Braxton Dutson distinctly remembers the first time he heard the word “masturbation.”
He was 13, and at church in the predominantly Mormon town of Payson, Utah, south of Provo.
In the 1990s sex education was not a priority in what was then a sleepy farm town.
A youth leader was explaining to him and a group of other young men what masturbation was and why it was a sin.
“I figured that I had invented this ‘masturbation thing.’ I didn’t know that anyone else was doing anything like that,” Duston said. “When I found out that this was a sin, then I thought, ‘Holy cow, I’m the only one doing this. Because this is bad and everyone else is good.’”
The boys were about to meet with a church leader one-on-one in what’s known as a worthiness interview. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints conducts the interviews before youth may enter a Mormon temple — there are 160 worldwide — a practice that starts at age 12.
Part of being worthy to enter the temple includes living the “law of chastity,” the Mormon term for saving sex or anything that arouses sexual feelings for marriage.
Dutson sat down with one of his church leaders who asked him if he had ever masturbated. He said yes and then the leader, stammering a bit, said maybe it would be better if Dutson didn’t go to the temple for the planned trip coming up.
“I was floored, just devastated,” Dutson said.
The leader, following Mormon church protocol, sent Dutson to meet with the bishop. As head of the congregation, the bishop is expected to handle any sexual topics.
As he was waiting outside the office, Dutson started thinking up lies he could tell his parents about why he wasn’t going to the temple with his peers.
But then, his bishop surprised him.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry too much about it. You’re fine, just do your best,’” Dutson said. “He was really understanding.”
It was a rollercoaster of emotions, in just a matter of minutes.
These days, Dutson is a certified sex therapist working at the Healing Group in Midvale. Many of his clients are Mormon, and they have their own stories about those one-on-one worthiness interviews.
“There have been far too many people who come see me because they’ve, in their own words, been held hostage by the bishop or someone probing for questions,” Dutson said.
Dutson has heard stories of young women and men being asked to go into extreme detail about their sexual experiences.
In the worst circumstances, these questions have led to deep-rooted shame that can complicate marriages and even cause of self-harm.
These are the types of stories that have made headlines this year. Just this past weekend the public radio show This American Life dedicated nearly half of its show to the topic.
Dutson sincerely believes the vast majority of bishops are trying to avoid causing any harm in these situations. He said they simply aren’t equipped — or trained — to discuss sexual matters with youth.
As to whether there is ever any circumstance that these probing questions could be seen as helpful?
“No. I don’t know what the bishop would then do with that information,” Dutson said.
John Sundloff said he’s heard these stories too — about probing questions with disastrous results.
Sundloff has been serving as bishop of a congregation just north of Salt Lake in Kaysville for the past year. Sundoff is a 38-year-old attorney with four kids. His position as bishop is voluntary and unpaid. The term typically lasts about six years.
While those stories doesn’t reflect his personal experience, he says his heart goes out to those who have felt harmed.
“If I had a person sitting across from me who had gone through something like that, my first thought and reaction would be to tell them how sorry I was — that it happened,” Sundloff said.
Sundloff said there’s an easy way to avoid those moments. Simply follow the most recent guidelines as prescribed by top Mormon Church officials. He said the only sexual-based question he is expected to ask is “Are you living the law of chastity?”
It’s a yes-or-no question and he said it’s wisely concise. Occasionally a teenager will ask a question, or offer up something they feel guilty about. Sundloff will then discuss while being careful to avoid delving into unnecessary detail.
“If there are things that make the youth uncomfortable [when discussing the law of chastity] or frankly make me uncomfortable, I’m not even going to go there,” Sundloff said. “I’m going to refer them and encourage the youth to talk to their parent.”
To him this isn’t a cop-out. This is what he as a bishop is expected to do.
Sundloff has also made an effort to talk to the parents of teenagers in his congregation. He explains what these youth interviews are, what they should expect and he invites them to sit in on the interview with their child if they desire — an option LDS Church officials have encouraged in recent months.
Sundloff said he feels no need from asking probing questions.
“The last thing I want is to have someone leave and feel ashamed for what they did,” Sundloff said.
Sundloff sees a bigger principle here. In the year since he’s been called as a bishop he’s learned to see his role as relatively minor in the lives of his congregation. He believes it pales in comparison to the role the home and parents should play in their teenger’s lives. He thinks that when these priorities are misunderstood problems can sprout up.
“I think we do sometimes default to more trust than is necessary,” Sundloff said.
Sundloff wants to earn the trust of his youth. He wants to prove that he doesn’t define them by their shortcomings or their guilt. He especially wants them to know that if they don’t feel comfortable sharing something with him, then he is more than okay with some things left unsaid.