Because We Preach Repentance
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon as I sat on the hill at the south end of BYU campus. The grey clouds reflected the storm that raged in my heart. My thoughts turned, as they often did during these tumultuous college years, to taking my life. I thought I would find peace in meeting with my bishop. I thought repentance would heal me and help me to forsake my sins. I had just walked out of his office, and my burden only seemed a hundred times heavier.
I was in my mid teenage years when I had discovered something new that no one had ever told me about before. I didn’t even have a name for it. I had a sexual energy that no one had told me I would experience. All I had ever learned told me that I must be the only one experiencing this. Sex was something to be overcome, vanquished with the natural man. Not only that, but it was a man problem. Women didn’t have sexual energy. So I must be the only one. Now I had an outlet for that energy. It felt good, both physically and emotionally. For a brief moment, it made me happy. But then I discovered the name. There it was in the For the Strength of Youth Pamphlet, listed underneath the category deemed the sin next to murder: masturbation.
I was in a very literal phase of my faith development, as many teenagers are, and I really felt like I had practically committed murder. I was damned if I didn’t repent, but repentance requires a forsaking of sins. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t do that. The more guilty I felt, the more this simple thing ruled my life. What could have been a healthy release of sexual energy became a disruption to my health, my happiness, and even my college studies.
Early in my first semester at BYU I finally mustered up the courage to do something about it. It took everything I had to walk into my bishop’s office and confess to him. Looking back I can’t help but laugh at this traumatic experience in my life because BYU bishops probably spend the majority of their time dealing with confessions of masturbation. But in the state of mind I was in at that moment, this felt like a life or death situation. Unfortunately my bishop did not see that. After asking multiple questions about details that made me uncomfortable to share, he dismissed my great burden by saying, “Well, when you feel the urge, just don’t touch yourself anymore. Is there anything else?” He didn’t get it. I was a perfectionist. I had control over everything in my life and I lived almost perfectly according to everything the church taught me. This was something I couldn’t control, no matter how hard I tried. Just don’t touch myself? Gee, why hadn’t I thought of that?
I left his office before he could say anything else and stormed out of the building as tears and rain collided down my face. Repentance never worked for me. Trying to repent only made my problem worse. I never did overcome my “sin” until I was married and had a different outlet for my sexual energy. This has led me to believe that it wasn’t a sin after all. When I think of that eighteen-year-old girl crying in the rain, thinking about ending her life, I wish I could put my arms around her and tell her that she’s okay. I wish I could tell her that her sexual feelings are normal and healthy. I wish I could tell her that she is not the one who needs to repent.
I can’t go back and tell myself that, but I can stand up now for all the literal-minded, perfectionist teenage girls and boys that are growing up in the church and reading in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet that sexual sins are next to murder, and that arousing sexual feelings in yourself is one of those sins. I can’t talk to that young girl, but I can talk to the Church. You taught me that repentance is necessary to heal from pain and mistakes. You taught me that I must first recognize my sin and feel godly sorrow for it, then confess my sin, and then forsake it. You taught me especially, that if I have made a mistake that has hurt someone, that I need to make it right with them. You taught me this because you loved me and wanted the best for me. I listened because I loved you and I trusted you.
Now, because I know it is important to you that we preach repentance, I must call you to repentance. I only do this out of love for you. It’s time to recognize your sin and feel sorrow for it. The way you use guilt and shame in teaching youth about sex is wrong. Masturbation isn’t a sex addiction, but the guilt resulting from calling it a sin, especially a sin next to murder, can lead to it being an addiction. Sex is a natural human appetite that sustains life and causes pleasure. Eating is also a natural thing that sustains life and causes pleasure, but we don’t tell our youth to only wait until marriage to eat. We don’t tell them that the only one who can feed them is their spouse. That would be extreme, and moderation works much better. We teach them to learn about their bodies, to take control of their own healthy eating. A little pleasure eating is fine. Too much of it can lead to an addiction and eventually cause pain.
Why can’t we teach about sex this way? Why do we have to be extreme when it comes to sex? Expecting our youth who are ready to experience sexual pleasure in their teens to wait until their twenties or thirties is extreme. For some, their sexual energy needs to go somewhere. If it is not expressed appropriately, it will turn to depression. It can also be used as a tool to empower our youth to understand their bodies. If they understand their sexuality, they will be better able to preserve their sexual affection for someone they want to fully commit themselves to. We can teach them that it is okay for sex to be part of their lives, only part of it, not the whole of it. If our Heavenly Parents made our bodies the way they are, don’t you think they intended sex to be a part of teenage life?
The way we are currently teaching our youth about sex and masturbation is hurting them. It’s time to recognize that, to feel the sorrow that moves us in a better direction. Now here’s the hard part that I know you are not always good at doing. Publicly confess that you were wrong and forsake your teachings on this matter. I know it’s hard. I’ve stood outside the bishop’s door, wondering if I could get through it myself. I know you can do it. It’s time to think about the people you are hurting.
You once made a young girl think that her life was worthless and out-of-control because she couldn’t stop doing something that could have actually been good and beneficial to her. You made her think that she needed to repent for a mistake that you had actually made. You made her feel like she was the only one who had ever experienced this. But I know now that she was not the only one, that in fact she was among many youth who have been hurt by the way you have taught us about sex and masturbation. You are wrong, you are hurting people. It’s time to repent.