Maya is an 18 year old, recent graduate of high school. She received the prestigious Utah’s Sterling Scholar in English, runs her own photography business (Tear Off the Mask) and is currently taking a year off of college to nanny in New Jersey.
In second grade, I sat down with my mom and declared that if she “REALLY knew me” she wouldn’t love me. “What do you mean?” she asked…and with crying eyes I declared, “I want to wear tank tops.”
(She bought me three, to her credit…in the midst of Mormondom.)
Although it’s a cute story now, in a lot of ways it exemplifies the messages I was taught as a girl.
“The price of a virtuous woman is far above rubies.”
“A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband.”
“Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly.”
There’s even a scripture that places sexual impurity next to the two most severe and punishable sins: KILLING PEOPLE, and denying the Holy Ghost (Alma 39:5). A committed couple that lives together before marriage will seriously stand on an even playing field with a murderer in the next life? And you’re throwing an Atheist in there too? It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: “a murderer, a slut, and an Atheist are thrust into the depths of hell together…”
The guidelines are spelled out explicitly in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. Mine was highlighted and marked up because I held it so dear to me.
“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.”
(Don’t go searching for messages about “homosexuality” from this pamphlet – because it gets even worse.)
The religious world is (and has always been) OBSESSED with the concept of virginity. Specifically female virginity (notice that most of the scriptures regarding “virtue” refer to women). So much so, that Jesus’s mother was a virgin upon giving birth to him (wait…what?). When you’re a young girl raised upon these messages, they don’t just become a part of your belief system. They are ingrained in you.
Fast forward to my teenage years, and I was a golden child. I had followed every guideline, every rule, and was in several leadership positions in the church…yet underneath my perfect exterior was a thorny tangle of self-hate and shame. Let me be clear: I didn’t feel guilty and shameful because of sin. I felt innately guilty, shameful, and unworthy even though I was living the values of the LDS church to a T. I felt guilty for even HAVING feelings. I have a journal entry that describes my inner turmoil over being a “slut” but also “really happy” the night that I first held hands with a boy in junior high.
I spent my beautiful, youthful, explorative years hating every inch of myself for being a normal kid. I cried and repented and prayed and engaged in a variety of medicating practices until my late teenage years – when I finally went to therapy to work everything through.
So here I am.
I’ve starved and I’ve cut and I’ve cried and I’ve hated, but I’ve reached a beautiful conclusion at the end of it all.
Our innate worth, as human beings, has nothing to do with the following:
1. who we’ve kissed
2. who has kissed us
3. who we’ve touched
4. who has touched us
6. how we dress
NOTHING. ZERO CORRELATION. NONE. NADA. ZIP. ZERO.
The moment I reached this grandiose conclusion, is the moment I abandoned the scumbags of the past for real, beautiful, respectful, growing relationships (the kind that actually make dating worth doing) – because I finally felt like I deserved something good.
I was finally free to fall in love with myself…to believe that I am good, I am worthy, and I am doing just fine.
Because I am.
And you are too.
I want to personally thank Maya for her courageous vulnerability in sharing such a personal excerpt of her life. Unfortunately, I see this type of inner struggle way too often among our LDS adolescents. I couldn’t agree with Maya more when she calls on us adults to stop equating a person’s worth to their sexual actions, desires or thoughts. Sexuality is a normal, developmental process that begins to take place from the time we are born. Having expectations of our teens that would only fit an asexual orientation, that teaches (especially girls) to hide their bodies as to not evoke sexual desire in others, and drives fear to the point that many of our adolescents compare themselves to criminals for normative behavior does not help our youth stay morally clean. There is nothing moral about this. Sexual education that normalizes feelings, thoughts, and even behaviors is necessary for our adolescents to be able to fully embrace themselves and prepare for the responsibility, consent and maturity needed to have a healthy and satisfying sexual life. An education that would never demean the worth and value of an individual even if they felt they had sexual regrets. An education that teaches personal boundaries, even from well-meaning adults. An education that would empower an individual as a sexual being deserving of pleasure and relational success. An education that teaches adolescents to embrace and enjoy their bodies in safe, developmentally appropriate ways without being made to believe they are breaking commandments, displeasing God, or any other shaming teachings that have such negative effects. I am grateful for the work Elizabeth Smart is doing in regards to how these worthiness messages also affect those who have been affected by sexual trauma.
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST can be reached at natashaparker.org. She authors the Mormon Therapist Blog, hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, writes a regular column for Sunstone Magazine and is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association. She has 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.