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The Missionary Imposition
Romantic feelings are a lot to handle when you're young — especially for Mormon missionaries who aren't supposed to have them.
To me, the missionary position means sitting on the passenger side of a 1986 Chevy Nova with my right arm jammed back between the seat and the door. There are four of us, tooling around the country lanes of northern Idaho after dark, and I am surreptitiously holding hands with the woman in the seat behind me. It’s not a comfortable position, but that’s how you do it when you’re a Mormon missionary.
For a people who once represented everything lurid and perverse in the American popular imagination, we Mormons certainly don’t derive much pleasure from sex. In fact, the last Mormon-in-good-standing to have a rollicking time in the sack may well have been our founder, Joseph Smith, who invented the whole notion of polygamy back in the 1830’s to legitimize his predilection for philandering. The practice is more properly known as “plural marriage,” and Joseph had married at least thirty-three woman in secret by the time he died at the hands of an angry mob in 1844. Among the wives he left behind were two sets of sisters and several women who were already married to other men.
Although plural marriage was banned by the mainstream Mormon church in 1890 (and again in 1904, for the sake of those who didn’t take the first ban seriously), the multiplicity of wives still figures prominently in our theology. The practice is not outlawed but rather suspended in deference to the laws of the land, and will resume on the other side of the veil, where the ratio of worthy women to worthy men is projected to be as lopsided as the ratio of men to women in Alaska.
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But while offered the enticing prospect of eternal sex with multiple (and possibly multitudinous) wives in the afterlife, contemporary Mormon men find it very difficult to enjoy it at all in this life. In our catalog of sins, only two rank more serious than sexual transgression: murder, and denying God after having seen Him personally. (Really.) Adultery, fornication, any sort of homosexual act — one incident of these is enough to buy you an eternal coat of flame, unless you undergo a grueling, humiliating process of confession, contrition, and penitence. The situation is hardly better after marriage. Edicts from church leaders on the acceptability of such practices as birth control and oral sex are ambiguous and portentous, full of euphemism. The path to Mormon bliss is straight and very narrow, and beset on either side with peril.
Our young men have it particularly bad. At the age of 19, in their sexual primes, we impose on them a two-year term of missionary service in which they’re sent into the world two by two to preach Joseph Smith’s Restored Gospel — the parts that don’t involve plural marriage, anyway. Not only are they forbidden books, newspapers, television, movies, and music, but contact with the opposite sex is strictly controlled. No dancing, no dating, and no flirting is tolerated, and sex of any sort is right out.
My tour of duty began in September 1986. As the oldest of eight children in a devout Mormon household, there was never any question that I would serve a mission. Part of my role as firstborn was to be an example to my younger siblings, much as Jesus Christ serves as an example to all the world. I didn’t particularly want to become a missionary. For one thing, I was two years into college already. For another, girls were just starting to show an interest in me, at long last. (My interest in them had gone back much further than my first chaste kiss at the age of sixteen, though it hadn’t progressed much further than that.) Interrupting either pursuit for two years seemed intolerable, but for a good Mormon boy there was just no getting around it — not without revealing myself to my community as a faithless infidel, unworthy of marrying their daughters. Reluctantly I purchased my suits and ties and packed my bags.
After three weeks at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, the church sent me to its Alberta mission, headquartered in Calgary, where I was to spend the next two years scouring the countryside for converts. My first assignment was Brooks, a lonely oil town on the prairie. My trainer, Elder Fowler, showed me the ropes. We would spend our days canvassing door-to-door, preaching repentance and the Book of Mormon. Our mornings were for study, our nights for prayer. Every Monday we would shop and do laundry, and maybe play some basketball or bowl if there were time enough left over before our evening appointments. And always we would obey mission rules.
The rules — an entire handbook of them. Never call friends or family on the phone. White dress shirts only, and always wear your tie and your name tag in public. Companions must sleep in the same bedroom, but never in the same bed. Never touch your anus. Never teach a woman alone in her home without a chaperone present. And the most important rule, passed down like a battered Playboy from seasoned missionaries to greenies, but never found in any book: “If you don’t look once, you’re not a man, but if you look twice you’re not a missionary.”
The rules were all about worthiness. If you kept the rules, God would lead you to the people who were ready to hear the Gospel. If you didn’t, your work would suffer, and you would bear responsibility for those souls you failed to root out and convert. And the world was nothing but a carnal and devilish sinkhole, seeking to drag you under and sap your worthiness.
Being a missionary was a curious exercise in self-confidence. This was the year of “Missionary Man” by the Eurythmics, which we all knew Annie Lennox had written just for us. We were addressed as “Elder,” told all eyes were watching our every action, and that our goodness would be a beacon to the well- and evil-meaning alike. This was a time when a “g.c.,” or “girl challenge,” might signify a transfer to a new part of the mission — or being sent home in disgrace if it weren’t nipped in the bud.
The hazards to our souls were made vivid at one mission conference in Calgary. We had gathered from all corners of Alberta, two hundred of us, to attend two days of meetings and training sessions. Our keynote speaker was a visiting General Authority from Salt Lake City, one of the gray-haired men who administer the affairs of the church. Silver-haired and barrel-chested in this instance, actually — and terrifying, like a less reticent Patton in the army of God.
Rabidly he blasted us with a foretaste of the terrors awaiting those of us who failed to discharge our duties to the utmost jot. His rants about the moral quicksand ready to devour the elder who took a single wayward step chilled our blood. “You watch yourselves out there,” he barked from the podium of the chapel where we met. “You gird up your loins with the armor of God, especially you young elders, because this world is just crawling with women who would love nothing better than to drag you down.”
He might have spared us any elaboration on that topic if it weren’t for my friend Sister Roper. One of the relatively few female missionaries in Calgary, she and her companion Sister Steed were sitting in the pew directly behind me. Into the space at the end of that assertion, Roper coughed a harsh and disbelieving laugh, loud as a gunshot. I turned my head just in time to see her clap both hands over her open mouth, eyes wide with shock.
A stunned and frigid silence reigned for two short seconds, which is all the time it took for our General Authority’s face to suck every quantum of warmth from that chapel. He went from white to molten-red before most of us could remind ourselves to breathe. Mouth quivering with rage, he thrust his head as far out over the pulpit as it would go and thundered, “Do you think this is funny, Sister? Do you think it’s a joke when two missionaries tract into a house with only a mother and her teenage daughter at home, and within five minutes the daughter is performing oral sex on one elder in the bedroom while the mother does the same to the other in the living room? Maybe you’d like to be the one who has to listen to stories like this every week, and then explain to the poor, hard-working parents why you had to excommunicate their stupid sons and send them home! Would you like that?”
I’m not sure what all the other elders were thinking as we filed out of the chapel that afternoon, but I’d wager it was similar to my thought: “Gosh, how come stuff like that never happens to me?”
Mission life was hard, very hard, and it could be tempting to imagine a way out. I heard apocryphal tales, like the story of the elder in the South Pacific who was so miserable that he slept with a hooker and confessed to his mission president, just so he could be sent home. This is the Mormon equivalent of a wolf gnawing off its foot to escape a steel trap — with the added bonus that you go to hell afterward.
My own ambitions, or perhaps only my methods, were more modest. I had left a girlfriend behind in Utah, and at night I lay still on my back, imagining her (or maybe one of the sister missionaries) on top of me. At nineteen, it didn’t take much vigor to consummate the fantasy, which was important because I didn’t want to wake my companion in the next bed, who presumably was there to prevent just this activity. In the morning I would awake early and hurry to the bathroom to peel off my sacred undergarments, which crackled where glued to my abdomen.
When I finally confessed my weakness to my mission president, much to my disappointment he failed to excommunicate me and send me home. He merely offered words of encouragement, clapped me on the shoulder, and slipped me a photocopied sheet full of suggestions for overcoming masturbation. This same brief guide is now widely available on the Internet, with such sterling advice as to avoid drinking large amounts of water before bedtime, and to sleep with a Book of Mormon clasped firmly in hand or one wrist tied to the bedpost.
Of all the g.c.’s that might arise to confound a young elder, by far the most serious is one with a sister missionary. Not only are two unusually horny parties involved, but any fruition of the relationship could cost the mission two of its precious laborers instead of just one.
A few weeks before he was scheduled to go home, Elder Fowler confessed to me the reason he had requested a transfer out of Calgary for his last months in the mission. He had become involved there with a missionary named Sister Nylund, and their nightly snogging sessions in Prince’s Island Park were starting to get out of hand. “My companion was making out with her companion, too,” he told me. “It was like a double date. I had to get away. But it’s okay, Elder. She and I are getting married after we’re both home.”
Elder Fowler must have trained me well. It was a year later that my own sister missionary challenge raised its head. Her name was Sister Blaise, and she came from the ranching country of south central Utah. I was serving at the time in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, having run afoul of Canada Immigration and been transferred stateside for what we’ll call visa problems. Sister Blaise and her companion were stationed in Sandpoint, thirty miles south of us on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille.
These were small, small towns, and there were only so many times you could knock on the same damn doors to deliver the same damn message. My companion and I visited the sisters frequently in Sandpoint, going so far as to enter their off-limits apartment for four-handed rounds of Uno and Rook. (Regular playing cards were one of many forbidden recreational items.) It was under the table there that Sister Blaise, across from me, first slipped off her sensible shoes and ran her stockinged toes up my ankle. She didn’t even look at me over her cards, but the contact was like a live electric cable brushing my leg.
We never spoke about it, but soon we were taking every opportunity for stealthy touches. Her sun-kissed fingers upon my elbow were manna in the desert. Her chestnut hair tossed against my face could be lethal. We held hands in the car, in that awkward position, as desperately as if letting go meant falling forever into a bottomless abyss. We convinced ourselves our companions remained ignorant. We knew this path might lead to fornication and ruin, but we refused to believe it. We couldn’t care.
Then came word that I was to be transferred two hundred miles away, to a town called Orofino. Sister Blaise clung to me in the dark beside the tiny farmhouse where Fowler and I lived rent-free, in the brief moment when our companions were still inside. “What am I going to do without you, Elder Shunn?” she murmured in my ear.
I bought it. Her cards and letters over the next few weeks — i’s dotted with hearts — finally prompted a late-night road trip to Sandpoint. My new companion didn’t mind tagging along; he was carrying on at the time with a fourteen-year-old local girl.
Four hours after we set out, while Elder Horne lurked out near the car, Sister Blaise met me at the door to her apartment. She wore a quilted bathrobe sashed at the waist, and a high-collared nightgown beneath. She took me to the couch, where we necked furiously with the lights off. Her floral perfume — heavy and matronly, unlike the woman herself — threatened to smother me.
After fifteen minutes or so, a tread in the hallway startled us apart. “When I wake up, Elder Shunn,” said the sleepily menacing voice in the shadows, “I hope I find out you were just a bad dream.” Then Sister Potter turned and lumbered back to the bedroom.
I didn’t hesitate. Over Blaise’s quiet protests, I collected Elder Horne and the two of us hit the road again. We arrived in Orofino together with the sun. I never spoke to Sister Blaise voluntarily again.
I spent many sleepless nights afraid someone might turn us in — or that Blaise or I might break down and confess to our mission president. Neither ever happened, and eventually the feelings of guilt subsided on their own.
After we were both honorably discharged, Sister Blaise ended up marrying another returned elder from our mission. I left the Mormon church on the pretext of having fallen in love with a gentile. The relationship didn’t last, but the apostasy turned out to be far more deeply rooted, and it has.
Now sometimes, very rarely, I catch a whiff of Sister Blaise’s perfume on the streets of Manhattan, and my veins constrict with a coppery thrill. And when I see two young missionaries traipsing along, I want to invite them over for a hot meal and sanctuary from the lone and dreary world. But they wouldn’t understand my sympathy, so I just think to myself, “You poor, horny, homesick bastards. Why do you do it? What do you know that I still don’t?” ∅
For more untoward tales of Mormon missionary life, please check out my memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, or my novelette After the Earthquake a Fire, which draws on some of these same events.