I’ve been thinking a lot about sex lately. (So have Tyler and Theric!) Mostly it’s because my sister recently sent me her copy of the new Mormon sex book, by Laura M. Brotherson, and I’m surprised by what it reveals about Mormon culture.
And They Were Not Ashamed is the “new’ Mormon sex book because it was published more recently than the one that was floating around when I got married. The one people were giving out as wedding gifts when my DH and I celebrated our nuptials was by Stephen E. Lamb and Douglas E. Brinely. (Tangential question: Why do strangers give newlyweds books about sex? Really, why? Are you so afraid my parents never brought it up that you feel compelled to help out? I just don’t get that.) We received not one but two copies of the hard, silver-jacketed tome with the open-yet-frozen-in-their-separation lilies and I read it–out of curiosity and because all my unmarried friends wanted to know what was in it. Although it was full of useful information, I was disappointed to find that it was pretty much the opposite of its subject matter: cold, clinical, boring. This was how people who believe sex is a gift from God talk about it?
And They Were Not Ashamed was originally published in March of 2004 and went into a second printing in November of that same year. From what I understand it is now in its fifth printing and word of mouth keeps this book moving. You can even get it as an audio book. (Um, awkward?) My own sister called me and told me she was reading it and sending it to me so we could talk about. The last book she did that with? Khaled Hosseini’s The Kiterunner.
So why is this book a big deal? Four words: The Good Girl Syndrome or “the deeply internalized feelings and attitudes that rigidly emphasize only the negatives associated with sexuality” (2). Brotherson hits all the usual discussion points like the commonality of sexual dissatisfaction, physiology lessons, and relationship tips, but before all that she details the fairly common, and perhaps mainly LDS, “Good Girl” mindset: Sex is bad. No matter what. In any circumstance. Except for maybe procreation. And it is up to the girls to keep men in check. (Because all women are meant to stay as innocent as girls while boys turn into men and do whatever they want.) Brotherson’s entire book, even the title in its reference to Adam and Eve, argues passionately against those false and debilitating ideas.
I can see where Brotherson is coming from. I was raised by two well-meaning LDS parents who wanted to teach their kids to CTR about “intimacy.” My mother, a nurse and prenatal educator, took me to class with her so I had plenty of technical information on intercourse and its consequences. My Young Women leaders gave the yearly lesson on the pretzel versus the chocolate (see also: the licked cupcake). My dad taught family home evening lessons on chastity so many times he developed a pamphlet that he handed out to any teenager who walked in the house. The message was the same everywhere I looked: It’s bad. It’s dangerous. And whatever it was it wasn’t sex-y. Only dirty and low people talked about it like that. In fact, my friends and I preferred to spell it out rather than say it. And even then we couldn’t own the word. We spelled it s-e-c-k-s.
One rocky adolescence later, I went to college and a visiting professor asked me to explain May Swenson’s “Bleeding” and why straight people think it’s about sex. My newly-wed brain fritzed. I blushed. I coughed. I hemmed. I hawed. And I punted the question off on my forty-something, non-LDS motherly group partner. While I worked on recovering my breath I realized something: If I was going to survive as a writer, as an artist, I needed to figure out how to talk about sex in an upfront way. The example set by that specific professor seemed too disrespectful to me, as did many of the approaches my fellow students took. I myself probably crossed a couple lines while figuring out how to reconcile the “worldly” way of sex and the gospel way. Confronting the beast that is human sexuality was difficult for this Good Girl but I did it. The looks I get at Relief Society book club discussions tell me that many other women haven’t that yet. I probably wouldn’t have if I wasn’t forced to.
Keeping this in mind, how sex is handled in an LDS/Mormon work of art can make or break it. Think about how Mormons handle movies. Violence? The most orthodox might turn away but most don’t even flinch. Sex? Mormons walk out of the theater or turn off the TV. It’s similar for books. If it’s violent, well, that’s part of life. If it’s dirty, well, it’s trash.
To be clear, I’m not necessarily knocking this approach. I think it’s important to draw lines and boundaries and say there are places we are not willing to go. I think it’s important to respect where other people draw their lines. But I also think it’s important to understand why we are drawing those lines where we are drawing them. Are we drawing them based on true principles or culturally-filtered emotional responses to those principles?
Take, as one example, Heather Moore’s . Moore makes several interpretative changes to the Abinadi story, the biggest of which is that Abinadi is a young man deeply in love. The object of his affection: Raquel, the daughter of one of King Noah’s priests. Moore works hard to make Raquel a likable character that LDS readers will identify with. She is beautiful, smart, kind, spunky; cut out of the same mold as the female protagonists in books by Rachel Anne Nunes and Anita Stansfield.
Raquel’s big character-developing moment comes when her father is forced to offer her up to be one of King Noah’s concubines. Raquel, in all her spunky splendor, fights her way out of Noah’s lustful clutches and into Abinadi’s righteous, loving arms, thereby putting everyone she loves (her family, a young scout named Ben, and Abinadi’s own mother) in mortal danger. It is this moment that makes her a heroine.
Raquel, in many ways, is the stereotypical Good Girl. (She worries incessantly about the fact that Noah kissed her before she fought back and she and Abinadi don’t kiss until their wedding day.) The death of everyone she loves and her own death are a small price to pay for her sexual purity. Similar story lines exist in Dean Hughes’ Children of the Promise series and Gerald Lund’s Kingdom and the Crown series. What a young woman is willing to sacrifice for her virtue is emblematic of her righteousness.
Raquel’s foil is the also beautiful but already defiled Maia. Maia is the newest of King Noah’s wives and has dutifully submitted to marriage to a most despicable man to save her family and herself. Maia suffers physical abuse and risks her life to save Raquel but is not a heroine until she escapes the castle–again, at her own peril–and admits her true love for the newly repented Alma. Moore has stated that the sequel to Abinadi will be a book about Alma, so the jury is still out on Maia’s character. How she will fare as a licked cupcake remains to be seen. But one message is clear: the true test of a girl’s worth is in how much she is willing to sacrifice for her virtue. No other factor weighs as heavily–not even sacrificing herself for her family’s safety.
Does this sound like doctrine? It’s not something I’ve ever read in scripture or heard over the pulpit. There are, however, plenty of sources that point to the opposite. Good girls can enjoy sex. (For the doctrinal validity of that statement read And They Were Not Ashamed. Brotherson has all sorts of sources.) Victims of sexual abuse can find healing and don’t need to sacrifice everything they hold dear to get it. Virtue is important, but for a lot of reasons that are bigger and more complicated than pamphlets or cupcakes or morality tales. What would happen if our art represented those things instead of tired, polarizing oppositions?
The Good Girl Syndrome is heavily embedded in our culture, it’s nearly institutionalized on a ward level, and seems to be a real sticking point with people who have left the Church. (I’m not linking to anyone because I don’t want to throw readers into a hornet’s nest. But if you really want to know just google “licked cupcake.”) So-called ex-mo’s abhor the emotional and sexual frustration it causes. On the flip side, conservative Mormon culture seems to take a lot of comfort from the clear lines the Good Girl mindset draws.
The arts, naturally, are where those extremes collide and duke it out. I firmly believe the Good Girl syndrome is one reason why Twilight was so successful (and provocative) among Mormon women. Those books manage to affirm both the expression, and enjoyment, of female sexuality and the importance of preserving a girl’s virtue. Maybe it’s also part of the reason why LDS romances are such a big part of the market. All those Good Girls are looking for something to guide them from their no man’s land to the sexual reciprocity God meant for couples to have.