Over the past several months I’ve had the same question posed to me, in a number of different ways: “How do Mormons feel about sex?” Although I would much prefer to deal with just about any other issue, I’ve decided to throw up the white flag and answer it. But let’s be clear about something: I have five daughters, which means that every time questions about sexuality come up in our family, I have the luxury of saying “Go ask your mother,” and then pretending to answer an important text. So I don’t claim to have any level of comfort when it comes to this particular topic.
At the same time, with that many daughters in my home, the issue is an important one, and it plays a role in many of the key questions in my life, such as “What caliber of handgun I should own?”
One of the things that sets the LDS Church apart from other Christian churches is that we do take issues regarding sexuality very seriously, and we hold our members accountable for their conduct. Whereas many churches have relaxed their standards regarding sexual behavior in order to accommodate the changing values of their members, the LDS Church takes the opposite approach, setting clear standards and expecting members to exercise sufficient faith and discipline to comply with those standards. Surprisingly, the Church’s membership continues to grow despite its stance on sexual issues.
Before discussing what the “rules” are for Mormons, it is important to understand why the Church sets the standards that it does. The Church’s well-known focus on the family is much more than an advertising campaign. Mormons believe that the most important organizational unit in our Heavenly Father’s plan is the family. We believe that the family unit is ordained of God and will exist not only in mortality, but throughout eternity. As a result, the family relationship is a sacred one, and that includes the procreative power. The ability to create mortal tabernacles for the spirit children of our Father in Heaven allows us to share in His creative process, and because it is such a high privilege, we believe that it should be used only within the bounds that He has set.
Those boundaries are not particularly difficult to understand. The LDS Church teaches that sexual relationships are appropriate only within the bounds of marriage. Period. We consider premarital or extramarital sexual relationships serious sins that are destructive to the individuals involved as well as their families. Such conduct can affect a member’s standing in the Church. Less serious conduct of the same ilk also violates the Lord’s law of chastity. Therefore, the Church consistently warns against the proliferation of pornography and counsels youth against conduct in dating that could lead to sexual activity. The Church cautions members to dress modestly (which should not be read as “frumpy”…ankle-length dresses and bonnets are not the order of the day) and to avoid unwholesome music, movies or other media. We counsel youth not to date until at least the age of sixteen, so as to discourage early sexual activity. Mormons typically marry at a younger age than their non-Mormon peers, probably to keep us from developing nervous tics.
Within the bounds of marriage, the Church generally keeps itself out of the bedroom. Although you might find statements from Church leaders regarding this or that subject, the Church provides no official guidelines on the subject, and nobody ever has pulled me aside to ask me anything about it. (Such would likely be met with some degree of violence from me). Similarly, the Church has taken no official position on birth control, and you will find a range of opinions about it. Honestly, the subject of sex within marriage just doesn’t come up that often. Couples are permitted to keep their own counsel, so long as nothing in the relationship is abusive or exploitative.
On a personal note, when I was engaged to be married, there were some members of our local ward who did decide to give my future wife and me some unsolicited advice about needing to have all of the babies the Lord saw fit to give us. At the time, I wasn’t even sure if I liked kids (or, at least, other people’s kids), and my wife-to-be and I were both creeped out and irritated by the intrusive advice. Our Stake President responded by holding an adults-only meeting in which he essentially told everyone to keep their noses in their own business. It was a great example to me of the difference between the individual opinions of members and the official policy of the Church. We ended up deciding to have 5 kids, which was 2 1/2 more than we initially planned on and probably enough to render the issue moot.
The criticism leveled at the LDS Church (and any other church that teaches similar principles), is that placing restrictions on sexual activity only leads young people to be repressed, ill-adjusted deviants, and to start engaging in self-destructive conduct like wearing socks with sandals. I’m not a shrink, and therefore I won’t delve too deeply in the debate over whether placing limits on sexual conduct is “healthy.” What I do know is that as I look at the world around me, both personally and in my profession as an attorney, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that the whole “sexual revolution” is working out very well. I see a world in which women (and, increasingly, girls) are sexually objectified, in which teachers can’t be trusted with their students or fathers with their children, and in which young people are inundated with images of sexual exploitation. If this reflects a “healthy” sexual atmosphere, I can’t imagine what it would look like if it were diseased.
Yes, the LDS Church establishes limits on what it considers appropriate sexual activity, but I’m not convinced that makes us uptight. Rather, I see it as striving to recognize that our bodies are gifts from God, and that family relationships are ordained and approved by Him. He has given us a wonderful gift in allowing us to share in His creative power, and He has a right to place limits on how that gift is used. In my experience, complying with the Lord’s law of chastity provides greater happiness than ignoring it.
Besides, given the choice, I prefer being around people who strive for sexual responsibility rather than mothers who, following the latest social trends, read pornographic novels in front of their children. To me, it’s more about being prudent than prudish. I am confident, and grateful, that I am not alone in that view.