Guest Post: My Story #MormonMeToo
This post is an excerpt from a letter Mahlah wrote and sent to her church leaders.
When I was on my mission I had an experience that is to this day difficult for me to speak of. We saw naked men here and there, usually old and drunk. Not such a big deal. But one day as my companion and I knocked on a door, a man opened it wearing just a robe (again not uncommon for where I was serving) and invited us in. We sat down on his couch and waited while he, presumably, went to put some clothes on. When he returned, he opened his robe to reveal his erect penis. I cannot describe to you how violated I felt in that moment. My companion and I stood up, left and went straight home. The rest of the day was spent singing hymns and sobbing in the bathroom of our small studio apartment. I prayed. I read my scriptures. I asked why this would happen to us? We were doing everything right. Why hadn’t the spirit protected us? Warned us? Through my tears I began to feel peace and the voice of the Lord in my mind, telling me that through this experience I could know the power of the Atonement to heal all wounds.
My companion and I never spoke of this to anyone. If we had, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have been asked if our shirts were too tight or our skirts too short. They wouldn’t have asked us if we were at a party that was a little questionable. They wouldn’t have asked if we had been drinking. Yet, so often these are the types of questions being asked when girls come forward to friends or bishops to report sexual assault.
When I was 16 I was sexually assaulted by my 19-year-old, LDS boyfriend. I eventually went to my bishop. But it wasn’t to report assault; it was to repent of my sins. I completely blamed myself for what happened. I spoke of it to no one else, for years hiding it even from my husband, fearing he would reject me as damaged goods. Shame silenced me. I suffered alone.
I have learned a lot since I was 16. I have learned what respect and boundaries look like. I have learned how common sexual assault is. I have learned how victims often blame themselves. It was only when I picked up a book on abuse that I started to understand why. “The experience of being violated challenges one’s most basic assumptions about the self as invulnerable and intrinsically worthy and about the world being just and orderly. Assuming responsibility for the abuse allows feelings of helplessness to be replaced with an illusion of control.”
For so long I tried to repress those memories, to put them behind me. I wondered why they would still trouble me so much, since I had “repented” of my “sin.” But life events, physical pain, and news stories all had a way of reminding me that I am still scarred. As hard as it was to heal from the experience on my mission (which still makes me cringe), it is nothing compared to healing from what happened at 16. It is difficult to deal with the trauma of reliving memories. It is difficult to deal with the fear that I will not be believed, that I will be asked what I was wearing or why I was in his car. I cannot describe how vulnerable I feel when I see my children’s innocence and joy. I cannot describe how often anxiety is triggered when I think I can’t protect them.
My healing process is an ongoing journey. I have had to ask, Did I not really repent, if I still feel this shame? Am I just trying to abdicate blame of my sinful youth? In President Uchtdorf’s talk from the most recent Women’s Broadcast, he tells a parable of three sisters, one sad, one mad and one glad. I have been through all of those phases. I have seen myself as the victim. I have blamed the church, the world, my family, myself. Unlike the second sister, who believes she is the only one with good intentions, I do not doubt that everyone is trying to do their best. I am speaking out because I love the church and to borrow the words of Elder Christofferson, “Love demands warning people about what can hurt them… To warn is to care. The Lord instructs that it is to be done ‘in mildness and in meekness’ and ‘by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness …, and by love unfeigned.’ …It must be clear and sometimes firm.” I am not perfect. As I’ve prepared this, I still occasionally have to quell the anger, hurt and blame that arise. My intent is to shed light on culture within our church that is leading to shame, disengagement and suffering. My intent is to add to the conversation on perfectionism and shame. Brene Brown, a renowned shame and vulnerability researcher, describes perfectionism as a 20-ton shield people use to try and protect themselves from the pain of judgment and shame.
As I let go of blame, I have found power in turning my anger to compassion and activism. My story is now filled with healing and a deeper appreciation of my Savior and the Atonement. In past months, I’ve asked myself, How would my story be different if there had been a woman I could confide in and she could see my vulnerabilities as a 16-year- old and pull me out of a submissive relationship? How has my experience and new understanding of the power of shame and silence shaped me? It could be easy to look at my years of silent suffering as unnecessary. But I would not alter my experience. I have developed more compassion for others and I have a deeper resolution not to judge or gossip. Had I resolved these things at the beginning of my marriage, I would likely not be writing this letter today. My experience has shaped who I am, my relationship with God, and my determination to speak up when I see someone in pain.
My invitation to you is to reflect on what you can do as leaders to help heal old wounds and help prevent shame in the rising generation. For me personally, as painful as it is to deal with the ramifications and memories of my assault, it is like salt on my wounds every time I hear someone questioning the veracity of a person’s story. It is difficult to sit in a lesson on modesty and hear yet another woman comment that women should cover up because men can’t control their thoughts. It is painful to hear people speculate and judge why someone struggles or has left the church when they have no idea the depth of a person’s sorrow. And it is absolutely appalling to read stories of women who report rape and are told to repent and forgive. As I sat recently with a friend who expressed her outrage at the women who wait for years before they ever speak up about assault, I tried to calmly explain the culture of fear and shame that silences women. I tried to explain how often people blame themselves. But I did not share my personal story. I was being ripped apart on the inside. We must all work together to create a safe environment of empathy and love where people can come forward with whatever challenge they face and not fear shame, judgment and rejection. We must convey the message that no one is alone.
- The power of the Atonement is infinite. Christ can heal all wounds and make all things pure and whole. Guilt, which is internal and helps one know when they have made a mistake, leads to repentance. In contrast, shame is a form of external control. It is a feeling that I am bad, rather than I did something bad, and leads to disconnection and hopelessness. Using shame to teach about sin and sexuality is never justified. We must examine sources of shame in our church culture and strive to improve the way we teach and speak to one another.
- Perfectionism is often used to shield against feelings of shame. We must find ways that allow people to be vulnerable and authentic so they can find the support and help they need to access the Atonement and know they are not alone.
- Purity is often equated with virginity. This can be especially damaging to victims of sexual abuse. We must examine the language we use when teaching the law of chastity. We must be wary of frequent analogies of “damaged goods” that do not communicate the infinite power of the Atonement.
- Modesty is a term that encompasses many behaviors, yet it is frequently taught emphasizing the dress of girls and women. We must find ways to teach the principle of modesty to more accurately reflect the principle of a commitment to God that is inwardly focused and not as a way to control men’s thoughts. Men must be taught that it is their own responsibility to keep their thoughts and actions clean, even and especially in cases where many aspects of their environment or circumstances are beyond their control. It is neither righteous or justified to shift the burden of this responsibility to the women in their company.
- We must explore what lies at the root of sexual assault and violence against women and what we can do to prevent abuse. We must understand the tendency of victims to blame themselves and help them find healing through the power of Jesus Christ.
- As a religious institution we must support parents in teaching healthy sexuality to their children. This must move beyond abstinence only, encompassing accurate information and resources. It should accurately reflect the beauty of God’s gift and the values and morals of sexual responsibility without using shame or fear. It must include consent and be centered on the infinite power of the Atonement.
- Children and youth need guidance to understand healthy sexuality, have their desires normalized and learn to differentiate between choice and coercion. However, shame surrounding sexuality often prevents open dialogue with parents and leaders, leaving adolescents on their own to navigate situations of abuse or repentance. We must find ways to respond in love, not shame, and thereby keep communication lines open.
- The law of chastity clearly states that sexual relations should be in the bounds of marriage, but this leaves many wondering about the appropriateness of masturbation, an individual behavior. With the only current statement to be found in the For Strength of Youth pamphlet, (Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body.) it is unclear to members how they should respond to young children, where masturbation is clearly not tied to lust.
- We must examine our teachings on masturbation and how shame has historically silenced many people from discussing masturbation. We must not shame children for normal exploration of their bodies. We must reflect on God’s intention and design for self-love and differentiate between healthy and unhealthy uses of masturbation.
- We must examine how pornography is spoken of in the church. Just as the shame of sexual abuse silences many victims, shame surrounding pornography prevents many from openly speaking about use or getting help. We must explore ways to help people break from the shame, secrecy and hopelessness of pornography use.
- Masturbation is frequently tied to pornography, which clouds healthy uses of masturbation, and makes open conversations difficult. Additionally, pornography is often spoken of simply as immoral without addressing misogyny and the objectification of women. We must do more to address misogyny and encourage the equality of women.
- We must find ways to stand with vulnerable groups that have historically been abused and marginalized, such as women, children and those who identify as LGBTQ. We must find ways to give them a voice and hear their stories.
- So often sin is a response to deep emotional wounds. We must examine the language we use regarding sin and do all we can to help people feel the love of their Savior and witness to their unconditional worth.
- Culturally, a woman’s value has been tied to her marital status or marriageability, which often puts undue pressure on girls and can lead to the silence and shaming of girls who have been abused, divorced or in other sexual relationships. We must be sure that the way we speak of women accurately communicates their infinite and unconditional worth.
- We must examine the structure of worthiness interviews and strive to prevent abuse or shaming by clergy. We must understand the danger and difficulty of girls and women discussing matters of sexuality with their bishops. We must understand how guilt can lead someone to repentance, but shame can lead to people feeling unworthy of God’s love.
- We must raise awareness of sexual abuse and provide more training for members, who ultimately constitute the lay clergy. We must do all we can to break cycles of abuse and silence. We would do well to remember that in every lesson and talk there will be a victim listening. We must do all we can to create a safe environment for people to heal.
- We must hold ourselves accountable for our role in upholding human rights and preventing violence.
- We must take responsibility for inaccurate teachings of the past and make course corrections as necessary. Admitting and correcting mistakes can deepen trust and improve relationships.