Some LDS parents miss the mark when it comes to talking about sexual topics because in their great desire to experience the ideal of a child waiting until marriage for sexual activity, they may fail to recognize the influences of a sex-crazed culture on young people. Parental hypersensitivity to sexual sin may prevent teens from talking to them about important issues that could affect their emotional, spiritual and physical development.
Sexuality is a taboo topic in many homes. This is not unique to LDS families, but religious teachings about moral purity add another dimension to an already difficult cultural challenge. Just as religion and politics can lead to incendiary online confrontations, sex comes pre-loaded with triggers and shame that prevent honest and open conversations.
Mormon teens are sexual beings. We cannot fill them with messages about how dirty, bad and shaming their natural sexual desires are during their adolescent years, then expect them to turn off all those messages the moment they are married. That would be like telling them reading is forbidden until they are married, then expecting them to automatically know how to read without providing any instruction.
There are 10 key areas where I feel LDS culture is failing adolescents when it comes to sexuality:
- Not discussing consensual vs. non-consensual sexual activity.
- Teaching female modesty as a way to prevent male sexual advances and immodesty as a way to invite them.
- Focusing 99% of our efforts on abstinence while generically telling those who have already sinned or been violated to “talk to the bishop”.
- Bishops introducing sexual topics in one-on-one interviews with young children behind closed doors.
- Assuming lessons about pornography and masturbation don’t apply to the “good kids in our ward” or to the young women.
- Bishops failing to appropriately handle reports of sexual abuse.
- Females being asked what they were doing or wearing when a sexual assault occurred, as if it makes the offender somehow less blamable.
- Not preparing teens adequately for the realities of marital relationships (sexuality is just one component of this).
- Teaching temple marriage as a destination rather than the beginning of a difficult journey.
- Shaming messages about lost virtue that can never be restored.
While many of these issues are difficult to resolve and the prevailing culture isn’t likely to change overnight, parents can set a positive climate in the home by doing the following:
- Refer to body parts using their appropriate names.
- Initiate and be open to adolescent-initiated conversations and questions about sexual topics. It will get less awkward with practice.
- Make it clear by your words and actions that you will be receptive and loving even if your teen commits a sexual sin.
- Have open, honest conversations about pornography and masturbation.
- Help teens understand how to appropriately channel their normal and natural sexual desires.
- Have open and honest conversations about sexuality in marriage and the challenges married couples face in every area of life.
As leaders of youth classes and quorums, we can adopt a degree of sensitivity towards those who struggle with pornography and masturbation or who have been sexually active or abused by doing the following:
- Explain that full repentance is possible for those who commit sexual sins.
- Explain the difference between consensual and non-consensual sexual activity, helping youth understand that in non-consensual cases no sin has been committed. Talk about how to report sexual abuse.
- Teach the truth about dual responsibility for consensual sexual activities.
- Assume that most if not all youth have been exposed to pornography in some fashion.
- Never say or imply that individual worth is tied to sexual purity.
Bishops can adopt the following practices as they counsel with children and teens:
- Require a parent to be in the room during every interview (the Protect the Children initiative wants to see this become a Church policy).
- Never initiate sexually explicit topics. If a young man or women brings it up, talk honestly and openly about it.
- Take all allegations of sexual assault seriously. Report them immediately and never blame, shame or call into question a young person’s culpability in a non-consensual encounter.
As society becomes increasingly sexualized, we need better tools to educate and support our youth in the latter-days. The “sweeping it under the rug” approach that appeared to have worked in the past has long since outlived any usefulness it might have once had. If we don’t teach our children the truth about their own sexuality, they’ll learn it from their peers or from pornography. In either case, the messages received likely won’t be realistic or accurate. There is a huge opportunity here for improvement in LDS culture. The needed change begins with you.
Gerry Baird is a software project manager with an MBA from Utah State University. He is the author of several religious/inspirational books including his latest title, “Extreme Peace”, and is currently pursuing a degree in mental health counseling from Grand Canyon University. His passions include piano, kayaking, yoga, meditation, religious studies, and offering a nonjudgmental listening ear to the beautiful people he meets in real life and through social media.