Sunday, 28 August 2016

What's the word on oral sex?

This is a topic I approach knowing there is a risk of creating more heat than light.  Please keep in mind as you read this that my remarks here are my own personal understanding.  You are free to reject what I say here, and I actually hope nobody here blindly takes my word on anything I post but searches for confirmation from the highest authority.

Oral sex, both in the form of fellatio (ie: a woman orally pleasuring a man) or cunnilingus (a man orally pleasuring a woman), is nothing new.  Many Bible scholars say that Songs of Solomon 2:3 and 4:16 are alluding to oral sex, and although that book has a somewhat questionable status to us, it does at least suggest that ancient Jews and Christians were OK with the idea of oral sex.

Over the past several decades oral sex has become something talked about far more openly than in the past, and it is far more frequently referred to in popular media as a pleasurable act both men and women normally desire and even expect. It is not considered an uncommon act and I expect the percentage of married Mormons who have oral sex to be about the same as for married non-Mormons, at least among the younger generations of married couples.

There is no question that oral sex is a sexual act though, and any unmarried couple who engage in it are in violation of the law of chastity.  There is sometimes a question in the minds of some Latter-Day Saints however if this is also off limits for a married couple.

"The Letter"

In the entire history of the church, there has been one (and only one) time where oral sex has been referred to, and unfortunately that one reference was mistaken to be a doctrinal position of the church.  I believe that looking at what was said in context should lead to a different conclusion.

The document in question is a January 1982 letter from The First Presidency to all Stake, Mission, and District Presidents, plus Branch Presidents and Bishops.  The letter is two pages long and its purpose was to provide guidelines for leaders conducting worthiness interviews, not specifically to address any sexual questions.  I will not provide a link to the the letter since these days it can only be found on websites hostile toward the church, who use it to mock the church over the following part:

When interviewing married persons, the one doing the interviewing should scrupulously avoid indelicate inquiries which may be offensive to the sensibilities of those being interviewed.

Married persons should  understand that if in their marital relations they are guilty of unnatural, impure, or unholy practices, they should not enter the temple unless and until they repent and discontinue any such practice.  Husbands and wives who are aware of these requirements can determine by themselves their standing before the Lord.  All of this should be conveyed without having priesthood leaders  focus upon intimate matters which are a part of husband and wife relationships.  Skillful interviewing and counseling can occur without discussion of clinical details by placing firm responsibility on individual members of the Church to put their lives in order before exercising the privilege of entering a house of the Lord.  The First Presidency has interpreted oral sex as constituting an unnatural, impure, or unholy practice.  If a person is engaged in a practice which troubles him enough to ask about it, he should discontinue it.  (Letter from The First Presidency, Jan 5, 1982)
Unfortunately a lot of church leaders had a knee-jerk reaction that lead them asking couples what they were doing in the bedroom, and also counseling them that oral sex was a sin.  News of this reached The First Presidency and on October 15th there was another letter stating:

In conducting worthiness interviews you should follow carefully the instructions contained in our letter of January 5, 1982.  Also, you should never inquire into the personal, intimate matters involving marital relations between a man and his wife.   You should never deviate from or go beyond the specific questions contained in the temple recommend book.  If in the course of such interviews a member asks questions about the propriety of specific conduct, you should not pursue the matter but should merely suggest that if the member has enough anxiety about the propriety f the conduct to ask about it, the best course would be to discontinue it.  (Letter from The First Presidency, Oct 15, 1982)
What it means and what it doesn't

There is still the lingering belief among many that the church views oral sex as morally wrong because of these letters.  I would dispute that for the following reasons:

The first letter specifically states that their negative view on oral sex is their interpretation.  They do not claim it to be revelation, inspiration, church policy or anything other than their own interpretation.  Their interpretation is partly the product of their upbringing and cultural environment of their generation in that location. 

This was also something mentioned once in passing in a letter to certain leaders of the church and never taught to the body of the church.  Given that the church has no qualms over condemning masturbation, homosexual behaviour, fornication, immodest dress, and other socially accepted immoralities I would expect them to also be vocal about oral sex being immoral, if in fact we had some indication from God that it was.  Instead we have total silence on the question, and priesthood leaders being directed to not get into asking about it.  Even in Handbook 1 and 2 say nothing beyond what is in the second letter and I expect a great many of you reading this had never even heard of the first letter. 

Also, the first letter emphasizes that husbands and wives "can determine by themselves their standing before the Lord" and that the responsibility is on individual members.  In other words, couples are to determine between themselves and God where the boundaries should be in their relationship.  It doesn't make sense to give that instruction, then go contrary to it laying out a rule for all couples.  It does make sense however to see what they said on oral sex as an example of them following that counsel, and by so doing coming to that interpretation.  This is not a church however that is governed by the interpretations of men, and doctrine is not established by a one time opinion expressed in a letter that wasn't even to the church as a whole.  What they said deserves respectful consideration, but we are not obligated to adopt their interpretation.

So, I feel it is perfectly accurate to say that the members of The First Presidency back then held as their own view that oral sex was unnatural etc., but I do not consider it accurate at all to say that the position of the church was the same.  As far as I can tell, the church has no official position on oral sex now, and never has in the past either. 

A Definite Maybe

So, is oral sex an immoral act that every married couple should abstain from?  If you need an answer to that, you will need to seek it for yourself.  No such revelation has come to the church and I wouldn't expect it to.  If you personally feel this is something God doesn't want you to do, you need to go with that, but don't project on to God any personal inhibitions or feelings you may have about it.

Does that mean oral sex is perfectly OK for you and your spouse to do?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  It does mean however that you and your spouse should only go ahead with if you both are comfortable with doing it, and if you both feel that God is OK with you taking that path.  One couple may reach one conclusion, and another couple may reach another.  Not everything is one size fits all.

In my opinion (and I stress that this is my opinion), I do not feel it is inherently wrong within the boundaries of marriage.  God made more than one kind of tree, one kind of flower, one kind of fruit.  He gave us a world filled with variety, and likewise I don't think God requires us to limit ourselves to one form of intimacy.  For some elderly couples, people with disabilities or other conditions, oral sex may be the only form of intimacy they can enjoy.  Some women are only able to reach orgasm through oral stimulation. It fulfills the divine purpose intimacy has of bonding the husband and wife to each other.

But even without moral objections there may still be valid reasons for a couple to not include this act in their lives.  It is not unusual for somebody to be uncomfortable with the idea of oral sex for reasons that have nothing to do with morality and sin.  Hygienic concerns are common even though you expose yourself to more germs, bacteria etc. by kissing.  Body image or negative associations of oral sex with something undesirable can create inhibitions.  The idea may simply be a turn off, or it may be an act linked to past traumatic experiences they do not want to have re-triggered.

Pushing a spouse to participate in something sexual that they are not comfortable with, no matter what act it is, is abusive.  No intimate experience should pleasure one spouse at the expense of the emotional peace and well being of the other.  At the same time, choosing to overcome needless inhibition to become a better lover for your spouse is a very loving thing. 

It is also not a good thing to make one's happiness in their marriage dependent on a spouse's willingness to engage in oral sex.  Who you are intimate with is far, far more important than what form that intimacy takes, as long as there is intimacy.  A lack of oral sex may be a cause for a mild case of unsatisfied curiosity or longing, but it should never be a source of conflict in a marriage.  Don't let such a minor thing be a crack Satan can place his wedge in and hammer away at your marriage.


  1. Month after month for more than a year this post gets 10 or 20 times as many hits as any other post on my blog and I'm kind of curious about that.

    Would you be so kind as to post a comment and let me know how you wound up here. Google search, via Facebook or what?

    1. Google search. I cannot find any frank, open and non sinful feeling inducing information on sex and intimacy. The church is stuck in puritanical times. Not that we need erotica, but something along those lines in a blunt down and dirty way of explaining to youth as well as newly converted couples, ways to pleasure your partner from beginning to end. When I look up information on sites like LDS living and all I find is 1 talk telling young men you know what is wrong so don't do it, by a general authority. I have to roll my eyes. Yes intimacy is very spiritual and brings us closer to God, but can't we also have fun in the bedroom with our partner that goes beyond vanilla sex and not feel like a filthy sinner?

    2. I understand how you feel, I wouldn't want the church to play sex therapist for the members however. If they got into that, no matter what they said there would be people who would wind up feeling pressured or judged to do things they are not ready to do.

      The discussion needs to happen in a way where people can hear a point of view and decide for themselves how they feel about it, free to accept or reject it without being rebellious against the church so I'm comfortable with the 'teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves' approach.

      There actually are quite a few sex-positive things that various church leaders have said over the years. I think you might want to check Laura Brotherson's book "And they were not ashamed", it has a lot of good quotes along those lines in it. I think you'll find the kind of information and perspective there that you are looking for too.

      Members should discuss such things among themselves. Even more important is for a couple to learn to be able to talk about sex with each other and to talk to God about it too. I think a big challenge for members is the baggage picked up from previous generations, or from a previous faith if a convert. I wouldn't say they stuck in puritanical times though, although I expect being outside the Utah bubble is an advantage for that.

  2. I'm not LDS, got here via a Google search, and was searching because I'm trying to better understand the position of the church on this matter - to better understand why my LDS friends are inhibited about this, and also sex and sexuality more broadly.

  3. A discomfort about talking openly about sex is pretty common in any faith and even among those of no faith.

    The position of the church is that adultery, pre-marital sexual relations (ie: fornication), pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, homosexual acts and masturbation are wrong.

    If you are talking about a member refusing to have sex outside of marriage I'll have to take their side on that one. That is not being inhibited, that is being a disciple of Christ.

    When it comes to what goes on between a husband and wife, the church doesn't micro-manage. It is up to the couple together with God to conclude together what their sex life should include or not include, keeping in mind the principles of the gospel such as kindness, love, respect, the sacredness of our bodies and sexuality, and the commands against the sexual sins listed above.

    On top of the doctrinal restrictions that members should stick to there are also a number of commonly held cultural ideas that are more restrictive than what doctrine states, sometimes refereed to as 'The Good Girl/Boy Syndrome'

    I would recommend reading Brotherson's book "And they were not ashamed' both to get a better understanding of the doctrinal and the cultural side of things.

    1. I got the book. Slowly...ever-so-slowly...working my way through it. I need to pick up the pace already. Anyway, here it is on Amazon (currently $14.11 for the paperback version at the time of this post).

  4. Blaming ward leaders for reading that first letter, and then mistakenly thinking oral sex is a sin, is like blaming the United States for seeing Pearl Harbor getting bombed and mistakenly thinking Japan is declaring war.

    They back-tracked letter 1 with letter 2, and they back-tracked and obfuscated their calling of oral sex a considerable sin. And they would have gotten away with it too if there hadn't been resistance. (This is how revelation works. What sticks, sticks. What doesn't stick is forgotten and buried, and anyone who brings it up is shamed like they're an idiot or something.)

    Here, let's look at their words: If marital couples are "guilty of unnatural, impure, or unholy" practices, they "should not enter the temple" until they "repent and discontinue". (How do you repent of something that's not a sin?) Then they use the *same* words to describe oral sex: "unnatural, impure, or unholy". And I don't buy the idea that "interpretation means opinion". Have you forgotten the sixth fundamental rule of following the prophet? "The prophet does not have to say “Thus saith the Lord” to give us scripture." --Ezra Taft Benson. In the first letter, they even invoke the name "the First Presidency" right before calling oral sex a sin. But hey, I guess I'm just looking beyond the mark for not realizing they weren't *actually* using their prophetic position to clearly state that oral sex is sinful. My bad.

    Let's put both letters together and into a scenario, though. If I was asking a bishop during an interview, "Oh, and may I ask if oral sex is a sin? Because I don't want to do it if it's a sin." According to the letters, the answer should be along the lines of, "if you bring it up, it must be. You'll have to stop doing it to enter the temple."

    If that's not absurd enough, consider this. If you've heard through the grapevine that it *might, maybe* be a sin, but you and your spouse have been doing it consensually and worry-free all this time, then because you asked the bishop it now retroactively becomes a sin.

    Yes, at best, the brethren very much rescinded a poorly worded official letter from prophets, seers, and revelators. At worst, they dipped their toe in the water of fixing this unnatural, impure, and unholy act, and they got bit. Hard.

  5. You are certainly free to disagree with me if you wish, but I don't see anything in letter 2 that recants anything in letter 1, it only repeats parts of letter 1 that were not being followed.

    I do agree that a prophet doesn't have to say 'thus saith the Lord', but this is a case where the First Presidency specifically said they were offering their interpretation. THEY are saying it is not revelation. Why not take them at their word on that?

    And saying you shouldn't do something doesn't automatically mean the thing is a sin. Some people grow up being taught french kissing is a sin, even in marriage, or having sex on Sunday, or letting your spouse see you naked, or any number of other perfectly normal things. The counsel is that a couple should not engage in a sexual act that they are not both comfortable with. That is good advice, nobody should be pushed into doing something that will leave them with a negative feeling. It harms the relationship even when the act in question is not sinful. So if it bothers one of you, don't do it. That doesn't rule out learning to become comfortable with something new and trying it later on however.

    The church is very clear about what constitutes a sexual sin: fornication, adultery, incest, homosexual, bestiality, pedophilia and necrophilia. They have no qualms about labeling masturbation a violation of the standards a member should live by. With oral sex all there is is one side issue remark they clearly labeled as their interpretation of things, not revelation, not commandment, not even policy, just the personal view of those 3 men at that point in time. They didn't send that remark out to the church, it was a side comment in a letter to church leaders on a totally different topic.

    If you want to hold the view that oral sex as sinful that is your choice, but you should not look down on those who have come to a different conclusion than you. Some members drink cola drinks (even apostles) and some think you shouldn't. Some families do things on Sunday that others think you shouldn't do. There is no revelation on that or on oral sex so each member is free to seek a personal answer from God and nobody should be judging others spirituality based on their conclusion.

  6. Why can't we, as Latter Day Saints, live with this just simply being a mistake? The Brethren obviously did not think through the consequences of putting out such a letter. The information in the letter was bound to get out, and it got out immediately. Because of the letter, the Church was now in our bedrooms. What did our missionaries tell the married couples they were teaching when they asked about the letter? Putting our missionaries in a position to have to talk about married oral sex being a sin was simply not an intended consequence. Were they prepared to tell married couples, where the practice may have been a fulfilling part of their marriage for years, they needed to stop because it was an unholy and impure practice? Sending out the letter was just a bad idea. Why do we need to try to make weak arguments justifying the letter? The statement from the letter couldn't have been more clear: "Married persons should understand that if in their marital relations they are guilty of unnatural, impure, or unholy practices, they should not enter the temple unless and until they repent and discontinue any such practice.... The First Presidency has interpreted oral sex as constituting an unnatural, impure, or unholy practice." I am a faithful Latter Day Saint. Our leaders are not perfect. Sometimes they make mistakes. Here they made one and soon realized it. We have plenty of precedence for imperfection in our history. We should own it and move on.

    1. The letter as a whole was about how to conduct worthiness interviews. It is a rather long letter covering a lot of details of that topic and oral sex is only briefly mentioned due to the fact that priesthood leaders do (or did) sometimes get questions about if it is appropriate or not.

      I wouldn't say their comments on that point were wrong since they did say they were just expressing their own interpretation of things, but I think it could have been said a lot better. They should have been clearer that this was not a pronouncement of doctrine or policy. It certainly was wrong for Bishops and others to take it as doctrine and start treating it that way. Doing that is what prompted the second letter.

      So yes, sometimes even GA's don't expressing things as well as they should, or try to do the right thing in a less than perfect way, and we need to be careful of noting the difference between the man and the message.