The lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City is quiet for a Friday afternoon. The woman at the front desk looks bored. Cleaning staffers move in and out of elevators. A cosplay couple pass through on their way to the Salt Lake Comic Con, happening a few blocks north.
And down a long hallway, around a corner and inside a large ballroom, there’s a guy who can’t stop talking about penises.
The follow-up conversations are just as candid. These are, after all, sex therapists and educators from around the country who’ve convened here for the second annual Rocky Mountain Sex Summit.
Utah doesn’t offer comprehensive sex education in schools, but therapists, educators and health officials — many of them with backgrounds in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — are driving a sex-positive movement in the state, with the goal to educate children, parents and adults about healthy sex.
Some are doing more than just talking. There are new fetish groups, swingers groups in which couple-swapping is the norm, and polyamory groups.
What’s going on here? Kristin Hodson, a sex therapist who founded the Rocky Mountain Sex Summit, thinks she knows.
“There’s been so much historic suppression in Utah,” says Hodson, who also teaches human sexuality at the University of Utah. “People eventually get to a point where they realize sexuality is inherently who we are — it just is. Everybody needs to feel community and connection and a sense of belonging, to know they’re not alone and that there’s nothing wrong with them. People have had enough of large institutions like the church and the Legislature telling them what is and is not OK.”
Hodson, who was raised in the Mormon faith, is one of those people. Eight years ago, after she discovered her husband had been looking at porn, the couple went through a porn addiction program. On their own, they came to realize that he wasn’t an addict.
“My world came crumbling down when I discovered the porn,” Hodson says. “But when we went to group counseling and were split up by gender, I found that I still wanted to be having sex, and all the women looked at me like I was weird. I asked, what if I was the addict and not my husband? They didn’t know what to do with me because it was considered a bad thing to want sex for pleasure.”
That experience, as well as a battle with depression after the birth of her first baby, led Hodson in 2009 to found The Healing Group in Midvale, a counseling organization specializing in sexuality-related issues, because “mental health professionals just don’t get proper training in issues around sexuality,” says Hodson.
She says her relationship with her husband now is healthier and happier than ever.
“We feel mutual respect and trust, and I think that’s what I see in my office — people want to see what’s behind those feelings that they haven’t been able to talk about with their husbands and wives and partners.”
A hunger for information
Hodson says she’s seen sex therapy sessions be deeply healing for her clients, many of whom have LDS backgrounds.
“Growing up Mormon, your sexuality is defined for you, and the rules are set the moment you’re born,” says Hodson. “You’re straight — otherwise, they’ll tell you it’s just an attraction and you can overcome that. There’s very little room for natural sexual development. But that’s when people are happiest and healthiest, when they can own their sexuality.”
In the past year, Hodson has seen more people coming into her office who feel freer to talk about sex, from mild to wild and everything in between.
“We’re seeing straight men who are wanting to have sex with other men, not because they’re gay, but because they want to have that experience,” she says. “That moves sexuality out of the binary. Once people aren’t scared or ashamed of their sexuality, then they can engage in nonrisky ways.”
For five years, Hodson has taught about everything from the basics of sex to kinks to open relationships in her human sexuality and clinical practice classes at the U. Students can, within their value system, take individual or small-group field trips to places outside their comfort zone, such as a drag show, a strip club, the Utah Pride Festival or the back room of Blue Boutique, where sex toys are sold.
Hodson has also lobbied during legislative sessions for more public-school sex education, making the curriculum opt-out instead of opt-in — the state’s official policy is abstinence — and battled what she considers over-the-top anti-porn messaging.
Hodson says it would be ideal if porn were less accessible — but treating it as a scary, taboo addiction doesn’t do any good. “Why not also focus on media literacy, build skills and teach kids how to navigate this digital landscape?”
That uneasiness of parents to talk with their kids about sex and the lack of informed sex education in Utah public schools are why Braxton Dutson created the “Birds and Bees” podcast in early 2017.
“The No. 1 thing parents have told me is they don’t know what to tell their kids, and that they’ll just let them figure it out” — which in most cases is through friends and pornography, Dutson says.
Dutson, now a therapist with Hodson’s Healing Group, found his calling when he took her human sexuality class. Raised in the LDS faith and a still-practicing Mormon, he says his church background often is beneficial with his clients, who come from similar roots.
“A lot of attitudes about sex here are very culturally driven,” says Dutson. “Parents will tell kids ‘don’t have sex,’ which feeds into the fear.”
His podcast is not explicit, but he uses frank and anatomically correct words for body parts and sexual activities that “parents may not have heard before,” he says.
“So, when their kids ask, ‘Mom, what’s this?’,” Dotson says, “they don’t freak out.”
Education efforts like Dutson’s podcast and the visibility of Hodson’s Rocky Mountain Sex Summit may be starting to have an impact, according to Lynn Beltran, STD and HIV epidemiology supervisor with the Salt Lake County Health Department.
There was a time when some physicians wouldn’t talk about sex with patients who weren’t married. But, especially since same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide in 2013, Beltran has noticed an uptick in people who are more open to disclosing out-of-the-box relationships.
“It’s important to find a doctor they feel comfortable bringing those topics up with,” Beltran says. “When patients are open with us about their sexual activity, we have better chances of getting their partners treated and can curb infections from spreading. Dialogue helps them better moving forward, which is part of the effort to take away some of the shame about sex, especially in a place with such unique characteristics as Utah.”
Beltran says the overall lack of sexual knowledge contributes to the state’s high STD rates, which she calls an “epidemic situation,” especially with syphilis and gonorrhea cases.
“That’s due to a lack of accurate sex information in schools,” she says. “There’s still a lot of struggling with attitudes about sex. Young people are having sex at younger ages, and the schools need to acknowledge that. We don’t want to encourage sexual activity at a younger age, but by burying our heads in the sand and ignoring it, that perpetuates this negative shaming culture.”
Finding open minds
In Utah, some sex education is happening in the classroom — those on college campuses, that is.
The University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College, Weber State University and Utah Valley University have active chapters of Students for Choice, a partnership with Planned Parenthood.
At the U.’s Sex Week in February, lectures and workshops with names like “What Your High School Health Class Didn’t Teach You” were held all week. To lure students to participate, the club gave out treats and free swag like buttons and cheeky valentines, and it held a drawing for a sex toy.
Westminster College held its second annual Sex-Positive Week symposium this month, featuring several talks, demonstrations and slide presentations, one of which included a demonstration of bondage knot-tying, using a fully clothed male assistant.
That assistant was Levi Barrett, a former Westminster student who helped organize last year’s debut symposium with Eileen Chanza Torres, the school’s program chairwoman of gender studies.
Barrett says Sex-Positive Week is in many ways a pushback to Utah’s abstinence-based sex education culture.
“It’s incredibly necessary to expand sex education here,” said Barrett, mentioning the need to teach young people about birth control in particular. “I grew up in California, and we had much more information there.”
“We talk about how there is pleasure in sex, but from an educational point of view,” said Chanza Torres. “It’s also to demystify the negativity about sex that exists here. The students have a curiosity, so we’re training them to ask questions — not what to do or what to think, but to ask questions.”