“But for that, Walt. But for that…”

July 13, 2006 | 27 comments
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I always find it interesting to hear what people think of as being central and peripheral to Mormon experience. Take sex for example. I know lots of Mormons who make one or both of two claims. First, that Mormonism taught them to feel persistent guilt about any and all sexual thoughts. Second, that Mormonism instilled in them a belief in the inherent nasty sinfulness of sexuality. I’ve heard both claims enough that I think that there is something to them. Clearly there are people who get both messages from Mormonism. For myself, I just don’t get it. Or rather, I understand why someone might have that reaction, but it hasn’t been my own experience.

I have always taken Mormonism to have an essentially positive attitude toward sexuality. Chastity is important, yes. Appetites and desires must be kept within the bounds that the Lord has set, yes. But neither sexuality nor the appetites and desires that it engenders are inherently wrong. Interestingly, the guilt that I have felt for the odd moment of lustful thought has come less from the inculcation of Mormon ideas of chastity than from the worry that such thoughts would disappoint the feminism of my mother. Thou shalt not objectify women and think of them as sex objects. Yet despite my feminist guilt, I do believe that people are sexual beings in some cosmic sense, and that ultimately that is good, which means affirming sexuality in both its ethereal and earthy senses.

In the months before my marriage I read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which in many ways is a frank affirmation of the exuberance of human sexuality. Reading it, I was struck by how Mormon it felt to me. Now I admit to having a tendency to want to baptize every author that I like, so that often in my mind “feels Mormon” morphs into “Nathan approves.” On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feeling that Joseph and Walt would have gotten along. So eight years ago while sitting ironically enough on a bench in front of William & Marry’s main library (it is surprising how circular my life has been), I wrote on the fly-leaf of my copy of Leaves: “Passions, appetites, and desires are to be kept within the bounds the Lord has set. But for that, Walt. But for that…”

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27 Responses to “But for that, Walt. But for that…”

  1. Adam Greenwood on July 13, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    Your affinity for Walt Whitman is unsurprising:
    http://www.jefflindsay.com/bomsource.shtml

    I also think you’re right. Mormonism is Walt Whitman for Puritans and Puritanism for Walt Whitmans.

    Those of us who have Anglo-Catholic Fiction Disorder have usually got it because of the earthiness of these writers, because of their promiscuous embrace of what is.

  2. Adam Greenwood on July 13, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    I won’t criticize the grammatical exuberance that made you leave out the comma in your flyleaf and in your title. It may give me a literal grating sensation, but that’s a small price to pay for your sly, punctuational salute to Whitman.

    I sing the unsignaled vocative.

  3. Seth R. on July 13, 2006 at 1:20 pm

    The guilt that all these Mormons and ex-Mormons feel/felt about sex comes from Protestant attitudes about sex. Not Mormon attitudes about sex.

    You want to blame someone, go blame American WASP culture. Mormonism actually has a pretty healthy take on sex, all things considered.

    But many are unable to distinguish between Mormonism and Americanism.

    So lay off the Mormons already!

  4. Russell Arben Fox on July 13, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    “On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feeling that Joseph and Walt would have gotten along.”

    I’m quite sure they would have. You want to know who else Jospeh would have totally gotten along with? Elvis. I’m positive that The Prophet and The King must have looked each other up by now; Jospeh teaching Elvis about transforming his appetites into something other-affirming rather than self-desctructive, and Elvis teaching Joseph some songs and dance moves.

    That being said, I think it is worth noting that the odds that any post-Heber J. Grant apostle or prophet would have enjoyed hanging out with either Elvis or Whitman are probably extremely small.

  5. Adam Greenwood on July 13, 2006 at 2:00 pm

    I wouldn’t be so sure about Gordon B. Hinkley.

  6. smb on July 13, 2006 at 2:07 pm

    While I agree that Mormonism has great potential to undergird healthy sexuality, you thoughtful apologists for sexy Mormonism are under-emphasizing an important point. The Mormon healthy sexuality is centered exclusively on relationships, while sexuality per se may also focus on the experience of the body as a sexual entity. While it is entirely reasonable to believe as I do that relationship-based sexuality is superior to body-based sexuality, this is not the belief of every reasonable person or culture. The problem is that many sexual experiences and impulses are indifferent to the presence of a relationship, particularly though not exclusively for men.

    The strong emphasis on relationship-based sexuality excludes onanism, anonymous interactions (erotic dreams, random encounters, and admiration of a stranger sexually). Many believe, not without some empirical and theoretical support, that at least portion of those are a “healthy” (don’t cause disease, anticipated in natural, non-ill development of a human being) part of the experience of the sexual organism (let’s not get lost in fisticuffs with a straw man here–I don’t mean hardcore endeavors or alienating behaviors like those portrayed in The Blue Room).

    Our young Walt Whitman would laugh himself to some ecstasy to hear a Mormon claim him on sexual grounds, even with NO’s disclaimer. His hymns to the female genitalia (using them emblematically) were part of an exuberance about the shape of life and human sexuality and were not expressions of the richness of the marriage relationship.

    Can you see the difference?

    A says the sexuality of the body is a beautiful thing, just like health and exercise and appreciations of nature and the filling of an appetite for wonderful food. This is how I read Walt.

    B says that sexuality is the force that unites people to potentially greater intimacy than any other they have known and (for LD Saints) is the cement that binds people through eternity. This is how I read Mormonism.

    Both say that it’s good, but they intend very different things by it. The Mormon view (which I essentially share) is not really A+, as NO indicates. It’s a different approach. There are test cases to show the divergence: onanism, the sexual experience of the single/widowed/divorced, allowable art forms, nudism, etc.

    The problem is establishing B in an era where a twisted form of A has taken hold. The rhetoric used to defend B from A ends up sounding very harshly anti-sexuality and is in fact the reason that many people DO believe that Mormonism has not taught healthy attitudes toward sexuality and DO suffer in their relationships as a result.

    I personally am trying to emphasize the non-sexual beauty of the body, providing a sensuous rather than sensual approach to the body, which then naturally is quite present in the marital relationship. In this model, the body is brought as a gift to the spouse.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on July 13, 2006 at 2:13 pm

    “The Mormon healthy sexuality is centered exclusively on relationships, while sexuality per se may also focus on the experience of the body as a sexual entity.”

    You make a good point, smb. However, don’t think that all “thoughtful apologists for sexy Mormonism” are ignorant of the bodily aspects of sexuality that must come along with any “essentially positive attitude towards sexuality.” See here, for example.

    Elvis and Marvin and Walt, all the way, baby. (Well, not all the way, to be sure, but a fair distance nonetheless.)

  8. Adam Greenwood on July 13, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    I don’t see the dichotomy, SMB. To use your classification, I would call the proper Mormon view B,A-. That is, B and those portions of A that aren’t incompatible with B. Not just conjugal union, but smokin’ hot, world-shattering conjugal union.

    Some of the things you say recognize this. Its not just you or your being or your acquiescence thats a gift to the spouse, its your body.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on July 13, 2006 at 2:16 pm

    “I wouldn’t be so sure about Gordon B. Hinckley.”

    You may be right, Adam. I would be at all surprised to learn someday, when one of his kids writes the non-Deseret-Book-published version of his biography, that President Hinckley listened to doo-wop, or the Temptations.

  10. Nate Oman on July 13, 2006 at 3:53 pm

    smb: I think that it would be a mistake to reduce Mormon notions of sexuality to some sort of pure valorization of relationships. It matters a great deal to such conversations when we say things like God has a body of flesh and blood and we believe in the literal resurrection. The point is not simply the exaltation of sex-in-relationship but sex-in-relationship-of-bodies (in the fullest sense).

    The problem with pornography is not that it exalts the bodily aspects of sexuality but ironically that it doesn’t take bodies seriously enough. To love your wife is to love her body, or perhaps better to love her in her embodiment, which necessarily means loving (philia, agape, and eros) heart and mind and flesh.

  11. Carolyn on July 13, 2006 at 7:12 pm

    Russell,

    “You want to know who else Jospeh would have totally gotten along with? Elvis. I’m positive that The Prophet and The King must have looked each other up by now; Jospeh teaching Elvis about transforming his appetites into something other-affirming rather than self-desctructive, and Elvis teaching Joseph some songs and dance moves.”

    I don’t doubt it. The Osmonds used to hang with Elvis back in the days when they both played Vegas. Years ago at a fireside I heard one of the Osmonds say that shortly before his death they had given Elvis a Book of Mormon. After the king died the book was returned to them with passages highlighted. It makes complete sense to me that Elvis might have looked Joseph up by now.

  12. Buckeye the Elder on July 13, 2006 at 7:15 pm

    Wait – hasnt the American gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transgender appropriated Walt Whitman as “their poet”? or is that an urban myth?

  13. Nate Oman on July 13, 2006 at 8:18 pm

    Buckeye the Elder: If you turn this into a threadjack about homosexuality or SSM, I will track you and your children down if it is the last thing that I ever do ;-> NO GAY RELATED THREADJACKING HERE!

  14. Kaimi Wenger on July 13, 2006 at 8:23 pm

    Nate,

    A vast increase in blog threadjacking is yet another pernicious effect of the destruction of traditional marriage. . .

  15. greenfrog on July 13, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    A NOISELESS, patient spider,
    I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
    Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
    It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
    Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

    And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
    Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
    Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
    Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
    Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

    I love JS and WW.

  16. Maurice Minnifield on July 14, 2006 at 12:17 am

    Buckeye:
    When I was a boy growing in Oklahoma City I would go to the show on Saturday. My favorite was John Wayne. It didn’t matter what kind of movie it was: cowboy picture, war movie, I was with him all the way. Except for The Quiet Man; that one bored the hell out of me. By the time I was nine years old, I was walking and talking like the Duke. Then one day, the walls came crashing down. I was playing army with the Marshall boys, Jed and Jeff, in Bailey’s Woods. Jeff said kind of off-handedly that John Wayne didn’t do his own fighting, didn’t throw his own punches, didn’t take his own hits or his own falls. Well, I kicked the hell out of the Marshall boys. Then I ran all the way home and asked my daddy if it was true that John Wayne didn’t do his own fighting. He said yes. John Wayne was my hero and the Marshall boys gave him feet of clay.

    Now I don’t give a damn if Walt Whitman kicked with his right foot or left foot or that J. Edgar Hoover took it better than he gave it or Ike was true blue to Mamie or that God knows who had trouble with the ponies or the bottle. We need our heroes. We need men we can look up to, believe in. Men who walk tall. We cannot chop them off at the knees just to prove they are like the rest of us. Now Walt Whitman was a pervert. But he was the best poet that America ever produced. And if he was standing here today and somebody called him a fruit or a queer behind his back or to his face or over these airwaves, that person would have to answer to me. Sure, we’re all human. But there’s damn few of us who have the right stuff to be called heroes. That closes the book on that subject.

  17. got2havecowbell on July 14, 2006 at 11:03 am

    :: swoon ::

    Wow, all of a sudden I have this overpowering urge to run to my local library and stock up on some Walt.

  18. JA Benson on July 14, 2006 at 11:32 am

    AHHH (sigh) Northern Exposure is my all time favorite TV program. Thanks Maurice M.

  19. tracy m on July 14, 2006 at 11:43 am

    Ditto for me, too! I remember when Maurice said that….

  20. comet on July 14, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    For what it is worth, I think Nate is right about the Mormon theory of sexuality — essentially positive and affirming — but in Mormon practice guilt is the main leverage point — guilt, not at the dirtiness of sexuality per se but not living up to celestial standards in thought and deed.

  21. smb on July 15, 2006 at 6:22 pm

    AG: I think you miss the fact that it has been dichotomized in contemporary culture. Sexual love of one’s spouses body, however glorious, is NOT the same as sexual love of the body. They will tend to compete, and this competition underlies the fundamental problem that Nate was attempting to address.

    Nate, I believe you’re correct that there’s something passionately corporeal about Joseph Smith’s “materialism.” Ideas of eternal increase, persistent sexual engagement in the afterlife, polygyny, his emphatic rejection of the carbon cycle. I do believe there are threads within Mormonism that can affirm the body sexual. In that sense you are correct.

    In contemporary Mormonism, situated as it is in contemporary secsular society (pardon the neologism), there has come to be a serious distinction between them. Just think for a moment about how well received Joseph Smith’s sexual experience is received now to get a sense for the distance between the two worlds in contemporary Mormonism. The point is that my A in contemporary experience reflects an emphatically corporeal but not (inter-)personal sex, and the way that contemporary Mormons can relish sex within their faith culture is to have it be emphatically (inter-)personal. Onanism is the test case, isn’t it? No denigration of another, no exploitation of a female subject, no anonymity (I am assuming the statistically improbable instance in which this is not related to pornography consumption). The body is offering back its sexual bounty in a private encounter. But there is no other person, no relationship, just the sheer experience of the sexualized body. That I believe is the main problem with onanism, why the Mormon Church rejects it, why I personally reject it despite my generally progressive social views. (Pardon the use of such a near homophone for your illustrious surname, but I’d like to fly under the crude versions of the google radar.)

    Re: porn, I think you have a point, that it is an abstraction from a body rather than a precisely instantiated body, but that is a weak formulation of my point: it is the anonymization of sex, the removal of it from an actual encounter with another full being, both body and soul, (what I have referred to as relationship) that characterizes perhaps the major problem with pornography. I believe that there are other problems with it, including its denigration of women, though I believe that is concomitant with the depersonalization of sexuality, this notion of “sexual objectification.”

    Certainly you should love your wife, both body and soul. But should you sexually love THE body? Your body? Is it the identity of the body with the personhood of your wife that makes your love of that body okay? I believe so, as sexual love of the body of someone other than your wife would run afoul of contemporary Mormon standards, inter alia.

    So for me, I prefer to emphasize the non-sexual beauty of the body in general and the essentially relational character of sex. Hymns to Hymenoptera but not to Hymen.

  22. Michael on July 19, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    I don’t what LDS planet y’all been living on, but speaking as an active, gay LDS man living the law of chastity, our church definitely does not accept or acknowledge individual sexuality or allow for its expression in any form or fashion. It only accepts relationship-based sexuality that is entirely kept behind doors.

    Maybe all y’all have a different perspective since you have that sexual release outlet available to married couples but try living as a single LDS past the age of 30 and tell me how the heck you have any outlet for individual sexuality (I am NOT talking about sexual ACTIVITY – I am talking about basic human sexuality. If you don’t know the difference then you probably got married at age 17).

    NATE, PLEASE NOTE: I AM NOT THREADJACKING BUT there is a big difference between you straights sitting high on your pedestals and able to express your sexuality ’til your hearts content and us poor gays who are required to be Michael Jackson-like asexual creatures. It really can drive you crazy to suppress all sexual expression including hugs and kisses and sacrament-meeting back rubs.

    To SMB – Please help me understand what is sexuality EXCEPT loving the body?

  23. smb on July 20, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    Michael: I think your plight aptly represents the divide between my A and my B, and the public stances of the church against expression of sexuality by gay men or women speaks to my point precisely. I am sorry to hear of your pain.

    re: your question to me, I believe sexuality is a subset of the experience of loving the body. Patently non-sexual expressions of loving the body might be hiking barefoot, eating a beautiful meal, running your fingers through warm sand, finding pleasure in exercise of various descriptions, taking pleasure in specific manual skills (Frisbee, carpentry, sculpture, gardening). Non-sexual expressions would be cuddling, hugging, etc. with people to whom one does not feel romantic attraction. Minimally sexual expressions would be the same with people to whom one does feel romantic attraction. Patently sexual expressions involve genitalia and physiologic indices of sexual arousal. These systems are only a subset of the body, and though there is intermittent overlap, I believe they are separable.

    Best of luck.

  24. Michael on July 21, 2006 at 1:14 pm

    smb – Thanks!

  25. manaen on July 30, 2006 at 11:31 pm

    4.
    Russell, RE: Elvis & Joseph.

    There’s some evidence/hope/supposition that Elvis had a serious interest in the restored gospel. The SLTrib ran an article 14Jul2001 that talked about Elvis’ near conversion. It talkes about notes in what could/may/should be his copy of the BoM and conversations he had with Olive Osmond and the missionaries. hereis the link, but it costs $2.95 now to open it. I’ll email to you the copy/paste in Word I made of it. Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote the article.

  26. annegb on July 31, 2006 at 11:15 am

    I think it was Ned Flanders, or Jeff Lindsay on Mormanity (their blogs are both green) who did a paper making a hypothesis that Joseph Smith had plagarized Walt Whitman. Ned/Jeff got shot down because Walt Whitman was younger than Joseph Smith.

    I love Walt Whitman. I’m going to spend a good deal of time with him when I die.