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661: But That's What Happened

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Prologue

Ira Glass

So Lilly, you're here to tell me a story?

Lilly Sullivan

Yes.

Ira Glass

And I should say, you are Lilly Sullivan. You're one of the producers of our show.

Lilly Sullivan

Mm-hm, I am.

Ira Glass

So what's the story?

Lilly Sullivan

OK, so this is a story that I heard growing up. It was one of those things I was told as like, a scary story when you're a kid. Like an urban legend. And then I've been thinking about it a lot recently, because I read a book recently that I really loved. It's called Her Body and Other Parties, by this writer, Carmen Maria Machado.

It's a finalist for the National Book Award, and she retells the story in one of the short stories in her book. And it just stuck in my head. And it's just something that I've been thinking about a lot recently.

Ira Glass

And so what happens? How does it go?

Lilly Sullivan

OK, so a girl and her mom are on vacation in Paris. And they're just traveling, and they've been there for a few days. And the mom, she gets sick. And so the girl gets a doctor.

And the doctor comes to the hotel. He spends a while examining her, and he's like, she's really sick. We need to deal with this immediately. And he tells the daughter, you need to go across the city. I have medicine. It can save her. You have to go get it while I tend to her, sends her downstairs.

And the guy at the front desk, the hotel manager, takes her out, and he puts her in a cab. And he goes to the taxi driver and, in French, tells him directions to where she's supposed to go. And it's on the other side of the city. So the girl is in the back of the cab.

And it's just taking forever. The taxi driver is making all these loops and getting lost. . And she's kind of frantic in the back, needing to get back. But she finally gets there. She gets the pills. She jumps back in the cab. And they drive back to the hotel.

She runs into the building. And she's running past the hotel manager. And he stops her. And he says, miss, can I help you? And she says, yeah, I have it. I found the medicine. I'm just going back up. He's like, I'm sorry. I've never seen you before.

And she's like, no, you just put me in a cab. I'm staying here with my mother. She's upstairs. And she's sick, and the doctor is with her. And he's like, we don't have any guests staying here right now.

And so she runs past him. She runs upstairs. She goes to the room. And she opens the door. And the room where her mother was, it's empty. The furniture is all different. The walls are a different color. Everything is rearranged.

And the hotel manager kind of chases her up. And he's like, seriously, miss, you need to leave. You can't just be in here. And so she's really confused. She starts running down the halls looking for them.

Ira Glass

Them being the doctor and her mom.

Lilly Sullivan

Yeah, and so she runs out of the hotel. She runs into the street. And she just starts asking everybody. You know, I'm looking for my mom. Have you seen her?

Ira Glass

So what happens to her?

Lilly Sullivan

Well, she just keeps looking. Years pass.

Ira Glass

Oh, it's a fable.

Lilly Sullivan

Right. Right.

Ira Glass

This isn't a real story.

Lilly Sullivan

Right. And, you know, she's young. She's in Paris. She doesn't know anybody. And she just keeps wandering and looking. And in the eyes of everyone in Paris, she kind of becomes this madwoman wandering the streets of Paris saying, "where is my mother, where is my mother."

And sometimes, she wonders it, too. Did I invent all of this in my head? She wonders if it happened at all. But at the same time, she knows that it happened. Like, she was staying there with her mother.

Ira Glass

Lilly, you said that this story has been stuck in your head for a while. And I know it has because I know that it was your impetus for putting together today's show. And you've been thinking about it for months, actually. Talk about why.

Lilly Sullivan

She goes through something in that story that I feel like I've gone through, I think that a lot of women go through all the time. And it can happen in these really small ways. They don't get talked about because they're so small. So here's an example. So years ago when I was just first getting into radio, you know, I had just graduated from this radio program. I got this little scholarship thing to go to this conference with a lot of people who have been in radio forever.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Lilly Sullivan

And it was also, you know, one of those scholarships where we're all people of color. We're all young, in a new career. And it was all people who are older. And you know, public radio is mostly--

Ira Glass

White.

Lilly Sullivan

Yeah. Yeah. So you're there and you're like, the young person of color who doesn't know anything about radio.

Ira Glass

Right, yeah.

Lilly Sullivan

It was a little awkward or uncomfortable. And there was this older person who was a pretty big deal in radio. And he was doing this thing where he would kind of come up and talk to me like a normal person and, you know, say professional things about radio. And then he would-- you know, it's a conference. So you see people, and you walk away, and you mingle.

And then he would kind of walk away. And then he would be on the other side of the room, and he would just kind of like, leer at me from a distance, kind of all the time. It felt like constantly, and he would just-- you know, he'd be waggling his eyebrows, pursing his lips. You know, like, squinting eyes.

Ira Glass

So corny.

Lilly Sullivan

I know. So every time I would turn, he would, you know, catch my eye and like raise his eyebrows again like, still here. He was messing with me. I mean, but it was weird, because then, a few minutes later, he would just walk up to me, and then start acting totally normal, as if he hadn't been doing that.

Ira Glass

Oh, wow.

Lilly Sullivan

He would just, oh, you're here with this program. It's a really interesting program. And it's important to cultivate new people of color in radio. And then as part of the conference, there was an event one night. And, you know, there was alcohol and, people were drinking.

And he was standing with a group of men. They're looking at me, and they're whispering. It felt like they were talking about me. I mean, they were. I could tell that they were talking about me. Someone would look at me, saying something, and then someone would laugh.

Ira Glass

Did you have a feeling about what they were probably saying?

Lilly Sullivan

I mean, I think they were just talking about like, me as a woman, how I look. Things like that. And I think that he was telling them that he was going to sleep with me, or something like that. That's the way they were looking at me. They were like, whispering to each other and squinting their eyes. And they were laughing at me.

And then, he comes up to me and just acts totally normal, and tells me that I should come over and come meet them. You know, he'd be happy to make some introductions. They're good people to know in radio. And so I go over with him. And I like, put out my hand to meet them. And no one shook my hand. And they all just kind of laughed and looked at each other. And I just--

Ira Glass

Whoa.

Lilly Sullivan

Yeah, it wasn't great. It was really embarrassing. But it was so subtle. It just felt humiliating in a way that I knew would sound silly if I tried to tell someone. And then later, I talked to people about it. And they were a little skeptical. You know, they were like, those people, they wouldn't have done that, the people who make the decisions in radio. But I was like, I just, I know that it happened.

Ira Glass

And then in your mind, you're basically doing what the woman is doing in the story, which is like, this is definitely true. But wait, is this true?

Lilly Sullivan

Kind of. Because, yeah, I mean, a little bit. Because, like, on the one hand, you know what it's like when people are kind of laughing at you when you put out your hand, and no one shakes it.

Ira Glass

Yeah, that seems pretty blatant. That seems like hard to make a mistake about.

Lilly Sullivan

It does seem blatant, right?

Ira Glass

Right.

Lilly Sullivan

But then when people say, you must have misread everything. And the guy himself is acting like everything is totally fine. You're kind of like, is it possible that I misread everything? Am I overreacting? Did I just read all of that wrong?

Ira Glass

OK, so the show that you have put together today, Lilly, was kind of inspired by that Paris story, right?

Lilly Sullivan

Yeah, yeah.

Ira Glass

And then we just explained to the audience that it has two stories about women. And in each of the stories, something kind of weird and unsettling happens to these women. And the world does not acknowledge how weird and wrong these things are. But in addition, unlike the woman in the Paris story and unlike you at the conference, the women in these stories, they don't think anything has gone wrong.

Lilly Sullivan

Not at first. At first, they think everything is fine because everyone around them acts like everything is fine. And only later do they start to realize, wait, something bad did happen.

Ira Glass

And so that is going to be our show today, two stories that, I have to say, are eye-opening. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. Stay with us.

Act One: The Old Man on My Shoulder

Ira Glass

Act 1-- "The Old Man on My Shoulder." This first story, when the producers were working on it, started doing interviews for the story, it seemed like every single interview they came back so surprised at what they were learning. They really set out having no idea what they would find. A warning-- this story has sexual content. It's probably not right for children. And it begins with something that happened to our producer, Elna Baker.

Elna Baker

A few months ago I was talking to a guy I know, Rory, when Mormonism came up. "You grew up Mormon? You have to meet my fiancee, Reagan," he told me. "She was Mormon, too. You guys will have so much in common." I know that's like saying, you're black, meet my other black friend. But in this case, he was right.

Within an hour of meeting Reagan, we were singing church songs together, like (SINGING) When I grow up, I want to be a mother and have a family. One little, two little, three little babies of my own. Of all the jobs for me, I'll choose no other. I'll have a family. Four little, five little, six little babies in my home.

All this while Rory looked on in horror. Reagan says that Rory is constantly bowled over by the things she tells him.

Reagan

You know, it started out kind of fun and cute. And I'd be like, you know when you're singing around a piano with your family? And he's like, no, nobody does that. That's not a normal thing for people's childhoods. So it started out kind of cute like that. And then one day, I'm like, you know when you're in an office with an old man, and the doors shut, and you're talking about sex things?

Elna Baker

Reagan's referring to the Mormon practice of confessing your sexual sins to the bishop. This usually starts when you're 12, for boys and girls. Reagan told Rory about a time she was confessing, and the bishop rose from his desk and put his hand on her knee. Even as an adult in her 30s telling the story, she didn't totally understand how shocking this was, but Rory did.

Elna Baker

And what was his response?

Reagan

Well, he repeated the whole thing, like, you mean to tell me that you were in an office alone with a man with the door shut, and he was asking sexual questions, and then he came out from behind his desk and put his hand on your knee? That kind of thing. And then, and your parents allowed that? Your parents weren't mad about that?

Elna Baker

How did that make you feel?

Reagan

Well, it made me feel everything all over again. It really made me feel the shame and humiliation that I felt when I was 12. 12 to 18.

Elna Baker

It was nice to talk to someone else about this. From the ages of 12 to 27, I was supposed to walk into my bishop's office and confess anytime I did anything sexual. But unlike old-fashioned Catholic confession, there was no curtain or anonymity. And Mormon bishops, they're not paid or trained clergy. They don't wear robes.

They are men who are chosen by the church to volunteer their time and serve as basically pastors for a two-to-five-year period. They keep their regular jobs. One of my bishops, a good one, was a food scientist who helped invent Pop Rocks. Another was an investment banker named Chad.

I'd sit across from Chad in a little office at church and admit to a sexual encounter. And Chad would ask follow-up questions. "Did you go to first base or second? He put his hands where? Was it under the bra, or over the bra? Did you like it?"

To be forgiven of sexual sin, I was required to tell the bishop. So while I often felt ashamed or humiliated in the room, I never questioned the process itself. It was routine, like going to the dentist. You turned yourself in whenever there was anything to report. And on top of that, once or twice a year, you were required to go to this thing called a worthiness interview.

Everyone did this, no exception, from the ages of 12 to 18. These were like checkups for your spirituality. The bishop would ask you a series of questions like, do you believe in God? Are you a full tithe payer? Are you honest in your dealings with your fellow man? In the midst of these questions about your faith, he'd ask if you obey the law of chastity. Reagan's first worthiness interview was pretty confusing.

Reagan

They sort of graze over everything until you get to chastity. And he said, "are you obeying the law of chastity?" And I didn't know what that word meant. And so I asked him to explain it more, and he said, "are you engaging in sexual things like petting and necking?"

And I also didn't know what petting and necking was. I mean, I was about as innocent as a 12-year-old can be. I was home-schooled, and everything. So I wasn't even around language like-- you know, any kind of sexual or lewd language of any kind.

Elna Baker

Especially not language from the 1950s.

Reagan

Yeah, exactly. Yeah, so I didn't know what necking or petting was. And so I think I said, like, I don't think so. And I remember the feeling of my heart beating in my ears. You know, I felt my whole body was so hot.

And even though I didn't know what it was, and I didn't think I had done it, I felt like I had done it. You know, I felt like I was really guilty. And it seemed like every question up until that point was really not important, and then this was the big question. This was like, the whole-- you know, climax of the interview.

And then I also became bad after that. I became completely obsessed with necking, and petting, and finding out what it meant. Anytime anything would happen in a movie, anything sexual at all, I'd be like, I think that's petting. The interviews kick-started something with me.

I made my Barbies do everything that you can possibly imagine. It was like a bloodbath. My Barbies went from just playing house to like, doing angel dust, and having like, orgies within a matter of weeks.

Elna Baker

When Reagan was 16, she said she finally got a boyfriend to experiment with. And she did neck and pet with him. But whatever fun she had was gone the second it was over.

Elna Baker

Did you immediately, like right after, think like, oh no, now I have to tell the bishop.

Reagan

Yes. Yes, instantly. I went home, and I remember feeling really excited that I had necked and petted. And then the next day, I was just guilt ridden. The whole day I was like-- it was like I had a hangover, or something. Like a-- I don't know. I was laying in bed, like thinking about it, and worrying about it all day. And I didn't tell him, or talk about it until I was asked to go in for an interview.

And the door was shut. I was sitting there. I was 16. And he asked me all the questions. And then he asked me if I was keeping the law of chastity. And I said no. I said no. And he came out from behind his desk, and pulled up a chair close to me, and put his hand on my knee.

Elna Baker

This is the story she told her fiancee, Rory.

Reagan

And then said, "did you do this more than once?" And I said no, I only did it once. And then he said, "did you have intercourse?" And I said no. And then he said, "did you like it?" And I said no. "Have you thought about doing it again?"

Elna Baker

And did he define what it was?

Reagan

Well, it was all kind of vague things. Like, you know, intercourse was probably the most specific. But I remember him asking me things like, "did you impersonate sex?" Which I didn't totally understand.

Elna Baker

That's a really weird way to put it, too.

Reagan

Yeah. Yeah.

Elna Baker

Hey, it's me, sex.

[LAUGHTER]

Reagan

Yeah.

Elna Baker

For penance you put together a plan that requires frequent check-ins, and you do assignments, like reading church literature about not having sex. For a while you can't take the sacrament, our version of communion. This can feel like public shaming, like everyone notices. It's incredibly embarrassing because if you're a young woman, the assumption is it's sex related. Reagan's bishop set up more meetings with her.

Reagan

And then he called my house about twice a month, to check on me. I felt really humiliated. I felt-- I felt like, evil, almost, you know? I felt like everything-- I felt like I was just such a disappointment, and I made my family look bad, and all of that.

Elna Baker

One morning last December, I opened up Facebook and saw this petition going around by a Mormon named Sam Young. He used to be a bishop, and he was calling on the church to stop these sexually explicit interviews. This was the first time I'd ever heard them referred to as sexually explicit.

He posted a list of 29 questions different church members said that they'd been asked in their interviews with their bishops. As I read down the list, I realized that I had been asked 13 of them. Questions like, do you masturbate? Where and how did your boyfriend touch you? Where were his fingers? Were your nipples hard? Were you wet?

It took seeing them all together for me to realize how bad it actually was. There were stories of abuse on Sam's website. Some are extreme, like bishops who convinced children that if they masturbated with them, the desire to do it would go away. I was never physically abused, just asked questions.

As a bishop, Sam said he never asked these questions, and he was never asked them as a kid. He found out about them from a friend whose son was asked about masturbation. Sam couldn't believe it. He posted about it on Facebook, and the stories came flooding in.

Of his six daughters, four told him that they'd been asked if they masturbated. One of his youngest said she didn't know what the word meant. She was 12. So she looked it up on the internet, and this introduced her to porn. Sam thought if he brought all this to the attention of the church, they'd stop these explicit questions.

The church response was that bishops are not supposed to be, quote, "unnecessarily probing or invasive in their questions." But what's necessary and unnecessary is left up to each individual bishop to decide. The church doesn't define exactly where the line is. As the story got more heat, the church issued new guidelines this spring, saying kids could have a parent or an adult in the room when meeting with the bishop.

The church claims this had nothing to do with Sam's petition, but clearly he had touched a nerve. He was excommunicated from the church in September for acting, quote "in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the church." And a lot of Mormons online resisted his claims.

They defended their bishops, saying they hadn't been asked inappropriate or disturbing questions. That these incidents were isolated and unusual, or that Sam was making these stories up. That they hadn't happened at all. But I knew they'd happened, because they'd happened to me. And they stuck with me. I had rarely talked about it with any friends, and never my family.

Even all these years later, I feel like it's my fault. That I somehow deserved these humiliating encounters. And talking to Reagan and reading the stories on Sam's website, I wondered, how widespread is this? It just so happens that we have another person on staff who grew up Mormon. So together, we just started calling people, some we knew, some we didn't, some were practicing Mormons, others had left the church. And people definitely remembered their bishop interviews.

Woman 1

They'd be like, well, how long did it last? Or did he put his fingers in you, or did you put your fingers on him?

Man 1

And I think he asked me if I had made her orgasm. I remember going really red in the face, an extreme amount of anxiety. I felt like my throat was closing.

Woman 2

And I was only 11, and I'd never had a boyfriend. I told him, yes, I'm keeping the law of chastity. He said, "are you lying to me?" I said no. And he said, "are you sure you're not lying to me?" And I thought, does the bishop know something about me that I don't know?

Elna Baker

We reached 10 people. And to our surprise, all 10 said that they had had at least one experience with a bishop where they felt the line of questioning went too far, or became overly explicit. These interactions left them feeling deeply uncomfortable and ashamed, to the point that most of them had never shared their stories with anyone. This led me to ask my siblings, and of the five of us, four had had bad experiences.

I don't want to say every Mormon feels this way about their bishops. The therapist I contacted, who specializes in sex and relationships, and works with current and former church members, estimated that bishop interviews only come up with one out of eight of her clients. And talking about chastity is just a small part of what bishops do. Lots of people have positive experiences with their bishops, including me, and the people we talked to.

Yes, some bishops went too far, but we had others who didn't. You get a new one every few years. But bishop interviews can be hugely consequential for your life. To attend any Mormon-run college, you need your bishop to give you what's called an ecclesiastical endorsement, which is basically a letter stating that you're a faithful Mormon obeying the church's teachings.

I talked to a woman named Alisha. She's from Utah in her early 40s. When she was 20, she went to get her ecclesiastical endorsement to go to BYU, Brigham Young University. Alisha had previously had sex with her boyfriend, but says she stopped, and had been abstinent for a while. She hadn't confessed it yet, though.

And her feeling was that if she was going to a church school, she wanted to do it the right way. She wanted to be on the up and up. She figured the interview would go OK if she just told the truth because she'd only had positive experiences with bishops before. And so she made an appointment with her bishop.

Alisha

He asked me about masturbation, which I had never been asked before. So that was a little bit surprising. And I said yes. But then he proceeded to ask me, "did you use your hands, or did you use a device?" And immediately, like every cell in my body was on alert.

Like when you're walking down an alley, and all of a sudden you feel extremely uncomfortable. That's how I felt. Like, right out of the get go. So I said, well, why does it matter? And he said, "well, I just want to get a sense so I can advise you on triggers, and what to avoid."

Elna Baker

He asked her a bunch of other sexual questions. She said yes to all of them, and confessed she had sex with her boyfriend.

Alisha

He proceeded to ask me, where were you? Were you in your bed, in a car? Did you climax? Did he climax? I said, does it make it less of a sin if I climaxed, or does it make it more of a sin? I was confused. I don't know what the rules are. Like, I didn't know.

Definitely, it was like he sat forward in his chair. And I felt like he was watching porn that was my life, and not his business. That was my take, that he was using my story and his power to create pictures in his head that he could take pleasure from. I mean, that's how it felt.

At some point he said, "So all you guys do is have sex? You guys don't do anything else?" And I'm thinking, no, this is a boyfriend that we do a lot. Like, he's in a band. We go do all these shows. Like, I help roadie for him. Our relationship is not the sex. It's just what you're asking about. And now you're making it sound like that's the only thing we do. It was bizarre. But I needed that signature.

Elna Baker

And eventually got it, but not without paying a price. She was too scared to report him. She thought it could backfire. And she had to keep meeting with him once a week. She said she always felt sick beforehand, and tried to think of excuses not to go.

Alisha

It's hard because it's not like I could have said, this man is molesting me, or raping me, or-- And I've had other experiences that were sexual pressure put on me, you know, with hands, that were less traumatic than this.

Elna Baker

I grew up watching this church video that primed me for the role I was supposed to play in the bishop's office. It's called "Godly Sorrow Leads to Repentance." And our teachers would show it to us when they slacked on preparing a lesson. In the video, a young woman named Kim visits her bishop because she's going to get married, and in order to enter the temple, she needs a signed document. A temple recommend, that says she's worthy. Kim sits across the desk from her bishop and he asks--

Bishop

Is there anything in your life, Kim, that hasn't been resolved with the proper priesthood authority?

Kim

Well, before Matt returned from his mission, I was involved with another boy. We probably spent a little too much time together alone.

Elna Baker

The bishop waits for her to say more. When Kim doesn't, he nods his head and gestures.

Bishop

Go on.

Kim

I guess things sort of got out of hand.

Bishop

Kim, I know how hard it is to talk about things like this, but I need to know how serious the problem was if I'm going to help resolve it.

Kim

I guess we were getting a little too comfortable together. And that's when the problems started.

Elna Baker

The screen fades and cuts back to the bishop, implying that time has passed, and Kim has spilled her story.

Bishop

What you've told me, Kim, is very serious.

Kim

Yeah, but I'm not involved with that guy anymore. It's not a problem now.

Elna Baker

The bishop tells her that this is much more severe than she thinks.

Kim

I can't have a temple recommend? But the wedding is coming up. The announcements have been sent out. My dress is paid for.

Elna Baker

We saw this film a lot, and the cutaway really made an impression. My classmates and I would be like, what do you think she said? So when my bishop first asked me about masturbating when I was 14, it seemed appropriate for us to have an explicit conversation. We were just living in the cutaway.

So I told all. I couldn't lie to the bishop. That would be like lying to God. And I was taught that any sexual act I committed before marriage was the second most serious sin next to murder. It was terrifying. I masturbated once when I was 12. I wasn't even aware of what I was doing. I just knew something unusual happened.

Two years later, I learned the church's position on masturbation, which is that it's almost as bad as sex. And I knew sex was almost as bad as murder. When I connected the dots, I was devastated. Unless I repented, I was told I'd be separated from my family in the afterlife, because no unclean thing is allowed in heaven.

So I go tell the bishop. But, of course, I'd masturbate again. And each time, I'd immediately be hit with the thought that I was being so selfish. Why would I choose this feeling over my family? The only way to undo it, to get my family back, was to confess.

My dad was a bishop for five years. When I told him recently about the questions my siblings and I were asked, it upset him. He told me he'd never asked anyone those questions, and didn't remember being asked them as a kid. So when exactly did bishops start asking these detailed and embarrassing questions?

I talked to three different historians, all Mormon, but independent of the church. And they said the answer was simple. The shift started happening in the '70s. It was the church's reaction to the sexual revolution. They were worried about promiscuity. Someone at MormonLeaks, our version of WikiLeaks, put me in touch with a historian who has a collection of old church manuals that are written specifically for bishops.

Before the 1970s, the manuals told bishops to search for, quote, "immoral or un-Christianlike practices." They don't spell it out with a lot of details. But then in 1975, explicit questions first appear in a bishop's guide which tells bishops to ask prospective missionaries and other young adults whether they've been involved in, quote, "any of the following-- pre or extramarital sexual intercourse, homosexual practices, sexual deviations, petting--" then in parentheses, "the fondling of another's body, and masturbation. Hesitation or uneasiness may suggests that a question needs to be pursued further." End quote.

When I read this, I was blown away. I felt like, here it is, the blueprint for the system I grew up in. That was 1975. Worthiness interviews with young people officially began in the 1980s. And in the '90s, a pamphlet came out which bishops were told to use in those interviews.

It was called "For the Strength of Youth." On the cover there was a black and white drawing of a bunch of teenagers, girls with perms and shoulder pads, boys who looked popular. You got one when you turned 12. I loved mine.

Anyway, the pamphlet included a list of forbidden sexual acts like petting, masturbation, and also just thinking too much about sex. The church encouraged bishops to discuss the specific acts listed in the pamphlet during their interviews with young people. And they were free to ask whatever follow-ups they felt they needed to. This is how the system still works today.

I had a feeling of love for my bishops. I still do. They were seen as the father of our congregation. You felt like you knew them and they knew you. They'd ask about your classes at college or follow up on your daily life. When my father was a bishop, I watched him volunteer his time in between a hectic work schedule and home life to help people find apartments, pay for groceries, be their grief counselor, visit them when they were sick.

He genuinely loved and helped these people because he cared about them. And my bishops cared about me. I felt relieved when I left the office. Repenting to them lifted the weight of the guilt I'd been carrying. And often, it felt like they were just as uncomfortable asking the questions as I was answering them.

But regardless of the intention or behavior of any one bishop, bishop interviews followed me into every sexual encounter. All the women I spoke to had this same problem. For example, I learned that my bishops were more lenient if I wasn't the person initiating. So when I was with guys, I'd strategically make sure they made every move, which meant I was constantly leaning against walls, pressing my boobs out and telepathically communicating, please sir, just touch one boob.

But even now in my 30s, I have a really hard time with sex. Shocker. I'm no longer Mormon. I haven't been for eight years. And still, when I fool around with someone, there's a voice in my head that keeps track of what I'm doing, like a ref docking points for each progressive move.

The only way to get this voice to shut up is to leave my body. So I'm there, but not there. The following morning, I wake up to this voice telling me all the things I've done wrong. This leads to panic and anxiety.

And it's not like I just feel bad for a minute. The feeling lingers for days. Writing this story, I've realized something I never put together until now. I still feel bad for losing my virginity before I got married. I was 28. I wanted to do it the right way.

I'd made promises to God, and to the people in my life that I'd wait for marriage. I wanted so badly to live up to their expectations. And when I made the choice to have sex, I knew what it meant. I made it knowing I would lose my family for eternity, my community, and my religion. And in spite of all that, I still did it.

And what kind of a person does that make me? This is what I feel every time I have sex. I've wondered how much of this is related to these bishop interviews. And I asked a few people how they thought it impacted them. A couple women said it was easier to have sex if they didn't feel pleasure. The guilt was directly linked to enjoying it. This woman, Courtney, said something I related to a lot.

Courtney

Having wine before you have sex, or even smoking weed is the only way to get around it-- is if you alter your mind.

Elna Baker

And how much of that directly ties to that interview at 18?

Courtney

100%.

Elna Baker

And this is Kate.

Kate

I think constantly having to account to an extraordinarily judgmental outsider about your sex life leaves an external voice. Like, you know how there's like an angel and a devil in cartoons who are always on your shoulder? I think there's always like an old man on our shoulders as Mormon women.

Elna Baker

This has consequences. Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife is the sex therapist I talked to. She's a practicing Mormon and has had hundreds of patients who are current or former members of the church. She said some Mormon women, not all, learned from their bishop interviews to defer to an authority figure when it comes to sex.

Of course, other parts of the religion reinforce that lesson, too. And these women, during sex, they think about what the man they're with wants or what their bishop would think. They don't think about what they want. This shuts their sexuality down.

Jennifer Finlayson-fife

I mean some LDS women really see it as a dangerous thing, that sex and desire in and of itself is dangerous to their goodness and dangerous to their identity as a good woman, and to their perception of the ideals of what a good LDS woman does. And so they shut it down in a more fundamental way or don't develop it in a more fundamental way. And then, the task of awakening it in marriage feels almost impossible.

Elna Baker

Of course, shutting down means different things. A lot of the women I talked to said that during sex, they leave their bodies, can't even tell what they want. Rebecca was one of the women who told me she enjoys sex. But she still feels held back. She's a practicing Mormon, and she did it the right way. Married a Mormon, waited till marriage to have sex.

Rebecca

I still sometimes will have a feeling of I'm being dirty or slutty if I enjoy this too much, or if I get too into this. Because I feel like somehow, the only pure way to have an orgasm is to be thinking about my husband, who I'm married to for eternity, and our love and worthiness before God. I don't think having those thoughts, for me, is that sexy. I don't want to think about my relationship to God.

Elna Baker

What I've started to realize these bishop interviews did to me was I had no space for privacy of any sexual thought. So if I had a sexual thought, God was eavesdropping and heard it. I have to be like, oh, no, turn the thought off. Stop, stop, stop. This is not allowed.

Rebecca

Yeah. But I don't blame you for feeling that way, because that's some of our cultural and social programming. I don't think it's intentional. I don't think anybody sat there and thought, let's give these women these huge hang ups they're gonna struggle with the rest of their lives. But it happened.

Elna Baker

Right, they didn't plan to give us these hangups. But they did plan to scare the bejesus out of children about sex, in a way that gave us huge hang ups. I wanted to talk to the church about this to understand how it views the bishop interviews today, after the Sam Young controversy. To see if officials really grasp how much their policies had impacted us, and if the church is rethinking these practices.

LDS officials haven't given interviews on this in the past. But the director of Media Relations for the church, Eric Hawkins, agreed to talk. I told him what I'd learned from my interviewees, that these bishop interviews had stayed with us.

Eric Hawkins

I think what you have found is a selection of individuals who have perhaps had that experience, or that feeling, whereas tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of others have felt very differently about the process, and about-- so as I say, from my perspective, it is always heartbreaking when I hear that someone leaves that conversation not having had that experience.

Elna Baker

Are these questions supposed to be that explicit?

Eric Hawkins

I think that would depend a little bit on the situation. One of the pieces of counsel that bishops are given is to not be too invasive, to adapt the conversation to the understanding and maturity of the young person who is there. And I think it's not necessary for a bishop to be overly explicit or probing in those questions. He wants to understand how that individual feels about what they have done, so that he can help apply the right amount of repentance, if you will.

Elna Baker

Eric says the church strongly believes that these bishop interviews with kids are a crucial part of its mission to help young people develop a close relationship with God by teaching them the standards for living a good and moral life. I pointed out to him that under the church's current guidelines, a bishop is still free to ask whatever explicit questions he wants. And inappropriate questions still seem to be happening.

Elna Baker

I mean, I guess what's the downside to making it super clear what they can and can't ask?

Eric Hawkins

Well, I think the conversation needs to be according to the understanding of that young person. You may have a young woman who is 11 years old, or 12 years old, 13 years old, who is completely innocent. You may have one of her counterparts who is of the same age, but very, very mature in her thinking, and the ways of the world, and so forth. And so the conversation would be very different for those two individuals. And that's what's outlined in the guidelines for bishops, as far as interviews.

Elna Baker

In other words, bishops need the flexibility to ask whatever they think is needed. He pointed out the church did revise its guidelines for bishop interviews this year to allow parents to be in the room and to share with the parents the basic topics that they'll cover beforehand.

Elna Baker

So why did you set new guidelines?

Eric Hawkins

I think this is a church that is always growing, and learning, and looking to do better. And I think there was seen an opportunity to improve the interactions between young people and bishops. And so those guidelines were set.

Elna Baker

And is that because the way that questions were asked before were wrong?

Eric Hawkins

No, I don't think so. I think it's a learning process. I think the way that the church is taking accountability is by constantly seeking to improve.

Elna Baker

You specifically said the word accountability. And I think that the church needs accountability in acknowledging that this process caused harm.

Eric Hawkins

I think that what the church is trying to do is to constantly improve, to look for ways in which this can be made better.

Elna Baker

Absolutely.

Eric Hawkins

That those interactions can improve.

Elna Baker

But I guess what I'm saying is in order to improve, there needs to be an admission. It feels a little like an argument I might get in with a boyfriend, or my husband, where I'm like-- so can you tell me that you did something wrong? And they're like, I'll do better. And you're like, no, but first you have to tell me you did something wrong. And then it's like, no, I'll do better. And it's like, will you just tell me, just so I know that you know that this was wrong?

Eric Hawkins

I've had those conversations with my wife, too.

Elna Baker

Uh-huh. And so do you understand what I'm asking?

Eric Hawkins

I do. I do.

Elna Baker

And do you understand why it's important to me to hear that?

Eric Hawkins

Yeah. And I think, as I said, were you to come into my office as your bishop or stake president, I would sit down and council with you, and make sure you understood-- and we would understand together, why did you feel that way? What were you feeling? And how can we make you feel better? But what I can't do is go back and change your experience, your perception, your feelings that you had at that time.

Elna Baker

Before I was baptized at the age of eight, I had to meet with the bishop. He said that I was going to be accountable for my sins from this moment on. He explained this using a dry erase board. You'll commit sins. He drew big black blobs across the white backdrop. But you can repent. He took an eraser and wiped the board until it was white again.

This was a speech a lot of Mormon kids got. Back when I was in the church, I was hooked on the feeling I got when my bishops told me I was forgiven, and clean again. I could never sit with the discomfort I felt over my sexuality. And look, I no longer believe that these men speak for God or have any authority over me. But I can't shake the feeling of wanting to be clean, to have someone else who knows tell me I'm OK.

I probably should accept that there is no way that board is going to stay white. Why would I even want it to? What's so bad about drawing on it? Isn't that what it's for? But then, the second I think this, I hear another voice, "such is the way of an adulterous woman-- she eateth and wipeth her mouth and sayeth, I have done no wickedness." That's what my bishops taught me.

Ira Glass

Elna Baker is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, something that might happen to you in the hospital that you would probably be unhappy about, and you would never know that it happened. Details in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: While You Were Out

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program-- "But That's What Happened," stories of women in situations where something unsettling happens. And sometimes, it is even hard to explain what felt wrong. And it takes a while to sort out the truth. We've arrived at Act 2 of our program, Act 2-- "While You Were Out." Lilly Sullivan has this story of something that happens to women without their consent. And they usually never find out that it happened. Here's Lilly.

Lilly Sullivan

About 10 years ago, Dan Wainberg was a medical student in Canada. It was his first year working in a hospital shadowing doctors. One day he goes to his first gynecological surgery. He had never been in a gynecological operating room before.

Dan Wainberg

So I came into the room with the patient already under a general anesthetic, so sedated, not conscious.

Lilly Sullivan

That's routine. The patient is usually under by the time the surgeon arrives. So the lead surgeon did a pelvic exam on her, also routine, and then turned to Dan and said, now you try.

Dan Wainberg

And the gynecologist sent me over to the bed to do a pelvic exam on this woman.

Lilly Sullivan

Dan had done a couple pelvic exams before, but never on somebody who was unconscious. To do a pelvic exam, a doctor inserts their fingers into a patient's vagina to examine the cervix and uterus. The doctor places another hand on the abdomen and presses down trying to catch the ovaries between the hand on the abdomen and the hand in the vagina to check for abnormalities. And while Dan was doing all this, the surgeon walked away.

Dan Wainberg

And he went off to do something else. And so I was left there by myself doing a pelvic exam on an unconscious woman as someone who really didn't have a lot of knowledge of what I'm supposed to be feeling for. And I thought to myself, who would consent to something like this? And I know that my mind wandered to, if the woman knew what was going on, you know, that she'd probably be pretty upset, and justifiably so. You know, I just thought, what am I doing? And what would this woman think if she were to wake up right now?

Lilly Sullivan

As soon as this thought hit him, he stopped, walked away.

Dan Wainberg

I don't think anyone paid any attention to me whatsoever, including the surgeon who was supposed to be basically my supervisor, or teacher. After that surgery, well, I felt so uncomfortable with the initial exam that I mustered up the courage to talk to the surgeon, my supervisor. And I asked him to please make sure, you know, from now on, just make sure they know I'm here. And ask for their consent for me to do an exam. I don't want to be-- yeah, I just felt like I didn't want that on my conscience. It didn't feel good.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, yeah. How did he react?

Dan Wainberg

I think he just kind of brushed it off and said OK. You know-- yeah, sure.

Lilly Sullivan

The night after that first surgery, Dan was still really upset. So he called his older sister, Sarah. She was in med school, too, a year ahead. And she was like, yeah, so?

Sara

I thought about all the times that I'd been asked to do the exact same thing. And when it happened to me, I didn't really think twice about it. I actually thought, oh, this is a fantastic learning opportunity. Because I found learning the pelvic exam a little awkward also.

So when the surgeon invited me to also do a pelvic exam, I thought, great. I'd love to. And I don't think it had ever occurred to me even once that I might be doing something unethical. It just seemed like a normal part of practice.

Lilly Sullivan

It was kind of normal. Pelvic exams are hard to learn. Frankly, under the best of circumstances, they're uncomfortable, awkward. So for years in teaching hospitals, a common way to train students was that when someone was unconscious during a gynecological surgery, the head surgeon would do the exam and then a student would repeat the exam for practice.

As far as consent goes, whenever anyone goes to a hospital, they sign an overall release form. At a teaching hospital, which lots of hospitals are, there's a part on the form that says something like, I acknowledge that medical students may be part of my treatment team. That's what a teaching hospital is, teaching people how to do stuff.

These kinds of exams aren't just a thing in Canada. They're common in the US, too. Rectal exams happen the same way for men while they're unconscious during prostate surgery. And the more Sara thought about it, she started to feel weird, too.

Sara

I think, actually, I probably felt a little bit embarrassed. So my first reaction was just to say, oh, what did you do? But in my head, I was thinking, oh, man. Why haven't I ever thought about this before?

Lilly Sullivan

And then how did you feel about that reaction now? Do you have a different feeling about your initial--

Sara

Oh, yeah, no, I think it's horrifying, absolutely. I think, like, what's wrong with me? Why didn't this occur to me that I hadn't actually met this woman before? And it never occurred to me. And I think that's pretty horrible. Yeah, it's one of those dirty little secrets of medicine.

Lilly Sullivan

After they hung up, Sara kept thinking about it, obsessing over the women, the patients getting these pelvic exams. Do they know that this might happen under anesthesia? And if not, how they feel about it? Sarah had to do a research project for school that year. And she wanted to look at this.

Sara

I specifically started talking to my boyfriend about it. Because he had wanted to be my research partner. And I said, oh, I've got this great idea. Let's do our research project on pelvic exams that are done without consent. And he said, no way. I do not want to be your research partner for that.

Lilly Sullivan

Why?

Sara

He felt that the pelvic exam under anesthesia is an incredibly important learning opportunity for male students. And he thought that even by looking at this issue, we were opening up a big can of worms. And he didn't want to have anything to do with it. He thought it was wrong that I was even looking into this issue.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, wow.

Sara

Yeah.

Lilly Sullivan

So you guys had some--

Sara

We were not a match made in heaven.

[LAUGHTER]

Lilly Sullivan

He never came around on that one. Sara found that most of her classmates had done exams like this, practice exams on anesthetized women. And lots of them had never really thought about it either until Sara pointed it out to them.

Lilly Sullivan

Did you notice that women thought something different from men or was it all--

Sara

Yes. Yes, I think a lot of men felt the same way my boyfriend did, that this is how we're going to learn. Because women don't always let us do this when they're awake. So we need to learn while they're asleep. For sure.

Lilly Sullivan

The next year, she decided to survey a bunch of female patients at her teaching hospital and see what they said. Did they know that medical students might do exams? How did the women feel about it? Do patients want to be asked for consent beforehand? No one had ever studied that before.

Sara

At the time, I was like, come on, what's the big deal? Let's ask the question and find out what the answer is. I thought it's about time somebody really answers the question-- if you ask women, are they going to say yes? Right? Are they going to say yes or are they going to say no? That was the question that nobody had asked yet.

Lilly Sullivan

Here's what Sara and her research partners found. They polled 102 female surgery patients at their teaching hospital's pelvic floor disorder center. So that's women who are likely to have had pelvic surgery or who were likely to have it in the near future. The vast majority, 81% of them, had no idea that a med student might do a pelvic exam on them while they were asleep. And most said, yeah, they wanted to be asked.

And here's the most surprising thing they found. 53% of women said they actually wouldn't mind being examined by a student while unconscious as long as someone asked them for permission beforehand. So a real find-- women would say yes. All you had to do was ask. So just ask, right? Problem solved.

After Sara and her co-authors published their research, people flipped out. The Globe and Mail wrote an article about it. People were shocked to learn that this was something that went on at all. Soon afterward, the medical guidelines in Canada changed. The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, also the Association of Professors of Obstetrics and Gynecology revised their positions. They said that doctor should always ask for specific consent for this kind of exam.

In the US, the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Association of American Medical Colleges, they've also condemned this kind of pelvic exam. It's illegal in five states, Virginia, California, Hawaii, Illinois, and Oregon. A lot of teaching hospitals say they don't do it anymore, that it's a thing of the past.

But medical students say it still happens. A couple of years ago, a biomedical ethicist named Phoebe Friesen had just started teaching medical ethics at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York. The students who were following doctors in hospitals had to talk about ethical dilemmas in medicine.

Phoebe Friesen

And when I was working with students who were in their OB-GYN clerkship, a lot of them brought up this practice and the fact that they'd been asked to perform pelvic exams on women under anesthetic who hadn't consented. And this one came up all the time, in nearly every session that I did. And generally, everyone was often sort of seeking permission or consensus that this is OK.

Lilly Sullivan

Wow, so all the students had experienced this?

Phoebe Friesen

Yeah, so I think as long as they were participating in gynecological surgeries, it was really the norm. But I think a lot of them felt kind of confused or maybe ashamed. I think a lot of them were seeking reassurance that that was OK. And I just ended up talking to so many who felt uncomfortable.

Lilly Sullivan

They were doing these pelvic exams at a bunch of different hospitals around New York City. Phoebe had never heard anything about these kinds of exams. She was horrified. She started asking everyone, random students she'd meet at conferences, parties.

And she found that students had experienced it everywhere, at hospitals all over the country. Because teaching hospitals take a lot of patients without insurance or who are on Medicaid, these practice exams end up being done disproportionately on poor women, women of color, homeless women. Phoebe was surprised to learn there are a lot of people who are still in favor of it.

Phoebe Friesen

And I think especially there was a lot of men who were dismissive, and there was a lot of people from within the medical community. Or a lot of people would say things like, well, what you don't know can't hurt you.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh my god.

Sara

That kind of response, which I felt like was really, really weird.

Lilly Sullivan

So she decided to dissect the ethics of it and put together an article for the Journal of Bioethics. It's one of the leading journals in the field. She parsed out five common arguments in support of examining unconscious patients, evaluated each of them, and concluded that the practice is unethical. The response from doctors? Not so good.

Some said these exams are necessary for teaching. Some said these exams never happen, which, of course, can't both be true. One argument Phoebe has heard a lot, the vagina is just a body part. . Be a professional. Don't be a prude. She calls this the "is the vagina different from the mouth" objection. Sara heard this one a lot when she was doing her research. Here's Sara.

Sara

So who cares? This is just another exam. This is just another thing that medical students do in the hospital. Why is it different than looking in someone's mouth, or looking at their hip? How is this different?

Lilly Sullivan

How is it different?

Sara

The thing that really makes it different is not what we, as doctors, think about it. The thing that makes it different is what the patients think about it. And if you ask women, they think it's different. So it's different, yeah.

For me, I would want to know if somebody was going to be examining my vagina while I was asleep. Absolutely, I would like to know. I mean, I've been in that situation. I've been there. I've been that crying woman waiting to go into surgery. So I understand what it feels like.

Lilly Sullivan

Sara has had gynecological surgery under anesthesia. After a miscarriage.

Sara

I've been in an operating room, asleep. You're asleep in a cold operating room with your feet up in the air, and a bunch of strangers around you. And you're exposed for all these people to see. It's very emotional. Yeah, it is. Yeah, because you're very vulnerable when you're asleep. I mean, before I delivered a baby, they asked me if I wanted a med student or a resident in the room. So I think if I'm asleep, I should be offered the same courtesy.

Lilly Sullivan

For this story, I wanted to talk to women who have been examined under anesthesia without their consent. But I couldn't find anyone. These exams don't become part of a woman's medical records. They don't go into their charts at the hospital. And of course, this happens while they're unconscious. So pretty much, by definition, anyone who's gone through this will probably never know.

Ira Glass

Lilly Sullivan.

[MUSIC -- "SISTERS UNARMED" BY 79.5]

(SINGING) Why should I change 'cause the world is evil? Why rearrange the way that I am?

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Lilly Sullivan. The people who put together today's show includes Elna Baker, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Jarrett Floyd, Stephanie Foo, Damien Grave, Michelle Harris, David Kestenbaum, Anna Martin, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Catherine Raimondo, Nadia Reiman, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu.

Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton. Special thanks today to Greg Prince, Matt Bowman, Taylor Petrey, Peggy Fletcher Stack, Louise Seamster, Alexandra Duncan, and Sue Ross. Our website-- thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 650 episodes for absolutely free.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he and I ended up at this fancy party at the Kardashians' last week. Some of his cocktail banter, I don't know, it was so awkward.

Bishop

Is there anything in your life, Kim, that hasn't been resolved with the proper priesthood authority?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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