Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author’s and do not constitute an official stance of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
What’s okay and what isn’t? It’s the million-dollar question about sex, and the most requested line of questioning I get. Yet it is also the single most complex, delicate, and potentially dangerous topic of discussion there is. The anxious and frustrated concerns of many readers, as well as their sincere desire to know and do what’s right make this topic one that cannot be ignored. Some of the emails that have prompted me to address this subject are as follows:
“What exactly is ‘proper’ sex? Does it mean that certain things are acceptable and certain things are not? I’ve been married 24 years and this has always been a question I’ve had, but I’ve never felt comfortable enough to ask anyone.”
“Is there a list of do’s and don’ts for bedroom behavior for married couples? I have an over-developed sense of guilt and I would like to find out what the rules are.”
“I often get questions from young adults who want to know what’s not appropriate in the sexual relationship even after marriage. I would appreciate some thoughts on this matter.”
”Through the years I have searched to find this topic being addressed…there are still important questions that have not been answered. Even in a good, healthy marriage relationship, are there some things that are not OK to do? There are so many false images and voices out there…I would like to see an article once that deals with these issues.”
“I find myself growing frustrated at the seeming inability of anyone in the Church to directly address what I’m sure are significant issues related to sexual dysfunction in marriage.”
The flood of detailed questions regarding what’s appropriate is seemingly endless. Many couples grapple with difficult questions and conflicted feelings that seriously affect their intimate relationship. Whether it’s about lingerie or something even more personal, there are some common concepts that can be helpful.
I do not attempt to answer all potential sex-related questions for others, but to provide some thoughts that couples can use to be able to determine for themselves what is okay within their intimate relationship. Some of the issues I will address here are:
- What counsel we’ve received through scripture and from church leaders; Why couples must feel free to express and develop their lovemaking within the intimate sanctuary of marriage;
- Why we don’t need a laundry list of intimate do’s and don’ts;
- Why the stewardship over the sexual relationship in marriage rests with husband and wife; Some common beliefs that can be detrimental to a healthy relationship; and
- Principles and teachings to help couples determine for themselves what’s okay and what isn’t.
Church Counsel for Helping with Intimate Questions
In The Family: A Proclamation to the World, issued by a living prophet and apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we read, “God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.”  In the Bible we also know that in the Ten Commandments it states, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  The basic foundation that God has given about sex is that sexual relations are to be reserved for husband and wife within the marriage relationship.
Many people have expressed a desire to know what’s right within the intimate relationship, so that they can do what’s right. They have searched to find ecclesiastical answers to their many specific questions. Church leaders provide much direction about what is, and is not, appropriate outside the bounds of marriage. However, they are careful not to suggest what is and is not appropriate within the marital relationship. This might suggest an interest in leaving the responsibility of intimate relations to husband and wife.
In October 1982, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent a letter to the priesthood leadership reminding them that it was inappropriate to delve into personal matters involving marital relations between husband and wife. At a priesthood session of General Conference in 1990, President Gordon B. Hinckley stated the following when referring to intimate relations in marriage:
When the bishop interviews you for your temple recommend, he is not likely to get into these delicate and sensitive and personal things. You must judge within your heart whether you are guilty of any practice that is unholy, impure, or in any way evil before the Lord. 
At a BYU fireside in 1992, Elder Boyd K. Packer also indicated that, “We do not, in our counseling, enter the bedrooms of members of the Church.”  Again, in January 2003, during a Priesthood Leadership Training broadcast, church leaders restated this position, reminding priesthood leaders to refrain from inquiring into the intimate relations of married persons.
Many couples struggle to determine for themselves whether they are “guilty of any practice that is unholy, impure, or in any way evil before the Lord.” Thus the need to consider some thoughts that can help couples be more effective in determining what’s okay and what isn’t within their intimate relationship. The difficulty couples face in this area also indicates an inability to personally and confidently obtain divine counsel on this delicate subject. We will discuss some of the conflicting factors that contribute to this difficulty.
When asked a specific sex-related question, a bishop gave the following response that may apply to any question regarding intimate matters between husband and wife. He said, “I will never ask you how much money you make or how you arrived at how much tithing you should pay; I will only ask you if you live up to your covenant to pay a full tithe, and let you and the Lord work out the details.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ provides general principles for the intimate relationship, such as love, kindness, respect, trust, and forgiveness rather than specific practices. Couples should not feel the need for ecclesiastical permission regarding sexual specifics along their path to sexual fulfillment. They should instead counsel between themselves, and with the Lord  understanding that the stewardship over the sexual relationship wisely rests with husband and wife.
Couples Should Feel Free to Express and Develop Their Lovemaking within the Intimate Sanctuary of Marriage
Sexual intimacy is approved and ordained of God as a divine gift for husband and wife to enjoy. Because some experience overactive feelings of guilt and shame about sex, already inhibiting their sexual desire and response, it can be difficult for some to grasp the idea of the intimate relationship being a private and sacred sanctuary. But the husband/wife relationship must be seen as a haven of privacy, so that couples can freely and openly express and develop their sexuality, in order to create a strong and mutually fulfilling intimate relationship.
In this private sanctuary couples can learn about, communicate regarding, and understand the unique and powerful blessings of sexual expression and interaction. The sexual learning of a husband and wife is meant to occur within an atmosphere of love, respect, and trust, not in an atmosphere of fear, anxiousness, guilt or shame.
In such an atmosphere, sexual learning and enjoyment are not likely to be possible.
Both husband and wife should feel free to share their thoughts, their feelings, and their bodies. Couples should become comfortable with, and learn how their bodies respond sexually. Within the divine context of a private marital sanctuary, and following the guidance of the Spirit, couples can work through their personal beliefs and boundaries, and create a wonderfully intimate and fulfilling relationship.
Teach Correct Principles — No Need for a Laundry List of Do’s and Don’ts
Some people wish for a laundry list of do’s and don’ts for the intimate relationship in marriage. The prophet Joseph Smith stated, “[We] teach the people correct principles and they govern themselves.”  Elder Boyd K. Packer confirmed the importance of principles over practices, particularly regarding the sacred powers of procreation when he stated:
The gospel tells us when and with whom these sacred powers may be safely experienced. As with all things, the scriptures do not contain page after page of detailed commandments covering every possible application of the law of life. Rather they speak in general terms, leaving us free to apply the principles of the gospel to meet the infinite variety of life. 
Common Beliefs That Can Be Detrimental to A Healthy Relationship
Some common beliefs can be particularly detrimental to a healthy, mutually fulfilling relationship. Because husband and wife have differing sexual wiring, and complex emotional, spiritual, and physical needs, it is important to consider such when determining what’s okay in the intimate relationship. Examining the following myths can help couples better determine what will enhance and strengthen their marriage:
MYTH — “Once you’re married, anything goes!”
MYTH — “If you’re concerned about a particular behavior, then discontinue it.”
MYTH — “Once you’re married, anything goes!” The higher-desire spouse in a relationship may be particularly anxious to believe that once a couple is married any and all sexual behavior is authorized. This does not take into account the feelings and boundaries of one’s spouse, which must be considered. President Spencer W. Kimball refuted the “anything goes” mentality when he said, “There are some people who have said that behind the bedroom doors anything goes. That is not true and the Lord would not condone it.” 
Even if both spouses are in agreement, there are still some things that couples have the responsibility to seek divine direction about, in order that the intimate relationship enhances one’s emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.
Some common sense examples of unrighteous behavior include adultery, erotica, using sex coercively or manipulatively, demanding any behaviors perceived to be offensive, demeaning or degrading (even if it’s only offensive to one spouse), or any physically abusive behaviors. These things are out of line with gospel teachings and with human decency in general.
It is my guess that any past counsel regarding specific sexual practices has been given due to the behavior of one spouse who has put sexual demands upon the other, making them feel used and demeaned. But, unrighteous dominion may apply not only to the demanding spouse, but also to the unreasonably unwilling spouse, since the spouse with the least interest in sex often seems to control the sexual relationship.
Unrighteous dominion by either spouse has no place in the loving relationship we are striving to create as husband and wife. The Lord felt the need to identify this behavior with a stern warning:
When we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon [our spouse], in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. 
Don’t let the desire for specific sexual behaviors, or the ability to control the sexual activity in your marriage, become a wedge between you and your spouse. Behaviors engaged in mutually, that enhance the relationship, and that are in keeping with the spirit of the relationship, may be considered appropriate.
MYTH — “If you’re concerned about a particular behavior, then discontinue it.” Couples may have heard the counsel that if they have concerns or are uncomfortable with certain sexual behaviors, those behaviors ought to be discontinued. But because of the differences between a husband and wife, this counsel can be misconstrued.
Without understanding the existence and significance of negative sexual conditioning, which can lead to sexual aversion or inhibited sexual desire, this counsel can become license for those who dislike sex to limit or end sexual relations altogether. This could have the unintended effect of putting marriages at risk for divorce, and make them more susceptible to temptation as well.
The terms unnatural, unholy and impure are often used to describe inappropriate behavior in the sexual relationship. Again, misunderstanding the different conditioning and psychological wiring of a husband and wife can make this counsel license for those with an overriding belief that sex in general is unholy and impure to dangerously limit or discontinue sex altogether.
Terms such as unnatural, unholy and impure can be broadly defined or interpreted depending on one’s knowledge, experience and perceptions of right and wrong. A Christian mother, Susannah Wesley, provided a valuable yardstick to her son, John Wesley, that may help individuals determine what is truly appropriate or not for them:
Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the auth ority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself. 
This counsel allows for the “infinite variety of life” as stated by Elder Packer, but also clearly identifies what constitutes personal sin. Even this valuable guideline for identifying sinful behavior must be used with caution, and only upon one’s self. We cannot determine for our spouse what should or should not fall into this category. Our own negative internal programming about sex can often distort what we might think is sinful.
Principles and Teachings to Help Couples Determine What’s Okay and What Isn’t
The following are some principles and teachings that can help couples determine for themselves what’s okay and what isn’t within the intimate relationship of their marriage:
- We do not need to be commanded in all things.
- We cannot possibly address all the ways to sin
- We need to follow the spirit of the law.
- Couples can learn line upon line.
- The Savior used parables and symbols to teach, allowing for individual understanding.
We do not need to be commanded in all things.In the wisdom of God, He does not make an official decree or commandment for every little thing. The Lord has counseled, “It is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant.”  If we are compelled one way or the other in all things, we do not develop wisdom, confidence or spiritual self-reliance. The need for greater self-confidence regarding our ability to hear and heed divine counsel is particularly critical within the intimate relationship.
The Lord has told us that the power is in us to do good, and to choose righteously being “agents unto [our]selves.”  God has given us the gift of the Holy Ghost, and trusts us to make correct choices. We must gain correct information, and develop our spiritual senses, so that we can have greater faith and trust in the inspiration we receive. By personally tackling the difficult issues of what’s appropriate regarding intimacy in marriage, couples will be able to develop greater confidence in their ability to identify and receive spiritual direction, and rely more directly on the Lord for guidance.
Following the admonition to “teach correct principles” and let couples “govern themselves” encourages husbands and wives to seek the Lord directly rather than going through a church leader or some other person to obtain answers to delicate sexual questions.
No one outside the intimate relationship has enough information about the individuals involved, or the circumstances in the relationship, to even make accurate judgments about what’s okay and what isn’t. Only the Lord perfectly knows each one of us. He knows our strengths, our weaknesses, and the dynamics of our marriage relationship. He is the only one that can answer our questions correctly.
What’s the point of someone saying that a particular behavior is okay if your spouse feels that it isn’t? The counsel would only be useful for one to, in essence, beat the other spouse over the head about it. That’s not the best way to create a close and intimate loving relationship. This is why couples must take responsibility for working out their intimate differences between themselves (though a professional may be helpful in this process when the relationship is being affected).
Many people have wanted me to give them a “yes” or “no” answer to specific questions, but my response is always the same. It doesn’t really matter what I think. It only matters what you and your spouse think, and what you are both comfortable with, and willingly agreed upon.
We cannot possibly address all the ways to sin. King Benjamin, in the Book of Mormon, taught, “I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them.”  It would be very difficult for anyone to create a specific list of “thou shalt nots” for the marital bedroom. Instead, the Lord has given a spiritual gift to all, “The Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil … wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge [what] is of God.” 
Imagine the Pandora’s box that would be opened if the Church commented on specific sexual behaviors. This would set a precedent of needing a “letter from the First Presidency” on every imaginable sexual question. Where would it end? Imagine the bishop — who might be an accountant, a plumber or a financial planner — being given the responsibility to answer every sexual question he may receive. The Church would have to come up with a “Sexual Intimacy Handbook of Instruction” for priesthood leaders.
I don’t imagine that church leaders want to become the bedroom police. What an incredible burden such a responsibility would be! It is commendable that couples want to do what’s right, but God has wisely given the responsibility for the sexual relationship to husband and wife with the assistance of His word through scripture, gospel teachings, and personal revelation.
We need to follow the spirit of the law.Christ replaced the strict and specific written commandments (the do’s and don’ts) of the Law of Moses with a higher law referred to as a “more excellent way.”  Blind obedience to the letter of the law was wisely replaced with following the spirit of the law.
Graduating ourselves to follow the spirit of the law regarding intimacy in marriage not only includes maintaining correct behavior, but also relies on following the intent of God’s counsel. Following the spirit of the law requires refinement of the heart, greater spiritual insight, and a greater ability to hear and heed spiritual direction.
Elder Faust indicated that “the intent of a person alone becomes part of the rightness or wrongness of human action”  and that this “refinement of the soul,” relying on the intent of the heart and mind, also leaves us to rely on the “promptings of the Holy Spirit.”  Individuals must examine the intent of their heart regarding their desires within the intimate relationship to help them determine what’s appropriate.
Couples can learn line upon line. We all learn and progress in our own time and space — line upon line. We all understand the principles of the Gospel at differing levels. By giving the responsibility for the sexual relationship to husband and wife, God allows for line-upon-line learning.  He encourages us to move to a higher level of spirituality by inviting us to live by the spirit of the law, instead of demanding blind obedience to the letter of the law. In Him the Law of Moses, or the letter of the law, was fulfilled and done away. 
To remove the responsibility of understanding God’s intent in the sexual relationship from husband and wife would weaken individuals spiritually, and limit their learning. In the area of sexual fulfillment in marriage, husband and wife can mature spiritually, as they draw nearer to each other, seeking divine guidance to distinguish between godly behavior and sinful behavior. Sex itself is godly behavior. God created it. God cares about the intimate relationship in marriage, not to condemn, but to see that His divine gift of sex blesses lives and strengthens marriages.
The Savior used parables and symbols to teach, allowing for individual understanding. As I’ve pondered the approach church leaders have taken in refraining from commenting on sexual behavior within marriage, it occurred to me that it might be similar to why the Savior used symbols and parables to teach divine truths. Parables and symbols allow for people to learn what they are ready to understand at any given moment. Parables rely upon the Spirit to teach what is right according to what one is ready, willing, and able to receive.
Depending on the knowledge, experience and degree of spiritual growth of an individual, parables can potentially allow for each person to understand the same principle a little differently. If the Savior chose to use parables to teach, then maybe we too can give each other greater latitude in our learning, letting it be okay for others to see things a little differently than we do.
The very complex and delicate questions of what’s okay and what isn’t within marriage can be worked through within our own hearts, and issues can be resolved together as a couple within the intimate sanctuary of marriage. As couples start out with a solid understanding of the sanctity and goodness of sexual relations in marriage, they can then identify any incorrect beliefs about sex that may inhibit or cause conflict, and more effectively overcome the barriers that keep them from attaining the exquisite oneness and intimate connection that God intended in marriage.
(Information taken from Chapter 7 of the book And They Were Not Ashamed – Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment.)
Tune in to next month’s article for a continuing discussion on this topic “What’s Okay and What Isn’t, Part II” where we will discuss ways to distinguish between godly and sinful behavior particularly when it involves conflicting opinions between husband and wife.
Laura M. Brotherson, CFLE, is a marriage and family life educator certified by the National Council on Family Relations, and is the author of a groundbreaking book on physical intimacy and marital ONEness entitled, And They Were Not Ashamed – Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment. Laura also publishes an electronic newsletter entitled, “Straight Talk about Strengthening Marriage.” For more information visit www.StrengtheningMarriage.com. Laura welcomes your comments at Laura@StrengtheningMarriage.com.
 “The Family: A Proclamation to World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102.
 Exodus 20:14.
 Hinckley, “Keeping the Temple Holy,” Ensign, May 1990, 52.
 Packer, “The Fountain of Life,” BYU Address, 29 March 1992, unpublished, 8.
 SeeAlma 37:37.
 Faust, “Weightier Matters of the Law: Judgment, Mercy, and Faith” Ensign, Nov. 1997, 54.
 Packer, Eternal Marriage: Student Manual, 2001, 143.
 Kimball, Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 1982, 312.
 Doctrine & Covenants 121:37
 Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 1988, 278.
 Doctrine & Covenants 58:26.
 Doctrine & Covenants 58:28.
 Mosiah 4:29.
 Moroni 7:16.
 Ether 12:11
 Faust, “Surety of a Better Testament,” Ensign, Sept. 2003, 3.
 Faust, “Surety of a Better Testament,” Ensign, Sept. 2003, 6.
 Isaiah 28:10; 2 Nephi 28:30
 See Matthew 5:17; 2 Nephi 25:27; 3 Nephi 12:18; 3 Nephi 12:19
Laura M. Brotherson, CFLE, is a marriage and family life educator certified by the National Council on Family Relations, and is the author of a groundbreaking book on physical intimacy and marital ONEness entitled, And They Were Not Ashamed – Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment. For more information visit www.StrengtheningMarriage.com. Laura welcomes your comments at Laura@StrengtheningMarriage.com.