Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 1, August 27, 1998
WHAT I HOPED TO FIND
As indicated in my prologue, my interest in conducting this research was very personal. The fundamental stimulus for choosing the topic was to examine, on a scientific level, what the driving forces were in the lives of women who would voluntarily deny their right to be sexual, and the impact of that decision on their sexual development.
My primary concern when I first chose this topic was to locate and convince enough women to participate in the research to make it a viable addition to the field. I had anticipated difficulty in finding subjects. Another concern was that they would so censor their stories that it would be difficult to elicit a true understanding of their sexuality. My own bias and reticence to talk about sexual issues in the not too distant past was the reason for my concerns. I thought that if I felt like this then perhaps it might be a common trait amongst former nuns.
Sexuality plays a major role in everyone's life, whether people recognize it and have awareness of it, or not. In particular, when looking at a group of women who have made religious commitments that shift them in and out of the possibility and legitimacy of sexual expression, the hope was that these people would share some personal understanding about the way sexuality impacted other aspects of their lives. In analyzing these stories, I hoped to uncover first, what the family of origin's influence was on the burgeoning sexuality of the participants as young Catholic girls. Second, I wanted to trace their sexual growth or regression as they made their transition from secular life into religious life and back. Finally my hope was to learn how they had developed since their departure from their convents, how they viewed their sexuality currently and their aspirations for the future. When collecting data on their life in religious communities, I hoped for a frank and candid assessment of their feelings around their sexual development. I expected this to be an area where the sample may have censored their responses. Since my own experience was limited to the novitiate, I had no expectation of the sexual growth or pattern that I would uncover when looking at those who had professed vows and been in religious life for many years.
Given the historical background of enforced celibacy, coupled with the notorious antifeminism of the Church, I was looking for changes in attitudes and in ideologies, particularly those surrounding sexual patterning. It would be possible to go into the convent as a sexually repressed adolescent and find, as the years passed and hormone levels changed, that celibacy may become difficult to endure. If fear of sex were the major reason for entering, it would now not be an issue and one may leave at this point. There are many types of relationships and reasons for both entering and leaving. I am not looking for causality; as stated, I am looking for patterns to emerge. Sexuality may be one of the major reasons that motivate some women to go into the convent, as in the case of the woman who recognizes her lesbianism and wishes to spend her life in an all female environment. Fear of sexuality on all levels may prompt a woman to enter into an asexual environment. Alternatively, sexuality may be what makes a woman leave. For instance the nun who falls in love with the priest or the layman with whom she works. Or she may become aware of her "biological clock ticking," and not be able or willing to deny her right to experience childbirth. However, the real issue as stated was how patterns seem to work, how people make sense of their sexuality in light of their commitment or make sense of why they made religious commitments in context of their sexuality.
Another aspect of this study which interested me greatly was to explore whether these women had an understanding of how, or indeed if, sexuality and spirituality were integrated in any way during the transitions.
I hoped to attract a diverse group who had been in religious communities for various lengths of time. I anticipated finding women still deeply religious and still very connected to their Catholic faith. Alternatively, there could be those like myself who were disillusioned and in disdain of the patriarchal empire, which is my current view of the Catholic Church today. I am very much aware of my personal set of anticipations, or biases. I was hoping to dispel these biases with reasoned, analytical study.
In Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, Curb and Manahan (1985) found "many common threads" in the stories of the respondents. This publication was not an academic thesis, but it did deal with the sexuality of current and former Catholic nuns. I too am looking for the "common threads" in my research group.
At the time these women were in religious life, there were approximately 400 different religious orders in the United States (San Giovanni, 1978, p. 19). These included contemplative, diocesan, nursing, teaching, social workers and missionary orders. My initial intent was to gather as diverse a group as possible in order to reach a comprehensive, cosmopolitan total. I was unable to put together a thoroughly mixed cultural group. There were no African Americans or Asians in either the interview group or the wider survey. However, they were self-selected from no single type of order and from all over the country. Given these limitations, I hoped to find similarities of attitudes that showed the power that cultural background had on the sexuality of these women.
Another basic limitation of this study was of course that it
was limited to those women willing to talk to me about their sexuality.
When I began this work I thought it would be difficult to get former religious
women to speak about this subject matter. That presumption proved
to be an incorrect bias. All the women who agreed to speak to me
appeared to have been open, and, in the majority of cases, eager to participate.
A certain amount of self editing undoubtedly occurred, as was the case
in my own story. However, the richness of the material gathered was
evidence of the complex lives of the subjects. No claim is being
made that this is a representative or random sampling of all former nuns.
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