Demisexuality and the aggressive eye: hasty thoughts

A comment by Mr Shorty a while ago has got me thinking, and I’ll write a bit about what I’ve been thinking here, as a way to put some fresh content up on this site.  I’m making excuses in saying that life has had me in a bad state over the past several months, so that it has been a struggle to write or find a reason to.

As I mentioned in my reply to that comment, I’m convinced that the ideal for human sexuality according to official Church practice – and I think, doctrine – is to be demi-sexual: for sexual attraction and desire to be dependent on emotional connection, intimacy and commitment.  Though there is plenty of talk about the righteousness of the sexual desire implanted in us as a means to drive us to seek marriage, the way that that talk is done it sounds clear to me that it’s expected that this desire remain formless and unfocused, unengaged and undirected until by properly developing a relationship you give it a target.  So when you’re a teenager or young adult it’s ok to feel the boil of hormones, but if your desires are aroused by the sight of a particular person, or take shape to point to a particular person, then you’re on very thin ice.  Therefore, the best way to follow the Plan regarding sex would be to be demisexual.  Of course, only a small percentage of people really are (kind of like only a small percentage of people reach adulthood with the soft hearts that prophets keep calling for).

Meanwhile, the majority of us are stuck with troubling sexualities equipped with attraction and desire which can and does find targets outside of emotional bonds.  We spend our adult years having to fend off these attacks, moderating constant urges to behavior that we either can’t allow or which would be impossible.  As I mentioned before, this is popularly understood to be a man thing: the Male Gaze.  Male sexuality is said to be more visually-oriented, while women are said to be – well, closer to that asexual ideal: their sexuality is said to be more emotionally-driven, more about love and intimacy than crude lust.

I’ve read plenty of rebuttals of this idea, but I have a hypothesis as to one of its sources: casting women’s sexuality as passive, and working to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy, is a way of guarding against the frightening specter of an aggressive female sexual agency.  For while male bodies are equipped to penetrate, female bodies are equipped to engulf.  The idea of an aggressive penetrative maleness in opposition to a passive receptive femaleness is a comforting illusion engineered to stave off the fear of woman as consumer.

And to the extent that women have internalized it, maybe we could say that it has succeeded in making them more moral beings, just as to the extent that men have put aside the aggressions of their eyes it has made them more moral beings as well.

Is sexual desire from God?

Here’s another question that we could think through: the intense feelings that come during adolescence for the unlucky majority who aren’t asexual, the sudden rush upon seeing a certain face or pair of hips, the burning desire to fuck that grabs us at night when we’re alone – what does it mean, really, to say that those are good and proper feelings implanted in us by God?  Certainly to act on them would be Satan’s work, if it meant reaching out and clutching that pair of hips, or making a call to the local casual sex hotline.  (Though the managers of that hotline could argue that they’re providing a valuable service).  But when you are told under pain of grievous sin and rigorous repentance not to indulge these feelings at this time – and you have no idea how many years will pass until you are finally authorized to – then what does it mean to say that these feelings come from God?  If they do, then God is a torturer, and if you hadn’t been brainwashed by Seminary into an irresponsible interpretation of Job, you might read in Job and find some consolation in your misery’s company, under the ginding heel of God’s boot.  But the Church’s practical solution to these itchy days and nights is to cast these disruptive feelings as coming from Satan.  And it is here that I think Brotherson tips her hand in an interesting way.  Her commentary on mankind’s innocence before the Fall, the purity of sexuality in Edenic, infantile and redeemed states, implies the doctrine that I intuit here: there are indeed sweet and pure natural affections planted by God, and these are designed to draw us forth from wholesome and decent associations to the hot and heavy physical intimacies that include sex, when we have cemented an exclusive union with a chosen eternal companion.  This would all work beautifully without a hitch in a better world, but with Satan unbound, he comes in and muddies the waters with these inappropriate carnal and sensual feelings, which then of course must be of the devil.

Following this line of thought, it would seem reasonable enough, then, to say that visually triggered sexual attraction and arousal, which is thought to be the typical male way, is devilish, since it is so much easier to become sexually attracted and aroused by strangers through sight than through the slow, steady buildup of emotional connection and trust.  How much holier our sexuality would be if we only got aroused when in the presence of someone with whom we had built an intimate friendship, and then capped it with a covenant.  Instead, we have people getting turned on by sights, sounds and smells – not only from their committed partners, but from random strangers.

When I was young I understood that when I got married it would be right and proper to get horny for my wife.  People say that it isn’t really lust if you feel sexual desire for your spouse.  I have never been convinced of the second point, and for the sake of being thorough, I have to question the first: really, is it all right for me to want my wife sexually because of how she looks to me?  Is it all right to be crazy about her body?  Or is that objectifying her, demeaning her dignity, treating her like a piece of meat?  What about keeping everything on a high level?  Every time I make advances because the sight of her hips turns me on, am I sinning, and trying to entice her to be an accomplice in it?  Should she be vigilant in detecting when my advances are motivated by these baser impulses, and turn them away, insisting that I not demean her, only agreeing to respond when I come to her in an attitude of respectful affection, and of holiness?

What I am describing here: how is it different from the Good Girl Syndrome?  How much of wives’ disgust with their sex lives has to do with their husbands’ visually-triggered turn-ons and visceral hunger for the pleasures of their bodies, when the wives thought that sex was supposed to be a Celestial sacrament?  Young women in the Church are discouraged from identifying too strongly with their appearances or focusing on body image, so what are we supposed to do when a man courts and marries a woman whom he considers sexually attractive, and when, as a husband, he continues to desire her based on the sensual appeal of her body?  Of course the day will come when they’re both too old to be sexy, but in the meantime . . .

More about sexual service and consent

Continuing this line of thought, raising questions and not answering them.

The sexual strictures of the Church (and in conservative Christianity in general) currently create a very definite climate/ideology of sexual duty within marriage, mostly of the wife toward the husband. My intuition is that countless women have internalized this ideology, so that, although they may know when to insist “no, not tonight” and expect their husbands to honor that, still in many cases don’t insist even when they might have – because they make a choice to serve him by allowing him access? And if, afterward, they’re glad they did, because they kind of, or very much, enjoyed it?

Service: as a teenager how many of us dreaded service projects, only to find out afterwards that we had enjoyed the experience and felt better for having done it? I often take part in helping people move, and once someone remarked that I seemed to enjoy it. I responded that I do not enjoy helping people move, but that I do enjoy the feeling I have afterward. Therefore I consent to put myself through the disagreeable process of moving, partly for the sake of the satisfaction I get afterward, and more importantly for the sake of sparing someone else trouble that I can empathetically intuit. I do it out of compassion.

“Pity sex” isn’t sexy, isn’t exciting. But in long-term relationships is it unavoidable? Dealing with the evolution of your two souls and their relationship to each other brings out things you might never have expected or comprehended the meaning of when you were first starting out. The insistence on commitment is in honor of this: a declaration of faith that there is a very real alchemical result to all this fermentation and uncertainty, and that after all the trials the transformation can come, but only then. So divorce has to be discouraged as a cowardly action by default, unless proven in specific cases to be motivated by really grave abuse (following the hyper-idealistic mindset I pointed to above, all human relationships are by default abusive, but where the hell does that leave anybody? Sooner or later we all have to accept a certain threshold of abuse below which we are willing to stay and cope, otherwise we might as well just kill ourselves, because there’s only limited space in the wilderness to build cabins).

Let’s try to think this through.  Imagine a young couple, getting married for the first time, having abstained from sexual relations in accordance with the Law of Chastity, and having learned the essentials about the mechanics thereof in preparation for the marriage, is told the following quite clearly:

“The sexual relations for which your body yearns so strongly are not something you have any right to expect. They are not anything you really need.  Your spouse’s body belongs to your spouse, and so you have no legitimate right to touch your spouse in any way that your spouse does not show clear consent for, prior to your engaging in it. You have no right to expect that your spouse will ever agree to fuck, lick, stroke or fondle you, in fact, you really have no right to expect that your spouse will hug or kiss you either. This is all dependent on your spouse’s consent as a sovereign soul, and no desire of yours, however intense, excuses any invasion of your spouse’s prerogative.

“If you ever do invade your spouse’s sovereign prerogative, if you ever do violate consent in any way, even by touching between the legs when your spouse hasn’t given you clear consent before, then you are guilty of sexual assault, and should be subject to prosecution by the law as well as Church discipline.”

What would that do?  What would change if the consent required was explicitly described as “enthusiastic?”

How about “sincere?”

Or “free?”  After all, our marriage ceremonies ask if we’re doing this of our own free will and choice.

I remember a professor at BYU talking about Paradise Lost.  In Milton’s telling of the story, he said, Adam and Eve did have sex before the Fall, but it was rational sex, and the effect of the Fall was to make sex irrational, driven by passions rather than reason.  The picture I just painted in the previous post could work just fine between two very rational people, who have become experts in subsuming their passions to the dictates of reason in every instance.  This, arguably, would finally create the only acceptable conditions for family life, but does there exist anywhere on earth an authority sufficient to enforce this?

Meanwhile, we’re all stuck not only with faulty bundles of stunted growth that don’t allow us to act so rationally, but we’re also, the majority of us, motivated by the sexual urge, which – surprise! – is anything but rational.  These “God-given affections” turn out to push us toward all kinds of stupid behavior, enticing and inciting us to invade the space of our committed partners on a regular basis.

I’m not talking about rape.  I’m not talking about clear violations when one clearly says “no” and the other overrides that.  Look: being married and having anything like a normal sex drive, it’s also normal to end up stepping on toes: the straying hand, the lingering kiss, the plaintive moans – any kind of sexual advance that goes beyond a respectful “yes or no” question – can we call that an invasion?  In any long-term intimate relationship you’re going to step on your partner’s toes in some ways, and they are going to step on yours.  When it comes to sex, do I feel justified in calling every invasion a violation of consent?  I don’t know.  I want to think through this some more.

Your hand strays to that place and your spouse sighs and says “not tonight, can we just go to sleep please?” and you sigh and say “fine” and take away your hand and try not to sulk as you respectfully compose yourself for sleep.  Did you violate consent?  You did something that required a refusal.  If you’ve been married for 20 years and you’ve done variations on this theme countless times, can I feel safe in guessing that your spouse will take this overture differently than the same person would have when you were just getting acquainted with each other?

One very obvious point I’m setting up here (and probably doing badly) is the need for a semiotic imagination when laying down the law about consent: not only do we pass much of our signals to each other non-verbally, but sexual arousal and desire often tend to be dumb and wish for dumb responses.  Overtures, invitations, pleas, insistence can all be done with or without words.  When your hand drifts to that place and your partner grabs it and pulls it closer, that’s consent.  When your partner grabs your hand and slides it back to a neutral place, that’s refusal.  In the former scenario, if your partner continues to give these non-verbal signals of “keep going” by touch and maybe wordless moans, you can either trust that your partner is doing this out of full and sincere consent, or you can start to second-guess: maybe this isn’t what my spouse really wants to do, maybe it’s just out of compassion or pity: maybe this is an act of service.  And if that’s so, do I receive it with gratitude, or do I back off?  Do I start asking for clarification out loud?  Is that a turn-off for my partner?  Do I know my partner well enough to guess that, to guess any of this?

People who are into kink have thought all this out, because they act out so many scenarios that would be violations of consent if they were “real”: the bondage, the dungeons, the dominance and submission, etc.  They have systems of signals and safe words agreed on beforehand, and it’s imperative to know when to step out of the game or the role, because it can literally make the difference between life and death.

Maybe getting into BDSM would be really beneficial for married Mormons, since it would force us to be really serious about consent, and gain some serious expertise in it.

Thoughts on consent and sexual caretaking

For people who are really sex positive, at least more sex positive than conservative Christians claim to be, what determines the morality of a sex act is not whether the people involved are married to each other, but whether each one has consented to the act.

Since the bare minimum of consent can be given grudgingly, there are those who go further and insist on enthusiastic consent as the standard for judging the morality of sexual relations.  The ideal of enthusiastic consent is immensely appealing on the surface, just the thing for a hyper-idealist like me to stand up and clutch and wave like a flag.  It seems so respectful and right.  And yet, within the past year I’ve encountered a couple of asexual bloggers who question this notion.  Reading their critiques I have to start questioning it too.  Here are some of my thoughts in that direction.

One of the first things that comes to my mind is that this ideal of enthusiastic consent is so rational.  I’ve seen the analogy given of offering someone a cup of tea.  If they say “yes, I’d love a cup of tea” you give them the tea, otherwise you don’t.

It had me going, until I thought: waitwaitwait, this is sex we’re talking about here!  As if dealing with sexual desire were as neutral, clean and untroubled as offering light refreshments!  It never pays to forget that when you’re dealing with sex, you’re not dealing with something neutral, clean or untroubled.  I think of a Paglia quote:

If middle-class feminists think they conduct their love lives perfectly rationally, without any instinctual influences from biology, they are imbeciles.  (“No Law in the Arena,” Vamps and Tramps, 35)

Consent is also complicated in long-term relationships, where the partners become familiar with each other.  I want to direct some thought to this:

We can say: you have the right to decide who to allow to touch you and how.  But it’s rare for people to make such a big deal about, say, clapping a hand on your shoulder without you wanting them to, as they would about* touching your butt or grabbing at your genitals.  Is it worth it, and does it make sense to claim that an unwanted arm or shoulder touch is sexual assault?

[*Edited after Coyote caught a regrettable error]

And let’s do consider the cases of children forced to give hugs or kisses when they don’t want.  Or, babies demanding milk, sucking from their mothers’ breasts with their innocent and urgent hunger.  There’s no reasoning or mutual accord here: the baby is here, needs milk, and though we trust the mother’s dedication and hormones to supply enough affection and desire to produce constant consent, we would have to be stupid to assert that every mother is always enthusiastic about offering this very intimate bodily contact with her infant every time.

So, what makes “sex” – that is to say, fucking and its ancillary functions and surrogates – different from these is, what, it’s special-ness?  There is a certain “sovereign dread” associated with genitals and erogenous zones.  (This can make it disconcerting when our toddler children come and bury their faces in our crotches, as they often do!)

When we’re young and our sexuality is still developing, it’s still volatile and vulnerable.  It means something very different for a boyfriend to grab a breast at age 16 than for a husband to do so at age 40.  So, when we are just awakening sexually, and have no history of a long-term committed relationship, erotic encounters are powerfully arousing.  A big part of this is the novelty.  There’s a certain feeling, a thrill of something dangerous and sublime and new, that is one of the most exciting feelings we’ve ever felt.

When we’re married, it’s inevitable for that to fade.  The genius of marriage, I think, is to erode the novelty of sex, and thus to dull that awful sublime power of arousal that is connected to our genitals and erogenous zones.

And so, I think it’s unavoidable that the longer the committed relationship lasts, the less “special” sex tends to get.  This has implications for consent.  Whereas when we were 22, and it was going to be a bad precedent for us to let ourselves be coerced into sharing our bodies intimately with someone; when we’re 40 and have been with the same person for 15 years, we have a history and a familiarity that we couldn’t have imagined when we were younger.  We have touched each other’s certain body parts so many times, in so many ways, and – like it or not – our marriage commitment, carrying the only license available for such activities or encounters, has unavoidably created a certain expectation.  So when it’s Friday night and the kids are in bed and the 45-year-old husband lets his hand wander, that’s a very different scenario than the 22-year-old boyfriend letting his hand wander on the 3rd, 5th or even the 14th date.  It’s a very different scenario than the engaged couple making out and feeling the jet turbine rush of their hormones.  The violence of complex emotional and physiological reactions that come to young people, childless and inexperienced with each other, simply cannot be of the same character between two people who have shared life for a number of years.

So when a 45-year-old wife consents to her husband’s advances with less than “oh yes, fuck me now!” enthusiasm, I don’t accept that this should be seen necessarily as a harmful capitulation – certainly not in the same degree as in a younger relationship.  In a 16-year-old girlfriend, I would definitely see it as a harmful self-degradation to just let him have his way.  I would see it as harmful in a 20-something-year old single person too.  In a newlywed?  That’s when it gets complicated.  In an absolute idealistic sense, I can accept that for the bride who’s been married three weeks, letting her husband fuck her when she really doesn’t want to is tantamount to being violated.

I am not talking about a scenario where she clearly says “no” and he forces her.  I’m talking about the common scenario where she agrees with some measure of reluctance, but gives clear consent nonetheless – clear, just not enthusiastic.

I can accept that as a form of violation, though I’m not willing to go all the way in calling it rape.  Because to assert such a high moral standard, in my book you had also damn well be ready to assert that any unkind treatment of your child, even in the throes of frustration or exhaustion, is abuse.  You’d better be ready to assert the abusive character of compulsory “public” education.  And what are you going to do about it?

And where is the authority to reinforce this?  Where is the authority to reinforce the 22-year-old newlywed bride’s refusal of her husband’s importuning?  I think that she’s far more likely to encounter advice of “just do it” for the sake of compassion and service.  Quite likely she’ll get 1 Corinthians 1:7 waved in her face.

What should be acknowledged is that in situations like these, the wife has assumed a maternal role: assuming the care of a male who comes to her in the attitude of having crotch-centered needs to be attended to.  Seeing it in this light, we could propose ideas like this:

Maybe it’s useful for new wives to put aside their own wishes and indulge their husbands’ requests for sex, because it’s good practice for motherhood, especially for sons.  If they can get used to taking care of this big body’s demands in a way that gets slime inside their own bodies, then they will be well-prepared for taking care of a tiny body with oral and anal needs in a way that usually only carries the risk of getting their hands a bit dirty.

Maybe husbands ought to reflect at length on the implications of them assuming the office of infant son when they come to their wives with requests for sex.  Maybe they ought to ask themselves: how do they feel about this regression to infancy?  How willing are they to assert their sexual “needs” then, and how often?

Reviewing Brotherson: Starting Thoughts

I first saw Laura Brotherson’s book  And They Were Not Ashamed four years ago, and frequently I’ve seen it recommended in the LDS Sexuality forum as a resource to help wives overcome the culturally-programmed frigidity that the book brilliantly diagnoses as “Good Girl Syndrome.”  I think helping Mormons overcome the bad effects of their cultural conditioning is a laudable goal, and yet I had some “you’ve got to be kidding me” moments when I browsed this book those four years ago.

But not having read it through yet, I thought it would be fair to make the attempt, and do a review of it as I did so.  Recently I got my own copy of it, so here we go.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were [had been] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

. . . and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art [goest] thou?

And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I [beheld that I] was naked; and I hid myself.

Genesis 3:7-10/Moses 4:13-16

I start my review with this quote, because one of my sticking points is the Genesis/Moses verse she quotes – out of context – for her title and a central part of her argument.

Not that I’m entirely opposed in principle to the idea of enacting an Eden myth of wholeness without shame in a marriage (I think of Peter Gabriel’s song “Blood of Eden”). In fact, I’d be glad to see a thoughtful discussion of the Eden myth applied to marriage, informed by depth psychology. Brotherson alludes to that briefly, but like in so many other instances, only pauses briefly at the door she’s just cracked before moving on. Maybe that’s all this book has time for, but the short shrift the Eden story gets in it shows evidence not of conscientious trimming but of incomplete consideration.

So let’s consider: Adam and Eve are married in the Garden of Eden (after Eve is created out of Adam’s rib, a passage that some Mormon scholars have gone to great lengths to try to interpret in a way that doesn’t sound like a blatant assertion of patriarchal wish over the realities of nature), and live in a state of bliss, unashamed of their nakedness. Let’s leave Lehi’s extrapolations/expoundings aside for the moment and focus solely on the Genesis/Moses account. They’re doing just fine until they eat of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil and suddenly discover that they’re naked – and therefore, when God comes to visit, they feel ashamed and make the aprons (covering precisely their genitals). So a thoughtful reader of the scriptures (rare among Mormons) might ask: “wait a minute. If God created and ordained the sexual union as a vital part of the sacrament of marriage, and if being naked and not ashamed means that they felt no shame in having sex, then why are they suddenly ashamed when God comes calling? Why should they suddenly feel ashamed of this partnership with God, this procreative power?”

Is the eating of the fruit not only the sudden knowledge of good and evil, but the instantaneous download of a social program such as Brotherson laments and is hoping to dismantle: the shame associated with sex, even in a godly marriage? There’s no assertion of a factual timetable here, and in light of the presentations of the story accessible to us we may assume that when God comes to visit them, they have just barely woken up. Therefore their reaction of shame and fear at their nakedness – and their covering their genitals with fig leaves – does suggest an innate or essential shame and fear associated with the genitals and with sex which Adam and Eve immediately intuit as a result of their eyes opening.

Or it could simply be a reflection of the cultural attitudes which informed the carriers and writers of the myth: that shame and disdain towards sex and the body which Brotherson so laments as an unintended consequence of the Church’s teachings about purity and chastity. I’m sure this kind of suggestion is distasteful to faithful mainstream Mormons who view scriptural criticism as blasphemous, so I’ll leave off on this for now, and go back to the question of where Adam and Eve suddenly picked up on this shame and fear. If the innocence of little children is so complete – and anyone who has had much experience with them knows how utterly shameless they truly are (Brotherson includes quotes to this effect, counseling parents not to freak out when their toddlers play with their own genitals) – then in order for Adam and Eve to feel shame and fear at the prospect of God seeing them naked, they must have left this childlike lack of shame far behind by the time the confrontation and expulsion occur.

In her “scriptural journey” of Chapter 2, Brotherson charges sexual shame to societal/Satanic pollution of “God’s light and truth” which “surrounded sexuality in the beginning, when Adam and Eve were in a state of innocence” (p. 33) – a theme she touches on repeatedly, though never with much depth (what about Lehi’s commentary? He explicitly states that their primal innocence was lifeless and stagnant, and would have rendered creation useless had they remained therein). She quotes Doctrine and Covenants 93:38: “Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God.” I don’t know how much clearer this verse can be that it is talking about the innocence of babies and little children. She seems to be addressing this in her commentary which follows, blaming sexual shame on faulty societal conditioning engineered by Satan. It seems inescapable to conclude that between the eating of the fruit and God’s visit, Adam and Eve were bamboozled in a similar manner, convinced that their nakedness was something to be ashamed of before God. The scriptures as we have them don’t show Satan planting this poisonous seed in their minds, but the Temple drama does. It’s probable that Brotherson was reluctant to point to that, judging it to be too sacred to mention. She might have trusted her LDS readers to connect the dots, but surely if this is what she’s getting at there could be even a brief reference to further revealed truths we have in the Church which show that it was Satan, and not God, who made them ashamed to appear naked before their maker so soon after their awakening from innocence. That would have greatly reinforced her other arguments, which so far as of Chapter 2 rely on often shaky foundations.

I’m making an editorial decision not to dwell on this episode too much longer. To summarize: the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden (especially as recorded in Genesis) does not work as neatly as Brotherson tries to make it work as an illustration of how uninhibited we should be in our married sex lives in God’s eyes. It betrays a sloppy scriptural interpretation but that is not her fault: as a Mormon she’s heir to lazy and incomplete analysis of scripture as a cultural tradition, if not a requirement. This is part of why Mormons still don’t know how to deal with sex – or children.

In God’s eyes: what would it do for married couples to imagine a literal realization of their partnership with God as they took part in the Sacrament of Sex – I mean, to imagine God watching from above as they got it on?

The notion of returning to a blissful primal state (and assuming again a childlike ignorance or at least an erasure of the hard boundaries and distinctions that make adult life so painful) is a deep yearning in the sexual instinct, and it deserves some careful consideration – maybe in connection with the directive, spoken by Jesus and Benjamin’s angel, to become as a little child. Innocence, experience, guilt, shame, conscience and conditioning: sharp minds have been investigating these matters for centuries. And They Were Not Ashamed could have been greatly enriched by some acknowledgment, let alone engagement, with the wealth of rigorous inquiry recorded.

Getting Started: Questions and Hypotheses in search of a better LDS Understanding of Sexuality

(This essay was written on OpenOffice and other open-source, free software.)

​At the root of most conversations about sexuality I have witnessed among LDS people is the notion that sexuality is a gift from God (excuse me, I mean Heavenly Father) to help each person have a fulness of joy.

This notion is promoted with a crescendo of voices, as an antidote to the frigidity and shame that (oops!) our tenacious Puritan heritage inculcates in Mormon girls, causing so much frustration. This “sex-positive” idea could be expressed in a riff on Lehi’s famous words: “sex is that men might have joy.” Sex is good and sacred in its sweet purity, in this view: the shame, sin and dirtiness are all perversion and corruption brought on by Satan and The World.

Brace yourselves: I am going to attack this idea.

Human sexuality is not a neat, tidy gift of joy. It is not something that God put in us to naturally bind monogamous married couples together if only kept pure until marriage. It is a biological inheritance that is messy, chaotic, and – I cannot emphasize this enough – disruptive. It is a melee of misaligned, conflicting desires that may be used to thrill, and further channeled to bind.

Sex in its purity is not God’s icing on the marriage cake for magically-animated clay dolls. It is a pragmatic and unsentimental means of reproduction basic to all complex life forms. The huge and bewildering genetic chain of life (whether you believe that humans evolved from lower animals or not) has piled complicated layers of practice and sign on top of that primitive purity of sex, all the way up to homo sapiens. As a result, to experience sexuality as a human is indeed to face something so awesome/awful in its power and richness that what else can our mythopoetic imagination do but to call it divine? Certainly it is a power greater and more terrible than the human ego’s limited understanding.

I believe in eternal progression, in the eternity of intelligence, in the existence of exalted Beings who organize, ordain and plan for the progression of our souls to become like Them. To contemplate this in light of scientific fact is an act of faith, but to hold to some of the views about sex I hear taught in church “makes reason stare.”

Of course, The World has its own teachings about sex. We can imagine another riff on Lehi’s line: “sex is, that human beings, who may or may not conform to binary sexual divisions or socially constructed gender identities, and irrespective of their sexual orientation, might have joy, liberated from obsolete social norms, each using their gifts as they see fit.” We might condemn this as a product of Satan’s perversion of the truth, yea, a mingling of scriptural truth with human philosophies. But if The Truth is defended simply as “sex is that men and women might have joy,” then the door is wide open to the perversion, and people will go through.

The Romantic Movement in Western culture not only popularized the ideal of loving companionship in marriage (so often mistakenly conflated with “traditional marriage”) and promoted a growing respect for children, but also re-awakened the sexual permissiveness that is mythically cast as a late 20th-century disruptor of a formerly stable American moral consensus.

Reading the 1994 essay “No Law in the Arena: a Pagan Theory of Sexuality” by the man-loving atheist feminist Camille Paglia kicked me in the tail to start this effort of articulating these thoughts. Though she is an atheist, Paglia has tremendous respect for religion (“God is man’s greatest idea”) and a psychologically-informed dedication to pagan philosophies and ethics. I find her work well worth reading from the perspective of a gospel still trying to be restored from apostasy.

The restoration that Joseph Smith opened up has made overtures towards a long-overdue reconciliation not too different from the one that William Blake tried to make, between archetypes whose gendered nature and treatment in historical religions have made those religions so unsustainable in any culture where women gain social power and equality. Doctrines about divine femininity can help carry our social and psychic evolution forward through post-modern secular societies. Reading Paglia has helped me understand how and why such doctrines have been so slow in coming. I agree with many of her arguments. My knowledge of the reality of God veers me away from others but they still offer useful perspectives. She is a role model in tackling questions of sex because she is unafraid to report what makes sense in light of her observations, without feeling beholden to any received dogma, old or new. Even if we can’t share some of her moral conclusions, the observations she bases them on can be useful to us if we let go of our fear of being seen as heretics.