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Sexual purity, promiscuity, and loaded words ahoy!

July 28, 2011

ProfXM at Main Street Plaza has a post analyzing a recent Mormon Messages Youth youtube video. I’ll embed the video below.

I don’t watch a lot of Mormon Messages videos, but I think this one is fascinating. From an LDS viewpoint, I know exactly for what it’s going. From an unintended-consequences-of-LDS-culture I can see how it could be interpreted (so I understand where profxm is coming from too…to an extent). The church’s use of a religiously diverse cast to make the same message also has clear implications to me.

But I’m really shocked at how much the video relies on a particular understanding of the words used. The message can easily fail* at any point if someone understands the words differently or doesn’t know what the words are intended to be loaded to mean in the first place.

*I guess the one BIG caveat here is everything I say only applies if you ignore the quote from the Proclamation on the Family at the beginning. Suppose you, like me, only listen to the video the first tie.

I guess I’ll approach this topic by contrasting with profxm’s post. He comes out guns blazing with a logic chain that he believes the video is (dangerously) promoting.

  • Not having sex makes me “pure”.
  • Having sex makes me “impure.”
  • The act of sex is the cause of “impurity.”
  • Sex, therefore, is impure.
  • I feel guilt over wanting sex, which makes me impure.
  • I finally have sex once married and feel impure.
  • Sex = impurity

However, the one thing I noted is that this is distinctly not the logic the video is promoting. It might be if you read certain things into phrases like “sexually pure” or “sexually promiscuous,” and certainly might be if you are informed by an LDS mindset beforehand, but it need not be that way.

Watching and listening to the video (ignoring the blatant part from The Family: A Proclamation to the World), it seems that one could interpret the logic quite differently.

For example, starting from the first of profxm’s claims, it seems like I could instead interpret the message to be: not having indiscriminate (i.e., promiscuous) sex makes me pure.

Note that a charitable interpretation would assign this as the church’s intended message. Obviously, the church does NOT want to say that sex itself is impure. It does want to establish that some kinds of (“promiscuous”) sex are impure. What counts as promiscuous in this case? Nothing in the video explicitly establishes this (although if you have been raised in the church, you should be able to guess)! I know profxm dearly wishes to point out that the church is sexually repressive and sponsors unhealthy sexual attitudes, and he’s free to do that, but this eisegesis is a stretch from this video, because the video’s message as explicitly potrayed is simply too anemic.

Then, things continue:

Having indiscriminate sex makes me impure. The indiscriminate nature of the sex makes me “impure.”

(The church would agree, with very specific ideas about what makes sex “indiscriminate” that are not explicitly expressed in this video.)

I feel guilt over wanting sex, which makes me impure. This may be an empirical sort of issue, but it’s not one established in the theoretical logic of the video. Someone has to read this into the video. There is no counterpart in my revised logic, because the video simply doesn’t imply anything of the sort (either about feeling guilty for any kind of desire, or becoming impure because of that guilt or that desire.)

I finally have sex once married and feel impure. Again, this may be empirical. In other words, this may be the lived experience of many people who have grown up hearing messages like this. However, it’s not implied in the video, nor is it intended by the church’s more explicit teachings. (Then again, I’m well aware that “good intentions” aren’t everything.)

One thing I want to mention, as an aside, is that if you’re just listening to the video, then there’s nothing to suggest anything about “sex once married.” Nothing to suggest that is the solution, that that is the distinction between sexual purity and impurity, or promiscuity and non. One must bring his or her own pre-existing connotations of these terms to guess that maybe marriage is the answer.

But for the quote from the Proclamation, it seems easy for me to imagine someone watching this video and saying, “I completely agree with this video. That’s why my girlfriend/boyfriend and I are committed to each other, and we take care to avoid pregnancy/STIs. We aren’t “loose” or “promiscuous,” and so our [unwed] sexual activities indeed are pure. We control our sexual urges by sticking with each other.”

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  1. I kind of started to suggest your interpretation of the video with this point in my post:

    “Finally, did anyone else catch a phrase or statement that positively framed sex in the video? And did they say anything about sex after marriage? I don’t think the video says anything positive about sex; it just frames it as impure. The end result is that people will associate sex with impurity, leading to guilt and later problems in life.”

    What I was suggesting was, like you, it doesn’t actually say, “Oh, and sex becomes “pure” once you’re married.” It actually only says that with the quote from the Proclamation at the beginning (kind of; more implied). Thus, if you ignore that quote, you’re absolutely correct – an equally plausible interpretation is: committed sex is pure.

    As far as my association of sex with guilt – yeah, that’s me reading into the video a little. But, then again, the video does just frame sex as having negative consequences and doesn’t say anything positive about sex. That pretty much leaves a sense of: sex = impure + guilt.

  2. Even the Proclamation quote relies upon some LDS understandings, now that I think of it.

    (“Sacred powers of procreation”? What is that? It’s not necessarily sex itself.)

    It’s not that the video doesn’t positively frame sex. It’s that it says nothing about sex. It says a lot about sexual purity (poorly defined) and sexual promiscuity (poorly defined).

    It doesn’t say anything about sex having negative consequences. It says that sexual promiscuity has negative consequences over and over though.

  3. Well, it is a Mormon message. It’s made by Mormons for Mormons. The non-Mormons in the video are just props, basically. They’re only there to generate certain responses from Mormons.

    So it’s not at all odd that it’s done in Mormon code-speak, e.g., “sexual purity” means “not having coitus with someone to whom you aren’t (heterosexually) married” and “sexual promiscuity” means “having coitus with someone to whom you aren’t (heterosexually) married.” Those meanings are pretty clear to Mormons, if not to anyone else.

  4. kuri,

    That probably is more the case. I think, though, that the result of all of this is that when Mormons talk to non-Mormons about things like this, if they are using this language, they only perpetuate that “weird” stereotype.

    It’s not even English, really.

  5. Yeah. Right off the bat it starts with “sacred powers of procreation.” I would think that even religiously devout non-Mormons would have to think about that one for a second, although they’d probably intuit the meaning quickly. For the non- or not-very-religious, it’s a great big “Huh?” moment. And it doesn’t get much better after that.

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