Teaching Saintly Sex

Latter-day Saints face the challenge of devising sex ed courses that get specific while upholding chastity and fidelity.

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With images of casual sex all around and the age-old refrain that "everybody's doing it," how is the Church passing on its values to rising generations?

The official view in Mormondom on sexual morality is stated by the First Presidency of the Church: "The Lord's law of moral conduct is abstinence outside of lawful marriage and fidelity within marriage. Sexual relations are proper only between husband and wife appropriately expressed within the bonds of marriage."

I believe that Saintly Sex Ed begins at home. When our oldest was 14, she began asking questions about physical limits in relationships. I fell back on a quote I heard from a no-nonsense bishop friend: "No appendages in any orifices!" Upon hearing this, my daughter shivered with the "too much information" response. "I just wanted to know if it was okay to hold hands!" she said.

I did not grow up Mormon, but my children did. They received the pamphlet called "For the Strength of Youth," which advises waiting until 16 to begin dating, dressing modestly, and avoiding pornography in any form. It also gives a list of forbidden sexual behaviors and encourages repentance if these have been violated. The booklet assures that "[t]he miracle of forgiveness is real, and true repentance is accepted of the Lord."

I am all for moral purity and celebrate efforts to give the principles of chastity and fidelity their due. To the extent this much-circulated pamphlet does that, bravo.

I agree with the "waiting until you're 16 to date" philosophy in principle and have seen it work in practice for many people. In our family we learned early about picking battles. When our daughter was 14 and enamored of a young fellow in her high school, her dad sat her down and reminded her of the expectation of waiting until 16 to date. She responded immediately with "Well, Dad, I can see Allen and you can know about it, or I can see Allen and you won't know about it." We opted for knowing about it. The Church also sponsors "Standards Nights" and other meetings specifically designed to address moral issues. Some leaders give guidelines to keep the youth out of trouble. These tips have included butcher chart-type descriptions of off-limits body parts ("don't touch any area that would be covered by a swimming suit").

In the past, teenagers heard lessons or sermons with theologically suspect object lessons--involving simulated plane crashes, cupcakes with mangled frosting, boards with nail holes in them, roses with missing petals, and wads of chewed gum--meant to be analogies for sexual sin and its consequences. From the winces of my friends as they recall those days, I am glad that things have improved.

"I thought we'd hear the real scoop about sex, but I always felt the leaders danced around the topic with platitudes and dreadful metaphors," recalls a friend from Denver. "I thought the object lessons taught false doctrine, and even as a vapid 16-year-old that disturbed me."

At a Standards Night I attended in a nearby stake, the stake president didn't sugar-coat the details. Kids came out of there knowing (if they didn't already) that it takes less than 3 seconds to get a guy aroused, that you need to watch how you dress and what you say and what you view and what you listen to and how late you're out and how horizontal you get, etc. They got some good specific tips of the "no appendages in any orifices" variety and a plea, if necessary, to travel the long, arduous road of repentance (emphasis on the long and the arduous aspects).

This raised a few questions for me. It seemed that it was left to the girls to do the brunt of the guard dog work. We're talking Gospel standards, not double standards, right? And are they really telling me the Church preaches "no erection before marriage?" What about that beautiful Book of Mormon counsel to "bridle our passions"--not squash, repress or denounce them?

The kids at this Standards Night also heard no distinction between having homosexual inclinations and acting on them. Everything was lumped into the "homosexuality is wrong" category, which drives me crazy. How many kids in that meeting left there feeling labeled and ashamed?

This particular stake president--a wonderful, good-hearted man--takes seriously his task to raise "a voice of warning." I just wish this event had had a better balance of joy, consolation, humor and hope.

If I feel a little sheepish handling the topic with my own kids, I can only imagine how hard it is for the folks planning morality lessons for Church. Involving the youth seems vital to me. It clearly was to my friend, a family therapist, who had a compare-and-contrast experience.

"I was on a panel with four other adults, who answered questions asked ahead of time by the youth," she says. "This seems like a good concept, but we ended up 'preaching at' the kids instead of having a back and forth exchange, which I believe is the way values are internalized.

"In the second experience, I was alone in a room with 20 young women. I asked them the questions that the panel was asked. They heard each other speak in a non-preachy way about why and how they try to adhere to LDS standards. I felt like I was there to encourage the discussion, to add my own insight, and most of all, to express admiration and respect for their efforts to live standards that necessitate different behaviors from peers at a time in their lives when most of them want so much to fit in."

Teaching moral standards stirs up lots of questions. Lessons in a typical ward are geared for the 12- to 18 age range. What happens when our youth are not so youthful? Surely the challenges are not the same for a 30-year-old virgin as they are for a 12-year-old. Apparently the standards don't change, but do the strategies? Do we treat pregnant teenage girls differently than we do their partners who can carry no outward evidence of their act? If people choose to be sexually active outside of marriage, do we still welcome them warmly into our Church community and activities?

However attitudes toward healthy sexuality and moral standards are conveyed, the task for families and the Church is challenging. For all the careful planning, example-setting, sermons, pamphlets and lessons, this is one more area where I offer the best I have--and pray for grace and mercy to repair the flaws in my efforts.
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Linda Hoffman Kimball
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