Jennifer Finlayson-Fife makes her living by talking to young, often conservative, Mormon couples about the thing few conservative, Mormon couples want to talk about, least of all with a stranger: sex.
For Finlayson-Fife, however, who grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and now works as a licensed psychotherapist, it's a message she loves to share.
"My style is pretty much to say that sex is awesome and it's such a great blessing," she says.
She's found that among young LDS couples with intimacy issues, the demand for help is so great that she doesn't have to work hard to promote her practice.
"I've sort of got a fan club," she says with a laugh. Finlayson-Fife was not raised in Utah, but she did receive her undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University and is returning to Utah from Sept. 23-24 to bring a message home: If LDS wives are experiencing intimacy issues in their marriage, that may be because the church's teachings have not been fair to the fairer sex.
For her Ph.D., Finlayson-Fife conducted four-hour surveys with 17 married LDS women who had been lifelong members of the church. She found that the majority of the women struggled to understand their sexual desires before and after they were married. Finlayson-Fife feels that their struggle to understand their sexuality comes from mixed messages the church instills in young female members in "which the legitimacy of sexual desire in women is subtly undermined," Finlayson-Fife says.
While she says this position is aligned with a feminist critique of the LDS Church patriarchy, Finlayson-Fife doesn't see a need to undermine the church to help her clients' sex lives. "I am an active member of the church; I care very much about my community," Finlayson-Fife says. "This is my group; this is my family—even if it is dysfunctional in ways."
Finlayson-Fife has lived in more liberal environs than her faith's home state, but throughout her life, she put a premium on the value of saving herself for her marriage. "Two people entering a marriage and saving this expression of commitment and love for just one person—I saw a lot of huge upsides," Finlayson-Fife says. "But I also saw that I had a lot of anxiety around sexuality."
In conducting her interviews with LDS women, she found examples of how church manuals and teachings for young men and women seemed to provide a double standard.
"In the manuals for young men, they talk about bridling their desire," Finlayson-Fife says. "But for young women, they talk about … managing the boy's desire." She says a lot of church lessons geared at getting women to value their sexual purity were not-so-subtly objectifying women. She refers to lessons taught to young LDS women where the instructor asks a girl if she wants a piece of gum, then chews the gum and asks if she still wants it.
The lesson is simple—"If you have sex before marriage, you will not be desirable," Finlayson-Fife says. But the lesson that's overlooked there is any discussion of the legitimacy of the woman's sexual desires.
"In the realm of sexuality, [LDS] women have never owned desire. They see it as their job to be responsive to their husband's desire," Finlayson-Fife says. "They may enter [sexual activity] out of duty, but seldom do they enter out of desire."
The issue of intimacy in LDS marriages is one of great interest to several prominent professors of family studies at Brigham Young University. Doug Brinley taught for 18 years at BYU in family studies and authored nine books on the subject of family and marital relations. While Brinley agrees the taboo of sex can wreak havoc on the love lives of Mormon couples, he finds fault closer to home, and not with church teachings.
"I don't really have a saw to saw on women being repressed and subject to the whims of the husband—I just think parents are wimps," Brinley says.
Brinley's work challenges parents to talk more openly with their children about what to expect in their sexual lives. In his years of teaching, Brinley recalls one young man who spoke of getting "the talk" from his father on his wedding day.
"He said, 'Son, you know all that stuff I told you not to do with women? Tonight you start doing them'—that was his sex education," Brinley says with exasperation. With children left to fend for themselves in entering a sexual relationship, Brinley says confused expectations about what happens in the bedroom can ruin marriages and, in some cases, push undersexed men to pornography.
For Brinley, the messaging—or lack thereof—about female desire is the kind of feminist critique he feels is unfair to the majority of LDS couples.
"Women who feel like they are used in a marriage want other women to know this is what men are going to do," Brinley says, but it's not the case when "two decent, civil and mature" people are wed, he says.
Finlayson-Fife is careful not to suggest the church is denying intimacy to its members. In fact, she says, the LDS culture in many ways embraces intimacy, but that those messages aren't getting through to members.
"Mormonism at its roots embraces the body as essential to becoming godlike," Finlayson-Fife says, "with all of its parts and passions."
She points out that the LDS Church does not demonize the body's sexual desires to the extent many other organized religions do.
"One thing I'll say to women is that the clitoris' only function is pleasure. If God didn't want you to have pleasure, you wouldn't have one," Finlayson-Fife says.
For her, it's a message that translates basic human instinct to joy, which ultimately can keep together a marriage. For "Crystal," who asked to not have her last name used, and who participated in one of Finlayson-Fife's workshops, it was more of a blessing than a message.
"When you have access to this information from someone who has done the research and ... who also has an LDS perspective ... it can really be life-changing," Crystal says. "We're supposed to be happy about procreating.Shouldn't we also be happy about the act of sex?"
Editor's Note: This article has been clarified to show that Finlayson-Fife says she believes LDS women enter into sexual activity out of a sense of duty more so than desire. The original article misstated her as saying LDS women enter marriage out of a sense of duty more than desire.