Multiply and Replenish
Mormon Essays on Sex and Family
Exhortations for Chastity:
A Content Analysis of Church Literature
[p.85]Based on his study of the sexual attitudes and behavior of college students, Harold T. Christensen has concluded that Mormon premarital sex norms are “strikingly conservative” compared to the broader American culture and “remarkably resistant to change.”1 If anything, the data he presented probably underestimated both the conservatism and resistance to secularization.2 In fact, other studies have shown this increasing conformity.3 Christensen hypothesized that one of the important factors in the Mormon ability to resist the permissiveness of the society is the strong religious socialization which the church provides and suggested that the emphasis on chastity in the church is increasing. In order to test this hypothesis, we performed a content analysis of one aspect of religious socialization: exhortations for chastity in official church publications. We chose a random sample of articles appearing in the Improvement Era, Ensign, New Era, Instructor, Church News, and talks given in general conference from 1951 to 1979. Because of the difficulty of obtaining this material in Indiana, there are a few deviations from strict randomness, but they are minor and we have attempted to account for them.4
If anything, our results underestimate the actual frequency of admonitions to be chaste. First, it is our impression that only a relatively small percentage of chastity injunctions in Mormon culture [p.86]come from the official materials which we sampled since chastity is usually preached in youth firesides, standards nights, and interviews—and possibly in the home. In addition, there were many general statements about being moral, clean, pure, or faithful or about resisting temptation, gratifications, or animal instincts—all of which we are reasonably certain were both meant as exhortations to be chaste and interpreted by the audience in a sexual context. But we used a strict criterion for inclusion of an article as a reference to chastity, and if the statement was so general that another interpretation was possible we did not include it. Many subtle reminders to be chaste are therefore not reflected in these data.
It is important to know the Mormon moral code in order to identify exhortations because most references employ euphemisms—overtly sexual words are rare. One of the most interesting parts of this code is the use of the term morality as a synonym for chastity. While moral philosophers would find this usage disconcerting, most Mormons know that when the Brethren advise us to be moral, they mean for us to avoid sexual misconduct. This use of the word morality was evident in the indexes where most of the entries under this heading referred to sexual conduct. And it seemed to become more firmly entrenched over time. Starting in 1976 the index notation under morality reads simply “see chastity.” Even more intriguing was the notation under immorality, which reads “see homosexuality.” These simple index references reflect much about sexual attitudes in contemporary Mormon culture.
We rated approximately 500 articles or speeches. Of these, about 400 referred to chastity. We identified the source, publication date, and author of the articles; evaluated them on several criteria such as how explicit they were, to whom they were directed, and how strict the tone was; and identified specific topics mentioned within them.5
There was an overall increase in the number of references to chastity over time (see Fig. 1). After a slight decline during the 1950s and possibly into the early 1960s, admonitions increased during the mid-1960s and became dramatic during the 1970s. The explicit references show a fairly steady increase while the implicit references fluctuate. If the total impact can be thought of as the midpoint between the explicit line and the total line, there is a fairly smooth [p.87]increase. This result provides support for the hypothesis that there has been an intensified socialization promoting the chastity norm.
Statements about chastity have become more explicit.6 In the 1950s it was most common to make veiled references to chastity or at most to make very general statements about being clean and pure and chaste or saving oneself for marriage. By the 1960s it was still most common to make general statements, but there were also many specific injunctions about what not to do. In the 1970s, most admonitions were specific. Before the mid-1960s chastity was typically alluded to in passing or was a minor theme within the article or talk. [p.88]More recently chastity is likely to be a major theme and often the only theme of the article.
The rhetoric is much stronger than it used to be. Although it would be misleading to call any of the statements lenient, the tone of the 1950s was certainly more moderate. Chastity was generally presented in positive—almost romantic—terms as the best way to be happy and to make others happy. More recently the focus has been on negative effects of sexual activity because to be unchaste is sinful and those who indulge unlawfully will suffer punishment and misery.
The romantic portrayal of chastity peaked in the 1961-63 period and had almost disappeared by the 1970s (see Fig. 2).
The focus of the admonitions—to whom they are directed—has also changed. In the 1950s most of the statements were to individuals to [p.89]maintain purity or to parents to teach their children to be chaste. Over time more and more statements are directed toward or against society. Expressions of dismay about the sexual excesses of society and dire warnings about the consequences of cultural permissiveness are coupled with exhortations for the Saints to refrain from worldly pleasures and to actively work to clean up society. Being chaste before marriage is no longer sufficient: we must take care to avoid unwholesome connubial practices, and we must fight the social evils of pornography, abortion, homosexuality, and perversion.
The frequency with which specific themes have been mentioned has changed. The most common theme was premarital sex. We counted 123 specific references and there were at least that many more indirect references to remaining chaste before marriage. Other common themes are listed in Figure 3. It is interesting to note that masturbation is at the bottom of the list. This should serve as a warning not to interpret the placement of a specific topic on this list as an indication of how strong the sanctions against these behaviors are in Mormon culture. The strong condemnation of masturbation is inculcated more in personal interviews than in public discourse. [p.90]The lack of references is probably due to a feeling that it is not an appropriate topic for open discussion, and this applies also to the lack of any specific definition of the general term “perversions.” These are better not discussed in public. In fact there is some indication that the private injunctions sometimes become too explicit. In the late 1970s, bishops were warned to avoid having “pornographic interviews,” with the implication that mentioning perversions specifically might lead people to try them.
The most general change over the years has been the increasing tendency to mention specific themes. During the 1950s the typical [p.91]article mentioned two or three, but one-third contained no specific theme at all and only 10 percent referred to four or more specific examples. In contrast, during the 1960s and 1970s only 20 percent contained no specifics, and one-third mentioned four or more themes. There were no themes which were mentioned significantly more often during the 1950s than they have been since. There were several topics which were not referred to during the 1950s, including perversion, homosexuality, pornography, sex in the movies and on TV, and venereal disease.
Specific references to premarital sex hit their peak during the [p.92]1960s when analyzed as a percentage of total citations, although the gross number of references continued to rise throughout the 1970s. Also hitting peaks during the 1960s were immodesty, illegitimacy, free love or promiscuity, and venereal disease—all associated with salient facets of what is sometimes called the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the fairly widespread and highly publicized experimentation with sex by young college students (see Figure 4).7
During the 1970s the focus broadened from premarital sex to include marital sex, with references to issues such as birth control and unwholesome connubial excesses (including the only mention of [p.93]sterilization and incest) and sociopolitical issues such as pornography, homosexuality, living together without formal marriage, and moral dangers inherent in the Equal Rights Amendment. Note the gradually increased concern with the pornography issues (see Fig. 5) and the rather precipitous jump in political issues (see Fig. 6) and marital injunctions (see Fig. 7).
Several variables can explain the dramatic change in official rhetoric. Our data provide some support for four factors, and as firm believers in multi-causal explanation, we suggest that all of these processes—and possibly others—have had an impact.
[p.94]Changes in publication format have had an influence on the content and frequency of statements about sex. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, for example, President David O. McKay wrote a monthly editorial in the Instructor. This provided a regular outlet for his views on chastity. Another regular outlet for his statements came in articles for the Church News which seemed to report on almost every talk he gave—even in ward sacrament meetings, particularly during the early and mid-1950s. This regular exposure in the media helped him dominate the scene and was again true for President Kimball in the Church News.
Publications also became larger and dropped advertising so that more articles could be published. In 1961 the Improvement Era started a new section called the “Era of Youth.” In the first few years, there was an increased number of references to chastity which then tapered off. When the New Era began as a separate publication for church youth in 1971, there was an even more dramatic increase in references to chastity augmented by the practice of carrying “The Spoken Word” by Richard L. Evans and reprinting church positions directed to youth.8 Once again over time the references tapered off somewhat, but not as much.
The consistency of a publication can also become an important factor. The editorials in the Church News, for example, have consistently been—most notably since the mid-1960s—the most outspoken on sexual conduct in the Mormon media. The admonitions in these editorials are more explicit, more emphatic, and more negative in tone than the other publications. They are the most likely to preach about avoiding excesses in marital sexuality and to warn of the dangers of sexual permissiveness in society. They are also the most inclined to portray sex as disgusting and the least inclined to present any positive context for chastity.
Trends in the broader culture have resulted in a hardening of the rhetoric about chastity. The overt sexuality of the late 1960s and early 1970s had a strong impact on church leaders. Advocacy of free love and living together without marriage and the rise in illegitimacy and venereal disease prompted scathing denunciations. The advent of mini-skirts prompted increased emphasis on modesty, surpassing efforts in the early 1950s to stamp out strapless formals. In reaction to the counterculture, admonitions began to include injunctions not [p.95]only to be modest but to be well groomed (beardless) and neatly dressed to avoid the appearance of evil.9
The rapid proliferation of pornography in society was a factor in the increased concern expressed about not only hard-core pornography but about sex in movies, television, and popular music. The emergence of the gay liberation movement produced increasingly harsh statements about homosexuality. This was particularly evident in 1978 when one article about homosexuality in a California newspaper served as the impetus for several editorials in the Church News. The abortion issue looms larger after the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal. Early statements about abortion seem moderate in comparison to recent rhetoric, and the increased number of references is dramatic. The church obviously responded to the social milieu. There is potential irony here. Church leaders seem to be more vociferous about the evils of sexuality at a time when church members seem to be very strict in sexual behavior and conservative in their attitudes.
There was a perception that members of the church were becoming less observant of the law of chastity. A hint of this comes from Christensen’s article.10 He interpreted his 1968 findings as indicating that the chastity norm was alive and well in Mormondom compared with what was happening in the Midwest and particularly Scandinavia. Still, the fact that the rate of premarital sex among Inter-mountain women in the sample had tripled in the previous ten-year period would not have been comforting to church leaders. The letter that Alvin R. Dyer wrote to Christensen indicates that the church found the data alarming. Whether or not Christensen’s study had an impact, it seems evident that the perception in 1971 was that the sexual permissiveness which was sweeping the country may have been leading the youth of Zion astray. Within this context, it is interesting to note that in the year 1971 there were more references to chastity than in any other year in the sample. This year differed from other years also in that statements came from the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency. It seemed to have been a concerted effort. There was an unusually large number of articles and talks devoted exclusively to chastity. Many of the references were from general conference, and these tended to be more explicit, emphatic, and strict than normal.
Although there were obviously other factors operating, it seems likely that the research reported in Christensen’s essay contributed [p.96]heavily to these results. This is a sobering thought about the role that research in the social sciences plays in influencing the very phenomena being studied. There is a circular flow of causality: socialization affects attitudes and behavior, but attitudes and behavior can also affect socialization.
The most salient factor in the tone of chastity exhortations was the changing style of successive church presidents. David O. McKay clearly dominated the rhetoric in the 1950s through the mid-1960s, both in the number of statements about chastity and in setting the tone and establishing the point of view. Likewise, the feel of the 1970s rhetoric reflected the perspective and style of Spencer W. Kimball. Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee did not dominate the chastity dialogue during their presidencies—the apostles did.
There are some similarities between presidents McKay and Kimball. For both, chastity was a compelling issue. Even when it was not the subject of a talk or article, they often made passing references to it. In their presidencies, they traveled throughout the church with one basic talk on the subject which they repeatedly gave, only slightly changing versions of the same message. They dominate our analysis mainly because they dominated the press. The Church News reported almost weekly on talks given by President McKay, and almost all contained some reference to chastity. President Kimball was undoubtedly preaching the law of chastity at the same time—and in his own style—but the Church News did not start reporting on all of his talks until he became president.
The style of the two men was radically different. When McKay became president in 1951, there were two types of statements about sexuality. On one hand, there were reasonable and moderate statements by men like Apostle John A. Widtsoe. There were also, however, several references back to an official statement from the 1940s which included the line, “better dead clean than alive unclean.”
President McKay enthroned the first approach, and by the mid-1950s it was dominant. While he was adamant about the necessity for chastity, he focused on positive reasons for remaining virtuous and made chastity seem romantic. He spoke of the joy of a young man and woman, deeply in love, meeting at the temple altar with the full assurance that they both brought with them bodies and minds which were clean and pure because they had heeded the admonition to “be [p.97]faithful to your future spouse.” He used images of classic chivalry: a flower growing by the roadside is covered with dust, a young man passes it by and instead risks his life to scale the perpendicular cliffs in search of the sweet and lovely flower that grows in the high mountain meadow, untouched by human hands.
McKay’s major theme was the importance of self-control. We need to have spirituality rather than succumb to animal instincts and gratifications. Among the passions which we are to control are anger, selfishness, greed, and lust. Chastity was rarely singled out as the most important part of self-control, but it was usually mentioned. McKay rarely went into detail but rather talked in general about the importance of maintaining virginity. He seldom mentioned necking and petting or sex in marriage and never dealt with perversions. He did become somewhat more direct and strict in the late 1960s, but less than 5 percent of his statements come from that time period, and by then he was no longer the main spokesman on the subject of chastity.
In comparison with the statements of President McKay, the exhortations of President Kimball were more explicit, more emphatic, more direct, more specific, and stricter. They were more likely to describe sexual misconduct rather than discuss sex in a positive or romantic context. Kimball had a litany of abominations which usually included homosexuality, perversion, abortion, pornography, adultery, and birth control. More than half of the time, he mentioned at least six different specific topics (McKay mentioned that many only once), sometimes as many as thirteen or fourteen.11
It is tempting to explain the differences between the rhetoric of presidents McKay and Kimball as merely personality differences, but that would not paint a complete picture of why Kimball was so much more severe. One explanation would be Kimball’s adoration and emulation of his father who was strict and rebuked people pointedly in his sermons.12 But this would not account for the importance which chastity had assumed for Kimball. There were hints that his seeming obsession came as much from his experiences as an apostle as from his personality. In 1947 Kimball was assigned to interview members who had in various ways violated the sexual rules of the church. He was disturbed by this experience, and it is likely that the recurring theme of chastity sprang largely from this assignment as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. In 1951 he spoke out strongly [p.98]on modesty at BYU, and chastity has been a common theme ever since. In 1959, along with Apostle Mark E. Petersen, he received a special assignment to counsel homosexuals, and in 1968 he was so concerned with this issue that he asked President McKay to enlarge the committee. His jurisdiction in the sexual areas may have kept the issues uppermost in his mind and made him feel like sexual problems were indeed rampant.13
In a broader context, the differences in the approaches reflects different attitudes toward sex in American society at large. The Puritan perspective on sex was strict, but the rhetoric was relatively calm. The focus was on maintaining premarital chastity through social sanctions, but sex per se was seen as good; marital sex was a legitimate and beautiful—even holy or sacred—expression of conjugal love. The Victorian view focused on the evil nature of sex itself and the need for control of every manifestation of sexuality—extending to “the supposedly ubiquitous sexual excesses practiced within the privacy of the marriage bed or, even worse, by the individual alone.”14 The rhetoric of the Victorian sexual reformers exhibited frantic, even fanatic, fervor.
Each perspective developed against the unique challenges and anxieties of a specific era. Social control worked for the Puritans in a world which was relatively stable and secure. The near-hysteria of the Victorian era, according to Klaus Hansen, probably came from the anxiety generated by a cosmic confrontation with the possibilities of individual freedom coupled with a breakdown of social control.15 John Barth has called this sense of cosmic confrontation “cosmopsis” or “a sense of possibility so overwhelming that [a person] is unable to choose at all for fear of eliminating alternative choices.”16 This kind of confrontation leads some to resist commitments or limits and paralyzes them. The Victorians reacted by trying to eliminate as many of the options as possible. Since social restraint was not working as it had done in Puritan times, Victorian morality demanded severe individual restraint.
President McKay’s discussions of chastity were an intriguing mixture of Puritan and Victorian themes. His tone was principally Puritan, but his focus on the need for individual self-control and the importance of avoiding excesses of any kind, particularly sexual excesses, contained a remnant of Victorianism. This was tied to a [p.99]capitalistic metaphor which stressed the economic virtues of saving oneself for marriage and arriving at the marketplace with undamaged goods.
In the 1950s, however, capitalistic individualism (which helped bring on the original Victorianism) was no longer the exciting but anxiety-producing new wave of the future. It was an old established system and seemed to be working. An underlying assumption of the 1950s was that rational self-control was as successful as social control had been for the Puritans—and one of the basic assumptions behind McKay’s treatment of sexuality was that sex is controllable, and therefore a moderate and rational appeal to maintain chastity was sufficient. In a stable time, we did not need the harsh denial of sexual possibilities to give us security.
But capitalism had another assumption which led to problems. Philip Slater points out that capitalism is based on the assumption of scarcity.17 It is an economic system for the distribution of scarce resources. But with prosperity came abundance, and the old rules of capitalism no longer worked. Economic progress was no longer dependent upon saving to generate capital but rather on consumption of no-longer scarce goods. As we were constantly reminded by the advertisers, the American way was to consume as much as possible. To a generation raised on conspicuous consumption, the assumption of scarcity did not make sense and the need for control was far from obvious. If it is good to indulge in material gratifications, why not indulge in sexual gratification also? It was a small step from middle-class conspicuous consumption to anti-middle-class overtly excessive gratification of any impulse. Rejection of any type of control became a symbol which provided a sense of identity for rebellion against middle-class morality.
American society was faced with another crisis. With a rejection of both social and individual control, untold options unfolded and massive anxiety resulted. No wonder church leaders were dismayed and concerned. We had lost control. In American society social control had broken down and individual self-control was rejected. There were hints that control was slipping among Mormon youth, and the government was trying to impose its will upon us by taking away BYU’s ability to control the sexual behavior of its students.18
[p.100]In this context, it is not surprising that Mormon rhetoric again adopted a Victorian flavor. In contrast to McKay’s message, we are now told that we are not really able to control our sexual urges. Social control by the church is needed to help us avoid temptation. But we also need to control the larger society. We must stamp out pornography, outlaw abortion, and send homosexuality back to the closet so that we can avoid contact with the overpowering force of sexual desire. But still, we cannot leave out self-control. Even making it to marriage unscathed is no guarantee of safety. We must have eternal vigilance lest we are seduced by excessive enjoyment of marital sex. In the midst of our deep concern to avoid evil, there is little room for sex to be a beautiful and natural expression of affection.
Victorianism is basically a secular sentiment rather than a religious view. Although it may adopt the language of religion, it was in the nineteenth century, and it is today, a social reaction to the anxiety produced by a loss of control or a cosmoptic crisis. It is not intrinsic to Mormonism. In addition, it is an emotionally charged response and blurs distinctions which are necessary for mature moral reasoning. It may be the basis for a code of proper behavior, but it is not the source of a meaningful morality.
Just as there are multiple causes of the change in rhetoric about chastity, there are surely several different effects which come from it, some positive and some negative, as Harold Christensen points out in his essay. It is important to examine carefully what the effects of our sexual attitudes might be and search for an approach which will encourage responsible, healthy sexual behavior.
One place to begin might be with the economic metaphor, already discussed, which Slater used to analyze the counterculture and explain the “sexual revolution.” The belief in abundance that he described lasted a relatively short time. With the energy crisis and environmentalism, we are again aware of scarcity. We need not return to the grasping selfishness of capitalism, however. There is not enough to squander—we need some controls—but there is enough to share. This is true of intimacy also. We need some control (enough to reduce the number of options from the infinite to the manageable), but we do not need the Victorian rejection of sexuality altogether. The no “control” position is currently being discredited both [p.101]in professional circles and in our society. What we need—both individually and as a culture—is a well-managed intimacy which values sexuality but also controls it.
MARVIN RYTTING is a social psychologist with a keen interest in intimacy, sexulaity, and family issues. He is currently publishing Market Psychology while on leave from his professiorial duties. “Exhortations for Chastity: A Content Analysis of LDS Church Literature” was first published in Sunstone 7 (Mar.-Apr.): 15-21.
1. Harold T. Christensen, “The Persistence of Chastity within Contemporary Mormon Culture,” paper presented at the meeting of the Mormon History Association, Rexburg, Idaho, May 1981, and reprinted in this volume.
2. Christensen attempted to maintain comparable samples across time, which resulted in basing the results on more liberal students in sociology classes. Using his total sample, the percent virginal is 87 percent rather than 73 percent. If the true comparison sample lies somewhere between the sociology classes and the total, the 1978 students are not merely maintaining a conservative standard but observing the sexual prohibitions more strictly.
3. Harold T. Christensen and Kenneth L. Cannon, “The Fundamentalist Emphasis at Brigham Young University: 1935-1973,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 17 (1):53-57; Wilford E. Smith, “Mormon Sex Standards on College Campuses, or Deal Us Out of the Sexual Revolution,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 10 (Autumn 1976): 76-81.
4. The biggest variation in the selection of material is between the time before and after 1960. Starting with 1961, the church has published an index to church publications: Index to the Periodicals of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1961-70; 1971-75; 1976; 1977; 1979. (We could not find the 1978 index, so we did a random sample of the publications for that year.) Indexes before that time are incomplete and inconsistent. Therefore, for the years since 1960 we sampled one third of the index references dealing with any category which was potentially related to chastity, but we took a one-third sample of the publications themselves during the 1950s. There is a possible distortion with this strategy because the indexes might not include some references to chastity which we would pick up while specifically looking for them. To verify the adequacy of the indexes, we sampled 1979 from the periodicals as well as from the index and concluded that the index sample underestimates the number of references by at least one-third. To make the indexed and nonindexed years comparable, we multiplied the former by 1.5 when reporting the basic frequency of chastity exhortations.
This correction was done only for Figure 1, the total number of chastity references. The only difference in interpretation of the data without this correction would be that the number of citations would show a more pronounced drop from 1957-59 to 1961-63. The references in 1961-63 are probably underestimated still because many of the index references sampled [p.102]came from the early issues of the “Era of Youth” and sounded like chastity messages but did not meet our criteria.
5. All of our ratings were performed by two of raters. We randomly divided the years and sources. In checking the reliability of the ratings, we found a general agreement, especially in identifying the specific topics. There are a few ratings which we had trouble agreeing upon but we do not report those results. The patterns we report, however, are true for both raters.
8. The reprinting of official statements in the New Era, the Church News, and the Ensign increased the number of references which could be sampled. Some conference talks were also reported in the Church News as well as the Ensign in the early 1970s, many area conferences were held and the proceedings were referenced in the indexes. We did not have access to these, so the 1971-74 period, especially, is probably still underestimated.
18. It is likely that the strength of the church opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment comes partly from its experience with government attempts to enforce Title IX regulations at BYU—ERA is a moral issue because it can break down social control.