Look, but don't touch. That's what our seminary teacher was saying about the pile of M&M's he had placed in front of us to represent the dangers of temptation. Seminary is like an early-morning bible study for Mormon teenagers, a daily buffer against the secular halls of public high school. Apparently three hours of church on Sunday wasn't enough.
I was a hormonal but dutiful little fourteen-year-old. A virgin, but by that point, I'd been masturbating for over two years. One day I had picked up a copy of Lonesome Dove and something about the rape scene lit my nascent fire. I felt incredibly guilty, and tried to stop, but it was proving impossible. On this particular morning, though, I was just hungry. So I ate my M&M's while the other teens looked on in shock. Contrary to what my seminary teacher was trying to teach us, they taste just as good when you eat them right away.
Then again, maybe I'm simply destined for the Telestial Kingdom (the lowest of the three that Mormons believe await us after Judgment Day). I'm not much for self-denial; I was never one to diet. If you put a piece of chocolate in front of me, I'm not going to be a saint.
But I did last quite a while. All through high school I attended church and seminary and all the other activities required of young Latter-Day Saints: conferences, camps, Family Home Evening on Mondays, Young Women's Group on Wednesdays. I held "callings" (positions of responsibility in the church), fasted, prayed, paid my tithing, read my scriptures, and even got up to bear my testimony of the gospel every now and then, despite a fear of public speaking. I tailored my prom dresses to cover my shoulders, never touched a cigarette, and waited to date until I was sixteen. When it was time to go to college, Brigham Young University, the church-owned college in Provo, Utah, seemed an ideal place to continue on the straight and narrow.
Named the number one stone-cold sober school for fifteen years running by the Princeton Review, BYU is a stellar academic institution and the place to go if you are a fan of squeaky clean fun. If your idea of a good time is an Ultimate Frisbee marathon followed by a trip to the campus ice cream shop, by all means, join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and apply.
Here beer pong is played with fruit juice and kids go caroling instead of to keggers. "The Spirit is here," they say. "Cougars don't cut corners!", observe faithful, smiling young scholars who stay off the grass while walking to class. The campus bell tower chimes refrains from familiar hymns and the Wasatch mountains surround the town like the very presence of God: immovable, magnificent, and always watching.
There are few bars or nightclubs. On late nights and on Sundays, the streets are deserted. Shopping on the Sabbath is forbidden. Dorms are strictly segregated by sex, and curfews are enforced. Roommates are known to tell on each other, so if you want to do a little dry humping, it's better find a well-hidden parked car. On the highway to Salt Lake, billboards advertise bridal boutiques and missionary suit outlets. They call it "Happy Valley," though Utah has the highest rate of anti-depressant prescription in the country, along with the highest rate of porn consumption.
On campus though, porn is not allowed. The Honor Code outlines a lifestyle of virtue and integrity, and those who dare to "cut corners" are reprimanded and even expelled, like a girl down the hall from me who was kicked out our first week after the RA overhead her having phone sex. Brandon Davies, the basketball star, got sidelined after confessing to sleeping with his girlfriend. He got off a little easy (no pun intended).
No sex, drugs, or alcohol—those are a given. But there is also no coffee, no tattoos, no multiple piercings, no facial hair, no swearing, no R-rated movies, and a dress code that mandates women wear knee-length shorts and skirts. No sleeveless shirts and nothing too tight or low cut. No tank tops, no bikinis. Nothing that would tempt the young men, most of whom were, at 18, preparing to go on a mission, or at 21, just having returned from "the field", ready to marry in the Mormon Temple and be sealed for all eternity to a worthy eternal companion. When my boyfriend came home from his mission, he was so stalwart that he wouldn't allow me to use the bathroom at his apartment because it was too close to his bedroom. When we watched PG movies on his couch, I had to keep both feet on the floor.
I managed to graduate without being called into the Honor Code office. I wrote a couple missionaries, suffered through a few cold Utah winters, and focused on my studies. Though I was still masturbating almost every night, trying not to wake my prudish roommate. One time, my guilt drove me to confess my shameful addiction to my ward Bishop, a man with a picture-perfect family, house and life—a man who looked like Mitt Romney. I don't remember what he told me, but I do remember the excruciating embarrassment, and thinking that I must be the only girl in the world with such aberrant predilections.
By the time I was back home in Las Vegas, I was about to go crazy. I thought about sex almost all the time and felt like a volcano under a lid. My fantasies ran wild. On Sunday, when we were supposed to stay home and be spiritual, I holed up in my room and went for seven. My thoughts were getting more sexual by the day, and I could hardly concentrate at work – or even in sacrament meeting, where the waves of hot hunger tortured me, no matter how many hymns I sang or how many times I prayed.
So there I was, a sexually repressed old maid in Sin City. I started going to the Single's Ward, church services for those of us who somehow managed to graduate without getting hitched and knocked up. They were comprised of those of us whom nobody wanted, who were rapidly approaching full-scale hysteria about still being single at 25. In this sanctified meat market, the men check out each year's fresh crop for wife-material and the women pray and fast to find their valiant returned missionary. Talks often center on the importance of family, and the church bulletin board is plastered in cookie-cutter wedding announcements, the couples in matching Old Navy outfits.
To be an unmarried Mormon woman in your mid-twenties is to be in a desperate race to the Temple. We learned how to make Engagement Chicken at our weekly Enrichment Meetings and went to all the state-wide young adult dances (spectacles of awkwardness). All we wanted was to make it on that bulletin board; to get sealed for time and all eternity; to make our mothers smile. To be initiated into a lifetime of crafts, cookies, cupcakes, casseroles, board games, minivans and Boy Scouts. To wear temple garments underneath Capri pants and modest blouses. To have cute kids to haul to church, just like our parents before us.
But I wasn't ready to be a housewife and to settle down in the suburbs with three kids. So one Wednesday night, I looked around at the other frumpy over-the-hill twenty-somethings trying to tie raffia bows onto wooden blocks, and I just couldn't do it anymore. From there, my descent to the dark side was gradual but inexorable. I started going out to nightclubs and wearing short shorts. I drank for the first time. One summer, I broke down and had sex, in a downtown apartment off the Strip, with a bad boy photographer with a ponytail, tattoos, and a major passion for weed. It was awesome, and totally worth giving up an eternity of exaltation. I'm hoping I'll get a slap on the wrist, like Brandon did, and then next season, be back in God's good graces.
Because I need to live, and to enjoy life. To be free: free from the guilt of my youth; free from the fear of judgment by other Church members. Free from worrying about the disapproval of my Heavenly Father.
I need to be my own person, able to think for myself. I now know that I'm not the only woman in the world who masturbates, and that it's okay to have a sex drive. I can make my own decisions without slavishly following a million rules. I know I can get drunk and still be a good person and that getting wild every now and then can be incredibly joyous and life-affirming; the stuff of which memories are made of, and from which wisdom is earned.
I wear bikinis now, the tinier the better, and enjoy my wine dry, my coffee dark. I'm still in touch with some of my old LDS friends via Facebook, where they post pictures of their multiple children, all very cute and well-dressed, and on Pinterest, where they post recipes and modest wedding dresses and clever craft how-tos. They are the mothers I could have been, teaching the next generation of Mormon girls about chastity, and modesty, and waiting until marriage. Maybe in seminary or on Sunday, they'll pass around a crumpled rose, a popped balloon, or a bag of M&Ms, warning the fresh-faced virtuous pre-teens about the dangers of temptation.
They seem happy and I hope they are, though you never know. They could be popping Prozac in-between prayer sessions, their husbands addicted to porn. Either way, in their eyes, I have failed the great test. My mom is disappointed; my former best friend (that uptight freshman roommate) and I no longer speak. My returned-missionary boyfriend married someone else; they just had a son. If their doctrine proves true, I will never make it to the highest kingdom. I will never be a Goddess, a companion of a God (one of several; while plural marriage is no longer practiced by Mormons here on Earth, apparently it may be reinstated in the world to come). According to them, I will have to live as a single spirit forever, a servant to those who were able to look at the M&Ms and refrain.
For now though, I get to accept myself without the burden of crushing judgment. I have some freedom, and I can do as I please. And damn, does it taste good.