An older Mormon man routinely sits alone in a closed-door conversation with a younger woman, or even a teenage girl, talking about, of all things, sex — and it doesn’t take a Matt Lauer-under-the-desk lock to keep them both there.
No, the parties are willing participants in an LDS religious ritual: the bishop’s interview.
This generally happens in two ways. First is when the Mormon lay leader of a congregation (usually the bishop and always a male) calls in the boys and girls in his flock from age 12 on up for an annual interview to ask about their testimonies, church attendance, faithfulness to the LDS health code (called the Word of Wisdom) and adherence to the law of chastity.
Some bishops pose pointed questions about moral cleanliness in these conversations, perhaps quizzing about masturbation, heavy petting or fornication, while others keep their queries more general.
The other type of interview is when penitent members go to their bishops to confess actions the church deems to be “serious sins.” This exchange may also delve into details of intimate sexual behavior.
Outside of the religious context, such inquiries could be seen as inappropriate if not outright misconduct. But, of course, context is everything.
Part of the function of many religions is to encourage, discourage and even regulate certain behaviors so it makes sense for Mormon bishops to ask about sexual issues to help members, if need be, get right with God. The question becomes how to do that carefully and respectfully.
‘Be sensitive’ • “These interviews should be characterized by great love and the guidance of the Holy Ghost,” LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins explains in a statement. Bishops and interviewees “may review together … teachings in the scriptures or other church resources, such as “For the Strength of Youth,” a guide distributed to all young Mormons that includes the faith’s sexual standards.
In these interviews, Hawkins says, church leaders are instructed “to be sensitive to the character, circumstances and understanding of the young man or young woman.”
The leaders “are counseled to not be unnecessarily probing or invasive in their questions, but should allow a young person to share their experiences, struggles and feelings,” he says, and “to adapt the discussion to the understanding of the individual and to exercise care not to encourage curiosity or experimentation.”
Even with these instructions, the system at its best is fraught with an inherent power differential — adult to youth, authority to follower, male to female — and can be uncomfortable and present a risk for both parties.
The conversations can lead to shame, emotional damage and unhealthy attitudes about intimacy for the interviewees, while the LDS leader could face unwanted sexual attention and/or unfounded allegations.
In the midst of today’s flood of revelations about sexual harassment and other misdeeds, some Mormons question whether the current interview system is the safest and soundest way to instill and enforce the faith’s moral standards — or whether it constitutes harassment itself.
An online petition with more than 6,000 signatures urges The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “to immediately cease the practice of subjecting children [ages 10 to 17] to questions about masturbation, orgasm, ejaculation, sexual positions or anything else of a sexual nature.”
It further insists the Utah-based faith “publicly disavow this practice.”
Young believers talking about details of their sexual experience with bishops “is intrusive, inappropriate and sends a mixed message regarding boundaries around sexual conversation with adult men,” says Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a Salt Lake City therapist, mom and wife of a newly named LDS bishop. “In no other situation would a parent allow or encourage their minor child to have sexual conversations with an adult.”
It would be a positive step “if youth could have another person in the room, a parent for example,” says de Azevedo Hanks, owner of Wasatch Family Therapy. “General questions and general answers should be sufficient.”
That would provide support for the young person and a layer of protection for the bishop, she says. So would a window on the leader’s door.
Mormon bishops “are encouraged to ask a parent or another adult to be in an adjoining room, foyer or hall,” says Hawkins, the church spokesman, “and to avoid circumstances that may be misunderstood.”
Even when parents are nearby, private interviews, especially with members of the opposite sex, about sexual matters, says Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a Mormon therapist in Chicago who specializes in working with LDS couples on sexuality and relationship issues, are “a dangerous setup for both parties.”
Why couldn’t the church “give that responsibility to the church’s female leaders?” she wonders. “Or, if we want to keep it with the bishop, at least have a woman present?”
Maintaining standards • In a world awash in sexual images and actions with few consistent boundaries, Mormon rules are clear. Sort of.
No sex before marriage and only with one’s spouse afterward. But the way the church describes premarital taboos, some say, can be overly general and open to interpretation or misinterpretation.
“Before marriage, do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body, with or without clothing,” advises the “For the Strength of Youth” booklet. “Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body.”
Though the church’s own Handbook, spelling out for local leaders the institution’s rules and practices, never mentions “masturbation,” many bishops read the above sentence to mean just that.
Some LDS leaders routinely ask both boys and girls about it in every interview. Often, it is reported, many youths have not heard the word and find out more than they bargain for when they Google the term to find out.
“Never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression,” continues the pamphlet, which also is linked to the new standardized interview questions for prospective missionaries. “Treat others with respect, not as objects used to satisfy lustful and selfish desires.”
What activity or movie, therapists ask, doesn’t “arouse sexual feelings” in hormone-ravaged teens? Walking down the hall at school could do that.
Without clearer instructions, some Mormon bishops may feel they have unlimited license to delve. They may even be parroting the same questions they were asked when they were growing up — though Hawkins notes that leaders are provided with instructions and “are asked to review them regularly.”
When one Mormon woman was a young adult years ago and confessed to her bishop about what she believed was over-the-line intimacy with a boyfriend, he followed up with explicit questions.
Among them: “Were you dressed or did you unclothe?” “What clothes did you take off?” “Did he reach a climax?”
She felt “weird after the whole thing,” says the woman, still a member, “and never wanted to talk to my bishop again.”
Call a therapist • Occasionally, an LDS bishop seems to take an almost voyeuristic pleasure, some therapists say, in asking teenage girls details of their sexual experiences.
Several of Finlayson-Fife’s clients have told her about leaders who asked for more information than was normal — “Where did you put your hands? Where did he touch you?” — and the girls had an uneasy, confusing feeling that their bishops were “finding [their] answers titillating.”
From an early age, Mormon females are taught to be deferential to men, especially those in authority who are seen as conduits to God, the therapist says, and to believe they are at least partly responsible for men’s sexual actions.
Girls are warned that how they dress, hug and talk with boys could trigger sexual responses from the males. So if a bishop seems weirdly turned on by an interviewee’s answers, she might wonder what she did wrong to elicit it.
Even with the potential drawbacks of interviews, though, Finlayson-Fife recognizes the redemptive value of such meetings for some people. As the saying goes, confession truly can be good for the soul.
“They are looking for a way to atone for their behavior, a way to have a rebirth,” she says. “It can feel healing.”
But the interview has to be driven by “an individual’s desire to repent, rather than a system doing the flogging,” she says, “as a means of control and shame.”
Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen, a Provo therapist, says young women “are invited to be vulnerable with an authoritative man who has a right to question them. If they are unwilling to provide details, they are seen as unrepentant.”
Few of the 30,000 LDS bishops worldwide have any understanding about how spirituality and sexuality are entwined, she says. “They could use a lot more training from people who have studied these issues.”
That is precisely what Richard Ostler did not long after he was tapped to be a Mormon bishop.
Categories of need • Ostler was feeling uplifted on the day he was installed as the leader of a Young Single Adult ward in Magna. He received a blessing from his stake president (who supervised a group of congregations) and sensed the “mantle” of leadership settle onto his shoulders.
As he caught his breath in his new office, however, a line of young members between ages 18 and 30 formed outside the door, waiting to counsel with him.
The first young man wanted to talk about his ongoing problem with pornography. Ostler gulped. The next one had questions about masturbation and so on through a litany of other “sexual sins.”
“It never stopped,” he recalls. “I was overwhelmed. I had no training and no direction.”
He consulted the church's Handbook and found a listing of “serious sins,” which included adultery and fornication but not the M-word.
“I just assumed that it wasn’t mentioned,” Ostler says, “because it wasn't a serious sin.”
For decades, masturbation was considered such a problem that LDS bishops regularly handed out copies of the late apostle Boyd K. Packer’s speech in which he urged young men not to tamper with their “little factories,” a euphemism to describe the male anatomy. The speech later was reprinted in a pamphlet, which was discontinued last year.
It’s no surprise Ostler was confused. Many of his congregants had heard about the evils of masturbation from their home wards, from missionary companions, from family members. But Ostler concluded that it was no more than a 2 on the sin scale with 1 being improper sexual thoughts and 10 being child rape.
After hearing so many stories, with so many layers, from so many members, Ostler sees a need for different worthiness interviews based on age and circumstances.
For ages 12 through 18, it makes sense to provide an option for a parent or other adult to be in the room. At the least, parents should know exactly what questions will be asked.
Bishops should tell singles, as he did in his former ward, what they need to share with their church leader and what concerns are better taken to God alone in prayer.
He believes that those who confess sexual missteps are “heroic.”
“It takes great courage, especially for the women,” Ostler says, “to talk to a man about sexual sin.”
The empathetic leader acknowledges there can be “gender tensions” in these conversations, but, for all that, they also can provide moments of comfort and catharsis.