My comments at the recent press conference in Houston, TX in regards to protectldschildren.org. These are similar to the ones I shared in Salt Lake City last month, but tailored to the TX audience.
Hello… My name is Natasha Helfer Parker
As a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and one of the few AASECT Certified Sex Therapists working within the Mormon community, I have been making public statements about my concerns regarding “worthiness” interviews taking place between adult men and minor children and adolescents behind closed doors for years.
When a religious institution decides that a certain aspect of normal, sexual human behavior is a “sin” (such as masturbation or same-sex sexuality)… it creates an artificial problem for its members to grapple with. And in the name of God no less. Since God (or the interpretation of God) in these communities trumps all else, leaders who represent God’s voice play a role in stripping self-autonomy and authority from developing youth raised within that system. This blunts sexual development and interferes with spiritual experiences.
The practice of worthiness interviews and having sexual questions asked of minors… often with the result being a form of ecclesiastical discipline… violates 8 of the 16 sexual rights put forth by the World Association of Sexual Health and has implications for 4 of the 6 sexual health principles that have been further developed from those rights. This happens at a pivotal time in sexual development.
Even in the best of circumstances, where you have a loving bishop concerned with the welfare and spiritual development of a minor…. the current structure and power dynamic of a worthiness interview, which is an inquiring or even interrogatory process looking to qualify “worthiness” – as if that’s something we can measure to begin with- is currently set up in a way where the bishop cannot help but cause emotional, psychological and spiritual harm. He cannot help it. He cannot help but normalize and participate in grooming behaviors that violate the most basic of personal boundaries and the right to privacy.
These interviews often include probing questions about sexuality.
Anything from masturbation, viewing sexually explicit materials, sexual orientation, gender identity and premarital sexual exploration are things that teens and pre-teens can be asked about by men with no formal sexual nor theological training.
Imagine an adult man using their ecclesiastical authority to, in essence, direct a minor child on matters such as where their own hand may or may not touch their own body. Where is the respect and honor for sexual autonomy and privacy in that?
A minor in our community does not have the skill set, maturity nor permission to balk at questions asked. And in the rare occasions where they might exert a healthy boundary like refusing to answer a question or stating their discomfort, that type of behavior would commonly be interpreted as prideful, lacking humility and reminiscent of a non-repentant attitude – furthering the potential for disciplinary action.
As an LDS mental health professional who has been working with thousands of Mormons for over twenty years… believe me when I tell you that I have heard the stories first hand. Stories like the ones Sam Young has been collecting on his website. The most heinous of which include a clear breach into sexual assault. But even when these criminal acts are not present, many more complications ensue from this practice in the context of sexual shaming.
Sexual shaming – whether intentional or not – is a natural consequence of these worthiness interviews.
Depression, anxiety, OCD & scrupulosity – even to the point of self-abuse (which are common practices with many adolescents I see where they are cutting themselves or causing other types of self-injury)…
suicidal ideation and tragically completion due to guilt and shame of being deemed sexually unworthy.
Sexual repression that follows into sexual relationships…, once one is trying to enjoy marital intimacy leading to or exacerbating clinical issues such as anorgasmia, sexual desire disorders, erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation.
Unwarranted guilt and shame over sexual fantasy and enjoyment, can interfere with sexual desire and the sexual response cycle.
Self-Identity and esteem issues… where it’s difficult to conceptualize yourself as a sexual person at all, or at the other extreme you’ve internalized that somehow you’re oversexualized. And therefore feel abnormal or broken, or have bought into the false notion that you’re an addict.
There needs to be a dramatic overhaul in how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints addresses sexuality so that its members can live safer, healthier and more satisfying lives within this realm. Worthiness interviews that measure the “worth” of individuals due to arbitrary understandings by untrained leaders in different geographical locations who conduct these meetings need to stop. And need to stop today.
Do not mistake my words to mean that I’m implying there is no room for youth ministry. Of course this can be an important and even pivotal part of an adolescents support system, especially for those who come from abusive family systems. As many other church communities have noted and taken precaution, youth ministry does not need to include these types of interviews, behind closed doors where sexual questions that breech basic privacy rights are asked.
The changes that we are asking for require no doctrinal shifts. These would be changes of policy and tradition. And we have great precedence in Mormonism to scrutinize, challenge and abandon what we call “traditions of our fathers” that are not in our best spiritual interest. I am confident that our newly sustained prophet, President Russel M Nelson along with his counselors President Oaks and President Eyering, can do the right thing by our members and address this issue once and for all… As many of the athletes in the Michigan State case have stated… those of us who enable systems and processes where abuse can happen… we share in the responsibility of the consequences. And I say that directly to my first presidency.
In the meantime, I would encourage LDS parents and guardians of minors to assert your authority and request that your children not be put in these types of situations. With about 100,000 members of the LDS/Mormon church here in the Houston area and about 350,000 members in the state of Texas (which is about an equivalency of about 700 congregations) I would also encourage state licensed mental health professionals and sexual assault support centers to educate yourselves on these matters when working with those within the Mormon faith community. Thank you for your time.
Fox News covered our story:
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST runs an online practice, Symmetry Solutions, which focuses on helping families and individuals with faith concerns, sexuality and mental health. She hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, writes a regular column for Sunstone Magazine, is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association and runs a sex education program, Sex Talk with Natasha. She has over 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.