Monday, November 15, 2010

(Un)holy, (un)natural and (im)pure practices

There's a recognizable phrase that's been floating around the Church for about 30 years. The first use that I can find occurred in a letter to bishops from the First Presidency dated January 5, 1982:
The First Presidency has interpreted oral sex as constituting an unnatural, impure, or unholy practice.

I remember when this statement came out. It was mostly ignored by my liberal, East Coast university ward.

The phrase "unholy, unnatural or impure practice" appears to be an expansion of a warning in the temple ceremony against some fairly venal sins such as "lightmindedness." We are to avoid these venal sins and "every other unholy and impure practice." The context in the temple is not at all related to sexuality, so I have to conclude that the the use in the 1982 letter was a novel one, only coincidentally related to the similar language used in the temple except to give the phrase extra authority by unconscious association with the temple rite. Also, the word "unnatural" is significant addition-- it's a word that is loaded with all kinds of sexual connotations. These days it usually refers to anal sex, but it has also been used to make reference to all sexual acts that don't have the possibility of pregnancy. For example, LDS texts in the 1950s to 1970s referred to the evils of "unnatural" methods of birth control.

Shortly after the First Presidency's letter was received by bishops in 1982, a question about "unholy, unnatural, or impure practices" in the marital bed was added to the list of questions used in temple recommend interviews. There was almost an immediate backlash. The first indication of the backlash was a second letter, just about one year later, from the First Presidency saying that bishops were not to pry into a married couple's sex life. (!) Eventually, by 1986, the question was deleted from the temple recommend interview entirely.

Of course, since that time, the Church has further backed away from its prohibition of oral sex in marriage. The most recent guidance seems only to say that "if you feel guilty enough about it to ask, you shouldn't do it." The most common advice you'll hear from bishops is that if the wife objects to it, a husband doesn't press her. In general, Mormon ideas of acceptable sexuality stick to a narrower range than the mainstream culture. For the most part, heterosexual anal sex, the use of pornography as a couple, role play or any kind fetish or kink are pretty much off limits for Mormons. Sex toys (for example, a vibrator) seem to be the wild frontier for the most adventurous Mormons, but even then the Relief Society sister with her trusty strap-on and a mischievous gleam in her eye is beyond imagining.

Although the sin it originally named is no longer a sin, the phrase "unholy, unnatural, or impure practice" is still with us. It is now found in section 21.4.5 of the Church's 2010 Handbook 2:
Adultery, fornication, homosexual or lesbian relations, and every other unholy, unnatural, or impure practice are sinful.

What the current phrase means is left to the imagination. You might be tempted to view it as a reinstatement of the old prohibition against oral sex or any other "unnatural" act that doesn't lead to possible pregnancy. However, the idea that sex needs to be procreative to be holy, natural and pure is contradicted by section 21.4.4 of the handbook:
Married couples should also understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purposes of procreation, but also as a way of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.

This all leads me to the problem that Judge Walker addressed in the court ruling that invalidated Prop. 8. Essentially, the problem is that once you define marriage as a loving partnership that includes relational aspects and not just procreation and the control of property through coverture or inheritance, it makes no sense to exclude loving same-sex couples. In other words, when the Church adopts the position that sexual relations are pure, natural and holy on their own when performed by a loving couple who are emotionally and spiritually bound to each other, then it's much harder to argue that same-sex couples who use physical intimacy to strengthen these kinds of bonds are sinful.

(To be continued...)


Chester said...

Well said.

Dovetailing on your point - What about the church's practice of marrying widows and widowers for time, but not eternity?

For an example, take this common situation - A man and a woman are sealed in the temple "for time and all eternity". The woman dies, leaving the man a widower. He meets, dates, and decides to marry a widow from his ward. This widow herself had a husband to whom she was also married "for time and all eternity". When this couple marries in the temple the practice is to marry them for time, but NOT for eternity; the reason being that they are already sealed forever to their first spouse.

Why do such a thing? Doctrinally these respective people are already set, so why allow them to marry and be together?

The reason is obvious and amazingly pragmatic. In the eyes of the church it is better for people, should they choose, to have someone to live their lives with, to be intimate with, to love and cherish even if it's only for this life; rather than live out their lives alone.

Yet another shameful irony that the church holds homosexuals to a completely different standard.

Alli said...

I am interested to know (and please understand that I mean this respectfully - there is no hatefulness in me toward homosexuals) if you believe that the LDS church should sanction homosexuality and draw the line there. Is there anything else that you could defend as being acceptable that others might see as sinful sexually? I don't mean to compare these things directly - I KNOW the obvious differences - but as a society, and a religion, that is more accepting of homosexuality now, do you think that the time will come that we will/should accept pedophilia? beastiality? necrophilia? things that are still considered offensive and obscene even by the most liberal of decent people?

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Chester,

Thanks for the comment. The "time only" status of marriages for widows and widowers does take some of the punch out the the argument as well.

alan said...

Alli: children, animals and corpses cannot consent to sex. It's pretty obvious (at least to me) that homosexuality is not like these other things because of the issue of consent. People link homosexuality to these other things because they think it's "unnatural." They put all the ugliness together, so to speak. But it would actually make more sense to ask about polygamy, since people can actually consent to polygamy.

The point of the post is to demonstrate that sex without reproductive intent (oral, use of birth control, etc) used to fall in the same "unnatural" category as homosexuality. Now that that is no longer the case, and that sex is more about an "emotional bond" than necessarily reproduction, then the reasons for excluding same-sex couples seem less reasonable -- particularly since gay couples often do raise children using surrogates, whatnot, anyway, that heterosexual couples also sometimes use.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Alli,

I don't mind your question. Thanks for commenting.

Another way to put it is this: If we think loving committed couples (regardless of gender) are a good thing, does this put us at sea from a moral point of view, with respect to things like rape and child sexual abuse? Are there still things that we can say are unholy and impure, or is all permitted?

I'm not troubled by this question. Those (and I'm not really sure who these people are) who advocate any of the practices you mention are free to state their case. If their arguments are persuasive, then our attitudes will change. However, it's extremely dubious that you can ever make a sound ethical argument for pedophilia or rape-- in these cases informed, adult consent is missing. Similarly for bestiality and necrophilia. Therefore, these things are pretty easy to discard.

I think more interesting cases of the principle you are talking about involves "impure" things like oral or anal sex. Should these practices be criminalized? Most people would say no. If sexual practices harm no one and if informed, adult consent is possible, we generally like to assert a right to privacy in the bedroom.

The issue with homosexuality isn't just about sex. It's about the right of a loving couple to build a life together with the same civil protections as other couples. Allowing this doesn't "redefine marriage" any more than President Kimball's giving the priesthood to blacks "redefined priesthood." President Kimball simply opened up an existing institution to people who were previously (and unfairly) excluded. This is all gay people are asking for. It implies no change to existing marriages between members of the opposite sex.

Alli said...

Thank you for answering so quickly! So can I assume that is a "yes" to the question of sanctioning homosexuality, and all other sexual acts between consenting adults, but drawing the line there permanently?
It seems to me that it would be somewhat shortsighted to assume that other things that seem offensive now would not, in time, be justified and rationalized. What if technology is developed that indicates that animals are getting pleasure from a human's penetration? What if children are not harmed or even aware when they are being used for the sexual pleasure of another (a situation that has hit home in our family recently)? It is a stretch, but I can imagine those and other things being justified in time and I am curious to know what people think about eventually accepting things that now seem as far-fetched as accepting homosexuality did in our grandparents' generation.

I am also curious to understand why you continue to associate yourself with a religion you seem to not believe in, and at the same time, you don't seem to be expressing an anti-Mormon view? It intrigues me.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Alli,

As I said, people are free to make their case for any of these other forms of sexuality. If the arguments are persuasive, we should be open to the possibility that our views will evolve. Human consciousness does change. People used to think it was just fine to enslave other humans and trade them like livestock. We don't think that way anymore. Thank goodness human consciousness evolved on that issue. Who are we to say that we are now at the pinnacle of ethical understanding about every possible human situation? I don't think we can say that, although conservative religions often do make that claim. I think this is your point as well.

I consider myself to be a cultural Mormon. I am the product of Mormon pioneers. My *entire* genome was happily replicating in Utah well before the end of the 19th century. Mormonism is my heritage, and it informs my character and outlook just as much as it does the current leadership of the Church. So, yes, I am not anti-Mormon.

Thanks again for your comments.

Alli said...

"Who are we to say that we are now at the pinnacle of ethical understanding about every possible human situation?" Yes.
The difficulty is in distinguishing the progressive from the regressive, and there will likely always be disagreements on what falls into which category.
I love to hear that you accept your heritage as one that has shaped your life and that you do not shun it even though you have disagreements with it in some ways.
Thanks for letting me ask some difficult questions and for answering them honestly.

Original Mohomie said...

Interesting. I didn't know oral sex was so explicitly forbidden, let alone that recently. I'm interested in the word "relations", too. To me, that looks like they're deliberately implicating non-sexual, romantic relationships, too, which wouldn't be a shocker but seems farther than they've gone in most other statements...I wonder...

santorio said...

your logic is unassailable and will carry the day, though to quote David O McKay about another civil rights issue, "not in my lifetime." Then again, if I outlive my retirement funds...

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi O-Moh,

The explicit (temporary) prohibition of oral sex was interesting. You can find page 1 and page 2 of the original letter online.

I think the phrase "homosexual relations" is a replacement of the previous term "homosexuality," which proved to be unacceptably ambiguous about orientation vs. sex acts. This explains the slightly awkward language.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Santorio,

Haha. Your comment reminds me of a good news/bad news joke of Franz Kafka. Kafka once said, "There is hope, but not for us."

Joe said...

Your date of 1982 is interesting because my bishop in 1978 got some sort of instruction on the matter and gave us Priests a very solemn lecture on it. Although he'd already freaked me out about masturbation, I thought this was just nuts. (Unfortunately, once again I didn't take the hint and leave.)

I'm now curious as to the time line here.

(Recently, I had a discussion with someone else and mentioned how strict the church was in the 70s and early 80s and they didn't recall that. Yet I can remember all the goofy talks and the guilt trips the church sent me on. I remember President Kimball telling the youth to not date non-Mormons, which killed my social life. Yet so many people deny that any of this happened. It's bizarre.)

Joe said...

I just remembered talking about this with an old church veteran years ago.

The first directive about this came out in 1977/1978 but was NOT part of the temple recommend interview. The 1982 letter was adding the question to the temple recommend interview.

PNWReader said...

Just following a logical path here.

If I (a man) were to marry a man in Connecticut, legally and lawfully, then any sexual relations within that marriage would by definition fall within the law of chastity.

Your quote of the 2010 CHI 21.4.5 suggests to me that if it never occurred to one to ask if the CHI had a definition of of the expression as used in the temple, the question "do you keep the covenants you made in the temple" would not necessarily prevent a person from receiving a temple recommend.

And I don't know that the CHI is presuming to define the term as it applies to temple covenants.

3. Even if denied a temple recommend, there would be no basis for excommunication. Thus, gays are the new blacks.

4. In approximately 130 years, gay temple marriages will be authorized.

Anonymous said...

Just because I'm gay doesn't mean I have to think it natural. BEING GAY IS NOT NATURAL. I'm not saying it's impure and satanic... My opinion has NOTHING to do with religion, but with NATURE. NATURE MADE US TO HAVE CHILDREN. And the only natural way to have children is with someone from the opposite sex. If the person wants same sex relation, there's some disturb in his mind, but it doesn't mean this person is bad and deserves to live less than straight people.

I'm gay because I had a lot of problems in my childhood and teenager time. Bullying, bad relation with father, too close to mother, rape (I didn't have this, thank God), getting confused for thinking admiration is the same thing as attraction (EVERYBODY SEES BEAUTY IN SAME SEX PEOPLE), etc.

I had almost all these problems and I don't know not even 1 gay (among the many ones I asked about) that didn't have at least one of these problems.

Some people maybe gay and didn't have any of these problems. Well, remembering or not, nitid or discrete, there is always a disturb in a homosexual person's mind. Like in my mind...

Original Mohomie said...

To "Anonymous", being gay may well be natural. Being sterile is natural, despite the supposition that we're made to reproduce. All kinds of deformities, anomalies, variations, and adaptations exist which are not normal but are very much "natural" in the sense that they are the results of natural processes. Additionally, homosexuality may have evolutionary explanations, but these theories are mostly unknown to those whose focus steers them away from becoming familiar with ideas which don't confirm what they prefer to believe. Normal, on the other hand, it is not. I'll give you that. Of course, nor is being 7'2", or a hermaphrodite, or left-handed, or a genius.

I know some gay people who don't have any of those factors you named in their life. Chalk it up to them conveniently forgetting if it makes your world make sense, but I also know very, very few 'straight' people who don't have at least one of the factors you named in their life, too. It's easy to find patterns where we want to find them.

I just want to take a moment to note that my word verification was: "pness". Love it.