Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Conditional Commandment

Disclaimer: I welcome comments on this post. However, I reserve the right to delete any and all comments that I deem to be inappropriate in nature. This is not a topic I broach lightly, but I firmly believe it can be discussed sensitively, without specific references to anatomy or anything else Google-able. Please remember that my children are frequently featured on this blog and do your best to protect them from creepy searches. And don't test me. I will delete your comment, with neither guilt nor compunction.

Also -- I have no credentials here. This post reflects nothing more than my own personal opinions.

A few years ago I read an article about finding your personal ministry. At the time, I had just finished serving as Young Womens president, and in my new calling in the stake Relief Society, I was in the midst of presenting the standards outlined in "For the Strength of Youth" to the combined adult groups of every unit in our stake. I joked that, especially in light of the Relief Society lessons I'd been assigned to teach lately, it seemed that maybe my personal ministry was to talk about sex to as many different groups of people as possible. For a while there, just about every Sunday I covered that most delicate of topics -- for youth, for Relief Society, for everyone.

I met a wonderful woman a few months ago named Natasha Helfer Parker. She is a therapist, and a Mormon. She has a blog, appropriately named The Mormon Therapist, wherein she answers questions submitted anonymously by people who would like to have advice in the context of the LDS faith. She provides a valuable service, and has proven to be an excellent resource on topics ranging from parenting to family relationships, and, yes, to marital intimacy.

Lately, Natasha has been fielding a lot of questions -- specific questions -- about intimacy, about what is or isn't appropriate in the marriage bed, about the church's stance or lack thereof on specific behaviors. While Natasha's answers are thoughtful and her research is impeccable, I have found myself thinking about the genesis for these queries in the first place.

Why are so many people asking for an explicit guideline regarding intimate, personal  behavior?  Why do people feel the need to get permission before engaging in certain acts of sexual expression?

The commandment we have regarding intimacy, that is, to not engage in sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage, is the only one we have that is conditional. It is the only "do not" we have that is followed by an "unless". It's not "thou shalt not kill, unless . . ." or "thou shalt have no other gods before me, unless . . ." or "thou shalt not bear false witness, unless . . ." Even the Word of Wisdom gives us a pretty specific list of substances that are or aren't okay for us to consume. But sex? Sex is conditional, circumstantial, situational. And once those conditions have been met, it's still pretty complicated. Or is it?

I have noticed a recent trend in General Conference talks: there seems to be a greater emphasis lately on development of personal spirituality. We are counseled to learn the doctrines of the church, and then apply them to our lives. It's that simple. We are counseled, in leadership training, to learn the programs of the church and then apply them to the special needs of local units. We are to learn the Gospel, developing a personal relationship with our Savior and an affinity for the Holy Spirit so that when we are prompted to do or to not do, we are prepared to hear  -- and then to follow.

I don't know why people have a hard time applying that counsel to marital intimacy. If we are ever entitled to personal revelation, isn't it there? Sanctioned exercise of procreative powers (and I do mean using them even when there is no chance of actual procreation) has the potential to both strengthen a marriage and bring a couple closer to their Creator. That union of man and wife is by its very nature sacred and holy, and the Holy Ghost need not leave your bedroom when the act is initiated -- should not, in fact. You can rely on his confirmation that your physical expressions of love for your spouse, and vice versa, are sanctioned by the Holy Spirit.

Every party who enters a relationship does so with baggage. Of course, some baggage is more difficult to deal with than others. It is this variation in experience that makes the constructs of sexual behavior so difficult to define. What may cross a line for one couple may be the pinnacle of union and a holy experience for another. But if you are maintaining your spiritual self, you can -- should -- expect guidance in every aspect of your life, including sexual activities. This requires a great deal of communication between husband and wife, and that kind of communication, when entered into in the spirit of love, exploration and compromise, can only strengthen a relationship and make it easier to apply the same principles of communication to other aspects of a marriage.

Why are we asking these questions? Why do we need specifics? I'm still not sure there's a clear answer. Maybe we like a laundry list of dos and don'ts. But that's a bit pharisaical, isn't it? That makes it easy to ignore spiritual promptings. We must trust in our own preparation to receive personal revelation in this most personal of realms. As I said before, if we can expect personal revelation about anything, isn't it intimacy?

This barely scratches the surface -- there are so many more ways to frame this topic. What say you?

PostScript: After writing this post, I found another excellent reference. I urge you all to go read  this BYU devotional given by Jeffrey R. Holland during his tenure as university president.

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  1. Very thought provoking. Definitely a serious subject.

  2. I completely agree!

    My hubby and I have always agreed that anything that just "doesn't feel right" is probably wrong. Keeping the Spirit with you (as your CONSTANT companion) is the best guide you could ever have.

  3. I think a lot of the questioning isn't from the viewpoint of "what can we get away with", but from the way a lot of us have been conditioned.

    We're taught from childhood about avoiding sex. We're not supposed to do anything that encourages those feelings. We're told what isn't ok, pretty specifically. Then we get married, and everything that wasn't ok is now not only ok, but encouraged.

    I wonder if some of us have ever felt that if sex makes us feel good, then either consciously or subconsciously, something must be wrong with it. I know married couples must follow the Spirit in their marriage, but sometimes couples are so afraid to do something wrong that they deny themselves when they don't have to Some people are so anxious that they...how can I put this...only do things one way, and for the basic purpose of having children. Of course, there's the other direction, where one person is comfortable with certain things but the other isn't, and that's why I think we're not told exactly what is ok--we don't want one person demanding certain things from the other because "the church says it's ok".

  4. I'm glad couples are asking questions - if that's what they need - but I agree that certain things are a "given" in marriage intimacy. This brings me to a topic - may be totally out of this subject but I still think it applies - where's common sense anymore??? Why do we need to ask a counselor what's allowed in the four walls of our bedroom? (may be because we have communication issues with our spouse? may be because our self image issues are affecting that area of our marriage? I don't know ... )

    To me is pretty obvious what my husband want to do or feel comfortable doing, which goes along the lines of our faith as well, you know?

    Like I said when I started this comment, I'm glad couples have someone who can answer their questions that is faith based instead of some silly TV "guru"

    Interesting subject and could give me hours of conversation and analysis too :)

  5. I mean to say what my husband and I want to do or feel comfortable doing :)

  6. You've taken a difficult topic and crafted a beautiful post around it. I agree with Rebecca's take on it, as I think that's a fairly common issue. Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it, okay...NOW! It's a bit mind boggling for some.

    I love what you wrote about the spirit...there's so much truth to that. The natural man is more inclined to turn to self-help books and other people's opinions than to turn to the Lord, I think.

  7. I appreciate all these comments . . . really. I think you hit a nerve, Rebecca -- if we have specific guidelines about what is "approved" or not, one part of a partnership may use that sanction to convince or coerce the other partner into doing something they may or may not be comfortable with. When that guideline becomes a tool of coersion, it also becomes a tool for abuse because no one should ever be forced to engage in any activity that, due to history, baggage, or spiritual sensitivity, makes them uncomfortable. But what is uncomfortable for one may be completely okay for another . . . and we have to trust that if we ask in faith, we will get an answer.

    Maybe it's a little weird to ask for inspiration regarding my sexual relationship with my husband . . . but I don't think so.

    When I teach young women about sex, I try very hard to stress the conditional nature of this commandment -- so I'm doing my part, I hope, to avoid having another generation of women who, because they were taught that sex was dirty, evil, bad, and to be avoided at all costs, are now unable or unwilling to engage in those activities pleasurably in the marital union.

    I'm beginning to understand how the Puritanical treatment of sexual matters has really messed up our entire group consciousness -- when you treat it as something so forbidden, it becomes something to be ashamed of. Then the assumption is that God averts His eyes when we engage in physical expressions of love when the truth is that He is probably more present then, when we exercise that most sacred of powers, than He is at almost any other time in our lives.

    (And I do not only mean when we are actively procreating. I believe that recreational sex between consenting married adults is also sanctioned by God -- that is cleaving to one another, as Adam and Eve were commanded to do. That is completing the union of marriage in a very real, very physical way, and it's use is not to be limited to the conception of children.)

    And I also wanted to say here that I do not in any way discount the value of credible therapy. I have a great deal of respect for Natasha Parker and other professionals of her caliber.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree! We learn very early to study the counsel of the Lord, and apply as he inspires us to do so. And that will be different in each situation.

    I'm so glad that you are teaching others to listen to the spirit regarding this incredibly personal matter. And to do it as a couple!

  9. I am YW president right now and one of my young women said that she thought you lost your virtue when you got married! Aaagh! Nothing could be further from the truth. As YW leaders we have tried really hard to teach the girls that the feelings we have are natural and God given. The important thing is that they are acted upon at the right time.

    This was a wonderful post. I love that you put it out there.

  10. I really like Rebecca's comment. I know many, many women who were not taught about sex by their parents, other than it was bad and immoral. And once they got married, they had no idea what to do, what was OK, what wasn't, etc.

    So, I guess, I have no problem with seeking temporal guidance on this issue, as well as spiritual, just like many issues couples struggle with. And I think that sometimes, sexual problems often are a symptom of bigger problems, such as lack of trust of communication.

    I think it's great that the LDS church provides counseling in the way of LDS Family services, so I believe that there is a time and a place or avenue to seek outside help in these areas.

    I guess I worry that by saying that this is a matter between couples and the Lord, just as with matters of mental health issues, is that if we say that it's only a spiritual issue, then people with problems in that department often feel like failures or they don't have an adequate amount of faith.

  11. OH! That's not what I mean to say at all! There you go, Kristina, showing me up. I totally agree that there are times and circumstances in which it's absolutely beneficial and key to the health of a marriage to consult the appropriate authority. But I think there is a tendency to seek for direction in all things -- down to the position. Sometimes it takes a professional to facilitate conversations like this in a couple; sometimes it takes a professional to help one partner or another cope with a complicated history. I wish we had greater access out here to LDS Family Services counselors -- but that's another issue entirely.

    I guess I should have said that I fully support the use of outside resources when necessary. (I mean, I do read Natasha's blog, after all!) And I also believe we are entitled to revelation about what goes on in our bedrooms. The greatest possible outcomes happen when we judiciously utilize all of the resources available to us.

  12. I'm very glad that you linked to "Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments." (I absolutely love that talk -- if you can find the video, watch it! It's even better than reading it.)

    I graduated from BYU with a bachelors' in psychology and there was one particular class that had a real impact on me. It was called LDS Perspectives on Psychology and asked a lot of hard questions. One whole class period (nearly 3 hours) was spent just on sex within marriage. This is actually what the instructor's masters' thesis focused on. She wrote one chapter about "Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments" and had some very interesting thoughts taken from it. In particular, she said that the sacrament that we take on Sunday is to renew our baptismal covenants, so if intimacy within marriage is a sacrament (as discussed in the talk), couldn't it be a way to renew our marriage covenants we make when we are sealed in the temple? She sent a copy to Elder Holland along with a letter asking him to review it and have his secretary let her know it if was an acceptable way to use his words. Elder Holland personally called her and told her that he hadn't thought of it that way, but that he thought she was exactly right.

    Out of all the things taught in all my classes, this is the one that has stuck with me. It has definitely impacted my relationship (physical and otherwise) with my husband, and has provided guidance in regards to the issues you bring up in this post and that have been raised in the comments. I hope that my sharing it here will help others as it has helped me.

  13. A little private to be posting as a comment but Emily- you know my past and I thought getting married would make everything "alright". It wasn't until 1.5 yrs after we were married and sealed in the temple I finally enjoyed intimacy with my husband. But you'll notice a lot of talks at General Conference are also focused on porn. Sexual unfulfillment seems to be a big problem within LDS marriages for reasons many women have stated here: all our lives we hear men are pigs, all they want is sex, say no! But then all of a sudden with a ring and papers it's supposed to be okay. We are reading a book we got from the temple book store called "And They Were Not Ashamed" which has helped me immensely realize everything righteously sexual is sanctioned from God. From what attracts us to each other to our sexual feelings (of course used appropriately) God created for us as you said to procreate but almost more importantly to strengthen our marriages and allow spirit to speak to spirit through one of the most holy acts a couple can participate in. I think moral issues should be taught through that prospective instead of scaring teans into thinking sex is evil (not saying you ever did that in YW's). Great post and there are great resources for anyone having issues with intimacy in their marriage, the book I mentioned has been a great one for us.

  14. great talks and blog you linked to. Thanks for sharing. I need to find my personal ministry.

    I love that we have choices and don't have a long list of do's and don'ts. I also think everyone is different, and even circumstances, or times are different. What you may not feel comfortable with at one time, you will later as your relationship grows.
    And as mentioned above it's really our spirits connecting, which makes it so devastating for those not married who's spirits connect and then are left alone.
    Thanks for your post.

  15. Another aspect of this is that darn it, it can be fun! "Happiness is the object and design of our existence" - and again, note the lack of the words 'unless you're in the bedroom' - and there are so many ways to enjoy one another and find joy in our marriages. My husband and I are discovering the surprising fun that comes from knowing one another so well (25 years with the same partner does that to you!), as well as the freedom of having grown or nearly-grown kids, meaning we're a lot less likely to be interrupted! Just as being a parent changes over the years, so does being a spouse. And with the right attitudes, a willingness to communicate, and the absolute trust that our partner is completely, fiercely loyal to us, this aspect of your relationship just gets better and better.

    I'm 46, he's 48, and we're having the time of our lives!

  16. You are brave to approach this subject, but you did such a great job with this. I have not really thought about this a whole lot until some of my close LDS girlfriends where discussing it at a girls weekend (close group, mind you). Apparently, there is a lot of confusion on what is appropriate in marriage relations. I hope that I can teach my daughter virtue without having her feel shame. That is not what the Lord intended at all. I personally feel that if you are connected spiritually as a couple, then the rest should resolve itself. You said it so much better than I ever could though.

    I love what DeNae said...

  17. I love this post. I really, really love it.

    You've said everything that I feel on the matter, really.

    And I agree with others that have posted in that it is a huge issue for women to automatically switch gears from "it's evil" to "it's wonderful/expected" in a matter of hours! (literally!) How can a mind not play terrible tricks with that? It's sad and heartbreaking...

    Again, I love this post...

  18. One of the things I think my parents (particularly my dad) did a good job of (at least with his older kids) was talking to us in ways that we were comfortable making that transition to married life. When my first child got married I hoped that we had taught her in a similarly helpful way.

    I have been surprised & saddened to listen to my female friends over the years talk about their feelings about their intimate relationship with their spouse. "Gross." "Not interested." "Too messy." "Who would do that??" I think they are often surprised at my frankness when I speak up, but I feel like a spokesperson for the importance of healthy sex in a marriage!

  19. Great post! As a man, I'm a bit reluctant to comment since I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable. Feel free to delete my comment.

    I'm so glad someone is raising this. I've long felt frustrated by the fact that the only people who publicly discuss marital intimacy (trying not to use words that will bring creeps to your blog!) are those who are providing the devil's viewpoint. Those of us hoping for a Celestial approach have no megaphone or forum.

    To Cindy's point: It's complicated by things I saw as a bishop: men and women are living in an increasingly pornographic world. I saw men react to that by seeking more intimacy with their spouse, while their spouse reacted by pulling away from any physically intimate expression. That caused some serious problems and a lot of heartache.

    This is totally my opinion, but I have come to believe that the Lord provides a great deal of latitude in this area, partly because of what you said about baggage. But also for this reason: our spouse is the only person, except the Lord, with whom we have covenanted. I believe that covenant creates a degree of autonomy and stewardship, a place where the Lord treats us like Eternal adults.

    Sis. Tanner, the past YW president said that her husband used a section in the D&C to teach their kids about chastity. It's D&C 59: 16-24, and I think it's pretty profound in this context.

    Great thoughts, thanks for raising an important topic in such a thoughtful way.

  20. Oops--In my comment above, I was not referring to men who are looking at pornography. I meant those who are trying to avoid it and are trying to remain morally clean in an increasingly sleazy world.

  21. I love that you've broached this very taboo subject. I've always been extremely comfortable talking about it - maybe because I used to teach Marital Intimacy? What a fun class ...

    I well remember my first lesson. I asked in what ways couples can strengthen their relationship,. I got a lot of yawn answers like "prayer," "scripture study," and "long walks." I pointed out to them that they were missing one crucial thing - one that the Lord gave us specifically to strengthen marriages. STILL blank looks. I finally wrote a big S on the board, covering all the other suggestions. Gasps were audible. I completed the E and X, and people were shifting in their seats.

    One man, looking quite uncomfortable, said, "but sex is sacred. We shouldn't talk about it, even with your spouse." I just about had a cow right there. But I kept it together and just said, "well, so is the temple, but we talk about that, don't we?"

    To me, communication is essential. Both between spouses and with the Lord. Physical intimacy is also spiritual intimacy. In no other activity is the Lord more present, and where you can be more focused on your mate. (Think "Souls, Symbols, Sacrifice" - Holland.)

    If you feel good, then it is good.

    I might print off this post for my next class ....

  22. Very well said. I agree with so many things said here. Thanks for sharing!

  23. I had an "aha" moment when you talked about looking for a list of specific do's and don'ts. I realized that everytime I look for that specific list (on any topic) its either because I'm not receiving spiritual guidance or because I'm looking for a reason to ignore it. Enjoyed your post!

  24. I like the way you think! This needs to be talked about much more often. Sex changes as you age and change your personal circumstances. Once we knew we were done having babies, and our kids started get older and needing less minute-to-minute supervision, we were so much more relaxed and ... honest in our intimate life.

  25. I agree with Kazzy on all points. Our kids are older now, so we have more "free" time and energy to devote to enriching our relationship with the door closed.

    PS: Got your address, will drop you a snail mail card in the post this week!! Thanks for commenting, and, you know, it's so fitting, you being "Ink Mom"!!

  26. This post could be a story in and of itself for me. I would respond to this--except it would be a book.

    I've been there.

    Amen to Rebecca's comment.

    You're awesome for bringing this up and I'm going to ponder this a lot. I may come back and spout more eventually.

  27. Thank you for linking to Elder Holland's talk. That man is close to the Lord. I have heard the talk referenced many times but it was the first time I've ever sat down and read it. Amazing.

    And thank you for bringing this up. Thank you, thank you.

  28. I think the increasing amount of questions about what is "allowed" or not is directly linked to pornography. When intimacy is used correctly--to unite and bond a husband and wife--the experience is spiritual and emotional more than just physical. Seeking after personal physical gratification is a HUGE red flag. Especially if it is a change in behavior.

    We will not ever know (unless you are the bishop) how vast the number of pornography users is. Both men and women. Those who experience sexual stimulation outside the bonds or marriage (even alone...) then begin to seek mainly for personal physical gratification in intimate relationships rather than spiritual and emotional connection.

    Rustin (currently the bishop) and I have talked about this a lot. If a husband or wife is asking to try, or wants to delve into increasingly "different" intimate actions, you need to seriously consider seeking spiritual council.


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