I joined the church when I was 12 years old, I had never masturbated or looked at pornography. I was certainly old enough to partake in these activities, I just had not arrived “there” yet. I was still a child who had not reached puberty. I had no idea that within a year my sexuality would be hijacked and used against me for the next 2 decades.
I don’t recall when I first learned that I would have to confess my “sins” to the Bishop. I still wasn’t sure what a Bishop was all the way. I was still learning about Joseph Smith, Angels, and Gold Plates. But along with my primary church education, I was also learning some things about my own biology. In the summer of my 12th year, my voice cracked, I sprouted a few new hairs, and my “little factory” started buzzing.
This was also the year I learned how to hate myself.
My excitement at becoming a teenager was quickly replaced with crushing shame and self-loathing at the prospect of divulging my masturbation habits to a man I barely knew. Prior to joining the church, I had been taught, at school, that masturbation was ok, normal even. But now I was learning that it was sexual SIN, and deeply offensive to God. I was conflicted to the depths of my soul but I wanted God to love me. If this was his law, I knew I was accountable.
During the weeks when I knew I had a Bishop’s interview scheduled, I would go into silent panic mode. Would I confess this awful sin? Could I even bring myself to make such a confession? Should I lie? And there was the non-stop bargaining with God.
I can’t lie. The Bishop has discernment, he’ll know if I’m lying. Plus, I am not a liar. I don’t want to be a liar!
I still vividly remember my first interview: The Bishop asked me if I followed the law of chastity. I lied and said, “yes.” Then he continued, “what about masturbation?”
My mind reeled, I can still recall the shrinking, disembodied feelings that rushed through me. I lied again. “No” I replied – certain he knew the truth. He was the Bishop, of course he knew I was lying. I felt so small, so worthless. But he let me off the hook easy and told me not to do it anymore without going any further in his questioning. I think he sensed my discomfort. (In retrospect, I am grateful this Bishop had at least some boundaries).
That was first of many interviews with many different Bishops. Sometimes the Bishops asked about masturbation, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes I lied, sometimes I told the truth. But, it didn’t matter because my conscious was racked and the trauma that resulted was ever present.
My adolescence became defined by fear of these interviews. The shame seemed to hang over every moment, the self-loathing working its way ever deeper into my psyche. I began to hate myself – for being a masturbator, for being a liar, for being completely unable to end this awful cycle of shame. When I would pass the Sacrament, I felt like I was betraying God. I had been taught that an unworthy priest could make the sacrament “null” for the entire ward. I felt like a criminal.
Many times, masturbation was followed by sobbing tears of guilt – and thoughts of self-castration. Other times, suicide seemed like the only path to peace. This battle raged on, and on, and on.
As a single adult in the church (YSA), these interviews continued into my 30’s.
As I got older, I learned to handle things better. But still, at 26 the prospect of these interviews elicited much of the same emotion that I experienced at 12. The shame and self-hatred as present as ever.
In reading many of the stories here, I feel lucky. My story could have been much worse. My heart aches for those who endured physical sexual abuse along with the emotional torment. But if my story is indicative of anything, it’s this: The problem does not lie solely with Bishops, or “leadership roulette.” The problem is the system. The system is abusive and causes trauma. This system of sexual interrogation stole my adolescence and inflicted deep, lasting wounds. I am still sorting it all out.