Porn Addiction in Utah

“What is it with men and porn in Utah?” A friend from out of state asked me that question in a recent online exchange. “I grew up Mormon but not in Utah, and porn is a big deal here, but it seems to be even bigger there. Like is porn addiction a thing? And is it the same as sex addiction? And is it really as big a deal there as they say? And does it have anything to do with women and depression there and how they have the highest rate of anti-depressant usage?”

I responded with a “Whoa, hang on! That’s a lot of questions!” And then we went on to talk for two hours about Utah and its complexities. I’ll summarize a lot of these thoughts here. Keep in mind, reader, that while I am a mental health expert, I fully admit this is not a topic I’ve done personal research on. The thoughts presented here come from my own perspectives, as an ex-Mormon gay father and therapist who has some years of experience behind him. I fully admit my own bias, but there is a lot of truth to my words for many as well.

First of all, since it’s inception, Utah has treated women as a commodity. Mormon men, from the leaders on down, competed for women as an acquisition. There are love stories, sure, but there are also stories of conquest, of older wives being forgotten and set aside as younger wives were obtained. Young virgin girls were hot market items, married off to men two or four or six decades their senior. Men’s names were to be blessed in their righteousness as they fathered children and established lineages on Earth that would follow them into Heaven. And while times have changed, well, a lot of these cultural trends remain the same.

Mormon marriage now is ideally young returned missionary and young out-of-high school girl, both virgins, who marry quickly. She’s promised happiness and motherhood in exchange for her modesty, virtue, and dedication to her husband. She is destined to be a queen and priestess, reigning forever at the side of her husband. It’s church first, then husband and kids, then herself last. Except by age 25, there are 3 or 4 kids and they are screaming and her husband is gone a lot and she doesn’t know what to do. And there is depression. And then one day she finds out that her husband has been secretly watching porn in the basement, and what does that mean. It feels like slaps to the face, an abject betrayal. This isn’t how here life was supposed to go! Why would he do this to her! Isn’t she lovely enough, sexy enough, good enough, isn’t she enough for him? Why would God let this happen? And so she keeps her pain quiet and focuses on the kids and pops anti-depressants and hopes things will work out.

And for him? The Priesthood holder? The one who is burning the candle at both ends, with a full-time job, and debt, and church callings, and the kids, and the wife, the one who is always needed and is expected to be pure and righteous? He is meant to be a king and priest in Heaven, to have his own kingdom, his own planet one day. It’s church first, then wife and kids, then work, then him last. But he can barely seem to keep his energy and morale up for the things happening around him in his busy household. It’s all too much. And porn, well, it’s an easy escape. It’s indulgent. It’s secret. It’s not hurting anybody. It’s contained to a laptop screen. He can look up what he wants, pleasure himself. And if that gets boring, he can always jump online, into chatrooms, maybe exchange some photos or jump on a webcam, so long as he doesn’t show his face. It’s private and exciting. He gets attention from women (or at least men pretending to be women) that aren’t his wife. And so it becomes a habit. He stays up late multiple times per week. 15 minutes easily turns into 2 or 3 hours. He’s not addicted, he tells himself, he just enjoys it, so long as no one finds out, and he can keep the reality of it all in a different box, one that isn’t connected to his faithfulness or his Priesthood at all.

Except then he gets caught. He stammers lies about how often he does it, how much there has been, how far he has gone. He lies, and then makes excuses, and then blames others. There is shame and penitence. He has been told hundreds of times from his Priesthood leaders about the evils of pornography, about how it burns images permanently into your brain. Just one second, one image, that is all it takes and you are forever unclean. And now his wife is furious, and there is even less sex. He’s sent to the bishop. He vows to never do it again. She’s crying constantly, feeling lied to, betrayed. She was faithful and it isn’t supposed to be like this. It’s wrong, and he’s bad, and he’s unworthy. And if he relapses and gets caught again, well, he needs to go to therapy, to sex addiction recovery, where he can sort out what is wrong with him and make himself a better son of God, a more worthy Priesthood holder.

There are pornography and sex addiction recovery clinics all over Utah. They specialize in helping men move past the desires of the flesh and be better. Pornography is evil, vile, wrong. In fact, just a few years ago, the Mormon governor declared pornography a health epidemic. On a governmental level. (Seriously.) And so the man either gets better, or he finds more discreet ways of meeting this dark need. Or maybe he starts cheating. Utah does have a thriving prostitution industry, after all.

(And if you feel like this characterization is unfair or dramatic, take a moment to assess the people you know in Utah, even your own friends and families. Chances are, this describes more than a few of those men, women, or couples, if not now, than a few years back. This represents nearly every Mormon family I know, honestly).

So is there such thing as porn addiction? Absolutely. Food can be addictive. As can bad relationships, or gambling, or work. When you engage in something in one area of your life that is hurting the other areas; when you spend hours and hours on it; when you are keeping major secrets and justifying bad behavior; when you are telling lies and making excuses; all of these things contribute to addiction. But it is very important to understand that porn is not an addiction for everyone. In fact, studies show that porn is mostly addictive in heavily religious cultures and communities, ones that treat sex with shame, one with rigorous standards of what it means to be worthy.

Utah is well-known for having a poor sex education system in place. Safe sex isn’t discussed so much as abstinence. Sex is equated with shame, revulsion, and sin. Every human teenager has a sexual development taking place, it comes along with the hormones and the genitals. They experience attractions and desires. Those who have pre-marital sex are considered dirty, or damaged goods. And what extends with that is a culture of secret keeping. Let’s not talk about sex, let’s keep our sins secret, and let’s ignore the sexual things happening all around us. Looks bury our desires, never talk about them, never masturbate, never learn, and instead save ourselves for marriage. And then let’s marry our young sons and daughters and see what happens.

And what happens? Depression and addictions to pornography. Men and women grow up into adults while never allowing their sexual sides, which are just as prominent as their spiritual sides, to develop. Those sides stay stuck in adolescence. They seek expression. They cry out for release. And it’s even rougher on gay men and women, who have the added burden of growing up of being ashamed for WHO they are attracted to, leaving more psychological and emotional needs unmet.

I could likely prepare an entire two-hour conference on this, but I’ll wrap it up here. After a robust discussion, my friend asked me how I help people through all of this.

As a man, I struggled with pornography and masturbation during my Mormon years, when I was both married and single. Both resulted in major depression and anxiety problems for me, as well as physical issues. I had nausea, major stress, and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea issues after indulging in pornography or masturbation, and those conditions extended to when I would even notice an attractive man on the street. “I experienced an attraction! Oh no! I’m evil, God hates me, what have I done!” as my stomach churned. Now I live as an out, proud gay man. I’m sexually active, and I occasionally view porn. Masturbation is a pleasurable activity on occasion as well. And I experience zero shame in relation to any of it. I accept my sexual identity as very much a part of my overall person. I’m not a sinner or an addict. I’m just a healthy human 40-year old man.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of clients come to me with goals of reducing masturbation or to work on their pornography addictions. I take these concerns seriously. I listen. I reflect. I’m kind and calm andpatient. But I have to help the clients recognize that the shame they feel around sex is the primary cause of their emotional struggles. I have to help them learn to accept and love themselves, all parts of themselves, and then make decisions from there. I have to help them measure out their motivations. If their goal remains to watch pornography less, or to masturbate less, listen to the difference between these motivations.

“My goal is to masturbate less because when I do it, I am dirty and wrong. I’m breaking my covenants and making God disappointed in me. I’m sinning and permanently damaging myself. It’s going to take me years to earn back the trust of my wife, and I’m no longer worthy to go to the temple. Help me!”

Or: “My goal is to masturbate less because I want to live up to my covenants. I accept and embrace myself as a human person who has sexual desires. I was created that way and I’m not ashamed of that. Sexual desire is normal and natural, but I want to be a stalwart husband and father, and to live the teachings of my religion, so I want to make some changes to that behavior.”

Those are very different places to begin from. As for me? I don’t see anything wrong with a bit of porn, masturbation, or sexual activity, so long as it is from within the ethics and guidelines of the person’s overall life plan. Those things don’t fit in certain relationships or religions. Consent and ethics and all of that applies here, of course. And that’s where an individual has to measure out his or her own value system, because hurting the people you love isn’t the desired result here. Addictions or dependencies in any form, to food or alcohol or porn, are damaging and need to be worked on. But being a porn addict doesn’t make you a sex addict. Take accountability of yourself and be ethical and make your life decisions around that. Because shame is going to ruin you otherwise.

Embrace all of the parts of you, and learn how to be healthy. The rest will fall into place.

(And for those of you not in Utah, well, I love it here, really. It’s super charming. But oh my stars is it strange. And one way to emphasize that: there is a whole genre of porn under the category of ‘Mormon’. Both gay and straight. Seriously. It’s like a thriving industry. Fascinating, I tell you.)

 

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Cat-calls and hate speak

At 9 am on Saturday morning, Mike and I were holding hands as we walked down the sidewalk. It was our third day in New Orleans, and we had grown relatively familiar with the city streets around where we were staying.

We walked past a few hotels, one so decked out in Christmas decorations that it looked like Santa had vomited all over it. Girls in fancy dresses walked on the sidewalk with their rich parents, on their way to something called ‘Teddy Bear Tea’. A high school team for some sport or another took up space, all of them on their phones as they stood there idly. And, as you find in any big city, we saw a few people asking for cash and handouts mixed among them.

A small group of teenage girls walked out of the hotel in front of us and turned the same corner we did. They must have been between 17 and 20 years old, and they were dressed in comfortable clothes, shorts and t-shirts, perhaps heading out on a quick coffee run. As we approached the corner, I noticed two men sitting on some steps in front of an entrance to an apartment walk-up. Both were African-American, one probably sixty years old, the other around forty. They were engaged in an animated conversation, then they looked up at the girls walking by.

“Ooooooh, girls girls girls!” The younger man said, cocking his head, making a few small whistling sounds as his friend cooed. “Girls!”

The older man turned his full body toward them, his hands on his legs. “My-my-my look at that!” His voice was full of enthusiasm. “What’s your hurry, young girls?”

My brow furrowed in disgust as I witnessed this. I whispered to Mike, “Good God, is this what girls deal with?”

Mike muttered, “Apparently.”

The last of the girls walked by, and the younger man gave another happy moan sound. “Look at that, a tall one! She must play volleyball! Girl, I’d like to spike you!” He spoke loudly and I saw the girl wince. The sixty year old gave his friend a high-five, and my eyes must have flashed fury as I walked by. I briefly considered something, but realized it wasn’t worth it in this context. I simply whispered a ‘Gross’ loud enough for Mike to hear.

The light was red at the end of the block, and we had to wait to cross the street. I was watching the girls, wondering if I should say something to them, when I heard the voice from behind me.

“Faggots!”

I craned my head back in shock, and the younger man looked at me with challenge in his eyes. My jaw dropped slightly. “What the fuck?” I said, loud enough for him to hear me, then the light turned green and Mike tugged on my hand as we walked across the street.

My heart was still thudding three blocks later. “I’ve never been called a faggot before!” I said. “Wait, that’s not true. Like, back in high school, guys would tease other guys and called them faggots. My step-dad called me names, but it was never ‘faggot’. I can’t believe that just happened!”

Ironically, the day before, Mike and I had had a small argument just a few blocks away. We’d seen a group of elderly Asian women with microphones standing on a busy street corner, all chanting out about how Jesus saves, demanding that everyone turn from sin. I’d wanted to hold his hand tightly, to show courage and bravery, and he’d felt nervous, not wanting any sort of uncomfortable confrontations. We’d made up quickly. And yet, here we were being called ‘faggots’ the very next day.

I usually feel safe in big cities. I stopped worrying a long time ago about holding hands with my boyfriend in Salt Lake City; the few ugly looks we got didn’t bother me at all. Most big cities have gay areas of town, kind of like “Chinatown” or “Little Italy”, districts where there were gay clubs and gay friendly businesses. In New Orleans, we were staying near the French Quarter, which was full of loud music, shops, and drunk people, and it was very gay friendly. I counted no less than eight (yes eight) gay clubs within a mile radius of where we were staying. It was the little towns, in places like Wyoming or central Utah, where I get nervous holding hands, or, in other words, being openly gay.

After being called a faggot, I wondered if I should perhaps be more worried, more careful. I’ve been assaulted and mugged on big city streets, not for begin gay, but still. I’ve talked about this in other blogs, but holding hands with a man while walking the streets kind of puts me on an autopilot of defensiveness. It makes me feel like everyone notices. People sometimes notice and then try to act like they didn’t, some act with derision or looks of disgust, and many go the opposite way and go out of their way to be friendly or complimentary. It felt rare to feel, well, not noticed.

The past few days in New Orleans, we’d had a lot of the third kind of experience, the cute looks, the friendly faces, people working hard to make us feel welcome or, perhaps, they are just genuinely happy to see a bit of diversity in their neighborhoods. One woman told us, “Ya’ll are cute!” when we walked by. A heavyset black woman practically stopped us on the street one morning, yelling us down. “Hey! Hey! I wanna hold ya’ll’s hands, too! I’ll go right in the center! Ya’ll need some chocolate in the middle of all that white!” Mike and I had both laughed heartily. And then perhaps the most delightful encounter, when we’d passed a group of college kids on the street, and a tall nerdy white guy with glasses, who was holding hands with his girlfriend, pointed at us as we walked by. “You guys. Whatever this is, I’m into it, I respect it, and I like it very much.”

We kept holding hands as we walked. No one else called us ‘faggots’, that day or any other. Perhaps those men didn’t realize the power of that word or what it represented. Perhaps they didn’t know how we were bullied growing up, forced to play a role in a closet so that we wouldn’t make those around us uncomfortable. Perhaps they didn’t know that during this trip, we visited the memorial of a mass murder right here in New Orleans, where forty years before dozens of gay men had been burned alive in a gay club in one of the country’s worst hate crimes ever. Perhaps he was just showing off for his friend. Maybe he didn’t know what it was like to be gay and holding hands on the street.

But then I remembered that he was black, and his experience being a black man in white racist America, while different than mine, must elicit some of the same reactions. I also remembered the way he talked to those young women. This was a man who didn’t care how others felt, who didn’t look outside of his own experiences. The world was full of wonderful people, but it was also full of bullies. And, I remembered, it only takes one man to hurt another.

And these realizations made me clutch Mike’s hand all the tighter.

A Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille

sawdust

The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose. The signs hanging on the busy walls (those filled with animal heads, kitsch, and signatures in black marker) described how the Red Dog bar in Juneau had been built in 1912, to entertain the gold rushers here. I pictured the classic Wild West setup, with girls named Kitty in scandalous clothing, men in hats playing loud poker at the tables, and swinging saloon doors. They’d done a beautiful job making this space feel just like that. Crowded walls, greasy food, cheap beer, and a man who looked like an old-timey prospector playing the guitar on the small stage up front.

He sang a melancholy Johnny Cash song while I ordered a rum and Coke, casually observing the other patrons. The employees were dressed in period costumes. I pictured them here every day, making drinks, fries, and oyster shots for the thousands of cruise passengers who docked in the city in for mere hours. The tourists hit this gem of a town like a plague of locusts, buzzing in and out, consuming everything, until they flew back to their buffets, drinks, and pools aboard the ship. Two or three ships every day, clogging the streets, then leaving the place quiet in the evenings, for just the locals and the more long-term tourists, the ones more like me.

Four white couples sat all around me, and at least three of them were shit-faced drunk. At 8 pm on a Sunday night. The other couple, they never looked up from their phones, and I never saw them sip their beers. I casually listened to the stutters of conversation I could hear around me, but I tuned them out and instead focused on the singer. His leathered skin, his twisting white mustache, the oak barrel country twang in his voice, it was all just delicious. I sipped my drink as he sang.

“This next song is a favorite of mine,” the singer announced. “It’s by my old friend, Kenny Rogers. He told me about this woman, the one named Lucille, personally. He wrote a song about her! Sing along with the chorus if you know it.” He clearly didn’t actually know Kenny Rogers, but it somehow added to the authenticity of the experience.

And in his beautiful register, he began “Lucille.” This song automatically conjured up a bitter and happy nostalgia within me. How many times had I heard this classic country song in my teenage years, when my stepfather was in one of his good moods, filling the house with joy, love, and consistency. But those periods always followed an incident of extreme violence. Someone struck with an open hand, or grounded for weeks for with no cause, or called names until they cried, and then on came the happy music. Into the room came “Lucille.” Had I even heard this song in the two decades of my life since my stepfather had been gone? It felt strange to hear it now.

He sang, using Rogers’ words, of the bar in Toledo where a lonely and overwhelmed Lucille walked in and sat on a nearby stool, pounding back a few drinks. You don’t learn until later in the song that Lucille is trapped in a bad marriage with four hungry children and an overworked farmer for a husband. But in the second line of the song, you learn how she takes off her wedding ring, and she shortly announces that she’s looking for a good time.

But the singer changed things, trying to get a laugh. He sang, “On a barstool, she took off her clothes.” He stopped playing, then said, “Oh, did I say clothes? I of course meant ring!” He cackled, then kept laughing as the drunk crowd just talked over his music. The words tell of the singer moving down next to Lucille, seeing an opportunity with a willing woman, but immediately the singer saw the woman’s husband enter, a mountain of a man with calloused hands. The first chorus echoed that man’s words to his wife, and I sang along loudly.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field. I’ve had some bad times, lived through some sad times, but this time the hurtin’ won’t heal. You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.'”

After the chorus, the singer stopped, explaining that that wasn’t the way it really happened. In the real story, as Rogers had told it to him, he said, Lucille’s husband had come in and let Lucille just how he felt. He’d walked in yelling, telling Lucille exactly what she was.

“The real chorus goes like this. It’s almost the same, but just sing it like this,” he said. “‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.‘ Then you just call out what her husband called her in that bar. ‘You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Those are the actual words used in the real story! See, just try it with me. ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Hey, you did great! Doesn’t that feel good! Let’s try the chorus all together now! ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut! ‘With four hungry children, and a crop in the field!'” 

I was astounded. The audience all around me screamed the words out enthusiastically, eager to slut-shame Lucille as much as possible, or perhaps just thrilled to get to shout those words in public. The girl in front of me, the whitest white girl of all, shouted the words extra loud and with enthusiasm, her middle fingers raised up for effect. “You bitch! You whore! You slut!” she repeated, before taking a swig of her beer, drunk laughing, then leaning over to her husband and whispering a secret. “That’s hilarious, that slut!”

The song went on, into the third voice. The singer ordered whiskey and took Lucille back to his hotel room, but was unable to go through with it, because he couldn’t stop thinking about what the husband said. Cue the second chorus, and the audience happily called Lucille a whore and a bitch one more time.

The singer took his hand off the guitar and leaned into the microphone. “Now, on the radio, that was the end of the song. Kenny Rogers couldn’t get away with publishing the fourth verse, the censors wouldn’t allow it. But he told it to me. Ladies and gentlemen, right here, in the Red Dog, you can hear the real ending of the classic song, Lucille, are you ready?” The crowd cheered. I felt a little nervous. This man was not treating Lucille well, and I just knew it was about to get worse.

In the secret fourth verse, he sang about how Lucille had left the hotel room, and so the singer had returned to the bar, where he had met two sisters. He took both sisters back to his hotel room, took of their clothes, and was about to fool around with both of them, when Lucille came back into the hotel room, still wanting to be with him, apparently. And to get her to go away, now that he had better prospects, the singer had repeated the husband’s words in a third chorus.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!'”

I walked out of Red Dog, my mind spinning with the whole experience. I felt disgusted. I felt strangely protective of Lucille, though she was fictional. She had once represented happy times in my home. I didn’t like how the crowd had slut-shamed her, blaming her for seeking an escape from her tortured marriage. I didn’t like the man in the song and how he’d shamed Lucille while he himself was trying to sleep with two sisters. I knew it was all supposed to be a joke, that people there had been laughing, but I kept hearing the crowd chanting bitch, slut, and whore, and I kept seeing that woman with her raised middle fingers. They shamed Lucille for sexualized behavior while screaming with enthusiasm for Kenny Rogers and his supposed debauchery. It was gross. Lucille didn’t deserve that, I decided. And then I remembered the venue, the atmosphere of the people there.

The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose.

Fragile Mormon Ego

In a college class I taught a few years ago, right in the heart of Salt Lake City, what many locals might call the “Mormon Bubble”, during which we discussed the way Utah is viewed by the rest of the world. (In fact, I think I even blogged about this. It can be hard to remember). We talked about all of the times that Utah has hit the international media circuits over the past few years.

The actively LDS students in the room had hoped that stories about Utah would be related to charity work, to missionary work, and to Christian examples. But universally every story that we found was, well, negative. Maybe even a little bit embarrassing.

We found stories on CNN, Fox News, and other sites that were related to how Mormons make policies against gay people and fight gay marriage, about how gay teens are committing suicide, and about young women coming forward at BYU and in churches who were told to keep their sexual assaults quiet by church leaders (or worse, they were blamed for their own assaults). There were stories about tithing dollars being used to build a mall, about how BYU was being considered for a list of institutions that were known to hate gay people, and how Utah was leading the nation in gender discrimination in the workplace statistics. We made lists of these headlines, and they were hard to face up to.

One student in the classroom, a lovely LDS girl who worked hard to love everyone, raised her hand and wondered aloud why people saw the church she and her family loved so much with so much hatred and vitriol, why they laughed at things that were sacred to her. We had a discussion about reputation, and about how things can look different from the inside than from the outside. She was receptive to feedback, and ultimately it was a strong and openminded lesson for all involved. (She is my favorite kind of Mormon. She loves her church, and she is open to the ideas of others around her).

Well, yesterday, Utah hit the national headlines again, this time for a bizarre poster that was printed up on BYU campus. A small organization that is part of the school’s math department, called Women in Math, created an event in which four of the school’s beloved math professors would speak to those in attendance. The young woman who created the poster placed four photos of the teachers across the top, then the name of the organization underneath them. So it resulted in… four white guys over a heading that read ‘Women in Math’. And then, in the most Mormon way possible, the poster finished with “There will be treats. All levels of math welcome.”

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I copied this to my own Facebook wall with a roll of my eyes, and the tagline “Mormons gotta Morm. Oh BYU, what have you done now?”

Swiftly, like all things on Facebook, some of the comments became politicized. Some decried that all Mormons are misogynistic. (I argued that while the organization and belief system is misogynistic, that doesn’t mean the individual members are). Others, actively Mormon, felt their religion was being attacked and began writing out lists of facts in defense of their beliefs. This lead to some back and forths, some private messages, and, well, a few Facebook unfriendings before it was all finished.

These days, it takes a lot to get me fired up. I use a life motto, a Jewel song lyric that I refer back to often: “No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.” As such, I am careful with who I allow into my life, who I choose to engage with. I keep a far distance from all things Mormon in my day-to-day life, but it still hits me regularly because of my family, my community, my friends, and my clients. It’s hard to stay far from. And when you’ve lost a few friends to suicide, it is very difficult not to get very passionate about.

In a few of those private chats, one friend abjectly refused to admit that the Mormon religion is homophobic, racist, and misogynistic, and they felt that my stating such was a direct attack on their beliefs and family. “How would you feel if I said terrible things like this about gays?” they said, to which I responded, “Many gays are absolutely misogynistic, racist, and even homophobic, but not inherently. And there is a huge difference between a sexual orientation, which is not chosen, and a religious belief system, which is chosen.” Despite this, they refused to bend.

Now here is the thing, I remember how fragile my ego as a Mormon used to be. The slightest criticism of the prophets, the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or the Church led me to defensively dig in my heels and refuse that there could be any flaws. But even when I dug in, I knew I had doubts about polygamy, about the way the church treats women, blacks, and gays, and about its weird mystical/esoteric history. (God lives on another planet, remember. It’s all very Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.)

But even the most rational person can admit that the Mormon church (as well as the wider society around it) is abjectly homophobic, racist, and misogynistic. It denied blacks the Priesthood and taught that they were cursed with blackness by God! It currently calls gay marriage apostate and doesn’t allow children of gay couples to be baptized! Women bow their heads in temple ceremonies and promise to subject themselves to their husbands… with their faces veiled!

If you are Mormon, I understand you. I empathize with you. And I probably like you. But if your ego is so fragile that you can’t admit basic facts, well, I have very little room for you in my life ultimately.

But back to that Women in Math poster, come on, that is hilarious. And if you can’t laugh with me, well there is probably not much room for you either.

Rape is a Verb

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abduct. abuse. molest. violate. pillage. spoil. plunder. devastate. loot. ransack. rob. 

In graduate school, I was hired by a feminist professor to create a group on campus called CEASE. It was meant to be a club where men could get together and discuss the impact of their violence against women in society. The teacher had received a sizable grant to create this club. In my interview with her, she heard about my experiences as a Mormon missionary and my volunteer opportunities as a student in undergraduate school, she asked about my professional experiences and educational passions, and she looked over my impressive GPA and letters of reference. She then offered me ten dollars an hour, for up to ten hours per week, to create this group.

maraud. raid. snatch. raze. ruin. wreck. consume. damage. demolish. disrupt. impair. 

I had always been interested in men’s issues. As a survivor of sexual abuse myself, I had read text books devoted to men’s healing, and I’d become aware of the concepts and struggles behind masculinity. I’d watched powerful documentaries on the same topics. The culture of men was one of bullying, of hyper-masculinity, of always being the toughest and the strongest. Men was encouraged culturally to demonstrate their power, first over women and then over other men, particularly ones who were weak or more feminine. Words were used to constantly shame others, to show power and position, to come out on top. Women were called bitch and slut, weaker men were called fag and sissy. The expectation to be strong started at birth and was reinforced in the school districts and homes, and then well into adulthood.

shatter. annihilate. crush. desecrate. desolate. despoil. exterminate. sack. smash. 

Men filled the prison systems to overflowing. Men committed atrocities in war. Men murdered. Men hit. Men raped. Men molested. Men committed violence. Men ruled the world and smashed all else beneath their feet, and they fought to maintain that power at any cost. Old movies and television shows were filled with jokes about men being forced to hit their wives to keep them in place. Entire cultures were built on men finding sexual pleasure while denying women theirs. Slavery, atomic bombs, concentration camps, hate crimes. Entire cultures of violence and horrible atrocities committed by men toward women and other men. The implications of this in organized religion, in sports culture, in Hollywood, in video games, in laws, in distribution of wealth, in cartoons, in big business, and in quiet family homes was immeasurable across time, and immeasurable in today’s society. My mind spun as I read and learned about men, and their culture, and what they were capable of. And I was now being asked to start a group and engage men on these topics.

overthrow. wrest. absorb. deplete. devour. dominate. squander. command. control. 

I had no idea how to compute all of this information as a 24 year old student. My experiences with men had been strictly within my own spheres. I was a white Mormon kid, and nearly all of my interactions had been with other white Mormon guys, or as a consumer of white American media. Every one of my experiences showed me that men were the leaders, the teachers, the rulers, the guides. Men were presidents and bosses, hunters and rulers. Women were meant to be in the home, to be mothers, to work if they had to and then only in fields suited for women, perhaps as teachers, nurses, or social workers. Occasionally, women were accepted as leaders, but only when men weren’t available; queens when there were no kings, mothers as heads of household when there were no fathers. I began to realize that nearly every part of my upbringing reinforced the ideas that women should stay silent, be pretty, and step aside so that men could do the work and run the world on their terms. I’d fully participated in this culture without even realizing it. And my new awareness came at tremendous discomfort and pain.

monopolize. influence. reign. scour. eviscerate. disembowel. subvert. empty. exhaust. 

I began reflecting upon my personal experiences of men in my life. At 12, I had been given the Priesthood, a religious authority I would carry with me for as long as I remained a worthy Mormon. I was given a lineage of my Priesthood, stretching back to the origins of the Mormon church, from man to man, passed down to me. Ordinances in the church could only be passed from men on, and authority to do these ordinances only from man to man. In addition, I had the last name of my father, who took his name from his father. I carried with me masculine rights and expectations. I would grow up to throw balls, to serve a Mormon mission, to marry a woman who would take my name, to father children, to choose a career and support a family. I had to do all of these things in order to be a successful man. On top of that, even if I liked men, I would pretend to like women. For that is what men did. And while I did this, girls were meant to do the opposite, to be smart, pretty, and ready for a man to come along and give them purpose in their lives.

drain. dump. consume. destroy. suppress. waste. extinguish. bulldoze. wreck. erase. 

And yet the men in my own life were, universally, the people who had hurt me. There were good men in my life, to be sure, men of power and strength, grace and kindness. But it was a man who had molested me. It was a brother who bullied me at home, and male peers who bullied me at school. It was a father who had abandoned me. It was a stepfather who had ruled over me with fists and shaming words. It was male church leader who had told me I must keep quiet about my homosexuality and seek to cure it, and another who had later told me it couldn’t be cured, that I would just have to learn to live with it. It was men who surrounded me on the street, mugged me, and knocked me unconscious with fists. It was men who called me sissy, fairy, and fag. No single woman had been unkind or had hurt me. It was men, all men.

topple. wipe Out. pulverize. dismantle. obliterate. trash. crush. bankrupt. injure. mar. 

The research showed statistics. It talked about the rates of sexual assaults on college campuses, in families, and in church. One study reported that the greatest fears expressed in groups of women were fears of being raped or attacked by men. The same study stated that the greatest fears expressed in groups of men were fears of being laughed at, or seen as less than, by other men. Women were afraid of men, and men were also afraid of men! It was here that I first became aware of how scared a woman is walking to her car at night in a dark parking lot, or of being alone in an elevator with another man, or of being watched in a bar be predatory eyes, or of being alone with a male authority figure. I became aware how women were blamed for their own rapes, beatings, or assaults, dismissed with scorn and told they should have known better than to speak up, provoke, flirt, or be alone. It was here I first learned that there is an entire society, an entire culture, built on Rape.

hurt. overwhelm. wrack. unmake. upset. undo. total. level. break. dethrone. dismiss. 

With this new awareness came great shame. I sensed a deep awareness of my own complicity in this, through participation in this culture of rape. It seeped into every section of society. I had never been violent, had never committed a rape, yet I had remained ignorant and unaware of the wider issues. I had participated fully without realizing it. And I realized I had been completely denied an education. I had never been taught more than this, never made aware of the truth. Because men controlled education. Law. Health care. History itself. The entire world was built on rape.

abolish. expel. decline. disband. dissolve. dispatch. disperse. divorce. repudiate. push. 

I returned to the teacher after my first few weeks of research, feeling overwhelmed and despairing. I can’t possibly do this, I said, I don’t know how. And she told me that my helplessness was good, that that was the perfect place to begin a group like this from. I needed to feel helpless and overwhelmed. I needed to be willing to listen. I needed to realize that men didn’t know what was happening around them, that their rage was unjustified and inexcusable, yet also needed to be expressed. Men needed to be held accountable, and also needed help, treatment, understanding, counseling, and love. How else would we make make change in the world, she asked.

supersede. assault. defile. thrust. wrench. twist. wring. extort. invade. debauch. punish.

And so I made up fliers, advertising a weekly support group, a lunchtime meeting where we could discuss topics in a safe space. For men only. I handed out brochures at the local fraternities, put up sign up lists in dormitory hallways. I went to sports games, visited other group organizations, and talked to peers. I planned out topics we could explore, preparing content. Men and religion. Men and pornography. Men and fatherhood. Men and sports. Men and movies. Men and sexual assault. Men and alcoholism. Men and bullying. Men and video games. There was more than I could cover in a year, but the group had to start somewhere.

befoul. profane. pollute. ravish. captivate. enthrall. restrict. ambush. beat. hit. hurt. 

And on the first week of the group, no one attended. I visited classrooms and advertised. On week two, no one attended. I created an online forum and posted in social media groups. On week three, no one attended. I stood outside the library and handed out fliers. On week four, no one attended. I continued reporting to the professor about CEASE, and she smiled and told me to keep notes on my planning and efforts. Se reminded me that some effort was better than none, and that even if no one attended, I was trying and I was doing a good job. I felt helpless and frustrated, I said. Think of how women feel, she said.

infiltrate. stab. strike. advance. aggress. bash. bat. beset. blister. brain. bust. clip. 

I held sixteen meetings of CEASE in all, and no one ever attended. I continued attending classes and writing papers, taking tests. I had an internship where I helped children who had been hurt by men, or who had been neglected by women who had been hurt by men. The world around me felt evil. In time, I graduated, and I became a therapist. I worked with veterans (hurt by men) and victims (hurt by men). I worked with sexual offenders and victims, rapists and victims, domestic abusers and victims. In nearly every session, there was some example of men hurting women, either in the direct story of the client or in their family. I regularly felt overwhelmed, hurt, and exhausted. The way violence by men, the way rape infiltrated every level of humanity hurt my heart.

clock. club. combat. kick. thrash. whip. slog. mug. punch. rush. wallop. whop. knock. 

In an early conversation with the professor, she asked me if I had an understanding of what women went through. Without telling her I was gay, I told her that I knew how it felt to be bullied for being different and to have someone treat me unfairly. I told her I had been molested and that no one had really taken it seriously, and how I didn’t feel like I could talk about it much. And she told me that I understood better than most men, then explained that in her experience, most women experience what I’d experienced in far greater quantities, and that they often felt helpless and powerless, and that it was far more frequent for women of color.

snuff. crucify. martyr. harrow. persecute. torture. torment. excoriate. rack. wrong.

Yet I also began to realize that while most men are never held accountable for their actions, are never prosecuted, and are never punished. But for those that are held accountable for sexual harassment, for battery, for domestic violence, for aggravated assault, for sexual assault, for murder… for those who have consequences, they are punished with fines, suspensions, or jail sentences. They aren’t offered treatment. They aren’t given an education to make change. Instead, they are penalized. And then they turn around and blame women.

inflict. offend. confine. spank. chastise. incarcerate. flog. exile. cuff. chasten. blacklist. 

It’s 2017 now, and I have worked as a therapist for nearly a decade and a half. My experiences in my office haven’t changed. I can hardly count the number of survivors of rape, assault, and molestation who have crossed my path, struggling to survive after being hurt by another, nearly always a man, and on occasion by a woman who has been hurt by a man. The modern media is full of headlines about atrocities that have been there all along. Every day there are stories of police brutality, murders, human trafficking, war atrocities, mass shootings, and sexual assault, and they are, every one of them, stories about men’s violence against women.

accost. fondle. injure. maltreat. hinder. meddle. misuse. caress. grope. squeeze. stroke. 

Every day lately there are stories about women’s experiences with men in power scattered across the media. Drugs dropped into drinks to make rape easier. Coercion and abuse of power. Quick gropes during photographs. Lewd words and labels. Threatening invitations in hotel rooms during work trips. Drunken encounters. Rape has become a topic for nighttime comedians to crack jokes about, and people are constantly feeling helpless, inundated by these stories.

paw. pet. grab. clutch. manipulate. maneuver. exploit. direct. massage. upstage. eclipse. 

And yet it is the stories in my own family that horrify me more. In a recent conversation with my mother, she told me about being a teenager, when a man entered her place of employment and thrust an envelope of pornography at her, moving as if to grab her, something she narrowly escaped. Decades later, she still remembers how this made her feel. And she, the survivor of abandonment and domestic violence at the hands of her husbands.

outweigh. govern. rule. dictate. boss. handle. outshine. overbear. override. sway. 

I think of one of my sisters, who had a boss harass her daily in her workplace. He would comment on her breasts, wonder about her sexual prowess, use lewd and offensive terms, and refer to his penis on a regular basis. She would come home daily, to her husband and children, shaking, scared, humiliated, and embarrassed, knowing that if she spoke up about this, it would be her word against his and that she might lose her job.

subjugate. tyrannize. enslave. tame. suppress. compel. squelch. quash. snuff. stamp. 

I think of another sister, who made friends with a neighbor and her husband, and how the husband would sometimes corner my sister, exposing his genitals and telling her how she could have him and his wife would never have to know, and how the same man got her phone number and would send her suggestive comments and photos of his penis. And when my sister finally grew bold enough to speak out, how her friend blamed her, choosing her husband’s side.

stifle. withhold. bottle. shush. silence. overpower. crack. bludgeon. whack. zap. shoot. 

I think of another sister who, as an adolescent, sat down in the bathtub privately only to have her stepfather enter the room, his eyes lingering as he stimulated himself through his clothing, before apologizing, saying his entrance was an accident. This same man constantly shamed her for her size, calling her fat and ugly during moments of anger, and offering her love and encouragement when he felt happy.

murder. assassinate. behead. butcher. decapitate. execute. massacre. slaughter. slay. 

I think of my recent family reunion, where I saw a creepy older relative, a man in his 70s, tell one of his nieces that she had ‘the best ass in the family’ as he grabbed her from behind, the same man who had commented on another niece’s breast size, the prettiness of another, the development of another. When I brought this up with another relative, I learned that many of the young women in the family have learned to never let themselves be alone with this man, how they felt objectified and uncomfortable, but how they didn’t want to speak up because they felt like that would hurt the man’s relatives.

strangle. choke. asphyxiate. drub. electrocute. eradicate. finish. garrote. hang. split. 

I think of my ex-wife, who told me stories of early development and being treated differently as an adolescent by boys who sought to exploit her for having breasts. I think of her stories as a student in high school and college, among students and teachers with wandering eyes and passing comments about her figure. I think of her stories as an employee in professional settings, where men would condescend to her because of her gender, using insulting tones, names, and phrases to speak with her.

knife. stab. liquidate. smother. screw. lay. shag. bang. bonk. hump. score. copulate. 

I think of the friends who confessed to me, in high school, that their fathers had hurt them, molested them. One told me of how her father used alcohol to get her sleepy, and how she woke to him touching her naked body when she was ten. One told me how her father had been coming into her room a few times per week to masturbate over her as she slept, and how this had gone on for years. One told me how her father would buy her gifts and tell her she was his special girl before and after he removed her clothing and had sex with her. All of these stories from one classroom in one high school in one small town in Idaho.

fornicate. mate. procreate. flatten. tarnish. disfigure. defame. embarrass. muddy. tar. 

I think of stories from colleagues and co-workers who have been sexually harassed by clients in academic settings, in doctor’s offices, in restaurants, in emergency rooms, in job interviews, in their own therapy offices. I think of their stories where they felt unsafe with strangers, co-workers, store managers, police officers, and friends. I think of how they’ve been cat-called or ogled at the gym, at stoplights, in public parks, over Facebook, in bars, and while walking down the street. And then I realize that if I’ve ever felt harassed or judged unfairly, it has been in isolated encounters, a handful of times over a span of decades, not constantly and pervasively across my life span.

plague. sadden. trouble. wrong. handicap. encumber. dishearten. overthrow. hound. 

And my thoughts return to my clients, hundreds of them over the years, who have been victimized in these and many other ways, men and women both, all hurt by men, and the culture of rape that surrounds them. Some have been raped by dates, some by brothers, some by husbands, some by boyfriends, some by fathers, some by strangers, some by bosses. Some of them have been raped serially, over and over for years, by the same man. And some have been assaulted by many men over the years. Some come from families where their sisters and mothers have been raped, and they fear that their daughters too will be raped.

pollute. smear. stain. sully. contaminate. discredit. debase. libel. pervert. warp. cheat. 

I think of women who through life as shells of themselves. Some remain in long term relationships with abusive men because they are afraid they won’t get to keep their children if they leave. Some don’t speak up about their rape for decades, if ever, because they feel like no one will believe them. Some dull their pain with alcohol, or purging, or unhealthy relationships, or drugs, or promiscuity, or religion. I think of women who have been taught that their looks, their ‘virtue’, or their ability to bear children are their sole sources of worth.

castigate. cheapen. reprove. immure. expel. batter. buffet. lacerate. scourge. smack. belt.

A few weeks ago, I sat with my sister in a coffee shop in Burlington, Vermont, and we talked about the rape culture headlines filling the news lately. We talked about how awful and incapacitating it is to read these headlines. I shared with her how many of my long-term clients in therapy were spending weeks just discussing how the news headlines were reminding them of their own traumas, and how at the same time they felt they were being validated for the first time. And I shared that everything can be boiled down to one single word, Rape, and how everything extends from there.

blight. blemish. abase. bastardize. decay. putrefy. suborn. reduce. fix. disfigure. lie. 

“Rape is a verb.” I said it aloud in conversation. It implied action, direct or indirect. Rape is something done. And yet that simple four letter word carries with it so many other words. A civilization of billions has been built upon that word, one spanning hundreds of years, and one that surrounds us now.

decompose. animalize. seduce. tempt. betray. deceive. persuade. entice. coax. swindle.

I took out a piece of paper, opened up my computer, and found an online thesaurus. I typed in the word Rape and I began copying down synonyms of the word, writing furiously. I wrote each word, then began clicking on the associated verbs, writing down those synonyms as well. My list expanded from one page to the next and then onto a third. My head began to ache. The words were ugly, violent, and vile. They were full of hate and pain.

steer. entrap. bait. hypnotize. mesmerize. question. belittle. denigrate. disparage. vilify. 

I wrote hundreds of words. After hours of writing, I finally stopped. I wasn’t finished. There were too many words in the language that related to destruction, murder, pain, violence, humiliation, domination, coercion, and sexual gratification. There were far too many shades of red and black. I ached, looking at my hastily scrawled words, all of them ugly in this context.

belie. blaspheme. blister. calumniate. curse. roast. revile. scorch. plaster. cripple. 

And then I thought of my sons. My ex-wife and I are working hard to raise sons who are feminists, who believe in equality, who treat women with respect, who vote thoughtfully. We have open discussions about race, sexual orientation, and feminism, and they are kind, thoughtful, articulate, and respectful children. Yet these boys, they are still subject to cartoons, interactions with children in school, video games. They aren’t immune. They get in arguments sometimes, and they play with other boys on the playground. And although I reinforce equality, non-violence, love, expression, and communication, they still sometimes punch, hit, and threaten. And every time it breaks my heart.

maim. rend. traumatize. shatter. sabotage. bruise. mutilate. wound. wrong. cheat.  cane.

But I will keep teaching them, and I will keep educating myself. I will keep educating myself. I will keep asking questions of my female friends and loved ones. I will listen. I will share, without judgment. I will believe them. I will have the hard conversations. I will hold those accountable who make others feel safe. I won’t hide. I will openly discuss and share, even when it makes people uncomfortable. I will be furious at the people in power and the ones who say they feel powerless yet still hurt others. I will strive, and push, and shout. For there are far too many synonyms for that ugly four letter word, all of them verbs, and verbs imply action. It will take action to fight back.

paddle. clobber. sock.  whip. strap. goad. horsewhip. cajole. barricade. lash. push. whale. flagellate. vanquish. kill. subdue. trounce. muffle. censor. erase. evade. omit. forget. puncture. maim. sabotage. bruise. mutilate. wound. wrong. cheat. harass. vex. stalk. haunt. hunt. chase. pursue. insult. provoke. humiliate. snub. smear. underestimate. taunt. mock. silence. gag. muzzle. mute. stifle. deaden. hush. interfere. conclude. end. break. block, pause. barricade. cease. discontinue. finish. cancel. terminate. restrict. pierce. penetrate. cleave. drill. enter. intrude. gash. plow. prick. slit. slice. slash. puncture. probe. spike. incise. bore. infiltrate. rupture. diminish. disturb. mortify. shock. bother. trouble. annoy. confound. malign. blacken. soil. stain. dirty. color. corrupt. putrefy. brainwash. prostitute. traffic. indoctrinate. bully. intimidate. torment. hector. kidnap. snatch. steal. pilfer. pirate. pitch. purloin. swipe. thieve. palm. pinch. life. kill. slay. poison. drown. exploit. take. justify. condone. rationalize. maintain. excuse. acquit. exempt. exonerate. indulge. forgive. pardon. tolerate. spare. relieve. whitewash. overlook. appease. discount. mollify. forget. ignore. omit. evade. 

RAPE.

Righteous Indignation

Girlpower

“There had better be righteous indignation,” my ex-wife told me, a mix of humor and outrage in her voice.

I laughed. “Okay, I think I can manage a bit of that. Let me have it.”

I heard her clear her throat over the phone and then take in a long breath. “Okay, you remember how I wanted to change my last name back to my maiden name?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, if you remember, when we got married, we had to get the wedding license and then it only cost like $15 to change my last name to yours. I filled out a form and then just informed the companies. I had to get all my identifications changed over, like my driver’s license. It was a hassle, but relatively easy.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Okay, so I went in the other day to see if I could change my name back. I was informed that if I had wanted to do this at the time of our divorce, it would have been a simple process. I request the name change, I pay the $15, and the name is changed back. But now… now since it has been a few years since the divorce, I have to go through this whole process. Apparently it costs around $450! And, get this, I have to have your permission to change it back! We’ve been divorced for years!”

“Wait, what?”

“Yes! She told me that you have to give a letter of consent to change it back.”

“If you were getting married again and wanted to change your name, what then?”

“$15. No hassle. But if I, as a single independent woman, want to change it, it’s several hundred dollars and permission from my ex-husband.”

I sat back and absorbed all of this for a moment, trying to make rational sense of it, turning on the analytical part of my brain. “Okay, part of this doesn’t surprise me. We live in Utah, obviously. There was a mandatory 3 month waiting period before the divorce was granted, and they made us take that divorce class where the presenter basically kept asking, ‘are you sure you want to get divorced? really really sure?’ Plus, Mormon men can marry a woman in the temple, get divorced, marry another woman in the temple and still be considered married to the first woman. Women get married in the temple, get divorced, and if they want to get married in the temple a second time, they have to get permission from their ex-husband to have a temple divorce first. Clearly, this policy stems from the culture.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t make it any less outrageous!”

I thought for a split second before deciding to make a joke of the whole thing, knowing her sense of humor. “Well, if you wanted special privileges in Utah, maybe you should have just been born with a penis.”

I could almost hear her rolling her eyes over the phone. “Ha-ha,” she responded without humor.

“It really is horrible, Meg. Truly. I don’t know what to say.”

“Men!” She answered, half-joking and half-serious. “Seriously, this whole system is set up for men. And here I am talking to a white man!” We both laughed, then she added, “Except you’re gay, so that makes you just slightly more tolerable.”

We ended the call shortly after that, and I sat reflecting on the state of the world, where such needless barriers were put in place. I pictured myself bringing this example up in one of my old social justice classes that I taught in college, using this as an example of oppression. One of the white male, Mormon students in the back would have raised his hand and given an argument like “I’m a white male, and I like women, so I’m not sexist. And I don’t think the law is either. If it was a man who had changed his name to his wife’s last name and he wanted to change his name back, he would have to go through the same process.” And then I would have quipped with a speech about the societal pressure and value that is placed on couples to marry young and for the woman to take on the man’s last name. We would have gone back and forth for a time, two white men arguing about women’s rights.

I sat down on the couch, a bit exhausted with all of it, and wondered how different the world might be if at least 50 per cent of the elected leaders were women; truly, more than that is what is needed, because how long have men been at it, and how much more fair might the world be if women took the lead.

Picked Last

bullies.jpg

Like many, if not most, gay young men, I grew up very uncomfortable with competitive sports. I constantly felt on guard around other boys, worried that they would notice that I wasn’t quite like them. I felt this way from my very earliest days, long before I knew how to verbalize I was gay, I only knew I was different.

I grew up in a community and society that expects young men to be competitive, to show few feelings, to be great at sports, and to sexualize women. And so, even young groups of boys, four and five, learn to tease other boys for not being man enough or strong enough or masculine enough. I remember being in kindergarten when boys in my class started bragging about kissing girls in the class, when they began teasing kids for being different with words like ‘fag’ or ‘sissy’, and then school systems started expecting kids to compete in sports.

Early on, it was simple contact sports. Kickball competitions at recess. Boys who weren’t great at it were told they ‘played like a girl’ or were called names. In organized sports, all the kids would gather in a crowd and two popular kids would be elected leaders. They would take turns hand-picking people to be on their team. They would start with the most athletic and popular boys, then the less athletic boys, then the athletic or cutest girls, then the less athletic boys, the overweight kids, and the nerds would get picked last. While no one ever spoke of it, getting picked last was a public shaming incident, the one thing that no one wanted to happen. And many times in elementary school, I was the kid who was picked last. I grew up thinking that the most masculine boys, the ones picked first, were not only the best, but that they had more value than me and that I had less than them.

It didn’t take me long as a kid to realize that I didn’t enjoy contact sports, so I found ways to shy away from them. I would offer to be scorekeeper, find a reason to stay inside, or pick another activity to work on. There were a very few occasions in my adolescence when I would find a sport I was slightly good at, and when I was able to compete and do well, I would sometimes join in on the teasing of other less athletic kids, not because I didn’t like them but because I desperately wanted to fit in with the more masculine guys.

Honestly, I think most American gay kids have some of the same stories.

I was terrible at competitive sports as a kid. I didn’t like measuring myself up against others. I remember my best friend in fourth grade, the year before he became one of the popular kids and didn’t want to be friends with me anymore, I remember him standing me on the basketball court at the free throw line and telling me that I was going to stand there and shoot basketballs until I finally made a basket. And I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 12.

As an adult, I still tend to do things on my own terms. I enjoy competition and sports, but I don’t like competing in sports. I swim on a swim team, but I choose a lower, slower lane and never compete in the competitions. I will throw a Frisbee, work out in the gym, and play light and friendly sports so long as there is safety in the competition and camaraderie among the players.

This past weekend, I went camping by myself among a group of mostly partnered gay men. There was a lot of laughter, drinks, hikes, games, and meals, and it was a fantastic to sit back and feel like one of the guys.

As part of the weekend, we had a sports competition. We divided into teams and played a game whose name I can’t remember, throwing blocks of wood at other blocks of wood to knock them over. There were penalties and victory dances. There was teasing and cajoling on either side. There was laughter, patience, relaxed spirits, even mooning the other team to tease. I took my turns, laughed a lot, had fun, and didn’t make most of the shots. During the competition, I sat back and realized that I wasn’t feeling any fear or discomfort. I was just one of the guys. And it felt amazing.

We played two rounds of the game, which lasted about four hours in total. After reaching a certain point in the game, a winning shot had to be scored by knocking down a pin in the middle of the field. In the first game, I scored the winning shot. And in the second game, I scored the winning shot again. It was a powerful victory for young adolescent Chad within me.

I sat in my tent at the evening a strange mix of content and bored and restless and exhausted and wound up. I laid back on my sleeping bag in my blue tent, listening to hooting owls and ululating roosters outside, and I pondered on manhood and adolescence and being gay and finding ourselves. I missed my sons for a moment, like I always do when they aren’t with me, and I vowed once again to raise them as best I can to feel loved and confident and powerful. And as I closed my eyes, I found myself grateful that although it took me a few decades longer, I feel, with myself, loved and confident and powerful as well.

Patriarchy in Provo

Provo

“So, when are you gonna make an honest woman out of that girlfriend of yours?”

The young blonde guy with the bright smile took a sip of his ice water and looked at his friend across the table, a tall guy with thick black hair and broad shoulders. Both of them were handsome and had that returned missionary look that is so common in Utah, clean-cut, short hair, shaved faces, bright smiles. I automatically dubbed them Smiley and Shoulders in my mind as they continued their conversation.

“Well,” Shoulders pointed with a finger at Smiley as he spoke, a mindless gesture that he likely used in every conversation, “we’ve only been dating for a couple of months. And the fact that she is a non-member is a huge red flag. I mean, she’s hot, but she has to have the same values as me. She started taking the discussions from the missionaries and now she’s praying about the Book of Mormon. She’s telling me she is getting a testimony, but I want to give it a couple of months and see if she’s sincere. If she can stick with it, well, then she’ll be a lucky woman. I’ll baptize her, marry her, then take here through the temple a year later.”

Smiley reached over to high-five him across the table. “Score!”

I felt a look of disgust cross my face, unbidden. There was so much wrong with this conversation. I understand this culture and mindset. I grew up in it. But the sheer arrogance of it all, the sheer patriarchy…

First of all, I had to realize I was in Utah County, home of vast majorities of Mormons and Mormon families, and home to Brigham Young University, the famous Mormon school. Nearly everyone is white here. These two young men were likely 20 or 21 years old. They had likely been raised in Mormon families where they had a very clear timeline for their futures set up: graduate high school, go immediately on a two year missionary service wherever the Church sends you, come home and enroll in college, and then quickly marry a worthy and modest young woman over the age of 18 and start a family.

Provo is eerie that way. Loads of white smiling young men and blonde smiling young women, many with wedding rings on their fingers, many with babies in carriages as they walk down the road, waving at passersby. It has a very Stepford Wives feel.

I looked at Smiley and Shoulders high-fiving, and I had to sit back in my chair and reason out what it was about this image that bothered me so much. First of all, it was the way he was talking about this girl. He wasn’t listing her talents or personality quirks that he loved. He was basing her entire value, at least in this conversation, on how attractive she was and what her potential for being a faithful Mormon was. He saw her as having more value, rather like a commodity, if she could prove herself to him by adopting his values and beliefs. And then, he saw himself as her reward. The sheer arrogance…

But then I thought back to my own days as a Mormon missionary, where I would knock on people’s doors, teach them, befriend them, and invite them to be baptized… IF. IF they gave up coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol. IF they agreed to pay ten per cent of their income to the church. IF they agreed to stop having sex outside of marriage; either marry your sexual partner or stop having sex. IF they weren’t gay. We accept you, we love you, we want you in our church, IF…

Then I remembered a news story from a years ago. A young Mormon girl sat in the BYU library studying. A young man she didn’t know walked over to her and handed her a note, then walked away. The handwritten note said something like “I’m trying to be a good Priesthood holder, but when you wear such tight clothing it is distracting. I invite you to be a better daughter of God and dress more modestly so I can keep my thoughts pure.” The young woman later posted a photo of her outfit on social media, and it was tasteful, conservative, and nice, in no way revealing. The whole encounter left me nauseous.

I pictured this girl that Shoulders was dating. I assumed she was pretty and young and freshly moved to Utah, maybe from some place like California. She meets an attractive, muscular, strong man with a killer smile, and he seems interested in her, IF she can join his church and marry his straight out. I wondered if she realized what she was getting into.

Smiley took another sip off his water while Shoulders warmed his hands on his hot chocolate. They had been quiet for a second.

Smiley grinned again. “Well, man, she is a lucky girl. Me, I’m just playing the field for a bit.”

Shoulders laughed, stretching his spine against the back of his chair. “Well, don’t you worry, buddy. Hold strong. You’ll catch one soon enough.”

The two young men left shortly after that, and I sat thinking about a culture that still values men over women, putting pressure on them to be successful under certain terms, to be virile, to be providers, to be strong and non-emotional. And a culture that tells young women to accept their station in life, to get an education as a back-up in case their plans to be wives and mothers doesn’t work out, to be beautiful and to just want one man to nurture and please for the rest of their lives. A culture that tells both sides to be content in their station and to turn it all over to God. It all felt very 1940s to me.

I left Utah County a few hours later. As I drove down the freeway, the businesses and billboards flashed by my windows as blurs. I thought of all the Mormons and all the smiles and waves, all the weddings and babies and prayers on knees. And I thought of the statistics here, of depression and pornography addiction and suicide and divorces and sexual assaults. I thought of my own upbringing as a Mormon, and my living here as a non-Mormon now, of my family, of my clients and friends, and soon it was all spinning and whirling just like the view of the road from my car.

And I realized that perhaps that is the only way to look at this place, to combine all of its complexities in one snow globe and then to shake it up and see what falls to the ground and sticks.

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Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide

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Sally Ride loved science more than anything.

And when her parents fostered a sense of purpose in her, during her upbringing primarily in California, Sally knew could do anything she wanted, at a time when many women did not realize their potential. In fact, after she made history by being the first American woman in space (two Soviet women beat her to it), she devoted decades of her life afterwards to inspiring middle school age girls to love and be inspired by science.

And when Sally recognized that girls are vastly under-represented in the fields of science (including math and engineering), she realized that 13 year old boys who get a C in science are told they can grow up to be anything, and that 13 year old girls who get an A in science are encouraged to be nurses and housewives.

And when Sally herself realized she was willing to live up to nothing less than her potential, while hitting tennis rackets on a nearly professional level, she put herself through college, excelling in a field dominated by  men.

And when NASA, after decades, finally opened up its recruitment to women, Sally applied, and moved to Texas to train as an astronaut. She worked tirelessly, using her analytical brain to solve complex problems, practicing for untold hours until she was skilled and it all made sense.

And when Sally was selected to be the first woman from the program to launch, she herself became an international celebrity, something she was quite unready for. In fact, Sally was a very private person. She had never even told her husband Steve, at the time, about being a lesbian, about falling in love with a woman in college. For, like so many others, it took her time to sort out her feelings from the expectations of her culture.

And when, for months before and after the launch, Sally endured exhausting questions from reporters: What makeup will you wear in space and If the pressure gets to be too much, will you just weep and They are working you so hard, you have no choice but to submit, I guess it is like being raped, you might as well just lay back and enjoy it and do you worry that the flight will harm your reproductive organs, and Johnny Carson made jokes about her bra on television, and Billy Joel immortalized her name in the song We Didn’t Start the Fire, tucking her smoothly in between Wheel of Fortune and heavy metal, suicide in his complicated lyrics, Sally smiled, nodded, quipped back, and asked the reporters why they weren’t asking these same questions to the male astronauts on her team, a team of equals.

And when Sally received her NASA uniform, she had the tag read, simply, Sally, not Ride or Dr. Ride, just Sally. 

And when Sally chose to be an astronaut, and her sister chose to be a minister, Sally’s mother joked that at least one of her daughters would make it to Heaven.

And when the Challenger exploded, and later the Columbia, Sally worked tirelessly until she found out why, exposing corruption within the industry that had resulted in the deaths of her peers.

And when Sally fell in love with Tam O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful and independent woman she had met years before, she quietly left her husband and moved in, telling no one, even her family.

And when Sally got cancer far too young, she suffered quietly, telling no one except her closest loved ones until the very end. And when Tam planned a memorial for Sally, and wondered how she should define their relationship, Sally thoughtfully considered coming out of the closet finally, but worried about its impact on NASA.

And when Sally died at age 61, and Tam told the world about their decades long relationship finally, the critics came out of the woodwork. The homophobic were outraged that a lesbian was such a public name. And among the LGBT community, they berated Sally for not coming out as a gay icon years before. And Sally’s family grieved on their own terms.

And when Sally’s name was used on scholarships and elementary schools and even a mountain range on the moon, Sally must have smiled, somewhere somehow.

Because Sally Ride loved science more than anything.

 

Lesbians and grossed out gays

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“What are you reading?”

I looked over from my book to the man on the treadmill next to me. The gym was crowded and smelled like sweat and machines, a familiar smell in the winter months in Utah. Air pollution was particularly bad today, given the inversion, and I had come inside to shake my headache and get my blood flowing and heart pumping.

While doing a warm-up on the treadmill, stretching my joints out along with each muscle and tendon, I had set my current biography up on the stand, a book I was loving.

“Oh, it’s a book about Sally Ride.”

“Who the hell is Sally Ride?”

The man had his ball cap turned slightly to the side. I wondered if he was trying to flirt in some brash way.

“She was the first American woman in space, back in the 80s. She was pretty amazing. A real revolutionary.”

“Sounds boring as all hell.” He looked at me as if trying to challenge my enthusiasm for the book.

“She was also a lesbian, though that wasn’t revealed publicly until after her death. She was with her partner for 30 years.”

“So how is that supposed to make her special.” He said it like a statement not a question.

“Well, I’ve been researching a lot of LGBT history lately. It’s kind of hidden in our society. Like I had heard of Sally Ride, but never knew she was lesbian. I heard of Alan Turing, but never knew he was gay. I think Ride was pretty incredible.”

The guy finally looked away, pushing some button on his treadmill to slow his speed. “I think lesbians are pretty disgusting.”

I gave him a disconsolate look. “What, why? What makes lesbians disgusting?”

He lowered the incline on his treadmill as well as I kept going. “I like dudes. Masculine dudes. Lesbians are gross. Vaginas are gross.”

I sighed and gave a half-laugh. I pictured all of the gay dating profiles I had seen over the years that said things like Man seeking masculine men. Masc for masc, no fems. I thought about informing this man that he didn’t have to be sexually attracted to women in order to respect and understand them. The hyper-masculinity of male culture drives me nuts, whether in the straight world or in the gay one.

I thought about my sister Sheri and her wife Heather, and wondered how often they faced this kind of attitude from gay men, men who were supposed to be their allies in the fight for equality. I knew the shaming words against transgender people from gay men was even worse. Lesbians are hyper-sexualized by straight men and shunned by gay men. The whole thing just reeks of patriarchy.

“I love lesbians.” I looked away as he stared at me in shock.

“Bull. How could you possibly love lesbians? You’re gay.”

“I know a lot of lesbians, dozens and dozens of them. And I genuinely like every one of them that I know. They are good people, smart, dedicated, talented, genuinely nice people. I could say the same thing about every transgender person I know, literally every one. But I can name a whole lot of straight people and gay guys I don’t like. So I love lesbians.”

He stopped his treadmill. “Whatever, man. Enjoy your boring book.”

I turned back to Sally Ride, eager to learn more about this fascinating woman. Guess I wasn’t masculine enough for that guy.