Latter-day Saint sex therapist plans to fight to keep her church membership

Natasha Helfer faces a Sunday disciplinary hearing for publicly opposing doctrine and policies on masturbation, pornography and same-sex marriage.

(Salt Lake Tribune archive) Natasha Helfer.

A Latter-day Saint sex therapist — who backs gay marriage, counsels that masturbation is not a sin and insists pornography should not be treated as an addiction — faces possible expulsion from the Utah-based faith for publicly and repeatedly opposing the church’s doctrine, policies and leaders.

In a YouTube video, Natasha Helfer said she has been summoned to a disciplinary hearing Sunday in Kansas — where she lived before moving to Utah in 2019 — because “I am public and vocal about my stance supporting and educating about sexual health.”

Members of the therapeutic community have come out in support of Helfer’s professional work, saying it is in line with current licensed mental health practices.

“We are concerned that withdrawing Natasha’s membership will create a culture of stigma and shame for potential clients seeking therapy,” the letter, signed by hundreds of mental health professionals, states. It also could harm “other therapists providing culturally competent, clinically sound, and evidence-based care.”

The 49-year-old Helfer, who was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can make a case for remaining a member during the hearing. Local lay leaders could choose to take no action, restrict her membership or withdraw it (the latter penalty used to be termed excommunication).

Helfer, who plans to attend and speak at the hearing, does not want that to happen.

“My hope is that I can retain my membership,” she said in the video. “Another hope is that we can all be a part of making our communities better, safer and healthier spaces, especially for anyone on the margins.”

While high-profile ousters from the faith are rare, there have been other headline-making cases in recent years. In 2014, for instance, Kate Kelly, who pushed for female ordination, was expelled.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement that disciplinary matters (now called membership councils) are handled at a local level, and the church does not comment on them.

“The church teaches its members to be morally clean in every way, and that sexual feelings are given by God and should be used in ways he has commanded,” he said, adding that the church condemns pornography in any form and sees masturbation as immoral.

The Washington Post reported that Helfer’s hearing comes after her former stake (regional) president, Stephen Daley, in Derby, Kan., sent her a letter Nov. 9, 2020, “expressing concern that her public views on the use of pornography, masturbation and same-sex marriage contradict church teaching.”

While Helfer may have relocated, the church’s General Handbook allows male priesthood holders to retain jurisdiction for unlimited periods of time if they have a “serious concern” about a member.

In his letter to Helfer, The Post stated, Daley also referred to her beliefs about LGBTQ members, asking, “Do you consider the church toxic and unsafe for its members?”

Top leaders have stated previously that Latter-day Saints are free to have their own views on same-sex marriage and other church policies and practices without having their membership threatened.

“We have individual members in the church with a variety of different opinions, beliefs and positions on these issues and other issues,” apostle D. Todd Christofferson said in 2015. “... It doesn’t really become a problem unless someone is out attacking the church and its leaders — if that’s a deliberate and persistent effort and trying to get others to follow them, trying to draw others away, trying to pull people, if you will, out of the church or away from its teachings and doctrines.”

Nearly a decade ago, Helfer wrote a blog post that said masturbation is not a sin. Since then, her frankness on sexual issues — often taboo in Latter-day Saint culture — has garnered her a wide audience among some current and former members.

Helfer said there are several issues that church officials will consider, including:

• Her public support for same-sex marriage.

• Her stance that masturbation is part of normal sexual development “and should not be seen as a sin or used as a reason to keep our youth from being considered worthy or serve in church activities.”

• Her belief that viewing sexually explicit materials or pornography should not be treated as a sex addiction.

• Her criticism of church leaders.

• Her role, if any, that she has encouraged members to leave the church.

Helfer said her positions “are backed by sexual science,” and she stands by them.

“Inappropriate sexual shame harms people,” she said. “When churches and religious communities reject sexual health principles supported by decades of research and science, the community suffers. And this has tragic and violent ramifications.”

Helfer also said she has “never encouraged an individual, couple or family that I have treated clinically — or even in my own friend circles — to leave the church.”

Mental health professionals say questioning their personal faith because they publicly advocate for different possibilities and pathways sets a terrible precedent. It is one of the reasons for the outpouring of support for Helfer, said Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen, clinical director of Flourish Therapy in Orem.

“We see what marginalized clients need in order to thrive in our culture, and this may be different from what religion requires,” she said. “None of us want to be called before a faith council to defend our adherence to professional standards, professional research, and public advocacy for clients, as though this professional work somehow constituted apostasy.”

April Young Bennett, an author and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast, sent a letter in which she asked church leaders not to punish Helfer for expressing her professional opinions which “make our church a stronger, safer and more nourishing entity.”

“Silencing people with her unique skill set, instead of encouraging them to open their mouths,” Bennett said in the letter posted on the Exponent II website, “makes it less likely that lay leaders and policymakers of the church will hear diverse insights with potential to benefit the work of the church.”