For the Strength of Youth

March 9, 2012 in Lani, Marriage, Menstruation, Motherhood, Sexual intimacy by Lani

By Lani Axman

“Glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” -1 Corinthians 6:20

It was during my most recent pregnancy that a friend recommended Kathryn Soper’s fantastic article, “Why Standards Night Is Substandard.” Many of you may have seen it. I hope it reached far and wide among Latter-day Saint youth leaders and parents. Kathryn Soper shed light on how some young women lay aside their virtue not because of lust but rather in a pursuit to feel “loved,” in control, or powerful in their lives. She explained of her own adolescence: “Our increasingly voluptuous bodies were reliable tools of status and control. The power was heady, but confusing, because wielding it always left us feeling empty and weak. . . . Yet in our economy of success, sexual attraction was the only currency we thought we held. And counterfeit money was better than nothing.” Ultimately, she says, “All of humanity suffers every time a woman, young or not, uses her body not to express herself, but to secure a self; not to feel pleasure, but to gratify another’s; not to share love, but to barter for it.”

Her words reminded me so clearly of my own insecure adolescence, endlessly striving to ensure that my parents, teachers, friends, and boyfriends would always think highly of me. I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing any of them for fear of losing their affection and approval. In contrast, I love how Kathryn Soper described her own daughter’s quiet strength and assurance: “She’s so different than I was at her age, at ease in her own skin, boldly claiming the life she desires. She knows the power of sexual attraction, but she doesn’t need a man’s approving gaze or hungry touch to feel strong.” This is how I hope my daughters will be.

As a church, we speak so often with the youth about being spiritually strong to avoid temptation. Kathryn Soper’s insights fill in a void where psychological and emotional motivators for sexual activity lie. But I feel there is another void yet to be filled in our instructions to our children and youth about sexual intimacy. The Church’s For the Strength of Youth pamphlet gives specific instructions about avoiding behaviors that could arouse sexual feelings, but most of us don’t know much about our reproductive systems or what it really means to have “chemistry” with a member of the opposite sex. I believe it is crucial for our youth to understand their own bodies in order for them to appropriately claim control of those bodies and ultimately enjoy the sacred powers of procreation to their fullest potential.

I have been intently studying pregnancy, childbirth, and many subjects relating to them for over eight years. In my studies, I have learned so many things about my own body and the male body that have strengthened my testimony of God’s grand design. God has given us so many powerful tools right within our own cells to assist us and guide us. I feel so strongly that I need to teach my own children how their bodies were designed to work and how to use the tools God has imbedded within us. Let me explain just one of those tools…

Major Histocompatibility Complex

We have within us something called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a cluster of genes that play a part in immune responses.  Research suggests that having wide variation in MHC genes may lead to higher reproductive success (fewer miscarriages, more live babies with better immune systems and fewer autoimmune problems).  We also seem to be able to sniff out mates with whom we would have the most reproductive success.  And women seem to be more attuned to these genetic nuances of smell than men are.

Potential mates with dissimilar MHC genes will smell and appear more pleasant to us, studies suggest.  And once we have chosen a mate, those with dissimilar MHC odors will keep us more consistently sexually interested.  We are less likely to remain faithful to mates with similar MHC genes, especially during the fertile parts of our menstrual cycles. Our bodies and hormones want us to have reproductive success and genetic variation, so they will attract us to those with whom we are most likely to find those things, whether we think we should be attracted to those people or not! (See here and here and here.) Using hormonal birth control, however, will reverse a woman’s inherent compatibility guide and cause her to be attracted to men with similar MHC genes, or men with whom she will have less chance of reproductive success.

As Psychology Today explains, “Couples experiencing difficulty conceiving a child—even after several attempts at tubal embryo transfer—share significantly more of their MHC than do couples who conceive more easily. These couples’ grief is not caused by either partner’s infertility, but to an unfortunate combination of otherwise viable genes” (Source). It’s to our advantage as far as fertility, faithfulness, and future healthy children to rely on our body’s pure wisdom and instinctual attractions in choosing a mate.

Harnessing the MHC as a Tool

So what do MHC genes have to do with sexual purity? I believe that seeing physical attraction through the lens of the MHC can be a valuable shift in thinking. If our daughters (and sons) have an understanding of the MHC, sexual attraction, and menstrual cycles, they can use this information to their advantage both before and after they’re ready to choose a mate.

I believe God designed our bodies and spirits to draw us instinctively toward those with whom we are most likely to “fulfill the measure of our creation.” (Though modern life has thrown some curveballs into that mix, as I discussed here.) But when a young woman is not yet ready for marriage and family, those same instinctual attractions can be helpful alerts, saying, “Warning: your body wants to make babies with him.”

For example, when a young woman finds herself intensely drawn toward a particular young man, she can say to herself, “Aha. Genetic compatibility. Break out the bridle and pull in the reigns ’cause I’m not ready to procreate just yet.” A young woman can use her body to mentally note with whom she needs to be especially careful, particularly when she’s ovulating. Not only will she be more attracted to those young men during her fertile days, studies indicate that she will smell and appear more attractive to them as well. To borrow Kathryn Soper’s theme, a young woman’s ability to wield her sexual power is never greater than when she is releasing an egg. Young women need to understand and learn how to safeguard that intense power and tool they hold within themselves.

I want my daughters to recognize those feelings of attraction as healthy and good and helpful messages designed by God to assist them, not as evil passions designed to hurt them. I want my daughters to understand what their body is telling them and why God designed it to do so. All for a good, God-given reason: maximizing their ability to create a family, preferably (of course) when the timing and person are right. When our children have reached a place in their lives where they feel ready to find a mate, they can once again harness the MHC as a tool to select one with whom they will have the deepest level of long-term sexual attraction and reproductive success. (Of course, there’s more to choosing a good mate than sexual attraction. I’ve written more about optimizing the mate selection process here).

Oh how I wish I had known about MHC genes and the role of smell and menstrual cycles in physical attraction when I was a teenager and young adult. How I wish I had known so many other things about my body that I didn’t discover until I was actually procreating myself. I feel so strongly the importance of teaching my children about how their bodies were designed to work so that they will not enter their own sexual maturity blindly.

God has placed within each of us beautiful powers and tools, but its up to us to choose how we will bridle, harness, and enjoy them. I believe God wants us to learn the language of our bodies and teach that language to our children.

Has learning more about your body empowered you to use it better?