“Don’t Touch” — Addressing Sexual Taboos In The LDS Faith Part 5

Previous Chapter: 4. What Went Wrong?

A New Culture Is Born: “Doctrine And Addiction” And Returning To The 1700s

In my book, I explore in detail the historical development of how we’ve come to culturally believe masturbation is such a serious sin. Even in this brief summary you can see how the leadership appears to have overcorrected from the ‘40s and ’50s. Building on strong cautionary language given by President Clark, Elder McConkie and President Kimball (just to name a few) reinforced those cautions by ironically breaking from the medical field again. But this time, in a regressive way. They were teaching that participating in masturbation was a sin that led to emotional, spiritual and further sexual sins in addition to warning against “would-be authorities” who taught otherwise:

“Youth come into contact early with masturbation. Many would-be authorities declare that it is natural and acceptable, and frequently young men I interview cite these advocates to justify their practice of it. To this we must respond that the world's norms in many areas — drinking, smoking, and sex experience generally, to mention only a few — depart increasingly from God's law. The Church has a different, higher norm.

“Thus prophets anciently and today condemn masturbation. It induces feelings of guilt and shame. It is detrimental to spirituality. It indicates slavery to the flesh, not that mastery of it and the growth toward godhood which is the object of our mortal life. Our modern prophet has indicated that no young man should be called on a mission who is not free from this practice.

“While we should not regard this weakness as the heinous sin which some other sexual practices are, it is of itself bad enough to require sincere repentance. What is more, it too often leads to grievous sin, even to that sin against nature, homosexuality. For, done in private, it evolves often into mutual masturbation — practiced with another person of the same sex and thence into total homosexuality.”[1]

Allen Bergin, a retired psychologist from Brigham Young University and past president of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists (AMCAP), recognized the moral dilemma President Kimball’s “Miracle of Forgiveness” posed and felt the useful parts were "overshadowed by a host of negatives and also outdated policies that the church itself doesn't even endorse anymore." In his respect and admiration for the “Yoda-like Mormon prophet” he recognized the good it offered and said, "It is unfortunate that his reputation for goodwill is obscured by some extreme adjectives he used 45 years ago." President Kimball's grandson Jordan Kimball also said, "I would want him to be remembered ... for his love, compassion and encouragement." Recognizing that the book addressed the needs “of the 1940s, '50s and '60s, and, in its time, it didn't seem out of place," Jordan Kimball says, "but it was used beyond its due date. Even the church has moved on." Jordan Kimball wished the now-anachronistic book could have been "allowed to sunset."[2]

Years after publication, Kimball reportedly remarked that its tone may have been too strong. “Sometimes I think I might have been a little too strong about some of the things I wrote in that book.”[3] Elder Richard G. Scott's wise advice was to “read the last two chapters first to appreciate the full miracle of forgiveness before reading anything else.”[4] That comment probably came 30-some years too late.

Nonetheless, President Kimball’s bold clarity, echoing McConkie's “Mormon Doctrine” established itself as an unquestionable measurement of righteousness. If the “doctrine” that masturbatatory insanity wasn’t re-established by this time, it would become a concrete and irrefutable commandment in The Church culture over the next two decades. He gave members and professionals no other option than to agree, as mentioned earlier: “Many would-be authorities declare that it [masturbation] is natural and acceptable, and frequently young men I interview cite these advocates to justify the practice of it. To this we must respond that the world’s norms in many areas ... depart increasingly from God’s law. The Church has a different, higher norm.”[5]

Stop Calling It An Addiction

“In thirty-one years as a sex therapist, marriage counselor, and psychotherapist, I’ve never seen sex addiction. I’ve heard about virtually every sexual variation, obsession, fantasy, trauma, and involvement with sex workers, but I’ve never seen sex addiction.” —Marty Klein

To further complicate the issue, the “sex addiction” model was popularized during the ‘70s when a couple of individuals involved with Alcoholics Anonymous decided to organize a special group for those who routinely cheated on their spouses. There was absolutely no scientific evidence or support that sex addiction existed. Although we are discussing masturbation specifically, I am going to address it in the following comments under the idea of “sex addiction,” as that is often the reason given to avoid masturbation.

“After 40 years of the sex addiction model existing, there is not a single published randomized-controlled empirically-reviewed study that reveals that sex addiction treatment works.” —Dr. David Ley

Why is that? If this sex addiction existed and was so dangerous, why hasn’t there been a single study on its effectiveness? Try to find statistics on addiction recovery programs (ARP), other than the ARP missionaries bearing their testimonies that it saves lives. If ARP mirrors AA at all, then peer-reviewed studies peg the success rate of AA somewhere between five and 10 percent.

David J. Ley, Ph.D., doesn’t mix his words when he expresses his concern with this fake diagnosis:

"Criticisms of the concept of sexual addiction are not just intellectual egocentrism. There are real dangers inherent in the sex addiction concept. I believe that for the field of health care, medicine, and mental health to endorse and reify a flawed concept creates a very dangerous slippery slope of moral relativism, where any socially unacceptable behavior is labeled a mental disorder subject to psychiatric treatment.

“The concept of sexual addiction is intimately connected to the conflicted sexual morality embedded in our culture at its deepest levels, where sexuality is seen as a dangerous evil temptation that must be constantly constrained and feared. It also reflects the influence of the media and the changing strategies of the 24-7 news and entertainment industry. The concept of sexual addiction is driven by the news and entertainment industry as well as the professional treatment providers, facilities, and industry that serve the needs of self-identified sex addicts.

“Lastly, the label of sex addiction affects our efforts to enforce expectations of responsibility, holding ourselves, and especially men, responsible for their choices and actions. If we accept the notion that sexual addiction is a disorder, what is the impact upon our understanding of sexual arousal itself, and upon our view of masculinity and personal responsibility for one’s sexual behaviors? A challenge to those of us who criticize the concept of sex addiction is that we are ignoring the very real suffering of clients who are desperate for help.

“People around the country are dealing with the effects of their sexual desires and behaviors, as they affect their lives and the lives of those around them. Men and women are struggling with answers to why they or their intimate partners are making unhealthy, destructive sexual decisions, decisions that destroy families, careers, and marriages. I don’t disagree with the idea that there are people who are desperate for help. I just frankly don’t think that giving them a label of sex addiction is ultimately going to be helpful to them, to society, or to the field of mental health. I’m troubled by the defensiveness and attacking response to criticism." —David Ley, Myth of Sexual Addiction

But what about all the research that “proves” sex addiction is real? There is none. For example, one popular study Fight the New Drug (FTND) and others love to reference to prove sex addiction is just as harmful as drugs, is the Voon study titled, “Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours.” You’ll notice FTND “quote mining” these studies like a Jeremy Runnells googling Church History, concluding “pornography harms the brain almost exactly the same as drug addiction.

But not too fast — even the authors of the research say that’s a bad idea.

“Voon is quick to caution against using her studies to leap to conclusions about the addictiveness of sex or porn. ‘Much more research is required,’ she explains. Meanwhile, a study from Nicole Prause at the University of California, Los Angeles, used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brainwaves of people presented with sexual images and found something different. She observed that volunteers who believed they had a problem with porn reacted to the pictures with low levels of excitement in the brain, unlike other addicts faced with triggering cues. ‘These people may be having problems, but of some other type,’ says Prause. ‘Addiction is not a good way of understanding it.’” —Emily Borrow, “Can You Really Be Addicted to Sex?”, The Economist

In a movement I call “Compassionate Kelloggs,” FTND and other organizations like them, such as Sons of Helaman, may not use penis-sized iron maidens or suggest sewing your foreskin, but their emotional message is still damaging. They set themselves up as saving the public from the dangers of these behaviors but are using fear to accomplish their objectives.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf summed up this concept brilliantly and precisely when he said,

“People who are fearful may say and do the right things, but they do not feel the right things. ... They often feel helpless and resentful, even angry. Over time these feelings lead to mistrust, defiance, even rebellion.” — President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear, April 2017 Conference

There are few things I’ve seen more clearly than this: when fear is used as a motivator, we cause people to feel and experience the wrong things. As a result, resentment, pain and rebellion often occur. This is by far the number one problem I see when individuals — regardless of age — visit with me regarding sexually-related issues. One of the discoveries is that those who used fear to avoid sexual stimulation, pursuits and desires now struggle as married individuals to function in healthy sexual relationships.

These compassionate Kelloggs are modeling the 1700s sexual messages: “If you engage in this behavior you will become addicted, you are ill. And we love you.” In the case of the Sons of Helaman, the creator Maurice W. Harker identifies in his trademark “The Chemical Spill,™” wherein he defines God’s gift of sexual desire as “Deviant Sex Chemicals.” The intellectual dishonesty of organizations like these is blatant, but few question their legitimacy. Why not? Because it’s “something.” It makes people feel good when they are doing “something,” rather than nothing.

This lazy, fear-based message is so far reaching and pervasive that we’ve become experts at shaming with love. I hear it all the time from leaders. It usually goes something like this: “We are removing the shame around masturbation and reminding them it’s a sin.” Guess what? They never forgot it was a sin. Additionally, I would argue a youth learning and developing into their pubescent years is no more experiencing a sin masturbating then a diabetic learning how to control and regulate their blood sugar.

Even FairMormon posted some standard, run of the mill, lazy, fear-based masturbation material done in the tone of love. The material is intellectually dishonest and forced to fit a moral view that can’t be scientifically or doctrinally supported. This podcast is far below the standard of FairMormon.

“Any claims you have heard that you will be physically harmed unless you do masturbate are simply false, or greatly overblown. There is a study that shows that older men have a lower risk of prostate cancer if they ejaculate more frequently. However, this same finding was not replicated in the case of young men. In fact, higher rates of masturbation raise the risk of prostate cancer in young men. Interestingly, more frequent intercourse did NOT raise the risk, but masturbation did.”[6]

Yes, Steve Densley Jr., made a refute of “simply false” and used a “study” that contradicted its own findings to support his argument. Of course, it was a cancer study too, but I don’t blame him; there is NO research to support his claims. Yet, he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to quote from Spencer W. Kimball’s “Love Versus Lust” talk (Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [Provo, 5 Jan. 1965], p. 22) and concludes, “if we are not willing to obey him in the ‘little’ things, when faced with a greater trial, we will not have developed either the strength or resolve to obey in the big things.” Densley Jr.’s usage of these sources and “studies” is an example of how pseudoscience of sexuality has, like in Tissot’s day, become a go-to phrase. He is an impressive and intelligent individual whom I admire, and I value what he has done with FairMormon. In this topic, however, he doesn’t appear to know what he is talking about.

Furthermore, Densley Jr. dismisses the valid question, “Can masturbation be done without lusting?” by stating the go-to “sacredness” and “powerful chemical reactions” argument, using these as if to say that personal arousal couldn’t be sacred and using the entirely untrue cop out of the powerful chemical argument.

Overall, it is clear from the data that the functional neuroanatomy of sex is very similar to that of other pleasures and that it is unlikely that there is anything special about the brain mechanisms and networks underlying sex.” —J.R. Geargiadis & M.L. Bringelbach, in “The human sexual response cycle: Brain imaging evidence linking sex to other pleasures”

Logically, these types of arguments are trite, lazy, and frankly downright confusing to kids. Are we really telling them that their wedding night is a gateway drug to addiction, cancer, and uncontrollable sex? If sex was so addictive, the majority of my couples work would be strategizing planned abstinence and recovery. Nope, the majority of my couples work is interventions in creating desire. That pesky addictive sex drive sure is never around when it counts. Culturally, we have taught — and especially women — how to reject sexual desire so well that the dysfunctions present in their marriage. But of course, they’ll “figure that out” with a spouse who also doesn’t know their own body.[1] [2] [3] [4]

This is the problem. It’s not working. The addiction model is failing and the aversion approach is creating a far bigger problem. It’s creating a bigger problem because the real issues are not being addressed. Why is diagnosing someone as a sex addict problematic?

"Anecdotal reports within sex addiction, and some research, suggests that personality disorder is extremely prevalent in sex addiction. Some estimates suggest that personality disorders and mood disorders are present in almost all cases of sex addiction. Multiple studies show that alleged sex addicts almost always have some other major mental illness. So, when such individuals present for sex addiction treatment, their hypersexual behaviors are most likely to be a symptom of the existing disorders. As one sex therapist and clinician described to me, 'The sex addiction diagnosis is a lazy diagnosis.' It ignores more relevant emotional and psychiatric issues to focus exclusively upon a person's sexual behavior.

“Because periods of sexual promiscuity are a frequent symptom for clients with bipolar disorder when they are in a manic phase, we would not normally diagnose hypersexuality and bipolar disorder, since bipolar disorder would subsume the symptom of periods of hypersexual behavior. According to the theories of sex addiction, the use of sex to manage negative emotions is identified as a core symptom of unhealthy sexuality and sex addiction. But if those negative emotions reflect the influence of depression or post-traumatic stress-disorder, it is more important to diagnose and treat the negative emotions. A diagnosis of sex addiction is superfluous at best and a dangerous distraction from the real treatment needed at worst." —David Ley, "The Myth of Sex Addiction"

The next time a research claims it’s a study of sexual addiction, review whether or not it has factored in preexisting mental health issues. Many studies like this one have found 80% or more actually are suffering from other behaviors; the sexual issues are usually a symptom of coping with the preexisting condition.

Furthermore, what about that very dangerous and highly addictive reward chemical dopamine? Dopamine does not equal reward, or at least, it's not that simple; refer to the study “The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine.”[7]

Dopamine has become the scapegoat neurological chemical. It's just not that simple. Yes, dopamine is involved in sexual experience. But no more than a mother breastfeeding, or the pleasure of seeing your kids after a long work trip. Additionally, the brain and biological response to sexual experience cannot be simplified down to one or two chemicals. You can explore this topic further here: The unsexy truth about dopamine. And here: No, Dopamine is Not Addictive.

Next Chapter: 6. Purity, Modesty, and Moral Ambiguity


Table of Contents:

0. Introduction

1. Background — It Happened Again

2. Context is Important: A Brief History Of Masturbation Beliefs Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

3. Cultivating Versus Condemning

4. What Went Wrong?

5. A New Culture Is Born: “Doctrine And Addiction” And Returning To The 1700s

6. Purity, Modesty, And Moral Ambiguity

7. Solution: Real Self-Mastery Cultivating Sexuality

Additional Resources
Facebook Group "Improving Intimacy in Mormon Marriages"
Blog, "Mormon Marriages"


[1] Prophet Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 77-78

[2] Peggy Fletcher Stack (July 24, 2015). "LDS classic 'Miracle of Forgiveness' fading away, and some Mormons say it's time". Salt Lake Tribune. http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=2762815&itype=CMSID

[3] Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, SLC: Deseret Book, 2005, 80

[4] Richard G. Scott Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles “The Path to Peace and Joy” https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2000/10/the-path-to-peace-and-joy?lang=eng

[5] Prophet Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 77

[6] “Fair Questions 4: What’s Wrong with Masturbation?” Steve Densley Jr. https://www.fairmormon.org/blog/2013/01/02/fair-questions-4-whats-wrong-with-masturbation

[7] The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2012.10.021