My story happened not because of a Bishop with inappropriate intentions, but because the several men I dealt with were trying their best with very little guidance and only very confused cultural teachings to work with.
My parents did NOT speak with us about sex. I learned from a medical textbook my mom gave me when I was 9. Even still, I didn’t read on to know about my own anatomy. I was only told as a child not to touch myself or let people touch me. I was 20 years old before I knew my own anatomy because my strict southern high school didn’t teach anything beyond what STD’s were on the market. By that time, I had been called as a BYU Hawaii ward Relief Society President and asked to speak in many wards about chastity. I had never even been kissed.
At 20, by complete accident, I began to discover a little more about my body and what it can experience, as well as desires. My then boyfriend didn’t try and push me past any limits, but I was the one who wanted to go further, as I didn’t know a person could feel so good. Even though we didn’t go “all the way”, we got close, and suddenly I felt like a monster.
He was confused, as he was raised in the church in Germany, where topics of feelings, sexuality, masturbation, EVERYTHING was openly discussed in families and in open, group, settings with leaders and parents together. He encouraged me to go to the bishop, as did he. But our experiences from then on were worlds apart.
His bishop in Germany sat with him for about 30 minutes, talking about the reality of the human body and desires, and how Christ came to forgive, and we are to rely on Him to slowly get better over time. He gave him some tips on how to manage his desires by dating more in public, keeping a balanced life with work, school, and dating, etc.
By the time I got home to the States and set up an appointment with my bishop, I was incredibly nervous. I had been taught in Young Women’s that a girl who messed around with boys was cheating on her future husband and was the equivalent to gum already been chewed; something nobody else would want. We had discussions with each other about the “bad girls” in the congregation, and without using the term.. how slutty they were. Such judgments helped reinforce that WE were on the right path.
My mom wasn’t particularly comfortable discussing any of my issues, nor was I, as it was NOT something that was done in our family, EVER. I thought my interview might not be so hard after my cousin in Utah told me that a classmate had oral sex the night before his mission and his bishop simply said, “I don’t want to know the details”. I was confused by that but went ahead that evening with my Mom to the church in Texas to see what absolution and peace I could find after torturing myself for several weeks with the same judgments I so willingly bestowed like a crown of thorns on every other girl I ever met who was ever alone with a boy.
It was shortly after that first interview that I began to ponder suicide. As dramatic as that sounds, the bishop I barely knew, but knew I should trust, had attempted to calm me down by recommending some antiquated literature. That was only at the end of the interview. I had started crying about five minutes in before I could get any words out at all and asked to have my mom with me. I was not a child. But she was the only one that I trusted still loved me by that point. My bishop firmly said that she could not join me. But he began to look helpless and began to probe to get me to open up. The term he used was “self-stimulation” and “necking” “petting” … I asked for clarification, not being raised in the 1950’s. I had heard the latter two terms my whole life in the church and still had no idea what they meant. He began to explain and then told me that if I wanted to begin to feel peace, I needed to describe, in a level of detail that while was probably okay for some people, was somewhat traumatizing to me, the setting, circumstances, stimulants, and points of weakness I had in each episode of sin. I was shaking by this time.
I began to plead to know what the difference between sin and weakness and mistakes were, because as these terms were always thrown around, I never needed to understand or apply them to my situation before. I was so confused mostly because I had never KNOWN about the things I did, only that while they felt good, I also felt horrible. I had been alone in another country with my boyfriend and couldn’t very well ask for clarification.
Having to replay so many situations out loud for an older man was.. I don’t have the word. I believed this was necessary, that the pain was meant to cleanse me and was part of the repentance process. I felt a little lighter because I did what I knew I should do. Until the end of the interview when I was handed “The Miracle of Forgiveness” and told that EVERY time I slipped up in the future, I needed to come speak to him, or another priesthood leader (I was preparing to go on a mission) and give the details. I froze. I asked when I would begin to feel forgiven. He told me to go home and read and come back the following week.
I ate the nearly 300 pages of that book up in the following week. In three sections, it goes on about sin, different types of sin..again in 1950’s terms, and unfortunately, as I learned the following week at my next interview, that while what I had done was not sex, it was “a level of adultery”. The book compared that as the greater sin closer to those sins that cannot be forgiven. I was shocked to learn that even though we hadn’t taken our clothes off, I was touching the realm of Cain. Perhaps that was my own interpretation, but I was told again to return the next week.
And I returned every week for months. And spilled detail after detail of every slip up, every situation that made me think I was worthless. Where was the Savior in this? At the very last section of the book, it began to talk about forgiveness. But a theme stuck out in the interviews and from what I understood from the book: that repeat sinners lose any forgiveness they had. So, the second sin, third sin..any weakness at all, was worse than all of the sins combined. In an article I read (and there are A LOT of very old articles written by non-professionals and non-leaders available in Church archives that do a lot more harm than good), I was told that giving into the weaknesses was slapping Christ in the face. That it is better to die than to give up my virtue.
Oh, how far from Christ I was alienated. One step forward, ten thousand steps back.
I begged again to know how to feel clean. My bishop told me that in time, I would know how. I reread the Miracle of Forgiveness and spent an hour or two every night searching Church archives for clear answers. The answers were NOT very forgiving. I prayed the entire time, but the cloud of certainty in knowing that my BISHOP was the only one who could tell me how far from God I was, this cloud did not allow much peace to pass through. I would slip up and sin again because by that time, it as the ONLY way I knew how to feel good, as I felt guilty anyway, and felt I didn’t deserve to feel peace or joy in any other fashion. I already believed myself evil and weak, and if I couldn’t feel clean after months, maybe it would never happen. But I did TRY to do better after each slip, and confessed, and changed my situation and circumstances each time. But eventually, things would mess up again.
I had even taken a chance and gone to LDS counseling, but couldn’t get to the point of talking about the “sins” I struggled with because I was so humiliated, and the counselor turned me back to my bishop. My poor mother didn’t know where else to take me or what to do, and I felt guilty that I couldn’t get myself clean or forgiven to stop causing her problems of having to find me more potential sources of peace.
Finally, I left for my mission, perhaps because my Bishop thought I had suffered enough. But in the Missionary Training Center I felt that there were more things I had not been able to tell my bishop that I needed to confess. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I had to confess to an elderly Chinese man I had met twice, who was my assigned leader, even more things I felt bad about. He cried, too, and seemed confused that a girl would struggle with some of these things. I didn’t feel relief leaving that room, but more shame as all struggles should have been left behind before I went on a mission.
That very week, my missionary companions were talking in the room about getting married and began to discuss virginity. As I listened, they described things that made no sense. (By that time, I had educated myself from a medical perspective on sexuality and anatomy). They went on about certain structures in the body that simply did not exist and how they thought sex worked. I grew up on a farm, and while a lot of things didn’t register with me as far as humans went, it was very clear that these girls were so lost and going to be horrified on their wedding nights.
I made it in the field about a month and a half before I broke down. I had more weaknesses to confess but was so conflicted about having to confess them to my new mission president, who seemed to be a hard-liner directly from Utah, that I just kept them inside. His wife was also very reserved, and I didn’t know her well enough to have a relationship at all.
I could have taken the chance to talk to them, but I had already torn myself up inside knowing that I couldn’t receive revelation to help my converts or work in the language as long as I didn’t confess. But I didn’t have the strength anymore. I had nightmares so badly that my companions would wake up and try to get me to stop crying or talking or shaking in my sleep. I was drained: mind, body, and spirit. I went home on the wings of shame. I went back to my bishop.
I tried to be ready to go back in the field, but I couldn’t feel a kinship with Christ. I went back to Europe where the church was helpful, open, and forgiving. Where judgement was reserved not for clothing or actions, but for how well you might or might not cook or keep house. I was good enough there. Gradually, things I had learned in going to Vacation Bible School as a kid in many other churches (thank heavens my mom was a convert), began to ring true. GRACE. The word NOT thrown around in my church and not easily applied
GRACE. And being away from all of the Utah-culture that seemed to want to put me through a blender of judgement, shoot me out to Outer Darkness and reel me in by works alone. I began to feel Christ in my life again while I waited for my boyfriend to return from his mission. I still struggled and certainly didn’t want to confess sins to a bishop (who though he spoke English), was just about my age. I kept those inside and focused on my work and supporting my boyfriend still on his mission.
Fast forward a year or two, and I am five months a newlywed. Besides melding cultures, the unexpected trial is melding Church cultures. We were raised in the same gospel but different versions.. culture over-rode what the gospel could have taught me as a child. My honeymoon was fun, as far as going on a cruise was, but everything romantic was.. well.. verging on trauma.
He is so understanding, but also confused, because while we dated, getting romantic and close and having that trust was not a problem at all. NOW, all I could hear was the voices of family members and leaders, telling me what sluts do.
I felt like I should be an owl, able to turn my head all the way around and be comfortable. To go from viewing sex as grimy, “The Big Nasty”, the stuff of whorehouses, to “all engines go”. How could Molly Mormons have dirty bedroom lives? It just didn’t work. We had a young men/young women Sunday School lesson once from two leaders (who weren’t even married to each other, so it was confusing), to tell us about sex. “It is a holy, pure thing, angelic, between you and your spouse and God..” to quote them. At girl’s camp though, a frank leader heard us tell that statement and laughed so hard. She said that these leaders weren’t having sex then. Sex is a lot more fun, more animalistic, and not very “holy”. More confusion. Now, suddenly, after my vows, I was supposed to be okay with 26 years of being told how EVIL and close to perdition sexual relations were?
Right before our wedding, I went to interview with my stake president about my worthiness to be married in the temple. I walked into the office, and it was my BISHOP. The one who it all started with. I knew as I walked in that I would lie in that interview, because no matter what, I was tired, and couldn’t lose more time in that office, week after week. I had been engaged for 2 years. So, either I would get married in the sin of not confessing or be married so that if I did eventually slip up and went “all the way”, the sin wasn’t really sin. Neither were ideal, but I wanted to be with my love more than I wanted to be in further pain.
I had dealt with a lot of young sisters in the midst of divorces in their late teens and early 20’s who were sent off to be married because they or their guy was randy. The Atonement apparently couldn’t apply, and the destruction of eternal marriages was less valuable than the risking “going all the way”. My husband told me that a few of his mission companions had been cleared to serve, even though they had had sex in the past. That they had been forgiven. I was shocked, because that would NEVER have happened anywhere I had known. “What about the Atonement? Don’t Americans use it?”, was all he said.
It was in that moment of my marriage interview that I began to be cognizant of the fact that I was choosing NOT to route my relationship with Christ through the verification of a man. My bishop was not a bad man at all. Even a good man. But my weakness in understanding and pain of the last several years was enough to make me throw my eternity to the dogs, so to speak. If I didn’t confess now, would that make my chances at being with my sweetheart forever null?
The wedding and everything around it was a blur. Sometimes, I do wonder if I needed to confess more sins in order to make sure my marriage is safe. But now, my problems with church culture have grown so painful that I wonder if I can stay in the church at all. Other un-trained leaders have caused pain in my family. Two of my brothers were actually thrown up against cars and beaten for telling jokes in Sunday School. The man responsible had lost several jobs for assaulting students, but no help or counsel came for my brothers, and they have never been back to church. I was told that everyone gets offended in church and we should forgive. But when you don’t feel safe? I know my brothers still believe in Christ and his mercies. But it’s the culture that fences them off.
I am not able to feel romantic around my husband. We will seek counseling. I am not able to feel love, and perhaps that has been a lifelong problem, but I do SEE how God blesses me. I can feel gratitude, but I am only able to determine that I care about a person if I realize there is a chance I might lose them. My husband and I often discuss love languages to help me at least rationally be aware that I am loved even if I can’t feel it. There are moments in life when I have felt something close, but I don’t know if I will ever be able to feel worthy of it. More than 10 years of various therapies, medications, prayer, study, priesthood blessings have not changed that. It’s okay. You can’t miss what you don’t know.
I believe that in the next life it will be wonderful for me to know what love is, and to finally feel that Christ can love me despite my weakness. To learn how to actually overcome things instead of having to go through a person to confess. Even as a child I was asked about masturbation, but I never knew what the word meant and was too fearful to ask.
I still get overwhelmed when I receive criticism in most corners, as I believe that means that the person no longer loves me. I can’t feel the love, and their actions don’t indicate it, so my feelings of worthlessness are compounded. I am getting better at openly communicating these problems and getting feedback and reassurance.
Perhaps being able to talk to a woman would have made all of this easier. Someone who had raised children. Someone who would have an inkling of what made sex beautiful. My own mother medically was unable to enjoy sex and couldn’t have helped if she wanted to. My Relief Society president in my old ward was so helpful in guiding me through struggles in my sex life and helping me at least see, if I couldn’t feel that things were okay.
But too many years of the act being called evil, of Daniel and Bathsheba stories, have taken their toll. I still cringe from being touched and do wish that I could have a glass of wine to loosen up, as my friends do. But I won’t, because I need to have faith that somehow this culture will change. That the judgements people wall themselves in with to feel safe will eventually crumble.
I will never know the love of Christ until Mormons actually practice grace. I stay in the church because of fear of what I will lose otherwise, but also because I do learn good things and how to live a good life. And because I have at least heard in my heart, Christ’s voice telling me to hold onto my relationship just with Him, no matter what I can or can’t feel, until the church of imperfect, trying humans can sort these things out.
I have been blessed in the past, and I will go on because He told me too. Not anyone else. I daily rethink my actions and review if I made them out of fear or faith. I believe this church is making slow progress. But the stories need to be heard. The church doesn’t NEED to have a fix for everything. If a child has sexual issues, it should be on the parents…or professionals. What is a sin? More importantly, what is grace?
I have never known how to talk about, this, let alone report it. Are there channels to do this? If the Protect LDS Children organization hadn’t come about, I would never have been able to finally get this off my chest, have hope for my marriage. But I am told that the founder of this organization is being told he will be excommunicated. Does the church NOT want to help? Not want to change? Not want to listen? Where can we go for peace?