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Purity (whatever that means)
Content Warning: sexual shame, worthiness interview trauma, negative body image, suicide ideation
This chapter is difficult to write, but I’m moving forward with it because it’s nagging me. This is my experience. It’s not everyone’s experience in the church.
In February 2018, I learned that a member of the church was circulating a petition for the church to end one-on-one interviews with children and eliminate sexually explicit questions from such interviews. Josh then opened up more about his experiences with these interviews. I witnessed his pain of carrying heavy shame for many years.
Someone in the church hurt my sweetheart again and I was really upset. I signed the petition.
I would come to find out that many, many members, including some of my own acquaintances, had been asked very inappropriate questions by a bishopric member like: “Do you masturbate?” “What were you wearing?” “Where did your boyfriend touch you?” All in the name of confession and knowing the full extent of the sinful behavior, keeping the law of chastity, and beginning the repentance process. It was traumatic for so many people. (I don’t know what it would be like to be a bishop and feel like you needed to ask those kinds of questions because you were trained to do so. It seems like a terrible situation for honorable men.)
Then the church taught things like:
Our bodies are inherently sinful.
Sex before marriage is a sin next to murder.
Satan causes us to have sexual thoughts.
Girls are responsible for boys’ thoughts and actions.
Masturbation is self abuse.
Look attractive, but not too attractive.
Homosexuality is an abomination.
Society and the media said stuff like:
Flaunt your body.
There is only one way to be beautiful.
Buy this thing and you’ll be attractive.
Girls who drink or party are asking for it.
Men can’t control themselves.
Lose weight, then you’ll be pretty, happy, valuable, desired.
Add in the problems of religious obsession with purity, fear of sexuality, patriarchy, misinformation, media influences, body negativity, strict religious doctrines and parents and families who didn’t really know how to talk about sex, and you have a recipe for disaster for a lot of people.
All these were part of the perfect storm of factors that caused many of my generation to develop sexual shame, depression, negative body image, anxiety, self-loathing, confusion about normal sexual development, impaired sexual relations in marriage, self harm, and even suicide ideation.
I believe that our parents and church leaders did not intend for us to get hurt. They didn’t know differently. They were also taught to fear sexuality or not to talk about it at all. So much fear and misinformation perpetuated fear and misinformation. They wanted to protect us from the adversary, hardships that can come with sexual relationships, and unhappiness in this life. They wanted us to have healthy, happy lives and to someday have a positive marriage relationship.
I’m not saying the pain of religious sexual shame isn’t justified. I’m saying that it is real AND most church leaders did the best they knew how. I am also aware that some leaders took advantage of their position of power and purposely shamed, groomed or assaulted youth under their stewardship. That is a more severe topic that I don’t feel qualified to write about.
Finding out about sexually explicit interviews made me angry at the church, and also uncovered deep emotions about my own sexual shame as a youth and young adult. For the first time in my life, I faced this painful part of me and called it for what it was: trauma.
The repetitive lessons about chastity when I was a teenager and young adult, combined with all the other influences, impressed upon me that sexual feelings were evil, that we needed to be pure in thought at all times, and that we had to fiercely control our physical desires. I was made to feel like we were all just monsters. Everything was so confusing. I didn’t have any sexual experiences as a youth, and I had a very limited knowledge about my own body, but because I was physically attracted to men and had occasional sexual desires, I thought I was impure. All of this storm caused me to have unhealthy internalized beliefs about sexuality, low self worth, and years of shame that affected every part of my life.
When you don’t know how to talk about something, you begin to think that you are the only one with that issue. So with me, it seemed like everyone else was pure (whatever that means), and I was the only one that couldn’t keep my thoughts clean (also, whatever that means). I thought that God would literally strike me down. I obsessively ruminated on my unworthiness.
I dissociated from my body and repressed my sexual self for many years because I was so confused about sex, purity and body image. I didn’t know how to talk about it and that took a severe toll on my mental and spiritual health.
The guilt and shame that plagued me became unbearable at times and I went to the bishop to seek forgiveness for my terrible sin. That’s what we were taught to do. Imagine this naïve girl telling a grown man she couldn’t keep her thoughts pure. So not only were leaders instructed to ask detailed questions about sexual sins, members also thought that they must confess those kinds of things. That’s messed up.
Each time I confessed, thankfully those kind men listened and said that God and Jesus loved me, that I was forgiven. I was always surprised when they would tell me those feelings are normal and not to worry about it. Wait, what?!!!! If it’s normal and not a cause for worry, why aren’t we teaching that in the first place?
I don’t know what the church leaders understand about all the damaging shame that has been perpetuated for years among the members. I hope they are willing to take a close look at it and change for the better.
I hope the church can move towards teaching that sexual desires are part of a balanced, healthy life, no matter the gender or sexual identity. Our sexuality is beautiful. We can be a morally or religiously strong person and at the same time have healthy sexual attitudes. So much unnecessary anguish could be avoided. And I’m gonna go ahead and say it: masturbation is a normal and healthy practice and you have the right to know your own body and your own pleasure. So there.
To my readers, friends, family and fellow church members who may have experienced sexual shaming: I see you, and I am so sorry this happened. You might feel conflicted, that you shouldn’t call it trauma because the bishops were just doing their job, or because the church is true and no one meant to hurt you. But I believe that acknowledging the pain, and even allowing yourself to be angry about your trauma, can help you heal and set healthy boundaries between you and the church. I recommend that you talk to a qualified mental health professional to help you process your trauma.
One of the most important things I was led to in my spiritual deconstruction and reconstruction was to make friends with my body and my sexual self. In order to connect with the divine and my truest self, and to heal from sexual shame, I needed to learn to be present in my body, to respect and honor all parts of me and my physical nature. I am learning how not to dissociate from my body anymore. By working with my therapists in the past few years, I am making steady steps toward healing.
I have hope in healing. I also know it can take a long time. Everyone’s path to healing sexual shame, body shame and damaged self worth is different. Some people have been so traumatized that they may need to leave the church completely to heal. Some might stay. That’s all okay. Whatever your healing path looks like, I hope you will be able to embrace your body, your sexuality, your strength and beauty.
“We can bring light into the darkest spaces and transform suffering into the kind of hope that only comes on the other side of deep suffering. The bitterness of acute pain impacting the soul changes us. We cannot go back or deny the dark places. What we can do is swim through the murky waters of darkness and into the depths of suffering, face the pain, and come out into a new place - one that we could have never found without pain - one that looks like grace.”
- Teresa B. Pasquale, Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing From Spiritual Trauma. Chalice Press, 2015.
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