I feel the need to make the disclaimer that this is obviously the personal experience of the author and reflects my solitary opinion.
At 13 I was gagged and hog tied in the girls bathroom of the chapel. My ankles and wrists were tightly bound together behind my back by the lashing cords we’d been using to earn our “pioneering” merit badges. The lashing was expertly carried out by boys who had obviously mastered their various knots better than me.
The ropes were made of a rough burlap-like material and they rubbed and rashed my skin as I hopelessly struggled to loose my arms and legs. I managed to get the BSA neckerchief out of my mouth fairly quickly, but my head had been dunked in the toilet bowl and I had to keep spitting out the water that was dripping down my face from my hair and blinking it out of my eyes. I didn’t know if they had peed in it or not.
The young women were at camp or a stake activity and so no girls or their leaders were going to find me in the ladies bathroom. God only knows where my scoutmaster and other adult leaders were… At least 6 boys were involved in tying me up. You’d think someone would have been responsible for knowing their location…
Or for knowing mine.
Two years into my scouting experience, this was hardly the first bullying I had suffered, but so far it was the worst. When my mother and a scout leader finally found me I had been yelling myself hoarse for what seemed like hours, but was probably like 30 minutes. All of the other boys had gone home, and my leader admitted he would have too, if my Mom had not called my absence to his attention. My mom was furious. The leader was embarrassed and visibly afraid of her. He untied my knots as quickly as he could manage and tried to assuage my desperate crying. On the drive home my mom was livid. I was too, but to her I just seemed numb. I wouldn’t talk. I was ashamed to have been victimized. I was ashamed to have been found like that. I was ashamed to have been rescued by my mom.
For all of her anger and for all of her talking about it with my dad, the next Tuesday night I was in the back of the Suburban on the way to scouts. I don’t know if I ever asked to not do scouts, but I’m certain I asked to not have to go that week. I know I hated going. I hated the way I was treated. And yet I was in that car… and inexplicably on my way back to sit and pray with the same pack of assholes that had violently assaulted me a week prior. But that’s not the experience I most hate about my time in scouts.
What I hate the most now, is how I treated somebody else. You see, the short, skinny runt of a kid with Hubble glasses is apparently a notch or two above the fat socially awkward kid with incontinence issues. Campouts were generally the least terrible part of scouts. I could get by on my own a little better, and honestly, I enjoyed camping. Leaders were more attentive to keeping track of everybody and there was some semblance of structure and discipline.
Lane was not so fortunate. He didn’t have any friends that I knew of. If he’d ever tried to be my friend I’m sure I’d have steered clear if only to enjoy the privilege of not being a target for once. It was also clear he didn’t like campouts. At least he wasn’t very good at them. Our troop won an award at our big campout every year. Among the activities we were awarded points for, our campsite was inspected for cleanliness and order. Well, Lane ruined our perfect score. He’d had an accident in his pants the night before and rather than burning or throwing them away, he made a shoddy effort at burying them behind his tent. The site inspectors found his shit-soiled undies and docked us heavily. We all knew it was his tent, because nobody would bunk near him. He smelled bad.
He was treated like an absolute pariah from there on out. Leaders who probably should have consulted his parents or found a doctor, checked out while we each found our own opportunity to make him feel as miserable as possible. I don’t remember everything that was done, but he was tipped in his canoe, had his money stolen, had underwear stolen, he was pushed down several times and once, when he fought back, he was solidly pummeled by a much larger boy. He was called every horrible name we could think of, queer and faggot amongst them.
All of this would have made me feel ashamed if I had taken part, but then I did something that shame isn’t a sufficient word for. I spat on him. I had deflected some general aggression by calling him a fat lard. He swung at me and fell over when he missed. I bent over and spit in his face. The jeers of support behind me might have felt great if I wasn’t so immediately horrified at myself. I remembered reading a book in social studies about black civil rights demonstrators who were spit on by whites. I remembered the kind of hate that action represented.
I didn’t hate this kid. I felt sorry for him. His life was terrible. I hated boy scouts. I hated all of the kids who were cheering behind me. I just didn’t want to be the sole target of their bullying. So I took a cheap shot. Lane stopped coming to scouts. His parents stopped coming to church. I never saw him again. I never told him I was sorry. I never got to ask for his forgiveness. I never got the chance to be a friend or have him for a friend.
I stayed in scouting because my parents were told that was what I was supposed to do. Eventually I earned my Eagle Scout and had a “Court of Honor”. I even had friends in my troop by the time it was all over. I’m grateful for a lot of what I learned in the scouting program (chiefly poker and how to burn almost anything), but scouts didn’t help me develop a strong moral character. I had to do that on my own and choose to become a disciple of Christ. I can honestly say that scouts didn’t help me with that one solitary bit.
The church’s institutional relationship with scouting is unnecessary and in some ways, perverse. The organization known as the Boy Scouts of America would be financially insolvent without the financial support and participation of the LDS church and its members (and the equally perverse support of the federal government). The exclusionary and homophobic policies of the BSA have been defended verbally and politically by the church, and numerous instances of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse have been perpetrated both in and out of the church under the auspices of scouting. The church can absolutely have a successful young men’s program without having scouts. They are well correlated and deeply resourceful. To suggest otherwise is absurd. So why?
Do you think the church will ever cut its ties with the BSA? What would a healthy young men’s program look like? What steps can parents take to minimize the potential harms of involvement in scouting? What do you hope the future looks like?
I really appreciate you sharing such a personal story. This post took such an abrupt turn for me at the end. I think there are lots of reasons that the LDS church should cut ties with BSA, but I’m not sure that stories like this are the reason why. I guess because, as a woman, I endured and inflicted bullying of my own at church and it all happened without the help of a scouting program. There’s a lot of thoughts this post sparked for me, and a lot of other directions I thought it was going at first — how to live with the darker parts of ourselves, our incredible need to fit in, the kinds of accomplishments and values our church gives kids awards for and those that they don’t, but none of them have to do with scouting in particular. In other words, I thought this post was fantastic, I really appreciate you making me think today, and while I would be among those to cheer should the church and BSA part ways, I am not convinced that stories like yours wouldn’t repeat themselves if scouting were to disappear. I worry any young men’s program in the church will see instances of bullying just because young people are often cruel to each other. Though, I’d be interested in hearing from others what, if anything, about BSA in particular encourages a culture of bullying.
A large part of my Dad becoming disaffected I think stems from some kids beating him up outside the church building when he was younger.
My two friends and I were harassed during a scout camp one year and I don’t remember much intervention from the leaders. I don’t blame them because I know how difficult it can be to control a bunch of idiot kids.
It makes me sad to hear that this happens so much. I think the BSA, at it’s core, is a positive institution but apparently it’s not enough. Perhaps you’re right that the church could be fine without it yet it’s hard to imagine it happening with how ingrained it is in LDS culture and structure.
(On a side note, we fork out way too much money on merit badges. That’s something we could do without.)
Regarding being restrained etc in the girls bathrooms: that was a criminal act. There could have been horrible consequences. The police should have been involved.
My son was a victim of bullying by others in scouting – no father involved due to divorce, etc. You can guess what the outcome was – disdain for the LDS church & religion in general. I remember how the scoutmaster in our ward left him at the Scout-o-Rama one year…..that is right, LEFT him without a ride home – why? Because I was friends with his wife and they were separating. He did it to get back at me! I resent what happened to my son more than anyone will ever understand. The bullies went on missions, are married ‘stalwart’ priesthood holders now…..do they care what a horrible effect they had on my son???
I doubt they even ever think about it. This essay brought back all the awful feelings I have relating to scouting.
How sad. Where should a boy feel safe? Certainly within his quorum. When we are unsafe with our Quorum, where are we safe?
The bullies that harassed your son are now narcissistic Stake Presidents.
I do enjoy real life stories. My growing up was normal. In that I was the one doing the cluess stupd stuff to others. Went along with the group. Only in hindsight can I see the badness in it.
Oh, I so wish the church would cut ties with BSA. I don’t want my boys to do Scouts and have no intention of being involved. I hate that this means that everyone will assume my boys are inactive during their teenage years, because there isn’t an alternative YM’s program for them to be involved in.
These stories add to my resolve to stay away from the BSA, though. It just isn’t an option.
I am not a giant fan of scouts either. Merit badges, Eagles, etc. None of it. I wish the church would let it alone as well.
I agree there are plenty of reasons the church should cut ties with BSA. However, I don’t think that alone would prevent bullying and leader ignorance situations. Like Brem, I experienced plenty of bullying in YW… I think in general leaders need to receive more training on how to recognize bullying and what to do when it is occurring to ensure the physical and emotional safety of the child or teen involved. Frankly I think the parents could stand to learn about it too.
Great comments Katie, and I agree. The original story where the boy was hog tied, gagged, etc is without a doubt in my mind a police/child protection matter. The original story was bullying at the extreme. As a mandated reporter I would have to report that serious of a matter. For a matter like that Church Family Services in SLC should also be notified.
My son just turned twelve and is in love with scouts right now but I fear for him. He is too much like me and has had many of the same problems with bullying in school. Your post brought back some flashbacks but not so horrible as you described. I spent most my youth trying to understand how living in “Zion” could be so cruel and painful. It seems that truly many are called but few are chosen. I refused to get my Eagle out of contempt for those I knew who received it. Our ward right now is the super mega scouting ward of the universe, even devoting a Sacrament meeting to it and having a leader state that ” priesthood equals scouting'” at my son’s priesthood preview. They use high pressure for donations to friend of scouting and we had to make it clear that we, in fact, are NO friends of scouting or the money it devours as my daughters are neglected. I really hope that does not lead to blowback for my son. Anyway this is a long winded way of saying I would fully endorse cutting the tie with the BSA.
Jeremy, I know of one Ward that pressures parents not to let sons drive until they get their Eagle.
Jared, I’m curious- did the leader who found you ever have a conversation with the perpetrators? The parents? Was there any corrective action taken? Part of leadership is using experiences like this to teach the rest of the group what is or is not acceptable behavior. However, leadership roulette is in play here.
Scouting provides an experience for boys to learn resourcefulness and skills that teach principles of independence. The merit badges are designed to expose boys to lots of areas of interest. The outdoor experience and physical activities promote fitness.
I was the fat kid in Scouts. I slowed down the group on hikes and at camporee rope course competitions. But at the same camporees I was THE master fire-starter. I could get a blaze going with one match in a gale. The very structure of those events allows for different abilities to be valued.
The problem of bullying can be addressed without dumping the program. There is value in it for boys’ development.
P.S. A few years ago my current ward’s Troop decided their High Adventure trip, rather than white water rafting or canoeing in the Boundary Waters, would be to the Mall of America and stay in a hotel. Seriously. Leadership matters.
I have split opinions on the church’s involvement with BSA. On one hand, I have grown so much spiritually and physically through my involvement with Boy Scouts, I’ve met wonderful role models and friends, I’ve learned a lot of really fun and useful skills. The other hand, that was all in a co-ed community Venturing crew (I’m a girl). Before I could join Venturing, I always felt marginalized and longed to go on camping trips like the boys. Instead I got hair and makeup activities in Activity Days and Young Women’s. In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to go camping with this particular group of girls anyway, but I was a kid with hopes and dreams.
I’d like to note that Scouting done right is amazing and wonderful for spiritual and emotional development. But if it’s dysfunctional, you can end up with experiences like the one detailed here. Of course, that’s not a problem with Scouting alone. I’ve had my share of bullying in Young Women’s, though not at that extreme, and I doubt cutting ties with the BSA would help matters that way much. Bullying happens whether it’s Scouts or some other group. I don’t think it’s possible to get high-functioning scouting groups in each ward (you need the right people, training, funding, etc.), which leaves scouting as a huge money drain that doesn’t help many people, and even those it does, not to the extent it could. In short, I don’t really know what the right course of action is. I love Scouting, but in many cases it’s not helpful.
Back in the mid-90s here in Australia they tried to bring in Scouting to replace weekly YM mutual activities. We absolutely hated it (I was around 14 at the time). We were having very similar activities, except with the addition of heaps of formalities and geeky uniforms. The program lasted about two years if I remember correctly, and we were all relieved to revert to the normal young men’s program.
Just another boneheaded Americanisation attempt by the church.