Some faces I can’t forget, like the girl from my freshman ward at BYU who habitually confessed her sins to me after she confessed them to our bishop. I barely knew her. She was my age with piercing blue eyes and, when she spoke, her voice sounded as southern as any I’d ever heard. The first time she asked to speak to me privately, her demeanor revealed I shouldn’t decline. I soon found myself sitting outside on a bench with her as she sobbed a confession of sexual indiscretion. My hand reached for hers, and I wondered why she had come to me.
Over the next months, she and I met several times, always at her request and usually soon after she’d interviewed with our bishop. The sins she confessed to him—and then to me—were typical sexual sins for single, LDS people our age: masturbation and “allowing” a boyfriend to grind himself, fully clothed, against her until he climaxed. Fearing I’d misunderstand, she stated emphatically that she remained a virgin.
She was dirt, she said. Heavenly Father rejected her; she’d lost the Holy Spirit and its guidance. Her parents would hate her for ruining their shot at becoming a celestial family. One day, I heard her beg God to remove her innate, sexual interest in men. Shortly thereafter, she panicked that masturbation would turn her into a lesbian, which, in 1980, meant self-chosen sexual deviancy. Clearly, my purpose was to keep her safe from self-harm with compassionate listening and support, something her ecclesiastical visits weren’t offering her.
She never elaborated on her worthiness interviews with our bishop (and I never asked), but her discussion with me proved they were a spiritual beat down. He’d assigned her to read Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness, a book the formal church has stopped publishing for certain wrong-headed claims, each made by an LDS apostle who was, at the time of our meetings, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A prophet. I knew the book well, seeing as it was a missionary staple and I was a fairly fresh convert. I knew much of her abject fear of impending damnation stemmed from the book and was enhanced by the bishop’s testimony of it.
Today the idea that masturbation causes homosexuality is laughable, but to Latter-day Saints forty years ago, it was gospel truth. We know Kimball’s errors deeply wounded our LGBTQ members, but here we see how his erroneous assertions wounded some straight members. Well-intentioned mistakes don’t escape consequences.
I did what I could in my inexperience to convince my friend of God’s love and that her value existed separate from her behavior, but it was a hard sell when the church authorities in her life represented God as vengeful and her situation as spiritually dire.
And yet, her demeanor completely changed when I shared a couple realities with her: 1) just about everyone does or has masturbated, including the bishop who denigrated her, including myself, who, like so many children, discovered the pleasure in their innocence, and 2) that when I’d made a similar confession to my home bishop the previous year, he’d dismissed me with a wave and told me to continue being the good person I am. She stared at me a long while and simply said, “Really?” A few moments of quiet passed, then, “I’m not going to hell?” The Spirit answered her question.
We lost touch after our freshman year. I’m not sure why she chose me to be her confidant, but I’m grateful she did. Our time together has given me decades of reflection. There’s a lot to unpack in her story: leadership roulette, abuse and misuse of ecclesiastical authority, the temperament of God, the degree to which we’ve let sex and sexual behavior distort the gospel message of grace, mercy, justice… And so much more. For me, though, the greatest take-away was the need she felt for female understanding during her confession.
No priestly authority is needed to extend compassion or extol God’s love, nor is it capable of offering forgiveness. Forgiveness is the Lord’s job and his alone. It strikes me that many male leaders of the Church don’t understand how intimidating it is for women to discuss their sexual issues with them—men who sit in judgment of them, men who they see socially and who may be friends with their husbands, men who these women are taught can’t control their libidos when a navel or shoulder is revealed. To them, women must confess “illegitimate” orgasm.
LDS women have been made keepers of male sexual purity, and yet, the men we are to protect tell us our Heavenly Father wants us to confess to them anything deemed sexual misconduct. Not only that, the bishop to whom we must confess can demand we return as many times as he wills, can keep looking us in the eye and prodding us to speak of our sexual arousal. We must comply, we think, until he pronounces us once again worthy.
It defies decency, this practice of one-on-one, closed door, female confession to a male positioned as her spiritual authority. Myriad LDS women could tell stories of the intimidation, humiliation, and, yes, exploitation they experienced during confession, stories we rarely hear and, when told, we often don’t believe because we’re conditioned to protect ecclesiastical authority.
If the Church continues its insistence that confession is a vital part of the repentance process, it must allow women to confess to other women. While I’d love to see women granted a seat with the bishopric, that’s not a current possibility. The logical choice, then, is the Relief Society president (and/or her counselors). And if the Church demands the continued involvement of a male authority, then let that Relief Society president represent the female penitent before that authority and without the penitent’s presence.
What the Church is inflicting via the confessional on its female members is unreasonable and dangerous, even cruel and alienating. Yet it’s the norm. Let’s never assume that what is a normal practice in the Church is made, through association, a virtuous standard. If women were offered the right to common consent and presented the choice between confessing sexual misconduct to male authorities versus female leaders, we’d choose female by an overwhelming majority. Yet, women will never be asked. Therein lies the most unsettling reality.
Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. James 5:15