Keith Burns: Toward a consent-based model of sexuality in the LDS Church

Church rules about who can marry whom have undergone dramatic changes in the past.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteers set up the UVU LGBT student services booth across the street from the Provo LDS Temple, at the 5th annual Provo Pride Festival, Saturday, September 16, 2017.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began employing alarmist sociopolitical arguments that portrayed homosexuality as a viral contagion and a threat to individual, familial and societal well-being. The next round of arguments began merging their heterosexual theology with popular psychological assumptions of homosexuality as a sympathy-deserving “illness” that could be treated and cured.

Although leaders and members today have fostered a more accepting and loving tone regarding LGBTQ+ issues, individuals in intimate same-sex relationships continue to be restricted from temple worship and leadership positions and are also at risk of ecclesiastical discipline that can result in excommunication.

In spite of claims asserting the “unchanging” and “divine” nature of heterosexual marriage, current LDS leaders fail to acknowledge that rules around who can marry whom in the church have undergone dramatic changes throughout history. For most of the 19th century, many men, including church founder Joseph Smith, practiced polygamy and were sealed (eternally married) to multiple women. Race has also been a crucial and shifting factor in LDS marital theology, as prominent church leaders explicitly repudiated interracial marriage all throughout the 20th century, including J. Reuben Clark, who described it as a “wicked virus.”

LDS authorities continue to cling to a heterosexual model of marriage and intimacy, because they claim that the ability to procreate is an indispensable aspect of heavenly relationships. However, this emphasis on procreation is rife with contradictions, as infertile heterosexual couples who do not have children, as well as heterosexual couples who adopt, are considered to be in harmony with church teachings.

Conversely, if same-sex couples adopt or have children through artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization or a surrogate, their family arrangement is considered sinful and unworthy of temple sealings. Thus, the argument is not really about who can and cannot have children and more about a system of marking queer relationships as inferior to heterosexual relationships.

Considering the plasticity of LDS marital teachings, and the fact that many members (especially youth) are leaving the church over what they perceive to be bigoted and anachronistic teachings regarding sexuality, the church desperately needs a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable narrative. Instead of doubling down on moral and theological arguments attacking homosexuality, church leaders could construct a healthier model of sexuality based on principles of consent and respect.

In her book “Queer Mormon Theology, Blaire Ostler describes this shift in emphasis as “morality beyond gender.” She poses several important questions we can use to analyze the quality of relationships, both straight and gay: “Does this relationship promote love? Does this relationship promote joy? Does this relationship promote life? Does this relationship respect agency and meaningful consent?”

She continues by pointing out that “neither queerness nor straightness is what determines morality. All genders and sexual orientations can engage in moral or immoral behaviors.”

Moving beyond arbitrary theological assertions of sexual morality in favor of sexual consent and respect would also benefit heterosexual couples within the church. Many Latter-day Saints, particularly young adults, experience immense anxiety and shame regarding what they perceive to be their “sexual sins,” especially having been taught that sexual sin is next to murder in its severity.

The stakes are even higher when their religious mission, wedding ceremony or university standing rests upon their “sexual purity.” Instead of racking church members with unnecessary guilt, fear and anxiety around whether or not they have sexual relations, this healthier model would be about creating meaningful consent, open communication and mutual respect within sexual relations.

This conceptual shift would lead to a more sex-positive culture within the church and help eliminate toxic levels of sexual repression and shame. And certainly, ecclesiastical leaders would continue harshly condemning any forms of sexual abuse, harassment, and coercion, including ongoing cases of sexual abuse that exist among local leaders.

In this way, one’s morality or spiritual standing no longer need be determined by who they love, how they identify, or when they have sex, and can instead be determined by their commitment to being a kinder, more compassionate person. Far more important than the sexual orientation, gender identity and relationship status of intimate partners is the way each partner treats, loves and cares for one another.

Keith Burns

Keith Burns, Provo, is a recent Sarah Lawrence College graduate who currently specializes in Mormonism and sexuality as a graduate student at Lehman College.