Youth, Bishop’s Interviews, and Self-Exploration: Shepherding Our Youth to a Healthy Sexuality

by Anonymous

My oldest child is less than one year away from going into Young Men’s. I’m concerned about the interviews with the bishop that will be forthcoming.

My worry is that the bishop will ask him about masturbation. I don’t know if my son has done it or if he will be doing it in his teen years, but I lean towards viewing the practice as a natural part of human development. Not that I want him to be doing it five times a day. And I definitely don’t want him looking at porn. But my intuition is that it’s normal and not unhealthy for a teen to have some sense of how his/her body works sexually.

I recently learned from LDS therapist Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, in fact, that girls who self-explored and understood how arousal happened – and who viewed their sexuality as their own and not their future husband’s – were more likely to have healthier and happier sex lives once they were married. As she says, what we want to do as parents is to shepherd our kids into having healthy, committed, loving partnerships someday. Things that are likely to not lead to that – like porn use – should be discouraged. Also discouraged should be messages that associate sexuality with dirtiness, shame, badness, etc., since people who have internalized those messages often have a difficult time embracing their sexuality in marriage.

I’m not sure if self-exploration among adolescent boys is correlated with a future healthy partnered sex life, but I think some curiosity and self-exploration is fine, and I hate the idea of my child being eaten up by feelings of guilt or shame because of it. I also am deeply uncomfortable with the idea that my child might feel he has to have a humiliating talk about something so personal and so private with a man who is virtually a stranger. The whole setup raises red flags for me.

So I’m in the midst of mapping out strategies for how to deal with this situation when the time comes. I’m thinking this will be my plan of attack:

  1. Talk to the bishop privately and ask him about his interview practices. What wording does he use when he asks about the law of chastity? Does he ask youth about masturbation? If so, I will ask him to not ask my son about that. If the bishop insists on asking that question, I’ll suggest that my son tell him, “My mom has told me that I do not need to discuss that with you.”
  2. Talk to my son and tell him that I believe the law of chastity to be referring to two people engaging in sexual acts – not self-exploration.
  3. Talk to my son about how he feels doing these interviews. Does he want to be interviewed? Would he like a parent to be there? I’m happy to accompany him – and happy to talk to the bishop beforehand about what exactly he’ll be asking so he’ll go in knowing what to expect.
  4. With my daughter, I plan to be in the room during interviews. It’s uncomfortable to think of stranger men talking to my son about chastity stuff, but even more red flags come up for me when I think of my teenage daughter being exposed to questions about sex from a forty-year-old man behind a closed door.

I’m hoping these precautions will help protect my kids from unnecessary guilt and intrusion into their personal lives. To be clear, I’m pretty confident that our bishop is an upstanding and non-creepy guy. But the very setup, which I know in times past has involved direct questions about masturbation, seems very problematic. I’d like my children to learn in their youth that there are boundaries they should feel free to draw with their church leaders — and that there are issues that they should determine the morality of for themselves.

What have been your experiences with this issue? Are you concerned about bishops talking to youth about this? Why or why not?

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8 Responses

  1. Wendy says:

    Great post! I think you are a wise parent to structure Bishop’s interviews with your minor children this way. You’re clearly very thoughtful and wise.

    If I may add something to consider, since we know that men behave inappropriately with male children as well as with female children, it might be worth considering being present for your son’s interviews along with your daughter’s (at least until he reaches an age you feel he can adequately stand up for himself or leave the room if something inappropriate is being said or done to him). If he objects to having you come in, maybe your waiting outside the Bishop’s office door might be a second option.

    It’s hard to imagine someone we know relatively well crossing boundaries with one of our children, but sadly it happens more frequently than we think. I don’t want to be alarmist, but the statistics of child sexual abuse in this arena are startling: it’s almost always someone we know well and think we can trust who harms our children. And they are overwhelmingly white, religious, law-abiding men. (See this super informative site: https://www.childmolestationprevention.org/pages/tell_others_the_facts.html for more info on this subject).

    In the US, the Center for Disease Control has a handbook for guidelines institutions that run youth groups should follow. It cautions that “The same dynamics that create a nurturing environment, and may ultimately protect against child sexual abuse, can also open the doors to sexually abusive behaviors. . . . But that same closeness between a youth and an adult can also provide the opportunity for abuse to occur.” They go on to suggest mandatory rules of at least two adults being present with youth, or strict background checks and increased supervision. This seems important and severely lacking from church practices with children and youth when it comes to Bishop’s interviews.
    (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/preventingchildsexualabuse-a.pdf)

    I realize child molestation may seem like a huge jump from being worried about a Bishop crossing a line verbally in an interview, but anecdotal evidence tells me that shaming or asking invasive, probing questions about sexual activity are fairly common by even well-meaning Mormon Bishops. And grooming can happen any time, especially when a potential preditor has license to be alone in a room with a child (could be any church leader, not just a Bishop).

    Of course, you are the expert on your child/children. Thanks again for a helpful post! I’ll be referring back to it when my children are of age for interviews.

  2. Guest Post says:

    This is so great, Wendy. It is kind of stunning to think how far off the those recommendations (two adults present, strict background checks) our church is when it comes to bishop’s interviews. I think you are absolutely right that I should be very aware of the possibility of verbal inappropriateness in interviews leading potentially to devastating abuse, for boys as well as girls. I’m newly resolved to be extremely watchful of that for my sons as well as my daughter.

  3. My daughter recently turned 12 and had her first birthday interview. I have written before here at the blog about my background in conducting IRB-approved research interviews and how I believe many of the same informed consent standards could be applied to priesthood interviews. http://www.the-exponent.com/introducing-informed-consent-to-bishops-interviews/

    Of course, the church has not implemented any informed consent procedures at all, so, knowing that the bishop would not be offering any informed consent statement beforehand telling my daughter her rights, I did so myself, and I gave her many of the same guidelines that are usually contained in an informed consent statement for research interviewees. I told her that she had the right to refuse the interview, the right to refuse to answer any of the questions asked, the right to end the interview early for any reason, the right to bring a parent with her (I made this optional for her, although I know many other parents insist on being present regardless of the minor’s preference), and the right to disclose any of the proceedings of the interview to anyone (no adult has the right to ask for secrecy from a minor; that is an inappropriate grooming behavior).

    I also role-played with her how to enforce these boundaries, since, unfortunately, the church does not train priesthood leaders to adhere to these boundaries in any way. She practiced saying things like, “My parents told me that I do not have to answer questions that I don’t want to answer. You can talk to them about it.” and “My parents told me I can leave the interview early if I want to. You can talk to them about it.”

    • Andrew R. says:

      “and the right to disclose any of the proceedings of the interview to anyone”

      This is a new one on me. I am not aware of any bishop ever making that a stipulation to anyone.

      How often are you aware of it being the case.

      I am finding out almost too late what awful parents my wife and I are. Six daughters and I never once considered that the Bishop was going to overstep the mark. Having said that, I don’t believe one ever has.

      • Olea says:

        This comment is a little confused. Are you asking April how often she’s aware of bishops reminding children or failing to remind children that they can talk about the interview with other people?

        I’d suggest that either way is unknowable, and perhaps a self-sufficiency approach (as April recommended) is a good idea here. If you want your children to know they can talk to you about their interviews, you can tell them that.

        If you want to assume no bishop will overstep the mark, and feel that discussing interviews with your children oversteps the bishop’s authority, no worries. It’s likely your daughters will be fine. It would be better, however, if we had systemic assurances that children could not be groomed by adults with community-justified authority over them. Until then, measures like this protect children with vigilant parents.

      • rah says:

        Andrew,

        I don’t think this is common practice and per April’s point it definitely falls directly into potential grooming behavior. Since a kid might not know that it is not normal to be asked not to disclose discussions between themselves and a ecclesiastical leader and you could easily imagine how they might be made to *feel* it was normal, it is totally a potential tool. One of the best podcasts on this I have heard is an Infant On Thrones one where one of the hosts who is a professional litigator of sexual predators that operate in religious settings, particularly Mormon settings. I understand that many here may not like Infant on Thrones generally but that particular episode is really good and done without the normal Infant snark. Its a professional talking about his area of expertise. It provides a great overview of how predators operate and use the tools available to them etc.

    • Guest Post says:

      This is terrific, April. I love these tips. Role playing is a great idea, and letting my child clearly know that they can leave anytime — or refuse to answer questions — is so important. I wish I had known these things when I was asked inappropriate and creepy questions by a stake president when I was young.

  4. Marian says:

    I’m late to this party, but as a new parent I really appreciate this post. And it is never too late to tell your kids how to handle inappropriate questions. During my pre-marriage interview my stake president asked me more than once about pre-marital sex. I didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to go off book and how wrong it was that he didn’t accept my answer the first time. It made me uncomfortable but I didn’t realize that I could and should call him out on it. Now I have my own personal boundaries that I enforce during temple recommend interviews, including that I will not discuss how I wear my underwear (garments) with a man who is not my husband.

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