BYU professor first to study sexuality and mindfulness

David and Chelom Leavitt hold the flags of the countries that are receiving instruction from the Leavitt Institute. (Chelom Leavitt)

Chelom Leavitt knew she wanted to attend law school and make a fulfilling career for herself as a 10-year-old; however, she had no idea her path would lead her to teach families in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and BYU students about sexual education.

Leavitt earned her bachelor’s degree in economics at BYU and then returned to receive her Juris Doctor from the J. Reuben Clark Law School.

After finishing law school, Leavitt and her husband David — also an attorney — were given an opportunity to relocate to Ukraine where they would help with a nonprofit project that involved working with democracy, rule of law and creating a transparent court system.

Leavitt is interviewed by a European news station. (Chelom Leavitt)

During their time in Europe, the Leavitts established the Leavitt Institute, which, according to Leavitt, helps spread democracy and rule of law in developing nations.

“While I was teaching and working in Europe, I noticed that families there had the highest divorce rates in the world,” Leavitt said. “I started feeling very strongly about the reasons why families were falling apart and that the cultural attitudes about sex were weakening relationships.”

According to Leavitt, this observation is what led her to return to the U.S. to work on earning a master’s degree in marriage, family and human development from BYU, and eventually her doctorate in human development and family studies from Penn State.

After finishing her degrees and returning to Europe in between, Leavitt decided teaching — specifically about healthy sexuality — was what she needed to do.

“The LDS culture is very closed about sexuality, even though we should be the happiest culture regarding sexuality,” Leavitt said. “We do not have a tradition that sex is sinful. Sex helps to bond couples together, and I have been trying to open the discussion about what we believe.”

Leavitt said in her time teaching at BYU she has come across handfuls of students who punish themselves when they simply think about arousal. Leavitt believes helping students recognize their sexuality is “healing, nurturing and powerful.”

Senior Hailey Palmer is studying family life and is a teaching assistant for Leavitt’s class. She said she is passionate about the topics that Leavitt discusses.

“It is so important for students to have a healthy understanding of the importance of sexuality and a firm understanding of the topic,” Palmer said. “The deepest problems early on in marriage have to do with sexual intimacy, and they arise due to distorted views and little understanding in our culture.”

Palmer believes it’s important to be equipped with understanding and have open discussions about the topic.

“There is a general culture in Provo that is damaging to a lot of relationships,” Palmer said. “There is a huge gray area because people aren’t discussing sex or understanding the topic at all.”

Leavitt has helped students feel comfortable with sexual topics and has further become one of the first in the nation to study the benefits of sexuality and mindfulness, specifically in regards to women.

“Sexual mindfulness is less judgmental, more present and aware, and provides higher satisfaction and better functionality,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt has published two books: one about sexuality and another about teaching children about sex. A third is now in the works.

Sophomore family studies major Katie Cheney took Leavitt’s class as preparation for marriage and said parents in the Church generally do not know how to properly teach their children about sex.

“It is difficult for those transitioning from celibacy to sex in marriage, and it can be a very straining time, rather than a wonderful experience for both people,” Cheney said. “This class explains why it is not only sanctioned by God but something He created us to experience.”

Leavitt said she hopes women can better understand their sexual identities and know how healing and nurturing sex can be for relationships.

“For so long we have studied sex from a male perspective,” Leavitt said. “Women need to stop beating themselves over the head because their desire and expectation isn’t the same as a man’s.”

Leavitt said women are different from men and even other women, and they need to stop feeling like failures.

To reverse some of the damaging perspectives and lack of sexual education in the home, Leavitt plans to continue teaching sexuality at BYU. She is focused on helping parents in the Church properly teach and foster healthy sexuality in the home.

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