Part One: A Nightmare Within a Dream
“Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink”
Until tracking down the original source, I had misquoted this line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as “Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” It doesn’t mean a lack in the face of abundance. It also didn’t come from Moby Dick by Herman Melville, which is what I remember learning decades ago. These misunderstandings probably developed because I never read the poem or the book.
At the root of its meaning–that though its quantity is unfathomable, the quality of the ocean water makes it useless–drifts a ship caught in the doldrums. The crew runs out of fresh water while in the midst of an endlessly calm ocean. Though surrounded by water, they languish with thirst.
In August (when I began this post) I had a dream in which I attempted to speak clearly and directly to a vast sea of women. They, too, appeared to have an abundance of a vital resource but had only an unsuitable version. They seemed to have perspective and wisdom to offer, but those thirsting for help only grew thirstier when they partook of what was offered.
In this dream, I was with other women in a “Stake Women’s Conference,” a gathering meant to strengthen us in social, spiritual, and practical matters. These conferences often last from 10am-2pm to allow time for a luncheon. Which will make the future Zoom versions much shorter, more lonely, and decidedly less tasty.
Anyway, we had just enjoyed the kind of lunch that can be made en masse for, say, 400 women. We had then filed into the gymnasium where the rumored topics for our last hour would be 1) Examples of Women Attaining Spiritual Enlightenment in the Scriptures, followed by 2) a discussion of our sexual nature as women.
I did not know any of the women around me. I was brand new to the area and felt very out of place. I struggled to relate to these women as they reminded me of the poor farmers’ wives from my early childhood.
The first half hour dragged. And then someone had the nerve to share an account from her own life so that only 20 minutes remained by the time our sex talk started.
I thought we would be hearing from an enlightened speaker, someone who could shed light on a historically shrouded subject.
But alas, the “discussion” consisted of an open mic session wherein women with any spunk volunteered and spoke briefly of their gratitude for sex in marriage. This approach required the participant to either file to the front of the room to await their turn at the mic, or for the more shy, to await a mic brought to them by one of the 12-year-old boys who often got assigned such tedious jobs.
Today it seemed that the mic fairly skipped like a flat rock over still waters as it desperately sought the truth on the other side of this watery barrier. The more skips it made, the more perspectives were shared, and the better the chances that someone might actually land on reality’s shore.
I had hoped that the giggles and whispered comments between neighbors would translate into someone speaking frankly about sex in marriage, but my hopes were repeatedly dashed as the comments stayed as shallow and unrevealing as that skipping stone. Worn out phrases and blushing faces were as far as we got.
I thought it was not my place as an outsider to jump in. But at last, I grabbed the mic on one of its skims past me and owned it like the instrument of illumination it was meant to be.
I tried to speak, but because I don’t talk in my sleep very well, the words wouldn’t come.
But here is what my brain tried to say:
“The female sex organ is called the clitoris. Its only purpose is sexual pleasure. The female reproductive tract contributes to your sexual experience, but your vagina is not the parallel to a man’s penis. Therefore, sexual intercourse alone is unlikely to lead to the kind of pleasure your husband experiences.
The culmination of sexual arousal is called orgasm. It can become a consistent part of your relationship even if it tends to ebb and flow at times. The only person responsible for your fulfillment in your sexual relationship with your husband is you. That means you need to learn about your body, learn how sex works, and take ownership of your experience as you communicate your needs and wants with your husband.
One of the greatest spiritual connections you can experience is to fully enjoy your sexual nature as a married woman. Don’t let shame, secrecy, or ignorance keep you from knowing yourself and your husband in a way that God absolutely intended when He created us. It is one of the greatest gifts we have, and out of fear that this gift holds a sinful, carnal creature lurking inside, it often goes unopened.”
At this point, I don’t know if the leaders would have to consult with each other as to whether it was acceptable to close with a prayer after such a scandalous declaration, or if the whole room would have erupted in applause. I just know I’ve waited a long time to say something like that.
[End of dream sequence]
Yearning to speak up did not come from having the ideal sex life. Far from it.
I have spent my entire time as a mother never getting back to what I felt with my husband before giving birth.
I have wept silently in my bed, sobbed in the shower, and felt ill at the thought of sexual contact. My struggles are physiologic, pharmacologic (Prozac), and psychologic. Sometimes just trying to use logic is my struggle.
But I do have the ideal partner to work this out with. I may be the “lower desire” spouse, but I have a trustworthy and patient man working through the tough times with me; and celebrating my progress since he doesn’t feel threatened by this woman stepping into her power.
What I didn’t have until three years ago was even the slightest idea of where to turn for help. That means nine years of desperately hanging on to the little bit of my remaining sexual nature..
A year into motherhood, and with postpartum depression and anxiety, my (male) family physician told me that lots of moms feel disinterested in sex. Everything would be better once I was getting more sleep.
I was getting great sleep (for me). I wanted to be excited about not sleeping. I wanted to have “real” sex again, not this scripted substitute called “ladies first.” Taking turns had never been my idea of a fulfilling sexual relationship. Clearly, I was broken.
I kept my embarrassing secret mostly to myself with only carefully worded questions to my married sister or my mom to see what insight I could glean. Not much. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I swallowed my pride a little and decided to focus on our marriage. As a member of the National Guard, my husband had access to a marriage enhancement retreat they offered to couples. We flew a relative in from out of state to watch our toddler. We made arrangements for our church responsibilities, and I pinned all our hopes for a marriage fix on this weekend retreat.
The course was based on a series of comedic and Bible-based talks by a pastor. While insightful, the thrust of his message promoted the husband’s physical fulfillment and the wife’s emotional fulfillment. Yes, those two goals might have an inverse relationship in terms of priority for the average husband and wife, but still. When is it OK to directly address a woman’s sexual desire and her ability to achieve orgasm?
In any case, my husband was ill the last day when they had the Q&A session about sex, so I begrudgingly attended alone. As I recall, the only woman who spoke up was afflicted with too much drive and not enough interest from her husband. I wanted to slip under the table and crawl out of the room. I made sure to feel sorry for myself the whole drive home.
So after my second baby, I tentatively asked my (male) obstetrician about any tips as I resumed sexual activity. He recommended a different lubricant because it had helped his wife. That was it. The entirety of his advice on post-baby sex.
And if you’re wondering why I kept choosing male OB’s it’s because that’s pretty much all I had to choose from.
For a year after baby number two I tried different medications since my anti-depressant might be better classified as an anti-orgasmic. I ended up with more intolerable side effects, poorly managed depression, rage, medication mix-ups, and a scheduled sex life that aroused only anxiety for me.
I tried to consider what God wanted for me in all of this. I knew this wasn’t what I had prepared for my whole life when I chose to wait until marriage for sexual expression. I thought over the few references to sexual fulfillment (rather than sexual sin) that I had heard from church sources.
Partly because I had become so despondent and ashamed on the subject, my memory provided more proof for me that wanting to fully enjoy my marriage was hopeless and shameful.
I think I was also afraid to admit I was struggling, so I shied away from searching for further resources. I think I was afraid I’d find more of the “smoke pot, drink alcohol, view porn, or masturbate” suggestions I’d stumbled upon in pop culture.
I’d gone into marriage thinking I would have this whole thing figured out because my parents had made it an approachable topic. A book I’d received from them was very enlightening, but between its assertion that the crowning achievement in marital intimacy was simultaneous orgasm, and because a comment my mom made gave me the impression that this outcome takes about a month to figure out, I had some unrealistic expectations of myself and sex.*
And because I’d been “good” when I was single, I thought I deserved the hard-won prize I’d abstained from so well. Plus, I was a nurse, so how could I be shy or unknowledgeable about anything pertaining to my body?
I looked for guidance on female sexuality from religious sources, but though talk of sin and danger surrounded me, not a drop of vital, hope-sustaining information was out there.
One taste of salt water I immediately rejected. I recalled part of a quotation from a 1970s (male) church leader who spoke of the pursuit of the female orgasm as something selfish or dangerous. I don’t know if that’s what he actually said, but since I misattribute and misquote my references even in literature, I am letting that one go as something I potentially invented from scrap parts.
However, in high school I had watched a well-known talk given in the late 1990s by one of my favorite church leaders. It acknowledged the beauty and power of a sexual relationship for both marriage partners, but it also tied what I would now term “sexual dysfunction” with misuse of sexual expression. Kind of a “don’t touch it, you’ll break it” mentality. At least that’s what my ashamed brain gleaned from the talk when I reflected on it a decade later.
So what had I done wrong? An incident of normal childhood curiosity–should I talk to someone about that? Am I bad for noticing my own private parts? I literally thank God that teachings in the church on this subject now include realistic and shame-free expectations.
I knew I wasn’t selfish. I could feel that at the heart of the theology I subscribe to, my sexual experience in marriage mattered just as much as my husband’s. But how could I safely ask that question? And to whom would I address it? I didn’t want to be told that my belief system or my body was broken. I just wanted to feel better.
After restarting Prozac, I started to see a (male) therapist again (my sixth in nine years). But once again, I felt too embarrassed to bring up my question.
Part Two: Wherein I Turn to God as a Last Resort
As my four-year mark as a mom neared, another regular event marked my calendar: the autumn church conference for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across the world. Until COVID, you could attend the event with thousands of other Saints in Salt Lake City. I lived in Utah, but I still preferred the broadcasted version so I could stay in my bendy clothes and do housework while receiving spiritual strengthening and enlightenment.
Well I had been taught that if I went into conference with a question, I would find an answer in the talks given by our leaders. I had found this process of prayer, inquiry, and personal revelation to be quite helpful. But many of those questions had fallen under topics that our leaders would likely address anyway: how to make difficult decisions, how to have more courage in the face of opposition, or just how to connect with God better.
So I decided to really put God to the test. I told Him, “You want to help me? Well answer this: why don’t I get to enjoy sex anymore?”
When (my favorite) speaker perfectly addressed my question, the world held still, and I humbly wept in front of the television.
Read for yourself the section of this talk that spoke volumes to me.
I Wish I Had Let Myself Be Happier
Another regret of those who knew they were dying may be somewhat surprising. They wished they had let themselves be happier.
So often we get caught up in the illusion that there is something just beyond our reach that would bring us happiness: a better family situation, a better financial situation, or the end of a challenging trial.
The older we get, the more we look back and realize that external circumstances don’t really matter or determine our happiness.
We do matter. We determine our happiness.
You and I are ultimately in charge of our own happiness.
My wife, Harriet, and I love riding our bicycles. It is wonderful to get out and enjoy the beauties of nature. We have certain routes we like to bike, but we don’t pay too much attention to how far we go or how fast we travel in comparison with other riders.
However, occasionally I think we should be a bit more competitive. I even think we could get a better time or ride at a higher speed if only we pushed ourselves a little more. And then sometimes I even make the big mistake of mentioning this idea to my wonderful wife.
Her typical reaction to my suggestions of this nature is always very kind, very clear, and very direct. She smiles and says, “Dieter, it’s not a race; it’s a journey. Enjoy the moment.”
How right she is!
Sometimes in life we become so focused on the finish line that we fail to find joy in the journey. I don’t go cycling with my wife because I’m excited about finishing. I go because the experience of being with her is sweet and enjoyable.
Doesn’t it seem foolish to spoil sweet and joyful experiences because we are constantly anticipating the moment when they will end?
Do we listen to beautiful music waiting for the final note to fade before we allow ourselves to truly enjoy it? No. We listen and connect to the variations of melody, rhythm, and harmony throughout the composition.
Do we say our prayers with only the “amen” or the end in mind? Of course not. We pray to be close to our Heavenly Father, to receive His Spirit and feel His love.
We shouldn’t wait to be happy until we reach some future point, only to discover that happiness was already available—all the time! Life is not meant to be appreciated only in retrospect. “This is the day which the Lord hath made … ,” the Psalmist wrote. “Rejoice and be glad in it.”6
Even if you are not as inclined to analogies as I am, it isn’t a far stretch to imagine how well his examples relate to the stages of sexual response. It was like a heavenly advertisement for a sexual dysfunction remedy. [And if you think I am cheapening the words of a prophet by relating them to sex, please take time to study the August 2020 Ensign articles. A church in the process of an ongoing restoration has been revealing line upon line God’s intentions when He endowed His children with sexuality for more than the purpose of making babies.]
Those words, like a beacon on the shore, guided me through the dark seas of sexual loss. I still didn’t know how to restore what I’d lost, and though it wasn’t even a drop to drink for some people, I knew God had heard me. Just a little bit’s enough from a source so pure.
This darkness lifted little by little over the past six years. I could go into further detail about having my concerns dismissed by my female OB, about the agony of back pain from the one position that helped sexually, about taking a course from a female sex therapist of my faith (it was great, but I never finished it), about a helpful Facebook group, about pelvic floor weakness and physical therapy, about gaining hope only to retreat again when doubt came sweeping in, about mindfulness practices and anxiety medication, about living with in-laws for two years and giving up all hope of spontaneity; but none of those steps brought me closer to the answer.
They did, however, drive me toward asking useful questions.
Part Three: A Key was Lost but Now is Found
Last week, because I wondered about some pelvic pain, I went for my first gynecology-only exam and ultrasound. The pain didn’t strike me as worrisome, but I needed an explanation for why I was still broken. Perhaps pain was pointing the way to an answer.
I cried on the way to my appointment. I turn 40 next month, and I thought, “What if this is it? What if it really is all downhill from here, and I never did get this sex thing right?”
I hate explaining my cry-face, so I switched my brain into rational mode. I told myself it wasn’t too late. I stopped thinking of how embarrassing it might be and decided to say the necessary words. I practiced on the nurse first. She didn’t even bat an eye. Just made a note, made sure she’d understood me, and went on as if sexual health was a normal topic.
After the exam, I amazed myself by asking the doctor if any of his findings explained my sexual dysfunction (without being bothered by his being male). And not only did my dignity remain intact as I spoke those medically correct words, I saw myself as whole and intact. Despite how I felt about myself sexually, I was not broken. I was me.
The doc had no explanation, but my need for an answer had diminished a little. Hearing my own voice reach out with confidence sounded more like an answer than a question. I felt the me in my body returning.
When I arrived home and told my husband of my bold move, I also expressed anger.
“I shouldn’t even have to bring it up! How could I have gone through four babies and never had anyone ask me about my post-baby sexual activity? Why did no one ask me about my pelvic floor besides asking about bladder control? If I’d had a broken leg, and it had been in a cast and lost muscle tone and flexibility, what doctor would even hesitate to suggest physical therapy? Why is my sexual function taboo?!”
But I was proud of myself nonethleess.
Today I discovered a line of questioning I had never pursued. I had been assuming something was wrong in my sex life. But I had never questioned that belief. After listening to a podcast episode called Emotional Reality, I learned that the crux of my struggle is my perception of this circumstance, specifically, sexual dysfunction. I was using this belief that something had gone wrong to prove that maybe my marriage or my capacity to experience love fully was somehow deficient. I was afraid to just love my life because, “What if I miss signs that something is wrong, and then I can’t prevent the inevitable demise of my world as I know it?”
Trying to keep my world “safe” was cheating me of enjoying it. So instead of looking for proof of what might be wrong, I chose a new perspective: “I have a great sex life. How many ways can I see that as true?”
One answer came immediately: gratitude. I was grateful for sex in my marriage. Here I had criticized (in my dream) those who seemed to skim over the vital and exciting depths to get to this place of placid gratitude. I had thought only of how uninformed and unfulfilled they must be.
It had never occurred to me that gratitude is what follows when you not only open a gift you are given but truly receive it. Gratitude is the beginning of joy. You don’t have to fully understand what you have or how it works to feel grateful and joyful in relation to it.**
The gratitude I felt when God spoke to me through a church leader helped me receive hope and, eventually, lasting wholeness. It also prepared me to benefit from the remainder of his words on the subject, which I had glossed over.
“Brothers and sisters, no matter our circumstances, no matter our challenges or trials, there is something in each day to embrace and cherish. There is something in each day that can bring gratitude and joy if only we will see and appreciate it.
Perhaps we should be looking less with our eyes and more with our hearts. I love the quote: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”7
We are commanded “to give thanks in all things.”8 So isn’t it better to see with our eyes and hearts even the small things we can be thankful for, rather than magnifying the negative in our current condition?
The Lord has promised, “He who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold.”9
Brothers and sisters, with the bountiful blessings of our Heavenly Father, His generous plan of salvation, the supernal truths of the restored gospel, and the many beauties of this mortal journey, “have we not reason to rejoice?”10
Let us resolve to be happy, regardless of our circumstances.“
I don’t know if I will find the “crowning achievement” of sexual love again, but that is merely a circumstance. Perhaps, for me, its loss is part of the cost of becoming a mother. Or maybe being whole will bring its own rewards. The point is, I have decided to no longer worry about it. That is an answer I can live with and love with.
It may seem like only a drop in the ocean, but gratitude makes even a little bit enough.
[Note as a mom: My kids get age-appropriate sexual understanding from their earliest years. But I don’t have the answers about everything. I haven’t even figured out all the questions about all the things they wonder about. So I promised them tonight that if they go into General Conference this weekend (October 3 and 4) with a question, God will answer it through the men and women who lead this church. The work we do in finding useful questions is the reason He waits patiently to be asked. Then as we stand ready to receive the answer with gratitude, a new phase of the journey begins.]
*I just read about a homegrown book that sounds much more useful than what I’ve seen before. I’ll be checking it out through this blog post.
**Abuse, however, has nothing to do with one’s sexuality. Being forced or groomed into sexual contact is not a gift but a theft that the victim cannot cause and which cannot cause the loss of their worth. I read a great article that honestly confronts this issue.
PS–I only shared after including my husband in the writing process.