For the Strength of Youth

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?

6 thoughts on “For the Strength of Youth”

  1. Love this. It is so important we learn from GOOD– hopefully our parents– sources about intimacy and how our bodies work. I think it is sad that so often the most aggressive sexual educator are movies and popular culture. I know that I learned WAY more than I ever wanted to know before I was married… but none of it was really empowering or helpful. It just hurt my soul because it portrayed sexuality so basely and women’s bodies so objectively. There really is so much power in being able to learn about your body and sexuality in a sacred and spiritual way. And I think it starts young, young, young!

  2. I loved Kathyrn Soper’s article. For me, the Church’s heavy emphasis on sexual attraction and how you can get “swept away” isn’t too helpful, especially for someone like me who has to work hard to cultivate powerful sexual feelings. Swept away? Never been there. I understand that some people might feel like that, but that leaves others (like moi!) with no frame of reference for all of this discourse about sexuality. I think that’s why I liked Kathyrn Soper’s article so much–it addressed the female body and female needs (which usually are wanting to be loved/liked/accepted, rather than acting out of bodily passion), rather than assuming a (mostly) male approach to sexuality.

    I don’t want to imply that all women are less sexual/passionate than men, of course. But honestly, I feel really mystified at all of the talk about sexuality in the Church. Because it would be incredibly, incredibly hard for *me* to get swept away in lust or passion.

  3. Yes, the more I learn about my body the more empowered I feel. I also feel more amazed at this wonderful gift that God has given me. I most recently felt this when I read Taking Charge of Your Fertility. It is incredible how many signs our body has to let us know when we our ovulating. Now that I know about MHC I can appreciate it even more.

  4. Excellent post, Lani. Though I know the Church means well, I think they rely on far too many ambiguities when they deploy their standards. This post (and Soper’s) reminds me that our temples are sophisticated instruments that require a lifetime of training to master.

    Getting our young people to train properly is imperative. They need concrete ideas and symbols to guide them.

  5. This is why I love Taking Charge of Your Fertility. I read it when I was thinking about getting pregnant with my FOURTH child. Oh how I wished I’d read it as a teenager, let alone newlywed.

    This is amazing information. I will be printing this article off and adding it into the back of my copy of TCoYF.

  6. This was fascinating… I remember being a junior in high school (at Provo High, where most students and teachers were Mormon) and having my health teacher say to the class, “If you guys ever have sex when you’re teenagers, just plan right now on her getting pregnant because she probably will. Girls are more likely to succumb to temptation when they are ovulating.” I’m glad he said that and it’s stuck with me all these years but it wasn’t until I read this that I really understood why that’s true.

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