It’s no secret that humans are sexual beings. Yet, many of us have been taught from a young age to suppress this part of our nature, to hide it, or to see it as wrong or evil. The negative effects of this conditioning can be far reaching, and can last a lifetime.
Not everyone who grows up in a sexually oppressive religion or culture ends up with unhealthy sexual beliefs, or has shame surrounding their sexuality, but I believe I’m not the only one who’s felt these feelings. In this post, I want to share my experience of how I dealt with this shame. I’m tired of hiding and suppressing these important parts of myself, and I’m hoping my story may be a comfort to others who are going through similar struggles.
Sex as Sin
As a young teenager in Mormonism, I was taught that if I see a pretty girl and find myself aroused or thinking sexual thoughts, I must immediately remove these dangerous and sinful thoughts from my mind by singing a hymn, or distracting myself in other ways. I believed that if these thoughts were allowed to continue, they would lead to even worse sin, that being “carnal and sensual” is associated with being “devilish” (Moses 5:13), and that the “natural man” is an “enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19). Yet, try as I might, I continued to be attracted to girls, and aroused by the thought of them, causing me to feel impure and ashamed.
As a teenager, I was curious about what a naked woman might look like and how sex would work. I had no detailed understanding of female anatomy, and sex was off-limits until after marriage. In this mystery, I was drawn to the bra ads that came in the mail, and whatever bikini pictures I could find on BBS’s (a way to share information before the Internet). Occasionally, I was lucky enough to stumble upon actual nudity. I felt immense shame for looking at these pictures, yet somehow I couldn’t help but be attracted to them and aroused by them, sometimes accompanied by masturbation.
After looking at these pictures, I would always get down on my knees and pray for forgiveness, because I felt so guilty and like I had offended God and done something awful. Usually, these prayers would bring me a measure of peace. But I knew I wouldn’t be completely forgiven until I confessed to my local bishop and then took the sacrament (bread and water) the following Sunday, as a deeper cleansing of my sins and renewing of my promises to follow the Savior. Confessing these sins to the bishop was humiliating, and I was reminded that sins of a sexual nature are considered next to murder in severity (Alma 39:2-5). I learned how I must work harder to reject this part of my nature.
To compensate for the shame I felt, I tried extra hard to be “righteous” and keep the commandments in all areas of my life, and be as good and clean as I could be. I listened to Classical music and hymns instead of rock. I read my scriptures and church books instead of novels. I avoided sports because they were too “violent”, and focused on my music instead. I prayed constantly, and attended the temple habitually, avoiding parties, dances, PG-13 movies, or anything that might take away the “Spirit”. But despite the outer appearance of what I tried to make perfection, I often felt impure on the inside because of this dirty secret I had to keep hidden. I couldn’t stop being attracted to girls, I couldn’t control my thoughts about them, and I sometimes acted out in secret by looking at arousing images. I thought I was somehow bad, and I even prayed for these feelings to go away so I wouldn’t be tempted by them anymore.
Eventually, I taught myself to look away when I saw something arousing, whether a provocative billboard, banner ad, or a woman’s cleavage. I’d hold my hands up to cover my eyes, or turn my face away almost in disgust for fear of feeling sexual attraction and committing a sin. I’d sing a hymn or recite scriptures I’d memorized to distract me from these feelings. This was effective to a degree, but left a damaging trail of consequences I never expected.
In my later teens, when I began dating, I was also careful to follow the rules I’d been taught by church leaders and seminary teachers. If I kissed a girl, I’d make sure I had both feet on the floor. I didn’t French kiss (actually, my current wife French kissed me once while we were dating, but I felt guilty about it and told her to stop, even though it felt nice). Hand holding and hugging became somewhat “sexual acts” for me, and I derived as much pleasure as I could from them while controlling my thoughts of wanting more.
Waiting for Sex
I very much looked forward to marriage, where all of these thoughts and feelings would suddenly become “okay” and where I would finally be allowed to look at a naked woman and to feel these feelings, not to mention intercourse itself. And I was encouraged by my church leaders to get married and have children as soon as possible. So immediately after my 2-year mission to Japan (where I worked every day to convert Japanese people to Mormonism), I began looking for a wife, and about one year later, I was married.
Neither of us had ever had sex before. I was 22 and she was 24. By that point, we were old enough to know how it worked, and were excited at the prospect. But we were also completely inexperienced and both of us had a lifelong habit of unconsciously repressing our sexuality. For example, one way Mormon women are taught to repress their sexuality is by dressing “modestly” (keep shoulders, knees, and stomach covered, and no tight-fitting or sheer clothing).
Our first sexual encounter was great as far as we knew, but we had nothing to compare it to. Looking back, it wasn’t all that sexy. We prayed before we got in bed to invite God to be with us there. And for years, we felt the presence of God in the room watching. In some ways, this helped make the experience more holy and connecting. However, this imaginary white-bearded chaperon mostly inhibited us from creating deeper levels of intimacy, self-expression, and authenticity, which we didn’t even realize were possible at the time.
But how could it have been any other way? Our entire lives, we had believed that sex and sexuality are bad until you’re married. We had become masters at suppressing these emotions and these parts of ourselves, to the point where we didn’t feel comfortable feeling or expressing them, even when we had permission to do so.
It wasn’t until several months after we left the church that I realized how much I had held myself back by suppressing my sexuality. I came to understand that I wasn’t accepting myself for who I was. I saw part of me as bad or evil, and couldn’t love it. Instead, I covered up and pushed down my emotions, leaving a big part of myself unexpressed and trapped inside. Even after leaving the church and dropping my beliefs about what is right and wrong sexually, I found myself feeling guilty for finding women attractive. These long-standing patterns didn’t go away overnight.
But over time, and through much therapy, writing, and feeling, I have come to accept that it’s okay to have a body, and all the instincts and sensations that come with it. It’s okay to be me. It’s okay to feel pleasure. It’s okay to be sexual. It’s okay to like sex. And it’s okay to have fun with it.
Now, depending on your beliefs concerning sexuality, you may not see anything wrong or damaging with the type of suppression I experienced. Yes, if we’re successful at keeping our sexual feelings at bay, we may avoid pre-marital or extramarital sex, children out of wedlock, and broken families. We learn self-control, and can focus more attention on spiritual things. But is this the whole picture? Can this ideal last forever? Does it always work this well? What is the flip side of this kind of control? My story is one example.
Another is the fact that Utah, where the highest percentage of Mormons reside, has the highest rate of pornography subscriptions than any other state in the U.S. In addition, the LDS church continuously lists pornography as one of the biggest problems within the church (they even launched a dedicated website to deal with the problem). I don’t see this as a coincidence. The emotions we suppress and try to hide (no matter which emotions they are) simply build up pressure inside of us until they either make us sick, or we act out our emotions in unhealthy ways, either in secret or in public. And because we believe we have done something wrong, this results in guilt and shame.
It’s All Okay
Now that I have faced these shadows within myself, felt these emotions fully, and released my judgments of them, I no longer see anything morally wrong with having sexual feelings, looking at pornography*, masturbating, or even having sex outside of marriage. Therefore, my shame is gone, and I feel more healthy, whole, alive, and peaceful than I did before. However, all of our choices have consequences, and taking anything to an extreme can be risky. Pornography and masturbation can be relaxing and fun alone or with a partner. Or they can be used to numb and cover over feelings we don’t want to feel, and can lead to unrealistic sexual expectations and a compulsive sexual addiction. Sex outside of marriage can be a way to get to know ourselves better, connect intimately with others, and deepen our sexual repertoire. It can also cause hurt feelings and confusing relationships, STDs, and pregnancy. We don’t have to make things “evil” and shameful to avoid them. We can choose mindfully. And we will learn from every choice we make.
I now accept that I find female bodies to be beautiful. I can appreciate a beautiful woman just as I can appreciate a beautiful landscape or a piece of art. I can allow myself to enjoy the pleasures that arise as I connect with a woman in whatever form (a passing by, a gaze, a word, a hug), becoming more present to the experience and to her and more aware of my own inner responses, witnessing them, rather than turning away in shame. When I feel aroused, I can enjoy this sensation inside myself only, or I could share how I’m feeling with the other person. It’s a choice. Because I’m in a committed monogamous relationship, I’m cautious about not sending out sexual vibes in my interactions with other women.
I’m also feeling more connected to my body in every sense. I’m now more comfortable expressing my sexuality through dance, dress, and in the act itself. Jen and I have found greater enjoyment and connection with each other as we’ve allowed ourselves to express our sexuality more fully. But we also realize we’re just beginning to understand all that’s possible in the power and pleasure of this type of vulnerable and intimate connection, from multiple and long-lasting orgasms to blissfully losing ourselves in the oneness of this sacred and spiritual union of souls.
From Shame to Love
It has been said that guilt is the feeling that we have done something bad, and shame is the feeling that we are bad. Neither feeling is pleasant, but both teach us about ourselves and our beliefs and are therefore important to feel and understand deeply. But once we’ve done that, and we understand why we’re feeling the shame and where it’s coming from, then it’s time to let our judgments go, to take responsibility for our choices, accept ourselves for who we are, and start being vulnerable and authentic in our relationships.
No more hiding. Be your authentic self. And love that self. We are good just as we are. Interestingly, when we stop judging ourselves and our actions as “wrong”, then we also tend to stop judging others for those same things and can reach a place of greater understanding, love, and compassion for them.
I have not completely eliminated feelings of sexual shame from my life. I still judge myself and my desires from time to time, but the shameful feelings are so much less intense than before, like a distant memory. When I feel an emotion like shame now, I no longer try to avoid the feeling, but I welcome it and seek to understand where it’s coming from and what it means. By welcoming all emotions, from joy and sexual pleasures to anger and shame, I become enabled to make appropriate decisions from a place of love and wholeness rather than a place of shame and shadow.
* Update: It’s important to be aware that sometimes pornography is created in conditions which do not respect the autonomy or consent of the individuals (human trafficking, etc.), and supporting it can affect more than just the viewer. That said, I believe there is nothing shameful in finding yourself aroused, especially by something that’s intended to be arousing.
Note: I understand that this post may have stirred some feelings, and will likely bring a variety of comments. I just want to state that all is welcome. For example, if you believe I’m living in sin and that porn is always damaging, or you want to share how you grew up as a sexually healthy Mormon, were helped through your challenges by Christ, or you think I interpreted the doctrines wrong, I welcome all of that. I’m not claiming eternal truth, just sharing my own experience and what I’m learning, and I respect that your beliefs and story are valid for you. Likewise, if you’ve struggled with feelings of shame surrounding your sexuality and have found my post comforting or helpful in letting go of that, I welcome your comments and invite you to share your experience also, either below or via email.