Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sex in the City of God

Todd Compton.  In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.  Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997.  ISBN 156085085X.

My first encounter with LDS scholar Todd Compton occurred when I ran across his fascinating book on the persona of the poet in ancient Indo-European societies (Victim of the Muses: maybe I will review it here some other time!).  I was impressed with his creativity, as well as the careful attention to precise detail which is very evident in all his work.  As time went by, I became aware (through his website and various other sources) of his other magnum opus, which is the inspiration for this essay.

In Sacred Loneliness is without doubt the most honest, even-handed treatment of Mormon polygamy that I have ever encountered.  It is not an expose: there are no lurid details.  It is not an apology: there is no attempt to "put to rest" or trivialize the fact that polygamy was a fundamentally important part of nineteenth-century Mormonism.  Rather than delve into the morass of questions often raised about polygamous morals (then and now), Compton merely tells the life stories of 33 women who were married to the Prophet Joseph Smith.  For him, as for them, polygamy is interpreted as a revelation from God through his prophet: some embrace it willingly; others are more reluctant.  All are given ample time to express, through their deeds and their own words wherever possible, how they thought and felt about "the principle" and other, more mundane things: this aims to be as complete a record of their lives as Compton's sources allow.  I was impressed with the fortitude some of these women displayed: it is hard to be married to two men at once (as some of them were) when you have been raised to regard monogamy as the rule (like most early converts to Mormonism).  I was impressed at the highly developed spirituality they showed, joining together in close-knit groups of sister-wives whose community of friendship and faith did much to cover for the continual absence of their shared husbands.  They even performed priesthood ordinances, healing the sick by the laying on of hands and speaking in tongues on numerous occasions.  Compton has done a wonderful job of rescuing these and other precious details from the dustbin of history, where modern LDS Mormonism's dislike of its feminist and sexually "deviant" roots has consigned them to lie forgotten too long.

Reading In Sacred Loneliness forced me to take a hard look at the doctrine of the family as taught by Mormons.  Our current position, adopted in the wake of a century-long effort to make up with Protestant America, is that family = 1 man + 1 woman + offspring.  This is a hard-won reversal of Joseph Smith's teaching (still with us after a fashion in Doctrine and Covenants 132) that family = 1 man (in practice maybe 2: one for time and another for time and eternity) + x women + offspring.  I grew up with the dissonance of this position echoing in my head: on the one hand, thanks to Hugh Nibley I became acquainted with sermons by the early brethren arguing passionately for the morality of polygamy; on the other, I listened to LDS prophet Gordon B. Hinckley sternly denounce it from the pulpit in General Conference.  The more I learn about polygamy, the more conflicted I am about the LDS church's position (as articulated by Hinckley in the link above) that we LDS have nothing to do with it and are perfectly willing to sit by and let the government break up the families of those who practice it.  "God wanted it then (in the nineteenth century), for some reason," we acknowledge, "but he has no use for it now, and people who practice it should repent or be punished."  Hinckley (again in the link above) declares that Mormon fundamentalists do not even exist, denying the historical fact that there are non-LDS practitioners of Mormonism, and some of them choose to live principles of Mormonism that the Brighamite LDS have relinquished.  How is that position any more charitable toward modern Mormon polygamists ("you aren't really Mormons: you're just a bunch of sick weirdos") than the default Christian position toward modern Mormons ("you aren't really Christians: you're just a bunch of sick weirdos")?  We take fellow Christians to task when some of them deny our claim to belong to the Christian club because of a few historical differences, then turn and pull the same trick on our "fundamentalist" Mormon brethren when they claim membership in the Mormon club.  Jesus has something to say about this: "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" (Matt. 7:3).
Compton's book ultimately became one piece in the puzzle of evidence that led me to rethink my (LDS Mormon) attitude to sexuality completely.  While I cannot share all the details here (though I will probably explore them elsewhere), I can provide a basic outline of my new understanding of sexual morality.

(1) The ethical appropriateness of a sexual relationship is not defined by number.  There are polyamorists (including polygamists) whose standard of ethical behavior rises as high as that of the most virtuous monogamist (or celibate).

(2) The ethical appropriateness of a sexual relationship is not defined by gender.  There are homosexuals (practicing and not) whose standard of ethical behavior rises as high as that of the most virtuous monogamist (or celibate).  The argument that homosexuality goes against nature falters on the fact that nature is not necessarily interested in creating as many copies of a species as a given ecosystem can possibly hold (or a given heterosexual couple produce) before all resources are used up and everything dies.  Furthermore, homosexual behavior occurs in nature.  Maybe we should put a new initiative on the ballot in California, warning the owners of all those randy farm animals (not to mention lewd pet dogs) to look out for falling brimstone?

(3) The ethical appropriateness of a sexual relationship is defined by fidelity.  The thing that holds all healthy relationships (of any kind) together is mutual trust and transparency.  Instead of lying to one's partner about the others (as Joseph Smith repeatedly did), the responsible thing to do is discuss desires honestly with the other party and move forward from there, taking full responsibility for one's actions and making every effort to accommodate one another.  Before my LDS relatives go haywire, let me hasten to assure them that, like Joseph Smith, I am a very heterosexual man (close to "0" on the Kinsey scale) married to a woman who is jealous of her husband's love.  Unlike Joseph Smith, I do not intend to break her heart.  I am also leery of the emotional alienation between partners that seems to accompany some forays (including the Mormon one Compton chronicles) into polyamory.  Therefore, I remain a happy, heterosexual monogamist.

(4) Irrational shame and guilt do not build healthy relationships.  This is particularly true when we insist that our neighbors' sexual status is causing (1) natural disasters or (2) human conflict.  The first is simply not true (though promiscuous sexual behavior of any kind can pose significant health risks to the promiscuous and those who come in contact with their vital fluids), and the second can become a dangerous, self-fulfilling prophecy (when people decide to cleanse the world by doing God's work for him at the ballot-box or on the battlefield).  As long as people are not sexually abusing one another (rape is always rape, and no child should be sexually active with an older person), what they do in the bedroom is none of my business and should not keep me from sleeping at night.  The more concerned and obsessed I become with the perceived immorality of my neighbors who do not happen to resemble me in every detail, the more I run the risk of becoming another Joseph Smith, Ted Haggard, or George Rekers.  All these men were obsessed with forbidden sex and became involved with it as a result.  There is a definite lesson to be learned from their experiences, and it is not one any of them taught from the pulpit.


  1. I was also quite impressed at Compton's handling of his subject matter in this book, and both stunned and appalled at the number of negative reviews it received from Mormon readers who were (IMO) too quick to cry "anti-Mormon agenda!" I, for one, thought Compton's accounts rather gracefully and faith-promotingly balanced the difficulties faced by Joseph Smith's plural wives (emotionally, financially, physically, spiritually, etc.) with the strength that nearly all of them showed. Some of them embraced ploygamy whole-heartedly, while others left the church over it, but all were strong women of faith whose stories should be told, instead of "swept under the rug" by those who think that any mention of the church's ploygamous roots is close (or equal) to apostacy.

    My heart also aches on Emma's behalf: she is a better woman than I, to remain married to a man she knows for a prophet while not condoning his clandestine extracurricular activities. I could not have done the same, testimony or not.

    As for the second part of your post, RE: your current understanding of sexual morality, I think it is an understanding that the above-described haters-of-Compton's-work must not have reached. In a culture that associates even "typical" sexual relationships (defined as monogamous heterosexual relationships) with a certain amount of shame, "atypical" ones quickly become beyond the pale. Your fourth point is notably pertinent: without necessarily promoting an "anything goes" attitude, I don't think we can teach our children to have healthy sexual relationships, either, as long as we do so by means of shame and guilt.

  2. The last point has been a hard one for me to come to. I am naturally very much inclined to use shame (what others think of me; what I think of others) and guilt (what I think of myself) as tools to keep myself and others in line. The more I look at specific instances in which my moral behavior has actually changed for the better, however, the more I see that positive change comes when I put shame and guilt away and just model "joy" as I observe it in other people whose good examples speak to me.

    Bad experiences happen; people make behavioral errors. I want to fix this by warning myself and others "never to do x." Unfortunately, this method has a tendency to cause myself and others to fixate on x (whatever it is) in an unhealthy way: we become obsessed with identifying x so that we can avoid it. It is better to let go of x, to find other things to care about and leave x alone. Instead of obsessing about sex (which I did for years, feeling terrible because--surprise, surprise--I could not perfectly control a power I was still learning to wield and could not easily understand), we should "leave it alone," modeling the behavior that feels right to us (emotionally, physically, intellectually) and respecting others' right to do the same while encouraging them to be as careful with themselves as possible. This includes respecting the fact that some people will find sexual ways of being that are different (sometimes radically so) from our own. That they are different does not necessarily mean that they are immoral. A non-sexual example may make this a little easier to understand: bungee-jumping is not an immoral activity, even though I would never do it (unless some bizarre set of circumstances made it necessary). There are responsible ways to bungee-jump, and irresponsible ways. In the same way, homosexuality is not immoral (though I will never be homosexual, in any sense): there are responsible, ethical ways of being homosexual (celibacy, marriage/committed relationships) and irresponsible ways (unbridled promiscuity with no commitment). Instead of reacting angrily (punitively) against homosexuality because I happen to be very heterosexual, the responsible thing to do is to allow homosexuals space to be ethical. I should encourage them to find healthy ways to express their sexuality (for me this translates to supporting homosexual marriage rather than trying to ban it). There is a lot more to say here, but I will leave off for the present.

  3. Having not read Compton's book, I cannot comment on the particulars, but I believe most, if not all, Christians, would agree with the LDS teaching that the law of chastity (no sex unless married, using the traditional definition of marriage, and then only with your married partner) is intended to lift us above nature, to a higher, celestial level of existence. The whole point is to rise above the natural man, and this was commonly understood by most people at one time, even those who did not accept Christ or care to follow His teachings. That is why these 19th century constitutions did not find it necessary to define marriage, I think. The California initiative came about when the state supreme court decided unilaterally to change this, of course. The majority of Californians did not agree with that decision, apparently, but I bet a much larger majority would have disagreed 150 years ago. Anyway, if nature is to be our standard, I tend to agree with your conclusions, even though I see lots of people, mostly children and innocent traditional spouses, getting hurt by them. It is sometimes hard to determine when our shame and guilt are irrational, in any case.

  4. I think lack of full disclosure is something that harms a lot of relationships: people think that getting married in a traditional way will "fix" them (if they are homosexual and/or promiscuous), and they enter into a traditional marriage as some kind of therapy ("if I do the right thing, God will bless me by taking my problem away"). It is a fine thing to try and elevate nature (maybe even transcend it?), but too often the concrete effect of our love affair with perfect abstracts (such as traditional marriage) is to put people in situations where (1) their natural inclinations are not really "fixed" and (2) failure hurts more people worse than if we had never intervened. Homosexuals don't become heterosexual because they marry someone of the opposite gender: they just run high risk of driving themselves, their new spouses, and any children crazy when nature takes her course. So, instead of browbeating them into marrying (or insisting that they live celibate), we should encourage them to find "a chaste way of lifting themselves above nature" (or at least to an expression of nature that does not demean them and their families by requiring them to do things that they just don't feel good doing). Can you imagine if the tables were turned, if someone passed a law saying you and I could only marry men, and the church came out and refused to recognize heterosexual couples? I would not be able to stand such a regime, but many homosexuals have, and have hurt themselves and their families as a result.

  5. P.S. I agree that it can be hard to determine the rationality of shame and guilt. I am still struggling with this, but as best I can tell, it involves putting by your preconceived notions (e.g. "homosexuality is immoral and inferior") and having the humility to let other people be good in ways you might never have imagined on your own ("you can live chastely, happily, committedly, as a homosexual couple?!").

    I do not think I am scrapping traditional marriage entirely: the virtue of fidelity (which I very much believe in) is the only real glue holding any of those marriages together anyway. Without it, the phrase "practitioners of traditional marriage" includes people like Haggard, who preached hellfire to homosexuals while hiring (male) prostitutes, and Tiger Woods, who gave Joseph Smith a run for his money (without bothering to marry his mistresses: in that way he came down from the morality of the nineteenth century). My real problem with "traditional marriage" is that it includes a lot of baggage that does not actually make marriages better (man presiding, woman subservient, children "seen and not heard," etc.). Sometimes, we need a lot more continuing revelation than some of us (mired in the traditions of our fathers) want to admit.

    This is a tough issue, and I am sure I will be coming back to it some other time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.