SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) To many Americans, religious or not, chastity before marriage is a quaint tradition at best and emotionally damaging at worst.
After all, more than 90 percent of men and women, according to Guttmacher Institute surveys during the past 50 years, have reported engaging in premarital sex. And the older a single person becomes, many people believe, the more ridiculous it seems to forgo physical intimacy.

That’s the perspective of Mormon poet Nicole Hardy, who, in a New York Times essay last month, described her decision to join the rest of the modern world.

“As I grew older, I had the distinct sense of remaining a child in a woman’s body; virginity brought with it arrested development on the level of a handicapping condition,” Hardy writes. “Too independent for Mormon men, and too much a virgin for the other set, I felt trapped in adolescence.”

Hardy, who declined to be interviewed until her forthcoming book is out, had reached a point in her mid-30s at which she believed it no longer was worth holding out.

Hardy’s essay swept across the Mormon blogosphere, attracting both critics and defenders. They argued about her reasoning. They blamed her, not the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for her predicament. They said she misunderstood Mormon principles. Others empathized with her complaints. In other words, they felt—and lived—her pain.

There are millions of unmarried Mormons; some say up to a third of adult Mormons in the U.S. are without spouses. For a religion that makes marriage and family central to a person’s eternal potential, that can be tough.

Though Mormon men also are expected to be abstinent before marriage, the challenges facing Mormon women seem particularly difficult. The church tends to align with a more traditional culture, in which men typically are seen as the deciders and women patiently wait to be asked.

Frances Johnson, an unmarried 20-something writer in Washington, D.C., sees Hardy’s approach as simplistic, missing the essence of Mormon teachings.

“When you boil the issue down to simply, `Can I have sex or can’t I?’—you are going to find yourself in a less-than-optimal situation if you’re in your 30s and not married,” Johnson said. “You are going to be frustrated and probably talk yourself out of waiting.”

Sex isn’t the doorway to adulthood that makes you the type of person you want to become, she said. That is a “fallacy and discounts the value of all the other kinds of relationships in our lives—with family, friends, co-workers and romantic partners where sex is not involved.”

For Chris J.—writing for a popular Mormon blog,—the lack of sex is only part of what keeps him from feeling like a grown-up.

What troubles Chris, who lives in Arlington, Va., about his unmarried state is the “persistent feeling of unsettledness that leaves so many personal triumphs and tragedies—and the overall arc of my life—doggedly incomplete.”

Anna (not her real name) stepped away from the Mormon church for a time and had a romantic relationship that included physical intimacy. She later returned to the fold and is preparing to marry in the Salt Lake Temple.

Her Mormon fiance is a virgin and, while he knew of her period of doubt, he did not anticipate that might have included sex. He presumed she had remained chaste.

Anna, a 34-year-old Salt Lake City therapist, is at peace about her past experience and excited about her current path. She sees some Mormon singles who struggle with the sorrow of being alone, while others are able to reinvest their energy into professional and personal projects and relationships.

“Church leaders are most helpful when they focus on salient individual needs in single people’s lives,” Anna says, “and encourage singles to take sustainable risks in creating meaningful relationships.”

Marybeth Raynes, a Salt Lake City psychologist and sex therapist, said any institution with clear behavior boundaries is going to be difficult for “outliers,” those who do not follow all the rules.

Such a dynamic can lead to a “split life” for such people, who may choose to give up either their sexuality or their spirituality.

“Each person has to resolve that for themselves,” Raynes said. “Some women—a minority, I think—lead a double life as the church would define it, saying, `This part is between me and God.“‘

Mormon physician Stephen Lamb applauds the LDS Church’s “stern but compassionate approach” and blames modern society for equating sex with maturity.

A recent Brigham Young University study reported that couples who delayed sex until after marriage later reported greater satisfaction in their communication—and in the bedroom—than those who didn’t wait.

“The hypersexual culture in which we live has one pervasive message to young adults and it is that happiness can only be derived through sex,” says Lamb, co-author of “Between Husband and Wife: Gospel Perspectives on Marital Intimacy.” “But the vast majority of LDS kids who succumb to that illusion eventually discover that sex before marriage doesn’t bring happiness and doesn’t make them more fulfilled.”

Mormons teach that no one gets into the highest reaches of heaven alone. And although LDS doctrine reassures members that all righteous Mormons eventually will wed—whether here or in the hereafter—marriage remains a requirement.

LDS spokesman Michael Purdy said church leaders care deeply about the welfare of Mormon singles and “value these members just as they love and value all members.”

Purdy acknowledged that “this love and support are not always shown the way they should be” and says any insensitivity is “unacceptable.”

Many, many single Latter-day Saints “live happy, fulfilled lives and contribute greatly to the church,” Purdy said. “These faithful members recognize that while they are not currently married, they belong to immediate and extended families, to a church family and to the all-inclusive family of God.”

(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)

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