Faith Demoting Rumors and Mormon Sexual Urban Legends

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. 

36 comments for “Faith Demoting Rumors and Mormon Sexual Urban Legends

  1. 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

    A good rule to apply to a quarter of the posts and half the comments in the world of LDS blogs.

    In any case, this is a great post. It’s just depressing how many people are perfectly willing to repeat wildly untrue things, and how eagerly some otherwise intelligent people will lap it up.

  2. I agree with you. This falls into the same category of the D&D panic of the early 1980s (everyone who played were indoctrinated into Satanic cults) or the “Rainbow parties” panic caused by Oprah Winfrey (I won’t go into too much explicit detail, but it was alleged in throughout the 1990s teenagers were engaging in oral sex and the males would marked their penises with the lipstick of the girls they were with – of course this was not happening).

    There are perhaps those engaging in soaking (after all, if you can think it, someone has probably done it), but you are correct, there is almost no chance that this is a widespread practice.

  3. “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.”

    That’s my experience in a nutshell. On occasion I’ll read something that comes across as a bulwark of questionable stories about things that happen in the church. And I’ll think to myself: that’s not my experience at all! And I’m left to conclude that they must be pitting their experience with some narrow latter-day saint niche against the larger world of the church.

  4. Interesting side story about bad food, not chewed gum. I married my wife, long story short, after we had known each other for 7 years with an interregnum where she was married and divorced while I was on a mission. The visiting teachers came by with essentially the lesson about dirty and soiled food being unworthy to eat. They offered me a piece. Revelation told me to eat it. The young woman was horrified. But the idea was that I signified to my wife that I was unconcerned about her sexual past, and I was. (There was never a more chaste woman in all of history.) I am so glad I ate that cupcake.

  5. RSW, I don’t understand. They taught that lesson to a married couple? It’s difficult enough for singles–but a married couple? I sometimes wonder if we really believe in the atonement.

  6. As to Jack’s comment about whether we believe in the atonement:

    I joined the Church at age 22 and served a mission in Taiwan after I got out of the Air Force. My pre-Church background was Evangelical Protestant. I believed in grace (still do). But when I made comments about grace, a lot of my fellow missionaries got upset and said, Elder ——-, we don’t believe that stuff. Fortunately, my Mission President backed me up, and said, Elder ——— is right,

    I think things are better now, but there is something in Mormon culture that believes we are saved by our works, and that the concept of grace is Protestant heresy.

    And the atonement covers the alleged practice of soaking. There are far worse sins than violating the law of chastity, despite what some Church leaders say.

  7. @Jonathan: Yeah, I’ve come to a place where I realize the different versions of Mormonism that are portrayed online are so radically different we have to just trust in people’s discernment.

    @Jason: Sometimes life does imitate art, in response to rumors that they were putting satanic messages into their music when played backwards, some bands actually started doing so (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backmasking).

    ?Jack: Bingo, of course our own experiences are niche, but sometimes they just sound off given our generalized knowledge about the Church.

    RSW: ?I actually have heard that one several times, but the poop in the brownie lesson was always framed as “you wouldn’t eat a brownie with just a little poop, so don’t watch a movie with just a little nudity,” or something like that. If they intended to frame it as your wife being the poopie brownie that was out of this universe inappropriate, and they are the poopie brownie ;)

    ?Taiwan Missionary: I agree about the grace hangups we have; I’m sure I’m not telling anyone anything new, but Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ has an excellent theological take down of that problem.

  8. I got the chewed gum lesson, albeit during a student-led devotional in Seminary. And Elizabeth Smart got that lesson, and your dismissal of it feels an awful lot like dismissing her experience dealing with its implications after her rescue.

    And the Layton swingers are not an urban legend. What they were doing (“light” swinging) seems like it came straight out of the “soaking” playbook, as bizarre as that may be. This kind of stuff needs to be confronted head on, not swept under the rug as an one-off anomaly.

  9. I don’t know anything about Layton or tennis rackets or “soaking” and I can’t imagine how anyone could come up with (or believe) the idea that the practice described is some sort of approved loophole. If you’re going to seduce a BYU student with something that makes no sense, wouldn’t it be simpler to just say that it doesn’t count if you do it on a Tuesday? And if you elevate the bed, wouldn’t both… Never mind, I definitely don’t want to know.

    In my day, the story was that some large number of BYU couples would drive down to Las Vegas, get married, have their fun, and then get an immediate annulment and drive back to Provo, supposedly having never run afoul of the law of chastity. Again, I couldn’t be sure that it never happened, but the idea that it was common practice seems preposterous. But at least the Las Vegas loophole makes some sense with regard to actual church teachings.

  10. Taiwan Missionary, I’m a firm believer in grace. It’s one of the central themes of the Book of Mormon. I’m also a firm believer in the transformative power of the atonement–which is also a powerful doctrine taught in the BoM. And I think where we (latter-day saints) get mixed up is when we confuse the doctrine of grace as taught in the BoM with that which is espoused by many of our Christian friends–the latter being powerful enough (as they believe) to handle the transformational aspects of the gospel without any input on our part.

    While it’s clear (to me) that we’re saved be grace–it’s also evident that the Lord leads us from grace to grace as fast as we’re able to bear it. Be he won’t take us any faster than we have strength because then the process becomes coercive. And so we must be willing to stretch a bit in order to receive more of his grace and continue forward in the process of sanctification. And so the fact that grace is a gift doesn’t mean that we’re not active partners in receiving its benefits.

    Re: There are far worse sins than violating the law of chastity: I think that depends on how we contextualize it. It could very well be that a particular act–in and of itself–is far less sinful in one context than it is in another. And it seems to me that breaking the Law of Chastity often has a way of partnering with other sins in order to bring about its full effect. An act of infidelity that leads to the destruction of a family is a heinous sin, IMO. Or the abuse of a child–or the rape of a woman. IMO, these violations are nigh unto murder. And as is obvious, the reason they’re so serious is because of the way they coercively work upon the hearts, minds, and bodies, of the victim(s). It is the true sin of Sodom.

    That said, I agree that when (say) two youngsters violate the LoC because of the weakness of the flesh that that’s in a different class altogether. It’s still serious enough that it needs to be dealt with appropriately–but typically our local leaders are very patient and understanding as they help folks (especially young people) through those kinds of transgressions.

  11. Stephen, just to be clear I was speaking of something like an “ExMo” niche where someone might spend enough time to get familiar with the lingo and culture–and then spew forth a litany of falsehoods based on that indoctrination.

    I’ve seen this happen a few times on the blogs–and invariably what they have to say never matches my experience in the church.

  12. Latter Day Saints have been taught (forever) to be a peculiar people………many times we’re just plain weird; and extremely hung up about everything sexual.

  13. When you mentioned the Gorilla Experiment I knew precisely what you were referencing. Bart D. Erhman in his book ‘Jesus Before the Gospels’ which talks about how human memory works, which supports the OP comments about how memory works. In that book Bart refers to and discusses the gorilla experiment. Many of the urban legends probably have a kernel of truth, but as they get retold they can start to take on a new life of their own.

  14. Where are these people who don’t have any sexual hangups, LHL? It seems to be a universal human trait. And it’s not okay at all to distort other peoples’ hangups or represent them inaccurately. Being peculiar in some ways doesn’t mean it’s okay to tell lies about us.

  15. The YW president in my ward in 2016 in MA taught the chewed gum lesson to all the young women. That one definitely isn’t an urban legend. Plenty of women can attest to that. The young women’s personal progress book for a long-time had a reference to the Moroni scripture where women were raped as a reference for virtue, even though it’s impossible to lose your virtue through rape. For those who argue a different interpretation, the same personal progress section defined virtue as sexual purity.

  16. Left Field: The tennis racquet story held that there was a prostitution ring being run out of the dorms, and they would signal their availability by putting a tennis racquet in the window. Like with all these, maybe at some point…

    I do think the drive down to LV thing I think is somewhat more plausible since one could argue that that is an actual technical, letter of the law loophole in ways that soaking isn’t.

    Last Lemming: the soft swinging wasn’t discussed as an urban legend, it was discussed as an example of how people get more clicks if they attach “Mormon” to their prurient content.

    As far as the chewed up gum lesson, I want to avoid getting into some back and forth about specifics. You believe what you believe based on your front row experience, and I believe what I believe based on my own front row experience. While I’m sure the gum lesson was taught at some point I just don’t think it was as ubiquitous as some make it out to be.

    LHL: I second Jonathan on this. Also, for most people sex is strongly emotional and powerful, so it’s going to embed our lives with tension in a myriad different ways, and that’s fine, I might be wrong but when people talk about sexual preoccupations of conservative religionists or sexual hangups I get the sense they’re implicitly contrasting it with some Spock the Vulcan, logic based upbringing where everybody walks around masturbatorially satiated all the time and the sex impulse is systematically isolated from the rest of life, but that has its own problems and frankly seems like a rather bland and unappealing life.

    @Raymond: I obviously don’t agree with Dr. Ehrman on a lot, but I do enjoy how he pulls from various disciplines (in this case, social psychology) to make his point, something more scholars should do.

  17. @Mary: Oh, there are definitely issues with how sex has been taught in the past, I won’t argue with that. Big picture though I get the sense these examples were rare relative to the entire corpus of chastity lessons we who grew up in the Church received (unless you think the Church’s approach to premarital sex is fundamentally problematic, but that’s a separate issue). My point is that people get exposed to the occasional abhorrent teaching, then the leave the Church, then discussions about their upbringing with kindred spirits magnify the salience of these teachings in their memories, then their perceptions about their past are changed so that their YM/YW experience was all about sticks of gums, women jumping out of cars to not get raped to preserve their virtue (actually did hear that one), etc. I’m not claiming this is something just ex-Mormons do, this is a cognitive bias we all live with.

  18. @Stephen, I agree that everyone has their biases and what you described most definitely happens. I don’t know that there can be a reliable description of how rare or occasional something is without data. While the chewed gum lesson isn’t in the church’s official curriculum, the fact that it happened in a fairly liberal ward only 6 years ago is disturbing. The YW president who taught this was a mainstream faithful conservative woman, much like many good LDS women. This is a small piece of evidence that the church is not doing enough to counter and repudiate abhorrent teachings.

    An example of this is the church removing the Moroni scripture from the online personal progress curriculum and issuing no statement or mention of it, leaving every young woman and leader with a physical copy of the book to equate rape with a lack of virtue.

    But I understand your main post and sympathize with your frustration at the media’s weird obsession with only certain religious subcultures in America. I have rarely or probably never seen a liberal mainstream media article or production investigating Islamic sexuality for example.

  19. @Mary: And FWIW, as much as I sometime come off as kicking against the ProgMo pricks here, the Moroni scripture travesty is an example where more ideological diversity in the Curriculum Department would help; a ProgMo would have picked up on the problematic nature of that passage (or tearing down pioneer artwork, the list goes on…) in two seconds.

  20. Just realized that “kicking against the ProgMo pricks” could be misinterpreted. Hopefully you all get the scripture reference and know what I mean.

  21. @Stephen, thank you for those comments. I do really wish the church, and world in general, would leverage everyone’s strengths and unique perspectives. Frankly, there really is no good substitute for representation when creating doctrines, policies, curriculum or what have you for large groups of people. Everyone needs a seat at the table.

  22. Here’s the question I have: As much as I don’t care for the chewed gum analogy–is it possible that the sister in question felt good about sharing it at that particular time and place?

    One of the uncomfortable possibilities we have to be open to is–if this is a living church (in that the Holy Ghost is operative in its workings–generally speaking at least) then it’s quite possible that on occasion a leader or even a rank and file member will do something that seems rather counterintuitive to our personal religious sensibilities and yet be doing the right thing as per the revelation they’re entitled to because of their stewardship.

  23. Except that the “chewed gum” analogy explicitly denies the reality of the atonement. Assuming that revelation from the Holy Ghost does not, in fact, deny the power of Christ’s sacrifice, then we must conclude that anyone using this idea to convince Mormon youth to live a chaste life are doing so using extremely flawed concepts while teaching erroneous doctrine to those over whom they have stewardship.

    I would also suggest that Stephen is dismissing and marginalizing the experiences of others simply because he has not had similar experiences. His narrow set of experiences is no different in scope than others, yet he privileges those as correct–or at least more believable.

    Finally, it is not exclusively former members of the Church who recount the problematic framing of discussions of chastity, despite the implications in several of the comments. Again, this approach ignores those who remain part of the Church yet have not had the kind of experience–whether on this particular issue or others–that the commentators have had in their lives. Mourn with those who mourn rather than discounting differences of experience.

  24. Of course the OP never personally had a lesson on chewed gum; he’s a man. Honestly, congratulations to you for saying I don’t listen to women without saying I don’t listen to women. That lesson was everywhere.

    And Jack, no. No leader was inspired to compare a human being, a child of God, to garbage. The fact that I have to write this just blows my mind.

    And Mary is right. More diversity would go a long way in fixing these problems.

  25. Chadwick, as I say, I don’t like the analogy. But on the other hand we have to be careful not to judge others as being uninspired, uninformed, or just stupid, because they may say things that offend our personal religious sensibilities.

    Can anyone here tell me that they *know* that the young women’s leader who used that analogy was wrong to do so? That they know that she was *not* inspired in that particular instance? Now I can say that I’m doubtful that she was. But I can’t say that I know there wasn’t someone there who (for some reason that I don’t understand) needed to here it.

    We also have to be careful not to dismiss these kinds of silly analogies out of hand simply because they don’t hold together theologically. Theology be damned when it gets in the way of saving souls. I’d rather hear some ridiculous story about the prophet in the elevator — if there’s a meaningful nugget of truth in it — than a perfect recitation of gospel facts that has no immediate application to the lives of the listeners.

    As to the meaning of the analogy at hand: that’s one way to interpret it, Chad. And I agree that it can be damaging. But who knows but what there may have been a listener who *did* feel that way about herself–and somehow after hearing the lesson in its entirety was able put 2+2 together and came to the conclusion that she didn’t have to go on feeling that way about herself. It’s been my experience — when I’ve heard talks, lessons, or discussions, on this theme — that in the end there is usually some heartfelt mention of the Lord’s atonement and the possibility of repentance and restoration.

    So, as I say, I don’t want to defend that analogy per se. But I do want to defend the fact that the Lord (generally) justifies his servants–even at those times when they can be a little too seedy for those of us whose religious sensibilities are a bit on the highbrow side of the spectrum.

  26. Jack, I understand you don’t want to judge others. But you can judge people’s actions and words as wrong without judging them. This particular leader was uninformed. I was in the presidency with her. I was horrified when I heard her giving the lesson. I didn’t feel the spirit at all and was extremely concerned about how this lesson would affect the girls’ self worth.

    The gum analogy makes women into consumable objects that men derive pleasure from and then throw away. That rhetoric is damaging and ungodly. Women are human beings with divine worth. Sex isn’t something that is acted out on a woman without her agency (that’s rape), shouldn’t dehumanize women, and involves two agents (not one agent and one object). The leader, although well-meaning, was objectifying women. How is that inspired? Also if we follow this analogy, when women are married they will also be chewed gum, but their husband will be so happy because he was the first one who got to “chew” them. Unbelievable.

    I know she was uninformed because after the lesson, I immediately wrote a kind yet direct email explaining the issues with the analogy. Instead of address my concerns directly. She went behind my back to talk to the other counselor and asked if she had conveyed a bad message with her lesson. The other counselor brought up Elizabeth Smart’s points about lessons like these. Then the president hastily put out a fb message on the young women’s page about the atonement but didn’t take back any of the damaging things she’d taught by using the analogy.

    I want to emphasize that this president was a loving good woman. But she was grossly uninformed, hadn’t thought about what her lesson would convey, and then didn’t address the problems with it afterwards. I suppose all these actions could have been inspired, but I really don’t believe they were.

  27. Thanks for the response, Mary. My instinct is to trust your judgment with regard to that specific situation because of your intimate connections with the people involved.

    Even so, I’m reminded of a story that my wife’s cousin told us many years ago. She had a companion who liked to do this little trick to help her decide where to go tracting. She’d close her eyes a let her finger fall randomly on a map of the area where they were serving–and that’s where they’d go. Well that was a bit too superstitious for my wife’s cousin’s way of doing things. But somehow her companion talked her into giving it a try–and so she (my wife’s cousin) did the same trick with the map. And if I remember correctly she did it with the intent to prove how silly the whole idea was. But when they got to the area she had pointed out they were invited into the very first house they tracted–and that person was baptized shortly thereafter.

    My wife’s cousin remains a natural skeptic to this day. But even so, that seemed to be a lesson that was especially packaged for her. And I think it’s a lesson that we can all take to heart when we doubt how far the Lord is willing to condescend in working with his servants.

    Of course, that’s not to say that the Lord approves of everything we do willy-nilly–and certainly the brethren have had to send out little correctives every now and again. But even so, where there’s genuine faith and concern the Lord will work with his people even when their methods may seem a bit hackneyed or seedy–or even lacking in sensitivity.

  28. Thank you, Chadwick, for some sanity. I have stewed about Stephen C.’s and Jack’s totally arrogant remarks for two days.
    Stephen C.: “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.”
    Jack: “That’s my experience in a nutshell. On occasion I’ll read something that comes across as a bulwark of questionable stories about things that happen in the church. And I’ll think to myself: that’s not my experience at all! And I’m left to conclude that they must be pitting their experience with some narrow latter-day saint niche against the larger world of the church.”
    You, MEN (one-half the population), and only two out of millions of Latter-day Saints, claim that “I never experienced it and thus it never (or only rarely) happened.” What smugness! And Stephen C. is a professor???

  29. I think I’m going to regret this, and I don’t mean to keep going back and forth here, but I just wanted to make a final point. My words are being misconstrued as saying “well, I never saw it so it since my perspective is privileged it must not have been a thing!” So to be more precise: yes, I am one person, but if I’m sitting in class every week over about a thousand Sundays in my youth and I don’t hear it (neither did my wife, by the way), in the bastion of cultural Mormonism (1990s/2000s Orem), then yes, that puts a probabilistic floor on just how widespread it is.

    To take an extreme example, yes it could have been taught in every class I was not in every Sunday, but the chance of this is infinitesimally small. It sounds like it’s an occasional thing that’s taught, but if it was standard, you would expect across one thousand Sunday school lessons I would have been exposed to it not only once, but probably multiple times, like Joseph in Egypt or, say, the armor of God object lesson. That’s all I’m saying.

  30. Ditto what Stephen said–and I’m guessing that I’m at least 20 years older than he is.

    Now that’s not to say that I haven’t heard some goofy things in my time–of course I have. And some of the goofiest stuff I’ve heard has been in priesthood meetings. So we *men* are not immune to this sort of thing. But even so, it’s typically rare–most members do a pretty-good job keeping things straightforward and sane.

  31. I suspect there’s a very simple reason why Stephen C, Jack, and myself have never actually heard the chewing gum lesson in church: my impression is that it has been taught almost exclusively in Young Women’s classes. (Granted, that would not explain why Stephen C’s wife has never heard it.) Now why would it be mostly taught in Young Women’s classes, given that the Lord’s standard for chastity is the same for men and women? Simple: the chewing gum lesson isn’t really about the Lord’s standard for chastity. It’s about the old, old cultural belief that a women who engages in extramarital sex is ruined forever (while a man is not).

    The lesson draws its power from the disgust reaction, one of the most primitive and visceral emotions. It tells a young woman that if she has sex before marriage she’ll be like chewed-up gum: used, ruined, disgusting. Any good person will be repulsed by her. She will be cast out of polite society. It’s the moral code of The Scarlet Letter or Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

    Do we believe that? Even that it’s true until she repents? If a young woman comes to a bishop to confess a sexual transgression, will he have to suppress his revulsion to shake her hand before inviting her into his office? Of course not. (It helps that the bishop probably never heard the chewing gum lesson in his formative years.) That young woman is still a daughter of Heavenly Parents with undamaged potential, who just needs some help getting back on the path towards it.

    Jack, I appreciate the grace you’ve extended to those who have taught this lesson. I’m sure they meant well too. But I will say that I am sure no one was inspired to give that lesson, because it is *false* and God is a God of truth and does not lie or inspire people to teach lies. By all means let’s teach the law of chastity clearly, including the consequences of violating it. But let’s teach the true consequences, not false consequences rooted in misogynistic traditions of our fathers which are not correct.

  32. I appreciate the post.
    I’m remember my first Elders Quorum lesson at BYU, where were told about the getting married in Vegas and then divorcing the next day scheme. I wasn’t given the impression that it was common, just that doing so is breaking the Law of Chastity, so if you think of doing that, you’re not that smart nor original, so don’t do it.
    Years later, during my senior year at BYU in ward council the Bishop had brought up one of these sexual urban legends. He was told that BYU-I was having a problem where guys would convince girls that they should get naked together, check each other out, but not touch. They would do this as a prerequisite to engagement. The Bishop wanted to know if we were aware of anyone doing this. After a moment of silence, to break up the awkward tension in the room I said, “Wait, that works?” The Bishop then instructed my co-chair to smack me on the side of the head, which she promptly did. After that everyone said that that was their first time of hearing of that “practice”.

  33. Just to add some fuel to the fire–my wife of 34 years never heard of the chewed gum analogy until I asked her about it (just moments ago). Also, I have five daughters–all of whom are adults–and the two that I’ve been able to talk with thus far (about the analogy) have never heard it taught in church either as young women or young adults–though they were familiar with the analogy.

    RLD, I agree generally with what you say about the Lord not inspiring anyone to teach a falsehood. I’d just be careful not to get caught by the assumption (however latent) that anything that challenges our personal religious sensibilities must be false and therefore uninspired.

  34. Jack, there’s a difference between challenging religious sensibilities and teaching false doctrine, and analogies that compare sin to irreparable flaws are clearly false doctrine. The idea that the Holy Ghost is going to inspire someone to teach false doctrine is just a non-starter. Another version is the comparison of sin to pounding a nail into a board; repentance pulls the nail, but it still leaves a hole. My father mentioned having heard this story, and also the correction: forgiveness is more like being given a new board.

    But I don’t see that a lifetime of lessons about the atonement would be undone by one bad lesson. If you’ve ever taught in any capacity, you will hopefully understand that not every lesson you teach turns out well and not every answer you come up with spontaneously is brilliant. Just as I hope I won’t be judged as a teacher for my worst moments, I don’t think it makes sense to generalize what the church teaches based on a bad analogy that some people heard once during adolescence.

  35. I’m encouraged by the number of people saying they’ve never heard the chewing gum lesson taught in Church. That’s great, though it’s interesting that most people are aware of it. I suspect it’s more popular in Evangelical “purity culture” and that may be the source of a lot of people’s awareness. Still, we know it has been taught in our Church, and that it has done significant damage to some individuals.

    You’re right, Jack, that we shouldn’t reject everything that offends our sensibilities. A lot of those sensibilities are cultural rather that Gospel-based. On the other hand, we shouldn’t dismiss the sensibilities of others. In particular, if we’re teaching, we should be aware of the sensibilities of our audience. I think a teacher who asked themselves “How will this lesson make a young woman who has committed sexual sin feel?” would realize it was far more likely it would make them give up rather than repent–that’s what it did to Elizabeth Smart, and she didn’t actually commit sexual sin. Similarly, it’s worth going through a talk or lesson and asking “How will this make someone with an anxiety disorder feel?” “How will this make a couple who is struggling with fertility feel?” etc. I know someone who is struggling to heal from childhood abuse who cannot stand to sing “I am a Child of God” right now because she was not given “parents kind and dear.” We won’t catch everything and sometimes will hurt people without realizing it, but if we try the Holy Ghost will help.

  36. Thanks, Jonathan and RLD for your responses.

    ***

    Jonathan:

    “Jack, there’s a difference between challenging religious sensibilities and teaching false doctrine…”

    I agree–but we can’t always tell the difference because of what we bring to the discussion.

    “…and analogies that compare sin to irreparable flaws are clearly false doctrine.”

    Again, I agree–and that’s why I don’t like the chewed gum analogy. But then again, all the teacher would have to do is present a new piece of gum — like your dad’s new board — to demonstrate the power of the atonement. But even so, I would still find the analogy off-putting. It’s just plain gross.

    “But I don’t see that a lifetime of lessons about the atonement would be undone by one bad lesson.”

    I absolutely agree with this. And that’s one of the reasons I get a little frustrated with folks who pass these stories around like memes in order prove how bobbleheaded the Latter-day Saints are. Sure we have our moments–but generally speaking we’re much better than all of that nonsense.

    ***

    RLD, I agree–it really comes down to the teacher doing her best to be sensitive to the needs of her flock. But even after she’s done her best there will be some of us who’ll feel that the lesson has passed us over–and hopefully we’ll be able to recognize how our own challenges color the situation and not blame the teacher. As one who suffers from severe depression and anxiety I’ve had to learn something about balancing the reality of my limitations with the counsel and instruction we receive through faithful leaders and teachers.

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