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…”