Steve Cuno: A brief history of Mormons and sex

Like some other religions, LDS Church seems obsessed with sex.

(photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society/Tribune negative collection) President Heber J. Grant, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, walks past the Tabernacle at Temple Square with the other members of the First Presidency, J. Reuben Clark, left, and David O. McKay, right.

Alert Utahns have likely noticed a recent flurry of news involving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (with apology, “Mormon” hereafter) and sex. Perhaps now is a good time to add some socio-historical perspective.

Nearly all religions endorse “thou shalt not commit adultery.” But some add strict rules, routinely sermonize about sex, intrusively monitor compliance, rail against pornography, and punish transgressors. In the act of admonishing the faithful not to obsess about sex, they seem to obsess about sex.

If you think that sounds like the Mormon religion, let’s be fair: it sounds like a good many others, too. The Mormon church earns attention here because The Tribune exists in its backyard, and because sex has a prominent role in the church’s history and practices.

The Mormon Church’s curious sexual history began in 1831, when founder Joseph Smith Jr. was discovered in flagrante delicto with his wife’s 14-year-old housekeeper. This was not adultery, Smith claimed, but God-mandated polygamy. Indeed, a popular account holds that a sword-bearing angel compelled Smith’s acquiescence. Accounts by some of his wives, however, suggest that the angel tale compelled theirs.

Polygamy would set the stage for Smith’s death. In 1844, Smith approached a close associate’s wife, and the associate responded by publishing a tell-all newspaper. Smith had the newspaper press destroyed, for which he was arrested and jailed. Two days later, an armed mob stormed the jail. Armed with a six-shooter, Smith returned fire but, outnumbered and outgunned, didn’t survive.

In 1847, the greater part of the Mormons followed Brigham Young to Utah territory and brought polygamy into the open. Early the following year, Mexico ceded the territory to the United States, which quickly enacted anti-bigamy laws. The church defied the laws into the early 1900s.

Salt Lake City’s prostitution trade, by contrast, drew no such outrage. Since the 1870s, Commercial (now Regent) Street had been home to a thriving red light district. Concern about proximity to other businesses led not to its shuttering but to its relocation. The city council worked with madam Belle London on construction of a stockaded brothel occupying the entire block northwest of 200 South and 500 West.

The Deseret News called the project “commendable,” questioning only whether it was “practicable.” The stockade opened in 1908 and operated for three years. Later, many sex workers took apartments on adjacent 200 South, earning the street a reputation it has yet to shake.

In the 1970s, the church’s image underwent a turnaround. The specter of polygamy fading and the stockade largely forgotten, Americans began associating Mormons with wholesomeness and strong families.

Yet the church gives sex much attention. Leaders frequently lecture about porn, masturbation, non-marital sex, same-sex marriage, even sexual thoughts. Chaperones at youth dances turn away girls in sleeveless, too-short or too form-fitting dresses and watch for too-sexy and too-close dancing. Church-owned Brigham Young University enforces strict attire and grooming standards.

For married couples, the church manages to make sex sound about as appealing as paying a parking ticket. (“Sexual relations within marriage are not only for the purpose of procreation, but also a means of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual ties between husband and wife.” Hot stuff.) Yet the church has progressed since apostle J. Reuben Clark said, “The prime purpose of sex desire is to beget children. Sex gratification must be had at that hazard.”

Not content to impose rules on members alone, the church successfully urged Utahns to pass an anti-gay marriage amendment in 2004. In 2008, Wikileaks exposed the church’s would-be covert support of like measures in California, Hawaii, Alaska, Nevada and Nebraska.

Most recently, evidence suggests that, like many religions, the Mormon church prioritized protecting its image over justice and healing for sexual assault victims.

The majority of Mormons act admirably and within the bounds of propriety. Yet if some feel overly preoccupied with sex, the church may bear some responsibility. It continually discusses sex; defends a founder who took multiple wives, not all single, not all of age, and some under threat; and now stands accused of coverups.

Geographic areas associated with high-demand religions, notably Utah and the American South, experience high rates of sexual acting out. Suppressing sexual behavior while keeping the topic fresh in followers’ minds may be one reason that more believers than you might think, including some you’d least expect, engage in behaviors in opposition to espoused principles.

Steve Cuno

Steve Cuno, Portland, is the author of “Behind the Mormon Curtain: Selling Sex in America’s Holy City,” from which this article was adapted, and the as-told-to author of Joanne Hanks’s popular memoir, “It’s Not About the Sex My Ass: Confessions of an Ex-Mormon, Ex-Polygamist, Ex-Wife.”