Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 1, August 27, 1998



  Finding the most appropriate research method to understand this study group was not an easy task.  Charting the sexual transitions of women who had chosen a life of strict asceticism and then left had to the best of my knowledge not been done.  Given that, to formulate a research procedure based on hypothesis testing was very difficult, since we know so little about the population.  I therefore chose exploration as the basic objective in this study. Because I was studying an as yet unknown area, the research design had to be chosen to suit my requirements of eliciting the most information I could surrounding sexual perceptions in the life passage from childhood to present day.  This was a large project and one, which I decided, was best suited to multiple case study analyses of a small number of women. This proved to be a very powerful and sensitive method, one that I felt particularly lent itself to self report on sexuality and allowed for in-depth self-analysis.  Using a statistical method alone to elicit this information would make less sense out of human desire, goals and social conduct as it related to such a group of women.

  Therefore, the emphasis was not on standardized objective information, but rather subjective, expressive, reflective data, from which a thematic analysis emerged, without priority being given to deductive hypothesis testing or statistical treatment.  Such data as can be elicited from a questionnaire I distributed to a further 20 former nuns is available to amplify my findings.  My expectation was that my work would add to the field of sexological knowledge and eventually yield insights from which wider statistically based testing would emerge.

  This research therefore is a sexological study utilizing a life narrative method. This approach has been used for some time and is by no means novel.  Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and literary students have utilized autobiographies in order to more closely explore the lives, social conditions, and experiences of their informants.  It is also recognized by researchers (e.g. Chibnall, Wolf & Duckro, 1996) that especially in the area of self reporting on sexual abuses in childhood, lower estimates are received when using questionnaires than when face-to-face interviews are conducted.  This type of interview facilitates recall, helps clarify questions for the interviewee and also assists in determining causal relationships.

  Evasdaughter (1996), in her book, Catholic Girlhood Narratives: The Church And Self Denial, argues that by examining the writings of these women she offers insights into shared experiences of Catholic women as a group.  She illuminates the ways in which the girls' choices, behavior and development were deeply affected by the repressive gender training and the Church's ideal of a "Catholic woman."  In studying the narratives of a group of women with a Catholic childhood in common, Evasdaughter is able to construct similarities in their personal histories and concludes that resemblances are demonstrated among all the writers. Their life stories have been represented in autobiographies which are truly valuable in understanding and making sense out of the influence of the Catholic Church in all facets of their lives, without concentrating on causality of the childhood influence.  Rather, she thinks that by taking a look at the whole life in retrospect, one can recognize life choices as a bundle of potentials of which several might have been developed. She feels this method communicates a more accurate idea of Catholic women and, above other influences on them, how the Catholic Church dominates over all.

  I wanted to examine the motivation and integral nature of how people saw themselves or what motivated them in the interpretive manner of this method.  Once they became the storytellers, people translated for themselves events and circumstances, which up to that time have evaded deductive self-analysis.  Listening to a life story gives us a glimpse through the teller's lens to motivations and feelings that would be hard to elicit through statistical study.  Objective analysis of these stories allowed us further understanding.

  Rosenwald and Ochberg say in the introduction to their book, Storied Lives (1992, p. 1), the way people construct the stories of their lives, what they leave in and what they choose to delete, is often as interesting as the story itself.  "Personal stories are not merely a way of telling someone (or oneself) about one's life; they are the means by which identities may be fashioned.  It is this formative and sometimes deformative power of life stories that makes them important."   Sociologist Dollard (1935) argued that a "biographical account, when carefully interpreted by the investigator alert to the mirroring of society in the individual life, stands as a deliberate attempt to define the growth of a person in a cultural milieu to make theoretical sense of it" (McAdams et al., 1988, p.10).

  Another approach to narrative research is a multiple case strategy. Gergen (1982) works on the assumption that "persons are members of society and each member constructs knowledge about society from a slightly, but not completely different perspective."  Expanding on this theory, McAdam proposes that, through multiple case research, examining any particular aspect of life sheds light on that subject, which can inform and enlighten the reader ( McAdam et al., 1988, p. 11). The women in my study had all been intimately involved with a sex-negative institution, the Roman Catholic Church.  As Rosenwald et al. (1992, p. 5) say, "That institutions have enormous power over the behavior and life chances of the individuals has long been recognized...social influence shapes not only public action but also private self understanding...the strictures of social control can in turn limit personal emancipation."  In the case of women who had made the transition into and out of strict religious orders, the way they have constructed their life stories draws a connection between the present and the past; allowing us to interpret and thus understand a little more clearly how they perceived their sexuality.  We learn from these stories whether sexuality was indeed an indomitable force that strove to express itself beyond the confines of the societal script that was written for them.  The interviews offered them an opportunity to reflect on how their personal lives had changed and to speculate about the future as well as offering insights into the ways in which sheltered childlike nuns became responsible adult women. This is a tantalizing adjunct to this methodology.  Women who have made such major life changes have a rich and diverse history.  Only through their own words can we share a glimpse into how they have translated their experiences.



  In selecting the sample I wanted to expand on the limited information already available. Others had addressed Lesbian nuns and former nuns, (Curb and Manahan, 1985).  My emphasis was inclusive rather than exclusive of any gender preference. San Giovanni (1978) had studied role passage out of religious life.  My intention was to recruit as diverse a group as possible and follow their stories from childhood to present day. Therefore I followed up on any contact I heard of from many different areas of my own life (details below) which gave me 29 former nuns from 12 different orders as my core interview group. I deliberately tried to select from as wide a geographical area as possible and as diverse an ethnic composition, in order to see if these diversities had any impact on my findings.

  I was concerned that few former nuns would be willing to share their intimate stories with me and so I was thrilled to meet "Kate," a vivacious, vibrant, 50 year old who had been in the convent for 30 years and only left two years before our meeting.  She gave me great encouragement and the names of several of her friends. I met a former missionary nun whilst on vacation and a friend in another state knew two former nuns.  In this way my group grew and the 12 to 20 participants I was hoping to find for intensive interviews turned out to be 61 possibilities.  I worked from the standpoint that I wanted to understand the sexual component in each of the transitions, that is, entering, leaving their communities, and how they handled their sexuality afterward.  Therefore, no exclusionary criterion was given to length of stay in the convent, age on entry, age on leaving or relationship status at time of interviews.  Again I was hoping for diversity, as I looked for change in sexual patterning.

  In order to augment the findings from my interviews and also include all respondents, I designed a modified sexual questionnaire (Appendix A) which was distributed to all 61 women. I contacted each of them by telephone and had extended conversations to confirm their status as former nuns and also to explain my study.  Oral permission to participate in the study was received prior to sending a letter of explanation of the study (Appendix D & F).  A letter to give permission to use the material was also included (Appendix E). A self addressed stamped envelope was sent with each package to 61 former nuns.



  The response rate to the questionnaire was 80%, giving me a final sample of 49 former nuns, 29 of whom were interviewed.  The summarization of the data can be found in Appendix B, the full data in Appendix C.

  Once permission was received, an interview was arranged.  I traveled to various parts of the United States to conduct the interviews. This was an ideal group from a researcher's perspective, because they were so sensitive to the questions and motivated to participate.  Since the questionnaire had been sent prior to our meeting, the participants were aware of the areas I was interested in exploring.  They had obviously given a lot of thought to their answers and were enthusiastic and personally concerned with the issues.  All expressed their belief in the inherent importance of the study, and told me it was overdue.  They were articulate, introspective and intelligent.  Many said that they had never before put into words their thoughts on the subject of their sexuality, and were happy to have the medium to do so.

  Questionnaire data collection was terminated at the time of the final interview.  All questionnaires were coded with a numeric identification number that corresponded to the person's name in the database.  The purpose of the identification number was to track responses.  Anonymity was assured to participants and therefore all identifying details were taken out, names changed, no religious names were used.  Nor in the report did I identify the communities these women came from, or where in the country they lived.

  There were certain areas on which I wished to have the women focus and explore.  Only in that sense was there any formal structure to the interviews.  These areas were to reflect on what was happening in their lives from a sexual perspective, before they entered, during, and after they left convent life.   Beyond those guidelines it was unstructured since I wanted to elicit how they construed and organized the meanings of the particular events they were describing, and therefore what was happening in their lives around the transitions.  I was looking for themes to emerge.  The interviews were from two to four hours in duration and usually took place in the participant's home.  They were audio taped and transcribed by myself.  Access to the material was restricted to my research associates.  I made follow-up telephone calls after each interview to ensure that nothing had come up for the women of a troubling nature and also to ensure they had nothing more to add to their stories.  In the event one of the women did want to add to her story, I had the ability to add to their tape by recording our telephone conversation (with their permission).  Further telephone calls were made where appropriate to assure myself that there were no unresolved issues that may have called for professional intervention.  Dr. Barnaby B. Barratt, a psychoanalyst with two decades of clinical experience, who is Professor of Family Medicine, Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at Wayne State University School of Medicine, agreed to be available for telephone counseling if needed.

  A copy of the findings from this research will be sent to the interview participants in gratitude for their time and participation.  Further copies will be sent to current nuns who have given their time and assistance in referring contacts and giving me guidance with my literature search.  They have also indicated that my work would be of interest to other convents.

  In conclusion, I feel very strongly that this methodology is the only one which I could have used to develop a rapport with these women, to allow them the space and trust to speak about their most intimate feelings.  For women with this background to share their sexuality took a great deal of courage.  As will be seen in the body of this thesis, the stories are open, candid and full of detail.  I was surprised to have reached so many former nuns willing to participate in this study and to divulge their intimate private memories and aspirations for their sexual future.

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