My first “worthiness” interview happened when I was 12 years old. Worthiness was assessed by answering questions from the Bishop, an older man who, we were told represented Christ. My parents encouraged this interview and it was a standard practice for young people to have these interviews every six months. I had no idea what was to come.
He asked if I paid a tithing or 10% of what I made. I had a job and reported that I did tithe or give the church 10% of everything I earned. He smiled with approval. Other questions followed that focused on obeying my parents, attending all my church meetings, and having a strong belief about the LDS founder Joseph Smith.
He looked very uncomfortable when he asked me if I looked at pornography or pictures of naked girls. I said no, but felt very awkward that he would ask.
Then he asked, do you ever “touch yourself down there, you know, at night when no one is watching.” I didn’t know what to say. Down there? Was he talking about my penis? Was he saying that masturbation made me unworthy? Where was he going with this? I felt anxiety well up within me.
I blushed and hesitated. He took the opportunity to explain that Heavenly Father made our bodies to do wonderful things and that we had a light that could light other lights. When we masturbate or stir up those sexual feelings, Heavenly Father is displeased. We must confess that sin to God’s representatives to be forgiven. I nodded in agreement.
He then asked me, “will you honor the law of chastity by never touching your penis to excite it in a way that displeases Heavenly Father?” I said yes and nodded in agreement. I just wanted this to be over.
Walking away from the interview, I felt very awkward. This wasn’t right, but I didn’t know why. I tried to talk to my father about the interview, but as a true believing Mormon, he had no interest in questioning what the Bishop might have said or asked. I felt I had no one to turn to.
Like normal teens, I enjoyed masturbation. But the Bishop and the LDS church placed a narrative on this practice that made me unworthy when I did. Occasionally I would confess this to have a Bishop tell me to imagine that Jesus was there when I felt tempted. Let’s just say such a practice had little effect.
What was the price I paid for believing the Bishop? It’s hard to say. I struggled with girl relationships as a teen and later into young adulthood. I had low self esteem. When I felt attracted to a woman, what if I couldn’t control myself and violated Heavenly Father’s commandments and fell from his favor? LDS literature on the topic only fueled this shame culture. The book Miracle of Forgiveness should be renamed It’s a Miracle If You’re Forgiven. It’s a total shame job that aligns all too well with the LDS understanding that we’re separated from God and our behavior will bridge that gap. Maybe.
Shame has been a constant and deep focus of most of the healing work I’ve done as an adult. Clearly LDS leaders should stop this practice, but should also question the belief that they are separated from God. What kind of God would kick us out and demand impossible behavioral standards as the means to return? It’s time to question the narrative because one, it’s not true and two, it’s harmful.