The Erotic in LDS Lit
Part III: Test Case


If you fear, fear not. If you fear not, fear.
---J. Reuben Clark


Before we get started, let me quote again Levi Peterson, the gentleman we met back in Part I: "There is health in treating the broad range of experience . . . in viewing clearly the full spectrum of human act and emotion . . . ."

I'm taking that as a truth as we get started in this week's look at a bit of fiction that runs head-on into sex without, in my estimation, becoming unholy or untrue.

I don't think I'm the first person to draw an analogy between what Mormons think of sex and what we think of the temple: they're not secret, per se, but sacred. Which looks a lot the same on the outside, but we know the difference, right? We just haven't found a good way to express that difference yet. Someone get on that.

So, while looking at "the full spectrum of human act and emotion" during this sequence of posts, we're specifically considering the sacred erotic in literature. Today's test case, Todd Robert Petersen's "Family History" (available in his excellent collection Long After Dark--my review here).

It's an interesting choice for a test case because it starts with what reads like a shameless and far-from-sacred sexual encounter. The encounter ends before any actual sex starts, but that doesn't mean it could not qualify as one of Jorgensen's "porn events" (see Part II). If that opening scene was all I knew of Petersen (not Peterson, keep 'em straight) was this one scene, I might well have a different opinion of him. But! That scene starts a novella that followed fifteen short stories, some of which were among the best I have ever read. I felt like I knew this author enough to trust he knew what he was doing. Remember this definition of porn from Publishers Weekly: "It is one of the tropes of pure pornography that events are without consequence. No babies, no STDs, no trauma, no memories best left unexamined." This is exactly true---porn is sex without consequences. Not so in "Family History."

"Family History" belongs to the long heritage of conversion stories, so popular in Mormon literature. But I need to keep in mind that when Larry and Mona do it like bonobos in a Vegas hotel room, they don't share my moral code.

FoxyJ was telling me the other night that she's noticed many Mormon consumers of art do this: judge characters by the viewer/reader's moral code. She's against this. How can someone (fictional or not) be held to a standard they don't know? A great thing about fiction is that, yes, we can judge them, but shouldn't we judge them according to the light and knowledge they have received?

(Note: Judging characters is different from judging texts. Larry and Mona have hot sex. Okay. But if Larry and Mona have hot consequence-free sex, that ceases to be okay and now the text becomes a lie. Not okay.)

(Note: And judging the author becomes something anew. Judging an author by his characters might be impossible. But judging an author by a text becomes inevitable. Although we should be careful to remember that we can mistake and misinterpret. And an author, after all, is a genuine human being. Judge not that ye be not judged.)

To me, these are the questions with which we should judge "Family History" as a text:
    1. Was the text written for the sole purpose of titillating the reader?
    (My answer: no. But if the early sex scenes do titillate the reader, that only increases the power of the entire work. Which gives us a gray area. And people hate gray areas. Phooey.)

    2. Does the text show that sexual behavior has consequences?
    (Yes. Although I want to rush and point out that sexual behavior can have different consequences for different people at different times. A reader who wants ever fornicator to die of AIDS will be disappointed not only in fiction but in real life.)
What are the consequences in this case? Larry falls in love with a one-night stand which screws up his life. He ends up marrying her. Later, when he's LDS, he tries to destroy everything he wrote about those times to hide his rapscallery from his son. Unsuccessfully. His raised-Mormon, now-adult son finds the document we know as part one of the novella and he's shocked by it:

"He was right--my father's account of that weekend in Las Vegas was horrible, but I couldn't get past the idea--once I was over the shock--that as my parents were in Vegas, God might have also been there. If we believe in the gospel, then we have to accept the fact that bad people or selfish people can always come around."

But, as his mother tells him, "These stories don't get told much in our church, David. We want stories of success without having to hear about the struggles of sin. . . . There has to be an opposition in all things, otherwise we could not be redeemed. And the opposition is part of the whole. . . . Please consider that as you write our history. Please record all of us. Let our lives be of use."

WARNING! I'm not suggesting that sex scenes in literature are necessarily depictions of sinful behavior. In fact, I would (in general) much rather stumble across what I've been terming "holy sex." But, back to Peterson (note the o), "There is health in treating the broad range of experience . . . in viewing clearly the full spectrum of human act and emotion . . . ."

The erotic experiences of life are part of that. And, regardless of what the sexual actions of characters are, are the consequences of those actions true? I suggest we use that as a guide, and in this story, the answer is yes. And the result is a beautiful, artful, holy story.

Next week, The Erotic in LDS Lit Part III: The Sex Talk.

Oh boy!

(FREE BONUS!!! Tomorrow, only on Thmusings, part III.V, which partially discusses the sex in another LDS book! Be there! Er, here!)


  1. You know, this is really interesting to me because I have the same problem with adolescent ultra-prudery that you describe. And yet, the first time I tried to seriously write after being married, I felt that I could not express the truth I felt about certain characters without writing about their sexual relationship.

    It was only one sentence and it was not explicit in any way, but it was openly about sex, and it seemed right when nothing else did.

    I've seen you commenting around the web and I don't know if you've seen me, but if you have then you probably know I'm really guarded about sexual content of any kind. I've only seen one film ever, for example, in which I found a sex scene neither offensive nor unnecessary.

    But I find myself feeling refreshed by your writing on this topic and agreeing with you more than I expected. Thanks.

  2. .

    Thanks to you too, Adam. I've read your posts at Towards an LDSC (which, I think you'll agree, Trevor has made into one of the best sites around) and I'm happy you're stopping by.

    But please do tell: which film passed the Adam Test?

  3. It was actually quite recent, a viewing inspired by Benjamin Thevenin's post on it on Toward and LDS Cinema. The name of the film? The Fountain.

    I should point out that I have seen films with suggestive content that I found acceptable and even enlightening in context (Fellini's 8 1/2 comes to mind) but The Fountain is the only one with an actual sex scene that I thought added to the beauty of the film.

    I also want to say that after reading your series thus far I took some time to read your The Widower. It so elegantly evoked my feelings for my own good wife that I was nearly brought to tears. Thank you for using your gifts for good instead of evil.

  4. .

    Thank you! That is a very kind compliment.

  5. As you quoted Foxy above, that has been a thing I have hated about LDS readers/viewers.
    How can we possibly judge anyone by a standard they either do not know or even accept?
    Where much is given much is expected, but where little is given how much is expected? Reading and (to me) to a lesser degree viewing, are learning expieriences whether fiction or not and we shouldn't put our heads in the sand to realistic, human, god-like god-given activities.
    LDS readers need to accept that there was a time before the restoration and that after such there are still a lot of people on the earth that have not heard (or cared)for their standards but it doesn't mean there is nothing of good report there. I think we all know (I'm lumping all of the literary snob sites together here) that when we seek enlightening fiction, it has not generally been coming from the narrow LDS market-but it should be, and it falls to the authors and to a lesser degree the publishers to provide such. Granted people need to have the courage to read it too.

    Too much? I plead the Lortab I am not taking anymore.