To many Americans, religious or not, chastity before marriage is a quaint tradition at best and emotionally damaging at worst.
After all, more than 90 percent of men and women, according to Guttmacher Institute surveys during the past 50 years, have reported engaging in premarital sex. And the older a single person becomes, many people believe, the more ridiculous it seems to forgo physical intimacy.
That's the perspective of Mormon poet Nicole Hardy, who, in a New York Times essay last month, described her decision to join the rest of the modern world.
"As I grew older, I had the distinct sense of remaining a child in a woman's body; virginity brought with it arrested development on the level of a handicapping condition," Hardy writes. "Too independent for Mormon men, and too much a virgin for the other set, I felt trapped in adolescence."
Hardy, who declined to be interviewed until her forthcoming book is out, had reached a point in her mid-30s at which she believed it no longer was worth holding out. Though she credited her church for giving her family stability and joy, those were not enough for the Seattle writer to remain chaste.
"I would have an IUD instead of children; I would have intellectual and spiritual freedom; I would write poems and finally live inside my body," she concludes. "I would, for the love of God, feel a man's hands on me before I died."
Hardy's essay, reprinted in other media outlets, swept across the Mormon bloggernacle with online critics and defenders chiming in. They argued about her reasoning. They blamed her, not the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for her predicament. They said she misunderstood Mormon principles. Others told their own stories and empathized with her complaints. In other words, they felt and lived her pain.
Clearly, it struck an LDS nerve.
There are millions ofunmarried Mormons; some say up to a third of the faith's adult U.S. members are without spouses. For a religion that makes marriage and family central to a person's eternal potential, that can be tough.
Though Mormon men also are expected to be abstinent before marriage, the challenges facing LDS women seem particularly difficult. The church tends to align with a more traditional culture, in which men typically are seen as the deciders and women patiently wait to be asked.
Young and restless
Frances Johnson, an unmarried twentysomething writer in Washington, D.C., sees Hardy's approach as simplistic, missing the essence of Mormon teachings.
"When you boil the issue down to simply 'can I have sex or can't I?' you are going to find yourself in a less-than-optimal situation if you're in your 30s and not married," says Johnson, a former staffer for The Salt Lake Tribune's community sections who now serves in the women's Relief Society presidency of her LDS singles ward. "You are going to be frustrated and probably talk yourself out of waiting."
Sex isn't the doorway to adulthood that makes you the type of person you want to become, she says. That is a "fallacy and discounts the value of all the other kinds of relationships in our lives with family, friends, co-workers and romantic partners where sex is not involved."
With sex off-limits, Mormon singles have time to focus on other important qualities in a sound relationship how to be selfless, how to resolve conflicts, how to compromise.
There is something adolescent about the LDS singles culture, Johnson says, and that could be because those members often are isolated in their own congregations and sometimes act as if they still are in college or high school, even if they are in their 30s and 40s.
For Chris J. writing for a popular Mormon blog, timesandseasons.org the lack of sex is only part of what keeps him from feeling like a grown-up.
What troubles Chris, who lives in Arlington, Va., about his unmarried state is the "persistent feeling of unsettledness that leaves so many personal triumphs and tragedies and the overall arc of my life doggedly incomplete."
Return to celibacy
Anna (not her real name) stepped away from the LDS Church for a time and had a romantic relationship that included physical intimacy. She later returned to the fold and is preparing to marry in the Salt Lake Temple.
Her Mormon fiancÃ© is a virgin and, while he knew of her period of doubt, he did not anticipate that might have included sex. He presumed she had remained chaste.
Anna, a 34-year-old Salt Lake City therapist, supports the church's stance and is at peace about her past experience and excited about her current path. She sees some LDS singles who struggle with the sorrow of being alone, while others are able to reinvest their energy into professional and personal projects and relationships.
She laments what she sees as the church's sometimes overgeneralized and theological approach to singles, failing to acknowledge the grief and loneliness they endure trying to live LDS standards.
"Church leaders are most helpful when they focus on salient individual needs in single people's lives," Anna says, "and encourage singles to take sustainable risks in creating meaningful relationships."
Marybeth Raynes, a Salt Lake City psychologist and sex therapist, says any institution with clear behavior boundaries is going to be difficult for "outliers," those who do not follow all the rules. Such a dynamic can lead to a "split life" for such people, who may choose to give up either their sexuality or their spirituality.
"Each person has to resolve that for themselves," Raynes says. "Some women a minority, I think lead a double life as the church would define it, saying, 'This part is between me and God.' "
Many single Mormon women do not necessarily crave sex as they age, so much as they long for companionship and the ability to fit in their faith community, she says. They may be better than men at forming close ties with other women, creating support networks for themselves.
But can a person be healthy and celibate?
It depends, Raynes says, on how you define healthy.
Approaching the forbidden
Raynes maintains many women come to a good sense of themselves and their bodies and stay active in the LDS Church. They might find ways to express their physical desires such as masturbation and "terminal petting," both of which violate church standards yet remain open to relationships within the church's limits.
That requires a willingness to grow up, no matter their circumstances.
"Sex is not the threshold for maturity," she says. "Plenty of married people are emotional adolescents."
Mormon physician Stephen Lamb applauds the LDS Church's "stern but compassionate approach" and blames modern society for equating sex with maturity.
"The hypersexual culture in which we live has one pervasive message to young adults and it is that happiness can only be derived through sex," says Lamb, co-author of Between Husband and Wife: Gospel Perspectives on Marital Intimacy. "But the vast majority of LDS kids who succumb to that illusion eventually discover that sex before marriage doesn't bring happiness and doesn't make them more fulfilled."
In fact, the Salt Lake City gynecologist says, many who choose sex without marriage feel disappointment, a loss of self-esteem and a decline in spirituality as well as the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
A recent Brigham Young University study reported that couples who delayed sex until after marriage later reported greater satisfaction in their communication and in the bedroom than those who didn't wait.
Lamb doesn't see a difference between young and old singles and doesn't recommend experimenting with touching.
"Asking whether it's safe or acceptable to have some sexual activity but not have complete sexual relations is like asking whether it's safe to stand with only one foot in the fire and not both," Lamb says. "It's unrealistic, if not impossible, to endorse 'light sex,' but forbid sexual intercourse. The emotions and impulses associated with any sexual activity are too powerful to consider that a realistic option."
Lonely feeling like the only
Pam McClure married at 23, had two children and was divorced by 33.
The Salt Lake City mental-health professional had only a high-school diploma at the time, so she went back to school and eventually earned a master's degree in counseling. She stayed in her Mormon ward so her children would be surrounded by families.
It was lonely, she recalls, and also awkward being a divorced woman in her congregation.
"You see people putting their arms around each other, having somebody to talk to about daily problems or what's going on in their lives," McClure says. "You miss that. You miss the partnership."
Most members were kind, but a few made insensitive remarks. They suggested back then that she not be allowed to talk at length with men or be too prominent in the ward, she says even though the church's newly released handbook says "worthy single members should be given opportunities to hold leadership and teaching positions."
"I was mortified," McClure says. "It felt like I had the plague."
Now that her children are grown, she would like to be involved in a singles ward but has aged out, since the upper limit is 45 years old.
Naturally, she yearns for the physical intimacy she lost.
"It was difficult to have that physical connection and that love and intimacy," McClure says, "and then be cut off."
Some LDS singles have relationships that "push the [sexual] limits" set by the church, but personally she feels that would not take her where she wants to go emotionally or spiritually.
"It would be easy to say, 'Let's go to the bars and have fun,' or have one-night stands," she says. "But that's not going to get us [single women] the happiness we are seeking. It will only bring more heartache."
The LDS Church has a unique problem with singles it teaches that no one gets into the highest reaches of heaven alone.
Although LDS doctrine reassures members that all righteous Mormons eventually will wed whether here or in the hereafter marriage remains a requirement, which is why church leaders spend so much time hammering home the goal to tie the knot.
Instead of doing that, McClure and others advise, Mormon leaders should listen to their single members and find some way to empathize with their frustrations.
Four current apostles L. Tom Perry, Russell M. Nelson, Dallin H. Oaks and Richard G. Scott lost their wives and spent some time alone or on the dating scene. Two married older single women who had never been wed, while one Scott remains unmarried.
It might be nice for singles to hear what the apostles' experience felt like (though many members secretly were trying to line them up with one of their relatives).
Some LDS sermons and articles in the Ensign, the church's official magazine, McClure says, "could be more helpful, beneficial and compassionate."
LDS spokesman Michael Purdy says church leaders care deeply about the welfare of Mormon singles.
They are "very aware of the many challenges facing singles, and love and value these members just as they love and value all members," Purdy says. "The church operates singles wards and programs in an effort to provide support and spiritual nourishment for those who are not married, just as we operate programs to care for the needs of all members."
The spokesman acknowledges that "this love and support are not always shown the way they should be" and says any insensitivity is "unacceptable."
Many, many single Latter-day Saints "live happy, fulfilled lives and contribute greatly to the church," Purdy says. "These faithful members recognize that while they are not currently married, they belong to immediate and extended families, to a church family and to the all-inclusive family of God â¦ and, hopefully, people find themselves represented in lessons and sermons because they realize we are all part of a greater whole."
Johnson, the D.C. writer, appreciates that approach.
"I don't think that lecturing or obsessive focus on marriage and family is the most effective way to help singles," she says. "We don't need any more blanket lessons on dating or why marriage and families are important."
Johnson wishes LDS leaders simply would address the same topics they preach to everyone. Teach us correct principles, she implores, and let us govern ourselves.
LDS Church reaches out to singles
"Stake and ward leaders work continually to identify, locate and shepherd young single adults in the following ways:
"They help young single adults find and fellowship those in their age-group who are less active in the church.
"They create opportunities for young single adults to associate together in meaningful service, gospel learning, and social activities. A central purpose of these activities is to help young single adults find marriage partners and prepare to marry in the temple and raise righteous families.
"They support young single adults in fulfilling worthy personal goals and in making decisions about marriage, education, careers, and finances."
Source: Handbook 2: Administering the Church