One of the accusations you occasionally get from the far corners of the internet is that the early Church was a “sex cult” because of Nauvoo-era polygamy. That accusation, of course, begs the question of what a sex cult is. While I categorically don’t like to use the word “cult,” (for, among other reasons, implying that small religions have issues that big religions don’t have), if you were to identify a group as an archetypal “sex cult,” it would be the Children of God Movement in the second half of the 20th century. This book was written by a grandchild of the founder about her experiences in the group up until she left as a young adult; it acts as both a memoir and a history in itself about the movement.
To summarize, the Children of God synthesized traditional Christian teachings with what could be described as sex worship and communal living. Among other practices, people were encouraged to imagine the “love of Christ” as a sex act, female proselytizers used casual sex to attract “investigators,” religious materials were sexually explicit in nature, and in its later stages there were accusations of adult-child sexual contact. (Also, fun fact, the actor Joaquin Phoenix was raised in the group).
So, to relate this to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If I had to guess, I’d imagine that Joseph Smith polygamy is probably the top faith crisis issue in the Church (maybe Book of Abraham). Of course, if your prior is that Joseph Smith was a conman the natural assumption is that it was an extravagant edifice constructed to increase his sexual options.
However, people like Warren Jeffs and groups like The Children of God are helpful examples in that they kind of show what a religion based around male sexuality does in fact look like. While sex was involved in at least some Nauvoo-era polygamy (Mormonr recently released an extensive collection of all the primary source information on Joseph Smith-era polygamy, including about sexuality), the erotic itself wasn’t sacralized and built into the theology like it was with Warren Jeffs recording orgies while he sermonizes or having sex on the altars of his temple, or the Children of God’s pass-along cards showing a very buxom Holy Spirit. (The only primary source for which it has been argued does directly address the erotic is the letter from Joseph Smith to Sarah Whitney, and you only get there if you strategically use ellipses to obscure who he’s talking to and what he’s actually talking about.)
Of course, it’s impossible to prove that on some level the erotic wasn’t operating in the background software of the introduction of polygamy, but whether you’re a believer or not it’s reductionist to see that as the main point, especially given that so much of the polygamy edifice increased the risk to Joseph without increasing his sexual options (pressuring his male followers to enter into it, marriages to older women, dynastic marriages, not having enough sex evidently to produce any genetically verified children from such relations, etc.).
If sexual options was the point that were much more direct ways to go about it. George Bernard Shaw famously wrote that “Now nothing can be more idle, nothing more frivolous, than to imagine that this polygamy had anything to do with personal licentiousness.”
Some of this may seem like standard apologetic cant to certain people, so to summarize the one take-away that I hope such people get from this post: when attributing intent and categorizing something as sex-driven, it’s useful to take into account a larger sampling frame of religious organizations that have practices that are also probably sex-driven and influenced and see if one looks like the other.