Hello, I am a 35 year old man.
Gender, Sex, and Sexuality are important. They are as much a part of us as our arms and legs, heart, lungs, brain, and senses. There is a huge focus on the importance of chastity and fidelity in the LDS churches, which also speaks to the importance they place on these concepts.
We automatically believe what we are taught as children. You teach kids certain things are good, and certain things are bad and they will believe it. Kids look to their parents and leaders to form their beliefs. Both my parents were told from many different sources that they were worthless and unlovable. They are entering their 70s and have come a long ways in rejecting those teachings and loving themselves, and they are still working on it even now. It has caused them both a very significant amount of pain. I know so many people, who as kids were taught not to love themselves, for a variety of reasons ranging from body image, personality, neuro-diversity, and so many others. It always leads to pain that was not deserved, and a deep sense of shame.
Sexuality is so so important because of how deeply it is connected to our sense of self and worth. Sharing it is an ultimate expression of vulnerability and trust, and sexual abuse and assault are extreme crimes that change people’s lives forever.
My very first exposure to sexuality was by a boy a couple years older than me that rented the basement from our family, I was around 8 years old. He taught me the names for women’s anatomy and he showed me a Victoria’s Secret catalog. His dad discovered this and gave us both a lecture, telling us this was bad and wrong. I don’t remember specifics, but I felt a sense and attitude of shame around the whole experience.
My parents didn’t tell me about puberty and sexuality. I learned some of the facts about it from sex-ed in school, without ever learning about how to relate to it, or how good it could feel. This is something they acknowledge they dropped the ball on, and have apologized to me and I have forgiven them. I do believe that pervasive teachings and attitudes in the church contributed to my parents not teaching us about what it is and how to relate. If sexuality didn’t have the stigma and sense of evil around it, I think they would have felt more comfortable to teach us.
My dad in particular suffers from mental disabilities. He didn’t model how to respect woman’s beauty, or how to engage with attraction. Because of this, media, friends, and the LDS church had the biggest influence on how I thought about my sexuality. I was very curious, and I think driven by the early exposure to lingerie catalog. The sense of shame from being caught the first time, and the lack of discussion in the family led me to keep my exploration a secret. We had just gotten the internet when I was 12 or so, and started seeking out provocative imagery of women. This lead me to me awakening feelings of sexuality as I was hitting puberty and rather shortly to masturbation. I was totally unprepared and confused by what was happening, but also very drawn to the pleasurable feelings. This went on for a while until there was a temple trip for 14 year olds that I didn’t feel worthy to go to, as lessons about the law of chastity were taught in church, and I began to identify what I was doing as breaking it. My mom asked why I didn’t go to the temple, and I told her that I was not worthy. That led to my first Bishop’s discussions about it, which would continue all the way until my mid 20s. I don’t feel that any of my Bishops treated these interviews with any perversion, and the questions didn’t seem probing by the LDS Church’s standards. They did however instill a deep and abiding sense of shame about the feelings I was having and my powerlessness to make them go away. I tried to stop masturbating. I couldn’t. I remembered fearing going to bed. The time alone, my teenage hormones, my exposure to sexual themes lead me to fail again, and again, and again. I tried so hard to not do something “bad”. I would stay awake hours locked in a struggle against arousal. I would pray, I would read scriptures, I even asked my mom to stay in the room until I slept. As the days, weeks, and years went on, my sense of shame about how I was failing and participating in acts of evil ate at me. Despair and depression grew in me.
The whole time, my Bishop’s were supportive and kind, kindly delivering the message that what I was doing was wrong, and that I was being bad. Conference talks would reinforce my failure. Many had very unhealthy messages, telling me that it was women’s fault for being attractive, and I was helpless against that. (Dallin Oaks referred to women “making themselves pornography” when its really on me to not objectify them no matter how they present themselves). I would come away with hope and courage to to do better, only to fail again.
Discussions of worthiness also began a series of public displays of my unworthiness: not taking the sacrament, not passing/blessing the sacrament, not being ordained an Elder until I turned 25, not serving a mission. I have autistic traits. I don’t make friends easily, I didn’t start dating until I turned 25. I don’t read social cues, and people don’t seek out my friendship. Given that I was in the church, and my unworthiness was being broadcast, I don’t know how much added to my inherent awkwardness but I believe that lead to an increase in isolation and exclusion. I believe that young ladies would be taught to stay away from boys like me.
Already being “sinful”, ashamed, and isolated lead to increasing consumption of porn. Here I can only speculate: If I had been told about normalcy of arousal, and curiosity. If I had been told that attraction and appreciation of women’s beauty were normal, and how to engage with it healthily, I think that the relief and the absence of guilt and shame would have removed a lot of pressure and need for such a powerful but unhealthy coping mechanism. I think that it would have prevented me from forming an addiction to porn. Its speculation, but after 20 years of struggling, the principles of accepting those parts of me as healthy parts of being human, and how to engage with my attraction on principles of my humanity, and the humanity in everyone, both male and female have been the most healing and empowering things I have done, and have lead to my longest period of sobriety.
Its very hard to describe the weight of decades of shame, of not being “worthy” to participate in so many milestones of activity in the church. My dedication to honesty lead to public shame. The hopeless places I have been have been so dark. Here is a message I sent to my wife before my last birthday after I had relapsed into pornography again:
“Tomorrow I’ll be 35. That’ll be 23 years of being an addict. That’s 2/3rds of my life. It destroys and warps the things I love. Even when it looks like I am making progress, I still succumb, undermining trust and tainting my personality. I want to have hope that I can stop. I look at things that bring me excitement or comfort, but have to admit that I fell into addiction even when those things were present. It’s something deeper in me that is an ugly appetite that is so easily triggered. I want to find a place to hide from it, but that doesn’t exist. I should seek out Christ, but consistency is hard and questions about our faith are lurking at the edges, our disagreement with the culture. Even when I’m trying to be closer to the spirit I still stumble. I’m trying to stop crying so I can go into the store. I’m questioning if talking to you is bad… It can be very hurtful and heavy to you… But I gotta talk to someone so it doesn’t fester so bad, and you are my person. I hurt you so many times, and maybe even this hurts you too. I don’t have an answer, I’ll try to follow paths that have helped in the past. I’m going to hurt you and me again in the future and I hate that. I love you, you don’t deserve this. I’m trying. I feel that promising anything is beyond my capacity… I’ve failed so many many many times.”
Shame and judgment, even when kindly delivered, is very destructive. I remember a seminary Q&A where the question was put out there if it was better to sin and repent, or to never have sinned at all. I answered that people that have made mistakes can learn empathy and understanding for others that can be helpful. My seminary teacher said he didn’t agree. He said that he thinks people that never made mistakes in the first place are more righteous, and more likely to be called to leadership positions. This made me feel that there was something inherently less, or inherently bad, about me. Bad enough that even repentance and the atonement couldn’t ever bring me back to the place that I had left through sin. I wish I could have remembered the story of Alma the younger, who went from a murdering rebel to prophet.
That’s just the thing though, taking the Bishop and other Church leader’s opinions and actions as truth doesn’t allow us to defend ourselves when unhealthy, or untrue ideas are offered. As kids we get taught to shame, punish, and limit ourselves from these beliefs that come from our leader’s and authority figures. All these kind leaders, who were trying to help as they were taught, still laid the groundwork in my life to cause myself and others so much pain.
My addiction to pornography, and especially the way I hid it because of shame has caused so much pain and broken trust in my marriage. I know that it is my responsibility to own my addiction, and repair it. I have been engaged in counseling, LDS ARP programs, and many other things for decades. I am trying and learning. It’s really meaningful to me that rejecting the shame of having sexuality has allowed so many of the other things I’ve learned to be much more effective.
So kind people teaching me to shame myself has contributed to decades of pain for myself. The same environment that I was in could have so easily turned even worse, as there are not adequate training, adequate screening, protections, and systems in place to prevent even more harmful abuse.
Please stop one on one interviews with Youth, and Please stop asking sexually explicit questions. They cause and enable real harm.