05.18.11

The Mormon Jersey Shore

Over Memorial Day, young and single Mormons flood Duck Beach, a small North Carolina town, to find love. McKay Coppins reports on the filmmakers documenting the G-rated spring break.

This weekend, hundreds of young singles will descend on a small North Carolina beach town for a rowdy weekend of late-night partying and anonymous hookups—not unlike your average episode of Jersey Shore. The difference? Instead of well-muscled guidos on the hunt for one-night stands, the shores will be teeming with Mormons searching for their future spouses.

Welcome to Duck Beach: host to the most bizarre spring break on the planet.

This annual phenomenon is not organized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint, but in the tight-knit world of Mormon singledom, it has become nothing short of an institution. Every year on Memorial Day weekend, about 1,000 young Mormons from across the country flock to North Carolina, pooling their money to rent beach houses and stock their refrigerators with hot dogs. What ensues is a four-day exercise in flirtation and temptation, as participants strive to party without sinning—which means no booze, bongs, or bed-hopping.

This year, in the spirit of cultural anthropology, a team of New York filmmakers is setting out to document this G-rated spring break. The stakes will be higher than usual, as Latter-Day Saint prophet Thomas S. Monson recently urged single members of the church to stop postponing marriage. With the pressure on, the filmmakers will send camera crews to follow four individuals as they search for love at Duck Beach.

“It’s filled with built-in conflict, which makes it a great story,” explains Stephen Frandsen, a practicing Mormon who is working on the project. “These people are trying to live faithful, chaste lives in modern America… and that isn’t always easy, especially when you put them in a spring break setting.”

In some ways, Duck Beach isn’t all that different from the MTV-fueled stereotypes of spring break. During the day, the shoreline is covered with half-naked coeds soaking up the sun; at night, parties are routinely shut down by the cops. And even without alcohol, there’s no dearth of immature frat-boy antics. “We’re not going to get drunk,” says Frandsen, describing the apparent mindset of some of the more hyper participants. “But we’re going to act like we’re drunk, and, like, jump in the ocean fully clothed.”

Still, the weekend is marked by odd, Mormon-specific quirks. On Sundays, for instance, the festivities are temporarily put on hold as everyone caravans to church, where the local congregation has become accustomed to setting up an extra 800 chairs to accommodate the influx. And while non-committal flings aren’t out of the question at Duck Beach, the issue of sex is quite a bit more complicated than it is for Snooki and The Situation.

Indeed, Duck Beach veterans say the weekend is fraught with sexual tension. Mormons are taught to abide by a law of chastity that forbids sexual relations outside of marriage. But, of course, this is a case where the Devil—quite literally—is in the details. “We’ve asked every person we’ve interviewed to define the law of chastity,” says Frandsen, “and we’ve found that how they interpret it varies widely.”

A common joke is that the week after Duck Beach is the busiest of the year for Mormon bishops hearing confessions.

In its strictest application, the commandment bars unmarried Mormons from engaging in anything more than kissing—and even then, church authorities have offered guidance. Former LDS prophet Spencer W. Kimball once counseled, “Even if timely courtship justifies the kiss, it should be a clean, decent, sexless one like the kiss between mother and son.” ( MTV’s triple kiss, in other words, is out of the question.)

But Frandsen says when it comes to sex, many of their interview subjects tend to dwell in grey areas: “Some people say you have to have four feet on the ground at all times, no lying down while you’re kissing. Others say no touching over or under the clothing. And then some people just say no sex before you’re married—that’s it.”

In any case, most Mormons would agree that even the most liberal interpretation is difficult to follow. (A common joke is that the week after Duck Beach is the busiest of the year for Mormon Bishops hearing confessions.) But, despite the obvious temptations, many come to Duck Beach precisely to avoid fornication - by finding a marriage partner. “Some people go down with the express purpose of looking for a weekend hookup,” says Bryan Hall, who road-tripped to South Carolina one year with 20 members of his Washington, D.C. congregation. “But it’s also very fertile ground for meeting people and hopefully parlaying that into a relationship.”

Hall would know—his marriage is a result of a Duck Beach romance. It’s a classic Mormon fairytale, really: sparks first began to fly with a girl named Brittany during a flirty game of bocce ball. Nine months later, they were married. It might sound like a shotgun wedding, but short courtships are common in Mormon circles, and Hall has no qualms about spelling out the rationale: “I don’t think it belittles our commitment to say that if you want to obey the law of chastity, it makes the timeline a lot shorter.” And in his case, Duck Beach was the perfect place to start that timeline. “It was like one big, huge group date,” he remembers. “And that was a great environment for us.”

Not everyone has been as open as Hall in presenting Duck Beach to the world. When the teaser for the documentary was first posted on the project’s Kickstarter page, the filmmakers—which include a practicing Mormon in Frandsen, a non-Mormon named Hadleigh Arnst, and a lapsed Mormon named Laura Naylor—faced a backlash from some in the LDS community who worried that they were being ridiculed.

But Arnst insists he has no intention of mocking Mormons—on the contrary, he’s hoping the project will debunk some commonly held stereotypes.

“Whenever you hear someone talk about Utah or BYU, it immediately elicits a lot of assumptions,” Arnst says. “But these are real people. Not everything is black and white… I’m hoping this will provide a little bit of demystification. That’s what I’d like to achieve with this.”

McKay Coppins is a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast covering politics and national affairs. His writing has also appeared in The Daily Caller and Salt Lake City's Deseret News.