Women’s Conference: Teaching healthy sexuality

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Jenet Jacob Erickson, who has a Ph.D. in family social science, and clinical psychologist Christy Kane, spoke to women about the “gift of sexual intimacy” and explained how to teach its principles.

Kane said she and Erickson spent months preparing for their talks on this topic by praying, studying, exchanging notes and attending the temple.

“We were mindful of the weight of this important topic,” Kane said.

Both women repeated throughout their presentations the importance of revelation and reliance on the Holy Ghost when teaching children about sexuality.

Jenet Jacob Erickson addresses Women’s Conference attendees on the topic of sexual integrity. (Claire Gentry)

Erickson focused largely on the meaning of sexual intimacy as more than just a physical act and the concept of having “sexual integrity.” Sexual intimacy is a core doctrine of God’s plan, according to Erickson, and should be taught as such.

Children are taught misconceptions about sex and intimacy from the world, Erickson said. She listed examples such as the idea that sexual desire is a “hunger,” like a hunger for food, rather than a desire for connection and unity, the idea that sexual urges need expression and repressing them is harmful, that power and social prestige come from looking and acting “sexy,” that sex is a commodity to be bought and sold, and sexual pleasure is an “entitlement to be acquired and bragged about by boys and men,” while women’s bodies are a “prize” for sexual pleasure.

In addition to what children are taught by the world, they learn from parents and teachers that sex is about reproduction. At the same time, Erickson said, children experience feelings of sexual desire and romantic attraction.

According to Erickson, most children don’t have an adult talking to them about what these feelings mean and how to separate them from each other and understand them.

“And apart from all of these, (children) are being taught in church beliefs about what is wrong and right in regards to sexual expression. They need us to help pull these dimensions of their experience together, using a lens of truth and light that will guide them in navigating their own sexual development in ways that will bless them.”

This will require conversations between parents and children at any given moment, Erickson explained. In the middle of an inappropriate advertisement on TV or the radio, for example. These conversations can start with questions like, “what is that teaching you? What does that mean? How does that make you feel?” and “why is that not true?”

Striving to teach these things effectively and discuss them, according to Erickson, will help strengthen relationships with children.

Erickson emphasized that teaching about sex and intimacy does not require fear or shame.

“(Children) need to know (that) we know they are designed to experience sexual desire, not to fear it or be ashamed by it, but to appreciate that it can bring goodness into their lives as it is intended by God to do, or it can be used for ill.”

Once parents and teachers help children understand sexual intimacy is not something to be feared or ashamed of, but rather a divine creation of God, they then can be taught about sexual integrity.

In summary, Erickson’s explanation of sexual integrity is an understanding of sexuality and sexual desire and how these things can be used for good or ill, and then choosing whether or not to act on sexual desire based on an understanding of consequences.

Erickson suggested questions such as, “what do I want to create in my life with my sexual desires? Am I choosing a path that will deepen my capacity for intimacy and love, or am I choosing a path that will undermine that capacity? Am I using myself and others in a way that is faithful and respectful? How can I channel my sexual desires in ways that will help me develop into the kind of person that I want to become, the kind of person that he or she would want to marry?” when teaching the concept of sexual integrity.

Helping children develop sexual integrity, according to Erickson, requires they understand the “whys” behind commandments.

Erickson addressed the topic of modesty — a sometimes controversial topic — from the perspective of sexual integrity.

Part of understanding one’s own sexual desires includes understanding wanting to activate another person’s sexual desire. This power, Erickson said, requires great responsibility because it can be abused.

“Questions become important. Who is manipulating your sexual desires? Who’s desires are you manipulating?”

This question, according to Erickson, gets to the heart of the issue of modesty.

“We do not need to shame sexual expression or take responsibility for someone else not controlling their thoughts to acknowledge the importance of being responsible about how we are using our sexuality to influence the environment around us.”

Sexual integrity includes respecting one’s own sexuality and the sexuality of others, a respect reflected in the way one chooses to dress, Erickson explained. It also requires respecting “the purpose of the spaces and activities we are involved in, including sacred spaces such as church.”

“It is our intention behind what we are wearing that has more to do with how our sexuality is being used for good or ill in our lives than the actual outfit.”

Erickson said young men and young women will likely need to be taught this concept differently in response to their needs. In teaching young women about modesty, Erickson explained parents and teachers need to acknowledge cultural pressure young women may feel to appear sexually desirable in order to have worth.

She added that young men need to be nurtured to build their capacities, “including their capacity to protect, sacrifice for and honor virtue. They must know they are designed to be the guardians of virtue.”

Erickson invited the audience to invite the Spirit into their lives and in their homes to aid them in teaching the divine doctrine of sexual intimacy.

“The Holy Ghost will be ours and (our children’s) truest companion in their learning about the precious gift of their sexuality,” Erickson said. “If they listen, (the Holy Ghost) will help them know better than any other source whether they are using their sexuality in ways that will bless them.”

She finished with her testimony of Jesus Christ and the atonement.

“Through his merciful Atonement, (Jesus Christ) has given us the opportunity, and our children, to learn truths about sexuality by experience, through practice and mistakes, without being condemned by them. Self-loathing, shame and fear inhibit our ability to grow in what we are learning,” Erickson said. “Let us not be afraid. And when we and our children stumble, as surely we will, fear not, but hold to the promise that through the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Ghost, all may be healed, sanctified and renewed in purity.”

Following Erickson’s presentation, Kane told the audience that while she and Erickson will offer suggestions, the best suggestions will come to parents who kneel in prayer and seek revelation.

Clinical psychologist Christy Kane speaks about the importance of teaching the topic of sexual intimacy clearly at Women’s Conference. (Claire Gentry)

Like Erickson, Kane referenced messages the world teaches about sexuality. She said these messages objectify women and emasculate men, and teach that sex is “all about what you want, what you need, and if you’re not doing it, you don’t fit in.”

She explained that in Heavenly Father’s plan, it is “sexual intimacy,” rather than sex.

“When we add intimacy to the term sexuality, we add emotions, and feelings, caring and understanding, and the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the teachings of our Savior.”

Kane said sexuality is an eternal principle which existed in the pre-mortal existence and will continue to exist in eternity. Like other eternal principles, Kane said sexuality must be taught “line upon line and precept upon precept,” referencing 2 Nephi 28:3.

Sexual intimacy, according to Kane, needs to be taught to children along with the principles of fasting and prayer, starting at a very young age. At a conference Kane attended a few weeks prior, she said a statistic was shared showing children are exposed to sexual images at younger and younger ages — as young as 4-year-olds.

Kane shared clinical experiences in the hopes that the audience would ponder them.

“I am positive that there are many of you here today that have come perhaps with heavy hearts. You may have children who are struggling with same-gender attraction. You may have young men or young women who have confided in you that they’ve been viewing pornography. You yourself may be in a marriage where you struggle with sexual intimacy and how it fits in.”

Her first story was about a mother’s phone call, telling Kane her 11-year-old daughter had just confessed to viewing pornography. The mother’s response was to hug her daughter and thank her daughter for confessing — a response Kane said she would give an “A.”

“In teaching our children sexual intimacy, the first step is to just let them know, as you explain to them all the things that are out there that they might see, that they can come to you at anytime. That they can tell you and that there will be no shame, there will be no darkness, there will be no difficulty,” Kane said.

The mother of the 11-year-old reassured her daughter she was loved by Heavenly Father, and they would work together to overcome her daughter’s challenge.

Directly opposite of the first story, Kane’s second story was about a young female college student who made a mistake with her boyfriend. She, too, chose to confess to her parents — but with less positive results.

Kane said she is certain the parents had good intentions when they took away their daughter’s phone and imposed a curfew on her, but this young woman sat in Kane’s office and told Kane, “I guess I’m not lovable if I’m not worthy” and was struggling with an eating disorder because of her feelings of unworthiness.

“I had the opportunity to explain to her the Atonement of our Savior Jesus Christ and that we’re always loved, no matter what we’re doing, no matter where we are, our Heavenly Father and Savior Jesus Christ love us.”

Through several of these stories, including one personal to Kane, she emphasized relying on Heavenly Father to know how to respond and help one’s children and the importance of having open dialogue with children from a young age.

Kane advised the audience to start with teaching the idea, “my door is open. Regardless of what you have to tell me, I love you, your father loves you, and your Savior Jesus Christ is here to heal you.”

The reason this open-door policy is necessary, according to Kane, is because “if they feel that they can’t (talk to you), they’re going to go someplace else.”

Kane said when she was 16, she remembered something her grandmother said about sexual intimacy: “It’s not really something anybody likes, but it’s just something we have to do.” At the time, Kane thought, “Then why in the world do I want to get married if that’s the case?”

The example of adults — especially family members — is important. Kane invited the audience to think about how they talk about sexual intimacy. She said children often receive unintended messages about sexual intimacy, like the message she received from her grandmother.

When Kane’s daughter was engaged to be married, Kane wanted her to received a different message than Kane received at 16.

“I took her aside and let her know that before it came time for her marriage that her and I were going to talk about sexual intimacy,” Kane said. “And we were going to talk about it in such a way that she would probably be very uncomfortable and want her mom to stop talking and turn about a thousand shades of red and hope that I wouldn’t have anything else to say.”

Kane made sure her daughter understood that it was okay — as a young woman preparing to get married — to have sexual feelings. Kane also told her daughter it was appropriate for her to enjoy the marital experience as much as her husband, and that women need sexual intimacy as much as men do. Kane also told her daughter that sexual intimacy is “one of the most beautiful and unifying and important fundamental foundations to a marriage, and if that was in place, that marriage would be strong.”

Kane also spoke with her daughter’s fiance. Kane explained to him that sexuality was different for his future wife than it was for him. She went into detail about the differences between men and women and how intimacy works for a man and a woman together. She told him the things he needed to do to ensure he would have a beautiful, intimate relationship.

When the newly married couple returned home, Kane’s new son-in-law told Kane the best advice she gave him was, “This isn’t about you. This is about (her) … if you take time, and you learn to understand this process together, you’re going to have a beautiful foundation of sexual intimacy in your marriage.”

 

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