At first glance, you’d think that the church’s teachings regarding our approach to human sexuality are pretty simple:  no sex outside of traditional marriage, avoidance of arousing sexual feelings outside of marriage through pornography or any prurient entertainment, and keeping our thoughts and language clean and virtuous.  Turns out, it’s not that simple.

Ever since my first exposure to the bloggernacle at feministmormomhousewives.org many years ago, I’ve read comment after comment, and several posts, about how messed up members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are when it comes to sex.  Here’s a short list of some of them:

  1. We think sex is such a sacred, forbidden thing that we don’t dare talk about it, and when we must, we use weird euphemisms (“petting”?).  
  2. We teach our young women that men are incapable of controlling their lust, so they have to be gatekeepers of their purity and dress modestly so as not to arouse them
  3. We teach our young women that it would be better for them to lose their lives than their purity, and compare those so defiled to a licked cupcake.
  4. We teach our young men that looking at pornography is committing adultery in their hearts and shame them for their natural impulse to masturbate, thus guaranteeing they’ll develop secret porn addictions.  [1]
  5. With no other resource, our young men learn about sex from their porn addictions, and when our good-girl daughters and our porn-addicted sons wed, disaster ensues.
  6. We put our vulnerable young people (even girls) into a private room with a middle-aged and potentially voyeuristic bishop and encourage them to talk about their sex lives.

This list is nowhere near comprehensive, and I’ve no doubt many will be added in the comments.  I don’t agree with the way all those criticisms are framed, but there’s no denying that there’s some truth there, the consideration of which has led to some improvements in church teachings and culture.

But it’s hardly like the rest of the world is doing it right.

I recently listened to a series of three podcasts from Radiolab called “In the No”.  They’d come upon a series of podcasts by Kaitlin Prest, which she’d produced months before the beginning of the #MeToo movement.  The topic of interest was the concept of consent within sex, and Kaitlin does a really good job of exploring it, imo.  But I think you need to know who Kaitlin is before you can really follow.  She introduces herself this way:

“I’m in my twenties.  I left my tiny little town for the big city.  I live in NYC now.  I make an artsy, feminist, sex radio show.  Third wave, sex-positive feminism told me I was on to something back in my teens, adopting the same ruthless sexual posturing that boys are encouraged to, would allow me to wield some of their power.  If we f*k without feelings, we too could be free.  Having slut-pride would subvert the double standard and it would force the world to recognize that women’s sexual pleasure is real.  

The only problem is that I hate casual sex….  What I really want is love.”

To keep her sex radio program going, she ended up talking a lot about masturbation (she’s clearly a bit of an exhibitionist) and doing a lot of interviews.  But she has also had sex with several men, and one experience in particular was really bad.

She’d been friends with a guy named Jay for nearly eight years.  They talked about everything, including the people they were dating, and called each other by pet names.  She always thought Jay was hot, but their relationship had always been platonic.  Late on the 4th of July, he invites her for a “snuggle party” at her place.  He starts kissing her.  He admits to being nervous (because they don’t do that sort of thing), but she’s digging it.  But then things heat up and he starts doing too much.  She asks if it’s okay if they just make out, that she doesn’t want any sexy stuff, and he responds “yeah, fine, whatever,”  and quits kissing her.  He tells her he’s just going to go to bed.  The air is tense, and she feels guilty about that.  She knows she should leave, but she doesn’t.  She’s frozen.  She tells him to come back.  They start to make out again and he again makes it sexual, and she again suggests they not, but he talks her into it.  Things progress to sexual conclusion.

Afterwards, she feels angry.  She hadn’t wanted that.  She felt she’d been made to perform for him, that what she wanted didn’t matter.  He’d simply forgotten her pursuing what he wanted.  He hadn’t exactly forced her to do anything, but she still felt violated.  

She wondered if having sex you didn’t want was something she just inherited from her foremothers, so she interviewed some older women.  They talked about how it was a status symbol to have men attracted to you, and how they liked the attention.  They talked about how you’d give in if you liked a guy and didn’t want to lose him, even though somewhere in your brain you’d know he wasn’t such a great guy if he was that pushy.  One of them said it wasn’t until her 40s that a man said to her “are you sure this is what you want?”, and she was dumbfounded.  No man had ever asked her that before.

Kaitlin interviews younger women who talked about how they’d give in because they didn’t want to make a scene.  Or, they’d try to give the guy what he wanted without making it too horrible for themselves.  Her friend posited that women learn to be people pleasers — that’s how they survive.  They read social queues to know when someone’s going to be upset, or sad, or happy.  They also know when they’re safe and when they’re not safe and they sometimes use sex as a social currency to stay safe, or to belong.  That’s the power dynamic — it’s important to be liked by the person who has your fate in their hands.

Two years before the “Jay” incident, Kaitlin had interviewed an ex-boyfriend, Raul, for her radio show and left the recording going after the official interview was over.  She and Raul were flirting, started messing around, and ended up having sex.  The whole thing was recorded.  She has audio evidence that she’d warned him that she didn’t want to have sex, but then she ends up allowing him to give her a bare-chested massage, with the caveat that she told him “you can’t touch the sexy parts”.   She even asked him if it were possible for a guy to enjoy what they were doing without it resulting in sex, and he replies that he doesn’t do anything he doesn’t enjoy.  Things progress, and she even tells him no explicitly, but in the flirtiest manner possible — she plays the tape so you can judge for yourself — and then she behaves like an engaged participant.  She enjoys the sex.  She doesn’t sound upset in the post-coital conversation, but she doesn’t spend the night and as she walks home, she becomes angrier and angrier — angry at Raul, angry at herself for not holding the line, and angry at her body for betraying her by liking it so much.

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The Jay incident motivated Kaitlin to dig up that audio with Raul, and she listened closely both to what she said and especially to the way she said it.  Her conclusion?  She sounded “just like a girl who wanted to f*k” this guy.”  She realized she probably sounded the same way to Jay.  But then she wondered whether this isn’t exactly the way most girls sound who are trying to make sure their boundaries don’t get crossed but who don’t want to ruin the flirtatious vibe, or who don’t want to make the guy peevish [2], or who are just trying to stay safe.  They say no in a sweet seductive tone and try to be nice and not hurt anybody’s feelings.

Kaitlin tells us that eventually she stops feeling so angry at herself and starts feeling angry at Jay.  She wasn’t that mad at Raul, because they weren’t that close, but she considered Jay a best friend, somebody she really trusted, and he’d really betrayed her.  She expected him to care about the way she felt, just as she she cared about the way he felt.  Even though Jay messaged her repeatedly, she ghosted him.  She completely shut him out and became consumed with the idea of consent (remember, this is months before #MeToo).  She says “almost every woman and queer I know has a story about being pressured or coerced into sex by a dude”.  That made her wonder, “does that mean every man I know has a story about pressuring or coercing someone into sex?”  So she started interviewing men, including her father and her first love, and sure enough, they both had stories that had hurt the girls’ feelings enough to ruin their relationships.

The climax of the podcast was when she contacted Jay and asked him to do an interview, on the record.  He clearly didn’t want to, but he felt obligated to help her out, so he agreed.  She hadn’t spoken to him for years, and during that time she’d built him into a monster who represented all the men through her life who had sexually traumatized her.  But when she saw him through her computer screen, he reminded her of the Jay she’d known and loved.  It was an awkward conversation, punctuated with her nervous laughter.  He listened quietly for 10 minutes as she tried to explain her feelings, and then he admitted he’d messed up.  He said he’d wished they would have had this conversation right after it happened, and that he’d tried to reach out to her.  He said they were both drunk and he did a dumb, stupid thing that he never should have done, but he felt like their relationship had been such that he should have gotten a pass for one stupid incident.  He felt like it was bad, but that she’d made too big a deal out of it.  He wanted to know how much he was supposed to pay.  He’d lost her friendship for years because of it, and she’d only reached out to him now because she wanted something from him.  They talked for about an hour and a half and neither were satisfied afterwards.  She especially resented his qualified “apology” and wished she could have gotten angry and told him how she’d been conditioned from birth to put what he wanted before what she wanted, that it was his job to be sensitive to that, that he had all the privilege cards, and basically, that he had treated her like <expletive>.

The next episode is just as interesting, and introduces Hanna Stotland, an independent educational consultant, who specializes in educational crisis management.  In other words, she’s the one moms call when their kid has been expelled from college.  About a third of her business is young men involved with Title IX (sexual harassment and violence).  She and Kaitlin had an pretty vigorous discussion about consent and weren’t entirely in agreement.  Hanna introduced a lot of grey areas from her work:  (1) a couple is messing around, he touches her, asks her if she likes it, she says she does, fakes an orgasm, and later says she only did it in order to make a graceful exit;  (2) a couple goes to a dorm room to hook up, takes off their clothes, and she approaches him and performs oral sex on him, later saying she felt intimidated into it once their clothes were off (he was a large black man, and he was expelled because he hadn’t gotten verbal consent, even though she had initiated the action);  (3)  the guy gets verbal consent but then during sex the woman starts to cry, and she says he should have stopped right away and he says he did stop as soon as he realized she was crying.  Hanna doesn’t feel that those situations are sexual assault just because the women felt bad afterwards. Kaitlin says there’s more going on besides what was verbalized in those stories, and argues that if a woman feels violated, she was violated.  Hanna suggests to Kaitlin that their different way of thinking comes from a generational divide within feminism.  Younger women talk about how they’ve been socially conditioned such that they can’t say no, but her generation rejects the idea that women don’t have agency.  She says she can’t see how “they put me in a pink dress when I was a girl and now I have to give a blowjob” kind of thinking is good for women.  Kaitlin responds that there’ve been studies done that show that women often decide how good sex was by how satisfied her partner was.  She doesn’t see the young men in her life understanding the power they have and that they constantly abuse, and she feels there has to be some kind of consequence in order for them to change. [3]

Anyway, there’s much more in the rest of part 2 and part 3, including the fear men feel in being expected to make the first move but requiring verbal consent before making out [4], the different languages men and women use when talking about sex, woke men who turn down drunk girls inviting them home, and even how BDSM kinksters have explicit rules to prevent violations of consent (spoiler: it doesn’t work either).

While abrasive to my usual sensibilities, I thought these podcasts did an excellent job of describing the discussion of consent in the #MeToo era.   But I kind of viewed them anthropologically.  In other words, I found them fascinating, but they reflected a completely foreign culture and it wasn’t immediately clear how they related to mine. 

Kaitlin’s argument that men didn’t understand the power they wield when it comes to sex reminded me of a similar argument I’d made in the past that the way women dressed had a powerful effect on men, and that they should therefore be taught modesty so as not to abuse that power. [5]  The feminist response was that men had their agency, they could control their reaction to the way women dressed, and that they can’t blame women for their bad behavior.  This was consistent with Hanna’s response to Kaitlin that women had their agency and that if they agreed to participate in sexual activity, it wasn’t the man’s fault if she felt taken-advantage-of later.

But I felt a considerable amount of sympathy for Kaitlin.  She sounded very damaged.  There seemed more to it than a couple of guys pushing her boundaries — more even than  feeling violated.  What she said she really wanted was love, and with her approach to sex, she certainly hadn’t found it.

I think that’s the main point that the whole discussion of consent entirely misses.  There are apparently a lot of men who predate women for sex, and requiring them to get verbal consent definitely helps protect women.  But whether or not a woman agrees verbally to sex can be utterly irrelevant to how she feels afterwards.  The protest that “regret does not equal rape” may be true legally, but not necessarily emotionally.

I’d argue that for sex to be healthy, a person needs both 

#1) self-determination — the ability to choose how, what, when, and with whom one participates, and 

#2) love — a sense of bonding and connection with the person one’s having sex with.  

I think Kaitlin was badly hurt by Jay because she felt she’d lose #2 if she didn’t cede #1.  As she said, Raul didn’t hurt quite so badly because she didn’t have as strong a relationship with him, but perhaps the cumulative effects of such meaningless liaisons have hurt her just as deeply over time, even if she participated willingly.

By the way, people assume that men generally have #1 covered and don’t really need #2, but neither is true.  Men struggle with #1 a great deal, just in a totally different way, as they can become rather fixated when sexually aroused. [6]  This makes them extremely susceptible to becoming creeps, criminals, and crappy dates.  I also think the cumulative effect of missing #2 is also hard on them, but again, maybe not quite the same way as with women.

FTSOY2012Which brings me back to church teachings.  Growing up in the church in the 80’s, I was taught that sex outside of marriage was never okay, and that a “real man” protects women, especially from himself.  Consent wasn’t an issue, because engaging in <insert sexually charged activity here> with a girl would be hurting her.  In other words, I had the strong sense that even if she allowed or wanted it at the moment, she (and I) would regret it afterwards.  To seduce or (worse) force her into it would only doubly damn me.

My sister received the “guardian of virtue” messages at the time, including the attitude of, if not the actual, “licked cupcake” message.  She says that while the lack of emphasis on the atonement was unfortunate, the lessons were a strong deterrent to being unchaste.  The expectation wasn’t just that she wouldn’t cross any boundaries, but that she’d help keep the young men in her life from doing so as well, because, you know, guys sometimes had a problem with that.  Whatever pressure she might have felt to please was counter-balanced by her responsibility to help them toe the line.  Consequently, she wasn’t a victim of the social conditioning Kaitlin describes — it was easier for her to say no.  

There’s a great deal of protection that comes from accepting the responsibility to live the law of chastity.  We may be as pitiable as a cat in heat, mewling big-eyed against the glass of the living room window, but I do think it prevents a lot of sexual assault and a lot of regrets.  The way we were taught chastity at church wasn’t perfect, and I’m well aware of how many members and former members resent it. [8]  But my sister and I both came out with a rudimentary sensitivity to the other sex and the understanding it was on us to make sure our relationships were chaste.

I don’t want to leave the impression everything went perfectly.  While the sexual experiences I had before marriage were pretty tame, I did push a little too far on one occasion and had the girl write me an angry note after the incident.  Fortunately, my transgression was relatively mild (wandering hands that never crossed the boundaries of her undergarments), my apology was genuine because I knew I had hurt her, and she frankly forgave me.  There was nothing in me that said “well, you sure didn’t seem to mind at the time”, because her consent was irrelevant.  If she felt I had gone too far, I had.  Period. [7]

Consequently, when old guys like me hear progressives talk about how we need to teach consent to our young people within the church, we think to ourselves “Why?  Isn’t that just a lower law that gets taught to the people who reject the gospel?”  It’s true that consent is applicable to marriage, just like elements of the Law of Moses are still applicable to living the gospel, but it’s really subsumed in the basic struggle of two people learning to love, understand, and be sensitive to each other’s needs.  Presumably people intend to do that or they wouldn’t get married.  Marriage is a type of consent — not necessarily of “right now”, or “in that way”, but certainly of “with you”.  Forgiveness, repentance, and self-sacrifice all play a role too, because married people mess up.  If a marriage can be improved by understanding the need of a verbal yes, then by all means teach them.   But if it’s that helpful, it strikes me that somebody in the marriage has a poor understanding of gospel teachings, or really poor communication skills.  If verbal consent is the difference between rape and consensual sex, then I’ve raped my wife more often than not and she me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against teaching youth about consent, just as I think it’s a good idea to teach them how to use a condom.  I also think the #MeToo movement was long overdue.  I just think that the progressive idea that “as long as there’s consent, it’s all good”, is pretty much bogus.  The hook-up culture is an abomination, and any attitude that allows it isn’t going to be fixed by talking about consent, because that’s only part of what’s broken.

 

 

 

 

[1]  As evidence, they cite (with typical headline distortion) this much publicized report that lists Utah as having the highest per-capita porn subscriptions.  Of course, that report (you can’t call it a study) references a single, unnamed, “top-ten seller of adult entertainment”.  There are plenty of reasons to question that’s it’s evidence for abnormally high numbers of LDS pornaholics.  Pornhub, the world’s biggest porn aggregator, subsequently reported that Utah is close to the bottom for per capita porn traffic in the US.  

Incidentally, Utah has also been reported to have by far the highest per capita rate of serious illness due to vaping.  Is that a church-related problem?

[2]  Kaitlin’s word was “pissy”, but I don’t like that word.  If anyone knows an adequate synonym, please let me know.

[3]  If you’re interested in the topic of consent, this episode is probably worth listening to yourself rather than relying on a dude to summarize a discussion between feminists.

[4]  There’s an app for that!  You hold up your phone and record her verbal consent.  With that out of the way, you can get down to business!

[5]  I actually tried to find that discussion, but apparently feministmormonhousewives.org doesn’t allow Google to search it’s pages (I mean, I’m sure Google does, it just doesn’t share the results with the likes of me).  Since when did that happen?  Anybody know anything about this?

[6]  A couple decades ago I heard a drive-time radio show interview a pair of strippers.  They were asked how much money guys spend at the club, and they said $20 was enough to have fun.  But then, they both kind of lowered their voices and said “but a lot of guys get really intense and spend a LOT of money — it’s kind of scary.”

[7]  Get this — after my mission, I even decided I wouldn’t kiss, let alone make out with, a girl I wasn’t considering marrying, because I was afraid if I didn’t love her enough, I might not have the wherewithal to keep from “hurting her” (that is, going a little too far).  That worked until I was flirting with my future wife and she grabbed me and started kissing me, so I had to marry her.

[8]  There’s obviously a lot of variation in how it was taught and internalized.  What my sister and I got isn’t necessarily the same as what others got.  Two different teachers could put vastly different emphasis on the same lesson, and two students could interpret the exact same lesson through totally different personal lenses.