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Conservative Myths

1) Everybody is biologically either clearly male or clearly female

There is a small sector of the population (approximately 0.018%)[1] that exhibits traits of both males and females, and trying to place them into one category or the other is often much more difficult than people realize. These individuals are often referred to as “intersex” (the term is offensive to some but another one has yet to take its place, so I’ll use it for now). There are no human “hermaphrodites” (a term generally reserved for animals that have complete male and female parts), and no intersex individual can produce both sperm and eggs. No intersex person can be both a father and a mother. Like many other situations, it’s not clear how this will be handled in the afterlife, but there’s no reason to think that intersex individuals won’t be able to be either a Heavenly Mother or a Heavenly Father in the hereafter.

While in many cases intersex individuals are predominantly one sex or the other, in some cases it’s difficult to clearly put them in one box or the other (and, as mentioned, none completely fit into both boxes). For example, for some their primary sexual pleasure organ is a mix between a very small penis and a very large clitoris. For others, they may have a Y chromosome, but externally be completely female because their bodies can’t use testosterone. Historically, these individuals were often assigned a sex at birth (with the attendant surgery), but this often caused problems because some of the sexual characteristics wouldn’t raise to the surface until puberty, and often the assigned gender didn’t match what the individual thought they were. Now there’s a push to withhold any sex-related surgery until they’re old enough to make the decision themselves.[2]

2) Pornography addiction is an established reality

This one largely relies on nitty-gritty technical distinctions between what laypeople consider to be an “addiction” versus what mental health professionals consider to be an “addiction.” In common parlance, we often say that something is addicting if it’s habit-forming or causes cravings that can harm our lives in some way, and pornography use can definitely meet that standard, but the bar for clinicians is much higher, and whether compulsive, problematic pornography use meets that standard is contested, with many researchers arguing that the cravings for pornography don’t attain to the level of “addiction”, physical dependency and withdrawals that, say, crystal meth incurs.[3]

This does NOT mean that people don’t sometimes use pornography habitually, or have strong cravings for pornography that can cause major problems for their family and marital relations, work productivity, and other sectors of their life. It also does not mean that techniques used in addiction recovery programs wouldn’t be effective in helping people eliminate their pornography use. Finally, it also goes without saying that this doesn’t mean that pornography use isn’t harmful spiritually. We often use “addiction” as a shorthand for something intensely alluring, but clinically speaking there’s a stricter standard, and it’s not clear that pornography use meets that standard. (As a side-note, I doubt anybody is “addicted” to chocolate). To get a sense for what a chemical addiction looks like, there are numerous memoirs of drug addiction that are worthwhile reads.[4]

3) In the “good old days” people were more reserved and proper sexually

A whole book could easily be written on “good old days” (or bad old days, depending on your perspective) sexual myths. People employing this rhetoric often implicitly take what was happening in the 1950s as representative of all human history. To take one example, prostitution was quite rampant during the 19th century in America and elsewhere (a fact not lost on Brigham Young and other church leaders who pointed out the hypocrisy of condemning polygamy for destroying American family values when the broader culture winked at prostitution.) To cite one example, in London in the early 19th century approximately one in four unmarried women were prostitutes. There were brothels that specialized in children, and the average age of prostitutes was 16 years old.[5] In the U.S. prostitutes would openly put their occupation down as such on census forms.[6] I don’t see that happening today. In regards to premarital sex, during the time of the American Revolution more women had conceived of their first child out of wedlock (i.e. it was born less than 9 months after a marriage) than belonged to a church. In regards to modesty (in the Mormon sense of the word), while in some ways people were indeed stricter about how much skin was covered, sexual activity was much more public simply because people couldn’t afford to “get their own room,” or circumstances were such that if parents really were forced to wait until they had a moment of comfort and privacy that we usually require as a prerequisite for sexual activity in a modern society, children would have a difficult time getting conceived.[7]

4) People are getting married later and later in the United States

This is true, again, if the end-all reference point is the US in the 1950s, but taking a broader perspective shows that American men in the 2000s were getting married at about the same age as men in the 1890s. Women show a similar pattern. So yes, Americans are getting married later now than in the 1950s, but this isn’t unprecedented when a wider sweep of history is examined.[8]

5) Europe is much more liberal about sexually explicit material

It’s true that in terms of what’s allowed in public and what’s included in educational curriculum Europe tends to be more liberal than the US. However, in regards to what people are allowed to watch in the privacy of their own homes, the US is actually quite liberal by developed country standards. A relatively robust first amendment in the US means people can watch and read pretty much whatever they want outside of child pornography (and copyright violation). This is not the case elsewhere. To give some examples, some types of pornography in the UK (specifically, violent porn) are outright banned in the UK. The American horror movie "Hostel, Part II" was banned in New Zealand (okay, not technically European, but a developed country heavily populated by people of European descent). The sell and marketing of the popular novel American Psycho was restricted in Germany. It was only relatively recently (in the past ten years) that the classic Kubrick film "A Clockwork Orange" was available in the UK. Finally, the Icelandic government recently made an ultimately unsuccessful but not insignificant effort to completely ban internet pornography altogether, and Sweden led the way in the "abolition of prostitution" in the legal realm. The idea that Europeans are okay with everything anywhere just isn’t true, nor is the idea that censorship is only something church-going, red-state Americans do.

5 Liberal Myths

1) Polygamy actually leads to lower fertility, and therefore lower Church growth

When this one is trotted out it often feels like an attempt to problematize the very direct and clear rationale for polygamy given in the D&C and the Book of Mormon. However, while it is a matter of current debate whether polygamy lowers fertility for plural wives ( search Google Scholar for “fertility” and “polygyny”), it is clear that on the societal level polygamy increases fertility, since it increases the marriage rate for all women, polygamous wife or not, to sky high levels.[9] [10] [11] While clearly it would be next to impossible to empirically establish this in the early Mormon case (basically requiring a series of sealed off monogamous and polygynous Mormon marriage markets in the same area), the findings from other societies, combined with the theoretical reasoning and Utah’s own extremely high fertility rates, suggest that it’s very likely that much of the explosive natural growth the Church experienced during the Utah/polygamy era that laid the demographic groundwork for the Church wouldn’t have happened in the absence of polygamy.

2) Religious individuals are more likely to be sexually repressed, and therefore don’t enjoy satisfying sex as much.

The relationship between sexual functioning and religion is not straightforward, and there have been conflicting findings.[12] Some studies have indeed found negative relationships, some positive, and most no relationship at all. The picture of liberated secularists enjoying unrestrained vivacious sex lives while religious people struggle with hang-ups is not strongly supported. That’s not to say that extremely anti-sex religious upbringing won’t cause problems, just that it doesn’t appear to be a big enough issue to pop up with any consistency in large surveys. People from all sorts of backgrounds have sexual hang-ups.

3) The past was sexually repressive

This one is a variation on the conservative myth above. While it may have been true in some circumstances and places, it is less true than might be commonly supposed. For example, while “puritanical” is now an adjective for sexually repressive, the fact is that some Puritans were ejected from their congregations in the Colonies for denying their wives sex--an inability to pleasure one’s wife was considered grounds for divorce in puritanical New England, and we have extant records of satisfied puritan men and women describing the pleasures of marital sexual relations (e.g. “vuluptous swoonings and sweet and subtle pains.”)[13] Our forefathers and foremothers were more sex positive than we sometimes give them credit for. Going further back in the past, as impotency was considered grounds for divorce in the Middle Ages, courts would often test a man’s impotency by enlisting the services of a prostitute, who would bare her breasts and fondle the man in court to see if he was really impotent.[14] Again, hard to see that happening nowadays.

4) False rape accusations are very rare

This one has received some attention lately from the discussion about how the BYU Honor Code impacts rape reporting. Specifically, some have wondered whether granting Honor Code immunity to victims of reported rape might not act as an incentive for false accusations. Estimates for the number of accusations that are false vary widely, but some research has suggested that it’s around 2-10% of accusation,[15] [16], which is relatively rare, but those aren’t completely negligible numbers. Furthermore, research on the motivations for making such claims include attempt to avoid trouble or to provide an alibi, something that would definitely play into a BYU Honor Code exemption.[17] Of course, this needs to be weighed against the significant psychological cost to not reporting a rape due to Honor Code investigations. We have two very big unknowns, so reasonable people can disagree, but the concern about incentivizing false accusations is not entirely unfounded.

5) Sexual desire is manifested identically in men and women, anything that suggests otherwise is a stereotype.

There are fairly universal differences in fundamental aspects of sexual desire among men and women. For example, in virtually every society surveyed men report a higher number of ideal sexual partners.[18] That is not saying that women do not have sex drives, that there are not men who just do not care for sex, or that there are not women who enjoy having a variety of sexual partners: it is just a statement about averages and individual circumstances vary. (For example, in one dataset of mixed-sex couples I am working with, in about 20% of couples the woman wants more sex than the man does).

It is true that the double standard in sexuality (e.g. men who have multiple sexual partners are “studs,” women who do are “sluts”) is responsible for a good portion of the gap in ideal number of sexual partners (some clever experimental studies with undergraduates have shown this—people were hooked up to what they were [inaccurately] told were infallible lie detectors), but the cross-cultural universality of it, combined with evolutionary reasoning, suggests that biology may be playing a role here, even if it’s not (or even more than a small piece of) the whole story. A good summary by one of the top scholars on the subject is here (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sexual-personalities/201202/men-women-and-interplanetary-promiscuity). This notion is high heresy in some academic disciplines/circles, while in others it’s so commonsensical as to not be much of an issue for debate. However, the latter group is more evidence-based, whereas most of the opposition to this stems from ideological grounds (in my opinion).


[1] Sax, Leonard (2002). "How common is intersex? a response to Anne Fausto-Sterling.". Journal of Sex Research. 39 (3): 174–178. doi:10.1080/00224490209552139. PMID 12476264. [Back to manuscript].

[2] Reis, Elizabeth. 2012. Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex. John Hopkins University Press. [Back to manuscript].

[3] I’m not an addiction researcher so I’m not in a position to critique the studies myself, but Google Scholar “pornography addiction” and read the abstracts and you’ll get a general sense of what I’m talking about. [Back to manuscript].

[4] I just finished reading a very touching one that I highly recommend: Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction. [Back to manuscript].

[5] Metaxas, Eric. 2007. Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. Page 76. [Back to manuscript].

[6] http://globalgenealogy.com/globalgazette/gazsh/gazsh-0054.htm . If you want to see for yourself, type “prostitute” in the census transcription search bar here: http://www.searchforancestors.com/records/census.html. [Back to manuscript].

[7] Admittedly, I can’t remember the precise books where I read these two points, but the first was a Rodney Stark book and the second was in a history of sexuality. Angus McLaren’s A History of Contraception (page 145) reports that about 30% of brides were pregnant before the wedding. [Back to manuscript].

[8] See Figure 1 here: https://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/marriage/data/acs/ElliottetalPAA2012presentation.pdf [Back to manuscript].

[9] Tertilt, Michele. "Polygyny, fertility, and savings." Journal of Political Economy 113, no. 6 (2005): 1341-1371. [Back to manuscript].

[10] Chojnacka, Helena. "Polygyny and the rate of population growth." Population Studies 34, no. 1 (1980): 91-107. [Back to manuscript].

[11] Ezeh, Alex Chika. "Polygyny and reproductive behavior in sub-Saharan Africa: A contextual analysis." Demography 34, no. 3 (1997): 355-368. [Back to manuscript].

[12] del Mar Sánchez-Fuentes, María, Pablo Santos-Iglesias, and Juan Carlos Sierra. "A systematic review of sexual satisfaction." International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology [Back to manuscript].

[13] no. 1 (2014): 67. Also, this review missed several other papers that I’m aware of: three of which reported a positive relationship between some dimension of religiosity and sexual satisfaction, one which reported a negative relationship, and one which reported a null relationship. In my own work with the World Gallup Poll I haven’t been able to find a relationship one way or another in the Sub-Saharan African context. [Back to manuscript].

[14] Stark, Rodney. 2013. America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists. Templeton Foundation Press. [Back to manuscript].

[15] Lisak, David, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote. “False allegations of sexual assault: an analysis of ten years of reported cases.” Violence Against Women 16, no. 12 (2010): 1318-1334. [Back to manuscript].

[16] Spohn, Cassia, Clair White, and Katharine Tellis. “Unfounding sexual assault: Examining the decision to unfound and identifying false reports.” Law & Society Review 48, no. 1 (2014): 161-192. [Back to manuscript].

[17] O’Neal, Eryn Nicole, Cassia Spohn, Katharine Tellis, and Clair White. “The Truth Behind the Lies: The Complex Motivations for False Allegations of Sexual Assault.” Women & Criminal Justice 24, no. 4 (2014): 324-340. [Back to manuscript].

[18] Schmitt, David P. "Universal sex differences in the desire for sexual variety: tests from 52 nations, 6 continents, and 13 islands." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85, no. 1 (2003): 85. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Cranney, Stephen (2016) "5 Social Science Misconceptions Some Mormon Liberals Like to Believe and 5 Social Science Misconceptions Some Conservative Mormons Like to Believe
—Part II (Sex, Marriage, and Reproduction Edition)," SquareTwo, Vol. 9 No. 2 (Summer 2016), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCranneyMyths2.html, accessed <give access date>.

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COMMENTS: 1 Comment

I. B. Kent Harrison

The word "addiction" may have a technical meaning, but in real life terms, whether you call it addiction or not, it can be tragic. The arguments one sees in the papers overlook this in attempts to belittle Utah's statute. I have personal knowledge. My brother, Philip A. Harrison, wrote a book about his experience with it, "Clean Hands, Pure Heart." Later he and his wife Colleen wrote "From Heart to Healing" about how the addict and spouse can work together on the matter.