New York Times  Bestselling Author

Sex and Religion

Please welcome author Angela Fested to the blog! Angela’s written an intriguing young adult novel every teen can relate to—even though one of her protagonists is a devout Mormon. Angela’s questions at the end of her post really got me thinking. I could see Sister Joseph in my catechism class doing the whole banana thing for sure! Thanks for joining us here today, Angela.

Sex and Religion

My husband thought about leaving me earlier this year. Of course, he didn’t actually do it, but the fact that he considered it was shocking at the time. Shocking because we both valued commitment. Shocking because we had twelve years of marriage behind us, four kids, two cars, and a house.

Shocking because it was supposed to last forever.

At least, that’s what they tell you in the Mormon temple after you’re officially sealed. I remember standing next to my husband in my white beaded dress, gazing into a mirror that faced another mirror on the opposite wall. Our reflection went on without end. Him and I, holding hands into the eternities, our fates intertwined for as far as I could see.

So when I backed out of my commitment to the Mormon Church earlier this year, my husband took it personally. I was never supposed to change. The dream was never supposed to change. But the plan we’d agreed to when we married over a decade earlier to raise our children in the faith, send them to early morning seminary, encourage them to go on missions, and trust the fifteen leaders of the church with our most important decisions—from what we could eat, drink, and wear to how we should spend our time—had ceased to look reasonable after I stopped believing in The Church.

The last part of that paragraph makes the “stopped believing” part sound casual and painless. I can assure you it was not. Because Mormonism is more than a religion, it’s a culture. One where it’s acceptable for Bishops to ask single members if they struggle with masturbation, where teenagers spend sleepovers debating if French kissing is okay, and where sexual sin is ranked just below murder.

Years before my crisis of faith I sat in a room full of girls and watched as my Sunday school teacher, Sister Black, held up two beautiful bananas. She put one down on the table, and then she peeled the remaining one.

“This is delicious,” she said after taking a bite. “Does anyone want to try it?” She held out the banana so the peel hung limp over her knuckles, seeds exposed, teeth marks turned to mush around the edges.

Right on cue we shook our heads no.

“I won’t tell anyone,” she told us. “Nobody has to know. It won’t hurt anyone if you sample it.  Besides, I’ve tested this one for you. Who’d want to take a risk and eat the unopened one?”

Every hand in the class shot up.

Sister Black had made her point. She tried to close the banana and pretend it wasn’t partly eaten, but the sides kept falling open and all of us knew that it was useless. No one would desire this banana again. Not when they could have a fresh one. Without our sexual purity, no one would ever want us!

Growing up Mormon, this didn’t bother me. It was just the way things were. In my single days I had nightmares about losing my virginity. Boys scared me. Helplessness scared me. Losing control scared the heck out of me, but I thought this was normal. In fact, the thought of a stronger person taking away my worth, my purity, my spirituality against my will seemed a fate worse than death at the time.

Again, I thought this was normal.

So I decided to write a novel that would depict this kind of sexual climate. Put the hero in a place where his chastity is everything. Give him those natural urges. Give him reasons to fight against the world at large, pair him with a heroine who challenges his way of life, and watch him struggle to accept himself.

There are times when I miss the certainty Mormonism afforded me. Acceptance is a journey and nothing is certain now. Nothing is perfect. Life does not have easy answers. But I’m grateful for my choices, grateful to make my own decisions, and grateful to finally own my sexuality.

Tell me, dear reader, do you have faith in forever? Do your spiritual beliefs intersect with your sexuality, or do you keep them separate? 

Note from Diane: Angela’s novel, Chaste, is available in paperback and e-book format at Amazon and Barnes and Noble

28 Comments

  1. Angela Felsted on December 5, 2012 at 8:44 am

    Thank you so much for posting this! I feel so honored to be on your blog today, Diane!

    🙂

  2. YvonneS on December 5, 2012 at 9:47 am

    I have faith in forever. My marriage has been different that Angela’s. I grew up in a house full of girls with only one boy. When my older brother left home my youngest brother was born. I was in eighth grade at that time. I recall dating in high school. I recall kissing and hugging and doing my own thing. I listened to the talks about sexuality and purity. I also read all kinds of novels about all kinds of things. I don’t read just anything anymore. My sexual beliefs are my own. That I believe in controlling my urges doesn’t mean I don’t have them. That I believe in honesty and liberty and things that my church teaches doesn’t mean life has easy answers. It doesn’t mean mortality is perfect. None of the choices of long term significance are realized in this life. Life is a test. It is a challenge. It means learning to deal with things never expected. It is learning to accept things that are hard. It is learning how to show love to all people. I don’t know what it means to own ones sexuality in our society. On the other hand I am my own person and who and what I am all comes from me. I own it all.

    • Angela Felsted on December 6, 2012 at 9:05 pm

      Thanks for reading the post, Mom. It’s nice to know you care enough to read what I have to say. And I really appreciate hearing about your upbringing. I still remember that story you used to tell about playing pranks in college. It struck me how daring and care free you were. I see that when you dance these days too. How happy you are, and that makes me happy too.

  3. Old Kitty on December 5, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    Hi Angela!!! Growing up catholic, I was supposed to embody all that is the Virgin Mary and anything less was not so much sinful as a failure. It’s very sad that this type of pressure still exists today and even sadder that girls are made to feel guilty for not wishing to be the impossible Virgin Mary when they would much rather be the other Mary – Mary Magdalen.

    Anyway – I’m so glad for your honesty!! I don’t miss the strictures or the doctrine or the patriarchy of the catholic religion especially where they seek to control what I feel, how I love, how I choose to express myself.

    Take care
    x

    • Angela Felsted on December 6, 2012 at 9:09 pm

      I’m always amazed at how much I have in common with my Catholic friends. Although, I can’t imagine ever measuring up to the Virgin Mary. Is that possible?

      Take care
      X

  4. Alex J. Cavanaugh on December 5, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    I do believe in forever. I also believe we should wait for marriage, however, I also believe in a God that forgives when we slip. Because no, I didn’t make it. Neither did my wife. But that didn’t taint our marriage in any way.

    • Angela Felsted on December 6, 2012 at 9:10 pm

      Forgiveness is wonderful, isn’t it? I find it so comforting to know that I can be forgiven when I slip. And I’m very glad you have a wonderful marriage with your wife.

  5. Ruth on December 5, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    I keep them separate. I am still figuring out who I am spiritually. That may seem odd at the age of 41. But, I was raised Methodist. Sex was never talked about in the church. Not as good, not as bad. Just never. I don’t identify with organized religion anymore and I am not sure exactly what I do believe.

    • Angela Felsted on December 6, 2012 at 9:11 pm

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying you haven’t figured everything out. In fact, I like the idea of being open. Learning and growing no matter how old you may be.

  6. L.G. Smith on December 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    I was not raised in a very religious environment, so I never really faced this sort of pressure. I never considered pre-marital sex a sin, or even anything to be ashamed about. Doesn’t mean I believe in promiscuity either. I have a son who is almost sixteen, and he does have a girlfriend. We’ve made sure he has condoms, but also made sure that he understands he’s too young to be a father and had better wait. I should add about a dozen exclamation points on the end. 🙂

    • Angela Felsted on December 6, 2012 at 9:15 pm

      I admit that I’m nervous about having teenagers. One day my kids will grow and I’ll have to deal with a more complicated set of parenting problems. In the meantime, I’ll look up to people like you who are living in the trenches. 😉

  7. Lisa on December 5, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    I believe in forever–especially that forever is a looooooooong time. 🙂 Life is a journey and there’s a lot of uncertainty in just being human. I’ve stopped trying to think in terms of “this” or “that” but to let love be my guide.

    I also grew up in the same culture that you did (which you know) and have had similar lessons taught in church classes–lucky for me, I was never very good at swallowing anything whole and my parents were kind of “out there” in the church–that allowed for freedom to “fail” and progress and learn and love and find space. And I am FOREVER grateful for the childhood (and influence into adulthood) they gave me–free of guilt and shame and full of love.

    Fabulous post!
    xo!

    • Angela Felsted on December 6, 2012 at 9:18 pm

      Lisa, I love that you had an unconventional upbringing, and I love the awesome person you are today. You always have the most interesting take on things. Thank you for stopping by!

      xo

  8. Jeff Bray on December 6, 2012 at 2:55 am

    Courageous and full of honesty and integrity – as always Angela. I would like to think the religions of the world will value these qualities in the same way in which purity and virtuousness are viewed.
    Being raised in a Christian home and having significant connection with the ‘Church’ – it was my experience that the awareness and development of my sexuality; and the belief structures which my faith dictated in relation to sexuality; were virtually inseparable.
    My faith has been an integral aspect of my life’s journey and has been a great blessing to me in countless ways. In saying that – I think the strong puritanical elements and the fear of being unworthy/sinful did negatively impact on what I would regard now as a ‘healthy’ appreciation of sexuality.
    The opinions in relation to sexuality within the community in general is incredibly divergent and so to add the layer of ‘spirituality’ on top of that makes for a very complex and potentially challenging environment for particularly adolescents to find themselves in.
    It is the shades of grey which always seem to be the most problematic – and when the spectrum is very broad – the opportunity for disagreement and condemnation is significant.

    • Angela Felsted on December 6, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      Jeff, I agree that no two people have the same upbringing or the same experience in this arena. Even siblings with the same parents, who go to the same school, attend the same church, and mix in the same circle of friends. There are just so many unpredictable factors. And many, many shades of gray.

  9. Sue on December 6, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    I was raised by an inactive Mormon mother and a non-member father in a dysfunctional home. One parent was honest and moral while the other was an immoral shyster who cheated his own daughter. How they got together is another story!! I read the Book of Mormon at age eleven and my eyes were opened as to who I wanted to be and as to what kind of family I wanted in life. I married a convert to Mormonism who had struggled with drugs and his own dysfunctional family. He’d been married twice before and I was still a virgin at twenty-six. After thirty-two years of marriage, we’re happy active members of the Mormon faith and are true to one another. I don’t let the church tell me what to eat and drink, or how to behave. I eat mostly vegan because I believe it. I’m moral because I value it. I belong to a church whose values align my own. After all, the Mormon church exhorts its members to pray regarding all doctrines and principals. Anyone is free to walk away at any moment. I believe marriages can last forever (in the temple or not) if both partners live with integrity. Seminary, missions, leaders of the church are all available as supports to help us with that goal–as all programs in all churches are meant to do. Funny about the banana. I never had nightmares about losing my virginity, and I never worried about losing control…until in my early 20’s when I dated a guy I had explosive sexual chemistry with. The first time I met him I knew he was wrong for me, but the chemistry kept me dating him. We got engaged, and then he cheated on me, so I broke it off. I knew my feelings for him were normal, so I’d let myself feel them. I agree with you that it’s not normal to have nightmares about losing your virginity, and to suffer such strong feelings of helplessness. I’m wondering if it’s a good thing to be blaming this on they way you were raised in the church? I hope you are seeking counseling because you might be able to uncover other maladies of discontent. In the end, they might not be related to religion, and they might have a center of growth, such as anxiety, that tweaks your focus on other factors in life. You’re right: it’s not normal to think of the loss of purity as worse than death, but I don’t agree that the church places loss of virginity just below murder. After years of working in Young Adults, Singles groups, and Young Women, I’ve seen lots of members seek help through the guidance of loving church leaders who have used Christ’s atonement to bring members peace after they have been sexual in ways they came to regret. I wish you peace, Angela! Namaste.

    • Angela Felsted on December 6, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      First Sue, I’m very glad that you’ve found happiness. I’m glad that you have a wonderful relationship, that you’re happy with your belief system, and that you’ve led a fulfilling life. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I won’t dispute that Mormonism works for many people. Because it does. There are people that love it. They live for it and it brings them so much joy.

      The Word of Wisdom didn’t bother me when I believed it was God’s will. I had no problem abstaining from coffee, tea, alcohol etc. when it perfectly aligned with my belief system. I had no problem wearing temple undergarments or attending early morning seminary in High School, or committing my time to temple worship, visiting teaching, and various callings.

      I don’t agree with a lot of those things now, but I can still see the value it has to many people. I can see the value it has to you, for instance. And I would try very hard not to pathologize someone simply because they believe differently than me, or because they have interpreted certain events in their past differently than I would have.

      Each of us has a pair of our own shoes, after all. You and me both, and what works for one person may be harmful to another.

      Doctrine is often a matter of interpretation. And when I wrote “sexual sin is ranked just below murder,” I was not referring simply to losing ones virginity, but rather to the place in the gospel principles manual where it says “Unchastity is next to murder in seriousness.”

      If you’re so inclined, you can find that quote here: http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?locale=0&sourceId=dbc97befabc20110VgnVCM100000176f620a____&vgnextoid=32c41b08f338c010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD

      Ah sheesh, I’m rambling, so I should probably wrap up this response. I too have seen people benefit through the loving guidance of their church leaders. I’ve seen great love and tenderness and caring in Mormonism. I’ve seen people helped and I’ve seen them hurt with the best of intentions. What can I say, we’re all human.

      I wish you the best.

  10. Jim Murdoch on December 7, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Sex was an issue for me but it wasn’t why I quit. Why I quit was because I couldn’t change my views on sex (and a host of other things but we’ll focus here on sex). The logic is that if you love God you’ll hate what he hates. I could see why God might hate murderers but not masturbators. I discovered this marvellous bodily function when I was about eleven naturally and innocently. I’d a pretty good idea it was wrong because it was nice; nice things are usually wrong. I never told anyone but in time I learned what I was doing had a name and was indeed wrong. I just couldn’t see why it was wrong. If you didn’t want people fornicating all over the shop then this seemed like a perfect solution. And yet it was verboten. Simply because God said so. He let Adam and Eve’s children and close family marry each other and then one day about four and a half thousand years later he decided it was called incest and was a no-no. The same thing goes for polygamy. The thing is I never really got why fornication was wrong either. I was supposed to feel how God felt about these things and when I learned that someone in the congregation was guilty of this sin I was supposed to be morally outraged but I wasn’t; I felt sorry for them because I knew what was going to happen to them. I knew all the scriptures that said why they shouldn’t be doing it but I wasn’t offended by their actions. And this was the thin end of the wedge. In time I started looking at my attitudes towards other issues and started to realise that just because I could prove scripturally that a certain course of action was wrong it rarely affected me. There were things I could see were bad but even then so often I could think of extenuating circumstances. Being told year in and year out that you’re a sinner (albeit indirectly since, as I said, I never told anyone what I was doing or thinking if I thought it might cause ructions) can have a terrible effect on you. For me part of the pleasure in the sexual activities I engaged in through the years began to result from the fact that I knew it was wrong and even the guilt became if not exactly pleasurable then certainly palatable. Now that is wrong. Sex is natural. Animals do what they want when they want and, yes, I know we’re a higher form of life but we’re not that different. I pee when the need arises. As a boy I experienced wet dreams as we all do and was told that this was the body’s way of getting rid of excess semen. I found that actually quite revolting, as bad as pissing myself. Why could I not choose the time and place to relive the pressure, as a civilised person would wish to? No, I have a lot of issues with how religions deal with sex but that’s probably enough for now.

    • Angela Felsted on December 7, 2012 at 7:52 pm

      Jim, I get nervous sometimes about what to tell my son when he hits puberty. He’s so close to that age when those things start happening, and I’m not really sure what angle to approach it from.

      I mean, wouldn’t most boys be embarrassed to talk about this stuff with their mom? Maybe it needs to be a father/son thing. I’d like to think that if he were troubled about something like this, it wouldn’t be complete taboo for him to come to his mom. But I could be wrong. :-/

      • Jim Murdoch on December 8, 2012 at 7:00 am

        I think it depends very much on the relationship between the mother and son. In my family my mother was subservient and I couldn’t imagine asking her anything other than when tea was going to be ready. My dad never really had the talk with me either; it got covered in general discussions and I guess he assumed I got the point. He was the same with prayer too oddly. I have no recollection of him every teaching me how to pray or praying with me; it was simply assumed that once I was old enough to comprehend it I would do it naturally. Well, it didn’t come naturally, ever. Masturbation did and, as I said, I was young, but not that young at eleven from all accounts.

        In my first novel there is a brief masturbation scene. It’s nothing graphic in fact since you have to read between the lines I expect most people won’t even realise that’s what’s happening until Truth arrives in the second chapter and starts talking about “Number Threes” which is the euphemism Jonathan uses (albeit only to himself) when he thinks about it. I was trying to get across that it was a bodily function because quite often I’ve heard people saying, “I need to go Number Two,” and we all know what they mean although I can’t imagine any American calling attention to the fact they’re about to defecate since most can’t even call a toilet a toilet. But can you imagine your boy getting up from watching TV and saying, “I need to go Number Three”?

        Back in the seventies I was in Virgin where, at the time, they had a large comics section which included a lot of alternative comics. I didn’t last long because they were expensive and so we used it like a library but on one of my “library visits” I picked up a comic and on the cover was a drawing of two young men masturbating by an open fire and their mother (or one of their mothers) is serving them tea and biscuits off a tray. It’s preposterous and it was meant to be but a part of me wished that a world like that existed.

        The subject crops up on TV all the time these days. I find the openness of the characters utterly unbelievable but maybe that’s the way the real world is nowadays and people do shrug it off. I talked to my daughter about it once—she’d be in her twenties by this time—and she said she and her friends had always talked openly about it. One of the examples she cited was a male friend who was often late and that was invariably his excuse.

  11. Sheree Gillcrist on December 7, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    I was raised in a deeply religious household and can recite bible verses like some recite good poetry. Sadly for me it was like a mind melt of brain washing and I chose to walk the path of spirituality I believe in the inherent good in everyone until they give me a reason not to and then I ask myself what is going on in thier life that makes them react that way. None of my colouring books as a child asked for me to colour in the pictures in black and white and if I had then the perceptionh woud have been that I was odd. Well I am a bit..lol but that is because I care enough to know that there is room in this world for all of us to believe what we believe. and my sexual life and theirs is their own business.

    • Angela Felsted on December 7, 2012 at 7:46 pm

      Sheree, I just love this perspective: ” . . . I care enough to know that there is room in this world for all of us to believe what we believe. and my sexual life and theirs is their own business.”

      I think it’s spot on.

  12. […] of the economy (don’t forget his book would make a good Christmas present!). Angela recounted a lovely object lesson. Ex-Mormons sometimes have a hard time finding each other even in their own families. Prairienymph […]

  13. Heather Cathrall on December 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    What a great post and an interesting perspective! I am not strongly religious, though I can appreciate the struggle and dedication for those who are. Do I believe in forever? I can say I hope for forever, but maybe my lack of faith in religion leads me to lack faith in other things too. I am aiming for forever. I would love to have forever. I think forever in a marriage is great (and I am married – 2 years married, 6 years together), but can I say I see no other way than forever, no. I think people grow over time and to expect that the person you married in your youth will be the same person 60 years later is unrealistic. Hopefully life will help you grow together and will make the bond stronger, but there are no guarantees. I would not have married if I did not think forever was possible. I would not have married if I didn’t think I was making the right choice. But I did marry, so I think both those things hold true, at least with my limited knowledge that the first 29 years of life has given me. So, I hope for forever, but I won’t stay in forever if its hurting me or my husband. I believe in giving marriage everything you have, but also in knowing when to make a tough decision if things are not working. I strongly do not believe in infidelity and I would never cheat. But I do believe that if people grow so far apart that they can no longer recognize each other and would be happy elsewhere, I think two rational people can make that decision too. So I have hope for forever, but I have faith enough in myself to know that forever or not I will be OK.

    • Angela Felsted on December 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm

      I think it’s important have faith in yourself, and to know you will be okay regardless. And I very much understand where you are coming from too. Of course we don’t plan on any relationship failing, but there are no guarantees either.

      • Heather Cathrall on December 20, 2012 at 9:47 pm

        I hope you write again on this blog! I really enjoyed your post and it’s been a fun discussion!

  14. Adam H. on December 8, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    I think that the banana object lesson is not only not sound doctrine but misleading and only teaches part of some worldly truths. (That people like to have things brand new). However the analogy fails to take into account the savior’s deep love and the deep power of love of others to overcome all sins. Think of the way the savior treated the woman taken in adultery, “He that is without asin among you, let him bfirst cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7) There are plenty of instances of people loving others in spite of their sins and flaws.

    Even in this instance where a sin had been committed, Jesus also said to her: “Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? 11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee..” (John 8:10-11)

    There is an overriding fundamental principle of moral agency when it comes to sin that it seems your leaders and parents failed to sufficiently explain, namely that in order to commit sin you have to willingly and freely do it. In the case of rape, incest or violating another’s moral agency the sin lies clearly with the perpetrator of sin, not an innocent victim of crime and sin.

    Perhaps your worry and anxiety that you felt after the banana lesson is merely a reflection of your sincere and honest desire not to commit sin? You saw through the flawed analogy right away perhaps without even realizing it? Perhaps you were worried that someone would force you to commit sin, when in reality, no one can take away your moral agency that is needed for a sin to occur. (Moses 7:32 – ” and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency;”) After all that is what the war in heaven in the pre-earth life was about.

    Here is what the church teaches now in the youth pamphlet. I think they failed to mention this when they taught you?

    “Victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sin and do not need to repent. If you have been a victim of abuse, know that you are innocent and that God loves you. Talk to your parents or another trusted adult, and seek your bishop’s counsel immediately. They can support you spiritually and assist you in getting the protection and help you need. The process of healing may take time. Trust in the Savior. He will heal you and give you peace. (For the Strength of Youth, Sexual Purity)”.

    • Amanda on April 2, 2014 at 1:42 pm

      Thank you, Adam, for sharing your thoughts and quotes. I feel similarly and am thankful you took the time to write what I was feeling. Thank you.

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