SALT LAKE CITY — As part of her research for the KSL special “Love and Marriage: A Modern Take on a Traditional Vow,” producer Candice Madsen visited separately with Dr. Jason Carroll, a Brigham Young University professor and author of “Sexual Wholeness in Marriage,” and Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a psychotherapist specializing in relationship and sexuality counseling.
The topic: The challenges facing single adult men and women who wish to develop their sexuality in a healthy way, yet reserve sexual activity for marriage.
The questions and responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Candice Madsen: With more and more adults delaying marriage into their late 20s and 30s, reserving sexual activity for marriage has become an even bigger challenge for those wishing to remain chaste. Many single, LDS adults feel like they are treated like teenagers in this realm. How would you respond to those young adults.
Jason Carroll: While teaching healthy sexuality in my classes, many LDS young adults report that the only discussion they have had about sexuality is when they were taught about the negative outcomes of premarital sex and pornography. These negative attitudes, combined with the reluctance of parents and others to address these matters frankly and consistently, leaves many young adults feeling that their sexual feelings are wrong, shameful and contrary to a spiritual way of life.
Such negative conditioning may have long-term consequences in single adulthood and later in marriages when individuals try to “reprogram” their attitudes about modesty, sexuality and intimacy.
This is why we need to more fully foster a culture that emphasizes positive views of marital intimacy and healthy sexuality. While chastity before marriage involves abstaining from sexual involvement, chastity in marriage involves initiating, enjoying and nurturing sexual intimacy between spouses. Being prepared for this dimension of marriage requires more than the absence of negative, it needs the presence of positive.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: One way we need to shift our thinking and the way we talk in the (LDS) Church is to give more legitimacy to our sexuality, even as single people. Our sexuality is a potential within us, it is a God-given potential. It is one of the greatest potentials that we are blessed with, and yet how we use it matters.
What I think often happens in the church is we want to say sexuality as a single person shouldn't exist or the feelings and pressures shouldn't exist, if you are a good person, that is. If you are married, those pressures and desires are legitimate, but not if you are single. So we deny the feelings and desires of adult sexuality in LDS singles. We want to pretend it is not there, or focus on the suppression of it.
But I think as a faith community we need to do a better job of addressing single adult sexuality than that, and the way to do it is to talk differently about sexuality in general. We need to create an ethic around sexuality in which we teach the value and potential goodness of our God-given desires, as well as the importance of channeling our sexual energy toward choices that forge our strength and benefit those we love, depending on the relational context we are in.
Madsen: What's your advice to singles? How do they embrace their sexuality and live true to their beliefs to live the gospel law of chastity?
Finlayson-Fife: Coming to self-acceptance isn’t a function of expressing sexuality per se. There are many people who express their sexuality (in marriage and out of marriage) but have no peace. It is instead acknowledging that the longing is God-given and important, even if uncomfortable at times, and even a choice to not express sexual desires can allow sexual energy to be channeled toward other pro-social and positive development, particularly if that choice is made out of integrity, choosing what you believe is right, rather than choices based in fear, anxiety or self-hatred.
Chastity only makes sense inasmuch as it is supporting the idea of doing goodness. We often just want to say goodness is self-denial. I don't know if I see it that way. I think self-denial and sacrifice are fundamental to goodness but not the same thing, and so how do we relate to our sexuality in line with our integrity? How do we relate to it to keep us in connection with other people, in connection with God and a sense of doing good in the world? I think each person has to figure out what that is for them, in their specific situation.
Jason Carroll: In the marriage preparation course we teach the students how to prepare for sexual wholeness in marriage. Sexual wholeness involves three types of connection: (1) connection between our spirits and our bodies, (2) connection between spouses, and (3) connection between the couple and God. This view helps young adults recognize that preparation for the sexual dimension of marriage is not primarily a physical matter, but rather an emotional and spiritual one as well.
Individuals who approach their dating relationships with an eye toward sexual wholeness in marriage remember that one of the primary purposes of dating and engagement is to develop a relationship that is capable of this type of complete marital intimacy. Developing emotional intimacy in dating and other relationships is an important foundation for this. Emotional intimacy exists in a relationship when two people experience a sense of security, support, trust, comfort and safety with one another. These types of relationships help make life full and satisfying, while setting a foundation for the proper expression of passionate intimacy in a future marriage relationship.
Madsen: Do you think there is a misunderstanding about the “natural man” and classifying sex as a purely carnal desire?
Carroll: Without proper education about healthy sexuality, many people characterize devoted love as inherently spiritual and good, while sexual passions are viewed as inherently carnal or evil.
However, such a perspective is not in harmony with the restored doctrine of the “soul,” and the “fullness of joy” that the scriptures teach can only be experienced when the spirit and body are united eternally. A key part of becoming a sexually healthy person is to develop a true understanding of the origins of sexual desire and the divine purposes of sex. Latter-day Saint leaders have repeatedly taught that sexual desires and feelings before marriage, and sexual union after marriage, is God-created, God-ordained and God-blessed.
Finlayson-Fife: A reframe on natural man that I make all the time is that “natural man” references are not about being embodied, and not about being sexual, they are about being selfish. Our theology is, unlike some Christian theologies, very embracing of the body. We see obtaining a body as essential to becoming more like God, rather than an impediment to spirituality. So being embodied, being carnal, is not the problem, rather, selfishness, our self-serving impulses, are.
It is the destructive or hateful part of ourselves that is an enemy to God. When selfishness is in combination with sexuality, it can be destructive and harmful to ourselves and others, but the sexuality is not the problem, the selfishness is.
Madsen: The pervasiveness of pornography impacts marriages and dating relationships. Are we doing a good job talking about pornography?
Carroll: Part of what we are doing with pornography, sometimes we don’t intend this, but the message our young people get is that men have this pathological or bad sexuality, and women we inadvertently give the message of, you have no sexuality.
With pornography what is really needed is an understanding of a broader teaching of healthy sexuality. When it is never connected to healthy sexual expression we actually run the risk of creating a new problem. Even if we are successful in helping a young person stay away from or not be involved with pornography, if by the time they reach marriage and they reach family formation, if the cost of that is I’ve stayed away from pornography and all sexuality in general, we’ve just traded one problem for another. And those of us in counseling circles we see this.
We see a lot of young couples and your young married couples, early married couples struggling with this part of their relationship because they haven’t had adequate sense of preparation and reading and sense of goodness and rightness and anticipation for this part of their relationship, and they carry those negative attitudes into their marriage.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Pornography can be a huge problem, but we are not doing a good job in how we deal with it. We have this idea that anything that creates arousal is a problem, whether that is a woman in a sleeveless shirt or looking at a billboard with an attractive woman on it, for example. But arousal or attraction in and of itself is not destructive or problematic. What we do with those feelings has implications, but it would be a bigger problem if you didn’t have any of those feelings.
It is natural to be curious and to find sexual imagery engaging. ... I think we need to say it is normal to be drawn to it, and to still direct our sexuality in ways that increase our ability to be in meaningful connection with those we love. So I think we need to stop shaming and instead reinforce what we want to create with our sexuality and with our desires. We get to choose how we channel this energy inside us, and what we choose will forge our strength or undermine us.
The other thing we tend to do is talk about pornography as if it is a monolithic experience. I've had people come in and tell me they are porn addicts, and when I get the data they mean they've looked at images four times in the past two years, and that they are deeply ashamed.
And then there are people who are looking at it compulsively at work, their job and marriage is on the line, and so clearly there is the range in terms of behavior and implications for one’s relationship to themselves, to God and to others.
We need to do a better job of helping people think about how they are relating to their desires and visual stimuli, and whether it is helping them forge the kind of relationship to their sexuality that will offer goodness and that they can respect in themselves.
Candice Madsen is a senior producer of Special Projects for KSL TV Email: firstname.lastname@example.org