TW: rape, disciplinary council
READER POST: She is 15. Braces in her mouth, knees bruised from play, barely a year past puberty. She still resembles a girl. He is 19. Jaded by struggle, lined by dysfunction. He resembles a man. He sweet talks in her ear, leaves flowers and secret poems; she sneaks out to see him. He drives down a dark road. She is not prepared. This isn’t what she’s seen in movies. No violence. No screams. “I want to go home,” she quietly repeats, staring out at the darkness. She is frozen, rooted as firmly as the trees outside the car window. In a moment, she is changed. Her innocence scarred by someone she put her trust in. But the details of the dark road are not this story. I know because her story is mine.
Following that night, my behaviors changed. I was no longer happy to roller-blade or make silly home movies with my girlfriends. Now I drank on weekends with other friends. I kissed more boys than I had planned. I kept the outside smile on my face, though a little tighter, and kindness folded in my heart. Inside, I was drowning in a hurt without the vocabulary to name it. Laughter was not as easy. Joy was not as simple. I was not the same girl anymore.
Two years later, I fell in love with a kind boy who carried a similar hurt, and we tried to mend our souls together. We thought physical love would repair what was taken by another. I felt no guilt or shame. I only knew I wanted to fill the emptiness with his love. But we were naïve. We broke up, and the emptiness was still there, bigger than before. I begged God to light the path to healing.
My Latter-day Saint faith taught me that my bishop could offer counsel straight from God. The bishop had the power to heal my broken heart. I believed a confession was the answer. Even though I was terrified, I made the decision to go to my BYU bishop. I began my story on the night of the dark road and spared no detail. The bishop’s eyes did not hide his disgust. His eyes blinked at me and, when I continued, his only response was “There’s more?!”
Suddenly shame crept in, rooting itself in the corners of my pain. I am disgusting.
There would be a disciplinary council. He would decide the parameters to my forgiveness later. No comfort was given. A date was set. I walked home in a daze but with a sliver of hope that healing could come.
I am 19. I step into a dim room with three middle-aged men: the bishop and his two counselors. On my left sits a fourth man, the ward secretary; he’s the boyfriend of my roommate. My heart races, head pounds. I cannot focus. The questions they ask make me sick. The recollection of this still makes my palms sweat. Their eyes do not show tenderness. Their voices are not gentle. The secretary’s pen scribbles notes; a record of my “sins” etched in permanent ink on paper.
I am asked by my bishopric–all fathers, all twice my age–to name sexual positions and how many times I believe penetration had occurred. I am asked if I orgasmed. “The sin is greater if you enjoyed it,” said one man’s voice. I can’t remember which. I’m trapped. The room shrank and the shame I feel is unbearable.
Even now as I write, my mind tries to protect this younger version of me. I don’t want to expose her. I want to protect her. I answer every question. I give more detail when asked. I believe my parents and church leaders who taught me a bishop could heal me if I came with a broken heart and contrite spirit. I am broken. I look into their eyes, searching for care but only find judgment.
When it’s over and my punishment decided, I am left to walk alone and with no one to comfort me. I ask God why the emptiness remains. I repented. I confessed to my bishop. I did what I was taught. I accepted my punishment. For the second time, I am wounded by someone I trusted. Yet here I am, heading down another dark road with an emptiness too big to hold. It spills out with my tears. I do not understand.
Nearly 20 years of reflection have gone by and I now see what I could not see then. My bishop was just a man, a man with a music degree and working in business. I came to these untrained men as a young woman looking for healing but instead left with another violation. They did not heal me. They tore me wide open.
No one in that room knew to tell me the dark road was not a sin of my own but a sin of the 19-year-old in the car with me. Perhaps they didn’t know. After all, men in the Church are taught they hold priesthood keys that make up for their inexperience and ignorance and that allows them the power of discernment. Perhaps the men in that disciplinary council are the victims of a religion that inflates their importance and power, and that puts men’s authority above women’s agency. Regardless, they were woefully unprepared and underqualified, both in their profession as well as their perspective.
It wasn’t until I sought professional counseling from a female therapist trained in trauma that I found the right road to healing. She gave me the vocabulary I needed and the tools to mend the emptiness that had carved out my childhood. She heard me. She saw me.
Men do not know what it is to be a girl, what it is to be a woman. Why do men decide our path to salvation? Men rule. Men decide. Top to bottom in the Church, men get the last word. Men sit in front of every congregation. When will they learn to sit among us and not above us?
Bio: Jane lives in Oregon with her husband and 3 kids. She loves the outdoors, exercise, and curling up with a good book and a warm blanket.
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2 Replies to “Female Sexual Trauma and the Problem of Patriarchal Religion”
I wrote the following poem when I found out that some I love dearly has been abused in childhood. I offer this poem with love to everyone who was abused or raped. May you all heal!
A thousand tears
We cried a thousand tears for the girls
who were abused and wish their innocence
were not ripped away from them.
Their scars are deep and may never heal,
their broken hearts may never be unbroken.
Their nightmares may never stop
and they may never be able to trust.
So we cry a thousand more tears
and then a thousand more.
We reach out and unite in solidarity.
We speak words that heal
and come from a loving place.
We respect boundaries
and cherish each other.
We stand strong and tall
and send a solid no to those who intrude.
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