5th grade, age 10, 1987.
“Women are controlled by lashing us to our bodies.” — Adrienne Rich
“Do not allow the media, your peers, or others to persuade you that sexual intimacy before marriage is acceptable. It is not.” —For the Strength of Youth Handbook, LDS Church
How far inside your body did his fingers get, the bishop asked from the other side of the desk in his church office. I wiped sweaty palms on my treasured Guess jeans when this four-times-my-age neighbor I regularly saw mowing his lawn lobbed that one at me, and wondered how to answer.
I was trained to believe my body is a beacon of explosive sexuality I must restrain at all costs. Even as it is a wondrous flesh and bone machine that birthed three humans, my feminine form is also a seductive snare that can trick good men into behaving badly, I was taught.
“Young women should avoid short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance.” —For the Strength of Youth Handbook, LDS Church
Beware of my forbidden fruit, mankind.
Just as Adam blamed Eve for leading him astray after she tempted him into a bite of the apple, my choice of clothing, speech, and the way I move will be judged as collusion with the devil himself. It is my duty— no, it is the moral imperative of all good girls— to restrain and repress a sexuality forced upon the female body by the very same men who cannot be trusted to control themselves.
How do you like them apples?
Puberty was bodily treason, a dirty secret. Developing breasts in fifth grade was a moral failure. A body in riotous revolt, pushing rebelliously against purity and T-shirts. I could not keep my chest in check with two sports bras and a carefully selected t-shirt from my drawer, so I’d regularly filch an XL Vision Street Wear skater tee from my older brother’s room to complete the outfit. No puny undertaking, this thievery. I was deathly afraid of his malevolent, uniquely humiliating, wrath.
He once yanked me out of the shower and pushed me, naked, into the dusty front yard of our dad’s shitty rental house in a rundown neighborhood on the outskirts of Farmington, New Mexico. If it’s not the asshole of the country, tired old Farmington felt like an armpit, at least.
Gleefully noting the next-door neighbors enjoying lunch in their much nicer yard (grass!), my brother locked all the doors and danced in the front window, pointing and laughing at my predicament. The neighbors, bless them, politely pretended not to notice the nude girl stumbling to the side of her house farthest from them as she attempted to wrap herself in a newspaper she spotted laying on the driveway.
“In God’s sight, sexual sins are extremely serious. They defile the sacred power God has given us to create life. The prophet Alma taught that sexual sins are more serious than any other sins except murder or denying the Holy Ghost. Never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression.” —For the Strength of Youth Handbook, LDS Church
Nobody I knew spoke openly about sex. Conversations were stilted. Words chewed and swallowed as fast as they were uttered. The notion that sex was dirty metastasized into the fact that my burgeoning body was SHAME, all caps. That shame permeated the atmosphere of my childhood like smoke from a campfire. Puberty marked the beginning of a duty, passionately performed by women in my family and church, to warn or shame girls into righteous behavior.
Premarital sex is a very serious sin, droned my Sunday school teacher.
Don’t choo let them dirty boys fiddle withyer pussycat or touch it with their shamers, Grandma growled in what she considered helpful warning, crochet needles battling like swords as she sat on the davenport, watching her stories.
You’re going to let the boys play with these, aren’t you, another adult female hissed while twisting painfully prepubescent nipples through my shirt. For days afterward, I could feel those hot fingers clamped there in fiery admonition.
“When you are sexually pure, you prepare yourself to make and keep sacred covenants in the temple. You prepare yourself to build a strong marriage and to bring children into the world as part of an eternal and loving family. You protect yourself from the spiritual and emotional damage that comes from sharing sexual intimacy outside of marriage.” —For the Strength of Youth Handbook, LDS Church
There is pervasive, bone-weary sadness, but mostly I feel molar-grinding rage over the vicious religious conditioning inflicted on Monica Butler, the young Latter-day Saint born in 1977 in Provo, Utah. An aggressive people-pleaser who yearned desperately for the approval of the Heavenly Father, his son Jesus, family members, and perhaps most especially, her churchgoing neighbors.
Only sluts and whores debased themselves by tempting a man into “heavy petting,” let alone the near murderous act of sex outside the sacred bonds of marriage. It was my duty to always be on guard! Boys will be boys, but I must preserve my body for my future husband— the very lives of my unborn children depended on it! After all, who wants an already chewed piece of gum?
My brain battles itself here. Psychic insurrection as I grasp at jagged memory shards embedded in my mind’s eye. I often worry dissociation has caused me to downplay certain incidents. When I dig deep, these trips down memory lane are the anxious trek of one who has heard an unfamiliar thump in the after-midnight black and tiptoes out of bed to investigate.
Other times, I gaslight myself with the creeping fear that my adult fury— an unrelenting fire in my chest as reliable as the eternal flame guarding Kennedy’s grave— causes me to hyperbolize childhood hangnails into blood-spurting gashes. But I have tongued sore tooth memories for decades, and they still feel bright and frightful, like day-one period blood on angel-white underwear.
Even before we have our periods, Mormon girls understand we must forfeit personal agency and look to the man at the pulpit when it comes to sex and sexuality. All members of the LDS church are taught that to question male authorities within the church indicates a “crisis of faith.” In other words, if we feel doubt about any aspect of the church, something is wrong with us; never the church. Unquestioning subordination is a critical cog in the crushing machinery of patriarchy.
If you have committed sexual transgression, talk to your bishop now and begin the process of repentance so that you can find peace and have the full companionship of the Spirit. —For the Strength of Youth Handbook, LDS Church
Immorality is cousin to murder, I knew. As a baptized member of the church, I was firmly encouraged to admit all teenage sexual experimentation to my bishop (a church leader akin to priest or pastor) as a means of repenting for my sins and asking for the lord’s forgiveness.
The bishop, who can only be male, determines the worthiness of all members of the church. He receives direct revelation from the Holy Ghost— who (surprise!) the church has declared is also a man— about who should and shouldn’t be eating the bread chunks and shotgunning the plastic thimbles of water offered as the body and blood of Christ during church meetings.
“Before marriage, do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body, with or without clothing. Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body. Pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit so that you can be clean and virtuous. The Spirit of the Lord will withdraw from one who is in sexual transgression.” —For the Strength of Youth Handbook, LDS Church
Make-out sessions in high school weren’t the sweet firsts of fumbling adolescent affection depicted in the movies I watched. I experienced them as regretful rodeo rides on a bucking bronco of hormones. As Whitney exquisitely wailed about always loving you, or Axl Rose whined endlessly about cold November rain from someone’s parents’ speakers, these volcanoes of bubbling lust were tainted with a shadowy shame that swallowed any innocent excitement. Discussions with girlfriends in the aftermath of these terrible transgressions always led to whispered admonitions about going “too far” and “you should talk to your bishop.”
Can you tell me how far inside his fingers went, the bishop asked from the other side of his desk in his stiflingly silent office. Me, 14, squirming nervously across from this middle-aged man I would regularly see arriving home from work. I don’t remember seeing anyone else in the weekday empty church building.
Prompted by fear, feverish piety, or both, I had nervously agreed to meet my bishop in his office to confess that my boyfriend, for the first time, put his fingers in my vagina. How far up did his fingers go, he wanted to know, indicating by holding up his own hand that I should visually clarify the distance by using my thumb and forefinger as measurement.
His fingers went this far into my vagina.
As if sins are measured in centimeters or inches.
I’ve tried so hard to remember it all. A linear recollection. He said this, I said that. But memory doesn’t work that way. I can hear the question coming out of his mouth, glasses glinting, obscuring eyes that watched me closely. Sometimes I remember my uncomprehending silence. Wriggling uncomfortably in my chair. Sweaty confusion. Him waiting for an answer. Sometimes I remember the stuttering struggle to respond.
Like, you mean, you want me to show you how far… in… his fingers went? I asked.
He nodded casually. Or he nodded intently? Excitedly?
I don’t remember the conversation that led to this excruciating moment, or how I finally extricated myself from that awful office. It’s only that one dark stain of memory that caused my entire being to wilt like a flower under the fiery eyeball of an August sun.
After agonizing over this all week, I called my mom to ask if she remembers me telling her about this incident years after it happened. She does. She told me that while there are likely many creeper bishops who get off on the sex talk behind closed church doors, she thinks this particular bishop was “a good guy” trying to follow the church Handbook for these kinds of things.
“Probably the inches mattered to him because he’s trying to figure out if penetration occurred. If the fingers penetrated, it’s sex. If they didn’t, it’s foreplay,” she speculated. “And that’s a whole different sin.”
Purity measured in centimeters and inches.
Handbook? A quick Google shows that yes, such a thing exists. Nice to know your average middle-aged neighbor guy has some kind of supervisory instruction when alone in a room interrogating tender teens about their sex lives and deciding on their eternal salvation.
Alas, the only training I could locate within the handbook was scriptural advice amounting to giving it up to God.
“Each bishop and stake president is ‘a judge in Israel.’ By this authority they help members repent of sin and come unto Christ, who forgives sin…In these responsibilities, these leaders represent the Lord. They strive to use ‘the judgment which [He] shall give unto them.‘”
Was my judge in Israel “a good guy?”
Titillated by tales of teen experimentation?
According to more than 23-thousand people who signed an online petition in 2017, the Mormon practice of sexual interviews with children is dangerous and damaging.
We call on the LDS Church to immediately cease the practice of subjecting children to questions about masturbation, orgasm, ejaculation, sexual positions or anything else of a sexual nature. This applies to all children up to and including age 17. There should be no one-on-one interviews with children.
We call on the LDS Church to publicly disavow this practice.
We call on the LDS Church to ensure that all congregational leaders, as well the general membership, are informed that this practice is prohibited.
It wasn’t until 2018 that the LDS church updated its policy regarding one-on-one bishop interviews, which amounts to— as far as I can tell— a single caveat that children, youth, and women may invite an adult to join them.
“Young women are invited to be vulnerable with an authoritative man who has a right to question them. If they are unwilling to provide details, they are seen as unrepentant,” Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen, a therapist in Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Few of the 30,000 LDS bishops worldwide have any understanding about how spirituality and sexuality are entwined. They could use a lot more training from people who have studied these issues.”
Or maybe— and I’m just spitballing here— powerful men in positions of authority shouldn’t be having sexually explicit conversations alone with impressionable young girls at all?
Noreen Malone on The Age of Anti-Ambition for The New York Times:
“The act of working has been stripped bare. You don’t have little outfits to put on, and lunches to go to, and coffee breaks to linger over and clients to schmooze. The office is where it shouldn’t be— at home, in our intimate spaces— and all that’s left now is the job itself, naked and alone. And a lot of people don’t like what they see.”
Melanie Hamlett on how toxic masculinity— and the idea that feelings are a “female thing”—has left a generation of straight men stranded on an emotionally-stunted island, and the women who are paying the price for Harper’s Bazaar:
“Women continue to bear the burden of men’s emotional lives, and why wouldn’t they? For generations, men have been taught to reject traits like gentleness and sensitivity, leaving them without the tools to deal with internalized anger and frustration. Meanwhile, the female savior trope continues to be romanticized on the silver screen (thanks Disney!), making it seem totally normal— even ideal— to find the man within the beast.”