, kindness, joy, peace, selflessness, safety, and trust.  And we should strive to eliminate anger, jealousy, lust, rudeness, arrogance, and self-centeredness.

Focusing on these traits is why Christ differentiated between love and lust.  Love places the emotional well-being of yourself, your partner, and your long-term relationship first.  Lust, by contrast, ranks short-term selfishness, anger, or arousal higher than any other person’s health, happiness, or humanity.

Chastity, at a minimum, means the avoidance of lust.  Chastity means never injecting sex into professional or non-romantic or non-consensual situations — regardless of anyone’s gender, wardrobe, physical appearance, or marital status.

In romantic relationships, chastity means exercising the affirmative, loving choice to set physical boundaries before marriage.  Chastity is not a fear-based exercise of avoiding knowledge, avoiding privacy, and avoiding arousal.  Rather, chastity is an affirmative decision to cultivate emotional intimacy before physical intimacy.  Chastity is an empowering acknowledgment that we control our sexual actions.  Chastity is a choice openly discussed on and agreed to by couples.  (Chastity also encompasses disagreement, including mature discussions to break up due to incompatibility in physical desires or expectations.)  These conversations necessarily require the emotional capacity to maturely and informatively talk about sex without having sex.

Chastity outside of marriage is fully consistent with both privacy and emotional intimacy.  There is nothing contradictory about couples kissing behind closed doors, or talking alone in their apartments, or driving alone on road trips, or crashing on each other’s living room sofas, or staying together in hotels on vacations, and still choosing to honor a mutual agreement to be chaste.

I will never chastise adults who seek out privacy behind closed doors because privacy creates space for emotionally intimate conversations.  Privacy is not a proxy for sex.  Sex doesn’t happen “accidentally.” Sex is and must always be a positive choice.

Within marriage, this affirmative model of chastity as emotional intimacy continues.  If our religious goal is marriages based on loving kindness (and not selfish or abusive lust), then we must recognize that chastity extends far beyond a technocratic permission to engage in physical acts.  Chastity recognizes, for example, that loving a partner “in sickness and in health” means embracing the choice to exercise physical abstinence if and when your partner needs to heal from flu, surgery, childbirth, or past sexual trauma.

Chastity is love.

I will forever be grateful to feminist romance novels, for teaching me what healthy interactions look like behind closed doors.

*Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Comments

  1. It’s not that closed doors will lead to sex, it’s more that when one is going to sex, one is going to try to have the door closed.
    So if you’re a church leader, and you hear about the situation, and a closed door is always involved, you can’t help but think “If I can get everyone to keep the door open, the bad stuff won’t happen”. And you’re going to keep thinking that until you deal with a wave of scenarios where bad things happened with open doors.

  2. Great post! Consent is so important and showing our kids how to have emotionally healthy relationships is one of the most important skills they can learn. Thanks Carolyn

  3. Another Roy says:

    Thank you for the post. There are many issues with consent that I believe we get twisted with our chastity dialogue. One of those is that consent must be required each and every time. If two people have consensual sex once that does not remove the need to get consent again for subsequent sex. To play a bit with your metaphor, just because the door to sex with a partner was opened once does not mean it has to stay open.
    To misunderstand this point in regards to religious teachings about chastity is to hand a coercive tool to sexual abusers. We can and should do better.

  4. This is such a good explanation of chasitity! I’ll be using it at the upcoming standards night and young women lessons on chastity in my ward. Thank you!

  5. violadiva says:

    Oh, such a great piece, Carolyn! You describe so well how young women our age conceived of sex, and the generations of girls who have struggled in their marriages because the “sex is good” button didn’t just magically turn on the night of their wedding like they thought it might (after years of conditioning to think exactly as you outline.)
    But I love the idea of empowering feminist romance novels as a way to show that sex can be so different. A new perspective and a different way of thinking about it can change the course of a relationship, a marriage, a family. I love the way you brought this all together. Xoxo

  6. Love this: “chastity is an affirmative decision to cultivate emotional intimacy before physical intimacy. Chastity is an empowering acknowledgment that we control our sexual actions. Chastity is a choice openly discussed on and agreed to by couples.” Thank you for writing this piece!

  7. I can’t compete with romance novels! But I like this approach and explanation. And would add (in random order):
    1. On the more conservative side I sense a lot of interest in being “safe.” It’s a fencing and appearances and, yes, closed doors conversation. For better or worse, I don’t think we can ignore the topic of “safety.”
    2. Intimacy is a human need, extraordinarily powerful, and much much more than physical parts colliding. If a marriage vow is seen as physical monogamy only, and does not include concepts of boundaries and appropriateness in intimacy broadly construed, we’re missing something big.
    3. For a compact statement I like this (from James Martin, SJ’s “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything”:
    “[E]veryone–married, single, vowed, ordained, lay, or clergy–is called to this kind of chastity, where your physical relationships express the degree of personal commitment, where you make the proper use of your sexuality, and where your sexuality is guided by love and care for the other person.”

  8. @ChristianKimball: I love the James Martin quote!!

    Also, I agree that safety matters and bad things sometimes do happen behind closed doors. That actually jives with the James Martin quote quite well. If someone is a stranger / has not yet earned your trust / gives you the creeps / is known to disrespect boundaries / etc., by all means protect yourself by avoiding being alone with them!

    I decided that caveat was too far afield for this post, other than the brief points I included about abuse. Anyone who reads BCC though knows I and others on this blog have written about abuse extensively, particularly in the past year. I’m happy to link people to those posts if they think I didn’t do enough to address safety here.

  9. I’d love to see a list of feminist romance novels you recommend, especially any geared towards teens. I remember the teen romance novels of my youth and I shudder to think about the things they depicted as normal about relationships. I want better for my daughter, and for myself.

    Thanks so much for this post.

  10. D Christian Harrison says:

    Carolyn. This is spectacular. I’m literally in tears… this is the sort of language we need around chastity in the Church. Thank you thank you thank you.

  11. Outstanding post, Carolyn! I know there are lots of Church teachings around sex that are badly done, as you explain, but I suspect that For the Strength of Youth is unique in both its reach and the absurdity of the limitations it proposes.

    “Never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression. Treat others with respect, not as objects used to satisfy lustful and selfish desires. Before marriage, do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body, with or without clothing. Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings.”

    https://www.lds.org/youth/for-the-strength-of-youth/sexual-purity?lang=eng

    I mean, there’s some good stuff there too, but the idea that *arousal* is in itself a sin? The prohibition on doing “anything that could lead to sexual transgression.” Um, life itself could lead to sexual transgression. Just what exactly are people expected to give up?

    Anyway, this is a bit of a tangent from your post, but I hope that when FTSoY is next revised, the writers ditch the stuff they have and take a page from your suggestions.

  12. This is good stuff, Carolyn. Discourse around chastity, like that around most commandments, needs to be less about what not to do and more about what to do, if it is to be productive.

  13. JoanneLaFleur says:

    I love this. You are so right! We have been doing chastity all wrong. I remember back in seminary learning that Jesus’ biggest criticism about Judaism in his era was the “hedge about the law,” which completely undermined the purpose of the true laws of God. You explain this connection so well here. This is one of my biggest criticism of Mormon culture, actually. We are totally pharisees in our emphasis on avoiding the “appearance” of evil, while completely missing the boat on actual evil.

  14. Good stuff. Thanks Carolyn!

  15. This is so well put, so well thought out. Thank you! I wish this kind of chastity was taught to young women, AND to young men. (I am male.)

    I feel that I could write a long and detailed response to this, but it would be to essentially agree. In our church we tend to focus so much on actions and much less so on principles. For example: it is OK to question many things in the church, but it isn’t OK to act out. Sometimes I feel that we become entirely focused on the act, and not on our motivation or on our understanding. Jesus was getting at this problem when he talked about fasting, praying, and alms-giving and was critical of those who do them for the wrong reasons.

    Our temple ceremony, which we can’t discuss in detail, defines chastity in a one-sentence summary that basically says: don’t put A into B unless you are married. Legally/lawfully. Since the temple represents our most sacred space, then it seems that any further discussion of what chastity means is not needed. It is defined for us right there in the temple.

    But it means so much more!! Thank you for this post. It is one of those times that I find myself wondering and hoping that those who write manuals, and those who lead pay attention to places like this.

  16. Angela C says:

    Carolyn’s post is really important. The way we talk about sex in the church (and we do so mostly by talking about other things, like she points out) is just clear that we don’t really consider a woman’s perspective at all in this matter. We (in society in general) even define sex based solely on male success.

    I was talking with some other Mormon women yesterday about the most recent “The Bachelor”–a show that honestly makes me so angry I have to leave the room when my daughter watches it. In the latest season, the bachelor was a proud virgin. He kept talking about how the first time he was with someone it was going to be so special and wonderful and like magic, and he was going to make it the best thing ever for him and her, and I thought “Oh, honeybabysweetie, good luck with that.” People with no experience often have these hyped up expectations that have no bearing on reality. You’re not going to impress the Olympic judges the first time you get on a balance beam.

    Ziff: “Just what exactly are people expected to give up?” Yes, exactly! In my mission memoir book I talk about my post-mission interview with president: “He talked about me deciding how I would want my future courtship to go, what boundaries of intimacy I wouldn’t breach, and to decide if that was holding hands, embracing or kissing–cautioning me to avoid anything more than chaste kissing. Well, obviously that sounded terrible.” I mean, yikes. Really. We are expected to go from zero (no arousal) to sixty (full male-gratifying sex) on our wedding night. No wonder people are confused and find it disappointing.

  17. Harry B. says:

    I second the request for a list of recommended reads in the feminist romance genre.

    And I fully agree that modesty and chastity rhetoric in the church short circuits our ability to develop emotional intimacy. I’ve been married for 10+ years and though I’d say our sex life is generally satisfying, I find it nearly impossible to have genuine, meaningful conversations about sexual interests, desires, etc. with my spouse without being judged, second guessed, or called to repentance. Our inability to have real adult conversations around relationships and sexuality really does harm to genuine intimacy, in my perspective.

  18. Carolyn says:

    My top feminist romance recommendation is “Courtney Milan” followed by “and anyone she recommends on Twitter.” http://www.courtneymilan.com/

  19. I love this! Saving to use when my toddlers are older. Thank you!

  20. Jack Hughes says:

    Thank you, Carolyn. Consent is a foundational principle of healthy sexual relationships, but it has been noticeably absent from LDS sex education. I think there is an underlying assumption in the Church that consent should not even enter the conversation for unmarried persons (because they shouldn’t be engaging in sexual behavior outside of marriage anyway); and that consent doesn’t apply to married couples, because it was effectively given at the altar. These assumptions, of course, are false and dangerous, as they foster a culture that punishes victims and turns a blind eye to domestic violence and marital rape. We must do better.

  21. Thank you for this. We need to make sure our daughters and sons know consent is required even once you are married.

  22. Anon for this says:

    Your thoughts are very insightful, and I like the positive statement of the law of chastity, rather than just having a list of things not to do. We should teach more of the positives.

    I grew up just as ignorant of sex as you describe yourself. Knowing anything about sex would be sinful, and so total ignorance was the safest course. Besides which, I was so extra-fabulous-righteous, that I was never even tempted! Never, not once, did I want to break the law of chastity. I virtuously drew the lines with my boyfriend, and felt confusion towards fallen girls, because why would they even want to do things like that? The Church talks about how strong sexual temptation can be really kind of puzzled me. I had sexual feelings, but never when an actual boy was in my personal space — that was kind of a turn-off, to be honest.

    I got married. And I still did not like sex, even though it was now sinful not to. Or that was my thought, anyway. Like Carolyn, I thought the marriage ceremony was consent, and if I said ‘no’ I risked sending my H back to porn.

    We’ll skip all the TMI about therapy, and sex advice books, and relationship books, and the prayers begging Heavenly Father to please make me like sex, and go right to the divorce. While the fact that I never wanted to have sex again was only one of many factors in my decision to file for divorce, it definitely was a factor.

    A few years after the divorce, I ran across the term ‘asexual’ and read some websites. Huh. Whaddaya know. I’m asexual. I don’t experience sexual attraction to either men or women. What I thought was a super-duper ability to live the law of chastity was actually my sexual orientation. (LGBTQIA – the A at the end is for Asexual.) Sex advice books really ought to mention issues like that. Seriously, my first exposure to the term ‘asexual’ was in a vox.com review of the animated show “Bojack Horseman,” which has an asexual character.

  23. Melissa Inouye says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and affirmative discussion of chastity!

  24. Jason K. says:

    This is utterly masterful, Carolyn. Thank you!

  25. Cameron says:

    Anon for this: I sometimes think the Church would prefer that everyone was demisexual/gray-asexual. Fall in love and only experience sexual feelings once you know the person well enough to be ready to marry them, and then be only-that-one-person-sexual for the rest of your life.

    With all the (accidental?) implications that sexual arousal is itself sinful, no wonder the church sucks at handling LGBTQIA issues. It can barely handle full-on heterosexuality. (That’s not to imply that straight people have just as hard a time as not-straight people within the church; that would be insultingly short-sighted for me to suggest.)

    On my most cynical days, I fear that the law of chastity is less about what God wants and more about tired old church leaders wanting control over their people. In so many ways, good conduct is less about righteousness and more about being manageable.

  26. Michaelann says:

    Your words are from my heart too! I identify with this so much. Can I get a reading list????

  27. whizzbang says:

    I grew up in the Church and for whatever reason came to think that couples only had sex a few times a year, because it was so forbidden. Somehow that information got out in the mission and my goodness!!! People I didn’t even know were telling me about what really happened, the funniest thing ever was the wife of a ward mission leader asking me if I had heard that at a youth conference or something? maybe? I don’t know where I got this idea! I remember someone telling me they had sex as many times a year as I thought couples did it but in one day, “3 times a year? we did it 3 times in a day last sunday” well……

  28. Bro. Jones says:

    Excellent post.

    @whizzbang -Yowza, I do not recall ever discussing chastity with a missionary, let alone the frequency of my sexual activities!

  29. east of the mississippi says:

    35 years ago during a temple prep class a member asked if it was ok to have sex on the Sabbath. it is astonishing that anybody would feel that they needed to ask that question,

    The good news is that the old timer teaching the class, with his bride present, responded that anytime was a good time as far as he was concerned.

  30. Another Roy says:

    @whizzbang – I recall a missionary companion that thought that it was only permissible to have marital sex with the intent to get pregnant. I think this may have come from some misinterpreted statements from church leaders about the evils of contraception. I gently informed him that I do not believe that to be the case and we never spoke of it again.
    Some years later the church came out with a statement that basically said that there are multiple reasons for marital intimacy besides procreation.

  31. Anonymous1 says:

    While I appreciate this post (I think it’s brilliant, really), I do respectfully take issue with some of the assertions the post ended with. It seems that you’re attempting to expand the definition of ‘chastity’ to include the concepts of consent, of a commitment to emotional intimacy, and love in general (“Chastity is love,” etc.). Although it can be somewhat difficult to define certain doctrines the church has, the church’s website defines chastity simply as “sexual purity,” and elaborates on this saying, “Those who are chaste are morally clean in their thoughts, words, and actions. Chastity means not having any sexual relations before marriage. It also means complete fidelity to husband or wife during marriage” (from https://www.lds.org/topics/chastity?lang=eng). This is clearly indicating that chastity is the avoidance of sexual behaviors or thoughts until marriage.

    I think it’s important to emphasize this because I believe the church should be held accountable for the language they use and don’t use. If you suddenly try to say lessons on chastity are equal to lessons on consent, for example, church leaders at any level may come out one day when the church is criticized for not addressing this need more and say, “We’ve ALWAYS been talking about consent! See???” By expanding the definition of chastity to include this, it removes accountability from church leaders.

    Additionally, I have been personally affected by their definition of chastity as ‘sexual purity.’ When I was only eleven years old, I had a bishop who required that I go to his office and confess to him any time I masturbated, which led me going to his office just about every week while I was a young adolescent — several years. He had no poor intentions — he was simply trying to help me get over my ‘addiction’ (which was really just a healthy sex drive in a curious adolescent’s body). But he did this because the church emphasizes sexual purity so heavily — and because they define it as abstinence from any sexual thoughts or behavior of any kind. If we start to define chastity more broadly, as this post did, the church will no longer be held accountable for its toxic obsession with sexual purity and the overbearing, problematic repentance process that allows for the kind of interpretation and implementation my bishop gave it.

  32. Kristin says:

    Thank you for sharing this! I know how, even when you’ve learned all of this, the vestiges of expectations around modesty and propriety can still make it uncomfortable to speak out about it publicly. I grew up in a different, moderately conservative denomination of Christianity, and while the details are different, the impressions and assumptions about sex, sexuality, chastity, and purity that I came away with were the same. Changing that way of thinking has been a long and unexpected journey for me as well. It makes me so sad to think of the missed opportunities to have healthy relationships (at best) and the times I didn’t stand up for myself (at worst), because I didn’t know it was an option, didn’t know what I was experiencing was wrong or disrespectful, and didn’t know there was a better way. I hope we can, collectively and individually, do a good job of passing this message on to our children, so they don’t have those experiences.

  33. Michael says:

    Tip of an old iceberg,Carolyn dear.

    Anybody remember the chastity smack-downs at BYU, must have been in the early 1980’s? Married-ward bishops were interviewing couples about their bedroom activittes and issuing more than a few disciplinary actions. I was not married and did not go to BYU. But a married relative told me that he and his new wife had been put on 6 months of probation for “oral sex.” He confessed to kissing her breasts, nothing more. She didn’t know what is more commonly referred to as oral sex was even thinkable and definitely wouldn’t do anything like that. Be careful what you say in the bedroom, your spouse might tell the bishop and this could publicly shame you.

    I recall as a college student living at home and giving a lesson to the Elder’s Q. right out of the manual. It detailed the evils of contraception which I parroted to adult men including the fathers of some of my peers. One girl, I think her father might have been there, started switching out her mother’s birth control pills with some other medication of similar appearance a few years previously. Her mother didn’t figure it out until she was pregnant. That girl was forced to live at home on a short leash during her college years and help raise her surprise sibling. Shoulda followed the prophet and saved all that trouble.

    When I was first married, we lied to the bishop about using the pill. Later when we experienced a few frustrating years of infertility, we were reprimanded by ward leadership for not trying hard enough and being too worldly. (New red sports car, trips to the beach, etc.) One of my friends at the time informed me that his wife would only have sex when she wanted another baby and only once that month. He counted 10 sexual encounters (no reported marital rapes), in 13 years of marriage and 7 children. He suggested the cause of our infertility might be offending god with too much recreational sex.(Turned out to be a rare autoimmune disorder responsive to steroids.)

    I have lost a paper copy of a Bruce R. McKonkie sermon instructing mature couples past child-bearing years to cease all sexual activity. It was unseemingly and disgraceful at that age. Abstinence in marriage would increase spirituality in the golden years.

    Who can forget the common claim in testimony meeting or during a talk that a certain pillar in the community conceived her 8 or 10 or 15 children without once removing her garments. The pioneer wollies that extended from neck to wrist to ankle.

    I have to include this old canard. A righteous couple married in the temple and after the reception at the church, they checked into a motel. A couple of hours later they called 911 because they couldn’t figure out what to do. A folk legend, I admit, but hilarious back in the day- only because it was too close to the truth.

    Although Carolyn was rather naive, my take-away message from her struggles is that some progress has been made, although there is still much room for improvement.

  34. “Carolyn dear”?

    Not sure whether to be disgusted or thoroughly disgusted by that entire comment. It’s crass of the commenter to address an adult woman like he did, not to mention the closing insults, uncouth gossip, and misspelling.

  35. Bob Powelson. says:

    Ah yes, the bedroom letters. The Stake president’s counsellor that interviewed my wife and I got a real surprise. My wife was not shrinking violet “Molly Mormon”. She came out of her interview with her signed recommend in her hand and I asked her how it went. She indicated he had gone beyond the questions in the handbook. What did you say? I asked. ” I told him it was none of his damned business.”

    I went in and had my interview and he asked the same questions and I answered that it was still none of his damned business.

    Married to her for all those years was a treasure. I even learned that the two most important words any married man knew was. Yes, dear!