Content Warning: This post contains brief references to rape, molestation, and sexual assault.
My uncle left the LDS church decades ago after graduating from BYU and serving a full time mission. A few years ago, he was baptized into the Catholic Church. He made this decision after attending a mass and recognizing a prostitute in the congregation. “If a prostitute feels comfortable in this service, if she wants to attend this church, then so do I,” he told me.
I am in an abusive relationship with my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I wish I could escape to my uncle’s congregation where I might finally feel safe and welcome. I am not a prostitute, but I am a queer woman. I am also doctrinally heterodox in some of my beliefs because I align myself with the word of God as it is written in scripture–not with the official interpretations of that scripture that, I believe, often distort the truth and beauty of God’s word.
Because I am a student at BYU, however, my church is not a safe space to speak my beliefs. Many of my sisters and brothers are being disciplined for heresy (read a New York Times article on the subject here). Lately I have noticed how my experiences with my church closely parallel the warning signs of abusive relationships. I will use the warning signs as published here to present my experiences:
Do you feel afraid of your partner much of the time?
I sit in Sunday School and Relief Society with burning questions that I am too afraid to ask. I want to talk about sexism in our scriptures, in our culture, in our leadership, but I know that my questions and comments are unwelcome–even dangerous to my well-being. A number of my friends are presently facing discipline for comments and questions they have made in Relief Society.
Do you avoid certain topics out of fear of angering your partner?
I am too afraid to post this in my own name for fear of losing my degree, my home, and my job. (BYU does not practice religious freedom: http://www.freebyu.org/.) I am not welcome to honestly and candidly discuss feminism, sexuality, or gender in Sunday School, Relief Society, or my university courses.
Do you believe that you deserve to be hurt or mistreated?
I have been taught by my elderly, white, male leaders that I deserve punishment, estrangement from my family, and even physical abuse because I am queer. I am told that excommunication is a loving gift from my leaders–not the spiritual and emotional violence that my sisters and brothers experience. Likewise, when my father uses his priesthood authority to silence and disregard my mother, she does not see it as unrighteous dominion or an abuse of priesthood power. Instead, she wonders whether she deserves it, because she promises in the temple that she will obey her husband. My father is never required to make any such promises of obedience to my mother.
Do you wonder if you’re the one who is crazy?
In their recent statement, the general leaders of my church stated “We express profound gratitude for the millions of Latter-day Saint women and men who willingly and effectively serve God and His children. Because of their faith and service, they have discovered that the Church is a place of spiritual nourishment and growth.” (http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-leaders-message-addresses-doctrine-questions). In other words, if I have faith and serve in my church yet I do not experience it as a place of spiritual nourishment and growth, then I’m the one at fault—never my leaders or my church. Here I am told again, as I have been told all my life, that if I perceive something to be wrong with my church–if I identify racism, sexism, or heteronormativity that is halting my spiritual nourishment and growth–then it is because I have not served faithfully enough. That I am in the wrong, but my leaders and church are, as always, infallible.
Do you feel emotionally numb or helpless?
I attend church on Sunday and sit in silence, in pain, and in frustration. My voice is unwelcome just as the voices of Sonia Johnson, Janice Allred, Kate Kelly, Lynne Whitesides, Maxine Hanks, Lavina Fielding Anderson, and D. Michael Quinn are unwelcome. I feel the deadening weight of institutional force in my throat, forcing my words back into darkness. I feel the cycle that I thought we had left behind in 1993 begin again, forcibly severing the body of Christ in the name of patriarchy. As an unmarried, female-bodied person, I am completely powerless to enact change in my church.
Does your partner treat you so badly that you’re embarrassed for your friends or family to see?
I am ashamed to tell my non-Mormon friends and family that women in my Church were forbidden to pray in sacrament meeting until the 1970s and in General Conference until 2013. I am ashamed to say that my mother was raped, I molested, and my friend sexually assaulted by Mormon men who faced no discipline for their actions. I am ashamed that many in my Church would rather celebrate spiritual violence against Kate Kelly than mourn with her.
Does your partner ignore or put down your opinions or accomplishments?
Unless my opinions about gender and sexuality fit into the sanctioned cultural norms of the church, and unless my accomplishments are marrying in the temple and mothering many babies, my opinions and accomplishments are ignored at best and punished at worst.
Does your partner blame you for their own abusive behavior?
My church has no mechanism to hold priesthood holders accountable for unrighteous dominion. Though our scripture teaches that…
41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile (D&C 121:41-42)
…my priesthood leaders are free to threaten, punish, and hurt me as they see fit without accountability. Unlike the American justice system, in which the accused are ensured certain rights, my church’s version of justice favors my priesthood leaders to a fault. Discipline taken against me, my sisters, and my brothers is always considered our own fault—never the fault of our priesthood leaders.
Does your partner see you as property or a sex object, rather than as a person?
In my church, I am told to dress modestly for fear of arousing the boys and men around me. In my church, I am told that my body is walking pornography if I dress the wrong way. I am told that I need to save my body as a gift for my husband, and that it is worth less if it has had any sexual experiences.
“Noticing and acknowledging the signs of an abusive relationship is the first step to ending it.” Over the years, I have learned to respect myself enough to condemn abusive behavior in any form. I wholeheartedly claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of my own conscience, and I allow all women and men the same privilege–even those who have been baptized into the LDS church and may therefore feel that they must believe as they are told. Let them worship how, where or what they may.
My experiences with my church are different from the domestic abuse many women and men experience. I have interpreted these warning signs of abuse in order to understand my relationship to my church, which in no way diminishes or discredits the experiences of women or men in abusive relationships. If you are experiencing emotional, psychological, or physical abuse, please seek help. The following are some resources to help you:
In the US: call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).
UK: call Women’s Aid at 0808 2000 247.
Australia: call 1800RESPECT at 1800 737 732.
Worldwide: visit International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies for a global list of helplines and crisis centers.
Male victims of abuse can call:
U.S. and Canada: The Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men & Women
UK: ManKind Initiative
Australia: One in Three Campaign
Anonymous is a BYU student and lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She has served in LDS wards all her life, including callings as Relief Society president, ward pianist, and Sunday school teacher. If she could add one value to the list she recited in the Young Women’s program, that value would be courage.