Professors, therapists aim to reduce sexual stigma

The conversation surrounding sex is often difficult to discuss, but resources on and off the BYU campus are making the topic easier to talk about. (Jill Wellington/Pixabay)

Picture this, you and your husband have class together. Like most other classes at BYU, you sit in a big lecture hall, take notes, look at slides and get an assignment to turn in next class. As you shuffle to pack up your bags, your professor announces your homework: write two paragraphs about the clitoris.

Sex is a loaded topic. The act seemingly makes promises of intimacy, the miracle of life and a certain special connection between a couple. But for some, sex is riddled with guilt, taboo and shame. Resources at BYU and in Provo are trying to reduce the sexual stigma.

Tammy Hill, an adjunct faculty member in BYU’s School of Family Life, works with couples on and off campus to break down sexual stigmas. In her SFL 224 class Marriage Enhancement, the topic of sex is part of the curriculum, including assignments like writing about the clitoris, to ensure couples enjoy sexual intimacy without guilt.

“We’re embodied spirits right now, having a human experience, and you should be able to embrace this part of you and share it completely in marriage without fear or shame,” Hill said.

Hill previously worked with Utah lawmakers and high schools in the state to improve the curriculum for family relationships, which included sexual relationships. She said the way sex is taught in the state is not sufficient to create a healthy mindset about sexuality.

“They’re not being taught appropriately, they’re not being taught accurate information or they’re not being taught at all,” Hill said.

An improper education can lead to harmful views about sex.“A lot of fear and shame is often surrounding your sexuality and I feel passionate about making that different for future generations,” Hill said.

Current Utah law requires sex education to stress abstinence, does not require comprehensive sex education, does not require lessons on consent and is an “opt-in” program, meaning students must receive written consent from a parent or guardian before being taught sex education.

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sex is a sin before marriage. After marriage, sex is encouraged to create a healthy and strengthened relationship.

Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote a talk for the August 2020 Ensign called, “The Divine Purposes of Sexual Intimacy.” “Heavenly Father intends that sexual relations in marriage be used to create children and to express love and strengthen the emotional, spiritual, and physical connections between husband and wife,” Elder Renlund said.

A deterrent for some married couples is the way sex is taught before marriage in the Church. Learning about chastity, virtue and sexual purity sometimes includes associating premarital sex with fear, rejection and dirtiness.

But Hill views chastity different.

“Chastity is not, not having sex before you’re married. I think it’s about understanding your sex, our theology around our sexuality,” Hill said. “Understanding that, ‘I’m sexual, it’s a good thing that I’m sexual, it’s something that I get to share when I’m married.'”

Hill’s class isn’t the only one on campus that addresses these topics. Chelom Leavitt, BYU assistant professor with a doctorate in human development and family studies, teaches SFL 376, Healthy Sexuality in Marriage.

Family life major Erika Spencer took the class this fall semester and found insights she hadn’t expected, mainly about the way sex is taught. The course covers two ways of teaching sex that can create a harmful mindset: fear-based sex education and abstinence-based sex education.

“Fear-based kinda makes people feel like it’s an awful, sinful thing,” Spencer said. “Abstinence-based makes people kinda feel like marriage is the finish line and chastity is ‘hold onto it till you get married and then like, there’s no rules!'”

Once couples become sexually active, many realize neither ideas learned from fear-based nor abstinence-based sex educations are completely true, and they create problems for those unable to move past those barriers themselves. But there’s an increasingly popular resource available to help: sex therapy.

Laura Brotherson is an author and certified sex, marriage and family therapist in Provo. Her practice focuses on discussing the issues that arise during sex for couples such as relationship problems, lack of arousal and sexual abuse or trauma.

“Most couples, at some point, will run into some difficulties in trying to create the kind of intimate relationship I believe God intended,” Brotherson said.

Brotherson points to four different sources that create difficulties: a lack of proper sex education, the idea that couples have “spontaneous desire,” a lack of resources about healthy sexuality in the Church and a lack of an open environment to discuss healthy sexuality.

She believes having healthy sexuality starts with understanding what it is. In her research, she found 20 characteristics of healthy sexuality, including body positivity, agency, mutuality and vulnerability. But to really break down the stigma, Brotherson said the best way to address it is to start talking about it.

“We can all address the topic without using guilt, shame, fear, discomfort, etc.,” she said. “This often necessitates that we all develop our own personal comfort with the topic, our sexuality, our sexual relationships in marriage, and the redeeming power of the atonement of Jesus Christ so that we can present a congruent, positive, affirming and reassuring message about sex.”

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