The Erotic in LDS Lit
Part VII: Theric replies to your questions and comments (b)


Remembering Chesil Beach
    Last week, Lady Steed's Relief Society bookgroup added Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach to their list of books for next year. We (Lady Steed and I) have both read it recently and at the time, it spurred a lot of good conversation between us. Its selection for the RS gave us a chance top recap. Lady Steed observed that, in her eye, this book (a Moral Pornography?) had cut me loose and was the direct cause of what has led to this series of posts. She may well be right. So blame Mr McEwan.

Adolescent Hyperprudery
    In Part IV I blamed my parents for turning me into an insufferable prude. That's not 100% fair. My hormones deserve some of the blame too. If, at fifteen, a sliver of midriff could trainwreck my brain, is it so surprising that I considered anything but hypermodesty in a girl a crime?

    This is the line of reasoning that leads to burqas. And frankly, I doubt if burqas help at all.

    I remember once, in high school, in math, I happened to glance at my friend D who sat one seat ahead of my, in the row to my left. I saw her bejeaned thigh and it struck my brain with the force of a 50-caliber bullet that there was skin under those jeans.

    This thought was uninvited and a burqa wouldn't have stopped it. And that's the problem with this kind of reasoning.

    Not to suggest I'm okay with g-strings and pasties at school, but to pretend we can remove all temptations to lustful thinking --- that we can create a world free of impure sexthoughts --- is ludicrous. We're sexual creatures and we need to deal with that fact, not repress it. Because pure repression will endlessly fail. We need more control, not more guilt.

    Also in favor of my parents, they had a book called You Were Smaller than a Dot which was good sex ed for my prepuberty years. It was after the onset of puberty that the needed information dried up.

Mojo: What about the third party who writes it?
    This question came in response to this assertion from Chosha: "I also have no issue with a couple reading a fictional erotic account written by a third party." And it's a good question.

    Writing is a solitary activity. If the writer sitting down cranking out sex scenes is having a[n internal] sexual experience, then it is, by definition, a lonely one and, I suppose, masturbatory. I suppose. The cheap and easy solution is to demand married couples write such texts together (if such texts themselves can be moral, which remains unproven), but realistically, if such texts are to exist, the majority will be written by individuals, not couples.

    So what about those individuals? Do they have any chance for salvation? Haha! Of course! Don't underestimate the power of the Atonement. But the real question is Does this writer require additional salvation because of his/her work?Or, restated, is creating the purely erotic a sin?

    Part of me wants to say yes, but when I analyze why I want to say yes, it comes down to this: because it offers others a means to sin.

    In other words, we're back to the burqa argument.

    Now,locking people in a room and holding their ears open and telling them tales of ******** ******* and ******** ***** would certainly be wrong, but making it available to the public in a circumspect and reasonable and honest way?

    If (if) reading such work may not be a sin, I think it follows that the writing must not be either, or at least not necessarily so.

    It's like my chicken video:

    I take no joy in killing a chicken. In fact, I agree that it would be of a higher morality to grow our meat in a lab, but we're not there yet. And being willing to eat meat but not willing to kill it is an ethical double standard.

    The same is true here. If we accept the morality of consuming a Moral Pornography, then it's hypocritical not to allow its production.

    Whether or not the production is good for the producer depends on a lot of variables which means, once again, I'm backing out of an outright pronouncement and just shurgging and saying idunno. I won't be winning any decisiveness awards for this series, that's for sure.

    Arguments for the possible existence of a Moral Pornography notwithstanding, as generally understood, "pornography" is not something that is good for us.

    On definition of pornography that I've been ho9lding back is based on the always popular Ten Commandments. In my opinion, the pornography is prohibited by two of them, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (or, more accurately, Jesus's corollary, "whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart") and "Thou shalt not covet." (Others, like the idolatry ones, can apply but are not, in my opinion, necessary for a definition.)

    What think ye?

On the man who leapt naked from the hotel bathroom
    I can't remember where I read this, but it was recent. A previously married man, thinking he is funny, leaps out naked at his virginal bride on night one and scars her. Ruins the night.

    Obviously, this isn't a conversation that comes up often, but (with the exception of some gay men) I've never met anyone who will argue that penises are attractive. Much more common adjectives include ridiculous and ugly. So springing one on a virgin is bad form indeed. You young men: learn from this idiot's example. You artists: keep this in mind.

Confuzzled: Also, as my dad once pointed about thinking about such things--the sin is not that in the thinking of it, but in the dwelling on it long past when your thinking time should have ended.
    Anything can be a sin when taken to an extreme, n'est-ce pas?

    (I thought I would have a lot more to say on this, but it seems so self-evident, I find myself rather at a loss.)

    (Although there may be an irony inherent in this fact: I'm in my seventh week of these posts.)

Jorgensen: Eros has a place, many places, in Mormon writing. Which is not at all to say, or even to suppose, that erotic writing might cure our sickness.
    Just to clarify, Jorgensen did not say erotic writing would cure anything --- he wasn't even clear that we have anything to be cured from. If this idea needs more expression I assign it to . . . MoJo. It's all yours.

MoJo: I think part of the cure is for LDS parents to start teaching children young, using correct terms when referring to body parts, being without shame in saying the words, and answering questions honestly and matter-of-factly (although I haven't mastered the art of explaining it so my little ones can actually understand what I just said, though I try). Make it not about shamefulness or sin, but about cohesion.
    This sound a lot like my philosophy: tell the truth, keep it simple, treat the subject without shame (that's a new way of expressing it, but that's the basic idea). MoJo's use of the word 'cohesion' is interesting, as is her follow up to what I just quoted: "Adam knew Eve. Heart, soul, mind, body. At the same time. At least, that's the way I read it." Mormon doctrine teaches a perfect unity of spirit and body as part of our eternal goal. Sexual expression is reserved for those who have participated in the priesthood's highest ordinances. It doesn't seem unreasonable to propose that the two may go together.

Celia: By Jr. High I knew it was sperm from men and eggs from women that created babies, but I couldn't figure out how the sperm got into the woman.
    I remember in fifth or sixth grade, during recess before our sex-ed video, one of my friends told me about sex and I was so appalled I knew he had to be lying. When prodded for an alternate theory, I came up with something about breasts and nipples (although I assure you neither word was used in my hypothesis). A few hours later when I learned how right the penis/vagina theory was, I was shocked. So I feel ya (metaphorically only).

Foxy J: But, my sister and I were talking once and we both felt like we grew up feeling like sex was more important than it is. Especially from my mom I got the idea that all men think about is sex and that it is the most important thing for them. I'm naturally a fairly modest person, and by the time I got to junior high I was terrified of boys/men. I thought that all they ever wanted me for was my body and that all they were ever thinking about is sex. I felt really uncomfortable around most guys for years, probably even until I got married.
    I agree that a debilitating fear isn't any good, but I'm not convinced your mother was all that wrong, either. Frankly, working in a high school, I'm getting to the point where I think sex takes up a significant portion of both sexes' thoughts.

    I'm not planning on gathering any data though. Sorry. But I would be curious to hear other opinions on this.

Hey! Isn't this supposed to be about Mormon Literature?
    You're right. You're absolutely right. I'm not sure how we got so off topic. Shall we try at least a brief return?

On culture influencing Culture
    Back to this 'sickness' idea for a moment, if the culture does have a sickness (in terms of inability to grapply forthrightly with sexuality) then it will obviously be revealed in the Culture. Just something to think about.

Broadly Appropriate
    William Morris of A Motley Vision promotes the idea of three types of appropriate in Mormon arts. The idea began, I believe, with the essay "Three Kinds of Appropriateness" by Benson Parkinson, then an editor of Irreantum (which I just resubscribed to). Unfortunately, the link to his essay is broken, but as long as it's still available, here's Google's cache.

    Since I don't know when (if ever) this essay will be fully available again, I'm going to feel free to quote it at length:

      The first kind of morality in Mormon literature is the "completely appropriate." This kind seeks to be appropriate in every way. Some of these works duplicate the conventions of national genre fiction while toning the sex, violence, and swearing down to pre-1970s television levels, and broach the sacred with great deference or frequently not at all. Others focus more deeply on Mormon characters, issues, and spirituality. This is probably the most popular of the three kinds of LDS literature, at least in number of titles. Several books in this category, such as Richard Paul Evans's The Christmas Box, have been national bestsellers. Others aimed at the LDS market, most notably Gerald N. Lund's Work and the Glory series, have sold in excess of all but the most runaway national bestsellers.

      If I had to choose a mascot for this type, I'd pick a cocker spaniel or some other family-friendly breed. That's not to say it's so tame as to be lifeless. Completely appropriate fiction is increasingly willing to look evil in the face and portray all manner of sinful behavior, though never graphically or in a way that readers would find tempting. Primary characters behave and think as they ought to and fret over even minor failings. That's because its readers identify strongly and want to believe that the characters' good-heartedness and obedience will bring them through. When a character strays, it can be as stressful to these readers as if a friend had done so. Too much of that would overwhelm a novel, though fans and writers recognize you need enough to make the story go.

      The second kind of Mormon literature is the "broadly appropriate." This kind tries to be true to a mainstream vision of the gospel while acknowledging the complex mix of good and evil that exists in the world. This may be the category with the most potential to break Mormon literature out of niche status. Traditionally at least, the sort of slow-selling but long-lived books that wind up being studied in college courses are in this mode. Douglas Thayer's Under the Cottonwoods is an example of fiction for LDS readers in this category. An example of fiction for readers at large is the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card.

      The mascot for this kind of writing would be a border collie or some other intelligent, agile working breed. These books are willing to depict sex or violence or bad language if there's literary justification, though frequently less than in comparable works by non-LDS writers. By contrast, they're more willing than most non-LDS writing to confront the sacred head-on. The broadly appropriate shows evil as attractive in order to make its attraction comprehensible. Characters think all manner of thoughts and fret precious little about their failings because they're not aware of most of them. Its readers identify with characters less strongly but study them more intently. Often the point of a book is to learn compassion by coming to grips with the complexity of a character's situation. Often the emphasis is on agency--focusing on a sin or flaw in order to follow it through to its logical conclusion.

      The third kind of moral literature is the "shockingly appropriate." This kind tries to be true to its own often counterintuitive sense of gospel values while violating, for artistic impact, the average gospel believer's sense of propriety. Shockingly appropriate Mormon literature has relatively small audiences but is probably the most in sync with national literary tastes and has thus far received the most scholarly attention. Brian Evenson and Levi Peterson are two prominent fiction writers in this category, and one could also mention Neil LaBute's dramas and films.

      The mascot for the shockingly appropriate would be the coyote, lone and wily, seen by some as a harmful enemy and others as a romantic character or a useful friend. In shockingly appropriate writing, nothing is sacred, at least at first glance, and violence, sexuality, profanity, and every manner of evil may abound. Characters wallow in degradation, or revel in perversion, and the book may celebrate either or both. The shockingly appropriate violates every convention, every expectation, in order to set the reader up for the big punch: humans of every description have innate value, or good can prevail, or God's grace is sufficient. Values like these transcend all the little ones the book pillories along the way.

    Like Parkinson and Morris, I'm probroad. I like me a book where even if the "characters . . . say inappropriate things . . . the books never do."

    Parkinson admits that the "Fans of the other kinds typically find this kind [the broadly appropriate] too 'broad' on the one hand, or too 'appropriate' on the other. But this kind doesn't apologize for finding truth abroad, or for serving the cause at home."

    And the erotic certainly can find a home therein.

Well, now that I've brought it back to literature, I think we should wait on the rest of your comments for one more week.

In the meantime, leave more!


  1. Thinking about my comments after seeing them again, I don't know if anyone brought up the point yet that chastity talks at church (and home) should include letting teens know that sexual feelings are normal. I think I struggled with a lot of unnecessary guilt during high school because of feelings and urges I had. Even getting the idea that sex is sacred and a good thing, it's still difficult to have such powerful feelings when you are only 12 or 13 (or 22 for that matter). Especially when you get a lot of confusing messages about when you should do something about it or what you can/cannot do (ahem, uh, masturbate). I think masturbation is probably the hardest thing to discuss with teens, because almost everybody tries it at least once, but in theory it's not OK. SO there's a fine line between saying "hey it's normal" and "you really shouldn't do that too often". And now I'm going off on a tangent....

  2. Well, crap. I put this under the wrong post.

    Jorgensen: Eros has a place, many places, in Mormon writing. Which is not at all to say, or even to suppose, that erotic writing might cure our sickness.

    Just to clarify, Jorgensen did not say erotic writing would cure anything --- he wasn't even clear that we have anything to be cured from. If this idea needs more expression I assign it to . . . MoJo. It's all yours.

    Not sure I can do that article justice. I mean, I've come to the point where I'm not even going to try to classify what I write in terms of erotica or not, because the sex isn't the story. It's part of it, and it's graphic, but it's not the whole story.

    Too, as I've said, I come from the genre romance side of things where what I write is hot, but not out of the ordinary and certainly wouldn't be considered erotica or even "romantica."

    I do like the "shockingly appropriate" tag. That sounds about right for me, if we're defining that in LDS terms.

    I write what I want to write, sex, language, everything, but it has to be COHESIVE with who these people are.

    And unlike Eugene, who makes no judgments on his characters' choices (and I LIKED that, don't get me wrong), I make judgments on the appropriateness of my characters' behavior.

    Nevertheless, while Eugene's novel was readable by LDSs (if deemed inappropriate by some reviewers), mine will not be and I know that.

    As for being cured from something... Hmmm. I think what we need to be cured from is this hedge mentality, that the world is SO bad beyond the hedges that protect us that we must actually stay 3 feet from the hedge itself so as not to be tainted.

    I keep thinking about a comment I heard in Relief Society some time last year:

    "I can't even call it a coffee table. It's a hot chocolate table."

    Yes, and I cover the legs on my furniture, too, because it's just too arousing for some people.

  3. .

    Foxy: This is something I think about too. The Big O is already quite aware of the female form --- and has been for some time. When we were in San Francisco a few years ago, he was enthralled by the one female nude at the wax museum. And his first sports even when he was two? It was all about the cheerleaders. And it's showing no signs of slackening; I can't imagine him at fourteen.

    But how to balance it's-normal with hold-on-partner? I don't know. Before I had kids I thought the solution would be obvious (viz don't do what my parents did) but it's actually not that simple. I've got a lot of figuring out to do.

    Mojo: I'm ambivalent re: passing judgment on characters, amount of the 'bad' in a work, et cetera. I think intention and results are more important than the details along the way, and I've seen both sides of each issue succeed and I've seen them fail spectacularly.

    With something like lit (or, more generally, art) trying to make rules that should always be followed is, I think, one rule that will always be wrong. This is why constant discussion is helpful. And pretending we've reached conclusions can't be.

  4. Theric, with regard to the Big O, he'll probably go through his girls-have-cooties stage soon enough.

    Tax Deduction #2 (he's 2-1/2) was pretty fascinated by a bronze in our chichi shopping district that showed everything, you know, DOWN THERE. My MIL was nudging me like, "Uhm, could you, you know, cover his eyes or something?" and I said, "I don't care if he looks at stuff like that. It's Hustler and Penthouse that'll make my head explode."

  5. .

    Not all nudity is created equal.

  6. If the writer sitting down cranking out sex scenes is having a[n internal] sexual experience, then it is, by definition, a lonely one and, I suppose, masturbatory. I suppose.

    Sure, if the writer is writing to Penthouse magazine letters section. Of maybe, just maybe, the writer is just...writing.

    Enjoying the topic as it ticks merrily along. It's certainly provoked a lot of discussion.