Ask Richard: Atheist’s Mormon Teen Son Is Questioned About Masturbation

Brodie Award

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Hi Richard,

When I married 17 years ago, I was a True Believing Mormon. Since coming out atheist to my wife several years ago, she has only become more fervent in her Mormonism, and consequently there is an understandably heightening of tension when it comes to issues regarding our children. Our oldest is 15, and occasionally is requested to undergo what Mormons call a “Temple Interview” where members of the church are asked a series of questions to determine their moral worthiness in preparation for a trip to the temple. Among these questions is one in particular that I find problematic, and that is regarding masturbation. Masturbation is supposedly forbidden in the church, (so obviously everyone is forced to lie about it) and I believe that this belief and its enforcement is detrimental to both physical and mental health and wellbeing of all. Am I wrong in having issues with some arbitrary religious authority, alone in a room with my son, asking questions about what he may or may not be doing with his penis in private?

I have previously asked my son to not answer that question, and refer the asker to me. This he was unable to do, as it puts him in an awkward position. So now I am inclined to write the Bishop of my ward informing him that he is under no circumstance to question, or authorize anyone under his authority to question my kids regarding sexual issues. My dilemma is how that will go over with my wife. In order to enforce this restriction I feel that there must be some repercussion against it, such as withdrawing my kids from church attendance for some duration. This would necessitate a discussion with her that she would be unable to comprehend.

Should I find some way to ignore this issue? Or is this worth addressing? Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

Barry

Dear Barry,

I have read that the actual question that might lead to a discussion with your son about masturbation is “Do you live the law of chastity?” How deeply that discussion goes with a 15 year-old boy might be at the discretion of the interviewer. If the things you actually know about the interviews he has attended rise to the level of emotional abuse, then that is a matter for immediate intervention, but I can’t tell enough from your letter to have a strong impression that that is warranted.

It sounds as though your son has gone through this charade before, and he has somehow found a way to do it, since you have not mentioned his ever having been barred from the temple.

Rather than intervening on his behalf without consulting him, it might be more helpful for you to ask him if he has any problem with these interviews and that particular question. Giving him as safe an opportunity to talk to you about it as you can is probably the better place to start.

Just to make sure that he has no misconceptions about masturbation being a bad thing, or about it being uncommon, you might briefly tell him that there’s nothing wrong with it, that it’s natural, and that there is a good chance that the man who will be interviewing him does it too. The point would be to discredit the destructive curse of inappropriate guilt that the prohibition carries.

Gently encourage him to be truthful in the interview, but leave it up to him. Let him know that however he answers and whatever the outcome, you will be completely supportive of him. You love him regardless. This will compare you very favorably in contrast to the Church. You accept him just as he is, but they only accept him if he either denies a natural and harmless urge, or he lies.

If your son says he’s okay with these interviews, then tell him that you’ll be happy to advise him or come to his assistance if he asks you, and then set the issue aside. In this way you will be empowering him to have confidence to deal with this, rather than reinforcing a self image of being a helpless victim.

The consequences of an unnecessary rescue could be worse than whatever he actually experiences in the interview. This is because he is in a delicate position of divided loyalties.

Caught between you and his mother, your son is always vulnerable to becoming a rope in a tug-of-war. If you increase the tension between you and your wife over this, or if he feels pressure from both of you to agree with your differing opinions about the Mormon Church, then the strain on your son from trying to somehow please both his father and his mother may be much worse than his having to brood over telling the lie that everyone knows is a lie, but they pretend to believe.

I can certainly understand your resentment at the sham of pious pretenders asking him about his private sex life. The injunction against masturbation is based on ridiculous superstition. But be careful not to misplace your disdain and anger at the LDS and end up inadvertently using your son as a weapon against the Church or your wife. Your actions must be carefully thought out, and strictly for his overall well being, rather than for expressing your personal disagreement with their absurd taboos.

Barry, as his father, be for him a refuge of reason and a resource of high esteem. Give him accurate information and reassurance that his humanity is completely acceptable. Always be watchful for signs of distress, but if he doesn’t really need rescuing, then in ways appropriate for his age, let him work his own way through things, and show your admiration for him as he solves problems that come his way.

You’ll be proud of each other.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://www.frommormontoatheist.blogspot.com Leilani

    Another thing to remember is that Mormon Bishops are just regular guys who are given authority through the church, they don’t have degree’s in Theology or Psychology. They are ‘called of god’ and haven’t attended years of school to be able to handle issues; they reference a handbook. They are volunteers, per se, they aren’t paid and they still maintain their employment in whatever field they originally worked in.

    I mean my dad, who had an Associates Degree in Drafting was able to be called as a First Counselor to the Bishop… they call someone who is paying their tithes, attending church and is available… The man that your child may be confessing his ‘sins’ to, doesn’t have the education and training that may be needed to address all issues.

    I wouldn’t allow my child to confide anything to a Mormon Bishop, or the guy at the fast food drive through, or the security guy at the mall. But that is also why I left Mormonism.

    I am very, very lucky my husband left the church with me.

  • http://angryatheist.net AngryAtheist

    It takes religion to find evil in basic human nature..

    I was raised a Mormon. My mom asked me if I masturbated when I was 13. My mom forced me to watch the 96 year old mormon prophet talk about masturbation so I would understand why it was so wrong.

  • Alan E.

    But be careful not to misplace your disdain and anger at the LDS and end up inadvertently using your son as a weapon against the Church or your ex-wife.

    This, I feel, is the most important part of this advice. The conversation should be between father and son, not father and church through the son.

    But how secretive would the interview really be? If the “wrong” answer was given, wouldn’t the entire group of Elders be quick to know about it?

  • Siamang

    I’m a parent, so this hits me hard as well.

    Something about priests talking to children in a locked room in private about their private sexual habits worries me deeply.

    GEE, I wonder why?!?!

  • BlueRidgeLady

    Any adult other than a doctor, for very specific reasons asking that question of a teenage kid is wholly inappropriate and flat-out GROSS.
    If this is not a huge neon sign to jump ship now, I really don’t know what is.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com chanson

    One common solution to this problem is to insist on being present during the interview. As his father, you are within your rights to request this.

  • http://arkonbey.blogspot.com arkonbey

    One comment about Richard’s response that may be important.

    Richard, you refer to his “ex-wife”. He only uses the word “wife” and so it might be assumed that he is still married. So the father/son/mother dynamic may be a little more complicated.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    You could tell your son that the two pillars of abstinence are (1) masturbation and (2) visualizing your grandmother naked when you see potential sexual partners :). Just let him know that masturbation its natural (doesn’t cause blindness) and tell him not to lie and let the chips fall where they may. If he is banned from Temple for being normal and telling the truth, then maybe this will start him on a journey of rationality being free from such craziness.

    Assuming Richard is mistaken about your wife being an ex-wife, you could also solicit her opinion. I don’t know if Mormon authorities ask girls about masturbation, but if they do, it might be something she has thought about how to answer.

  • Richard Wade

    arkonbey,
    You are right. I don’t know how I misread that. I’ve updated the post with the corrections. Thank you.

    That would complicate the dynamic by adding the risk of becoming ex-spouses over this. If that were to happen, then Barry might have even less input on the boy’s behalf concerning religious issues. Currently, the trend in divorce child custody decisions is if one parent demands that the children continue church attendance while the other objects, the courts tend to favor the religious parent on that issue.

  • JulietEcho

    Sound advice. This guy sounds like a great dad, and hopefully his son will appreciate the support he can offer.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com chanson

    I don’t know if Mormon authorities ask girls about masturbation, but if they do, it might be something she has thought about how to answer.

    Yes, they do. This is part of where the “parent present in the room” solution comes from.

  • Shawn

    @Jeff P

    (2) visualizing your grandmother naked when you see potential sexual partners

    The problem with this kind of Pavlovian conditioning is that it can go two ways… :)

  • littlejohn

    What’s wrong with visualizing your grandmother? Oh, yeah. I’m from West Virginia.
    Seriously, I can’t think of anything creepier than an unrelated adult insisting that a teenager reveal his or her mastubatory habits. Why do they need to know that stuff?
    When It comes to teenagers, certain things can safely be taken for granted.

  • http://jerrymacoris.blogspot.com/ jerry de macorís

    Having also been a Mormon and coming to the same conclusion (that it’s a load of bullocks), I have to agree that the prohibition is silly, and “…its enforcement is detrimental to both physical and mental health and wellbeing of all.” I used to masturbate without porn for years just because of that prohibition, and many otherwise honest Mormons I have met seem torn about having to lie at a Temple Interview about “obeying the Law of Chastity.” It’s all sad, really.

  • Richard P

    “Gently encourage him to be truthful in the interview, but leave it up to him. Let him know that however he answers and whatever the outcome, you will be completely supportive of him. You love him regardless. This will compare you very favorably in contrast to the Church. You accept him just as he is, but they only accept him if he either denies a natural and harmless urge, or he lies.”

    I cannot understand this at all. It seems to me there is only one question to be asked here and that is “Is this child going through this by his choice?”

    Is this child aware of the dads position on the religion? Has he been given the choice to refuse? If he has chosen to go ahead making an informed choice, then you must just get out of the way and accept this choice.

    If he is not aware of other perspectives then you need to make him aware of them and allow him to come to this decision himself.
    Inform him to what will constitutes a violation of his rights and help him to be confident in defining those boundaries.
    Beyond that he needs to be responsible for his choices.
    I have no doubt that at fifteen he has the mental capacity to make an informed choice as he decides what he believes, whichever decision he makes.

    Telling him to be truthful in the interview is just setting him up to be destroyed. The church is not interested in truth. If he decides to go ahead with it, tell him to “tell them what they want to hear and god will work out the imperfections later”. This at least the right answer to the situation. But, this advise should only come once the real decision between the choices makes it necessary.

  • http://twitter.com/j_spencer Jeff

    Barry,

    Your son is lucky to have you as a father. I was unlucky enough to have 2 devout Mormon parents. I lost my faith at a fairly young age, so I distinctly remember having to uncomfortably sit through these interviews, having no one I could turn to and no option to tell the truth. (When I finally got the courage to stop lying and told my bishop at 17 that I’m gay, he but naturally couldn’t issue me a temple recommend. He did keep it to himself, but I had to tell my parents I wasn’t going without telling them why. They grounded me.)

    Anyhow, your son is either still a follower, in which case it probably doesn’t bother him and he understands and accepts the reasoning behind it, or he’s also lost his faith, and is still involved to please his mother and avoid conflict, in which case he’s probably just rolling his eyes on the inside while giving the stock answers, much as I did.

    At any rate, I doubt he’s too “confused” about the situation. 15′s older than we remember, and I’m sure he’s able to sort things out in his head. Whatever the case, just knowing that you support whatever choice he makes probably means more than anything. I think in this case, you might just have to bite your tongue and be the more rational parent (as the less religious one usually is), as much as I’m sure it sucks.

  • http://angryatheist.net AngryAtheist

    This behavior is totally normal in the LDS church. This is nothing abnormal unfortunately.

  • Claudia

    Uh, add me to the list of people who think church men asking a young teen boy about his sexual habits is deeply creepy.

    He’s young, but he’s not 6. He’s 15, so he should have a say in what does and does not happen, up to and including any questions or avoiding the matter entirely.

    The father doesn’t mention is his son is aware that dad is an atheist. Hopefully he is, because its important that the son understand that there is an adult he can go to if he has doubts about his faith. Sounds like the boy was left in the hands of his super-mormon mother for religious upbringing, but it would be a huge disservice if this involved lying to the boy and pretending that dad was still a mormon.

  • Tony

    I think it’s time to comb my hair in a side parting, don my suit and small backpack and head off the Utah with a fistful of pamphlets entitled “There are only two types of man in this world: Wankers… and liars…”

  • http://twitter.com/Laviniaserpent LaviniaSerpent

    This was really sound advice, almost too sound. I don’t think any rational human being, much less a rational parent, can afford to regard an organization with agendas,recruitment tactics etc with the same diplomacy as a set of ideas/principles.

  • Ron in Houston

    You know, this question to Richard was a real reality check.

    For me, atheism mostly is no big deal. I might have a few friends who would be shocked, but otherwise it doesn’t register on the radar.

    However, the thought of having my kid being interrogated by a bunch of idiots who believe anything that the fraud Joseph Smith said, would probably make me livid.

    Thankfully, this column is ask Richard and not ask Ron because I’d tell them to stick their magical underwear someplace where the sun doesn’t shine.

  • Ron in Houston

    Actually part of it remind me of the old joke:

    95% of American males masturbate, the rest are liars.

  • Ron in Houston

    Barry, as his father, be for him a refuge of reason and a resource of high esteem. Give him accurate information and reassurance that his humanity is completely acceptable. Always be watchful for signs of distress, but if he doesn’t really need rescuing, then in ways appropriate for his age, let him work his own way through things, and show your admiration for him as he solves problems that come his way.

    Richard, I can’t give you high enough praise for that statement. Can you be my Daddy?

  • Robert

    Richard, I enjoy reading your responses because they are always so more thoughtful and reasonable than mine would be. :)

    Living in a heavily Morman area as I do (Idaho) a significant factor in this situation, regardless of what the boy himself might believe, is the need, especially at that age, for him to continue to fit in with his community. Publicly denying his Morman faith, or even just publicly mocking some of its more silly practices, would result in him being ostracized by his friends and their families, something no one wants at 15. Let him carry on the charade until he goes off to college and can make his own decisions with less Mormon peer pressure. (Unless he goes to BYU!!).

  • susan

    richard, i’m stunned that you have no problem with a man asking boys AND girls very personal questions +behind closed doors!!+ that only a doctor should ask them if they are somehow injured ”down there.” do you realize the sicker mormons ask 12 yr old kids about this, kids who often have no idea what is being asked?? richard, this practice is part of mormonism +grooming+ these kids to give their whole lives and souls to mormonism in the most unhealthy manner possible. utah has the #1 rate of antidepressant use in the nation for a reason – that reason is mormonism. richard, would you also be fine with your kids’ school principal asking them intrusive sexual questions? no? it’s no different when untrained lay clergy are asking kids sexually intrusive questions, either.

  • Richard Wade

    susan,
    I don’t know how you got the impression that I “have no problem” with this practice. Of course I do. But this father and his son are in very delicate positions, and we have no idea from the letter exactly how intrusive the questioning actually gets for this particular young man.

    As I said, a heavy-handed, cavalry-riding-over-the-hill rescue that might not even be necessary or wanted would cause plenty of damage. What would you do? Yank him out of the Church? Be immediately divorced? End up losing custody of the boy and have no input at all about his religious practice? Make him the rope in the divorce tug-of-war trying to be loyal to two warring parents? Have him declared unfit for the church? Have him ostracized by his peers?

    Then he’d certainly need antidepressants.

    Sometimes approaching these family problems is like defusing a bomb. You don’t defuse a bomb with a sledge hammer and outrage. You need tweezers, patience and finesse.

    There are often no ideal solutions to these conundrums, only the least painful survival strategies that we can devise.

  • Ron in Houston

    Sometimes approaching these family problems is like defusing a bomb. You don’t defuse a bomb with a sledge hammer and outrage. You need tweezers, patience and finesse.

    There are often no ideal solutions to these conundrums, only the least painful survival strategies that we can devise.

    Richard, you’re really a fountain of wisdom today. I think I’m going to steal your defusing a bomb metaphor for use on my divorce clients.

  • http://www.zazzle.com/Godless_Monsters Godless Monster

    To Richard Wade,
    I love your metaphor. I’m currently dealing with a daughter who is atheist and living with her “religious” mother.
    It’s tempting to blast away at the ex with both barrels (figuratively folks!), but the situation requires finesse, not bluster and bravado.

  • muggle

    Great advice but I’m with everyone else who is saying insist on being in the room.

    What a creepy, creepy, creepy practice. Man, religion sure gets away with some weird, sick shit!

  • http://crisscrossasterisk.blogspot.com Michelle “Washi” Maxfield

    Alan E: But how secretive would the interview really be? If the “wrong” answer was given, wouldn’t the entire group of Elders be quick to know about it?

    If you’re creative, not many people find out about it, actually. I lost my temple recommend my Senior year of high school and spent the next 2-3 years trying to become “worthy” enough to have it again. I lost it due to the “chastity” questions. None of my friends in Young Women’s, nor those I spent time with while in University realized (and I went to a very Mormon-filled Uni) that I was unworthy to hold a temple recommend. All it took was some creative time management. When people were going to the temple, I’d have something else come up, making it so I couldn’t go with my friends/roommates/church acquaintances.

    To everyone else: Both my husband and I were only asked if we “keep the law of chastity” – which, honestly, covers everything from dating to sex. That is as in-depth as it gets. It’s still creepy, but not quite as creepy as a middle-aged man asking if the teen masturbates.

    Cute, I’m glad I got out of that religion.

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  • leisurelyviking

    As a former mormon, I think some of you are overestimating the creepiness of this interview. Yes, I was interviewed annually and sometimes more frequently from ages 12 to 18 by a member of the bishopric. The only thing they asked about sexuality was “Do you obey the law of chastity?” and sometimes “Do you have any questions about what the law of chastity is?” I expect that most of the mormon clergy follow the questions closely unless the teen admits something or asks a question, though I have heard of occasional abuses. The interview questions were always the same, so once I was no longer able to answer them all correctly, I told my parents I had belief issues and would not be attending the temple any more. Sure, this is a simplified summary, and someone who was more worried about their personal worthiness or had stricter parents might confess all sorts of little things and get into deeper water that way, but it’s not an in-depth questioning about sexual habits.

  • Richard Wade

    Barry, the father who wrote the letter has just emailed me with this update, and he gave me permission to post it here:

    Dear Richard,

    Thank you for your most excellent advice. I found your thoughts on the matter to be reasonable, valuable, and memorable. Up till now, I had not considered the angle that my actions could cause additional emotional stress to my son. He is indeed aware of my religious persuasions (or lack thereof!). I try to help him keep an open mind, and not base his beliefs from either parent. I know how firmly convinced I was at the age of 16, when I joined the mormon church (the only one in my family). And it wasn’t till some years later that I was able to reason myself out of that mindset. So my strategy is to provide him with critical thinking skills and let him make his own choices. He seems to understand the role he must play for his mother, and maintain the friendships which I know he enjoys among other youth in the church.

    Previously my biggest concern was the damage control with my wife (yes, still married!). But now I see the bigger risk of potentially becoming a cause of embarrassment for my son, as well intentioned as may be, is simply too great. Yes the church’s behavior is reprehensible, and worthy of outrage. But I’m not going to turn my life into a crusade over it, nor be the cause of damage to my son’s self esteem.

    I must also express my heartfelt gratitude for the supportive, sympathetic and interested comments from your readers. I was really touched and impressed.

    “Tweezers, patience and finesse.” I can do that. Awesome advice. Thank you!

    Sincerely,
    Barry

    Thank you Barry. We can easily get caught up in our anger and disgust when we struggle against a foe, and lose track of the needs of the individuals who may be hurt as “collateral damage.” It takes maturity and humility to stop and refocus on our loved ones’ needs, as you have done here.

    I wish you success in your continuing relationships with your son and your wife. I think they are both lucky to have you in their lives, because you earnestly want the best possible outcome for everyone.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Okay, so I dig your comments about how it would be inappropriate for the father to act on his son’s behalf without talking to his son about it first, and how he needs to avoid using his son as a weapon against the Mormon church and/or his wife…

    But, as someone who went through these humiliating temple interviews, and still clearly remembers that horrible, “Have you been abusing your body?” question, and having mentioned it multiple times as some of the sickest fucking shit that the Mormon church does… Dude, it’s emotional abuse even to be subjected to a temple recommend interview. I’m sorry, but that’s the reality here.

    I understand that in real life people make compromises. And perhaps your advice is the right approach. I just can’t shake the feeling that even letting your son be subjected to such an interview is a mistake. I don’t see a way out of it without basically torpedoing his marriage, so I don’t know what to say. But I could never explicitly condone just letting your son go to one of these interviews. Yuck.

    For the record, I always lied about it immediately and so there were no embarrassing follow-up questions. Just a moment of awkwardness and burning ears and then lingering guilt. It was still bullshit, and IMO emotional abuse. Who the fuck asks that of a 15-year-old boy? That’s some really sick shit right there, to not only tell kids it’s wrong to masturbate (good luck with that one) but to point-blank ask them if they do, for the purpose of shaming them? Sick fucking bastards… Nope, nobody should ever be subjected to a temple recommend interview, especially not a teenager.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Anyhow, your son is either still a follower, in which case it probably doesn’t bother him

    No, this is wrong wrong wrong!!! There is no such thing as a normal healthy 15-year-old boy being asked point-blank by a middle-aged man whether he masturbates (and using that horrible codeword, “abusing your body”, to boot) and have it not “bother” him!! It is simply not possible, and the idea that it is possible is part of the stupid mythology about human sexuality that allows the LDS leadership to get away with making such a big deal about masturbation.

    I can assure you that there was I time I was a true believer, and had to lie about this question, and it fucking sucked, no ifs ands or buts about it. Of course at the time I didn’t blame the bishop or the church — I blamed myself. Yeah, that’s healthy.

    I can still feel the sensation of my ears burning as the bishop asked it and knowing I had to lie and “knowing” I was doing something bad and would have to repent for it, and being so worried because I also “knew” from Mormon teachings that it’s way harder to repent (and will take a lot more suffering) if you did the sin knowingly and figuring you’d just repent for it later. But of course I couldn’t tell the truth, either… that would have been even worse! I would just tell myself that there would have to come a time when I would quit doing it (hah!) and then I’d have to confess to the bishop that I’d lied before, and I’d have to somehow repent for all that.

    No, the more I think about it, to say that if he’s a follower then it must not bother him is not just naive and wrong — it’s ass-backwards. By the time I was 17 and was beginning to have doubts about the church’s moral code (if not yet about faith in general; that would come later) it was a helluva lot easier to answer that question, because I knew it was his damn fault for asking me such a fucked-up thing, not my fault for being a normal teenager. I still felt sorta bad, and still wondered if I’d have to make all of it right sometime later, but I didn’t get that horrible ear-burning sensation or that dropping in the pit of my stomach. No, I’ve gotta say, being a follower makes it worse.

    Abuse is abuse is abuse, even if the abused is subjecting to it voluntarily. Especially if the abused is a minor.

    (Caveat: See my above comment for why I agree partly with Richard’s response anyway, and realize that in the real world people make compromises, even awful ones. But I stand by this: No kid should ever be subjected to a temple recommend interview, true believer or not.)

  • Richard Wade

    James Sweet,
    I agree with you in your views that in principle these interviews are abusive and destructive when it comes to the questions about a young person’s sexuality. I also appreciate that this comes from your own very painful personal experience, and it distresses me to know that thousands of young people suffer it as well. I hope that some day soon this asinine practice is discontinued, because as you have poignantly expressed, it does nothing but put young people into double binds, with unnecessary feelings of guilt, and it teaches them how to practice hypocrisy. In short, it’s a lesson in cynicism. We really don’t need more cynics in the world.

    The problem with this letter was that it was from the father, not the son, so I could only advise the father about what to do, essentially communicate with his son, and what not to do, essentially blunder forth like a bull in a china shop. The father has very limited leeway, wanting to protect his son from the emotional abuse you described, but also wanting to preserve whatever there is of the family structure. And all of it is done in the dark about how the boy feels about it all.

    Be sure to read the update supplied by the father, posted just above your first comment.

    Had the boy written to me instead, I’m sure my response would have been quite different, but I can’t say what it would be without all the details he would hopefully supply about his emotions and where he stands in his beliefs about the Mormon church. Generally, my responses to young people in a bind is to first validate and reinforce their worthiness as persons, and secondly to advise them to do whatever it takes to survive and to keep their emotional well being.

    All that being said, I concur with your last sentence, “No kid should ever be subjected to a temple recommend interview, true believer or not,” especially the intrusive and superstition-based questions about sexuality.

    I hope that some day your awful experience adds to the outcome that this practice is abolished, so that your anguish was not in vain.


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