This chapter is one that I have looked forward to writing. It is a topic that affected so much of my life and brought so much shame and guilt. Not to mention, I personally think it is one of the most dominating and invasive parts of Mormon culture, especially in Utah, and more specifically Utah County where I was raised. Because of the dominating population of Mormons, there is a social peer pressure to keep all the standards perfectly and everyone knew if someone didn’t. A large chunk of high school gossip had to do with who was and wasn’t keeping these standards.
To begin, I want to lay out a few of these standards and expectations. All of these can be found in a pamphlet published by the Church entitled For the Strength of Youth. It covers 19 different topics that the Church leaders want youth to be conscious of. I remember being encouraged to keep a copy of this pamphlet on my nightstand and read a section every night before going to bed. I don’t know that I ever did that, but I definitely took everything in this book very seriously. I will quote excerpts from the pamphlet and then expand. These are all taken directly from the sections entitled Dating and Sexual Purity. There are other topics in the pamphlet that will not be explored in this chapter.
You should not date until you are at least 16 years old. When you begin dating, go with one or more additional couples. Avoid going on frequent dates with the same person. Developing serious relationships too early in life can limit the number of other people you meet and can perhaps lead to immorality.1
The whole “don’t date before your 16” idea was taken very seriously. I remember there was one girl in my high school who had skipped a grade. She was in one of my classes and the teacher always teased her that she couldn’t go to homecoming until her Senior year because she would turn 16 just after her Junior year Homecoming. That’s how expected it was. Even the teachers promoted and talked about it. Typically everyone assumed that everyone else wasn’t going to date until they were 16 and the standard was just expected whether you wanted to follow it or not. If someone made the decision to go to a school dance before their 16th birthday, everyone knew about it. I remember a friend who regularly challenged that thinking. Their argument was that there wasn’t something that magically happened at midnight on your 16th birthday that suddenly made you mature enough to date. I remember thinking something like “But the prophet says so!” but in hindsight I am actually very impressed that they would challenge the group think around them at such a young age.
Now, I want to effectively illustrate what was considered dating. Growing up, there were many kids my same age in my ward. It was a fairly even mix of girls and boys. We would hang out together all the time. It usually consisted of us walking around the neighborhood in the middle of the street talking, joking, and laughing. During the summer we’d play night games every night. I’m not sure if it’s common to call it “night games” outside the Mormon community, but it consisted of us playing games like capture the flag, kick the can, and sardines after sunset. Almost all of our parents had a strict rule that if there was the same number of boy as there were girls, then it was a group date. Apparently they felt that there was too much risk of us pairing off. So before we were 16, this was forbidden. And even if someone’s parents didn’t care, it didn’t matter because it was enforced by, not only everyone else’s parents, but by the community. Often there would be comments from other adults who weren’t related to any of us telling us to be careful or pointing out that there were three boys and three girls. One of us would feel guilty enough and go home. I’m completely serious when I say this was a regular occurrence.
Once you actually turn 16, as stated, it is highly discouraged to go on dates alone, or what are often referred to as “single dates”. Every date had to be planned with at least one other couple. At school dances, sometimes these groups of couples would exceed 50 people. I’m not joking.
It wasn’t rare that kids would want to go on their first date on, or as close as possible, to their 16th birthday. Because my birthday is in the summer, on my sweet 16 I was with my family on a vacation in Nauvoo, Illinois — a city founded by the early Mormon Pioneers before going to Utah. So, naturally, I still found a way to go on a date on my 16th birthday. 2 years earlier, I had met a girl at EFY — Mormon summer camp — that I had kept in contact with who actually lived in the region near Nauvoo. I had a crush on her, so I asked her if she would be my first date on my 16th birthday. Man, I was so Mormon.
Up until writing this, I had actually forgotten that we broke the rule of no single dates that day but I had justified it because we were going to see a movie in the Church’s visitors center in Nauvoo. Not just any movie, but the Church’s most recent, awe-inspiring movie about the life of Joseph Smith. This movie was powerful. Sure, it leaves out the fact that he practiced polygamy, destroyed a printing press, and many other things they don’t you to know about, but as a TBM, I loved this movie it. It was my date’s first time seeing the movie and she also enjoyed it. That is how Mormon I was. My first date was on my 16th birthday, with a girl I met at Mormon summer camp, in the Mormon city of Nauvoo, and watching a full-length movie about Joseph Smith.
As far as avoiding “frequent dates with the same person”, this one was interesting to see how people interpreted it. Some just didn’t care and dated one person exclusively, but would still make efforts to go on group dates. Others would make sure to go on at least one other date with at least one other person before going out with the same person again. This created a very interesting environment. Just like any high school, there was the desire for more serious relationships, but the titles of boyfriend and girlfriend were taboo and hardly ever used. They signified that you were dating someone exclusively, which was against the rules. So it was more common to say that two people “liked each other” or that they were “going out”. Some would keep these relational dynamics between a group of trusted friends and typically didn’t like to address them. Others were publicly known and if you were to ever go on a date with someone in that type of relationship it was just socially understood that the date was as friends because they really were with someone else. If in this type of relationship, the biggest school dances, such as homecoming and prom, were saved for your significant other, while all the other ones were typically reserved for friends. All of this got very confusing very fast.
I myself consciously decided to go on dates frequently and never to date anyone exclusively. I never had a serious girlfriend until age 21 when I started dating my the woman who is now my wife. In high school, I would go on at least one date a month but often more frequently and I never took the same girl out twice. It was very common for Darrell — from chapter 8 — and I to double together and just go get ice cream or something simple. Once we got a bucket of Laffy Taffys and just read the jokes off of all of them for an hour. That was fun. As you know, I was way into my Mormonism and keeping the standards, so I was typically attracted to girls who were of similar attitudes. Whenever I tried to enter a secret, delicate Mormon relationship like the ones I just explained, the girl usually didn’t feel comfortable because of all the rhetoric and pressure related to not dating exclusively. As a TBM, I completely agreed and didn’t blame her. So I was never in any sort of meaningful relationship in high school.
The dating world in Utah Mormon culture is definitely strange, embarrassing, and shaming. But what only magnifies it is the Church’s teachings and standards around chastity. For the Strength of Youth says this under the category of sexual purity:
Before marriage, do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body, with or without clothing. Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body.
Avoid situations that invite increased temptation, such as late-night or overnight activities away from home or activities where there is a lack of adult supervision. Do not participate in discussions or any media that arouse sexual feelings. Do not participate in any type of pornography.2
There are lot of things in there that can be very hard for hormonal teenagers to follow and, as demonstrated in chapter 4, the Church takes all of these things extremely seriously. Of all the shame that was brought on me in my life from the Church, this was the topic that brought the most, and I kept these rules. I can’t imagine how I would have felt had I not.
In my youth, my bishop would meet with all the boys regularly to talk about chastity. He told us that we couldn’t touch a girl anywhere that a bikini would cover, which honestly sounds pretty reasonable for a religious leader to be saying. Pornography was addressed frequently as well and it was strictly forbidden. I went my entire adolescence not purposefully looking at pornography. I naively thought this was normal among other Mormons as well until I left the Church and have since learned that I was an anomaly. I remember once a pornographic image popped up on my computer and I was terrified. I immediately closed the window and stepped away from the computer. I was too afraid to tell my parents and I felt very guilty.
Church leaders will typically encourage families to put their computers in an open place in the home. The idea is that a kid won’t feel that they have the privacy to search for pornography. I had a computer in my bedroom for a couple of years but it didn’t have an Internet connection. I’ve always enjoyed writing and that’s what I used it for. I remember one day coming home from Church and telling my Dad that my leader said I couldn’t have the computer in my room because it wasn’t safe. I didn’t even consider the fact that I had never had a problem with pronography, but I was convinced that if the computer was in my room where no one could see me, I would develop a problem. My Dad told me he wasn’t worried about it because of the lack of Internet connection and nothing changed.
On top of all of this, as the pamphlet says, we weren’t supposed to do anything that would “[arouse] sexual feelings”. I remember at the age of 13 hugging a girl my same age and feeling very guilty because of how it made me feel. Or at 14 and holding a girl’s hand. By the time I kissed a girl just before turning 17, I must have gotten over that shame because I didn’t necessarily feel it then. But I never would have dreamed of using tongue, or as the pamphlet says “passionate kissing”. There were many times in which I would try to justify my actions by asking my friends about them. “Do you think I was dancing too close to her?” “Is it ok to be alone with her for that long?” I’m still trying to overcome comparing myself to others.
I know that all of things are harmless and many reading are probably laughing, but the stress and shame were real. After all of these group meetings with the bishop talking about chastity, we would leave somber and down because the topic was rarely discussed in an uplifting way, but in a condescending, hopeless way. To capture the essence of the rhetoric, here’s what the For the Strength of Youth has to say about not keeping these standards:
Do not allow the media, your peers, or others to persuade you that sexual intimacy before marriage is acceptable. It is not. In God’s sight, sexual sins are extremely serious. They defile the sacred power God has given us to create life.2
It then goes on to quote the Book of Mormon on topic saying that “sexual sins are more serious than any other sins except murder or denying the Holy Ghost”.3 Yes, Mormon doctrine literally says that sexual sin is only slightly less worse than murder. I was told this as early as age 12. No wonder I never masturbated.
The temptation to break the rules only grew as you approached marriage. Many people will blame these strict rules as the reason that many Mormons get married so young. While there is no data supporting the claim, I tend to agree it is a large factor. Typically if a couple has sex before marriage and ends up getting pregnant, the bishop will encourage them to get married before the baby is born. I know several people this happened to, and thankfully it has worked out. But I have also heard my fair share of stories where it didn’t work out. Sometimes the couple is really young and the relationship doesn’t end up working well or was even abusive. To be fair, not all bishops would encourage this and some would analyze the situation and recognize some may not work out. But the number of Mormon couples with premarital pregnancies that end up getting married seems to suggest it is some sort of unwritten policy.
Before ending, I feel very compelled to point out two things. First, women and girls in the Church are shamed much more on this topic than men. Countless women have reported being told to dress modestly so that boys would have an easier time keeping their thoughts clean, implying that they are responsible for other people’s thoughts. Additionally, I can’t begin to imagine how it must be to hear all of this as a member of the LGBT community. To further quote For the Strength of Youth:
Homosexual and lesbian behavior is a serious sin. If you find yourself struggling with same-gender attraction or you are being persuaded to participate in inappropriate behavior, seek counsel from your parents and bishop. They will help you.2
At least I, as a straight man, knew that I was going to be able to express my love intimately with my partner after marriage. Gays in the Church, currently do not have that hope.