I am one of the many men who was repeatedly sexually shamed in interviews. This line of specific and graphic sexual questioning took place since I was 12 years old and lasted until after my mission. I was grilled about it explicitly by bishops, stake presidents, mission presidents, and young men’s leaders. Even now as I’m typing this I am struggling to even type the word “masturbation”. I was taught that it was a sin next to murder, and that I would never be able to be with my family, marry in the temple, go on a mission, or live a normal or productive life unless I avoided it completely. At the age of 12 I was already so concerned about it that I went to my bishop to confess. I didn’t have to go to the interview, I initiated the interview because my guilt at not having been able to avoid all seminal emission was so great I felt like I was doomed to destruction by a hateful God. I was told I could not pass the sacrament anymore, and this was not unnoticed by my peers. I was peppered with questions, speculation, gossip, and shame were heaped on me. The bishop brought me into his office several times and talked to me about how serious a sin this is, that it is never appropriate. He told me that it was a sexual perversion, like homosexuality, or rape. He told me, sympathetically, of his own struggles with temptation, without admitting to ever having succumbed, and tried to give me hope that it is possible to overcome all temptation. This was a false and inappropriate hope to give a teen.
While it is true that some teens rarely masturbate, or have nocturnal emissions, seminal emission in some form is a necessary element of having a functioning reproductive system. Blockage of any and all seminal emissions can cause infertility or even death. I wasn’t taught this. I was taught that emissions were akin to murder. I imagined with horror the possibility that I was already one of the most depraved murders who had ever lived on the earth, because a single emission contains many thousands of sperm cells, I feared that I was spiritually guilty of thousands of murders. I didn’t know that this was a universal part of growing up and sexual development, I thought I was uniquely depraved. For the rest of my time in that ward I was too ashamed to even look the bishop in the eye again, or shake his hand. We moved to another ward, and I tried so hard to never have any sexual feelings, or sexual development, or masturbate, ever. But biology dictated that this would not be possible. As I have grown I realized that the stigma and shame about masturbation in men is very similar to the shame and stigma many cultures place on menstruating women. These are essential parts of developing a healthy reproductive system, and make fertility possible. They are impossible to avoid in the healthy development of a person, and nothing to be ashamed of. They are biological imperatives that if ignored or incorrectly handled can result in infection, infertility, and even death. They are as natural and essential as eating, sleeping, or defecating.
The shaming and inappropriate prying questions continued in each ward I was a member of. With such a strong emphasis against masturbation I tried never to succumb, and put forth a very valiant effort to avoid any possibility. But eventually the biological imperative would catch up with me. Either I’d have a nocturnal emission, or a waking one with little or no stimulation. I’d feel terrible and swear it would never happen again. I’d pray fervently and I’d promise God it wouldn’t happen again. But still the shame and the terror at my own depravity would accumulate more and more.
When I was 15 I started to contemplate that if I couldn’t stop the only solution that would save me from eternal torment was castration. I looked up the basics of surgical procedures, I gathered some supplies, gauze, scalpels, a sanitary straw to keep the urethra open during healing, and tried to prepare myself to do it. I couldn’t ask anyone for help, because then they would know what I’d done, I decided I had to do it on myself. I had a day when I was home alone and I got all the materials together. I prepared all the implements and an area where I could contain the blood.
When I couldn’t do it, I felt like such a coward. I found that my trembling hands were just unwilling to do self harm on that magnitude. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I cursed myself for my cowardice. I felt like if I couldn’t even do this then I surely deserved eternal torment and the loss of all I held dear. I had this chance to show my devotion to God and my commitment to stop sinning but now had to face the fact that I wasn’t really devoted enough to follow through on my promise. Now I knew I was unworthy. I was a covenant breaker, a pervert, and a murderer.
I put my clothes back on, put everything away, and went to where I knew my dad kept his .38 revolver. I loaded only one bullet. I spun the cylinder without looking and placed the barrel to my temple.
Again something screamed at me to stop and look. Where was the bullet? I fought the impulse to stop. I felt like this was one last way to escape my sin, and one last way to appeal to God’s mercy that maybe, just maybe he would find a place for me if I could just stop the sin. But this voice that had stopped me before, and was stopping me now. Was it cowardice? or was it God? I tried to just pull the trigger. After all there was a 5 in 6 chance that it wouldn’t even go off. Maybe that would be the way God could show me if he wanted me dead or alive. .
But the words of Christ rang through my whole body “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God!” “It is a wicked and adulterous generation that seeketh after a sign” Suddenly I realized that God had nothing to do with it. I wasn’t magnanimously giving God a chance to spare me, I was the one who had loaded the pistol. This was all on me, either way. It was all my own action, and responsibility.
I looked. The bullet was in position. It would have gone off.
Trembling I put the gun down. I felt the desire to curse my own cowardice again, but the anger had gone out of me. Instead I felt comforted. I still feared that masturbation was a serious sin, but I felt like God and all his angels were right there in the room shouting at me that my sin was not worthy of death, that I was worthy of life and love, and that I should never NEVER doubt my worthiness again. That I am meant to live, and be a father, and that my belief in my own depravity was the evil. I felt prompted to pray and ask God for forgiveness, not for the masturbation, but for doubting my own worth, and endangering my own life. Instead I promised God that I would live for him, even in my sins, and do good because I am good. That goodness is in me, not the shame, not the evil, but deep down it was my divine nature that demanded I live for God and all that is good, and never make the mistake of thinking of God as this evil judgmental monster again.