As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was taught about the law of chastity and sexual purity since I was a young child. Within Church culture, there seemed to be an overemphasis on the idea that sex was bad. The idea of sex being something divine, beautiful and sacred seemed to be rarely mentioned.
While sex outside of marriage is a sin, we can talk about it in a way that doesn’t scare people and keep them in the dark about sexuality. We can have healthy conversations about sex.
Carlie Palmer-Webb is a licensed psychologist and sex researcher who educates Church members and other Christians on sex. In an Instagram video post with Al Carraway titled “Talking about Sex,” Palmer-Webb talked about her time in Young Women’s when a leader gave an object lesson with a single rose to address sexual purity.
The leader explained how pure and lovely a rose was. After explaining the purity of a rose, she had all the girls pass the rose around to smell and touch the petals. Over time, the rose petals fell off and turned brown.
The leader then collected the rose and said “because the rose has been passed around the rose isn’t as beautiful and pure anymore. I could still give this to someone but it just won’t be as good of a gift as it would have been if it was clean and pure.”
With that object lesson, the leader was teaching the girls that those who didn’t engage in sexual activity before marriage would be clean, pure and lovely. However, those who engaged in sexual activity before marriage would not be considered as “beautiful” or “pure” anymore — ultimately being “unwanted.”
Activist Elizabeth Smart talked about shaming culture surrounding those who are raped or have sex before marriage in an interview with Vice. After Smart was kidnapped and raped, she said she felt that “no one (was) ever going to want to marry me now: I’m worthless, I’m filthy, I’m dirty.”
This, she said, was because of the purity culture that equates all instances of sex outside of marriage as sinful without acknowledging that sexual assault and rape are not consensual, but criminal acts. She felt ashamed and she was shamed countless times for not being “pure enough” when she had been raped.
The shaming that occurs in Church culture can grow from the idea that some members have — including parents who have failed to teach their children otherwise — that sex is inherently bad.
Shaming and overreacting
Julie Hanks, a Latter-day Saint psychotherapist, said in an Instagram post that one of the biggest mistakes parents make when it comes to the topic of sex is shaming and overreacting. She said one of the best things a parent can do is avoid shaming their child into thinking sex is inherently bad. While it is important to be open and honest about sex, providing a context for sex can help children understand the why, she said.
“Explaining this is a special gift you’ll be able to experience with someone you love to a child can instill in them an understanding of the purpose of sex,” Hanks said.
Some parents think because their children should not be having sex before marriage, they also should not talk about it. Hanks said while Latter-day Saints value and teach abstinence before marriage, some parents have a fear that talking about sexuality may actually foster curiosity and encourage early sexual experiences, so they avoid these important conversations altogether.
Talking more about something doesn’t make it happen more; rather, it allows the child and the parent to both be aware of these topics, and find ways to talk about and process them healthily, she said.
Consequences of unhealthy sexuality
Attitudes of pushing important conversations under the rug are detrimental to many people, including young newlywed couples, Hanks said in another post. “I’ve worked with newlywed couples so ill-prepared for intimacy that the first sexual experience they shared after marriage was physically and emotionally traumatic,” she said. “It’s time to stop pretending that our children are not sexual beings that will magically become sexual beings once they get married.”
Hanks said she knew several girls who went to therapy right after their first night and week of being married because they were scarred. They didn’t expect what had happened on their first night.
People do not have sexual switches inside of them that they can automatically turn on and off with a flick of the wrist. Like Hanks said on Instagram, “sex should be an unfolding conversation, not a one time event.” Laying a foundation early on with conversations about bodies, puberty and sexual feelings is extremely beneficial in creating a healthy, unfolding conversation about sex and sexual intimacy.
Teaching children about healthy sexuality
In the Instagram video with Al Carraway, Palmer-Webb said this healthy environment comes with teaching children sexual education in the home. She said the home is a great place to have sexual conversations. Parents can do a better job teaching their kids about sex, sexuality and their bodies, especially teaching their children correct anatomical terms for their body parts, she said.
Teaching children to say the correct anatomical names, Palmer-Webb said, will communicate to them that they are not shameful, but that they should be talked about and well-understood.
Teaching children and young teenagers that sexuality is not bad — that having sexual desires and feelings are gifts from God — is important and should be celebrated. Teaching children this principle will help them understand that sexuality is very much a part of who they are, and can be controlled and waited to be expressed to their full extent within the context of a life-long commitment, Palmer-Webb said on Instagram.
We need to shift the conversation of sex and sexuality from never being spoken of to being healthily discussed in the home in a relaxed and understanding environment.
As Hanks said, let’s not throw “people in the deep end and expect them to drown.” It is never too late to start having these conversations with the youth and young adults within the Church.
— Kristine Kim