Sex therapist Lisa Butterworth has long been willing to delve into sensitive sexuality questions 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 faith’s strict rules.
But after seeing another prominent sex therapist she considers a close friend and colleague recently kicked out of the church, Butterworth is worried fewer church members will seek help in fear of being reprimanded.
Butterworth, a church member living in Idaho, is among a contingent of mental health professionals who fear Natasha Helfer’s ouster will further embolden a culture of shame. She wrote a letter condemning the decision that’s been signed by over 800 mental health professionals.
Helfer said she fears her case could set a precedent for removing other professionals and result in devastating consequences for church members who may no longer feel safe seeking treatment.
“Doing this to me alone is sending the message both to clinicians and, more importantly, to the public that you shouldn’t trust sex therapists,” Helfer said. “Even if it doesn’t necessarily mean that other professionals will directly be affected, it will affect the population as to who will seek out those kinds of services.”
Church officials declined to comment on Helfer losing her appeal or the criticism against them.
Members are taught not to have sex before marriage, kiss passionately, or arouse “emotions in your own body” that are supposed to be reserved for marriage. Gay sex also is forbidden.
Scott Gordon, president of FAIR, a volunteer organization that supports the church, acknowledged that it can be difficult for gay and transgender individuals to belong to a faith that they feel doesn’t fully accept them. But, he said, Helfer was not ousted because of her profession or her views on LGBTQ issues or sexuality.
“While that may seem like it’s the issue, it’s really not the issue,” Gordon said. “The issue is actively going out and campaigning against the church. What the content is is almost irrelevant.”
The message of Helfer’s ex–communication and that of other members seems to be that the faith can tolerate diverse opinions but “when that behavior seeks to influence others, then that’s when the church takes official action,” said Kathleen Flake, a 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 questions, was kicked out in 2018. Kate Kelly, the founder of a group pushing for women to be allowed in the lay clergy, was excommunicated in 2014.
In Helfer’s case, her former church leaders in Kansas sent her a letter in April after holding a disciplinary hearing explaining the reasons for her removal. The letter said her professional activities did not play a role but that she could no longer be a member because of a “pattern of clear and deliberate opposition to the Church, its doctrine, policies, and its leaders.”
After a year, they will consider allowing her back if she stops using “disparaging and vulgar language to describe the Church and its leaders” and attends church meetings, the letter says.
Helfer said she has no plans to change her professional services but that she’s already heard from some clients who say they’re no longer comfortable working with her.
“My practice will survive,” she said. “But a family with a young gay child may deal with their issue very differently after witnessing something like this — that may have long-term implications for them.”
“That’s where my heart weighs heaviest,” she said.
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