Since the publication last October of The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, a memoir about being young, abstinent, single and Mormon in New York City, Elna Baker has become a leading voice (to her chagrin) of celibacy in the city. So naturally we caught up with her to find out what choosing not to have sex in the sexiest city in the world is like (with the obvious exceptions of Bangkok, Paris and Toronto).
How strict is the celibacy that many Latter Day Saints practice?
Pretty strict. While I've had my fair share of slip-ups, I'm basically only allowed to kiss sitting up.
What's the religious thinking behind it?
The rule—not to have sex before marriage—is supposed to be for our benefit. By staying chaste we can avoid unwanted pregnancy and disease. And by waiting for marriage to have sex, we're guaranteed that the sex we do have is within a committed, intimate relationship, so that it's not just a physical union, it's a union in every sense of the word. And finally, the biggest religious reason is that Mormons consider sex to be sacred—it creates life and is therefore an act that unites us with God. Try explaining all of that on a first date.
Does that make you feel like a fish out of water in a sex-crazed city like New York?
I've lived in New York City for ten years now. Contrary to what others think, I'm not naive and I'm not terrified of penises, at least not the circumcised ones. I'm simply choosing not to participate in an aspect of this city that most everyone else participates in. Whether I want it to or not, this makes me an outsider. I'm actually surprised by how big of a deal people make out of my decision to wait for marriage. Perhaps when I do have sex it'll feel like being let in on an inside joke.
Simultaneously, I'll be embarrassed by the fact that I didn't get the joke sooner and I'll understand why everyone was laughing at me all along. But for now I'm content to navigate this sex-crazed city without letting go of the values that have helped me become the person I am today.
What's it like to be with your non-celibate New York friends?
Because I'm constantly toying with the "should or I shouldn't I?" question, I find that I use my non-celibate friends as a resource for what it's actually like. Over the years I've learned a lot by simply observing them. And according to my non-celibate friends, having sex isn't going to get me any closer to finding love. Anyone who tells me otherwise is just trying to sleep with me.
What about non-Mormon men?
As far as dating non-Mormon men, this has been a real problem. There aren't very many Mormon men in New York, so I've primarily dated non-Mormons. As a result, I'm constantly getting into awkward situations. For example, I was recently making out with a guy who didn't know I was a Mormon. When he slid his hand up my shirt, I tensed up.
"You're so uptight," he whispered into my ear, "I mean, come on, did you and your last boyfriend even do anal?" Clearly we weren't on the same page. Or, there's my personal favorite awkward date: I was asked to dinner by a Frenchman.
"You're a Mormon?" he asked, as soon as I arrived.
"Can you have ze sex?"
I was surprised at his candor. "No," I answered.
He looked at me in disbelief. "Well if you can't have ze sex, what can you do?"
For simplicity's sake I took my left arm and lined it up under my collarbone. "Nothing below here," I said. I lined my right arm across my knees, "Nothing above here."
"What about your armpit?" he asked, "Can your boyfriend do anything he wants to ze armpit?"
I thought for a moment, "Yeah," I said optimistically. "My boyfriend can do anything he wants to my armpit."
"This is good," he said, "He can stick his penis in and out of ze armpit, and if you grow hair it is almost like a vagine."
My jaw dropped. "Is it too late to change my answer?"
From an outsider's perspective, is New York as Sodom-and-Gommorah-ish as people sometimes make it seem?
That's funny, my mother once referred to New York City as Sodom and Gommorah, and I've never let her live it down. But no, I don't think New York is the den of sin.
Do you ever look at your fellow city dwellers with head-shaking disapproval?
What I love most about living here is the liberty we all have to make whatever choices we want to without judgment. New Yorkers don't preach one thing and practice another; whatever they do, they do it openly and with pride.
You had what sounds like an international, cosmopolitan upbringing.
I moved to Madrid when I was nine and grew up primarily in Madrid and London. Now my parents live in Siberia where my father runs a titanium factory, certainly not your typical Mormon family.
Yet you've also described your mother as sort of a rube [who was afraid that New York would turn you into a gay stripper, for example]. How did your family reconcile their beliefs and traditions with the non-traditional urban environments in which they often lived and worked?
My parents want us to be adventurous, curious people but at the same time it's very important to them that we marry other Mormons and continue to practice the faith. It's hard for them to see me struggle. "Did we do you kids a disservice by showing you the world?" my father once asked. "Because now, when mom and I want you to make simple choices, choices we know will make you happy, you can't seem to do it."
What about you?
For better or worse, I've come to realize that I'm not the type of person who can learn things the easy way. And deep down, I think my parents appreciate this.
Judging from what you've said in other interviews, you've changed a lot since moving to New York. What role did the city itself play in your transformation?
As a Mormon, I was raised with a particular set of beliefs and a vague understanding of how my life ought to turn out. New York City has opened me up to all the possibilities out there. As I toy with these possibilities, I find that every year I change more and more. I feel less like a Mormon, in the traditional sense of the word, than I used to, but I still try to hold to my beliefs and follow my conscience.
And as far as celibacy goes, age has also made it increasingly more difficult. I'm 28 and, because I don't have sex before marriage, the longest relationship I've been able to sustain in New York has been four weeks, and that's only because for two of those weeks, the guy was out of town. Some days I ask myself if it's worth it. Other days I feel it is. I wasn't intending on being celibate this long, and I certainly don't want to be a spokesperson for virginity. Google is my biggest cock-block. On the other hand, it's strange because suddenly I've held on to something for ten years, longer than I ever expected to, only to be tempted to give up at the end because I'm not sure if it's the end or ten more years of No Sex in the City starring Elna Baker.
Does your abstinence ever affect your professional life?
Only in that I fear being pegged as the Mormon-virgin, and I worry what'll happen if either change. Otherwise, it's been wonderful fodder for jokes.
As told to Henry Stewart