How to Talk About “Secks” (and other thoughts regarding Mormon prudery)

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.

22 thoughts on “How to Talk About “Secks” (and other thoughts regarding Mormon prudery)”

  1. 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.

    Unlike…say…Esther.

    Pretty sure it wasn’t her gorgeous face or her neverending cliffhanger stories night after night that earned her the king’s ongoing favor, and saved her people.

    It is this moment that makes her a heroine.

    Heroine?

    Really?

    *sigh*

    Our priorities are so screwed up.

  2. .

    Mojo:

    Heroine?

    Really?

    *sigh*

    Our priorities are so screwed up.

    That was what I thought too and I want to thank Laura for working on the ignored complexity this Good-girl mindset leads us to.

    Laura:

    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.

    As you note, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I have some more posts percolating, but I probably won’t work on them until the fall. Suffice it to say that I think we really don’t understand sex properly yet.

    The second half of Tyler’s Fob Bible review (I swear I’m not just plugging it myself again) dove into this limited understanding in some truly thought-provoking ways. Clearly sexuality is not merely a physical force. It’s a whole-soul endeavor, and over-repeated, trite, guilt-centered metaphors are missing the point.

    I too was raised to feel that sex existed to be shut down. But upon reflection, this makes no sense. This is not the way we view the gifts of God in Mormon doctrine and we need to try harder. Elder Hollands talk (linked to above as “for a lot of reasons”) is a good start.

    (also, the fob bible.)

  3. Laura, this is so GREAT.

    Mojo, I totally agree with your assessment of Esther’s persuasive powers.

    Th., Tyler’s excellent review is a) one of the reasons I keep coming back here; and b) the reason I’ll soon be a proud owner of the Fob Bible.

    The licked cupcake, the wilted rose, the chewed-up gum, the board with nail holes in it–these are all object lessons of the most diabolical design on so many levels.

    Sad fact #1:
    My husband-the-bishop has both the Brinley and the Brotherson books and uses them frequently when counseling couples. He has found them each useful for different reasons. He hasn’t given me details (thank heaven), but I was surprised that there was so great a need. Though I guess it’s good that people are looking for help and not just living lives of quiet desperation in this regard.

    Sad fact #2:
    About three years ago, our stake president and his wife gave a lengthy and detailed presentation on marital intimacy at the Saturday night session of Stake Conference. It is still the topic of hot (and often resentful: “I don’t need to hear from my church leaders about that–I’m already getting plenty of pressure and guilt”) conversation among the women I know.

    If I can simultaneously teach my children the importance of chastity AND the beauty, wonder, and sheer rollicking fun of a healthy (married) sex life for BOTH partners, I’ll consider part of my parenting role well done.

  4. Mojo–I never thought about Esther in relation to the Good Girl Syndrome. Thought-provoking, that.

    Th.–I think there is definitely a Good Boy Syndrome too, but I think it is a little different because men are different. Definitely worth delving into.

    Luisa–I’m so glad you keep coming back ๐Ÿ™‚

    To all: There is a part in Abinadi right after Raquel and Abinadi are married and they are about to attempt relations where Abinadi proves himself to be a thoughtful lover and Raquel seems to be excited to try out physical love. But it is small and slight and sanitary. But I guess I think I should mention it. Also, they do conceive a child. I guess I point these things out to show that Raquel sexuality is not limited to her encounter with King Noah. I don’t think these other moments change her sexuality but they are there.

    Anyway, now I’ve the kids late for swim lessons!

  5. As much as I dislike the novel ‘Charly’, I actually love the scene where the guy is all squeamish about the fact that his new love is a convert and doesn’t want to marry her, and yet his dad chews him out for not believing in the Atonement. Of course, she still ends up dying in the end, but at least it was a bit positive about the ‘licked cupcake’ thing.

    I actually don’t remember having any of those object lessons in my YW classes. Of course, my mom was the president for many years and she had been inactive when she and my dad married (after living together). The lady who succeeded her as president was married to a non-member, and I know that one of their counselors was also a convert who had married because she was pregnant with her first child. I think that having YW leaders who understand the complexities of sexuality and that life isn’t black or white can make it less likely that they’ll be so shrill about sexuality. On the other hand, I know my mom was always uncomfortable with lessons about temple marriage because she hadn’t achieved it. And I know several of the older girls sometimes questioned the leaders because most of them had good, happy marriages that had not been performed in the temple. It’s hard because the adolescent mind is actually pretty black-and-white and life is not.

  6. Good stuff, Laura.
    There definitely IS a “good boy syndrome.” There are a lot of hurdles an orthodox LDS man has to overcome before he achieves a healthy sexuality… in many ways BECAUSE he’s stuck between the tug of war of his natural passions and his overactive conscience.

  7. Good girls can enjoy sex…. Victims of sexual abuse can find healing and don’t need to sacrifice everything they hold dear to get it.

    I know this wasn’t the main point of this post, but I want to say thank you for this statement.

    My wife is living proof of it. She is both the quintessential “good girl” and a victim of sexual abuse by a family member. I am amazed at the power of Christ’s atonement to heal lives every time I see her with her reformed abuser, whom she has completely forgiven and with whom she has a wonderful, appropriate relationship.

    I know that she struggled for a long time – throughout her adolescence and a mission – and was shy of physical contact. Her first kiss came after our engagement. The first time we ever made love there was such a feeling of peace and healing for both of us as I’ve seldom known. We’ve had to sort a few things out since then, but I believe that having a healthy sexual relationship, as we now do, has been the final balm that has completely sealed her wounds.

  8. Mahroni–I would be very interested in understanding the Good Boy syndrome better.

    Anonymous–thank you for sharing your and your wife’s story. That IS what this post is about. Real life is way more complicated than the “good girl” mentality allows for. But the doctrine, Christ’s atonement, absolutely encompasses all those complications.

  9. At least a ward split back (so it was before you knew us) the bishop made the mistake of assigning my husband and I to speak on the topic of strengthening marriage. That was fun!
    Whooee–the comments afterward because we had the chutzpah to mention the importance of intimacy! (along with respect, giving, and sharing) What was funniest was both of us were citing to the current edition of Ensign, a first presidency message no less, but people were still upset.

  10. Love the spelling, Laura: s-e-c-k-s. I recall a talk on intimacy by Boyd K. Packer in which he (somewhat self-congratulatory) mentioned that a certain three-letter word (no, not l-o-v-e—oh wait, that’s four!) hadn’t been mentioned once. I partially understand where he may have been coming from—s-e-x has been vulgarized in so many ways that it almost seems a swear word—but still. I see this now as a something symptom (and a possible source) of the cultural/literary malaise you and Theric and I have been confronting lately and that others have confronted elsewhere.

  11. I loved that talk by Elder Holland, I really think it set things in the right direction.

    I definitely agree about the good girl syndrome (for men as well), and agree with the comment by Mahonri and the tug of war that men go through as well.

    In my book “Abinadi” that Laura referred to, I’ve caught some grief from making Abinadi a young man–just so I COULD put in a romance in the story. Also for having Alma break the law of chasity while he is serving in King Noah’s court. But I wanted him to experience all of the temptations that are a part of reality. One reader was uncomfortable that even after he “repented” he still cared for Maia. And his feelings of love didn’t change.

    I’ve also been told by a reader that she would not let her husband or parents read “Abinadi” because of the suggestive dancing and “about-to-have-sex” scene. I just don’t know how you write a scene with harlots in it without harlotry things taking place.

    I never heard of the “licked cupcake”–but assume it’s the same thing as “chewed gum.” I guess Alma would qualify in that case, as well as Maia.

    So, it was refreshing to read this blog because I hadn’t caught any specific attention about the women yet ๐Ÿ™‚

    It’s bizarre when we are taught sex is wrong and bad, etc. etc. until the preacher says the words “I pronounce you man and wife” and suddenly we are to change our whole mind-set created by our upbringing. I agree it should be changed long before to clear up the confusion, guilt, and everything else associated with it.

  12. Heather! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I love it when author get a chance to engage in discussions of their works.

    I was not offended by your book–especially not by the harlots and dancing. It seemed pretty tame to me. I also thought that the persistence of Alma’s feelings for Maia was quite realistic.

    You make a good point, though: the licked cupcake (or chewed gum! ew!) metaphor is generally used only in regards to women and not to men. It didn’t even occur to me that Alma would be a licked cupcake too.

    I’m surprised readers were offended by your book. I guess I forget how conservative some readers really are. . .

    Again, thanks for commenting! I hope you’ll visit AMV again ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. .

    Laura —

    I didn’t want to take a chance at too thoroughly threadjacking the RSbookclub discussion, but in terms of what we’ve been talking about here, I wonder if you would talk briefly about The Time Traveler’s Wife — not as Mormon lit, obviously, but as a Mormon reader.

    The book is certainly full of sex, but I found it lyrical and beautiful and emotionally instructive. You obviously felt differently and I wonder if you could explain why or how you felt it crossed lines.

    (Another book that would make an interesting testcase for Mormon readers is Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, but I don’t know if you’ve read it.)

  14. Laura, I’ll definitely visit more often ๐Ÿ™‚

    Th–Incidentally I also have very strong feelings about The Time Traveler’s Wife. I blogged about it once, then deleted the post in case I ever meet the author in person (even going so far as to say that the big dog reviewers must all be in some “good ole boys” club) I’d be interested to see what others thought of it.

  15. Th and Heather–I’ve been mulling over Theric’s request because I wasn’t sure how to approach it. I almost think it deserves a post unto itself. But here’s what I can say about my experience with _The Time Traveler’s Wife_ right now.

    First, when I finished the book I felt more depressed than usual which is a pretty good (although admittedly complex) indicator (for me) that it drove the Spirit away.

    I liked the premise. Some of the writing was top-notch. I thought Claire was a really interesting character–especially all the sections on her paper art. The main guy, Charlie? Henry? I think it was Henry. . . that’s what I’m going with, Henry was interesting too. Gomez was icky. It wasn’t a bad book overall, but for me, it was not a good choice to read it.

    In regards to sex, I felt like when it came to sex Clair was a bit of a prop for the men. Henry and Gomez both idolized her body at the expense of her spirit. Henry did it unintentionally but he did it all the same. He wasn’t all bad like Gomez, but he did tend to use her for his own needs before he thought about hers. Her sort of prop-like status smacks of pornography (to me). Her relationship with Henry wasn’t pornographic–it’s not like he went for her when she was a teenager or child–but there were things that were pornograph-ic. Does that makes sense?

    The other thing that I did find pornographic and offensive was the descriptions of oral sex and the use of slang terminology when referring to the body, which the book did a lot of.

    Maybe my reaction to those things is part of the physiological difference between men and women. Women are more mentally aroused, so to read something erotic can be very powerful–in ways I think upstanding men sometimes forget. For me, I am an intense reader and I dramatize the dialogue in my head so the act of reading those things incorporated them into my mind and they have taken up a permanent residence there. I wish they hadn’t. When it comes to sex and my brain I felt extremely uncomfortable having Gomez in my head. Maybe the effect would be comparable to you seeing an explicit film.

    The sex in the book seemed really worldly (for lack of a better term) to me. And the sex felt hollow because of it.

    For something more specific I think I’d have to read the book again, which I don’t really want to do.

    I also want to point out that I’m not saying other people should feel the same way I do. I know that different readers tolerate different things. For example, I have a hard time with the F-word in literature simply because if I read it a lot it’s more likely to come out of my mouth. For me, as an individual whose perceptions are colored by my own sex education and my own sexual experiences, the book left me with a bad, icky feeling. And that’s really what it comes down to.

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