I was raised in the church. I was seventh generation Mormon – something often boasted about in our family. We were the picture perfect LDS family. Every Sunday you’d find us planted in our pew 20 minutes before sacrament started so we could listen to the prelude music and “get spiritually readied.”
My family was picture perfect by church standards, but I’d always had a flicker of doubt in my heart. The first distinguished memory of one on one interviews with a bishop all alone was when I was eight years old. It was my baptismal interview. Even then, I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable and alert being alone with a grown adult male I hardly knew behind closed doors. I had no prior trauma to cause that anxiety, just natural senses. To this day, two questions in particular stood out in my mind: “Do you live the law of chastity?” and, “Do you believe The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to be the one and only true church on the earth?” When it came to the law of chastity, I had to ask what that meant. I don’t remember the exact wording of what the bishop said, but I do remember being confused why I would have to answer that. I was eight. Did kissing my best friend and kindergarten crush when I was six mean I wouldn’t be worthy to be baptized? As for the second question, I felt panicked. The ONE and ONLY true church? Something pitted in my stomach. Even at eight years old I remember my brain yelling, “no! No! No!” But I said yes. Of course I did. How could I tell this stranger I didn’t? And disappointing my parents who stood outside in the hall? No, it was better I figure it out with age. For now I was to be baptized.
Years went by, but the doubt flooded in and out like a wave against the beach. Some years I felt like a true devout believer – nothing could shake my faith! And within months I would be spiraling again over a new found conflict I’d come to learn regarding the church. I constantly felt lied to. I didn’t understand why all these bad things were so easily ignored in the church. They were BIG problems. Why wouldn’t the church address them more publicly?
When I was thirteen a close friend was pulled from her home by child protective services. She was being abused by her mom and stepdad. I did everything I could at the time to be there as a support. She was eventually returned to the abusive home, as her father (who lived in a different state) tried to make arrangements to have her live with him permanently. But many people in our ward discouraged her to live with him. He was homosexual after all, which clearly clouded his ability to parent. Our leaders at the time, including our bishop in an interview, counseled her to be forgiving of her absuive mother. Because living with a gay dad was far worse. Though she finally escaped and was able to leave and live with her dad in a different state entirely, the experience broke this camel’s back. I was done believing bishops were men called of God. What kind of inspired man would encourage a child to endure child abuse?
I had participated in temple visits between the ages of 12 and 14. Each interview I was asked about the standing of my chastity. At the age of 14, when my friend was finally relocated to live with her dad, I realized how done I was with those one on one interviews. I didn’t want to be drilled about what sexual acts I may or may not have performed. I was only in middle school, and already tired of disclosing my sexual standing to an adult male.
I didn’t participate in interviews again until I was 17 and applying for college. I had managed to avoid interviews entirely by showing zero interest in Temple attendance. But now it was time to apply for BYUI, since my boyfriend of a year was being forced to attend by his parents. We had decided to attend the school together. A few days before my interview, my boyfriend’s Dad asked him how close (physically) him and I were. His Dad seemed genuinely non judgmental, so my boyfriend decided to open up a little and disclose that we did in fact make out. Nothing under clothes, pretty mild stuff for teenagers who’d been dating for a year. His Dad blew up, and went running straight for his bishop at the time. He forced my boyfriend to “confess”, and the bishop felt the need to call it in over to my bishop as well.
When I met with my bishop for my ecclesiastical interview to attend BYUI, I was shocked to be told my papers were on hold for the time being. That I needed to “repent for my sins”. I had been sexually assaulted only a few years ago personally, so being told that my makeout sessions with my boyfriend (which in all honesty was a huge step forward for me to finally reach a point of enjoyment again in physically connecting with someone) were sinful? It was infuriating. I had no desire to “repent”. In all honesty, there was no need to. What I did or did not do with my boyfriend as a minor should not have been up for discussion.
But discuss we did. He probed, asking detailed questions about where and how he touched me when we would makeout. Fortunately, I had enough courage to refuse to answer because I felt that was inappropriate. My boyfriend at the time later admitted he was asked similar questions by his bishop. Overall is was extremely inappropriate and weird. And because I refused to answer his questions, he held my endorsement hostage. He refused to send the paperwork until I had “repented”. On the due date for my endorsement he met with me again and asked if I felt I had repented. I said I had just to get him to send the paperwork. He did. I almost wish he hadn’t, because then I wouldn’t have been subjected to BYUI and the whole new level of disgusting experiences.
In my first semester of school I was quickly called to be first counselor of my ward’s relief society. I had the pleasure of getting to know many of the girls in my apartment complex and developed several strong friendships. One girl didn’t show for church, her roommates disclosed she was “sick and depressed”. I personally suffered from extreme levels of anxiety and depression, so I decided to check in with her. While visiting she decided to open up to me. She had been sexually assaulted. Our bishop had approved mission paperwork for the boy who assaulted her. She was instructed to “repent” for leading him on. Having been told to repent for no good reason before, I encouraged her to ignore the bad advice because she had nothing to repent over. She didn’t do anything wrong. I lost touch with her after that semester. I still curse that bishop and wonder if she’s okay.
I’m not okay. Most of my life I was conditioned into pleasing other people, saying and doing what they want because it’s all I was taught in the church. I was taught to trust men blindly, even when you’re uncomfortable because they’re “called by God” and their questions are “inspired”. I’m even in therapy now, with our current goal being to tell people “no” and “stop” the second I’m uncomfortable. Because I got in the nasty habit of allowing men to say and ask what they want to me. Because they are the patriarch and I am a woman they have always been one step closer in their relationship to God than me. That even the men closest to me in my life receive revelation on behalf of me. So was it really such a surprise that when my husband raped me as I just laid there and didn’t fight back?
I was so shocked by what had happened, but couldn’t tell anyone for years. I couldn’t turn to the men in the church, I would only be told to repent after disclosing in great detail what happened. I tried to disclose it to my parents, but much like my friend from my teenage years, I was basically told to accept the abuse because the alternative of divorce was worse. I was alone for years until I finally started to talk about my experience with my husband to my therapist. It was my therapist that had to say, “he raped you” to get me to realize how far gone I was. I hadn’t even put a name to it before then. But he was right. And my therapist has been able to counsel and guide me through my sexual trauma and relationships far beyond any bishop of past.
My therapist has done more to help me than any and all past bishops combined. Why? First, because it was MY CHOICE to open up and tell him about these things. Secondly, because there is NO shame regarding my sexuality and/or trauma. Third, because he is PROFESSIONALLY trained on how to talk about these things. Bishopric meetings are rarely a choice. You either get their approval or you don’t qualify for baptism, receive recommendations to attend the temple, get letters of endorsement to church funded schools, etc. You participate in these meetings or you miss out.
These bishopric meetings can provide people the peace and guidance they need, but far too often instill guilt and shame for natural desires and choices. And these men are not professionally trained. They don’t know what the right thing to say is when a woman admits to rape. They don’t know how to follow up when a teenager admits to engaging in sexual activities with their boyfriend or girlfriend. They don’t know how to respond when a child isn’t sure what masturbation is. They don’t know. So it should NOT be a topic for discussion. The acceptance of grooming and abuse in the church needs to stop. The church needs to learn to say no to grooming members into being uncomfortable.
Before more members turn into people like me, people who can’t even say no when they are sexually assaulted and raped by their own partner. I’m learning now, but I wish I hadn’t gotten comfortable with accepting my discomfort in the first place.