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Why is National Media Obsessed with Latter-day Saint Sexuality?

Isn’t it a little strange how fixated some national journalists have become with unsubstantiated rumors about Latter-day Saint sexuality? This isn’t the first time.

Rolling Stone recently published an article detailing TikTok rumors of a crabs outbreak at Brigham Young University due to alleged armpit sex. Even though Andrea Marks, the author, says in the first paragraph that the claims are completely unverified, the story was published anyway. This isn’t the only recent article ostracizing Latter-day Saints over purported sexual deviance. 

The New York Post insisted “soaking” was a “Mormon teen sex act” in another viral article too. Practicing Latter-day Saints usually think these rumors are ridiculous at best. When asked for comment, one long-time member of the Church replied, “Is that a Babylon Bee article?” 

But many others absorb the impression and take what they are hearing for granted—concluding that Latter-day Saints are absolutely weird sexual deviants. 

It’s not abnormal, of course, to have national media outlets obsessed with anything sexual.  But when it comes to minority groups in America, generally speaking, there are very clear lines they will not cross—particularly when something contributes to negative bias and harsh judgment.  

These rules don’t seem to apply, however, to national media’s relationship with our faith community—which clearly is fair game. Voyeuristic peering into the sex lives of Latter-day Saints isn’t new, it’s just changed forms. 

Take, for example, what mainstream media outlets wrote historically about the Latter-day Saint practice of plural marriage. The New York Times ran dozens of articles about polygamy in the nineteenth century, many with lurid headlines that portrayed the practice as sexually deviant and cartoonishly outrageous. For instance, on February 14, 1852, they ran an “expose” by an ex-Mormon named John Hardy. Hardy called polygamy “licentiousness run mad” and referred to the practice as “the demoralization of young women.” This and other journalists clearly believed they knew better than Latter-day Saint women who vigorously and publicly defended plural marriage. 

Much like the name “Mormon,” this rhetoric functioned in predictable ways to make members of the Church of Jesus Christ seem strange, foreign, and even dangerous.  The Times later wrote an article titled “What Shall we do with the Mormons?” which  described the Latter-day Saints as manifesting “absurdities, usurpations, indecencies, and villainies.” 

It wasn’t just national journalists using inflammatory rhetoric like this to describe the marital practices of a religious minority. J. H. Beadle, in The Salt Lake Tribune on Oct. 6, 1875, wrote, “He [McLellin] also informed me of the spot where the first well-authenticated case of polygamy took place, in which Joseph Smith was ‘sealed’ to the hired girl.”

Much of this seems more like National Enquirer territory rather than topics for respectable journalists. But that hasn’t stopped them from going there—repeatedly. Only a decade ago, several prominent outlets ran stories about the kinds of underwear that Latter-day Saints wear, including Esquire and NBC News.

The pattern is similar: the newspapers draw their sources from the disaffected or excommunicated and extrapolate the rumors to all Latter-day Saints. The effect of this is to place those in the Church of Jesus Christ in a metaphorical zoo for the general public to leer at with condescending confusion, if not outright scorn. 

And while it would be natural for any neutral observer to note that a media complex obsessing about the (unverified) consensual sexual practices of a bunch of undergrads is creepy, most Latter-day Saints have resigned themselves to their place near the bottom of the cultural pecking order. Meanwhile, the Latter-day Saints who need to curry favor with the cultural elite because of their career ambitions feel forced to join the mocking themselves and dismiss any pushback on the leering as a “persecution complex.”

Could Rolling Stone potentially justify this coverage as a warning to BYU students of this (unverified) epidemic? Not likely. Nationwide 1 in 4 college students has an STD. And while STD rates aren’t available for BYU, Utah has among the lowest STD rates in the country. 

Among the most common STDs for nationwide college students are HPV and chlamydia, two diseases that have much worse consequences than crabs. Of sub-groups that are catching STDs at unusually high rates, gay and bisexual men experience two-thirds of all new HIV infections each year. Yet, Rolling Stone, in its exceeding prudence, has managed to avoid reporting on each and every one of these issues. 

No, the reason for this reporting is clear, Rolling Stone thinks Latter-day Saints are weird and worthy objects of ridicule. Therefore, they are willing to use the flimsiest of (unverified) pretexts to gawk at us. 

One can’t help but wonder if the rumor was that gay BYU students had a crab epidemic if Rolling Stone would cheekily report on it or decry the rumor as bigoted.

It’s true that Latter-day Saints operate under a different sexual moral code than a lot of America does at this point. Church members commit—and do their best—to refrain from sexual relations before marriage and consider sex a holy, sacred act. The media’s insistence on encouraging the public to ogle at members’ rumored sexual habits is even more bigoted when someone understands how Saints view and treat sex. 

The unexpressed bias that undergirds articles like Rolling Stone’s is that refraining from sex before marriage is repressive, if it’s even possible at all. And it’s this bias that allows them to give unwarranted credence to the (unverified) rumor. Such moralistic preening then justifies their non-consensual leering. 

The reality, however, is that many Latter-day Saints don’t find refraining from sex before marriage repressive but liberating. Research on hookup culture has shown it is associated with a long list of negative emotional, health, and social consequences—consequences that the Latter-day Saint sexual ethic helps prevent. 

Many, including myself, know what it feels like to be personally dehumanized and undervalued by potential partners who see us only in terms of sexual availability. And far too many have also been stung by infidelity inspired by the popular self-focused sexual ethic. In my experience and the experience of millions of religious people, seeing sex as sacred does not lead to unhealthy sexual expression; it dramatically improves life.

Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said in a BYU speech a few years ago, “Human life—that is the greatest of God’s powers, the most mysterious and magnificent chemistry of it all—and you and I have been given it, but under the most serious and sacred of restrictions.” 

Latter-day Saints do not have a haphazard approach to sexuality. On the contrary, church doctrine considers chastity precious and intimacy one of the most sacred acts of humanity. It’s part of Godliness to Latter-day Saints. 

If you want to gawk at that, I suppose no one will stop you. But the truth is doing so says more about the gawkers than it does about the people being ridiculed—who are doing not just better than most.  They’re doing well—and enjoying the fruits of gospel living in their relationships.  

You can too.

About the author

C.D. Cunningham

C.D. Cunningham is the managing editor of Public Square magazine. After graduating from BYU-Idaho, he studied religion at Harvard University Extension. He serves on the board of the Latter-day Saint Publishing and Media Association.
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