At this point I was in a tail-spin, something that I think many who have lost their faith can identify with. For those who are reading who still may be believers, I want you to know that it is a myth that the modern ex-Mormon left ‘because they wanted to sin or they were offended’. I cried. I prayed. I fasted. I hardly slept. I read my scriptures and the Ensign like my life depended on it and cried some more. And I listened to dozens and dozens of pod casts. Everywhere I looked the things that I found either confirmed my doubts or gave me new doubts (and yes, I doubted my doubts.) I tried bargaining with God. “If you want me to stay in the church, I will do it, but you have to show me how. I need some logical answers to these things.” I felt like there was such a stigmatization against doubt that I couldn’t talk to anyone about this, at least not at that point. How could this be happening? How could I have been lied to for so long? How can all these people that I trusted have been lying to me? How is it that these beliefs that got me through so many difficult experiences be false? I trusted so completely, in what I read in the Ensign and the scriptures and what I had been taught in church. How can all these people be mistaken? How can the prophets be leading us astray? Mormonism is a huge part of who I am, how is this possible? If I decide to walk away from the LDS Church I will be committing social suicide. Is it better to stay so my children have a good support structure? Are there merits to staying and being a New Order Mormon, even if I don’t believe the truth claims of the church?
Me: “Well, that depends, do you still feel comfortable with me teaching Young Women’s?”
Bishop: “I don’t want you to teach anything you don’t feel comfortable with.”
Me: “Good, because I don’t plan on it. I still believe in being honest, loving my neighbor and the importance of families. I believe in God and food storage, all of the other stuff I’m less certain of.”
Bishop: “You can say anything you want. Well, within reason. I don’t know if they are ready to hear all the things that are bothering you….You’re looking at me like I’m crazy.”
Me: “If you think I am going to start telling those girls about Joseph Smith marrying 14 year old girls, I can’t imagine a setting where that would be appropriate.”
Bishop: “You can say anything you want. You don’t have to follow the manual. Just teach the girls what you think they need to hear in a way that you think will build them up. You can say anything, except ‘There is no Santa Claus’.”
During this time I wanted someone to talk to about these issues. I knew I could talk to my husband, but he had already made his choice, he wasn’t going to try to convince me to stay in the church. My bishop, dear man that he is, simply didn’t have the time to discuss the issues. I didn’t know who I could talk to about it. So my husband emailed my brother (without letting me know until recently), asking him to help me because I was really struggling. Meanwhile I was praying and begging for God to help me find someone who was aware of the facts and could give me reasonable answers. My brother seemed so confident, that my husband thought maybe there was even a chance that he would be convinced too.
That conversation didn’t go so well. My brother gave me many unsatisfactory answers, most of which were pulled directly from FAIR. I knew that FAIR is a department of BYU and is funded by the LDS Church, so it seemed like it should be trustworthy, but I find their arguments to be unconvincing, sometimes inconsistent and often didn’t correlate to what I had learned of science and statistics. My brother also had several of his own responses that, were unorthodox shall we say and, just left me thinking ‘WAT’. The most significant part of this conversation was any time I brought up people who I felt had been treated unfairly (blacks, homosexuals, Helen Mar Kimball, the hemaphrodite investigator) his response, multiple times was “I don’t care about people’s feelings!”
(And he wrote the same sentiment on my Facebook wall for good measure.) It was one of those moments that you don’t forget. His words stuck with me….don’t care about people’s feelings….don’t care about people’s feelings. So that’s how people who know these uncomfortable facts stay in the church, they stop caring about people’s feelings. It’s not something that I was willing or able to do. Looking back I think I would have eventually left the LDS church anyway, but that conversation was significant because it was a catalyst to make me leave sooner.
At this point I was deeply hurt and confused. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do in the long term, but in the short term I was going to be a good Young Women’s leader. I was going to try to make sure that they weren’t have the dysfunctional experiences that I had as a youth and I was going to talk to them about rape culture.
Now before anyone accuses me of taking advantage of the phrase ‘You can say anything you want.’, let me relay another conversation I had with my bishop. A few months previous the bishop called me into his office. He asked if I knew why he had called me in. “Well, it’s either because you want to give me a calling in Young Women’s, or it’s because you want to talk about Alan leaving the church.”
Bishop: “Wait, Alan left the church? Well, never mind we’ll get to that later, yes we want to give you a calling in Young Women’s.” (Mind you, he had only been the bishop for a couple months at this point.)
Me: “Great. I had a feeling. And I feel like it’s important that I am there right now.”
Bishop: “I feel the same, and I feel like you have important things to say, things that will help them.”
Me: “I sure do! I was reading an article from the Ensign, and I really feel like it’s important that we talk to the youth more about sex. Not in a way that gives them shame, fear and anxiety, but in a way that better prepares them for adult relationships.”
Bishop: “Wow. Well I think that you’re right. I come from a generation where we didn’t feel comfortable talking about those things and I don’t know if we taught our children as effectively as we could have, but part of it is that our parents were even more afraid to talk about these things.” He also told me that his sister had a baby as a teenager and it really bothered him that so many people told his family that it would be better that she had come home in a pine box. That deeply bothered him because he loved his sister. Yes, she had made a mistake, but he didn’t wish that she was dead because of it. Those kind of messages are so harmful.
Me: “Well, I don’t intend to be explicit, but I do think it is important to talk to the youth about sex in a healthy way, and I’m not afraid to do it.”
Bishop: “Great. Someone needs to do it, and I can’t say that I want to.”
Moral of that side story, my local bishop is a great guy and he was fully aware from day one that I intended to talk to the youth about sex and change some perceptions while I was at it. For those that know me in real life, most people think of me as quiet and somewhat of a wallflower, not someone who gets up in church and says things that make people uncomfortable. And it’s true, a year ago I would never have dreamed of getting on my soapbox in priesthood and talking about rape, but leaving the church has helped me find the courage to do things that are scary and uncomfortable because I believe it is the right thing to do.
I remember on my very first day of Young Women’s as a youth, my bishop (to clarify, not good guy bishop that lives near me, a bishop from many years ago) came in to give us the lesson. It was on chastity. At one point the bishop said “And if a young man is unworthy to go on a mission, IT IS ALL YOUR FAULT!”. He said this last part as he pointed his finger in each of our faces. I knew that no such thing was my fault, at twelve I didn’t even talk to boys unless school required it. Even if I were involved in shenanigans, wouldn’t the boy be at least 50% responsible? I was hurt and I was angry and I was disappointed that my parents and all of my leaders completely dismissed my concern. To say that a girl is completely responsible for sex is unfair and untrue. Imagine how harmful that message could have been to young girls who had been raped or who had experimented sexually. I think that day planted a feminist seed, it made me realize that girls and boys were definitely not treated equally. It also planted a deep cognitive dissonance that also made me realize that it is possible for my priesthood leaders to be flat out wrong. It was also the first of many talks and lessons that made me completely afraid of sexuality and ashamed of my own body. These feelings of guilt and shame were so engrained in my mind, to the point that even though I never misbehaved, for years after getting married I would have nightmares where people would tell me that I was an evil sinner because I was no longer a virgin. On waking up, I could rationally look at things and realize that was not so, but it was a long time before I was comfortable with that aspect of my relationship with my husband. I realize my experience was a minor thing, nothing compared to the real harm that was caused to Elizabeth Smart and many others because of dysfunctional ideas about rape culture and sexuality. These were not things that I wanted my own daughters or my young women to go through if I could help it.
In my search for information and commentary from LDS apostles and prophets I find things that were painful. I found dozens of stories of women who had been disciplined by their priesthood leaders for being raped. I found hundreds of stories of people who were taught to be ashamed of their own sexuality and I found quotes from LDS general authorities that shed some light on some the dysfunctional mentalities that my own leaders had growing up.
– President Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 63
– President Heber J. Grant, Gospel Standards, complied by G. Homer Durham, p. 55
“I know what my mother expects. I know what she’s saying in her prayers. She’d rather have me come home dead than unclean.”
“The victim must do all in his or her power to stop the abuse. Most often, the victim is innocent because of being disabled by fear or the power or authority of the offender. At some point in time, however, the Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse. Your priesthood leader will help assess your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed. Otherwise the seeds of guilt will remain and sprout into bitter fruit. Yet no matter what degree of responsibility, from absolutely none to increasing consent, the healing power of the atonement of Jesus Christ can provide a complete cure.”
“And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.” – Apostle Dallin H Oaks Pornography, May 2005
And remember the first scripture in the current Young Women’s personal progress book under the virtue “Virtue”
This one isn’t from an LDS general authority, but it rings true to what I was taught.
I did not share any of these quotes with the youth, but they reaffirmed to me that something needed to be said, something else. So much guilt and fear are unnecessary. When we say that the modesty of young women is necessary to ‘protect the boys’, that is rape culture. And it made me question all the more that these men could possibly be speaking for God. I want these girls to believe that they have value, that they are important and even if something unfortunate happens to them, that they can still lead beautiful and meaningful lives. I want them to not be involved in ‘slut-shaming’ one another or to be afraid of boys because of some nonsense about boys being boys. For some reason the Young Women’s president fought me hard on this. She claimed that I would scare the girls if I talked about rape prevention, and it might give them nightmares. Really? At this point at least two of our girls (that I was aware of) had been raped, and not teaching them how to prevent this is going to stop the nightmares? So I went over her head, and the bishop agreed that I needed to give this lesson, but not just to my class, but all of the young women. The bishop sat through the lesson that I gave to the Young Women on rape culture and he asked me to give a similar lesson in priesthood to the Young Men.
As an aside, I was a little surprised that when I mentioned what I planned on teaching to the Young Women to my (very conservative) parents, they cheered me on. My dad said ‘Heather, you need to talk to the young men. You need to teach them these things. People often tell girls not to get raped. We need to tell the boys it is not okay to rape.’ That may not sound like a big deal to most, but it was a beautiful thing for me to hear my dad voicing feminist rhetoric.
I’ve talked to many people about this topic, and most people agree with me. ‘Yes, our young women have value and we should not teach them to be ashamed because other people are unkind.’ When I mention the quotes about pine boxes, people dismiss them with ‘Well, they were speaking as men.’ or ‘That was a long time ago.’ Unfortunately, rape culture is alive and is still being taught in the LDS Church today.
As part of my efforts to protect my young women we had an activity on self-defense. One of the other leaders invited a martial arts instructor that she knew to teach the girls. In the beginning he talked about avoiding situations and then we practiced getting out of different grips. I really felt like he did a good job and the girls were having fun. Then he started telling stories. The first couple were helpful and relevant, about people getting out of bad situations because they were smart. Then he told a story of a 19 year old girl who was rescued. She had been sold into human trafficking and used as a sex-slave since she was 12. He talked how it is important to get out of a situation when it starts and if you can’t get out, death is better than that. He said “death is better than going through that, it is better to kill yourself than to let that happen to you”. I get that he was trying to instill in them the importance of fighting and getting away, but what he actually said was totally inappropriate.
I was so horrified. I froze. I didn’t even know what to say. Yes, human trafficking is evil, but I never want my girls to feel like their lives are not worth living. What about people who survive? Are the good things they have to offer the world not valid because they had the gall to live after experiencing that instead of dying? You can have an awful horrific experience and still go on to have a beautiful and meaningful life. A person still has value! I grabbed the leader who was his friend, and mentioned my concern. She thought I was over-reacting. She said “Oh, he didn’t mean that you should kill yourself instead of being raped, just if you are going to sold into sex slavery” Right, because when you’re attacked you stop and interview your attacker to see if this is a one time thing, or a long-term engagement. I was completely shocked that he would say that! (He said this right before everyone left so I didn’t really have time to say much and I don’t know how many of the girls were even paying attention at that point. I finally decided that I would call each of their parents individually, explain what happened and let them talk to them about it. All of the parents seemed to respond appropriately, although a couple of them were not happy that they now had to sit down and explain human trafficking to their daughters.) I was also pretty shocked that none of the other leaders were bothered by what he said. And this happened in the year 2013. I felt like what he said went against everything I had been trying to tell them. Their lives are worth more than their virginity! They are beautiful and full of potential, regardless of whatever someone else may say or do to them.
Since giving this lesson, I’ve thought a lot about rape culture and abuse within the LDS Church. You could say it wasn’t really on my radar before, but since then so many examples seem to scream out at me. Example after example after example after example of victims who are abused by their leaders or go to their Mormon leaders and then are shushed instead of helped. Predators being enabled instead of prosecuted. I think part of this is that there is a strong cultural theme in Mormonism of acting like everything is perfect, even if it is not and pushing uncomfortable issues into a closet. (Yes, I am well aware that this happens in many places outside the LDS Church, that doesn’t make it okay in any case. I expect more from people who claim to have divine authority from God.) These are just cases in the news from the past two years, and looking back it’s painful to see that I shouldn’t be surprised. If in our day an older religious leader were to tell a 14 girl that her salvation and that of her family depended on her marrying him, we would call that rape (if possibly by coercion). Look at Joseph Smith, and no it’s not rape, it’s…something else. It is hypocritical to say that abusive Catholic priests get what they deserve when they are publicly shamed, but Joseph Smith’s sexual crimes can be overlooked. This is a religion that was founded by a man who used ‘his authority’ to rape 14 year old girls (and other girls and women as well), and for almost two hundred years people have been making excuses for him. To say that rape doesn’t matter is making excuses and promoting rape culture. Like hell, it doesn’t matter. It matters to the victims and it matters to those who care about them. When we just dismiss these problems it contributes to a culture where women are viewed as objects and men are allowed to behave in ways that are inappropriate. Yes, I have had many beautiful and spiritual experiences as a member of the LDS Church, but not a one of them was strong enough to justify this. When rape culture is excused or defended, it allows opportunities for people to prey upon the innocent and that is not a place that I want my children to be raised in.