Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Don't stand so close to me: sexual tension in Mormon culture

I read this post about sexual tension with Mormon missionaries by the fascinating Maureen over at her blog. She wrote:
The sexual tension of a situation is massively heightened if you are a Mormon. Every glance, every brush of skin (or clothes) sends thrills through the body and paralyses the mind. Pretty exciting stuff really; just like the scene in 'Pride and Prejudice' where Mr. Darcy offers his hand to Elizabeth Bennet as she goes to climb into the carriage and then as he walks away there is a shot of him flexing his hand as though the thrill of their touch is still coursing though him. Being Mormon can be like that. It is hard to be friends with someone of the opposite sex because you are told that you should not ever be alone with a man (or a man alone with a woman) because you might end up having sex with them; the temptation would be too great! apparently. Sooooo, this kind of precludes friendship (or any serious friendship) with someone of the opposite sex.
I never actually felt this very much, except on my mission, and even there I think my general slowness at understanding social situations probably kept me from noticing it a lot of times.

One time I did notice was when a girl about my age from our English class who'd only spoken formal Japanese to me suddenly spoke informally. That was pretty exciting. "Whoa, she's totally flirting with me!" It was kind of a funny situation with her, because we both had pretty massive crushes on each other, but fortunately for my missionary-ness, they didn't happen at the same time. I think I was kind of mostly over her by the time she started liking me.

Another time, we missionaries somehow ended up at some gathering or other at the local Catholic church, and there was this girl sitting across the room from me who kept glancing my way. She was wearing a short skirt and after she saw me glance back at her she kind of turned in her seat so her legs were pointed in my direction. And I remember thinking, "Hey, if she isn't careful, I'll end up looking right up her skirt." And a minute later, "Whoops! Blue panties!" I didn't look over there again for the rest of the night, but I wished there was someone who could tell that poor girl to sit more carefully so guys couldn't look up her skirt anymore. It wasn't until a couple weeks later that it occurred to me that she'd actually done it on purpose. (Probably. See what I mean? I'm still not sure.)

So yeah, I probably missed a lot of missionary sexual tension just through general social cluelessness. And after my mission as well, I was never really that susceptible to Mormon sexual tensions. I suppose it's because I was a convert, so the non-sexual company of the opposite sex seemed completely normal to me. And, as someone to whom monogamy is by no means a natural condition, I felt like I was often working hard to not cheat (successfully -- so far -- I might add), so the idea of somehow "accidentally" giving in to temptation seemed very strange to me. My philosophy was that people have sex with each other because they decide to, not because they're alone with each other and can't help themselves.

But there were a few times when I was on the other end of it. One time was when I was living in Japan and I shaved my head. This was in the early '90s, when shaved heads were still fairly rare even in America (at least among white people), and almost never seen in Japan. So one day after church, my wife's (married) best friend asked if she could touch my head, since she'd only ever seen a shaved head on TV. So I said sure, and she gave it a little rub and then she was like, "Ooh!" and she kind of got into it a little bit and give it a good stroking.* And I was kind of enjoying it too. But then she said, "Oops, I probably shouldn't be touching another man this much!" I thought that was really funny, and she got a bit of a guilty giggle out of it too, so that was actually a positive experience.

But there was another incident that made me feel pretty bad. It was after I'd left Japan and moved to Oregon. There was a (married) woman from Southern California in my ward. I'd enjoyed chatting with her for a couple minutes a few times. I wasn't pursuing her or cultivating her or anything like that. (I wasn't even particularly attracted to her.) It was just that she reminded me of the girls I'd grown up around in San Diego, so talking to her felt like a little bit of home. I liked talking to her, is all.

Well, one day we were talking in the hallway after church and both having a good time when suddenly her expression changed and she said she had to go and she rushed off. She almost literally ran away from me. And that took me aback. It was a completely innocuous conversation. I'd said nothing remotely offensive, and there was absolutely no flirtation (or head rubbing) or anything like that involved on either side, but I recognized fairly quickly what had happened: she'd suddenly realized that she was attracted to me, or at least that she was enjoying my company.

And that, to Mormons, is forbidden territory. Simply enjoying the company of a member of the opposite sex for a few minutes is The First Step On The Road To Adultery. So when she realized what was happening, she just ran off. It hurt my feelings a little bit. Why couldn't we just have a friendly conversation? I had no designs on her, and she had none on me. We were just enjoying a little chat. It seemed so stupid. But I supposed it wasn't really her fault. She was a lifelong Mormon, so she'd grown up with crazy ideas like the ones Maureen discussed. Anyway, we never chatted like that again.

*That's what she said.

And hey, here's some music.

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  1. Kuri, I help run a community theatre in the middle of mordor. We have a director who will not cast non married people in rolls where there is intimacy (kissing, pretend marriage, or courting) because it could lead to infidelity. For some reason she feels that it is our job to be the gate keeper of all marriages. She will also avoid pairing single boys and girls or men and women if they are of mission age to not perpetuate a situation that would lead to immorality.

  2. Mormons really do take this to extremes. One Sunday I substituted teaching for my son in primary because he was sick. His teaching partner was a man in his early 20s recently returned from a mission. After sharing time they sent HIM to adult sunday school and left me to wrangle the entire large class because it wouldn't have been proper to have him in a classroom with an old 40-something married woman and a bunch of kids. Something improper may have happened! Such a bunch of shit.

  3. curmudgeon,
    I remember discussing once in a forum whether it was wrong to put on a stake play that had the leads kiss (just one little kiss, not making out or anything). Most of us were fairly open-minded for Mormons, so the general consensus was that they could a) let the leads kiss if they were single or b) fake it if one or both were married to other people, but there were a few people who were adamantly against doing that play at all.

  4. JZ,
    It's just ofensive sometimes in what it implies about people.

  5. It's really weird to think that people can't just enjoy being attracted to someone and not trust themselves not to act on it. Attraction and arousal are common, healthy biological functions. It's just part of being a sexual being. And, it seems like you'd be missing out on the enjoyment of getting turned on by random people then going home and ravaging your spouse! Enjoying another person's company or body doesn't mean you're going to cheat.

  6. Jesus said even thinking about sex with someone is the same as actually having sex with them, so, even though IME sensible Mormons are able to tell that there's a huge difference between imaginary adultery and real adultery (unless porn is involved; then all common sense may be lost), I guess they have to pretend to believe it. Or at least feel guilty about it. Or something.


What do you think?