Heavenly Mother wants us to feel safety, comfort, and pleasure in our bodies.
I want to write about the most delicate and powerful thing about who I am. Even with all of the work I have done in therapy to talk about these things, this still feels vulnerable to share openly, but I feel like it’s too important not to.
I think Mormon women (and all women) should feel comfortable, safe, and cozy being sexual in whatever way feels good to them. That means being sexual on our own (i.e., masturbating) and with others (i.e., partnered sex with 1 person, or more than 1 person) and for some, not being sexual at all. This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but more and more, I feel like it is provocative to say these things.
This month, a new episode of This American Life included a segment called “The Old Man On My Shoulder.” Elna Baker talked about her own and others’ experiences with Bishops’ worthiness interviews.
When I read through some of the comments posted online about the podcast by women in the Exponent’s Facebook group, I was struck by how much shame and pain and trauma so many women have experienced in their bodies and sexual experiences. It is devastating and tragic and not okay. I understand the leaders and parents of our childhoods taught and conveyed what was taught and conveyed to them. Nonetheless, the things that many of us were taught about our bodies and our sexual experiences were unhelpful at best and profoundly traumatic and damaging at worst.
I think so much of what we are taught about our bodies and sex becomes second-nature to us without really realizing it. As little kids, or sometimes even teenagers or adults, when we hear certain things from our parents, other family members, or friends, we don’t know something is unhelpful or inaccurate because that is what has always been said and we know no other way for it to be.
By the time I was 29, I had no idea that I had sexual feelings and very little vocabulary to even say it out loud, let alone to talk about how ashamed and embarrassed I felt about it. I had no idea about my own sexual anatomy, despite the fact that I am a highly educated woman and hold 2 graduate degrees, 1 of which is terminal. I had almost no information about my body or about sex because I was told it “wasn’t appropriate for me.” I went to the gynecologist for the first time before my 30th birthday determined to make sure my reproductive health was in order and everything was okay. Even though I saw a provider in an area where Mormon folk are a tiny minority, I still felt like I wasn’t allowed to be there and had to justify why I wanted to see a gynecologist because I wasn’t married.
What makes me so upset and angry about this is that even though the details may vary from woman to woman, these feelings of shame, guilt, unworthiness, embarrassment, and trauma related to our bodies and sexual identities and experiences seem so common for women inside (and outside of) our faith. My flavor of shame and embarrassment about my body and sex might be different from someone else’s, but the feelings are quite similar in function and outcome.
These feelings hurt our emotional health and our sense of safety in our own bodies. They make it more difficult and confusing to make decisions about our bodies and intimate contact with ourselves or others. They lead us to feel that we are bad for having normal, good, and healthy sexual desires. These feelings make us feel like we have to keep our sexual experiences a secret, even when we’re grown women, and first and foremost answer to no one else but ourselves.
These are some of the things I wish I had been taught about my body and my sexual self:
1. I have absolute dominion over my body and my experience. I say what is right and safe and comfortable. I know what’s best. I know what’s needed and wanted.
2. I am the first and most important authority on my sexual identity, preferences, safety, and desires, period.
3. I have absolute dominion and choice in terms of who I allow close to me and who I engage (or don’t engage with) with in intimate contact in any form.
4. It is lovely and good and normal to want, seek out, or have intimate contact with yourself or others if that is what’s wanted. If you want to masturbate, it’s totally good and lovely and safe to masturbate. If it helps to hear it, you don’t have to confess to your Bishop or anyone else. If you want to have partnered sex, and everyone is consenting and cozy and safe, it’s totally good and lovely and safe to have partnered sex. I also don’t think you have to confess that to anyone if you don’t want to. You know what’s best. And if you don’t want to be sexual at all, that’s good and lovely and safe, too.
5. I think Heavenly Mother is really happy and cares so much about when we feel safe and comfortable and are feeling pleasure in our bodies, and when we make decisions that are right for our emotional health, safety, and desires. She doesn’t want us to disassociate from our bodies. She wants us to feel safe and cozy and present in them.
6. I do not need anyone to judge my goodness or standing with Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. I decide if I’m worthy and good and okay, and being worthy and good and okay is not affected by my sexual identity, preferences, safety, and desires.
I wish someone had told me these things before I turned 29 years old. If you need to hear these things, please consider them lovingly and powerfully said over and over and over again.
LMA is PhD-holding boss lady that teaches child development to university students. She cares deeply about issues that affect women inside and outside of our Church.