By Their Fruits Shall Ye Know

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There is another sex abuse scandal in the LDS church right now. (Who am I kidding? I know of several, but this one is national news/a Big Deal.) You would think, with my background, hearing about this kind of thing would sting, or hit home, or something. Sadly, it doesn’t really. I have thoughts and feelings about the principles of it, but I don’t have super intense emotional responses to this kind of thing because it’s just so damn common and so damn familiar. Thinking that – writing it – does elicit sadness in me, and I guess that is where my heart sits in it. It’s sad. It’s unfortunate. It’s broken and selfish and wrong.

And, so familiar.

My semi-public abuse confrontation was just wrapping up about a year ago, and I was in the middle of it when McKenna Denson released her audio of the confrontation with her perpetrator, former MTC president Joseph Bishop. I sat in bed with my husband one night and we listened to the entire thing. We had already walked through a good part of the process we engaged in at that point. I had (still do – maybe one day I’ll feel free to make those available, but I have concerns that make that not possible at this time) my own recordings from various meetings we had been in with different people, including my perpetrator and my mother (not the same individual, just to be entirely clear.) The thing that really struck me the most as we were in the middle of all this trauma is how familiar this all sounded. The professed regret coupled with quite half-hearted remorse and excuse making. I heard that again today when listening to the audio confession of Sterling Van Wagenen. (Seriously, at one point in this interview, Sean is talking to Van Wagenen about his motivations, with him saying how sorry he was for what he had done. This dude calmly talks about his sex addiction, business struggles and marital problems, discussing how it was all falling apart the night of the abuse and his wife wanted a divorce. He says how he was so distraught and so depressed and he knelt down and said this heartfelt prayer. And, then the story hangs there in mid-air with this pregnant pause. Because what he isn’t saying is the rest of it. “I knelt down and said a heartfelt prayer…………………………………. and then I got up and decided to abuse a child as a way to cope.” Guys, this what religious trauma looks like. This, right here, is where it’s born.) It is disconcerting, but it is not even close to surprising.

I felt very positive when I left the first meeting I had with my ecclesiastical leader. I felt (and still do) that he was genuinely alarmed and intended to do the right thing. I wasn’t completely bulldozed in the meeting with my perpetrator. There was some acknowledgement, and to this day he is very deferent to me, my husband, my sister, anyone he thinks may have the “upper hand”… However, I also experienced his absolute inability to be completely honest with himself let alone me or anyone else. He would tell different stories and different parts of the story to different people depending on what they already knew. When his wife found out and separated from him, he very bitterly exclaimed to her how I had ruined his life. (A bit ironic there, yea, but I have a pretty thick skin at this point. Being consciously healthy under pressure will do that.)

You know, you can say what you want, I guess, about what is and isn’t the case, what did or didn’t happen, or what anyone’s motivations may be, but let’s just go right back to the Mormon constructs we know so well : by their fruits shall you know them. I continue to be honest and open and as frank as I know how with anyone I communicate with about it, and I sleep very well at night knowing what my motivations were and are. It’s up to them and God, I suppose, to decide if they can say the same. I did everything I could, and I feel free from any further responsibility in that.

One of the most eye-opening experiences when confronting abuse in a religious construct is the discernible inability of the religious institutions involved to really have any concept of justice and morality in facing these issues. It is so apparent to me that both myself, McKenna and now Sean Escobar are also intimately acquainted with this. It’s not a fun club, but there is a certain comradery of knowing in it that I think is what drives us all to use our voice to educate, inform and advocate for healthier communities, families and churches, if possible. It’s a hard fight. It feels very up hill. However, something that Sean said in his podcast really struck me, enough so that I posted it on my Facebook page. “You are as sick as your secrets.” (If it’s not this episode, it’s the next.)

I honestly don’t feel that most of the people involved in these situations want to do wrong or cover up or sweep things under the rug. I may have said this on the blog before, and I know I’ve said it in conversations with probably a dozen people. Good people want to do good, but when institutional priorities (traditions, dogmatic structures, reputation) are at odds with priorities and needs of individual people, the priorities of the institution win every. single. time. It’s not even close to a competition. If we want to improve these statistics and protect children, we have to have institutional priorities that people can embrace and feel safe with. If that’s not possible, we collectively have to vote with our feet and walk away until they get enough of a message to be compelled to change. At least that’s how I see it.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Truth and openness and honesty and frank conversations slowly move the needle. I feel like what I did in my community was a pretty small thing. What Sean Escobar and McKenna Denson have done is most assuredly much bigger. (I almost feel embarrassed to speak about this like my platform is equivalent to these two rockstars of abuse advocacy.) But, I think what we would all likely agree on is the value that we find in taking pain and doing something good with it. One voice is very small, but adding each voice can eventually make enough noise to make a difference. We’ve all been given a different burden to carry. Take those bruised pieces, plant them in beautiful ground and go do good in the world with the power your knowledge gives you. By their fruits.

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Let’s Talk About Sex!

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I’ll go ahead and start this post with a disclaimer that I will be frank about this subject. If you’re squeamish about sex in general this might be outside your comfort zone, and you can click away now. (On the other hand, it might be just what the doctor ordered!)

I’ve made it a bit of a life mission to understand relationships in general and intimate relationships specifically. I study people, and it’s not at all uncommon to make a comment in passing about an observation and to later find out that I was actually picking up on something correctly. People fascinate me. How people relate intrigues me. While this has served me well as a tool to nurture a strong and successful marriage, it wasn’t always that way.

The first eight years of my marriage weren’t always amazing, and it was mostly my fault. I was raised in a super conservative community that really didn’t provide much in the way of guidance on what constituted a healthy marriage. Because of my background, I don’t trust men easily, so I went into my marriage with the attitude that men were pretty much pigs but mine was mostly okay. (This legitimately embarrasses me now.) This caused a ton of conflict for me. My husband and I have always had a very strong intimate connection (ahem, we like sex), but I constantly felt a push and pull emotionally about it. I will never, ever forget when that shifted for me. We were arguing one day, and I yelled right in his face, “YOU ONLY WANT ME FOR MY BODY!” My memory of this unfolds in slow motion as I see the face of the most amazing man in my life crumple. I could see in his eyes that I had hit my mark in the most heartbreaking way. I immediately and profusely apologized, but it took many days for things to feel normal again. Some time after that fact, I found (just kidding – he brought it home to me, and I swallowed my pride and actually read it.) The Proper Care and Feeding of Husband’s  and had the most important paradigm shift of my life. Realizing that my husband’s need to connect with me was not only sweet but incredibly flattering was eye-opening, freeing and changed our marriage practically overnight.

My interest in relationships coupled with my abuse background means that I talk to a lot of women about these things and how they relate. (I’m not sure how it comes up, but it does.) What I’ve come to understand is that a LOT of women struggle with sex. A lot of women are conflicted about it. A lot of women aren’t well educated. A lot of women, especially religious women, can’t reconcile the messages they receive, and their relationships suffer. A lot of women eventually give up on it altogether. This makes me so, so sad because it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’ve had a few conversations over the last few weeks that have really made me think about how important this subject has been to my marriage and how I wish more women had a healthier relationship with sex. I guess you can think of this as my list of things I would try to communicate to, say, my daughters (who happen to read this blog – you’re welcome, girls!) about what I hope they won’t have to learn the hard way.

Sex is good for you. As in, active couples experience less stress, less pain, greater immunity, stronger self-esteem and consider themselves happier than couples who aren’t as connected.

When you look behind the curtain around social issues surrounding sex like pornography addiction, there is pretty strong evidence that shame plays a huge part. Unhealthy attitudes about sex can actually contribute to the perpetuation of what psych professionals classify as “intimacy disorders.” Regular sex in healthy contexts reduces  the shame, guilt and disconnection that are the root of these problems.

While there are many things that contribute to divorce and tons of complexity surrounding why marriages fail, having regular sex reduces your overall risk of divorce. Sex is not a band-aid that can fix or save otherwise crumbling marriages, but it does facilitate strong relationships. I have a hard time understanding how people not having regular sex overcome arguments, misunderstandings and the general stress of life. We would have sunk a long time ago.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying your partner. Nothing. If you have issues believing this, see point 2 – guilt and shame weaken families; do it for your kids. (So much innuendo! I couldn’t help myself.) My seemingly pretty conservative father-in-law pulled my husband aside after we said “I do,” patted him on the back and pretty much said, “Go enjoy each other.” I continue to be grateful for that gem of advice.

Regardless of what your personal religious beliefs are, there are very few things between husband and wife that are actually doctrinally prohibited in the bedroom. 95 percent of the things people get up in arms about are pure dogma. If you and your partner are comfortable, safe and connected, everyone else can shut up and get out of your bedroom. The quality of your relationship is the key here. It’s all about respect.

You’re biologically built to connect with your partner. Sex releases prolactin and oxytocin that are known as bonding hormones and literally makes you closer to your spouse. If you’ve noticed that it’s easier to have hard discussions after sex or to overlook things that might bother you when you’re stressed, this is what is at play.

If you genuinely don’t see what all the fuss with sex is about, read a blog, find a counselor or pick up one of the many books that are amazing resources.  It can be better than just something that you get through to have kids. These are a few of my favorites that I recommend regularly.

And They Were Not Ashamed by Laura Brotherson – This is written from an LDS perspective and is particularly suited for those who are either still LDS or those that aren’t but still find it hard to get past cultural messages that can interfere with intimacy.

The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex by Sheila Wray Gregoire – I love everything that this blogger does. She’s Christian but very open and frank.

Intimacy Ignited by Dillow and Pintus – This is an excellent study of the Song of Solomon that can really help people to unlock religious shame around sex.

P.S. I also wanted to link up to my guest feature on http://www.inspireyourmarriage.com. I’m honored to be able to share with a wider audience how I make my marriage a priority. Check it out along with all the other marriage-strengthening stories! (And, welcome to any readers who found me through this blog!

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Wrong With the Modesty Message?

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When you’re raised in Mormon culture, you hear a lot of messages about modesty. Modest is hottest!! Just say no to porn shoulders!! This subject has been ruminating on my mind quite a bit and more especially lately because it was brought up in the marriage group I participate in. There are some issues that break on faith lines, but I don’t think this is one of them. I think women tend to be more bothered by this regardless of their level of orthodoxy, but that is most likely merely because they are more aware of it. My own opinions about how modesty is promoted in religious contexts have evolved a lot since I was a teen myself and as my own daughters have grown toward the autonomy of adulthood. So, what IS wrong with the modesty message?

  1. Shouldn’t it be their body, their choice? Although this hasn’t been something that’s been a part of my parenting for the duration, it has evolved over time to become a message that even my youngest children are very familiar with now. Simply put, I don’t own my children. I teach them my values and dialogue with them about pros and cons of potential choices. But, at the end of the day, it IS their body, and it IS their choice. (Seriously, if people ask their name and they don’t want to share it, I don’t. If you try to coerce them to hug you, Mama Bear comes right out.) The modesty message reinforces the idea that body choices don’t belong to the individual, and that’s a problem for me. My kids don’t need to think about who might be looking at and assessing them whether it be me, my husband or their church leaders, friends or neighbors. You can’t be comfortable in your own skin if you’re not sure who’s in charge of it.
  2. It puts all the pressure on girls. I have sat through countless young women’s lessons about dress, decorum and standards. (And, based on what I’ve observed, the boys don’t focus on this. Statistics show that teen girls receive six times as many modesty messages as teen boys.) I’ve seen people sit in front of a classroom and hold up specific people as examples of either what to wear or what not to wear. (Seriously, ewwww.) Modesty is promoted as the idea that we are worth more than an objectified standard (which we are.) However, objectification cuts both ways. When girls hear over and over that they are better without their shoulders showing, that is pretty objectifying. I know girls that have stopped participating in church activity because they’re so tired/bored/annoyed by the one-dimensional nature of this message. In addition, the modesty message suggests that girls need to worry about what boys think, and that if they aren’t careful, they could be responsible for someone else’s poor decision. This is pretty gross to both men and women, frankly. Men are better than that and, if they’re not, the absence of a tank top is certainly not going to inspire them to be decent because it’s a much bigger problem than anyone’s clothing choices.
  3. There is no cultural context. Simply put, modesty means different things to different people in different environments. It is the cultural norm in some countries, for example, for women to be topless to promote bonding and easier access to breastfeeding for their babies. In sharp contrast, Victorian cultures found ankles to be titillating which seems downright ridiculous in our modern era. The only difference is context. I think it is pretty shortsighted to preach modesty as if this context isn’t fluid. It is. (Did you know that the 1964 BYU Homecoming queen wore a sleeveless dress? Yep. It was pretty common in that cultural context and not considered taboo at all.) Our children, both boys and girls, would be much better served to learn self-respect, responsibility and accountability than to focus on a checklist of dress standards.
  4. It interferes with the development of healthy sexuality. This is an issue that I don’t think most young women really understand because, sadly, it only begins to rear its ugly head when they are adults. The standard modesty message does not promote healthy sexuality. It promotes the idea that “good girls” stick to a narrative that is prescribed, and they are broken and used if they don’t. Except, once a girl is married, then the narrative changes. The problem is that girls can’t flip that switch overnight, and many, many religious women find themselves mired in shame, heartache and misunderstanding with their partner because they literally do not know how to be comfortable as sexual beings. This is so, so sad to me. (How I escaped this attitude myself with my background is a miracle to me.) And, again, young men don’t get this same message. The modesty message gives a wink and a nod to the idea that boys will be boys, leaving the majority of the long-term burden of this consequence to women.

I need to make it perfectly clear that this is not a treatise on what anyone should or shouldn’t wear. In fact, it is just the opposite. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who follows a strong internal compass. I just happen to think that every person should feel free to choose these priorities themselves. I don’t always approve of everything that my kids wear out my door. I hope that my children will choose to invest intimacy in a long-term, committed partnership that includes marriage because I think there’s pretty practical benefits to doing so. We talk about these things, and I give my kids my opinion. But, I am pretty dang defensive about anyone who tries to leverage cultural messages in a way that is unhealthy to them. I haven’t always recognized the modesty message as harmful, and I internalized an awful lot of it myself as a teen and young adult woman.  But, when you know better, you do better, and I hope to give my kids better than what I got in this department. For the rest of my readers, maybe it will, at the very least, provide a different perspective that will give you something to think about. Could we do better? Is there a healthier way? I think so.