Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Discrete Charms of “Terminal Petting” and “Mormon Sex”

Petting kills.

If only I’d known. I would never have touched her.  And now it’s too late.

         Pepper is dead, possibly mauled into an early grave.  How many more will have to die before people wake up to the dangers of terminal petting?

         What?  You didn’t know petting could be terminal?

         Well, it isn’t. Pepper was not stroked to death. Pepper, the family pooch of my youth, died from whatever kills dachshunds when they reach the limits of their canine life spans. I have no idea what killed her.  But I’m certain petting had nothing to do with it.

So if terminal petting is not slow euthanization of the family pet, exactly what are the dangers warned against in the February 18th edition of the Salt Lake Tribune?

According to the Tribune, terminal petting is a no-no.  At least for Mormons.  Those members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who wish to remain in good standing have to avoid numerous worldly temptations.  No coffee.  No booze.  And no terminal petting.

The Tribune article, “Sex and the Single Mormon,” was inspired by a New York Times essay in which a 30-something “Mormon poet” described how she decided that virginity is for the birds.

“As I grew older,” she wrote, “I had the distinct sense of remaining a child in a woman’s body; virginity brought with it arrested development on the level of a handicapping condition.”

All of which was interesting, but not exactly breaking news.  As a life-long Utahn who’s dated Mormon women, I’ve found even those who strictly adhere to the dietary restrictions and other church guidelines often make accommodations to prohibitions against non-marital sex.  And “petting,” defined as a broad range of sexual activity short of doing the nasty, has always struck me as a reasonable and perhaps necessary compromise for those Mormons or anyone else who want to express and experience their sexuality while still saving something for marriage.

But now it turns out that the discussion is more nuanced than I thought. According to the  Tribune, "many women come to a good sense of themselves and their bodies and stay active in the LDS Church. They might find ways to express their physical desires — such as masturbation and ‘terminal petting,’ both of which violate church standards — yet remain open to relationships within the church’s limits.”

 Am I the only one confused here?  Luckily, I’m not a Mormon or, even worse, an adolescent Mormon whose eligibility for eternal salvation might hang on a proper understanding of "terminal petting."  With nothing but an elementary grasp of English grammar to help me, I would conclude that while “terminal” petting is verboten, other kinds of petting are OK.

Part of the problem is that these words are carefully crafted euphemisms. Although “terminal” and “petting” are clear and unambiguous in certain contexts, their use as euphemisms for sexual activity is not so obvious.

I vividly recall my first encounter with the euphemism of petting.  I was hanging out with Jeff, a 5th or 6th grade friend, who was in the enviable position going steady with Sandy, one of the girls in our class.  To kill some time, Jeff and I were hanging out in the local grocery store--these were the years before shopping malls were the preferred locale for bored adolescents--when we ran into Sandy’s mom.

Sandy’s mom was pretty cool and we talked with her for a few minutes as she waited in the checkout line.  As we were leaving, she said a peculiar thing.

“Just remember Jeff,” she said with a mischievous smile, “no petting.”

I turned to Jeff, hoping his response would give me some idea what she meant.  But Jeff just looked embarrassed and said nothing.  Later, when we were alone, I asked Jeff what Sandy’s mom was talking about.

Jeff shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said.  “She’s says that all the time.  I always just pretend like I know what it means and act all embarrassed and shit.  She thinks it’s funny.”

This was perplexing.  What could possibly be wrong with petting?  Dog’s love it.  So do cats. Rubbing the top of a girl’s head or scratching behind her ear seemed idiotic, but why would it be forbidden?

Somewhere along the way, a more seasoned older guy (a 7th grader) cleared this up.  Sort of.  “Petting,” it seems, was touching girls in all those places I’d wanted to touch them. This was good news.

But I still couldn’t understand why it would be called “petting.” None of my horn dog friends used the word, and it seemed something that would have come up, especially in conversations with guys who were inclined to boast, probably untruthfully, about all the things they had done with girls. Expressions like “copping a feel,” “hand jobs” and “finger banging” were the preferred locker-room slang for various sex acts other than fucking.  In short, “petting” just wasn't part of the vocabulary.

For better or worse--probably better--“petting” has fallen into disuse, most likely a victim of the need for clarity in the age of AIDS and newly drug-resistant strains of bacterial STDs.

         So I had to wonder why the Salt Lake Tribune was resurrecting the term in the 21st century to be included among the many pleasures denied to Mormons.  Adding the equally euphemistic qualifier “terminal” only perpetuated the inherent confusion.

As it turns out, there’s a reason I was so befuddled.  “Terminal petting” is an expression with little purchase outside of Mormon sociology and psychology.  If you Google the term, you’ll get lots of hits, most of them traceable to the Tribune article.  But you’ll also get hits on social science journals, some dating back to the early '70s, from Brigham Young University as well as publications for the Mormon intelligentsia like Dialogue and Sunstone.

As near as I can figure, “terminal petting” was coined by social scientist Harold T. Christensen in a 1972 article titled “Stress Points in Mormon Family Culture.”  DIALOGUE 7 (Autumn 1972): 20-34. The article addresses what Christensen regards as the conundrum presented by government statistics showing that Utah’s divorce rate was consistently somewhat above the national average in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.  Christensen identified five “points of strain” that may be causing this trend.  The first point Christensen addresses is what refers to as the problem of “terminal petting.”

With astonishing obfuscation, Christensen first defines “petting” as “the more intimate patterns of caressing and fondling short of sexual intercourse (coitus).”   He then goes on to define “terminal” petting as “petting and stopping there.” 

Christensen cites to some of his own research aimed at gauging sexual attitudes and behavior in Mormon communities in the Intermountain and Midwestern parts of the United States and Denmark.  (The reason for singling out Denmark or the Midwest for comparison is never explained.)  Not surprisingly, the Danish Mormons were the most liberal “by virtually every measure,” while the stateside church members were the most conservative. 

However, Christensen notes with some alarm, there is one disturbing discrepancy: Intermountain “petting percentages” were actually higher—41.7 for males and 36.3 for females—than that of the Danish Mormons—5.2 for males and 3.3 for females.  Which gives rise to the vexing question: “Why did petting take a reverse cross-cultural pattern to that of other intimacy measures, including coitus?”

The answer, says Christensen, is differing views on what he terms “the package concept”—that petting and intercourse are inextricably linked. “[W]hen a culture puts heavy emphasis upon premarital chastity, technically defined as just non-coitus, there tends to be an unwanted corollary increase in petting, participated in as an end activity. In Scandinavia the norm is to view petting and coitus as belonging together, as part of the same thing, so that when one pets it is regarded as normal to go on to coitus—in fact, unhealthy to do otherwise.”

Despite the unnecessarily vague, perhaps even quaint language Christensen uses, we might agree with him up to this point.  For the Danes, and probably most other countries not headquartered in Utah, petting goes by the slightly less misleading euphemism of “foreplay.”  If “play” is intercourse, “foreplay” includes the things you do before play.  But when“play” is off the table, foreplay becomes terminal petting—“petting and stopping there.”

Which seems like a good thing.  “Terminal petting” struck me as a fair compromise for Mormons who want to maintain some semblance of chastity while still blowing off a little steam now and them.  It was a relief, really.  Just knowing that the older single Mormons I know are not completely sexually frustrated made me feel like I have a little more in common with them. 

But this is not the conclusion Christensen draws.  Instead of endorsing a way for unmarried Mormons to obtain sexual release and maintain some sanity before marriage, Christensen rejects terminal petting as an activity “apt to create problems for those who participate.”  For Christensen, terminal petting awakens a thirst that can only be slaked by intercourse.  Accordingly, those who engage in petting are more likely than their non-petting peers to marry at a younger age just so that they have church-sanctioned sex.  And those who marry young, Christensen concludes, are more likely to divorce.

These conclusions are incredibly, almost perversely counterintuitive.  What Christensen seems to assume is that “terminal petting” can’t possibly get that monkey of horniness off your back.  Which is a version of that old prejudice that orgasms resulting from anything short of intercourse are somehow illegitimate.  An orgasm induced by petting doesn't count and, in Christensen's logic, really won’t keep you from wanting to have actual intercourse anyway.
It’s been years since I’ve read or even thought about David Reuben’s groundbreaking sex manual “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).”  But as I was digesting the notion of “terminal petting” and Christensen’s views on non-marital intimacy, I was reminded of what Reuben called “The Orgasmic Bill of Rights.”  For Reuben, all orgasms are created equal. “Terminal petting,” if defined to include mutual masturbation, can produce a legitimate orgasm.  Even oral sex could be included within a broad definition of petting.  Those who, on principle, draw the line at “petting and stopping there deserve a little credit.  If measures short of intercourse can relieve a little sexual tension without triggering the hairpin guilt mechanisms of Mormon youth, then I say: Leave those kids alone. 


  1. I'm declaring a truce with dogs. They're incorrigible. Now that we know petting is terminal, I'll just be putting them out of their misery.