Sexuality & Singledom (from the series: Single and Married in the LDS Church)
The text below was adapted from a presentation at the “Of One Body” Singles Conference in New York City on May 16, 2015.
This post is only part of Dr. Finlayson-Fife’s remarks. To read in its entirety, see the post on her website – HERE.
When I told a friend recently that I would be presenting in NYC on Singles and Sexuality, she smiled and asked “Is there any overlap between those two topics? What on earth are you going to talk about?” Of course, what is comical about her question is that it exposes the deep-seated desire among us, especially among those of us who are married, to pretend that the sexuality of Single Mormons does not exist, or shouldn’t exist, if one is good.
We are a faith that values marriage and family and sexual chastity very highly. Unequivocally, the way that we talk to youth, singles, and marrieds about sexuality exposes how much we want all sexual thought and behavior to be contained to the presumably safe context of marriage. And given our religious ideals and desires, it makes having this conversation about singles and sexuality, in any meaningful or substantive way, quite challenging.
It also makes it much more difficult for faithful individuals to sort out how to be whole and happy in a context of sexual chastity and singleness. It may also be difficult to tolerate that fellow church-goers may not respect them as full adults in a way that the larger culture does.
Single clients and friends have talked to me about at least three challenging realities that they experience in the church:
- First, condescension and misunderstanding from church-leaders and other married folks, given their lower-status, unmarried state.
- Second, the experience and reality of stunted adult development (or social and sexual immaturity) both within themselves and when interacting with other LDS singles.
- Third, the denial of and anxiety about single adult sexuality, and by extension the lack of relevant guidance around the navigation of their sexual selves.
Given these realities, it is perhaps not surprising that we are encountering difficulty in retaining our single adults in the church–single adults that are needed and wanted, single adults that add to our strength as a collective.
Let me say more about the three challenging realities that Single Adults experience: I’m drawing on my experience as a therapist working with LDS singles as well as written responses I collected from about 20 Mid-Singles when asked about their experiences and concerns around the subject of singledom and sexuality.
When marriage is an essential achievement of earth-life, single adults represent an aberration from our theological ideal. If one doesn’t get married (whether by choice or lack of opportunity) and marriage is the desired state, it is very easy to treat singles as though they are in a prolonged adolescence—in a holding pattern, waiting patiently to arrive at true adulthood and for their lives to begin.
- STUNTED DEVELOPMENT
Second, singles talk about the experience of stunted development (or social and sexual immaturity) both within themselves and in their LDS single friends. The focus on marriage, coupled with the anxiety that sexuality will undermine one’s basic goodness, single adults report feeling immature relative to their married or partnered friends.
As one mid-single wrote:
“Under the justified guise of ‘righteous desire’, one can easily remain in an adolescent state. Since taking on adult responsibilities is hard, it’s easier for many of us to ride out our lives using the excuse of being single as a way to avoid the adult choices of career, education, social intimacy, financial responsibility, home ownership, etc. I can’t tell you how many mid-single women I see who are still living with mom and dad, working an underemployed job, not taking care of themselves physically and waiting for that day when Mr. Prince comes along to sweep them away and they can start their adult lives.”
- COLLECTIVE DENIAL AND LACK OF GUIDANCE
Because the idea of un-channeled adult sexuality makes us nervous, we easily collude in the idea that sexual desires equivalent to a married adult are not really there, shouldn’t be there, or don’t need to be addressed in any meaningful way beyond DON’T. If we don’t address the subject (other than the importance of suppression), maybe it will go away!
As one single LDS woman wrote to me,
“I personally don’t believe that the human body is wired to continue into our 30s and 40s in a state of complete sexual repression. However, the active mid-single often believes, due to how the church teaches chastity, that we are supposed to be asexual until we marry.”
Of course LDS singles are sexual beings—as we all are. Like our Parents in Heaven, we are embodied and sexual from birth. And single adults are no different. Singles are just attempting to forge adult development, inclusive of adult sexual desires and needs, in a context of non-marriage and a belief in chastity. It’s not easy, and single adults, at a bare minimum, deserve our acknowledgment and respect for their courageous choices.
If we won’t openly acknowledge singles’ challenging choices in the sexual realm, we co-construct unnecessary shame and anxiety around the existence and experience of sexual desire. And shame and anxiety interfere with self-acceptance, spirituality by extension, and the integration of one’s sexual being—essential developmental tasks in becoming capable of relational and sexual intimacy. One doesn’t have to act on his or her sexual desires non-maritally, but one must not shame the presence of them, nor see their presence as a function of sin. They are, after all, an expression of God-given longing in all of us that isn’t made better by pretending it’s not there. In fact, the lack of acknowledgment and integration of one’s sexual desires can cause immature behavior, expressed either as sexual compulsivity or total self-abnegation (either of which interferes with the ability to forge meaningful adult relationships).
Many LDS Singles express that the guidelines given by church leaders are an extension of this cultural denial of single adult sexuality and therefore are inadequate and misplaced: Treating single adults as an aberration to the marry-early model, we unthinkingly apply standards written for adolescents to full adults, some even previously married, yet trying to work out a relationship with their sexual desires within an unforgiving expectation of sexual suppression as a function of goodness.
A CLEARER ARTICULATION OF SEXUALITY AND CHASTITY
I believe we need to more clearly articulate a vision of sexuality that is integrated with our highest ideals—that being a vision of sexuality that fosters our ability to love God, love and accept ourselves and love and care for others. We need to go beyond the DON’Ts and the collusive avoidance of the topic, and forge a framework for creating goodness through our sexual intentions and choices.
We need this articulation for the church as a whole. As a marriage therapist, who works primarily with LDS couples around sexual issues, I regularly see the fall-out from our collective sexual anxiety—anxiety about sensuality, sexual thought and behavior and the questions about whether or not sexuality and goodness can co-exist within people.
In my perspective, sexuality is neither inherently good or bad. Instead, sexuality is a powerful form of engagement with others because it taps into the most vulnerable part of human beings. What makes it good or bad is the context and our intentions.
FOSTERING ADULTS CAPABLE OF INTIMACY
So, in helping to foster adults capable of loving committed sexuality, I think the goals of our sexual guidelines should center around fostering one’s ability to be in meaningful relationships—including the relationship to oneself, one’s sexuality and desires, and the ability to be in relationships with others, including relationships that are inherently sexual (e.g. dating relationships), even if differing in degree.
I believe Adam Miller, the author of “Letters to a Young Mormon” captures the essence of a healthy relationship to sexual desire: The following is excerpted from his book:
“…Remember that your hunger for intimacy like all hungers, is a grace not a punishment. … This hunger is different because it is not just a hunger for food or air but for another person… The hunger for intimacy is like an ocean. It will come like a flood and you will feel lost at sea. When you were 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. … However the particulars may vary, the task remains basically the same: learn how to care for this hunger. Caring for this hunger will take practice and patience. Be kind to yourself as you stumble through.
In Church, we say, learn to be chaste. That is right but we have to be clear. Chastity, as a way of practicing care, doesn’t purge or deny this hunger. You are chaste when you are full of life, and you are full of life when you are true to the hungers that root it.
The measure of chastity is life and life, by divine design, is messy. If used without care, aiming for purity is as likely to maim you as save you. Don’t become a slave to your hunger and don’t try to make a slave of your hunger. Slavery is sin, and sin is death.”
In line with Adam Miller’s notion of learning to care for this hunger, the hunger for sexual connection, I believe our instruction and guidelines for single adults and all adults ought to facilitate the goals of
- Self-acceptance and self-knowledge around sexuality and desire., and
- The capacity to commit to and care for another human being, in part by being able to share one’s sexuality.
A Single Adult writes:
”I believe that sexuality is really important to human development and I feel somewhat stunted/juvenile as a 31-year-old virgin. I also believe strongly in the benefits/virtues of the law of chastity in the spiritual sense and in the emotional/relational sense. I feel stuck.”
A Single Adult writes:
“In terms of my own decisions about sexuality, … I pay a lot of attention now to how I actually feel in any given interaction/relationship, rather than how I’m told I’m supposed to feel (and what I’ve learned is that I don’t feel much—if any—guilt for expressing my sexuality in various ways in the context of a loving, committed relationship. I figure if God thinks I’m doing something wrong, He is capable of letting me know. Instead of asking myself “Did I cross the line and break the law of chastity?” – I ask myself, “Was this interaction born of mutual respect and love, or of something else? Do I feel like my agency is honored and respected with this person, and do I honor his? Does the level of our physical intimacy match our emotional intimacy?” That kind of thing. In many ways, this kind of approach demands a lot more from me in terms of integrity, courage & compassion than simply worrying about whether or not I’ve crossed the For the Strength of Youth line.”
SEXUAL SELF-ACCEPTANCE & RESPONSIBILITY
Part of being wise in our decision-making is to let go of sexual shame and self-rejection and instead to embrace our God-given sexuality as a gift, as a part of us, as a desire that we are stewards over, even if the unmet longing is at times painful.
Self-acceptance means being honest with yourself and God about who you are. It means honoring and serving God and others through your sexuality in whatever context you exist, rather than trying to repress it or deny its presence.
Sexual restraint, the channeling of desire, can foster creativity and determination. When every urge is satisfied, we don’t have as much space to work and struggle for what we desire. This is one of the challenges of modern society.
There is power in self-acceptance around sexual thoughts and desires, whether facilitating our capacity for intimacy with another or channeling those passions into other forms of self-expression.
In order to be at peace, though, we must take responsibility for our choices even if they are difficult. We cannot depend on simply following what others tell us, taking refuge in martyr-like obedience, if we are to live our lives well. We must lay claim to our beliefs and have the courage to stand by them, even in the face of invalidation from others.
PURPOSE MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE
Purposeful pain makes all the difference. When you believe in what you are choosing, you can endure much more—because you believe in the higher good that the choice is creating. Author Clive Barker writes: “Any fool can be happy. It takes a man [or a woman] with real heart to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep.”
In my opinion, this is the essence of the gospel: To be grounded in our integrity. This is how we create strength within ourselves—wherein we align our behavior with our truest beliefs. Not others’ beliefs. Not what others tell us we should do or think, but to live according to one’s highest conscience, to live according to the spirit. This will vary among us, I’m certain, but this is the work of adulthood, and in many respects single adults are pressured up against this reality in a way that marrieds may not be. Because married folks lives better fit LDS cultural ideals, it is easier to fall into a complacent, compliance model of spirituality, without challenging one’s own culturally-validated choices against his or her integrity. As I talk about a lot, spiritual and relational development is to lessen our dependency on validation or agreement from others and to increase our dependency on validation from God—who stands for the best in ourselves. God represents the ideals that will bring us into deepest connection with ourselves, with others and with divinity. I pray for you and for all of us that we will find this strength, and in it maturity and the capacity for intimacy in whatever context our life offers.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife is a licensed psychotherapist and I hold a Ph.D in Counseling Psychology from Boston College where I wrote my dissertation on LDS women and sexuality. I have taught college level classes on human sexuality and I currently have a private therapy practice in Chicago where I live with my husband and three children. I am an active member of the LDS church.