By Natasha Helfer Parker
Is anal sex wrong? I asked my husband to do it with me once because I was curious about how it might feel. Since then, we’ve done it a few more times and I have enjoyed it about half the time, depending on my mood. But was I wrong to experiment this way? I have the same question about oral sex: I’ve heard one camp say that it’s not spiritually uplifting and therefore wrong, while the other says that once you’re married anything is game. So which is it?
I BEGAN RECEIVING questions like this on a regular basis from LDS Church members as soon as I began my blog “The Mormon Therapist” back in 2009. The sexual questions I received were so varied and numerous, I was motivated to earn my sex therapy accreditation.
Although I enjoy thinking through and formulating answers to these types of questions, I have often wondered why many within the LDS framework are willing to forfeit their personal, adult authority and gift of agency when it comes to approaching sexual decisions. Why would married partners treat their sexuality the same way it was treated when they were in their Young Men’s and Young Women’s programs: grasping after do’s and don’ts—safe and forbidden zones. Are we so trained to look toward the pulpit for direction that we forget our own capacity and right to choose sexual practices as a marital unit? Have we so deeply bought into the fear of the “natural man” lurking within that we become incapable of trusting our sexual instincts, knowledge, and appetites?
From our late Primary years we are bombarded with messages relating to modest dress, the evil influences of the world, the “sin” of masturbation, the dangers of pornography, and the idea that sexual sin (usually not qualified further) is second in severity only to murder. Although the principles behind the law of chastity can be quite beautiful and protective in nature, it seems that our approach to teaching sexual morality is influenced by so much angst and discomfort (on the part of parents, teachers, and overall Mormon and American culture) that it leaves many people unprepared to become sexually mature adults.
Indeed, who am I, even as a trained professional, to claim the type of authority it takes to answer questions that can significantly affect someone’s life and marriage? Even after all of my training, I am still full of personal biases and cultural blinders. Further, at what level should we give our ecclesiastical leaders (a body of largely white, American males with little to no evidence-based sexual training) carte blanche to issue sexual commands, advice, and parameters in the name of God—utterances that can often ignore the complex, individual experiences of the many members of the Church?
I have grown increasingly concerned about the types of sexual teachings being presented at firesides, standards nights, EFY conferences, and campus devotionals. More often than not they exacerbate shame and promote a fear-based approach to sexuality. I worry that these approaches produce unintended emotional consequences and potential for long-lasting dysfunction. I hope to explore some of these questions and their implications in future installments of this column.
As you read this and future columns, I hope you will be open to my thoughts and ideas, but I also hope you will be critical. I hope you will not give me (or anyone else, for that matter) more authority on sexual matters than you give yourself as you decide on your own interpretation of healthy sexuality.
NOW TO THE original question: What of anal and oral sex?
Mormon doctrine teaches that sexual intimacy between a husband and wife is a divine gift and necessary to emotional bonding. Sexual practice has therefore been left (for the most part) to the couple to negotiate. This is an authority I encourage couples in safe relationships to claim and explore together. However, LDS teachings also specifically mention that we should avoid “unnatural, impure, or unholy” practices.
How do we define which behaviors fall under these categories? Who gets to decide? Perhaps you recall the 1982 First Presidency letter addressed to stake presidencies and bishoprics stating that oral sex was considered an impure practice? You may also remember that it was rescinded three months later.
From my own studies and experience, I have come to believe that all types of sexual acts come with the potential for pleasure and pain; they demand physical and emotional risk as well as personal responsibility. My view is that all types of sexual interaction should be consensually negotiated between partners who are emotionally, intellectually, and physically capable of making healthy decisions.
But practices that may be healthy in one marriage may not be healthy in another. Individuals and couples—even those inhabiting the same religious structure—can differ dramatically about what they consider to be healthy or comfortable sexual behavior. Many of these decisions are based on personal style and taste, past traumas, body type, self-esteem, and sexual history.
One of the most difficult questions a couple may have to wrestle with is, what should be done when, due to comfort levels, sexual education, and personal bias, they each define healthy sexuality differently.
Here are some recommendations:
Being willing to explore new sexual practices in a way that makes both partners feel safe is one of the hallmarks of a healthy relationship. Such exploration allows for creativity, excitement, and fun. Though it may be a little frightening to try something new, you will often find that pushing past some initial discomfort will lead you to the discovery of a new pleasure. On the other hand, you may find that you have lost your taste for a practice you had once found pleasurable. Sexual navigation should be an ongoing journey.
Both oral and anal sex can be highly enjoyable for many people. They can foster a new level of excitement, intimacy, and togetherness. Studies have shown that oral sex is much more common than anal sex. (About 5-10% of sexually active women engage in receptive anal sex).1 The anus is tighter than the vagina and can therefore yield more tactile stimulation for the penis. The prostate gland in males and the Skene’s glands in females are often stimulated when there is anal penetration providing a pleasure that can mimic orgasm for both genders. There can exist certain social taboos against penetrating the anus, but understanding our anatomy can do much to alleviate unnecessary guilt or shame when pleasure is attained in this way.
Safe anal sex requires some precautions. The opening to the anus should be washed thoroughly, and a condom should be used to prevent the spread of germs. Lubrication should be used, and the receptor should be able to relax in order to help prevent tearing. One should not insert the penis into the vagina after anal sex without first removing or switching the condom. Stop immediately if there is tearing, pain, or other discomfort. Go slow and communicate often. Remember that STDs can be transferred via anal sex (as well as through vaginal intercourse and oral sex).
Being in a situation where one spouse is comfortable with certain behaviors but the other is not can be difficult. A couple may find that it becomes difficult to interact without feeling guilty, pressured, or cheated out of a particular experience. Manipulating or degrading a spouse should never be an option. I encourage couples to seek counseling from a therapist who is experienced in discussing sexual issues and who respects their values. It’s important to keep in mind that no one sexual act is going to make or break your marriage. Rather it will be the overall sexual health of the union that will contribute to (or detract from) the well-being and satisfaction of both partners.
It is my opinion that any sexual experience between spouses can be spiritually uplifting, as long as both are comfortable and enjoying one another. The sexual act physically binds a couple together in a way that separates it from all other types of relationships. It has the power to help us transform and transcend everyday life. Let’s not give other fallible humans the authority to make decisions regarding our most private, personal pleasure. Sex flourishes best when it is negotiated and shared within the bonds of intimacy and couplehood.