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Mormon sex therapist faces discipline and possible expulsion from the LDS Church

Natasha Helfer, a Mormon sex therapist, poses for a portrait in her Salt Lake City office on Zoom on April 14. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

A sex therapist who has publicly challenged her church’s teachings on sexuality is facing possible expulsion as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Natasha Helfer, 49, who was raised by her parents in the LDS Church since she was 5 years old, has been a national face for mental health advocacy among Mormons. Nearly a decade ago, she wrote a blog post that caused waves across Mormonism where she declared masturbation is not a sin, and since then, she has attracted a wide audience especially among more progressive Mormons and ex-Mormons for her frankness around sex.

She is facing discipline for charges of apostasy, or public dissent from church leaders. Such charges are rare and more common with members who are promoting polygamy, according to Taylor Petrey, a scholar of the history of gender and sexuality in contemporary Mormonism. However, there have been a few other high-profile apostasy cases in recent years, including against Kate Kelly, who advocated for the ordination of women in the church and was excommunicated in 2014.

Helfer said of LDS Church leaders: “They’re trying to discredit me professionally. They’re treating me like a pariah in the community.”

Experts on Mormon history say Helfer’s case is also surprising because she has promoted teachings about sex that are in line with other licensed mental health professionals. Her expulsion, some observers fear, could have a chilling effect on Mormon mental health professionals who are ethically obligated to provide patients with evidence-based recommendations, even when they contradict some LDS Church teachings or cultural expectations.

Helfer, who has been in mental health services for 25 years, said most of her clients are Mormon or ex-Mormon, partly because they have a hard time finding a professional therapist who understands their faith and cultural background. Clients, she said, have told her that licensed LDS therapists will tell them to pray or read scripture and some non-LDS therapists will suggest leaving the church.

“I saw a need for ethically minded therapists who would be able to sit in that middle ground, not imposing religious beliefs but valuing importance of their faith,” Helfer said.

About 10 years ago, she became one of the few licensed sex therapists in the Mormon world. She said she thinks church leaders have been upset that she supports masturbation as a normal sexual activity and that she has spoken against treating viewing pornography as a sex addiction. She also supports same-sex marriage.

Helfer, who describes herself as a “semiactive” member of the church, moved from Kansas to Salt Lake City in December 2019. But she is being disciplined by church leaders in Kansas. Local leaders typically initiate and conduct disciplinary actions. Although they sometimes get guidance from senior church authorities on issues of apostasy, it’s unclear whether high-ranking LDS leaders in Salt Lake City have been involved in Helfer’s case.

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She came under the scrutiny of church leadership last fall when Stephen Daley, stake president in Derby, Kan., sent her a letter expressing concern that her public views on the use of pornography, masturbation and same-sex marriage contradict church teaching. Referring to her beliefs about LGBTQ members, he asked in a Nov. 9, 2020 letter, “Do you consider the Church toxic and unsafe for its members?”

Daley noted how Helfer wrote, “The last thing I want for my people is to replace one patriarchal prick for another. You can quote me on that one. Beware of any person/organization/system that assumes they know better than you about what you need.” Helfer said in an interview that that comment was made on her personal Facebook page and not in a professional context.

In response to that Facebook post, Daley asked whether she believed the president of the LDS Church as “prophet, seer and revelator?” He also questioned her relationship to a group called “Thrive Beyond Mormonism,” asking her whether she has encouraged members to leave the church. She said she has never encouraged anyone to leave or stay in the church and said it would be unethical for her to do so as a clinician.

Daley also wrote that Helfer was disparaging to LDS leaders, asking her, “Why is the overwhelming tone of your posts negative towards the church and it’s leaders?”

Daley did not return requests for comment. Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the LDS Church, said in an email that the church does not comment on disciplinary matters. He wrote: “The Church teaches its members to be morally clean in every way, and that sexual feelings are given by God and should be used in ways He has commanded.”

He said that the church condemns pornography in any form, referring to its general handbook, and masturbation is considered immoral. “These are the principles that will be considered by the local leaders in this circumstance,” he wrote.

In March, Helfer was sent a letter informing her that a disciplinary hearing would be held on Sunday in Derby over Helfer’s “repeated clear, and public opposition to the Church, its doctrine, its policies, and its leaders,” which she denies.

At the hearing, Helfer can make her case for remaining a member. Church leaders could choose to restrict her membership if she is considered repentant enough. But given her past statements and exchanges with them, the prospect of expulsion seems more likely, Helfer and other observers said.

Petrey said that he is not aware of a mental health professional who has been excommunicated for issues directly related to their work. LDS leaders, he said, have been in conflict with mental health professionals since the 1950s, but he said that Mormon psychologists were at the forefront of promoting the allowance for birth control in marriage in the 1970s and ’80s.

The LDS Church, especially in an age of podcasts, blogs and social media where members sometimes openly contradict leaders, has struggled to maintain control over its theological and cultural boundaries. Sexuality, marriage and family play a prominent role within the church’s doctrine. In one of his letters to Helfer, Daley said he was concerned that it was confusing to members and nonmembers when her views come from professional organizations that identify and advertise as “Mormon.”

In 2019, the LDS Church decided it would stop using the word “Mormon,” but Helfer still uses the term. Members are allowed to hold personal views on policy that differ from church teaching, but those who do so publicly sometimes face scrutiny.

Laura M. Brotherson, a licensed marriage and sex therapist who has clashed with Helfer in the past, said there are maybe 10 to 20 licensed sex therapists in the state of Utah, and even though she has a waiting list of up to a year, she would not refer clients to therapists such as Helfer. She feels like Helfer focuses on a few negative aspects of the LDS Church and threatens to undermine the faith by teaching things contrary to doctrine.

Brotherson said she tells her clients to focus on things they can change within themselves while Helfer tends to place the focus around issues such as sexual shame on the LDS Church. Anyone can write a letter to church leadership, Brotherson said, but Helfer crosses the line when she openly criticizes them.

“To think about telling the church how to run things is like counseling the Lord and telling him what to do,” Brotherson said. “You can go to your spouse and say, ‘I wish you wouldn’t leave your socks all over the floor.’ Once you’ve said that and keep hounding him, you start to affect the relationship.”

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But others in the counseling field see Helfer’s treatment as more ominous. As of Thursday, more than 200 health-care professionals signed a letter to the stake president saying they are concerned that withdrawing Helfer’s membership will create a culture of stigma and shame for clients seeking therapy.

Lisa Patterson Butterworth, a licensed counselor based in Boise, Idaho, said other mental health professionals who are Mormon are also wondering whether they might get swept up in similar membership issues.

“This is really bad timing for us. I’m booked through June, and I have people on my waiting list,” she said. “It creates a general distrust of mental health professionals that we’re apostates because we’re working within the bounds of our professional ethics.”

Butterworth said that many clients still tell her that Helfer’s blog post on masturbation, even though it’s nearly a decade old, helped them to release the shame they felt and finally be able to orgasm.

“I was shocked by it,” Butterworth said when it was first posted. “Wait, what did she just say? To say it, openly, so boldly in a Mormon context where we dance around issues. She’s just brave like that.”

Mormons expect a certain amount of orthodoxy around certain behaviors, especially drinking, smoking and sex, as part of establishing belonging to the church, said Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, one of the most respected Mormon therapists on sexuality and relationships. Belonging to the LDS Church is viewed as essential to someone’s well-being. Being expelled can be devastating and lead to being shunned within the Mormon community.

“When you’re born a Mormon, it is a kind of ethnic identity,” Finlayson-Fife said. “To have an official rejection, it’s like your parents telling you you’re the rotten kid and you don’t belong because you don’t see things the way we do.”

Helfer said she doesn’t know why the leaders of her congregation in Kansas would bring these issues to her now. She believes there is a possible conflict of interest in the disciplinary process. Helfer, who is going through a divorce, said that the stake president, Daley, who is an executive at Koch Industries, is also her husband’s former boss.

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After Sunday’s meeting, Helfer should receive a letter with a final verdict of her membership status within about a week. Several of her friends will be flying out to Kansas to be with her on Sunday, and Helfer believes that one thing Mormonism does well is community-based support.

“They’re good at bringing casseroles when things go wrong,” she said.

But she does not expect a casserole if she is expelled.

“They’re good at bringing casseroles when you comply with the markers of what it means to belong to the tribe,” she said.