Sex Education Part 3: the Law of Chastity

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When I turned 12, I was set to receive the Aaronic Priesthood, the lesser authority given to worthy young men to perform ordinances in God’s name. 12-year olds with the Priesthood were given small responsibilities, like passing the sacrament during the main congregational meeting, a group of young men standing at attention as they passed trays of bread and water down the rows. At 12, young men moved from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, and they left Primary at church, the organization for children, and instead became Deacons. It was a powerful rite of passage.

We left Missouri when I was 11, when my parents finally split up. The divorce would take a few years. I had no idea how wounded mom was at the time. The older kids who were still at home stayed behind to finish high school with my Dad, and the youngest three went with my mom. She went back to work as a teacher. We lived with my grandparents for a few weeks, then rented a home and enrolled in school. I was in fifth grade, and I made friends quickly.

I was a very innocent and naïve 11, despite my upbringing. I enjoyed playing Nintendo, reading books, writing stories, and drawing. I played with kids much younger than me and organized them in neighborhood games. I couldn’t ride bike yet, or sink a basketball into a hoop, or throw or catch a ball, all bizarre tests of masculinity. And I was teased occasionally by other kids for being a ‘fag’, ‘sissy’, or ‘fairy’, all of which sucked. I desperately wanted to fit in, to be just a standard member of the student body, a part of the kids who happily co-existed. Somehow, whether because I was Mormon, or gay, or feminine, I was on the bottom of the pecking order, and I knew that as early as third grade.

In fourth grade, when I was 10, kids started talking about sex more. There were veiled references. “How far have you gone?” “How many people have you done it with?” “Are you still a virgin?” Every boy knew just to brag and boast when truthfully no one really knew what they were talking about. Strangely, I don’t think I remembered the abuse I suffered as a young child during this time. I didn’t know how to process it. I was just caught up in adolescence, in moving to a new state, and in the tragedies happening in my family.

And so, before I turned 12, in preparation for the Priesthood, I was called in by our new bishop. We’d known him a few months, but he was really a stranger to our family. He was a pleasant retired man, a grandfather in his seventies, with thinning white hair. We started the meeting with a prayer and then he asked me the standard questions. Do I pay my tithing, do I obey my mother and father, do I believe in the Mormon Church as the one true church, do I have a testimony of the Savior. And then…

“Chad, do you obey the Law of Chastity?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That is when a man and woman are sexually involved only with the person they are married to.”

“Um, I guess so.”

“Do you avoid pornography?”

“What’s that?”

“Images or videos of a sexual nature.”

“Yes, I avoid that. I’ve never even seen any.”

“And do you masturbate?”

“What’s that?”

And so he told me what it was. “Masturbation is when a man plays with and strokes his penis because he thinks it feels good. But it is against the commandments of God.”

“No, I’ve never done that.”

I passed the worthiness interview. And the next Sunday, I got the Priesthood.

Reflecting back on this interview as an adult, I see an innocent kid who had already been sexually exploited, who was then sent into a room with an unfamiliar man. Behind closed doors, this man asked questions about sex, pornography, and masturbation, and he used descriptive terms to teach me what they were. While I believe this man had good intentions, the very idea of this enforcement, of strangers questioning children, of perceived virtue being the sounding board for worthiness, these messages taught me all about sex. And these were things I should be learning from parents or teachers, not a stranger.

But I remembered his words. And I was curious. Within a few weeks, I tried out masturbation. It felt great to play with my penis. Like really, really great. It got hard and had so many nerve endings. I found myself closing the door to my room and playing with it. I’d even do my chores and reward myself with time to play with my penis later. (Processing as an adult, I realize that I was reenacting my abuse: masturbation as a reward for chores. But I didn’t know this then). I wasn’t thinking about sex or sexual intercourse or sexual partners, I just liked touching myself. I found myself doing it at the dinner table, in the shower, in the bathroom, when I thought no one could see. I knew it was wrong, knew it was forbidden, but it felt so good!

And then one day, early in the morning, I was playing with myself in my bed, and it felt more intense than usual, and I went faster, and then… I ejaculated for the first time. It scared me! What was that! Oh my god, what was that! It went everywhere and was sticky and messy and I felt like something was wrong with me. The pleasure passed quickly and I panicked, remembering how the bishop had said this was wrong. And so I cleaned up and then dropped to my knees, immediately begging God for forgiveness.

And that day began a cycle that would stick with me for the next 20 years. I would stave off masturbation, for days, weeks, sometimes even months at a time, and then I would give in. And after I gave in, I would feel ashamed and beg for forgiveness. Sometimes I got nauseous. Sometimes I got really nauseous. Sometimes even the idea of sexual pleasure would make me nauseous. And the older I got and the more intense the sexual feelings got, the worse the nausea got.

But for now, I was chaste. And I knew masturbation represented sin. But I wondered why, if God didn’t want me to do that, then why did he make it feel so damn good? Why was it a constant temptation? I guess so that I could show God that I was dedicated to him. That was my job, to keep that relationship strong, to be a good Priesthood holder, to be worthy.

And then puberty started, and the hormones hit, and the struggle intensified.

Sex Education Part 2: And None Will Molest Them…

I loved the hymns. I loved all of the rituals of Mormonism, in fact. Prayers before bed, church every Sunday, fasting and tithing. But the hymns, sitting in the chapel and singing with the Saints on Sundays, they made my heart soar. My family was very musical, all of us, and we would sing loudly in the congregation, harmonizing and singing in all four parts. I loved watching the conductor at the front of the chapel. I loved the piano refrains. I loved tracing the black notes in the hymnals with my eyes.
Now let us rejoice in the day of salvation.
No longer as strangers on earth need we roam.
Good tidings are sounding to us and each nation,
And shortly the hour of redemption will come,
When all that was promised the Saints will be given,
And none will molest them from morn until ev’n,
And earth will appear as the Garden of Eden,
And Jesus will say to all Israel, “Come home.”
I knew very early on of my divine purpose. I was a child of God, with a divine destiny in store. Where much was given, much was required. Because I knew of my godly heritage, I was expected to be obedient and follow all of the rules because I loved God and he loved me. Everything happened for a reason. God saw and heard everything and there was nothing he didn’t know. And if anything bad happened, it was because God had something to teach his children. It all made sense. Perfect sense.
There were a lot of women in my home, and I was often hungry for male attention. I had five sisters and my mom was responsible for most of the parenting. Dad was gone a lot, and always quiet and sad when he was home. That left my brother, Kenny. He was 8 years older, and a bully, constantly teasing me and my little sister, Sheri. We shared a bedroom, and he made it widely known that I was not the kind of brother he wanted around. I was too much of a sissy and I liked girly things.
So far as I can put it all together, I was 5 when the abuse started, and I think I was around 8 when it ended. My memories of this time remain fractured. As with all survivors of trauma, my memories are sharp and clear on certain things, and completely blank on others. I write this at the age of 40, and it still brings back dark shameful painful yucky feelings to consider what happened. My family also remains extremely uncomfortable with me talking about it. So I won’t be overly specific, I’ll simply talk about the experience itself.
Kenny, who was in some ways a child himself (though the older he got, the harder it is to use the excuse, and, again, I was only 5), he used the typical tactics of all abusers. There was grooming. He made the abuse feel like a reward for good behavior and deeds. If I helped with his chores, we could go up to our room and spend quality time together. I was warned not to tell anyone. I was given instructions while at school to think up new games we could play together. At times, when I tried to initiate encounters between us, he would shove me aside and embarrass me if he wasn’t in the mood. It was sometimes frequent, sometimes infrequent, and I kept it silent for a very very long time.
As I look back, I think that I thought of it almost like a game. As I process memories not related to the abuse, they are otherwise very normal. Family dinners, spelling bees, swimming lessons, Christmas mornings. My brain hones in on very specific instances and the things that happened, and then there are big gaps. There may have been weeks or months when the abuse didn’t happen at all, and there were times when it was frequent. I don’t know exactly how it started, and I don’t know exactly how it stopped.
I do now that by the time I was baptized at the age of 8, I knew far too much about the male body and how it worked. I still had a lot of innocence, but I knew about masturbation, and intercourse, and orgasm. I knew about sexual shame and secret keeping. And so, that day when my dad dipped me beneath the water and declared I was without sin, that day when I was wearing white, I didn’t realize how deep the darkness within me was. I had no idea how far the roots of pain and confusion had spread.
First there was the awareness that I was different, something I ultimately learned to mean I was gay. And then there was the abuse. And those two things in conjunction with the messages I received about God and divine destiny created deep wells of confusion within me. I developed an understanding that I was designed wrong, that there was something inherently flawed within me. And that deep pain, it was with me during all of those normal moments of childhood. Through the chores, the stories I wrote in notebooks, the playing with friends at recess. It was there on summer vacations, and in Cub Scout activities. It was there when I made friends with boys and girls, when my oldest siblings moved out of the house, and when one of our dogs was hit by a car.
I learned to put on a happy face. It was genuine. I was a happy kid. I was kind and compassionate, I cared about others, I loved learning about animals. All those parts of me were real. But they also became the parts that I learned to show the world while I kept the rest secret. It’s what was expected. It’s what Kenny taught me to do, but I’d learned to hide my differences even before that.
Years later, as an adult, I would look back at these early photos of me, and see an innocent kid. I was the perfect target. I was eager to please, accommodating, happy, easy to manipulate. I kept confidences. I was hungry for attention. And I was in a busy household where it was hard to notice if one kid was going through hard times, especially if he was quiet about it. And above all else, he had easy access to me. I was right there, one bed away, right behind closed doors.
I turned 8, and Kenny turned 16. He started drinking more, and he got a job, and he cycled through girlfriends. And I had no idea how unhappy mom and dad were, they were good at keeping their own secrets. But by the time I was 11, they would split up and we would move across the country, away from Kenny and dad and my childhood home.
And then adolescence began. And suddenly being different from everyone wasn’t okay anymore. I would only become more aware of it with every passing day.
Jesus

#MeToo

Metoo

I recently completed a memoir of my life. After years of writing and telling my story, the book came together in a period of months, and I’m pleased with the outcome. However, there were many parts I was hesitant to write about, out of a desire to not hurt others in any capacity. I did discuss a lot of people, but I’ve learned as a writer that it is easier to write about someone if they have either given consent or, sadly, if they are deceased. I have many loved ones who read what I write, and they became concerned over where my memories differed from theirs, and many of them only wanted to be painted in a positive and understanding light. So I found myself censoring parts of my story, out of a desire to not hurt the people around me. And this is surely not unfamiliar to other writers who have had similar struggles.

One major area of my life that I chose to leave out of my book: surviving sexual abuse. A few months after I came out of the closet, I wrote a tell-all blog about these experiences, and a few members of my family had largely angry and emotional reactions. They worried that the person who abused me would be hurt by this, and worried about the potential that his children could be hurt as well. The irony of leaping to the defense of the abuser is not lost on me. He is not a person who is a part of my life. But I took down the blog at the time so as not to damage my family relationships. And I kept that part of my story out of my book for the same reasons.

But it is readily apparent to me that my abuser, and my surviving abuse, remain a large part of my narrative, my history, my psychological development. I own those parts of my story, as a therapist, as a writer, and as a father. Being a victim of abuse impacted my relationship with my own masculinity and influenced my development as a young man and, later, as a father. It certainly impacted my development as a gay adolescent who was learning to hide from others, and it caused me to have one more thing to hide, and even to wonder if the abuse had caused my homosexuality. It impacted my sexual development, and the way I experience attractions. It impacted my self-esteem, my relationship with myself, and my capabilities as a professional. It grew roots and seeds into every part of my life.

To give voice to a little bit of this, I’m just going to share a list of facts about my abuse and adolescence, things that stir me when I think about them and that impact me. The trauma from my abuse is separate but related to the trauma of growing up gay and closeted, my father’s abandonment, my step-father’s sexual abuse, and other things I went through as a child.

I was a compassionate, curious, and creative child who grew up in a busy and religious family. I was one of the younger kids and there was always a lot going on in my home. Despite having a very loving and attentive mother, my father was frequently depressed and absent, and I spent a lot of time playing solo and at church activities. I was abused at a young age, sporadically and systemically several times between the ages of 5 and 8, by an older male with influence over me, and one who had frequent access to me.

My abuser made me feel as though the abuse was quality time, things that boys just do together. It involved the removal of clothing, stimulating genitals, back massages, oral sex, and masturbation. He would send me away with reminders not to tell anyone, tell me he looked forward to our special time together, and invite me to come up with ideas of things we could do together the next time.

At the time, I believe, I was not overly disturbed by the abuse. I was so starved for male attention, I think it was something I looked forward to. I have a vivid memory of sitting down in school, and later on the bus, writing down ideas in a notebook about things my abuser and I could do together.

It wasn’t until I was 12 years old, when my own sexual development began, that I began to realize how disturbing those memories were. I had blocked a lot of it out. As I began to realize I was attracted to other boys, I knew something was wrong with me, and I began to think that my abuser had caused these parts of me to be broken. I began avidly searching Mormon books for addresses on how to heal from abuse, and I began to believe that if I could heal from the abuse, then I could also cure the homosexuality. This was a major problem that lasted throughout my mission.

Throughout the ages of 12-22, when I really began my healing after my Mormon mission, I had periods of time when I would block the abuse out completely. I would also have times where I actively journaled, capturing every single memory in as much detail as I could. In addition, I began having irregular flashbacks to the abuse itself, memories that would take over my entire body, sometimes in sleep and sometimes during the day, when I would come aware afterwards with quickened breath and sick stomach. I dreaded these moments the most.

I first told my family about the abuse when I was 15. I confronted my abuser in front of my mother and my stepfather, and they asked me detailed questions, making sure I was aware of how serious the allegations were. They listened to me, gave me hugs, and then I went to bed. I was never sent in for therapy after that, never questioned about it further. It became the enormous family secret, the thing people knew about but never wanted to discuss. When my abuser became a father, I was rightfully concerned, but no one seemed to want to talk about my worries. When I cut the abuser out of my life later, some family members made me feel guilty, telling me that perhaps I should forgive, reach out to him and try to build a relationship. And in my late 20s, I went through a period of time when I tried, but quickly realized how unhealthy that relationship was, and so I cut him out again.

During my own sexual development, I would often retreat into my imagination for sexual fulfillment, and I didn’t realize until years later that many of my early fantasy scenarios resembled my abuse. Even now, in my late 30s, this impact on my own development infuriates me.

I could talk endlessly about the abuse and my path toward survival, but I will simply conclude with this. It changed everything. I’m a survivor. I will never ever be at peace with what happened to me, and I will never forgive the person who hurt me. At the same time, he has no control over me  now. I survived. I live life on my terms, and he or the abuse don’t get to determine my fate. The abuse hurt me, primally. But my survival skills are, in many ways, what have allowed me to be a better therapist, a better writer, and a better father. Someone once asked me if I was grateful for the abuse because of these outcomes in my life. Of course not. I would never wish that hurt on anyone. I am a better person because of me, and the work that I have put into myself and surviving, not because of him and how he chose to hurt me.

Healing

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Healing from something means you never quite heal. In order to heal, there is a recognition and an acceptance that damage has been done and futures have been altered, and then there must be a slow and deliberate choice to walk forward from the events that caused pain. Healing means realizing that you have been hurt and that you will never be okay again, while simultaneously realizing that you are definitely okay, and that the sun continues to rise as the Earth continues to rotate.

For example, when I work with victims of abuse, I see them using all kinds of tactics to avoid the pain they feel from it. They can tell themselves that what happened to them wasn’t as bad as what has happened to others, making it easier to push their own pain away. They can focus on taking care of the needs of others to avoid their own needs. They can drown their pain in work, or alcohol, or co-dependent relationships, or religion. They can scream and rage at the world for not giving them an easier break after what they have been through. They can learn to hide in plain sight. But none of these are healing, and all of them can go on for a lifetime.

As a therapist, I’m astounded at how often victims of abuse come forward, much later in their lives. Rarely do I hear stories of violent sexual assaults, instead I hear stories of coercive date rape, of fathers convincing their sons to do special favors or visiting their daughter’s rooms after mom has fallen asleep, of babysitters who took advantage while parents are gone. And the younger the child at the onset of abuse, the longer the duration of the abuse, and the greater the severity of the abuse… well, the more impactful the damage seems to be.

I myself am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a male family member. As a child, when these events took place, I had no context to understand what had happened or why it was a problem. But years later, when I approached adolescence and began experiencing sexual attraction, and I realized my attractions were toward men, I began to realize how impactful the abuse had been. I reasoned internally for many years that the reason that I was gay was because I had been abused, and that reinforced my religion’s principles that homosexuality was something that could be cured. I learned to avoid pain through helping others, through work and school achievements, and through religious devotion.

I told my family about the abuse in a rather dramatic moment on a Sunday afternoon over dinner. I was in trouble for something trivial, like dropping my fork, and my step-father snapped at me, and I snapped back that maybe he should go easier on me because of what I had been through as a kid. It was a bombshell, and I’d rushed off to my room, but just a few days later, everyone stopped asking questions and stopped talking about it. It became the big family secret, at least it felt that way, a thing that was known but never to be discussed.

Years later, while I was a Mormon missionary, struggling with crippling depression over my inability to stop being gay through church service, I began journaling about my abuse for the first time. I wrote down everything that happened. I had vivid flashbacks to that time in my life. I checked out books from the library about healing from abuse, and I kept them hidden from my companions so that they wouldn’t know what I was reading. Over time, I grew to separate out the abuse from the other areas of my life. My being abused, for example, had nothing to do with me being gay, yet it did negatively impact my feelings about being gay. I did a lot of crying at the time, and then I put my journals away and kept them there for years longer.

And then, in my mid-20s, I started going to therapy. I wasn’t ready to come out of the closet yet, but I was ready to heal from that portion of my childhood. I told my stories about what happened, I learned how they had impacted me, and I learned that I would never quite heal from them. As my therapist at the time vividly put it, “You are never going to wake up one day and say ‘I’m so glad this happened to me!’, but you can wake up every day and say ‘That sucked. What happened to me was horrible. And I’m okay. I’m living life on my terms, and I survived, and I’m okay.” I learned not to compare my abuse to the abuse of others, but just to let my story stand on its own. I learned to recognize the impact it had on my development. I learned to embrace myself with whatever I was feeling, be it scared or furious or devastated, and I learned how to feel the feelings and decide what to do with them in healthy ways, rather than avoiding them or pushing through them with unhealthy habits.

I received a surprise phone call from my mother yesterday. She and I talk nearly every day, but this time she had a different tone in her voice. She told me she had come across some photos of me as a child, and she’d been thinking about that day at the dinner table when I told everyone I had been abused. She apologized, sincerely and sweetly, for not being there for me at the time, for not getting me into counseling then or at least asking me what had happened and how it had impacted me. We had a long conversation about things, and I told her that I accepted her apology, and that it was beautiful of her to offer it. And I told her that, these days, I give little thought to the abuse itself. It changed me, it altered me, and I’m not happy about it. It still makes me feel gross and in pain when I remember it. But I’m doing fine, and I’ve created a wonderful life for myself. I help others with their healing. I’m a good person who is working hard to make a difference in the world. I have love and light, people that I love and people who love me. And I’m a father.

And that conversation led me to thinking about my children, one turning nine soon and one newly six, and I realize that I was that small when abuse was happening to me. And the sharp jab I get from that realization teaches me once again that I’ll never be okay from all of that, and that, once again, I’m completely okay. I’m okay because I let myself feel the pain, and I choose what to do with it. And I choose to help.

And that, for me, is healing.