Trigger Warning: sex
The August 2020 issue of the Ensign is one of the last issues of the Ensign that will ever be published, because beginning in January it will be renamed the Liahona, which is the name currently given to the magazine for all Latter-day Saints who don't speak English, though it's not quite equivalent to the current Ensign because it covers material for adults, teenagers, and children while English-speakers have three separate magazines for those categories. Beginning in January all three magazines will be available to everyone, though they will vary from language to language in frequency of publication and amount of content just like the Liahona already does. This change, like rebranding EFY as FSY and cutting ties with the Boy Scouts, removes a systemic difference between the Church in the United States and the Church everyone else. It's an important step toward actually being a global faith and not just trying to act like it.
The cover of this issue says "Talking about Sexuality from a Gospel Perspective" and several of the articles inside do exactly that. Now, I find it really pretentious and annoying in the mainstream society how people go on about their obsession with sex and sexuality and sex life and sexual orientation and sexual health and sexual this and sexual that and sex and sex and sex, pretending that the world revolves around their most primitive animal instinct and trying to make it all sophisticated and intellectual. But I concede that it's got to be talked about sometimes, and there are good ways to do that and bad ways to do that. This issue is obviously striving to promote the good ways to do that and get rid of the cultural stigma, discomfort, and wedding night confusion that plagues our church along with all Christian denominations (and probably other religions) that teach that sex is good within marriage and wicked in any other context. In fairness, sex education at my secular middle school in liberal New York sent mixed messages too. It was all like "Don't have sex, but if you do, use these free condoms."
For a while I've noticed the irony that while I think sex is disgusting beyond all reason, I'm far less squeamish about it than many who ostensibly believe it's beautiful and sacred at the right time. I don't believe that sex is beautiful and/or sacred, because I simply can't, but if you claim that you do, freaking act like it. Don't tell me sex is ordained of God and then treat it like a swear word. So this magazine is a breath of fresh air. It does refer to sex over and over again as "sexual intimacy", using seven syllables where one would do just fine, but that's still accurate and I can live with it. What really irks me is when people just call it "intimacy". As such, this passage from "Conversations about Intimacy and Sex That Can Prepare You for Marriage" was my favorite part of the whole issue:
"A lot of people use the word intimacy as a synonym for sex, but this can be incomplete and a little confusing. Intimacy refers to feelings of closeness created within emotional, intellectual, and physical areas of relationships. There are a few types of intimacy:
Saying "intimacy" because you're scared of the word "sex" is a slap in the face to everyone who's ever had a meaningful friendship. Elsewhere, Ty Mansfield has noted, "I’ve even known of men who questioned their sexuality simply because they developed a deep emotional love for another man. It seems our culture often has difficulty distinguishing deep love and intimacy from sexual or erotic desire, and it certainly doesn’t help when in conservative religious cultures we use terms like intimacy - a general human good and need that transcends sexuality - as a euphemism for sex."
On that note, I was happy to see an article by a gay Latter-day Saint on "My Experience Living the Law of Chastity with Same-Sex Attraction". It's the usual "I don't know why God did this to me but I trust Him and I have a really strong testimony" spiel that I would have expected, and I think the article's actual contents are less important than the fact of acknowledging and listening to our LGBTQ+ members in the first place. I'm actually far more interested in the author's Hasidic Jewish background. I think converts from Judaism are even rarer than gay converts, and he's both, and most of Judaism isn't really okay with homosexuality either. Did he know he was gay while he was Jewish? Did anyone else? What was that like? When he converted to the Church of Jesus Christ, which he mentions his Jewish community wasn't thrilled about, did they drop the gay thing and decide this was even worse? How, if at all, does this unique background inform his perspective on both LGBTQ+ and Christian topics?
This issue also contains what I believe is the first ever acknowledgement in any official Church source that asexual people exist. In "Bridling Your Passions: How to Align Sexual Thoughts and Feelings with the Lord's Expectations", we find this gem: "Most of us experience sexual feelings as part of our mortal experience." (emphasis added) Not much, obviously, but it's more than the absolute nothing that I've gotten up to this point. When no other article includes such a caveat, and two or three of them assert that these sexual feelings are a gift from God, I could perhaps be forgiven for wondering if God forgot about me, or deemed me unworthy of the gift, or simply ran out. After all, if the universe has a finite amount of eternally existing matter that God just arranges into planets and people and stuff instead of spawning them ex nihilo, He's got to start cutting corners eventually.
Naturally, there's a lot of focus on how to teach your kids about this stuff, but without going into any real detail. Two or three articles mention the importance of using proper names for body parts. Again, I don't believe these body parts are beautiful or sacred but they are entirely normal and healthy things to have so there's no point in demonizing them. They could have strengthened their point considerably by using those names themselves. It would have sent such a powerful message: "Look, if we can say 'penis' in a church magazine, you can say it to your kids." And I'm sure many readers would benefit from learning, as I did recently, that what they call a vagina is, in fact, a vulva, which consists of at least eleven parts with weird, often Latin names, and the vagina isn't even one of them. The vagina is, in fact, inside of this apparatus. (After reading the magazine, I looked this stuff up on Wikipedia in the hope that familiarizing myself with the not-vagina would help me be less viscerally disgusted by what I think looks like an aborted sarlacc fetus. It didn't work.)
Obviously the Ensign is only meant to be a jumping-off point for these discussions, and is not considered the place for going into a lot of actual detail. I would just like to add my two cents that these discussions should include more than the bare minumum of detail. It's true that my happiness in life has declined in inverse proportion to how much I know about sex, but I'm in the minority, and I don't think anyone particularly enjoys being clueless and taken by surprise on their wedding night. I first learned about sex from a book that described it as when a man inserts his erect penis into his wife's vagina, and pretty much left it at that. So I visualized it as something that took place in the bathroom standing up. (This is anatomically impossible because of how the vagina/vulva is positioned, but I didn't even know that much.) Fortunately the guys at my lunch table at school filled the gaps in my knowledge whether I liked it or not.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.