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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