Jana Riess: A reality show about Mormon swingers? The real reality of LDS sex lives is far more boring.

Sexual conservatism for most Latter-day Saints stretches from teen years into adulthood.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

It makes for such a great story, you see.

The streaming service Hulu announced this week that it’s developing a new reality docuseries about Mormon wives who, with their husbands’ permission, are sexually promiscuous. They are “swingers.”

The entertainment site “Deadline” says the title is going to be “The Secret Lives of Mormon Wives,” though that hasn’t been confirmed by Hulu.

Hulu has already had success with several other Mormon-related series, and in some ways this is a predictable evolution.

In 2022, “Under the Banner of Heaven” was a hit for the streaming network, garnering millions of viewers and several high-profile award nominations for its stars Andrew Garfield and Daisy Edgar-Jones. I was not a fan of the series personally, finding that it took liberties with key facts about Mormon history, but my criticisms were in the minority.

Also in 2022, the much better series “Mormon No More” did a deep dive into the lives of two women who left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both had been married to men in the temple and done all of the usual things, raising their children in the church. In their 30s, however, they discovered that they were gay and in love with each other. The docuseries focused on not only their relationships with family members but also the church’s overall tortured history of dealing with LGBTQ issues.

And just a few weeks ago, Hulu debuted “Daughters of the Cult,” about the murderous sect leader Ervil LeBaron and the assassinations he ordered of rival polygamist leaders. I have not seen it yet.

What all three of these series have in common is a puerile fascination with other people’s sex lives. For “Banner” it was polygamists, for “Mormon No More” it was closeted lesbians, and for “Daughters of the Cult” it’s back to polygamy again.

The new proposed series about the Mormon swingers promises something a little different: people who are allegedly still Latter-day Saints but practicing a double life, putting on one face for the world and quite another inside their McMansions.

How do we know they live in McMansions? Because there’s already been a whole thread of TikTok voyeurism about Mormon swingers, and part of the allure is the privileged lifestyle they appear to lead. Last year, much of that glamour came crashing down with the domestic violence plea deal of Taylor Frankie Paul, a Utah “momfluencer” with more than 4 million TikTok followers. I expect that Paul, a self-described “soft swinger” who is now divorced from her husband, will feature prominently in the Hulu series.

And I expect this because … there just aren’t a lot of “Mormon swingers” out there, statistically. If we’re looking for people who are 1) still members of the church in good standing, and 2) married but routinely engage in sexual practices with people other than their spouses, that’s a vanishing rarity.

Here’s the reality that will never feature in a “reality” TV series: Most Mormons are deeply, predictably, embarrassingly boring when it comes to their sex lives.

That sexual conservatism starts in adolescence. Research by Mark Regnerus, using the National Study of Youth and Religion, found that 72.5% of Mormon teens abstained from sex, the highest of any religious group surveyed.

The conservatism continues in adulthood. Latter-day Saint adults are far less likely to approve of sex outside of marriage than other Americans and less likely to say they would vote for a political candidate who has cheated on a spouse. (We’re looking at you, Donald.)

The Next Mormons Survey (2016) confirmed that overall conservatism. While most people who are still members say they engaged in practices like hugging and kissing before marriage, most did not have intercourse, perform or receive oral sex or have anal sex. In fact, a majority said they did not even masturbate before marriage.

I should note that one Latter-day Saint therapist I know looked at those masturbation numbers and thought they were too low. Which brings up a valid point: all of the sexual data we have about Latter-day Saints is self-reported, as people give information about their own history. On the other hand, all sexual history data is self-reported. And in comparison to other groups who have reported their own data, Mormons still have far lower sexual activity outside of marriage than other people.

But no one wants a reality show about couples who are virgins before marriage, somehow figure things out enough in the early years of their marriage to have three kids, and then remain faithful to each other for the next 60 years until death. Yawn!

Instead, viewers want Mormon Girls Gone Wild, liberated from the bonds of sexual oppression. They want rumspringa. They want a shady underworld of religious hypocrisy.

Pass the popcorn and the upside-down pineapples.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)