I am so sick of sex-negative religious bullshit. And it’s not just because they fill children up with guilt and shame about their bodies and their desires. It’s also because they hector other grownups about how they should conduct their sexuality.
Take this video from the Mormon Church, for instance, which focuses on the meaning of ‘pure’. (h/t profxm)
Wow, feel the waves of pent-up energy.
George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, is big on the idea that metaphors are instrumental in guiding our thinking. And it seems to me that the metaphor of ‘SEXUAL ABSTINENCE IS PURITY’ is being used as a giant Trojan Horse to smuggle in a very sex-negative view.
I’m going to put on my cognitive linguist hat, and try to unpack what’s going on with this metaphor.
1. Who would disagree with ‘purity’? If purity is an unquestionable good, then going up against it makes you automatically bad. This is an underhanded tactic commonly used when ideas aren’t strong enough to be accepted when stated clearly. Run ‘abstinence’ up the flagpole, and who salutes? Sexually repressed ninnies and religious folk (lots of overlap there, though). Call it ‘purity’ instead, and it’s a lot more palatable.
2. A thing becomes impure by having something else put into it. A pure vial of water becomes impure with the addition of some other liquid. A hypothetical Miss X, before intercourse, was just herself, presumably with no liquids added. She was, if you will, a pure vessel, unadulterated. (Ah, le mot juste. It nicely preserves the etymological link to ‘adultery’.) But after sex with Mr Y, she is impure, coated with someone else’s sticky remnants inside her.
3. Mr Y, on the other hand, doesn’t have very much put into him during (typical) sex. Which is kind of a shame, because it can be nice if done well. Sex doesn’t impurify men. They’re still 100% themselves (minus a few teaspoons).
4. So, taking this metaphor to a logical conclusion, the consequences of impurity should therefore be more serious for women than for men, since according to this metaphor the Anti-Sex Brigade is handing us, they have more to lose in the purity game.
We could therefore make a prediction that the bulk of efforts toward maintaining ‘purity’ would focus on women. And indeed, they do. Is it surprising that the young women in the video says the emotional consequences of having sex are serious, “especially for girls”? The Book of Mormon even says that the Lord delights in the chastity of women. And so the Church obsesses over female ‘purity’, while ignoring the fact that Joseph Smith got as much ass as any sex guru in the modern era (with the possible exception of Brigham Young).
As a linguist, I’m not a fan of language engineering; language is such a big thing that it’s hard for any one person or group of people to move it. But this is one instance where the use has taken hold among the religious community, and now they’re trying to export it to the rest of us. This is kind of a thing for Christians, who have taken a lot of good words for good things, and crammed them into their own sex-hating definitions.
It’s not just the word ‘purity’. It’s also the word ‘morality’. As a Mormon living within the Mormon speech community, I came to think of morality in terms of sexual morality, not in terms of what it took to be a moral person. For many Christians, Bush was a ‘moral’ leader even though he lied about Iraq, but Clinton was ‘immoral’ because he got a blow job. This is a perverted standard of morality.
‘Virtue‘ is another. It comes from Latin vir meaning ‘man’ and it once meant something like ‘excellence’ and ‘valor’. But that’s not the prevailing sense among Latter-day Saints, where it just means ‘sexual abstinence’.
This use of language debases these concepts among its users, and elevates a standard of behaviour that is easy to measure, but which does nothing to promote actual morality, virtue, or purity.