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The Touch of the Master’s Hand by Greg Barnes 1
The Touch of the Master’s Hand

How the church imbues young, horny Mormons with sexual shame

Greg Barnes’ Sundance-winning short film, The Touch of the Master’s Hand, takes viewers inside a ‘worthiness interview’, where young Mormons – who are banned from masturbating – are asked intimate questions by a bishop

“Are you watching pornography?” the Latter-day Saints president asks a teenage Mormon, Elder Hyde, in Greg Barnes’ short film, The Touch of the Master’s Hand. Hyde has just admitted to regularly masturbing, despite the church demanding that its followers observe the law of chastity. “I don’t know,” responds Hyde, as he shamefully hands the bishop a DVD copy of James Cameron’s Avatar.

The absurd moment offers a comedic break in what is otherwise an awkward, potentially traumatic experience in a young Mormon’s life. From the age of 12, children in the church are required to participate in yearly ‘worthiness interviews’ with a bishop, during which they are subjected to intimate, sometimes sexual questions. As well as being shamed and banned from masturbating, young Mormons are taught that porn is a “tragic evil”, which – in Barnes’ film – is likened to war.

Director Barnes – who grew up Mormon but left the church in his early 20s – says these practices led to him building up “a healthy amount of sexual shame, to say the least”. “It’s silly and kind of absurd,” he continues, “but for kids growing up Mormon, one of the first conflicts they’ll have with their faith is masturbation.”

The Touch of the Master’s Hand explores this via protagonist Elder Hyde, who’s grappling with the disparity between his faith and his involuntary, insatiable pubescent desires. The 11-minute film follows Hyde as he engages in a ‘worthiness interview’ while serving a Mormon Mission in Mexico. After some icebreaker games (a human pyramid that sees Hyde lose his front tooth), the young Mormon is sent up to speak with the president, where he airs his guilt over his bi-daily wanking habit.

A mission is a geographical area – a city, state, or even a country – where voluntary missionaries undertake church and community service, humanitarian aid, and religious conversion. Barnes describes his two-year experience of one of these missions as “bizarre”, revealing that “you could only call home twice a year for 30 minutes” and had to work “crazy hours for Jesus”. He adds: “I wrote (Hyde) to come from a similar emotional place.”

Barnes’ short film premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Jury Award for US Fiction. “During the festival, I had a lot of people reach out to me who were from Utah or were ex-Mormon, and that was really the best part of making this movie,” says Barnes. “Winning at Sundance was definitely the cherry on top.”

Below, you can watch The Touch of the Master’s Hand – which premiered on NOWNESS today (December 13) – and read Dazed’s interview with Barnes, where he discusses what it was like growing up Mormon, why he wanted to include humour in the film, and what positive aspects he’s taken away from the church.

What was it like growing up Mormon? When did you leave the church?

Greg Barnes: The movie starts with a quote from Gordon B. Hinkley, who was the president of the Mormon Church when I was a kid. It goes: ‘In these latter-days, pornography has spread further, and reaches wider, than the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a tragic evil among us.’ Growing up with such a prominent grandfatherly figure in my life who was constantly talking about porn and masturbation felt really weird, especially when my hormones were first raging. I built up a healthy amount of sexual shame, to say the least. 

But it wasn’t all bad – as a teen, church was a nice place to go every Sunday. There was this lovely and supportive community that was really invested in how I was doing. We’d have a lot of good clean fun too, like going camping and throwing dessert parties. I grew up in Chicago and there weren’t a lot of Mormons outside of my weekly dose on Sunday, so everything was subtly being undercut by the more liberal environment around me – I’m super grateful I had that other foundation being built. In my early 20s, the Mormon Church started to campaign against gay marriage, and that’s when I knew it was no longer a safe space for me. I went through a bunch of personal changes – there was lots of dissonance happening, as you can imagine – and I grew up. Once I started looking into Mormon history, the religion fell apart quickly. There’s some far-out stuff in it for sure.

How did your own experiences influence the film?

Greg Barnes: I did every Mormon coming-of-age ritual that exists, including serving a Mormon Mission in Argentina – and the movie pulls a lot from my time there. Even at the time, it was a bizarre experience. I spent two years away from friends and family, you could only call home twice a year for 30 minutes, and they had us working crazy hours for Jesus. There was lots of sadness masked by happiness going on around me, but we all just tried to hype each other up as best we could. When I returned home, it was a major time of questioning about what I had just done. There was so much emphasis on how the mission would be the best two years, but it definitely wasn’t. There was a lot of pressure to conform to the mission rules and suppress your personality. I wrote the main kid (in The Touch of the Master’s Hand), Elder Hyde, to come from a similar emotional place.

Why did you decide to centre it on masturbation?

Greg Barnes: When I talk with fellow ex-Mormons about growing up in the church and sexual shame, guys usually say stuff like, ‘Gordon B. Hinckley told me not to look at porn, but then I looked at porn and I felt so bad’. There’s usually a funny story that accompanies the feeling. But there’s a stark contrast when I talk to women my age; I often hear things like, ‘I was told my worth was defined by my husband, and that I needed to get married and behave a specific way. I felt completely disconnected from my body and sexuality’. Pain is pain, but the contrast here is stark. Women’s experiences in the church are incredibly difficult. Meanwhile, my pals and I are over here crying like, ‘Oh, my Bishop told me not to touch my peepee. I’m so sad’. It’s silly and kind of absurd, but for kids growing up Mormon, one of the first conflicts they’ll have with their faith is masturbation. When you hit puberty, masturbation naturally comes up. Suddenly there’s this conflict between something natural which feels good, and the intense purity culture you grew up in. And either you question the faith, or you double down, and our innocent lead decides to double down.

“When you hit puberty, masturbation naturally comes up. Suddenly there’s this conflict between something natural which feels good, and the intense purity culture you grew up in” – Greg Barnes

Former Mormons have said that masturbation is treated as “just below murder”, which is a sentiment expressed in your film when the president is comparing masturbation to war. How reflective of real life is this ‘worthiness interview’?

Greg Barnes: It’s very accurate. If anything, it’s a little soft. Every question in the movie is lifted verbatim from these interviews, and it’s a bit shorter than it would be in real life, as I had to cut out a handful of questions for the pacing. Depending on who’s interviewing you – if it’s a creep or not – the interview can get invasive, and fast. My dad was my bishop in my teen years, so he would sit me down a couple of times a year and run through the worthiness interview questions. It was so embarrassing, so I’d lie whenever chastity would come up. And then, immediately after our little interview, we would have a big family dinner, and I’d just sit there in shame as I slowly ate my mashed potatoes. I consider myself lucky for just having to deal with parental awkwardness, though.

Why was it important to you to include humour?

Greg Barnes: My generation’s experiences in Mormonism were traumatic. I think trauma is something that you can turn and laugh at. With this levity, you can really get to know the people and the culture of Mormonism if you’re unfamiliar with it – comedy is a welcoming door. There’s this inherent absurdity in the situation of having stern old men keep track of the purity of these younger teens, and I wanted to play that up.

You filmed in a Mormon church that your great grandfather built – was this the first time you’d returned to a Mormon church since leaving? What emotions did that ignite?

Greg Barnes: I was Mormon married and eventually divorced, and the church we filmed in was the last chapel I half-heartedly went to. Lots of sadness was housed in that building. However, early on in the production, I knew this movie had to be made in a Mormon church, and that specific chapel was my only chance (for filming), so I went for it. Mormons usually don’t allow this kind of thing – I knew it would probably be the first and last film that would ever be made like this, and so when I got permission, it gave me a lot of momentum. I went a couple of times ahead of shooting to just sit and soak up each room we were going to shoot in. Taking the time to process the shit I went through was very necessary, and it was nice to get a lot of stuff off my chest filming there.

Have any aspects of Mormonism stayed with you in a positive way? In what ways have they helped you challenge anything in the real world?

Greg Barnes: It’s a complicated question, but yes, I take plenty of good stuff from that bizarre religion. It was how I was raised, and I’m grateful that I could start there and move forward with life from that point. Specifically, in the last couple of years, I’ve come to appreciate how Mormonism shaped my view on community and the ways you can foster a healthy one.