Latter-day Saint Life

Ask a Latter-day Saint Therapist: What is and isn't appropriate in married sexuality?

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Editor’s note: This article contains a frank, but respectful, discussion of married sexuality and may not be for young readers.

Q: In God’s eyes, what’s appropriate (and not appropriate) in the marriage bedroom?

A: I love this question. So many of us have asked it, because we want to enjoy sexual intimacy in marriage as ordained by God but we are also like Alma, who “feared that he should do wrong in the sight of the Lord” (Mosiah 26:13). The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that sex is meant to be holy, beautiful, and unifying within the bonds of matrimony. It is not wrong in and of itself (quite the opposite, in fact), but the adversary attempts to confuse love with lust in order to draw us away from God.  

As President Spencer W. Kimball taught: “In the context of lawful marriage, the intimacy of sexual relations is right and divinely approved. There is nothing unholy or degrading about sexuality in itself, for by that means men and women join in a process of creation and in an expression of love” (President Kimball Speaks Out, 2).

But how can we tell when we’ve crossed the line from love into lust? What’s the difference between enjoying each other and using each other? Are certain behaviors categorically off-limits? Have the Savior’s servants given us clear instruction and guidelines?

The fact is, while a few attempts have been made decades ago to categorize specific bedroom behaviors as right or wrong, our leaders have backed away from that and there is nothing that has been officially declared “off-limits.” But that doesn’t mean that anything goes. It merely means that Church leaders likely don’t want to put themselves in a position of creating hard, fast rules for everyone, only for Church members to pressure their spouses with “See? No one’s said we can’t, so it must be okay, and you need to loosen up and do it!”

We do not live in the age of the law of Moses, an age of “carnal commandments” (D&C 84:27, Hebrews 7:16) with everything spelled out for us down to the letter. God does not wish to “command us in all things” (see D&C 58:26). In matters of married sexuality, as in so many others, the Lord through His prophets teaches us correct principles, then lets us govern ourselves.

So what are the correct principles regarding married sexuality? What is and isn’t appropriate? Unsurprisingly, God’s views diverge from modern, secular schools of thought. “For,” said He, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). Let’s take a look at 5 correct principles revealed through God’s prophets and apostles.

1. Sexuality is for building bonds of love between husband and wife.

President Joseph F. Smith taught that “The lawful association of the sexes is ordained of God, not only as the sole means of race perpetuation, but for the development of the higher faculties and nobler traits of human nature, which the love-inspired companionship of man and woman alone can insure” (“Unchastity the Dominant Evil of the Age,” Improvement Era, June 1917, 739).

Think on that. Sex in marriage isn’t just “something we do to make babies.” Nor is it “something we’re allowed to do now that we’re married.” It is for “the development of the higher faculties and nobler traits of human nature.” Practiced as God intended, it is an ennobling, sanctifying experience. It is not meant to be a primal, animal act, but rather the ultimate expression of selfless regard, of cherishing one’s partner, of giving and receiving love. This isn’t to say that it can’t be passionate and fun (because it definitely can and even should be) but rather that our mindset and spiritual perspective color the experience.

2. Tenderness and respect, not selfishness, lead to holy sexuality.

This, to me, is the key between what is right and wrong, what is lustful vs. what is holy passion. It’s not about specific acts being categorically right or wrong. It’s about the spirit of what you are doing. It is about whether you and your spouse find an experience ennobling and unifying or degrading and emotionally separating.

Consider these teachings: “Let us instruct young people who come to us, first, young men throughout the Church, to know that a woman should be queen of her own body. The marriage covenant does not give the man the right to enslave her, or to abuse her, or to use her merely for the gratification of his passion. Your marriage ceremony does not give you that right” (President David O. McKay in Conference Report, Apr. 1952, 86). I would add that this is also true in reverse, with wives not having the right to enslave, abuse, or use their husbands.

Clearly, if one spouse feels uncomfortable with (or degraded by) an experience, it is not right for the couple, even if the other spouse is fine with it. As President Howard W. Hunter taught, “Keep yourselves above any domineering or unworthy behavior in the tender, intimate relationship between husband and wife. Because marriage is ordained of God, the intimate relationship between husbands and wives is good and honorable in the eyes of God….Tenderness and respect—never selfishness—must be the guiding principles in the intimate relationship between husband and wife. Each partner must be considerate and sensitive to the other’s needs and desires. Any domineering, indecent, or uncontrolled behavior in the intimate relationship between husband and wife is condemned by the Lord” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 68; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 51).

So how can we tell the positive from the negative, the right from the wrong? How can we distinguish between uncontrolled behavior and getting lost in the moment? What’s the difference between indecent and adventurous? What is domineering versus what is merely appropriately passionate?

I would say that if your spouse consents (truly consents, not by coercion, expectation, or duty), and if the experience helps you both to feel loved, safe, and respected, you’re off to a good start. Can you look each other in the eye with tenderness and affection during and after? Did it bring you closer together? So very often it’s about the spirit and emotion with which we do something than the act in and of itself.

Beyond that, consider the words of Susanna Wesley: “Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself.” This may look different from person to person, couple to couple. Conversely, if you both feel closer to each other and to God, if you still feel in control of yourself and in tune with your spouse’s verbal and nonverbal cues, it is likely an appropriate behavior for you.

Again, if one spouse feels degraded, it’s not okay, even if the other is fine with it. It’s true that some behaviors are an “acquired taste,” and what one doesn’t enjoy now may be his or her favorite experience later, but that is a journey of discovery to walk together with respect for boundaries. Again, as President Hunter explained, “Each partner must be considerate and sensitive to the other’s needs and desires.” While that does mean being willing to be intimate in ways your partner finds pleasurable and unifying, that also means they must be considerate to your boundaries and lines you do not wish to cross. Which brings us to our next principle.

3. Sexuality is also for creating life. 

President Spencer W. Kimball taught that “The union of the sexes, husband and wife (and only husband and wife), was for the principal purpose of bringing children into the world. Sexual experiences were never intended by the Lord to be a mere plaything or merely to satisfy passions and lusts. We know of no directive from the Lord that proper sexual experience between husbands and wives need be limited totally to the procreation of children, but we find much evidence from Adam until now that no provision was ever made by the Lord for indiscriminate sex” (“The Lord’s Plan for Men and Women,” Ensign, Oct. 1975, 4).

As we consider that teaching, let us also ponder the balancing principle that “the decision of how many children to have and when to have them is a private matter for the husband and wife…. Decisions about birth control and the consequences of those decisions rest solely with each married couple. Elective abortion as a method of birth control, however, is contrary to the commandments of God” (Gospel Topics, “Birth Control”).

4. Be open to experimentation but honor your spouse’s boundaries.

I personally believe that one of the reasons we don’t have hard, fast rules about what is and isn’t appropriate between married couples is because people are unique and all couples are different from one another. What one person finds pleasurable and bonding another person may find off-putting or even disgusting. We have different needs and preferences, and marriage involves adjusting and being sensitive to one another.

This principle extends beyond the bedroom as well. In communication, for example, one spouse may value direct frankness while the other prefers kind tact. If you subscribe to the idea of Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages (which I do), then one spouse may value words of affirmation while another finds that, to them, “talk is cheap” and they need quality time to feel loved.

With lovemaking as with love, there is no “one experience fits all.” We all need different things in order to feel loved, safe, and respected, and what I need may differ from what you need. In the bedroom and in the broader marriage relationship, we discover one another’s likes and dislikes by ensuring that each feels safe and respected. We must demonstrate that while one certainly has personal desires, these will be delayed, or even sacrificed if necessary, to create a relationship of mutual selflessness and respect.

President Harold B. Lee taught that if married couples “would resolve from the moment of their marriage, that from that time forth they would resolve and do everything in their power to please each other in things that are right, even to the sacrifice of their own pleasures, their own appetites, their own desires, the problem of adjustment in married life would take care of itself, and their home would indeed be a happy home. Great love is built on great sacrifice, and that home where the principle of sacrifice for the welfare of each other is daily expressed is that home where there abides a great love” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1947, 49).

Sometimes that sacrifice takes the form of giving up a sexual hope because your spouse isn’t okay with it, redirecting that passion toward something you're both comfortable with. Other times that sacrifice may take the form of trying something new to please your spouse, even if it’s not your favorite (as long as you don’t feel degraded or demeaned). It’s okay to try things out, then keep trying in order to improve the experience. It’s also okay to decide, “Well, we’re not going to do that one again.”

5. You were created to feel pleasure. Give yourself permission to do so.

Your bodies were created in the image of God, and certain parts of your anatomy exist solely for the purpose of sexual pleasure. Think on that. Your body fulfills the measure of its creation, in part, by experiencing loving, pleasurable sexuality in a committed marriage relationship.

In her excellent book And They Were Not Ashamed, Strengthening Marriage Through Sexual Fulfillment, Dr. Laura Brotherson explains that, culturally, many married Latter-day Saints suffer from “good girl” and “good guy” syndrome. This is the struggle to give themselves permission to feel pleasure without guilt. For so many years as singles we abstain (and repent if we fall short of abstaining) from any kind of sexual pleasure, “bridling our passions” in order to be filled with love (see Alma 38:12). But we were created to experience passion within the bounds that God has set. It is not sinful in that context. It is holy and beautiful.

Be loving. Be respectful. Allow yourselves to enjoy it and have fun. Do the work, humbly listen and learn about one another so that you can have a mutually satisfying sexual experience. I’ve heard it said that this is Heavenly Father’s wedding gift to you. He meant for you to enjoy it without shame. It is joyous.

God bless you. I hope this helps.

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