When I turned twelve years old, it was time for my Aaronic Priesthood interview. Everyone seemed to be talking about it like it was a big deal. For me, it was the first time I can remember ever getting the complete attention from the bishop.
Our bishop was newly called. He as the father one of my younger sister’s friends.
The day came for the interview. He took me in a his office and shut the door. He started off asking be some basic questions about my belief in God and Jesus and Joseph Smith. Then after a few more questions he looked out the window for a second then looked back a me and asked if I masturbated.
I had never heard that word before in my life. My playground friends had a term “playing with yourself,” but at age 12 I really didn’t know what that meant or why someone would do something like that.
I asked the bishop,, “What does that mean?” And he crouched forward and explained in vivid detail how a man masturbates.
He said, “Masturbation is when a young man grips his penis tightly, wrapping his hand and fingers around it so that it feels like his penis is inside a woman’s vagina. Then he slides his hand up and down over and over again and it feels really good.” He made a slight gesture with his right hand.
Terrified, I said “No, I’ve never heard of that before,” which was true. Although I had noticed girls at that young age I had never considered an idea like that.
The bishop then said, “Don’t ever do that. People who do that are breaking the commandments of God, and he doesn’t like that” That exchange seared into the memory of my childhood like a hot iron. I can still remember the dark blue suit the bishop was wearing that day.
I had a best friend who also turned 12 about the same time I did and had his interview the same day. We both joked about the interview. I asked my friend if he got any weird questions. He said, “Oh, you mean like do I play with myself?” We both giggled at how silly and awkward that question was.
Fast forward two years to my first experience with masturbation. I will skip the details, but remember feeling like I had discovered something wonderful, and then I realized it was what the bishop said God didn’t like. I had immense feelings of guilt. I was good Latter Day Saint, always keeping the rules. I remember realizing at that young age that I had an imminent annual interview with my bishop and I knew I was going to be faced with this question. I remember for months shaking his hand at church, smiling and saying “Hi” to him, but secretly in side being terrified that I would have to face him sometime within the year and explain that I had made God angry and that I was sorry and that I know His blessings were not going to reach me, but that’s where I was. I hated my birthday every year as it would roll around.
Then, it happened again. I remember thinking “Wow, this is incredible.” and then immediately starting to feel like I was involved with something I could not stop, and that God hated me for it. My family NEVER discussed sexuality. In our good Mormon home sexual education ended with the word “murder.” “God considers sexual sin next to murder.” The topic or anything related to it was unspeakable in our home. I remember being six or seven and getting in trouble for having the Sears catalog hidden in my closed toy box with a pencil stuck in the bra section.
I rationalized that maybe if I kept the practice to once or twice a year, maybe God would forgive me. Maybe I could still, somehow, make it to the Celestial Kingdom and be with the rest of my family, and not be left behind. I know I would still have to tell the bishop, but in my young mind, I would take the embarrassment and shame that built up though the year, and face him and be honest. I was willing to deal with that and pick up the pieces, wherever they might fall.
We moved to a different place my 15th year. The bishopric loved me. They gave me lots of attention and made me the Priests Quorum President. I got to help plan a major activity at youth conference that year. Scout camp was really fun.
All of this excitement would pale when I’d remember my impending bishop interview. I had a lot of good friends in the youth group. i could answer the questions right, except for this one subject. As the interview approached, I was terrified. I remember thinking I was going to look him in the eyes and confess, showing I was prepared for God to strike me down, and that I was fully deserving of it.
Saying “yes” to that same damning question again was awful. I remember shaking. He became uncomfortable. The next year it was the same experience. I hated my birthday. I hated my penis. I hated my hands. I hated myself.
I went on my mission where we had monthly mission president interviews. My mission was hard work, cold, and where I went nobody respected LDS missionaries. We were bible-bashed with often , laughed at, and when cars would honk we learned really fast not to look at them. For some reason I was masturbating more now…and every month having to face the Mission President with the same confession. He reacted like I was the only elder in the mission that masturbated. I felt like a 200 lb sack was placed on my back to carry because of this. [I can feel that same self-disgusted shame now as I type this which I haven’t felt since then.]
Towards the end of my mission I was asked to be an Assistant to the President. The Mission President told me he couldn’t tolerate that behavior while I was an AP and made me promise it wouldn’t happen from that time until the end of my mission. I promised, but knew it was a fatal, ridiculous commitment. I did my best but, somehow, the Mission President simply didn’t ask me about it for my last two months with him.
I returned home and started dating wonderful LDS girls in the singles wards at the Utah College I attended. Our bishop there was always asking about masturbation and porn. The internet was mainstream now and we heard talks every week about the evils of porn and masturbation.
A member of the bishopric told us in priesthood meeting that if our wives caught us masturbating they would divorce us. Years later I went on a date with a then-divorced woman who I knew from that same singles ward who told me she divorced her husband because she caught him masturbating.
A member of the stake presidency told us in priesthood meeting that if we had an erection while on a date with a girl we had gone too far, and needed to see our bishops and confess our sin. That sounded really wrong and suspicious to me, but’s that what we were told.
This became a really confusing time for me. I felt extreme guilt and shame. The girls I liked the most I had a difficult time being confident with and making solid eye contact with them because I was sure they could tell, by the spirit, that I was not a worthy priesthood holder and was not worthy to marry, because I masturbated. I hated myself. I was impeccable in every other part of life. I was in college, had a great job, paid tithing, attended all my meetings, went to the temple on dates, was honest, but was flawed because of masturbation. I knew nobody really would want me.
It was also confusing watching my roommates and others around campus date and marry some wonderful women. These guys would swear and talk on long rides to dances about “assess” and “tits” and other things that I found completely inappropriate and rude. They had amazing confidence around these women and one by one got married to them and disappeared.
I learned during some crude conversations with these guys that they lied their way through adolescence and their missions, never confessing anything sexual to their bishops. Some even made out with girls on their missions and were bragging about it. It took me years later to realize that confidence and character are two different things. Unfortunately, the former is much more appealing to a pretty young woman.
Once a bishop took my temple recommend away for a couple of months because I confessed to watching some adult cable movies and masturbating. I was dating a new girlfriend who became really upset that I could not attend a mutual friends temple wedding. I remember mentioning this to the Stake President and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Just tell her you are working through something. It’s not a problem.” I remember thinking how absolutely clueless he was at the repercussions of having to explain to others in an LDS singles scene that you lost your recommend. Everyone would know I was almost a murderer.” The only thing worse was when I actually did tell her, and give the reason. She seemed to think masturbation was adultery and treated me like an adulterer. Apparently, she knew nothing about the topic. I was so confused and upset I told her to go find literature outside the church, like the library, and the come back and talk. That was an awful weekend.
I lived through those hopeful years on pins and needles. Lots of shame. I discovered I absolutely HATED discussing anything sexual with other men, especially church leadership in a closed room. To me it felt like two opposing magnets being pushed on to each other. It always and still does feel completely wrong. I don’t pretend to have been raped, but if there is such a thing as emotional homosexual rape than I have been raped and shamed by this church since I was a boy.
When I turned 26 I stumbled across an article on masturbation in a sports magazine. A study disclosed that 98 percent of all men in my age group masturbated regularly and 80 percent or so did it three times a week. That article changed my world. I was a good kid, never had pre-martial sex, never fondled a woman inappropriately. That article, for me, was like Joseph Smith’s description of having every sensation in his body touched by the light. I had a very specific, very clear eureka moment where I learned that I was very normal. I was completely normal. I was not broken and unworthy. I was not worthless. I was really just fine.
I gave myself permission to stop hating myself that day. Something within me split and I realized that what I was taught and what had been steeped upon me by the church that I loved was somehow very wrong. I couldn’t explain how the true church could have been wrong about this but it was. All of it was.
I started studying sexuality. I read about the Masers & Johnson studies and learned that there is a sexual spectrum and some people are zeros and some are ten’s and everyone is somewhere in between. The high numbers need to find each other, and the low numbers need to find each other. Further, I learned that many women masturbate and married couples masturbate together. It’s part of sex. I learned that the church had sent out an anti-oral-sex letter in the 1970’s and then quickly retracted it. I learned that Mark E. Peterson, a past General Authority around that time also said in a Stake Conference in Seattle, that in the 40 years he had been married he had never seen his wife naked.
Most damning of all, I learned that the church only started asking children about masturbation in the mid-80’s. I was among the first group of kids to get fed this poison.