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In the Fundamentalist Mormon Church Rape Is the Only Path to Childbirth

We spoke to a law professor who conducted in-depth interviews with FLDS survivors about the abuses women face in the church. These include the "seed bearer" ritual, in which only chosen men are permitted to have sex with the cult's women.

Gabby Bess

Gabby Bess

Image via "Prophet's Prey"

With today marking the wide release of the documentary Prophet's Prey, an even more cult-y sect of the Mormon church is in the news again.

The film, directed by Amy Berg, tells the story of Warren Jeffs, the current president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). As Berg documents, chronicling the history of FLDS and its abhorrent crimes, the FLDS has been operating as an extreme offshoot of the religion since 1890, after the mainstream Mormon church denounced polygamy as one of its tenets. Hence, the fundamentalist wing formed and ramped up the sister wives.

But once Jeffs took over the Utah-based church from his father in 2002, he took it even further. Jeffs, now imprisoned for life, amassed 80 wives, completely severed the ties between members of the church and the outside world, and sexually abused young children, one of his sisters, and his daughter. In 2005, Jeffs was placed on the FBI's Most Wanted list for two counts of sexual conduct with a minor and accomplice to rape.

Jeffs' particular brand of Mormonism required women to undergo a bizarre and coercive from of procreation. Following the Latter-Day Saint tradition of marriage and childbirth as a vehicle for men to achieve Godly status in the afterlife, Jeffs mandated that his cult's women were only allowed to copulate with chosen "seed bearers." This meant that only 15 hand-chosen males could impregnate FLDS women to insure that the children they gave birth to would be pure "spirit children." Court documents from the divorce of Warren Jeffs' brother and his wife explain that the practice required the husband "to sit in the room while the chosen seed bearer, or a couple of them, rape his wife or wives."

According to CNN, Jeffs is still running the church from prison. Along with the state of Utah, the FLDS has compounds in Texas, Arizona, and Canada.

In their remarkable study of the harmful realities of polygamy, professors Julia Chamberlin and Amos Guiora actually found and interviewed women of the church, in which they testified to this practice and other sexist traditions of FLDS. One female member, Terrassa Wall, attributed the isolating secrecy of the church as a factor for abuse, and another, Carolyn Jessop, told Chamberlin and Guiora that young girls had no choice but to become mothers. "Fighting for an education is seen as absolute selfishness [in the eyes of the church]," Jessop said. Jessop was pulled out of school in the eighth grade.

During the fall of 2012 and the following winter, Chamberlin and Guiora interviewed former members of Jeffs' controlling cult. Broadly talked with Guiora, a professor of law at the University of Utah, about these extensive interviews and the truth behind the church's mysterious "seed bearers," or rapists.

The former temple at the FLDS ranch in Texas, before it was raided by the FBI

BROADLY: What was the impetus behind going out and gathering all these interviews from the women and men who had left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints?
Amos Guiora:
I had begun writing about the LDS church in 2009. A book I wrote called Freedom From Religion was published, and in the process of writing that book I was examining religious extremists in five different countries. In the context of the United States, the group that I picked to research was FLDS, and that was my introduction to [the religion]. I met with a wide range of people from [the faith] and that book project lead to another book project called Tolerating Intolerance. That then lead to writing Polygamy: Not "Big Love" But Significant Harm.

For that I interviewed young adults—some men, but primarily women—who had left the faith. I was introduced to them by an intermediary who arranged the interviews. That gave me, from my perspective, pretty exploratory accessibility and availability to these women and young girl's stories, in terms of trying to understand the ins and outs of the faith. There's nothing like firsthand interviewing—we're talking about lots of interviews over many, many, many hours that gave Julia and me insight into the harm that's caused by cultural polygamy.

That's his form of control over the women—and over the men, too.

It seems that, particularly, polygamy in which there's one man with many wives leads to the most harm, especially for women. Did most of women you spoke to talk about sexual abuse in the church?
I would never say all, but yes. One of the most painful interviews I conducted was with a woman who was about my age, 58, whose first husband left her and then she remarried. She was wife number whatever in both marriages. I believe she had 16 children—I don't want to misspeak—and she was able to tell me exactly which child was conceived in what she would call normal sexual relations and which child was conceived as a result of rape. It's terrible stuff.

I was reading about that ritual with the "seed bearers." Were all her children conceived that way?
No. She was in the church before the seed bearers took effect—that has only been happening for a few years, since Warren Jeffs took over the church. Men who he has chosen to be the seed bearers are the only men that women can have sex with. Say, if Jim and Jane are married, but Jim has not been designated by Warren Jeff as a seed bearer, then Jane can't have sexual relations with Jim.

So this "seed bearer" concept is the creation of Warren Jeff?
That's his form of control over the women—and over the men, too. He's controlling them by dictating with whom you can have sex.

They engaged in foreplay and watched pornography and they said they enjoyed every moment of it. That's a form of rebellion.

That's a very violent form of power.
It's absolute power, and it's largely unquestioned power. And those who question do so at risk. The people I met with were able to escape, but they also pay an enormous price. Some women couldn't convince their children to leave with them and the consequence of that is in all likelihood they will never see their children again.

Where do those women go? Did you talk to anyone about their journey leaving the church and how they found shelter?
There are organizations that try to assist them, but at the end of the day—you have to get a job, you have to put food on the table—many of them don't have real life skills. They'll be the first to tell you. They've never written a check in their lives; they've never held a job.

Not to go back to the seed bearers, but to go back to them: Did anyone talk about how exactly they were chosen? Was it at random?
Who the hell knows. Penetrating the mind of Warren Jeff would require profound psychological analysis.

In the piece you authored with Julia, you talked about men and women who enacted small rebellions against the tyranny of Warren Jeffs. Can you talk more about that?
Absolutely. I met a couple who was very open with me. They were in their late 20s. In FLDS foreplay is not allowed and watching pornography on the internet is not allowed, but this young couple pushed the limits. They engaged in foreplay and watched pornography, and they said they enjoyed every moment of it. That's a form of rebellion.

By and large, the state of Utah turns a blind eye to child brides, which is nothing less than statutory rape.

Though there is a price to pay. Another one of the women I met was perceived by her husband to be rebellious, but I don't think sexually. So she was punished by her husband and exiled to a cabin by herself, and as a result of her being punished her children were given less food to eat on a daily basis.

So it's kind of at the will of the husband how his wife is treated? He can just punish her for anything?
Drop of the words "kind of."

That's crazy.
Another woman—I spent I don't know how many hours interviewing her—she tells me that for her Warren Jeffs was Hitler. I found that to be a very interesting analogy. Note that he's in jail in Texas, and his rules are still enforced. His brother Lyle is now the figurehead of the church, but Warren is still the evil behind it.

Ask yourself: How is it that those who participate in the marriage of child brides—how is it that they're not prosecuted? That's a profound legal question. By and large, the state of Utah turns a blind eye to child brides, which is nothing less than statutory rape. Yes, Warren Jeffs was prosecuted, but the infrastructure, the others who are involved, are also committing statutory rape. That's the issue.

I don't think there's any way to end this on a positive note, is there?
No.