A woman who has been part of the Mormon MomTok network told her millions of followers recently that she was getting divorced. The reason, she said, was that she and her husband had participated in what she called “soft swinging,” which implied some level of contact with those outside the marriage partners.
Though unverified, the video of her talking about it went viral and has been reported widely — and salaciously — on social media and in some news outlets.
Whether true or not, such episodes shine a light on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its teachings about sexuality in marriage.
On The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast this week, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a licensed therapist in Chicago who works with Latter-day Saint couples on sexuality and relationship issues, discussed these topics and more. Here are excerpts:
Is there really much “soft swinging” among Latter-day Saints?
Finlayson-Fife • I have seen clients — some in the faith transition community, some that are even more devout — who have contemplated the possibility of opening up their marriage or doing some version of swinging. So I know of people who have been grappling with that question and/or have tried it.
Why would this appeal to any church members?
Finlayson-Fife • A lot of couples in and out of the church can come to a place of feeling some boredom sexually, some sense of staleness in the marriage, and there can be a wide range of how people handle it. Some people think, “We need to wake our marriage up and maybe we can do that through some sexual novelty outside of the marriage.” This is especially pronounced if someone has related to their faith in a highly authoritative way, that their life has been really structured through an external authority. When that gets questioned or challenged, sometimes people swing into a kind of adolescence, but happening in their 30s. … It’s a kind of anti-authority position that can feel justified if they’ve confronted some disillusionment. But it often exposes a lack of internal moral compass or clarity or wisdom about themselves and life.
Could this be a generational issue?
Finlayson-Fife • I do think the younger Latter-day Saints are, generally speaking, less authority-based. A lot of them aren’t as rule bound. They drink coffee and are more likely to define the terms of what the law of chastity means for them.
Do you think chaste Latter-day Saint couples, both virgins, have too high of expectations for sex?
Finlayson-Fife • There is a lot of ignorance about what it really takes to create a sexual partnership. There’s also a lot of gender ideas about how the other person is going to make sexuality OK for you. Both men and women inherit a lot of anxiety about sex. In both cases, there’s the idea that your partner will make sexuality and pleasure legitimate. The only problem is they don’t have the validation to give, because they are also in an uncomfortable relationship to pleasure and sensuality. And so there’s both naivete or lack of education, often high expectations, but often difficulty being able to validate one’s own sexuality.
Do you think watching porn plays a role in these expectations?
Finlayson-Fife • It’s very possible because, again, there’s a naivete around what constitutes great sex. How does it get created? What can one really expect, create, have? What makes it great? There can often be “fomo” — a fear of missing out phenomenon — this idea that everybody else out there, the ones that are really free, not bogged down by life’s obligations, are having a grand time. And the truth is, there’s a lot of research that supports the people having the best and the most sex are monogamous couples.
Because of the church’s emphasis on premarital chastity, do you find newlyweds who have trouble not seeing sex as “dirty” or “evil” even after marriage?
Finlayson-Fife • Yes, I’ve got a lot of people who know they shouldn’t think that it is dirty or evil, but that’s the way they would say it. Their general reaction to it is that it’s overwhelming and that they would prefer to be desired, perhaps, but they want to create a marriage that really doesn’t have eroticism in it. … A lot of us grew up in that mindset that you can’t be an erotic being and a spiritual being. [They] are trying to be good by subduing this part of life, but it works against life. It works against spirituality, in my opinion. It works against a cohesive and intimate marriage, which is an ideal we really hold as Latter-day Saints.
How do you help people who feel “stuck” in their marriage or sexually unfulfilled?
Finlayson-Fife • I’m often trying to help couples understand that nothing’s going wrong in the marriage, even though they are, indeed, unhappy and, indeed, suffering in some way. Rather than think that the marriage is problematic or they married the wrong person, they should look at what the pain in the marriage is revealing to them about themselves, about how they relate to themselves and the other person.
What could the LDS Church do to improve its messaging about marriage and sexuality?
Finlayson-Fife • First of all, just to be better able to normalize the struggle in marriage.… A lot of people ... go to church and they … get all these picture-perfect images. And so they think there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. I also think not talking about sex in terms of serving each other, but more about learning about who you are relative to your partner, your equal partner, so that there’s more of a frame of intimacy rather than a frame of roles.… We have the theology to support it.
Could church leaders do a better job of helping people feel more comfortable in their bodies?
Finlayson-Fife • Yes, it absolutely could still value chastity and fidelity while celebrating the body and sexuality even as a God-given gift. You don’t have to shame it out of your kids to inhibit their behavior. In my dissertation research, the women who did best in terms of even obeying the law of chastity were the most at peace with their sexuality. They weren’t doing it to earn a future man’s approval. Their decision to wait until marriage was like a self-respecting decision. We often imagine we have to scare our youth into chastity, and it’s just simply not true. The more we can teach our youth and children to be really at peace with and feel good about their embodiment, the more you allow them to be the drivers and the choosers in their life, the less they’re making decisions out of anxiety, fear, validation- seeking. Even though our messaging is often well-intentioned, we don’t know we’re working against our own goals.