Eviction of Mormon sex therapist raises concerns over culture of shame
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Sex therapist Lisa Butterworth has long been willing to explore sensitive sexuality issues with clients who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Sex therapist Lisa Butterworth has long been willing to explore sensitive sexuality issues with clients who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They seek her out to have open and frank conversations about the strict rules of the faith.
But after seeing another prominent sex therapist she considers a close friend and colleague recently kicked out of the church, Butterworth fears fewer church members will seek help for fear of being reprimanded.
Butterworth, a church member living in Idaho, is among a contingent of mental health professionals who fear the ousting of Natasha Helfer will further embolden a culture of shame. She wrote a letter condemning the decision which was signed by more than 800 mental health professionals.
Helfer was excommunicated and lost her call last month to stay in the faith widely known as the Mormon Church – a move according to critics reflects the church doubling down on some of its more conservative views on sexuality. The Salt Lake City-based church cited comments it made in support of removing the stigma surrounding pornography, masturbation and same-sex marriage, saying it contradicts the teachings of the church.
Such ousting is rare and is the harshest punishment available to a member of the faith like Helfer, who had cultivated a national reputation for lobbying for mental health advocacy among church members. The majority of her patients come from Latter-day Saint backgrounds, and many are mixed couples in which one person is in church and another is gone.
Lauren Rogers, who grew up in the church, started a petition urging the church to reverse the decision and held a protest outside its headquarters in Salt Lake City. She said she wanted to fight for Helfer after her brother was excommunicated in 2015 for sharing his experience as a member of a gay church online.
“I wanted to make up for not being there for (my brother) and being there for this woman who was trying to protect people like him in the church,” said Rogers, who lives in Maricopa, Arizona. “The excommunication must be abolished. I think it’s an abusive practice … and it’s a tool the church uses to silence people.
Helfer said she feared her case could set a precedent for the dismissal of other professionals and have devastating consequences for church members who may no longer feel safe seeking treatment.
“Doing this on my own sends the message to both clinicians and, more importantly, the public that you shouldn’t trust sex therapists,” Helfer said. “While this does not necessarily mean that other professionals will be directly affected, it will affect the population as to who will seek these kinds of services.
Church officials declined to comment on Helfer’s loss on appeal or the criticism against them.
Members are taught not to have premarital sex, passionately kissing or arousing “emotions in their own bodies” meant to be reserved for marriage. Gay sex is also prohibited.
Scott Gordon, president of FAIR, a voluntary organization that supports the church, acknowledged that it can be difficult for gay and transgender people to belong to a religion they feel does not fully accept them. But, he said, Helfer was not ousted because of her profession or her views on LGBTQ issues or sexuality.
“While that might sound like the problem, it’s really not the problem,” Gordon said. “The problem is actively going out and campaigning against the church. The content is almost irrelevant.
The message of Helfer’s excommunication and that of the other members seems to be that the faith can tolerate diverse opinions, but “when this behavior seeks to influence others, then the church takes official action.” said Kathleen Flake, professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia.
Sam Young, who led a campaign criticizing the church’s practice of allowing lay leaders to do one-on-one interviews with young people that sometimes included sexual matters, was kicked out in 2018. Kate Kelly, founder of a group pushing for women to be admitted to lay clergy, was excommunicated in 2014.
In Helfer’s case, his former Kansas religious leaders sent him a letter in April after he held a disciplinary hearing explaining the reasons for his dismissal. The letter stated that her professional activities had played no role but that she could no longer be a member because of a “pattern of clear and deliberate opposition to the Church, its doctrine, its policies and its laws. leaders “.
After a year, they will consider allowing her to return if she stops using “derogatory and vulgar language to describe the Church and its leaders” and attends church meetings, the letter says.
Helfer said she had no plans to change her professional services, but had heard from clients before that they no longer felt comfortable working with her.
“My practice will survive,” she said. “But a family with a young gay child can deal with their problem very differently after witnessing something like this – it can have long-term implications for them.”
“This is where my heart weighs the heaviest,” she said.
Eppolito is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.
Sophia Eppolito, The Associated Press