This last semester I taught a class on sexuality and statistics (the Chair’s idea, not mine, but it turned out) at Catholic University of America, which is the closest thing to a Catholic BYU since it is directly owned and managed by the US Catholic Church.
Trying to be a good university citizen, I carved out some space on the last day to address sexuality from a big picture, Catholic theological angle and had come prepared to discuss Humanae Vitae, basically their version of a First Presidency Statement that solidified the Catholic Church’s theology on sexuality and reproduction, including birth control.
However, we hadn’t gone too far into the discussion when one of my students, probably emboldened by it being the last day, took the opportunity to ask about the Mormon sexual practice of “soaking.” For those of you who missed that day in seminary, “soaking” evidently consists of a couple and a helper trying to circumvent chastity regulations by engaging in intercourse, with the helper under the bed pushing it upwards, thus facilitating the act of intercourse without any movement on the part of the participants.
After the one student mentioned it several other students’ chimed in saying that they too had heard about this on Tik Tok; furthermore, some had ex-Mormon friends who swore that they themselves had engaged in soaking when they were members (the “friend” or “friend of a friend” pattern should sound similar to other urban legends).
I was a bit stunned, having never heard about this before, and I considered myself fairly knowledgable about Mormon sexual urban legends (“oral is moral,” tennis racquets in windows, etc.). It was one of those, “well, I can’t be 100% sure that’s never happened, but I’m pretty dang sure that’s a bunch of hooey.” When I got home I texted a friend who’s more knowledgeable about the Tik Tok world than I and asked him about this (with his permission):
“Soaking” is a spiteful meme bigoted ExMo TikTokers came up with to defame Mormons as sexually-repressed weirdos.
It’s the ExMo version of the old canard: “Did you know Joos do it through a sheet??”
Basically, and keeping it PG-13, “soaking” is the alleged phenomenon of a man inserting himself into a woman but not thrusting, thereby somehow subverting the prohibition on premarital sex.
It’s a baseless urban legend that horny freshmen at BYU sometimes snicker about but that’s it. However, thanks to the nightmare clown world we live in, ExMos on TikTok have memed it into existence so now you’d be forgiven for thinking this is something Mormons actually do.
But rest assured: it is the offspring of the same species of bigotry that gives us “Jews do it through a sheet” and “Amish are only allowed to do it in the dark.”
The obsession people have with BYU students sex lives (or lack thereof), is creepy
Why do I bring this up?
First of all, this is another data point that confirms that people have a prurient interest in Mormon sexuality; it has always been thus, whether early political cartoons of Brigham Young’s bed or the first Sherlock Holmes story being about Brighamites hunting down a plural wife. While early on this was probably due to the tensions between Victorian American society and plural marriage, kind of a Great Basin version of the exotic seraglio fantasy, now I think it has to do with the paradox of combining the edgy with the chaste, a Latter-day Saint version of the nun fantasy. I suspect this is why the Layton swingers got much more attention than, say, the New York or San Francisco swingers would. There’s some switch in homo sapiens that finds the tension between the chaste and edgy combination interesting or perhaps titillating. It also provides a sense of self-aggrandizing moral superiority, Ha, look at those silly religious hypocrites. Consequently, as long as we as Latter-day Saints are sexually distinctive, sexual content with the Mormon label somehow attached to it will probably get more clicks than otherwise, and we just kind of have to live with this exploitation of our norms.
Second, this was an interesting example of the faith demoting rumor phenomena I’ve noticed more and more. Like its counterpart the faith promoting rumor, some belief, maybe based on a kernel of truth, maybe not, gets it start in some miscommunication or fabrication and then, because there is a desire to magnify and spread it, it takes off and becomes widely believed or even conventional wisdom. Whereas previously rumors and urban legends spread slowly by word of mouth after ward prayer, these new “memes” (in its proper sense) spread much faster thanks to social media.
Some rumors might have a basis in truth, but for people whose main engagement with the faith for years has consisted of exMormon Reddit or this or that Facebook group, the salience or frequency of these can get blown way beyond reality (case in point, while I’m sure somebody at some point has taken anti-Mormon books out of the BYU library, I’ve read many a anti-Mormon book in the BX section of the HBLL; to be honest, just how warped these perceptions can get didn’t really hit me until I watched Under the Banner of Heaven).
This happens both with external perceptions as well as people’s own recalled experiences. Given our current understanding of how malleable our memories are, and how easy it is to form fake memories, in the exact same way historians are more skeptical of later-hand than contemporaneous sources (for example, the stories about Brigham Young changing to look like Joseph Smith), I too am more skeptical about people’s accounts many years after the fact, especially if they fit a little too pat with the narrative they’ve been marinating in in the meantime. A fun social psychology experiment I sometimes play with my students is the gorilla experiment, I won’t spoil it here, but suffice it to say that it’s a stunning example of how we see what we want to see and are focused on.
I’ve never heard anybody sincerely say that BYU is the Harvard of the West, I never got the chewed up gum chastity lesson, etc.. That is not to say these don’t happen, but I retain the right to be personally skeptical when somebody portrays these practices or beliefs as being ubiquitous at the same time and place I grew up when I never saw any evidence of it. In a way it’s the antagonist version of the sweet old sister who swears on her life that the three Nephites helped her fix her flat tire: I can be skeptical without doubting her sincerity.
Of course, like “soaking,” or angelic assistants, I can’t prove the negative, that it’s not a thing in some weird corner of Mormondom, I can’t show evidence for its non-existence to meet some kind of evidentiary standard in a courtroom, but when a certain depiction or portrayal seems off with your experience or knowledge you don’t have to personally buy it, and that’s okay.