I’ve written about a hundred pages worth of material trying to figure out what I want to say and get it down to something less than a thousand words. This is around two thousand. My difficulty in being succinct is perhaps evidence of the severity of the trauma and my need to talk about it.
I stopped attending church a few years ago. Presently, I find myself in a situation that will likely end in divorce. And maybe that’s for the best. Terribly sad though, especially with kids caught in the middle.
The feelings of shame that I have felt, while being an active member, and after becoming disaffected, are indescribable. I have felt so unworthy, from as young as I can remember. I have considered suicide multiple times.
When I was eight or nine, I did a sleepover at someone’s house, a prominent family from church. At the sleepover, there was an older boy, an older brother perhaps. He molested me. In all the graphic ways the word is meant to convey. It started out as typical wrestling kind of play, and before I knew it this guy was touching me and I didn’t know what to do. He threatened me. Said if I didn’t go along with his requests he would tell on me about what had already happened.
The images of this experience have haunted me. But not as badly as what came afterwards. The mental molestation and psychological abuse I was subjected to in the church was many orders of magnitude worse.
At church I started hearing about homosexuality. This filled me with immense guilt, that I had participated in something so awful, comparable to murder in severity as I was taught. I felt that I was a genuinely bad person. I had not been baptized yet, but really looked forward to it, hoping it would cleanse me of this evil.
I was baptized when I was ten. Due to my father’s inactivity at the time, things had been delayed a bit so he could baptize me. The baptism was a deeply emotional experience. I remember my dad crying and hugging me very firmly for a long time. It all felt special to me. I felt accepted. Looking back, it’s one of the few truly good memories of church that I have. Not the only one, but it was a handful of experiences like this that bound me to the church and made me want to be a part of it.
Then began the ritual of shame.
A leader asked me about masturbation. I didn’t know what it was, what the word meant. This is how I was introduced to it. Around this same time, normal adolescence and formative years stuff, I started to masturbate. Sort of, if it could even be called that, at the very early stages of puberty. Just starting to have sensations and take notice of my body. I felt so guilty. Particularly in the context of my molestation experience. I felt as though I was a naturally bad person. This was compounded by teachings like the natural man being an enemy to god. I was that enemy.
Not long after this, I had another interview. It seemed to be all about masturbation. I lied. I had, but told him I hadn’t. And I’m sure I looked like I was lying, totally nervous. And I don’t think I had even ejaculated at this point. I had just touched myself a couple times as I took notice of changes happening. I didn’t know what an orgasm was. I’m sure the leader could sense my discomfort, and knew I was lying. He said he had a test that could tell if I had masturbated or not.
He could tell by looking at my penis. So he had me lower my pants to show him, and then called me out for lying, which I admitted to. I was firmly instructed never to masturbate. I cannot touch myself down there, a grave sin. I was told that if I do masturbate, it probably means that I’m gay. Or it will cause me to become gay, something to this effect. All of this of course horrified me and made me reflect on what happened when I was molested. While this man didn’t touch me, it was like being molested all over again. Because I was, it was a form of molestation.
Only in recent years have I started to realize how wrong this was and how profoundly these things impacted me. And, far from the end, I’m just getting started. I had more experiences like this than I can recall. In various ways I was molested over and over and over again. It became completely commonplace and was simply a normal feature of life in the church. I didn’t possess the maturity or context to realize what was happening to me. I was robbed of my innocence.
This cycle of abuse continued through my youth, into adulthood, as a missionary, after getting married in the temple, and having children, while serving in the military, even to the present day.
I went through this never-ending process of trying not to masturbate, regularly being asked about it by leaders, attempting to suppress certain thoughts, constantly thinking about it, giving in to temptation, repenting, sometimes lying to leaders, sometimes being honest with them. Weave pornography into this cycle as well, incessant guilt trips about media and finding the female form pleasing.
I frequently questioned my sexuality, worried that I might be gay because I couldn’t quit this urge to masturbate. I’d be good for months, then cave in. When I was honest with leaders they would probe me for excruciating details. What do I think about when I masturbate, and so on. Creepy and uncomfortable questions. They’d treat me like I was some kind of addict and deviant. When lying I was always anxious and paranoid that leaders knew I was lying, as I had been led to believe they possessed special powers of discernment.
Leaders told me to do things like sing primary hymns to myself when I had the urge. I hate primary songs as an adult. Every time “I am a child of god” would be sung at church, or seeing the primary children up there singing that stuff during a special program, I would feel physically ill inside. And then those feelings gave me something else to feel guilty about. How dark-hearted must I be to react that way to primary songs?
I was even told that I was guilty of adultery. I wasn’t married, but I was cheating on my future wife. Then after married I was literally cheating. I was instructed to get married as quickly as possible, one because that’s my duty as a righteous priesthood holder fulfilling my earthy mandate, but also specifically was told that it would be a cure for these carnal urges. I needed a wife to temper my sexuality. It didn’t work out that way at all and only set the stage for other problems, bigger ones.
After marriage I was still asked about sexual things in private interviews at church, pertaining to the relationship with my wife, as well as being further subjected to this negative conditioning in group settings like priesthood quorum. My wife assumed a leadership role in this shame ritual, becoming a pattern that she used in our relationship. I don’t think it is something she meant to do, but was subconscious. She was merely trying to live the standards of the church, and hold me to those same standards, which is one of her duties.
I had a conversation with my wife some years ago when I was still active in the church, but struggling. She was talking about how harmful pornography is to women, in all its various forms, objectifying women and creating standards which are unattainable. After my wife’s little rant, I then explained to her that everything she said is precisely how I, as a man, felt in the church.
In all its various literature and publications, from the Ensign with its Leave It To Beaver stories and picture-perfect family photos, to whitewashed history/curriculum manuals that describe nearly-perfect fictional men who never really lived, the church creates an unattainable standard for men that becomes pornography to women. The church is their porn and can often drive a wedge between husband and wife just the same as a copy of playboy or fifty shades of grey would.
Making matters worse, we then see our wives comparing us to those standards all the time, which they let us know in various ways. They openly lust after a certain type of husband and father that we aren’t, perhaps even a specific leader or leaders that they idolize, maybe hanging up framed pictures of them or things they’ve said in the house. This comparison could also be to a relative, like a father.
Shortly after I stopped attending church, the General Relief Society President, Linda Burton, gave a talk in conference where she said, “I am convinced that a husband is never more attractive to his wife than when he is serving in his God-given roles as a worthy priesthood holder.” I got treated to sappy MEMEs of this quote all over social media.
Women in the church are taught to taskmaster their husbands about things like family scripture time and couples prayer. Sex becomes weaponized. And then we men go to church and get beat over the head about the same things. Particularly in the context of the sexual shaming, this culminates into overwhelming amounts of fear-based pressure laced with eternally damning ramifications.
We are taught to submit and strive for perfect obedience to the will of leaders, and if we don’t, our families will be led astray, and the consequences will be laid on our heads. If we aren’t acting out the role of a proper “man” as modeled in the church, we’re disobedient, sinners, something is wrong with us. We’re probably secretly masturbating and looking at porn. Or worse. Some sin must be at the root of our behavior and inability to conform.
A proper man should be super spiritual, which is to say outwardly emotional, having and sharing profound spiritual experiences, bearing weepy testimony over the pulpit, receiving confirmations that the leaders are inspired, administering tear-filled priesthood blessings to his wife and children on a regular basis, leading the family in all manner of church-prescribed spiritual activities, and so on. Righteousness and the will of god, moral good itself, become synonymous with the church and its programs.
Around the time I had this conversation with my wife, I heard a stake youth leader that came and spoke. His whole talk, aimed at the young men, was about the teachings of presidents manuals and how all of the past leaders of the church were exemplary men, near-perfect, and way ahead of their contemporaries, and that all young men need to do is follow their impeccable examples. It’s a flat lie for starters, the truth is often nothing short of horrifying. But messages like this aren’t just absorbed by the young men, setting them up for failure, they are absorbed by the women also who then have these superman expectations.
This ritual of shame, the abuse I was subjected to, that I’m still being subjected to, was not just about masturbation. It was about everything. All the things I was commanded to do, from morning prayers and daily scripture reading, down to my underwear. It wasn’t just about closed door interviews, it was about the things said in Sunday school and elders quorum, about jugy comments from my church peers and the looks they’d give me for not wearing a white shirt. It was about how my wife would treat me when I failed to conform to church culture in some way, particularly when it came to things involving the children like family home evening. From little things to big things. It was about almost every choice I made in my life. My worth as a human being was subject to the constant review of others.
I was sexually abused, physically and psychologically. Repeatedly. Some of the most powerful feelings we experience as humans, an essential part of our core being. My sexuality was weaponized and used against me as a tool of coercion, to manipulate me in virtually all areas of my life. It didn’t matter if in a particular interview I was being asked about masturbation or something else, the word of wisdom, tithing, whatever. Underneath the surface of it all were those feelings of sexual control, as if electrodes had been wired up to my genitals. And it had happened such a long time ago, starting as a child, the whole process had become ingrained and subconscious. I was like a prisoner after a life spent behind bars, institutionalized. If you released me on parole, I’d most likely commit a crime just to get sent back to the only thing I knew. The basis for all this manipulation was those closed door interviews that started when I was a child.