For one, I’m not sure we are good talking about this in a mature, compassionate way. Much of it is still taboo, or we’re too cavalier about it, or too scared, or too worried we’ll implicate ourselves, or whatever. Consider too, how many public figures are brought down by sexual scandal, and so many of our public scandals are sexual. But also, sex is such a core part of what it means to be human – it’s how we create life, it’s the ultimate expression of intimacy. We are sexual beings. Adam Miller, in a book I cannot recommend enough – please just buy it already – “Letters to a Young Mormon”, has a beautiful little chapter on sex. In particular, how difficult it can be to properly deal with sexual desire especially as one transitions through puberty into adulthood.
This hunger for intimacy is like an ocean. It will come like a flood and you will feel lost at sea. When you are a child, you walked on dry ground. In order to become an adult you’ll have to learn how to swim. You are no more responsible for being at sea than you are for needing to breathe. And, though some may say different, you are not guilty because the ocean is wet. You did not choose this hunger, you did not choose your gender, and you did not choose its orientation.
So, sex is difficult. It’s difficult to talk about properly. We’re cavalier or afraid or harsh. And in this milieu of sexual societal dysfunction, we expect our children to navigate their sexual maturation without scars or stumbles. Society swings on extremes often – sexuality is out in the open in our media and entertainment. Pornography has never been more accessible. But we, especially the parts of us in religious communities, can be far too harsh. I grew up hearing and believing that sexual sin was a step below murder.
Which is why I think literature is so important. The best books take on the most taboo subjects with vulnerability and honesty. The best art shines light in our dark corners and forces us to confront our deepest secrets. “But even the president of the United States Sometimes must have have to stand naked.” And if you read literature, you’ll find sex everywhere. I’ve already talked about sex in literature once. Here, I’ll do it again.
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man
The reason sex is so hard is that it comes on each of us without warning like a flood. One day, we’re innocent (well relatively speaking) with no sexual desire but then puberty comes and now it’s invading our every thought. I exaggerate I’m sure, to an extent. There’s a range and individual circumstances, and differences between genders. This sexual maturation is one of the themes in the book, “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man”.
This book takes Stephen Dedalus from childhood through young adulthood. Along the way, he struggles to make sense of his growing desires and eventually, impulsively it seems, has sexual encounters with prostitutes. As he’s coming to terms with his actions, this is the type of sermon he hears:
-O, my dear little brethren in Christ Jesus, will we then offend that good Redeemer and provoke His anger? Will we trample again upon that torn and mangled corpse? Will we spit upon that face so full of sorrow and love? Will we too, like the cruel jews and the brutal soldiers, mock that gentle and compassionate Saviour Who trod alone for our sake the awful wine-press of sorrow? Every word of sin is a wound in His tender side. Every sinful act is a thorn piercing His head. Every impure thought, deliberately yielded to, is a keen lance transfixing that sacred and loving heart. No, no. It is impossible for any human being to do that which offends so deeply the diving majesty, that which is punished by an eternity of agony, that which crucifies again the Son of God and makes a mockery of Him.
The idea that each stray thought is as if we struck another blow into the nail piercing the hands of the dying Jesus is something familiar to me and something I internalized in my own religious upbringing, although not with this eloquence or fervor. I remember trying to memorize hymns, in particular, I Stand All Amazed, “That for me a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died”, to keep my head straight.
For Stephen Dedalus,
His fingers trembled as he undressed himself in the dormitory. He told his fingers to hurry up. He had to undress and then kneel and say his own prayers and be in bed before the gas was lowered so that he might not go to hell when he died.
Could it be that he, Stephen Dedalus, had done those things? His conscience sighed in answer. Yes, he had done them, secretly, filthily, time after time, and, hardened in sinful impenitence, he had dared to wear the mask of holiness before the tabernacle itself while his soul within was living mass corruption. How came it that God had not struck him dead? The leprous company of his sins closed about him, breathing upon him, bending over him from all sides. He strove to forget them in an act of prayer, huddling his limbs closer together and binding down his eyelids: but the senses of his soul would not be bound and, though his eyes were shut fast, he saw the places where he had sinned and, though his ears were tightly covered, he heard. He desired with all his will not to hear or see. He desired till his frame shook under the strain of his desire and until the senses of his soul closed. They closed for an instant and then opened. He saw.
I’m not saying that frequenting prostitutes is good and the protagonist’s relationship with women throughout the book is less than ideal. . But Stephen Dedalus is a sympathetic, sincere person struggling to make sense of his place in the world. In many ways, the adult figures in his life were not adequate and the Catholic presence, both preceding his sexual escapades and in response to them were damaging. His response to the fear and loathing reaction of this sermon temporarily inspires change and religious devotion, but only temporarily. He eventually leaves the church and embraces aesthetics on his own terms as an artist. I’m assuming this sort of over-reaction to sexual sin was part of the reasons.
This book is a memoir of Frank McCourt’s childhood in Irish poverty and neglect, but the over-arching presence in his community is the Catholic church. He discusses his own sexual awakening within the context of immense guilt and terrible misunderstanding. And this book echoes the same themes as Portrait. In this book McCourt talks about his indulgences in masturbation as he enters puberty.
One Redemptorist priest barks at us all the time about the Sixth Commandment. He says impurity is so grave a sin the Virgin Mary turns her face away and weeps.
And why does she weep, boys? She weeps because of you and what you are doing to her Beloved Son. She weeps when she looks down the long dreary vista of time and beholds in horror the spectacle of Limerick boys defiling themselves, polluting themselves, soiling their young bodies, which are the temples of the Holy Ghost. Our Lady weeps over these abominations knowing that every time you interfere with yourself you nail to the cross her Beloved Son, that once more you hammer into His dear head the crown of thorns, that you reopen those ghastly wounds….
I can’t stop interfering with myself. I pray to the Virgin Mary and tell her I’m sorry I put her Son back on the cross and I’ll never do it again but I can’t help myself and swear I’ll go to confession and after that surely after that, I’ll never do it again. I don’t want to go to hell with devils chasing me for eternity jabbing me with hot pitchforks.
Later, Frank has a job that requires him to deliver telegrams to a certain young lady who is sick and dying. She entices him to sex which they continue on most of his weekly visits, until one day, she’s not there and eventually dies. Frank again:
On Monday I follow the funeral to the graveyard on my post office bicycle. I stand behind a tree a distance from the grave. Mrs. Carmody weeps and moans. Mr. Carmody snuffles and looks puzzled. The priest recites the Latin prayers and sprinkles coffin with holy water.
I want to go to the priest, to Mr. and Mrs. Carmody. I want to tell them how I’m the one who sent Theresa to hell. They can do whatever they like with me. Abuse me. Revile me. Throw grave dirt at me.
Again, there’s no way to condone weekly sex with a dying girl while on the job, but the boy was ill-equiped to really understand, manage and deal with the growing desires in his body. The resulting missteps were met with the shame and self-judgment, to the extent that death seemed like the better alternative.
Tess of D’Urbivelle
The previous two examples describe the sexual awakening of two boys as they struggle to come to terms with and manage puberty within a dysfunctional environment. I think the sexual stakes are higher for girls in many ways as society, often unfairly, places most of the burden for modesty on young women’s shoulders. But biology also is at play here. It’s the woman who bears the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy. And that is the field Thomas Hardy mines in this book.
The main character in the book, Tess is both beautiful and desired by multiple suitors, one who rapes and impregnates her. She gives birth to a baby boy who early in life becomes deathly ill. The illness and the nature of the birth puts Tess in a state of late night panic. This is a long excerpt but worth the read:
The household went to bed, and distressed beyond measure, Tess retired also. She was continually waking as she lay, and in the middle of the night found that the baby was still worse. It was obviously dying – quietly and painlessly, but none the less surely.
In her misery she rocked herself upon the bed. The clock struck the solemn hour of one, that hour when fancy stalks outside reason, and malignant possibilities stand rock-firm as facts. She thought of the child consigned to the nethermost corner of hell, as its double doom for lack of baptism and lack of legitimacy; saw the arch-fiend tossing it with his three-pronged fork, like the one they used for heating the oven on baking days, to which picture she added many other quaint and curious details of torment sometimes taught the young in this Christian country. The lurid presentment so powerfully affected her imagination in the silence of the sleeping house that her nightgown became damp with perspiration, and the bedstead shook with each throb of her heart.
The infant’s breathing grew more difficult, and the mother’s mental tension increased. It was useless to devour the little thing with kisses; she could stay in bed no longer, and walked feverishly about the room.
‘O merciful God, have pity; have pity upon my poor baby!’ she cried. ‘Heap as much anger as you want upon me, and welcome; but pity the child!’
She leant against the chest of drawers, and murmured incoherent supplications for a long while, till she suddenly started up.
‘Ah! perhaps baby can be saved! Perhaps it will be just the same!
She spoke so brightly it seemed as though her face might have shown in the gloom surrounding her. She lit a candle, and went to a second and a third bed under the wall, where she awoke her young sisters and brothers, all of whom occupied the same room. Pulling out the washing-stand so that she could get behind it, she poured some water from a jug, and made them kneel around, putting their hands together with fingers exactly vertical. While the children, scarcely awake, awe-stricken at her manner, their eyes growing larger and larger, remained in this position, she took the baby from her bed – a child’s child – so immature as scarce to seem a sufficient personality to endow its producer with the maternal title. Tess then stood erect with the infant on her arm beside the basin; the next sister held the Prayer-Book open before her, as the clerk at the church held it before the parson; and thus the girl set about baptizing her child.
Her figure looked singularly tall and imposing as she stood in her long white nightgown, a thick cable of twisted dark hair hanging straight down her back to her waist. The kindly dimness of the weak candle abstracted from her form and features the little blemishes which sunlight might have revealed – the stubble scratches upon her wrists, and the weariness of her eyes – her high enthusiasm having a transfiguring effect upon the face which had been her undoing, showing it as a thing of immaculate beauty, with a touch of dignity which was almost regal. The little ones kneeling round, their sleepy eyes blinking and red, awaited her preparations full of a suspended wonder which their physical heaviness at that hour would not allow to become active.
The most impressed of them said:
‘Be you really going to christen him, Tess?’
The girl-mother replied in a grave affirmative.
‘What’s his name going to be?’
She had not thought of that, but a name suggested by a phrase in the book of Genesis came into her head as she proceeded with the baptismal service, and now she pronounced it:
‘SORROW, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’
She sprinkled the water, and there was silence.
‘Say ‘Amen,’ children.’
The tiny voices piped in obedient response, ‘Amen!’
Tess went on:
‘We receive this child’ – and so forth – ‘and do so sign him with the sign of the Cross.’
Here she dipped her hand into the basin and fervently drew an immense cross upon the baby with her forefinger, continuing with the customary sentences as to hsi manfully fighting against sin, the world, and the devil, and being a faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end. She duly went on with the Lord’s Prayer, the children lisping it after her in a thin gnat-like wail, till, at the conclusion, raising their voices to clerk’s pitch, they again piped into silence, ‘Amen!’
Then their sister, with much augmented confidence in the efficacy of the sacrament, poured forth from the bottom of her heart the thanksgiving that follows, uttering it boldly and triumphantly in the stopt-diapason note which her voice acquired when her heart was in her speech, and which will never be forgotten by those who knew her. The ecstasy of faith almost apotheosized her; it set upon her a glowing irradiation, and brought a red spot into the middle of each cheek; while the miniature candle-flame inverted in her eye-pupils shone like a diamond. The children gazed up at her with more and more reverence, and no longer had a will for questioning. She did not look like Sissy to them now, but as a being large, towering, and awful – a divine personage with whom they had nothing in common.
Poor Sorrow’s campaign against in, the world, and the devil was doomed to be of limited brilliancy – luckily perhaps for himself, considering his beginnings. In the blue of the morning that fragile soldier and servant breathed his last, and when the other children awoke they cried bitterly, and begged Sissy to have another pretty baby.
The calmness which had possessed Tess since the christening remained with her in the infant’s loss. In the daylight, indeed, she felt her terrors about his soul to have been somewhat exaggerated; whether well founded or not, she had no uneasiness now, reasoning that if Providence would not ratify such an act of approximation she, for one, did not value the kind of heaven lost by the irregularity – either for herself or for her child.
So passed away Sorrow the Undesired – that intrusive creature, that bastard gift of shameless Nature, who respects not the social law; a waif to whom eternal Time had been a matter of days merely, who knew not that such things as years and centuries ever were; to whom the cottage interior was the universe, the week’s weather climate, new-born babyhood human existence, and the instinct to suck human knowledge.
Tess does have a religious, spiritual experience in yet another act of extreme dysfunction. Worried that her baby, born illegitimately, outside of the religious marriage sacrament, though of no fault of her own, was condemned to hell if not baptized before his passing, she performs a spontaneous late-night christening. But in the desperate love of a mother for a dying child, she achieved the sanctifying blessing of the spirit and calm assurance that everything would be ok.
I already referenced some of the shameful messaging and the harsh sermonizing I absorbed as I made my way through puberty and beyond. But I wanted describe an experience of someone else close to me. She left home for Utah for the first time, inexperienced and not really prepared for this thrust into adulthood. There, she hooked up with a boyfriend and soon they were having sex. One way or another, the bishop of her ward found out and forced her into a church disciplinary court. In a room full of men older than her, none of whom she really knew, she was forced to discuss her sexual indiscretions. She was given probation which meant she could not serve in church callings or take the weekly sacrament. It didn’t matter, though, because she never returned to church largely because of this. Regardless of their intentions, she felt shamed and humiliated.
I find this entire thing horrifying. It was decades ago now as were my childhood sex-shaming sermons. I believe the church on the whole as softened its rhetoric and I don’t believe these sexual church courts are always quite as harsh now as they were then. But I believe they still occur and they still drive people out of the church. I believe we still, too often, use shame as a tool to try to control sexual behavior in our young people.
In broader society, however, I worry that the sexual pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. In any event, it’s a mixed bag of confusion. Pornography is easily accessible and has become mainstream and tolerated. Sexuality in general is used in mainstream media for marketing and for other purposes. However, there is a growing intolerance and activism around rape and rape culture, taken, in some cases, to extremes. And now we have a president who bragged about sexual assault and got elected anyway.
Another aspect of Mormonism sexuality, and this may seem trivia to some, but for me the use of a single word bothers me – worthiness. One has to be worthy to attend the temple, worthy to partake of the sacrament, worthy to serve in leadership callings. In this sense, being worthy is something we earn through good behavior. Can you sense the problem with this? How easy is it for someone to take a trivial mental leap from not being worthy because of a sexual mistake to having no worth. I’m not worthy to attend the temple because I have no worth. I’m not worthy to partake the sacrament, something everyone near me will witness, because I have no worth. I’m not worthy to be in my current calling because I have no worth.
It’s a damaging, damaging way of delivering religion.
This is a difficult issue and I don’t have good solutions. But I think there has to be a compassionate, responsible middle way. There has to be a recognition that we all are sexual beings, that sexual attraction is normal and good. That it takes work, effort, time and maturity to fully manage our sexuality correctly. Perhaps some sort of mix is appropriate – responsible sexual education, an open dialogue between parents, partners, and children, a focus on effort over total compliance unless the behavior is egregious or abusive.
I get it, Jesus set the sexual standard sky high:
27 ¶ Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
That is ultimately the standard. Total purity, sexual devotion in thought, body and heart completely focused on one’s committed partner and for no one else. I think it’s unrealistic to expect a young child moving into and through puberty to achieve this standard immediately.
I’ll conclude with Adam Miller from Letters to a Young Mormon:
Chastity is not a kind of perfection. You may have arrived in this world innocent, but chastity is some-thing more. Chastity is not something you are born with and then break or lose, it is something that is made. It is something that must, with years of patient and compassionate effort, be cultivated and grown and gathered and sealed.