Mormons have no shortage of sexual sins they can commit: pornography, masturbation, premarital sex, extramarital sex, unwholesome thoughts, and even depending on who you ask, possibly oral sex, anal sex, and anything else but vaginal intercourse, even between a married couple. If you’re not married, anything sexual at all is a sin. Making out too heavily might even be a sexual sin. The justification for all of these proscriptions is that in the Mormon worldview, sex is a critically important gift given by Heavenly Father to serve the goals of cementing family relationships and providing bodies for Heavenly Father’s spirit children. As it is so intimately connected with bringing about Heavenly Father’s work and glory, it is treated with the utmost seriousness, and for Mormonism that usually means “a lot of rules.” Mormonism isn’t anti-sex the way some segments of Christianity have traditionally been, since Mormonism does not hod that the body is evil but a necessary component in Heavenly Father’s plan. Nevertheless, sex in Mormonism is pretty tightly straitjacketed.
Part of the process of leaving Mormonism for me was figuring out what my values are, and what behaviors I think are okay and what are not, independently of Mormon teachings. I was lucky in that I always had a strong internal sense of moral reasoning: my personal values were informed by my Mormonism, but they were never dependent upon my Mormonism. They were sufficiently independent that, with Mormonism gone, my core values essentially remained strong and intact.
What went out the window, however, were all of the rules. As a non-Mormon, I have absolutely no reason to follow a bunch of restrictive and often arbitrary commandments.
In terms of sex, leaving Mormonism (retaining my principles but feeling free to discard the rules) had very little immediate practical impact. One of the values I hold most highly is marital fidelity, and I am married to a beautiful and sexy woman. Most of Mormonism’s sexual rules either did not apply to me as a married person (like “no premarital sex”), I paid little enough attention to anyway (like old guidance from Church leadership about not having oral sex), or were redundant as rules since I was going to behave consistently with them anyway because of my own core values (“no extramarital sex”). In practical terms, our sex life got a little bit better when we left Mormonism because we could let go of some guilt and repression that had crowded our sexual psyches on the fringes, but for the most part our sex life was already pretty good.
But what applies directly to me is not the only thing worth considering. First, morality in general is a topic that interests me and that I have visited before on a number of occasions as a part of the process of figuring out my values, where they come from, what they mean, how they interact with each other, and so on. So the question is theoretically interesting. Second, on a practical level, I know a fair number of postmormons whose value systems did not survive Mormonism as intact as mine did. In general, they were better Mormons than I was, and as such they had completely internalized Mormon values as their values. As a result, having jettisoned the Mormonism, their whole house of cards has come crumbling down, and they have been left picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what their values and morals really are, from square one. Because I am in a position to provide guidance and help to people close to me, it is more than worth thinking the issues through so that I can provide meaningful insight. Third, the question comes up periodically around the post-Mormon blog-o-sphere, so I feel like it’s worth addressing. Finally, and most importantly, I have kids. Two of them! They’re five years old and three years old right now, and they’re growing up fast. Since leaving Mormonism, the question of what do I teach my kids has weighed heavily on me, especially regarding sex. I know what my values are, and my position as a happily married guy means I don’t have to stretch my values very far to figure out what to do in almost any situation in which I am reasonably going to find myself. But my kids won’t necessarily have that luxury. For that reason alone I wanted to figure out what the deal really is about sexuality, without a handy dogma to give me simple and convenient (if often harmful and self-destructive) answers.
The realization just came to me one day–and this is going to be kind of anticlimactic now because I’ve got all this buildup for what is going to be disappointingly little payoff–that there is no reason for there to be special moral rules for sex at all. Period. Sexual ethics are not a special case for ethics. The usual rules apply. And it is that simple.
What do I mean about the usual rules? Basic human ethics and basic human decency. Don’t hurt people. Don’t betray people. Don’t demean, degrade, or belittle people. Treat people with respect. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Basic, more-or-less universal moral principles found in almost every religion or ethical system, when applied to sex, produce the correct results. Cheating on my wife is not morally reprehensible because it violates the special rule of “don’t cheat on your wife” or “confine all sexual behavior to the marriage-bed,” but because it is a personal betrayal of an intimate relationship, a violation of serious promises. It is wrong because it hurts my wife. There doesn’t need to be a special rule, because hurting my wife is already wrong (credit is admittedly due here to C. S. Lewis who kind of talks about this a bit in Mere Christianity). Degrading myself sexually is bad for the same reasons as degrading myself any other way. There doesn’t need to be a special rule.
The only special consideration with sex–and it is a serious one–is that we need to be cognizant of the fact that, for whatever reason, sex is an area in which human beings are particularly vulnerable, and so it is a moral setting that invites particular care. Sexual betrayal hurts a lot more than garden-variety betrayal. Sexual self-degradation leaves us feeling more degraded than garden-variety self-degradation, and so on. But the increased potential for serious injury does not mean we need a whole new set of specific rules to deal with morality in a sexual context. It just means we need to be extra-serious about following the moral principles we already have.
So the question is not “is premarital sex acceptable?” because that would be a special rule for sex and it would be nonsense. The question is “is it okay to hurt myself and others?” And the answer is no. Having sex with your girlfriend, fiancee, or even a casual encounter may be perfectly okay–wonderful and good even–assuming that you are not carelessly hurting yourself or the other person (people?). Even extramarital sex might be just fine if the context is completely consensual (though I would advise being pretty fucking careful about it, because people could very well think they’re going to be okay with something that turns out to be an emotional disaster, and generally the potential for pain is so high and the possibility that your spouse is saying yes but meaning no is so significant that you probably just should not go there). Since sex is not a special case, the question of moral appropriateness simply does not pertain to the sexual act itself, but to the interpersonal relationships that contextualize the act. Its not the deed you do that is right or wrong, but the way it affects yourself and other people, and that is realistically always going to be a case-by-case determination.
That said, it would not be unreasonable for a person to set sexual boundaries that are a bit far back away from the edge of the cliff of pain, because the vulnerability and the potential for catastrophic injury is so high. Nevertheless we need to keep in mind that the boundaries you set do not in and of themselves have moral significance. It’s not a sin to cross the safety-zone boundaries you might have reasonably set for yourself; it’s a sin to hurt people. You’re staying on the safe side so as not to run risks, but that’s pragmatic, not moral.
Why is sex an area where we are s vulnerable and so easily hurt? I personally think it is because sex lies at the very core of the bundle of experiences that make us truly human. Sex is a part of the universal human experience, and it is intimately bound up with things like birth, death, and family. These constants transcend the particulars of society and culture and lie at the heart of who we are as human beings. When we are close to birth, close to death, or expressing our sexuality, we are in touch with soemthing mystical and primal, and we are the closest to who we really are that we ever get. These are intensely powerful places, and they are also places where we are intensely vulnerable. Figuring out what these things mean and what to do about them is what religion and spirituality are really about, because these things are what we are really about. This is the essential heart of human existence, and as such it is delicate and should be treated with the utmost care. Even so, our basic, universal moral principles should be sufficiently applicable that there is no need for specialized rules.
The moralists among us may not like the sound of the moral rule I am proposing we fall back on when it comes to sex, which basically boils down to “hurting people is wrong,” and the flip side, “if it does not hurt people, it isn’t wrong.” But honestly, that’s a knee-jerk reaction, because as a moral rule it is simply true. Actions have consequences, and if we act in a way that hurts other people, we need a pretty damn good justification for it or we are in the wrong. That necessarily means that if our actions do not have negative consequences for other people or ourselves, then our actions are morally permissible–even morally laudable. This is not unrestrained permissiveness. It does mean a lot of freedom and individual accountability, but that’s just a reality of being a morally mature human being.