I don’t have the horror stories that some people have, but I have a few incidents to relate. First, when I was about thirteen, Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped. I was afraid for her and I was afraid that something similar could happen to me. I began having panic attacks that made it difficult to breathe and move. My mind would uncontrollably imagine what it must be like to be raped, and I kept imaging being stabbed. I didn’t know what a panic attack was. I thought I must be sinning. I talked to my bishop, hardly able to speak loudly enough for him to hear. I didn’t know how to explain what I was experiencing. I told him I was imaging sex. He asked me what I was imagining. I knew I was being confusing, but I still felt a stab of shame being asked. I mumbled something that must have sounded like I was trying to understand relationships. He let it go. I think he was more concerned and confused than mean, but it still made a negative impression on me. I was more uncomfortable afterword than before. I felt like I couldn’t get help because no one would understand. I still came out feeling that I had sinned. Bishops are not professional counselors and are not equipped to deal with these issues. I sought professional help as an adult to heal from these memories.
Sometimes teen worthiness interviews were conducted by bishop’s councilors in classrooms or in a heater room, other times in offices. We’d be pulled out of Sunday School and Young Women’s classes without parental permission. I was annoyed that there wasn’t at least a week’s warning. I knew that I was being taken alone, by a grown man, to a room with thick doors and carpet covered walls, without my parents knowing where I was. Once, I looked to see if anyone was outside listening, because I’d heard that there was supposed to be someone making sure I was okay. There was no one. Even if there had been, those rooms are soundproof and the couch is way off in the foyer where no one could hear. As a teenager, I was aware that I was potentially at risk if any bishopric member decided to do anything untoward. I was frightened. Sometimes I didn’t want to do these interviews, but I was never told that I had the right to refuse them without consequence. I was never told that if a question became uncomfortable, I could say “that’s none of your business,” or walk out. I was never informed that I could request that my mother or some other adult be in the room. If I had been told this, I might have made different choices. As a young teen, I never came up with any of those protective strategies on my own. Refusing to be interviewed, or to answer specific questions would have been seen as rebellious, and would have prevented me from going to the temple. I might have been viewed as a sinner and caused conflict with my parents. It never occurred to me to voice my feelings because I knew they didn’t matter. I felt powerless and sick to my stomach. One time I physically hesitated to follow the councilor to the room, but there wasn’t much choice. Also, just in case you were wondering, I didn’t know what masturbation was as a teenager. I grew up repressed, sexually uneducated, and fearful of sex and therefore had little behavior to confess.
By the way, it wasn’t just the chastity questions that bothered me. I was also uncomfortable being asked about my faith, and knowing that I had to give the man the answer he wanted to hear, even if I agreed with the “right” answer. The fact that people weren’t allowed to doubt or disagree without facing consequences for not keeping up appearances bothered me. I felt pressure to overstate both my testimony and my worthiness to please someone else. I was afraid of being judged unworthy for the shame of being an insecure teen.
My bishops almost always wanted me to define the law of chastity as a young adult. They’d push for more details until satisfied that I understood. I felt like a little kid in the principal’s office having to explain a rule instead of a respected adult talking to a peer. I was also asked how I handled my sexual thoughts and feelings. They were hinting about masturbation and sexual fantasy, but without saying those words, probably due to embarrassment. That felt violating to me. It’s none of the business of some old guy. I had significant masturbation shame as a young adult due to these interviews. I was almost totally ignorant as a teen but I checked out books from the library in my twenties to remedy this. I felt dirty. I had a panic attack and went into a kind of shock for hours after masturbating. Besides talking about sexual matters, I also didn’t like making small talk with bishops. I sometimes asked to keep it short and they’d insist on asking all kinds of questions about my personal life unrelated to the interview. It seemed like a power play and I wondered whether anything I said, even innocuous things about my hobbies, would be noted and used to love bomb me if I ever went inactive. I dreaded temple recommend interviews the whole year even though I didn’t have much to confess. I was never endowed, partly because that would have meant having interviews with the bishop and the stake president. As a young adult questioning whether I wanted to continue subjecting myself to interviews, I attended a standards night (a chastity pep talk for teens) as a guest. The stake president told the teens that they do not hold sexual agency for themselves because their bodies do not belong to them. Their bodies belong to God. It was strongly implied that since God is not physically there, local church leaders such as bishops and stake presidents hold the sexual agency of the teenagers under their stewardship as part of their priesthood keys. He said that if you have consensual sex outside of marriage, you are stealing the use of someone else’s body, which you have no right to take and your partner has no right to give you. He then put pressure on the youth to confess their sins to their bishops. At the time, I partly believed this, but was also disturbed by it. I thought this teaching carried with it the potential for abuse. Telling kids that their bodies and sexual choices belong to the bishop, then pressuring and requiring them to have sexual conversations with the bishop behind sound-proof doors sounded like a recipe for tragedy if any adult decided to take advantage of the power differential. It also made consensual sex sound like rape. I was furious.
In my next interview, I asked my bishop if one should still sustain a leader if you knew for a fact that this leader was abusing his or her underlings. He said yes. He rambled on about how you don’t always like or agree with everything a leader says or does, but you always sustain them anyway. When pressed, he could not identify the difference between a personality conflict and abuse. He also said that if I wasn’t comfortable sustaining local leaders for their imperfections, then I would not like the general authorities either, because they are also imperfect. That struck me. I thought I probably wouldn’t be comfortable sustaining them. He hesitated to sign my recommend, but did only after I backed down. I only lasted one more interview with a different embarrassed bishop asking me about my sexual thoughts and feelings before I decided I didn’t need to put myself through any more of them. I was twenty-eight when I made that decision. As I sit, it’s almost my twenty-ninth birthday, the time when I normally would have been fretting over paying tithing to a huge organization when I’m underemployed, and worried about some man asking invasive sexual questions and treating me like a child. I’m so glad I don’t have to worry about that anymore. It is a loss to know that I’ll never join my family in temple rituals that carry religious and cultural meaning to us. However, no blessing which came from the temple ever made up for the worthiness interview experience. Deciding not to renew my temple recommend has truly been what might be called a blessing in my life. I’ll just call that “blessing” letting adult common sense and confidence have their rightful places in my life, which has lead to peace of mind. If I ever have children, they will never be subjected to worthiness interviews. I am still undoing the sexual repression and shame from years of young women lessons, standards nights, John Bytheway talks, and worthiness interviews. This effort has cost me years of effort and therapy. I now believe that I will be okay, but I don’t want any other child suffering from the interview practices of the LDS church.