The more stories break about women who’ve been abused or sexually harassed by Mormon leaders, the more I realize how lucky I’ve been.
Still, a recent guest post at The Exponent hit close to home because the writer, another Emily B, shares my first name and last initial. There are many Emily B’s in the world, but reading this article by someone with my name felt like watching another version of myself through the looking glass. It underlined how easily I could have wound up in the same situation, writing the same type of story, if I’d simply been unlucky in priesthood leaders.
As I described in my last post, I’ve had a few rare negative experiences with priesthood leaders, but never anything of a sexual nature. Then again, I also never served a mission, in large part because I was wary of a culture that seemed to stress obedience above all else. I didn’t want to enter into a culture where someone who is not a medical professional could refuse to let me see a doctor, a culture where even my personal decision not to wear makeup could be construed as unwillingness to follow the counsel of God’s leaders (and I’ve heard reports of that happening, despite the fact that the Church doesn’t require female missionaries to wear makeup). A culture where refusing to ride a bicycle while wearing a skirt is unheard of. In other words, a culture where refusing to toe the line in small, personal, insignificant matters could be deemed unrighteous.
Even without serving a mission, I still could have encountered a similar situation if I’d been less lucky with bishops and stake presidents. Growing up in the church, I was of course still subject to the culture that made it so difficult for this other Emily B to escape her mission president’s sexual harassment. After describing his abuse, she poses the following questions:
Why didn’t we speak up or do something more to protect ourselves? Looking back, I am devastated by the question of why I didn’t stand up for myself. Why did I stay frozen in my chair every month? Why enter the room with him in the first place? Why not tell my parents when I wrote them?
The answer she provides is one that I think most Mormon women (or Mormons in general) could have easily said:
We had been conditioned to be seated and stay seated for male leadership from the time we were primary children. I was in a new place adjusting to a new culture while the man the church assigned to protect and guide was instead somebody who made me feel gross and violated. We were told that our mission president was called by God. We had to sustain him to go to the temple.He had all the keys to get me anywhere, literally and figuratively. To this day I can’t imagine a scenario where I could have gotten help, had people believe me, and been able to finish my mission.
While I haven’t served a mission, I was indeed conditioned from a young age to stay seated for male leadership and defer to their authority. That conditioning is the reason why, when I asked a bishop whether I could receive my Endowment – as a 24-year-old grad student – and he said, “No,” I didn’t object. I didn’t tell him, “You need to stop and pray about this decision instead of just dismissing me without a thought. The letter from the First Presidency advises to let single women receive their endowment in their ‘mid-twenties,’ not ‘at age 25,’ so their policy doesn’t prevent me. I’ve been praying about this question since I was 18 years old, and in more than six years, the answer has been ‘not yet,’ until this week, when the answer was finally ‘yes, now is the time.’ If I can spend 6 years praying to receive an answer, you can spend 6 minutes.”
It’s the reason I had to stop and sob on the way home but still refused to set up a follow-up appointment to argue my case.
It’s the reason a relative was shocked when I told them that I had made a policy of not accepting any new calling before I had received my own witness that I should. He too had been conditioned to believe that members must defer to the authority of anyone higher than them in the Mormon hierarchy and couldn’t understand why I went so far as to ask to be released from a calling that was making me physically ill.
Yes, people like Joseph Bishop and the former mission president of this other Emily B are the exception. They’re a few bad apples. But they’re bad apples in a lunch line that actively discourages anyone from refusing the apple they’re handed. Bad apples in a room where tossing the bad apple in the trash and refusing to eat it often means being expelled from the cafeteria altogether.
That’s why we need meaningful reforms – some way of reporting bad apples to someone other than the apple vendors.
Allowing members to have another adult present during a priesthood worthiness interview isn’t quite enough, but it is an important step. And while I’m not clear on whether the Church’s updated policy added that option or just made sure leaders knew about it, it’s a step that I’ve decided to embrace. Not because I ever expect to be abused or harassed by a priesthood leader, but because I want to promote a culture where choosing to bring another adult to the interview is seen positively. Where it won’t be seen as an inherent accusation against the man interviewing.
My temple recommend expires in May, and I will have my husband go with me for that interview. If I weren’t married, I’d ask a friend to join me. I’ll also explain to my leaders why I’ve made this decision – that it’s not about them as individuals but about promoting an environment where these protections are seen as the norm.
For any woman out there who is comfortable having a friend or family member present during those interviews, I’d encourage you to do the same. The more of us who take leadership up on this policy, the more it will send a message that we’re not going to sit still and accept anything and everything a priesthood leader says or does – that we have a right to place limits that can protect us from abuse.