I remember my first interview with my branch president after entering the Young Women program in the Church. We were going to the Arizona temple to do baptisms for the dead, and I had to pass a “worthiness interview” in order to participate. I remember walking into the branch president’s office, my bony knees trembling. I sat in the chair, across from his desk, afraid to look at him. I was sure he could see all of the horrible things I had done. I was quite an accomplished liar; I stole from time to time, sneaking candy when nobody was looking. I fought with my siblings, and a thousand other things that kids do wrong. I was, however, also a very naïve, chaste, and pure twelve years old.
I remember my branch president asking me if I live the law of chastity. I answered, yes. Then he asked me if I knew what that meant. I said, sure, it means that I wear modest clothing. He chuckled a bit and told me that it had more to do with kissing and stuff like that. I think he could tell from the horrified look on my face that I had done no such thing. Ewww, kissing boys!
I have come to realize since then, that I had a pretty good branch president. I’ve since heard stories of young girls, the same age as I was hearing the word masturbation for the first time ever, coming out of the mouth of a bishop. It wasn’t until after I left the church about 10 months ago, that I was even aware that youth are questioned about masturbation. Nobody ever even told me masturbation was wrong as a youth, nor asked me specifically about it. My parents certainly never brought it up. I guess my church leaders assumed that girls don’t masturbate, and luckily for me, I was spared that particular humiliation.
I am a mother of five sons. After leaving the church, and realizing for the first time that my older (now adult) boys were likely asked these kinds of probing questions, I started to get angry. I thought of my sons, sitting in the bishop’s office being asked very personal questions. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling real, seething anger at that monstrous corporation that they call a church. My boys were either likely introduced to the concept, or humiliatingly grilled about their own private business. It never occurred to me that because masturbation is “wrong,” that a bishop would actually ask my kids about it.
I intend to ask my boys about it, when the time is right. Adult sons aren’t all that eager to have conversations with their mothers about masturbation. I was an uptight Mormon mom and left all of the sex talk to my husband, since we have all boys. I’m getting quite good at talking openly about things like masturbation, sex, and other “hush-hush” topics.
I interviewed many ex-Mormon friends about this practice in preparation for writing this article, and I promised to keep identities a secret. Not having been exposed to such questions as a teen, I was shocked at the depth of the harm caused by the church.
One man I spoke with joined the church in his teens. He was well down the masturbation path as a familiar pastime by the time he joined the church. He wished to serve a mission, but unfortunately, he was honest with his bishop and confessed about his masturbation habits. His mission was delayed six months as he struggled to control the urge to masturbate. He was required to report every week to his bishop whether he had been successful in conquering his “sin” that week or not. Finally, he was allowed to serve a mission, and served honorably.
He slipped up once or twice on his mission. He felt horrible guilt, and turned to his mission president for help. I’m certain that mission presidents must get masturbators lining up at their office doors. Maybe they should get one of those “take a number” machines like they have in ice cream shops.
Most women I spoke with were never asked about masturbation, by anyone. Not by parents, church leaders, bishopric members, or anyone else. Most men were grilled, with some of the innocent confessing because they were called liars when they denied masturbating.
One particularly heartbreaking story came from a man who began masturbating at the age of 14 after learning from a sex-ed book that it was no big deal. He then read some things by Spencer W. Kimball, and the “To Young Men Only” pamphlet (filthy piece of disgusting trash) by Boyd K. Packer. “I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of embarrassment and shame,” he confided. “I felt like I was evil and filthy. But I was also too ashamed to tell the bishop. I knew I was unworthy to be passing and taking the sacrament but I did it anyways because I felt so ashamed.”
After years of cycling through trying to stop, being successful for a few months, confessing to a bishop, slipping up again, and then trying to stop again, he eventually felt worthless. In his words again: “I wished to kill myself– a lot – largely because of this. But I knew I couldn’t because I would go to hell – so I just felt horrible about myself.”
No young man should feel that kind of crushing guilt, and over masturbating, of all things. It makes me angry, it makes me want to smash things, and it makes me want to sob. This is a natural activity that provides a psychological and physical release so necessary for teenage boys with raging hormones and sexual urges. I think of the innocent boys, doing what comes naturally, and by most of the world is considered healthy, being served a platter of guilt sandwiches. I think of those boys, who, like my friend, hide their remorse and shame. I think of the other boys who tell the truth, only to suffer public shaming through not being allowed to pass or partake of the sacrament because of their sins.
It makes me wish I could take every one of these suffering boys in my mother’s arms and hold them tight. I wish I could tell them that God doesn’t care. They need to know that there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s not shameful, dirty, sinful, disgusting, or is it filthy, vile, and evil. How many are led to the doorstep of suicide, like my friend? These poor young men, with so much to offer, so much to accomplish, so much promise.