Sexual Assault, Discipline, and Overcoming Church Sexism

READER POST: In June of 1985, I had just graduated from nursing school and was working in a nursing home. I had become friendly with a coworker, a guy who flirted with all the girls, and I ended up at his apartment, alone, late one night. This is a difficult story to tell, and I’ll leave out many details, but the gist of it is, sex happened. In retrospect, I came to the realization, I’d been raped. I’d said, “No” and resisted. I didn’t want to have sex. I was 24 years old, a temple-endowed returned missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and had planned on remaining a virgin until marriage. In my mind, I had to have been complicit, and I got what I deserved. Therefore, I reasoned a visit to the bishop of my single’s ward and a confession were in order.

The bishop was surprisingly flippant and casual in my conversations with him, as if we were discussing the use of four-letter words. He said that, as I was an endowed member, I was subject to a disciplinary “court of love.” A date was set, and I showed up with a friend in tow, a woman who was the Relief Society president in a different ward, the only person who had heard my story. She had offered to accompany me to provide much needed support.

When we arrived at the bishop’s office, I was invited in and my friend was invited to make herself at home in the foyer. I was dismayed. I’d be alone with the three men who comprised the bishopric and would have to share with them the intimate details of that night. They were virtual strangers to me. Yet, this was the way it was done, and I didn’t have the strength, or the knowledge, to protest.

My memories of this situation are understandably fuzzy. I do remember one of the men cried; I couldn’t look at him for fear that I would lose my composure. The bishop, however, was as flippant as when we’d first met. I told the story as best I could, facts only. Then they asked me to step out while they considered my fate.

A half hour later, I was informed I was to be disfellowshipped from the church. I had to relinquish my temple recommend, I was not to take the sacrament, I was not to talk or pray in Church meetings, and I would have to meet with the bishop weekly to discuss my progress. I was told it would take at least six months, maybe a year, before I would once again become a member in good standing.

I remember feeling spiritually and physically exhausted. I felt alone, abandoned, set adrift in a sea of testosterone. I don’t understand to this day why I couldn’t have had my friend accompany me into that office. She already knew the details of my story; what was the point of making me face three unfamiliar, middle-aged men during what I still consider to be one of the most traumatic moments of my life?

Why were my judges men only? Men who didn’t seem to have the capacity to understand what had happened to me, who didn’t even know the right questions to ask. Men, who had never known the vulnerability of a late night alone with a physically stronger male, subject to his whims due to my failure to think like a man and prepare myself for a possible assault. Men, who didn’t stop to think that I might be in need of female support and comfort after having my soul brutally attacked and maimed. All these years later, I still feel raw. And angry. Time has not healed these wounds.

Last week, I read the book, “From Housewife to Heretic,” by Sonia Johnson, who was excommunicated in 1979, presumably for her political activities with the Equal Rights Amendment. I remember when it happened, and I completely bought the rhetoric, spread by the Church, that she was an uppity female who got what she deserved. I didn’t give her situation any more thought until last week.

While reading her story, I stumbled under the weight of a lifetime of believing that I was less-than, inferior, incapable of hearing the voice of God for myself—all because I was female. God’s word has been filtered through the priesthood, through men, some of whom were kind and gentle, many of whom were arrogant and flippant.

What I can’t figure out is why I was content to sit in the pews, week after week, and be presided over. Why I didn’t question the mostly implicit, occasionally explicit, admonition to be submissive, meek, compliant, feminine. Why did I let someone else define for me what it means to be female?

What I really can’t get over is that, for all these years, I’ve been content with the idea that our only model for deity is male. That, while a Heavenly Mother has been vaguely referred to, she is not present in our worship, she is not acknowledged as God’s wife and our mother, we are not to address her in prayer. We are discouraged from even talking about her, or speculating about her role in our creation, and some have lost their membership in the Church for doing just that.

Why haven’t I risen up in protest, demanding that I be allowed a relationship with my Heavenly Mother? And how could I have accepted the notion that celestial glory would mean the same non-existent relationship with my own offspring on their Earth, striving to return to their Father and me without the benefit of my loving presence or wisdom? Why has it taken until now to allow myself to see clearly, and to acknowledge the pain patriarchy has caused? Why?

I’ll tell you why. Because to acknowledge the very patriarchal nature of the Church, to admit my discomfort with priesthood authority being exclusively male, to allow myself to be angry at the men who have run this show, is to acknowledge that maybe they don’t speak for God after all. That maybe they don’t have the last word. That they aren’t any more deserving than I am to hear God’s word, to administer the affairs of the church, to sit in judgment of their fellow men, or women. To tell me what my inner spirituality should look like, and how that should be manifest in my daily life. That they are just men; flawed, imperfect men. No more worthy than I to be God’s mouthpiece.


Bio: Verlyne Henrie is a former Mormon woman married to a believing Mormon man who says he’d rather go to hell with her than to heaven with anyone else. 

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