Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 1, August 27, 1998
The meaning of life lies within us. The beginning of the search
for truth lies in each personís story. To truly hear one another
is to respect one another.
Pat and Barbara No Turning Back.
In this the last chapter of their stories, my subjects are back in the society they attempted to leave. For the majority, the transition in their careers was uneventful; their sex lives, however, have followed a more varied path.
There were similarities in life choices. For example, most of the women continued in the same career as they held in the convent. The majority remained in teaching, from elementary through university level. There were several therapists or other members of the helping professions. One was a lawyer. (See Appendix B for details). Those who no longer practiced their Catholic religion did however remain spiritual, although some struggled to find a new route to express it. What was clear was that sexuality was not taken for granted. It was a subject for enquiry and curiosity. When they were asked to think about sexuality in view of their religious experience, they all felt comfortable with their decision to leave the convent. Those for whom sexuality was still a source of struggle expressed no wish to return to a religious life. I think this was due to the fact that overall it was obedience not chastity which had been their primary motive for leaving. However, no one expressed regret at having made the decision to enter religious life.
For Mary, Ursula and Caroline, sexuality remained a challenge, one about which they continued to ask questions and search for answers. Mary had yet to experience either self-pleasure or a sexual initiation with male or female. Ursula struggled to identify her sexuality and in fact could not decide conclusively if she was lesbian, straight or bisexual. Caroline was in personal conflict on a very basic level because her sexual turn on and ability to climax was tied to the use of marijuana, a habit she did not want to continue, but without which she could not achieve orgasm. Ruth and Stephanie took two years after leaving their communities before meeting their prospective spouses and marrying. Stephanie had children immediately. Ruth had none. As will be related, Ruth was prepared to remain single; she had such a hard time meeting ďMr. Right.Ē Maria, Miriam, Helen, Marian and Pamela all married priests or brothers, and had established these relationships to some varying degree whilst in their communities. Hazel, June, Sophia, Margaret, Pamela, Stephanie, and Kathleen all married and had children soon after leaving the convent. Wendy and Elizabeth claimed they were very happily married without children of their own. Lisa, Josephine, Hilary, and Rachael lived with their lovers. Sara had a child and lived with the father. Ione was fully out as a lesbian. She had a female lover but lived alone. Lois came out as lesbian many years ago; however, in our interview she alluded to the fact that bisexual would probably be a better classification. Lois was attempting to establish a relationship with a woman, but did not preclude the option of being sexual with a man in the future. Kate identified as bisexual. She had her female lover but lived alone. Ann had no lover at the time of the interview and lived alone. Lua Xochitl was travelling the world after having had several male lovers but never marrying. Clare married and had a child that died; she discovered her husband to be a bigamist, had her marriage annulled and lived alone. Those who left the convent the latest (later than 30 years old) had no children. They apparently had not used contraception; they said ďIt just didnít happenĒ [they did not conceive].
After Ursula retired from her job at 62 she began to work on her sexual issues. The denial of her sexuality and the mental chaos it caused throughout her life continued unabated until addressed in therapy and Biofeedback workshops. She had not experienced any worry-free sexual acts, either self-pleasuring or with either gender partner. Self-identifying as lesbian caused her inner turmoil due in part to its being contrary to her religious belief system. Being unable to control her sexual urges was a constant source of inner struggle and had been tremendously painful.
When I see the path I have walked since my
retirement to face up
to myself, my psychological journey to face all those inner pressures,
it has been very hard. I now understand it was because I couldnít face
all the pressures of my history. When I retired twelve years ago, I
couldnít run away from myself any more. The fact that I had been an
abused child, the rejection of this homosexuality [her lesbian
tendencies], I had horrible pressure [psychological]. So I went
through three different treatments and there has been a healing, a
great healing. I can say I look at sex today very differently. As far
as others are concerned I understand their desire perfectly, itís me
that I have a problem with, and because basically I was told my
sexuality was bad.
She said the healing had allowed her to recognize that she enjoys being held by a man; but thinks it would still be difficult to be spiritually and physically joined to men. However, that is a big change from having only fantasized about women. She claimed that her despondency came from a need for a motherís love. This need for nurturing by the mother had been a very common theme in other interviews. Although many of the women stated that their fathers were a great influence on their sexuality and personal formation as women, those deprived of their mothersí love seemed to have had great difficulty recovering from their loss. Some had indeed not accomplished this and even in their later years, felt the pain. I reminded Ursula that nobody had ever given her permission to honor her sexuality. She responded, ďI feel despair about the masturbation thing, because itís done alone without a partner. I canít do it with a woman because Iím fighting the homosexual issue.Ē She asked, ďIs this deviant?Ē We conversed for a moment on the irrepressible need for sexual outlet and she admitted she did not feel 75 years old in her sexuality, and on consideration I must agree. Perhaps an adolescent could identify with the confusion described here. Ursula attended Mass and was a daily communicant. She was however adamant in her condemnation for what she called ďthose damn self righteous Catholics.Ē She said she understood why the churches were empty and why people do not practice their religion. ďI hate the word practice, I do not practice my religion, I love to go to Church. God understands me, damn it, he understands I am not a piece of wood!Ē
Mary had likewise done a lot of personal growth work and had a desire for sexual fulfillment. She had yet to meet a man with whom she felt comfortable being sexual, but even more importantly had not achieved sexual fulfillment in self-pleasure. She believed if there were any unremembered child sexual abuse in her past, then the memory of it would surface if she had sex with a man. I feel, in this case, perhaps a clinical sexologist, working with a surrogate could be helpful to guide her through this experience. As stated in Chapter 6, no therapy was given to assist her with body image concerns following her mastectomy. Her confusion and reticence to be fully sexual could be linked to her lack of personal acceptance, fear of rejection and also fear of opening up her unconscious mind to the possibility of child molestation. Mary is still a practicing Catholic and had her business office in the convent where she used to live. This appears important in that she hadnít broken free of the past even to the extent of ďmoving outĒ physically.
Ann never married. She had no children and had lived life in the radical fashion she envisaged as a child. As stated previously, she espoused total freedom sexually and said she was bisexual. She admitted to no current sexual relationships and most of our conversation was about her political and scholastic endeavors. She seemed quite proud of her life as a child prostitute but gave very few details of how she actually felt during that period of her life. A glimpse of the terror and sense of responsibility she felt for her younger siblings came when she described the evening her father was so drunk and violent as to be out of control. She took her siblings up to their grandparents to protect them until the police came. The reason given for becoming a prostitute at the age of 13 was to earn enough to get her younger sisters away from the sexual abuse she was suffering. So although on the surface Annís story was full of rhetoric about her political and social agendas, under it all lies a story of great bravery and survival. As previously stated, Ann did not speak about pleasure in sexuality, only about acts. It was my understanding as she spoke that her sense of survival had severely retarded her ability to receive pleasure from sex. There was a great degree of blame attributed to her mother for not protecting her. She had lost her faith in the Catholic Church and stated that she had recently converted to Judaism.
Hilary had had a number of experiences since her departure from the convent. She talked about dating a man whom she thought was absolutely fabulous and he turned out to be a great ďphilanderer.Ē However, she was still ďcrazy about himĒ even though her friends warned her against the relationship. She said
He just made my body tingle; it didnít matter
that he was a
philanderer. I even made myself not see him. It was like mortifying
yourself [as we used to do] in the convent, when you wouldnít eat
something youíd want to eat, until I really realized what a jerk he was.
Hilary was still looking for the passionate relationship in her life equal to the memory of her first love for the priest.
I havenít personally hit on the guy who wants
to make a huge
effort over me except the person Iím with and his effort hasnít worked
really well. I donít know if in real life you keep working on finding
someone because you could go your while life and not hit the right
person or hit the right person whoís wrong.
Hilary, the woman who had been sexually exploited by both a priest ďfriendĒ and her therapist, had a variety of experiences following her departure from the convent. For instance, she dated a younger man; he was in his early 30s and she was 42. She told me that they had sex and he thought it was great. He called her up and wanted to marry her. At that time she toyed with the idea of getting married and having a family but decided he was too young and turned him down. She wasnít feeling a great emotional pull although ďhe was a gorgeous man.Ē Another man she dated, when she was on a temporary split from her live in-lover, turned out to be a transvestite.
So I have this relationship with a man who
has a few fetishes. He
liked to wear womenís clothes, diapers, and childrenís clothes. And I
said to myself, this is interesting. Iím an open person, and I did
have sex with him, it wasnít bad. It was a little thing that he wanted
me to wear the manís clothes and I think I did once. It was nothing
bad, it was like someone who had a foot fetish and wanted to pet your
foot, so what? I went to a couple of transsexual meetings and there
were transsexuals there and others, it was interesting to me. So I
feel like Iím an open person. After a while it got boring because it
was all so self absorbed. But it was very interesting. So since then,
about 15 years ago, nothing else has happened. Iím still with the same
man, sex isnít all that important; I have too many other distractions.
Hilary taught in a parochial school and did not articulate her feelings on the subject of religion or God at that point in her life. Her demeanor was one of acceptance, if a little fraught and overwhelmed. She didnít judge any of the experiences she had in a negative way, nor did she address the men who had taken advantage of her in an angry fashion. It was just put down to experience and she was matter-of-fact about it.
Lua Zochitl has had a most interesting life since her departure from the convent. She followed a pagan religion and was a self described ďtrusted and loved crone.Ē Before I met this woman I was intrigued by her energy which was apparent even over the telephone. She exuded vitality and joy, mysticism and common sense. The feeling of being part of a sisterhood was profound when speaking to her both in person and on the telephone. As stated in Chapter 6, her initial sexual awakening with a man occurred in a Cuban rebel training camp. The couple was very much in love and they intended to marry. ďWe were going to be married. I went back to Cuba a second time but political changes happened in Haiti and he had to go back. We couldnít marry.Ē I asked if she had ever wanted children?
No. Well, I wanted them earlier in my
life but I became a teacher
for 15 years. The first time I made love with Carlos in Cuba he asked
me about the convent. He said ďAre you sorry that you lost 14 years of
your life?Ē I said ďNo, I didnít lose 14 years of my life, I know this
and this and this and my only regret is that Iíll never have
children.Ē I was only 32, I just thought it was over for me, and he
said to me ďYou and I have children all over the world and we are
making a better world for them.Ē I think he came into my life to help
me never feel that I was barren and Iíve never felt that I was less
because Iíd never had children.
At 60 years she had embarked upon a world trip to follow her ancestral heritage from its place of origin in Spain back to the United States, traveling first to New Zealand and then to Europe. Her only contacts were at the first stop, after that she planned to ďtrust in the MotherĒ to find her places to stay. Her sexual life had progressed also from that early romantic beginning. She fell in love with a much younger man and, when that relationship ended, went to Brazil to get away and at the time was in acute depression. There she met a couple and they became good friends. One evening, when the wife was away, the man declared his love for Lua. She said that at first she could not even imagine a relationship. However, after a while she saw that the feelings were becoming mutual and to keep her integrity towards her ďsisterĒ [the wife] she left Brazil. She never married, but did have one long-term intimate relationship with a man; one that she said was her only truly intimate experience. As an example that progress was taking place throughout the years she told me that she just ďturned on to a Euro-AmericanĒ man for the first time last year. ďAnd thatís because Iíve grown, I stopped relating to people according to color a long time ago.Ē I said to her, ďyour evolution has been phenomenalĒ and she answered,
Hasnít it? What it was for me was coming
home to my body,
sexually and spiritually. As Iím talking to you thatís what I
understand. When I remember that first time masturbating and taking
myself to peaks, some place in my mind there was knowledge that woman
has always known this. The spiritual, sexual part of myself came
together. The political, spiritual self became wedded later. But Iíve
never told the story before to understand what happened there. So when
I had my first sexual experience with a man there was a sense of
spiritual as well, orgasmically I canít tell you it was that great, but
that part of me that felt inferior was just put aside to be looked at
I asked if she felt women who had been in convents were less likely to take their sexuality for granted? She answered
No they donít, and also when we understand
it as spirit also and
spirit is in the body, itís the only thing that matters. The vibration
of spirituality and sexuality are so mirroring of each other. When I
would look back at that time I understood. Thatís why I had no
expectations for men to do it for me. Thatís why I went through a
period of my life where it was okay for me to teach men how to make
love, they couldnít be expected to know, how could they?
Lua Xochitl was a vibrant, sexual woman, full of spirituality in her pagan rites and in her vitality for life. Her anger and dismay at the Catholic Church had ebbed. She used to feel that she wanted to bomb a church before she died; now, that feeling had gone because she believed the Church to be dying all by itself!
Lois was representative of the feminist influence so prevalent at the time the subjects were making the greatest transitions, in the 1960s and 70s. She spoke confidently and forcefully for over two hours and told me about her life in what appeared to be minute detail. Yet she made a brief reference to an abortion as a young woman, after she had left the convent. This major incident was not referred to again and I felt she assiduously avoided the subject throughout the interview. Her reason for entering was the prospect of becoming a doctor on the African missions and serving the world in an adventurous fashion. She masterfully flowed with seemingly in-depth analyses of herself, answering questions without actually giving very much away. She was politically aware prior to entering and became extremely political during her two and a half years in the convent, and was eventually asked to leave. Once again, as in Wendyís story, I heard the convent referred to as a commune, bearing all the hallmarks of 60s and 70s thinking. Lois had taken a copy of the Communist Manifesto with her to the convent in her trunk, and was considered a radical and very outspoken. After she left the convent and went back to college she had bouts of severe depression with thoughts of suicide. She said she had no vision of the future and added, ďI knew I didnít want to get married.Ē Eventually her life stabilized. As described previously her sexuality found expression first in a romantic slow relationship and later with multiple partners of both sexes. However, she knew she wanted to go to graduate school and, when the time came for her to do that, she was quite prepared for the end of her relationship. This became a pattern for her; one of beginning an academic project and putting her sexuality on hold until that was completed. She explained it this way:
Thatís really how I live my life. Even
now I decided not to have
an affair until I finished my book. I put personal ads out last
November and I got two answers to the ads. But then I got my book
contract and thought I donít want to call someone and say I canít start
a relationship until April when I get my book done, so I didnít
bother. So now Iím thinking of going out again and I went on a week-
end camping trip and met this woman there. She calls me up out of the
blue and propositions me; this was the day I was supposed to make my
phone call for a sex date. So sheís telling me that sheís free and
sheís bi-curious, and sheís telling me about her sex life and I said ďI
donít know.Ē I had all this illness and pain in my 30ís and 40ís, I
felt as if I was 70 then. I wasnít open to sex because I was in so
much physical pain, and now I said, here I am an old lady in my 50s and
Iím really horny and I want to date. I feel as if I have this
50-year-old body, whoís going to think of me as a sex object? She said
ďwell I do, I want to have sex with you.Ē So I have a date next week.
Iíve always found it really easy to talk about sex. I think this is
really interesting because my mother gave her mother information about
sex. My mother went through nursing school and so knew a lot more
about her body than her mother and so ended up telling her about it and
then my sisters and I told my mother about sex. It was very strange,
it was like I was this really clean slate, itís like I was asexual and
then - [she paused for thought, then continued] - I have a theory. I
think there are two approaches to sex. One is intellectual and the
other is gonadal. Some people say ďOh I donít know, I got myself in so
much trouble with this guy and ended up in bed with him.Ē To me it was
always so calculating. For instance I would leave my birth control
pills on the dresser so that if my date came to my room to get my
jacket he would see the pills and it was intentional to let him know I
wanted sex. I donít know if it was my first lover who told me I needed
experience, or if it was my own need for experience. I think itís a
great way to meet people, to connect with them. I really took it that
Iíd rather get to know you through sex than have conversation. My
attitude changed somewhat when I became more professional and when my
health problems began. I donít intellectualize when Iím in an
experience but before it I can plan it and know I just want the sex and
we donít have to get married or anything. I went through a lot of change in my life,
Iíve had sex with 60 men in my life, and I quit having
sex when I was 29. The way I see it, to me Iím liberated, right, weíre
talking about the 70s, right? To me the men I had sex with saw me as a
slut in terms of ďOh yes I believe in womenís lib.Ē They believed all
this but in the end I was not the woman you marry, I was not the woman
you date [I understood this to mean there was no real relationships
with these men, they were simply sex partners with no commitment. On
reflection she was angry at the men]. Oh yes they had their talk down
but in the end they saw me as a slut. They were really lousy lovers.
Now I really want an orgasm if Iím going to be involved in sex with
somebody. If the man has an orgasm and I donít, I get really angry.
Especially back then I didnít say anything. I was just stewing. Then
I realized Iíd had sex with a number of men and they orgasmed and I
didnít, I wished Iíd taken their money for it. I really felt for all
they were saying that the vibes worked that I was a slut. I thought
the more sex Iím having the more pissed Iím getting, and where am I
going to meet someone who thinks about it like I do. So I quit having
sex. I thought Iíd figure it out, why Iím constantly getting charged up
and constantly being disappointed. I began to read lesbian literature
and wondered why am I only giving this to men? Iím discriminating
against women. So I again intellectualized it and decided to come
out. Iíve never heard a coming out story like that. I explored this
with my friends. I was having sex with a lot of different women and
there were a couple of awkward situations where people would say, ďWell
who are you going to take home?Ē A little jealousy thing. I really
have a great deal of comfort about sexuality. At one stage I was so
comfortable I would sometimes rather have sex with someone than go out
to dinner. It seemed like an equal choice to me.
Lois asked me if Iíd heard similar stories from other former nuns and, when I answered ďno,Ē she continued
I think thatís really passive. My thought
is this is my
universe. Iím going to jump into this universe and find out whatís in
here and how do I manipulate it. My imagery about sex is that itís a
giant swimming pool, and weíre all in it. Thereís the kidís part and
thereís the pedophiles that are in with the kids and swimming where
they shouldnít be, and thereís all these other people swimming around
together and touching each other for a while before swimming on. Or you
can be asexual and stay on the side not touching anyone. I was on the
sideline, probably had my back turned toward the pool [before
entering]. Then I felt like ďyes now I want to jump in.Ē Of course I
did have that period of chosen celibacy, thatís really unusual.
In conclusion she told me she could not be monogamous because ďthe world deserves me.Ē She said she was disillusioned by the double standard of the Catholic Church and no longer practiced.
After Ione left the convent she attempted to have relationships with men on several occasions. However, eventually she acknowledged her lesbianism. Her reference to life, in her case, convent life, as a swimming pool was reminiscent of Lois. She concluded her interview with
I guess when I look at my history, what I keep
striving for is the
integration of the spiritual and the sexual life, and that is what I
feel Iíve been moving towards all these years. Recovering from the
sexual abuse and then deciding not to be a sister, and not to be
celibate any more and then understanding myself as a lesbian. My
personal philosophy, how I see sexuality is, I think sexuality for me
needs to be in the context of a loving relationship, in a committed
relationship with another person. I just canít do it just to have sex,
I donít feel moral judgment on other people who do, itís just the way
Iím made. A lot of the women I was in with have left; a lot of the
visionary types have left. So around the time when I left and after I
left was a big exodus. I think itís because the order isnít changing
fast enough and those people get tired. I guess as I see myself now, I
still have a stronger sex drive than most of the women I know. At this
time in my life I think Iím trying to be more integrated, more out as a
lesbian and to continue in my ministry work that Iím doing. I think
sexuality is a subject that a lot of people at least in my circle are a
bit intimidated and fearful of, and I feel like Iím more willing to
talk about it than most of the people in my group. Although I feel very
successful in my work life and my education, I feel a little bit behind
in my relationship skills, so I feel like thatís a challenge for me
now. When I talk to other lesbians I realize, when we were teenagers
like a lot of the kids I teach, theyíre dating and going through all
that stuff at 17 and 18 what Iím going through at 35. What theyíre
learning now, Iím learning now. In this area, Iím a little bit of a
late bloomer. I feel as if Iím in the reverse of a lot of my friends
who got married early, theyíre going to workshops and finding their
spirituality and I feel as if I did that, Iím more like in the reverse.
One of the reasons I left was that I wanted to be sexual. The struggle
with myself to try and remain celibate started to seem somewhat
ridiculous. The sexual experience was also part of the spiritual
experience; I saw it as integrated. But I also started to feel like
the convent was trying to close me in a little bit, not just sexually
but to really become who I am, the convent started to feel as if it was
closing in on me. People would say, you donít seem like a nun. I
wonder if the convent becomes too small a fish pond or a swimming pool
for those women who leave, I think some of them develop and grow and
some of it is because of the environment of the convent and then they
almost outgrow the convent, you know? As I said before, when I went to
dinner I would be sitting with missionaries, and therapists and people
who had their doctorates in history, educators, doctors, people in the
medical profession. It was fascinating. Someone got back from Africa
and wanted to talk about the social conditions in Africa. I get the
feeling that they just become too big for the swimming pool, and the
convent starts to seem limiting. Of the women who left, less than half
left because they wanted to be in a relationship. A lot of them left
because they were tired of answering for the church. They could no
longer stay because they felt it was repressive, they found it to be an
oppressor of people. At least the way they talk to me about it, not a
lot of them left because they wanted to be in a relationship. A friend
of mine just left in January and her reason was because she wanted to
be in a relationship. Some of the nuns said to her, ďSome of the women
have relationships and stay, why donít you just stay?Ē But she
couldnít do that, so she left. I probably left because I needed to grow
in other ways. I had grown a lot intellectually, academically,
spiritually, and emotionally. Because I had gone through recovery from
the sexual abuse, my depression that Iíd suffered from for many years
lifted, I had much more energy. I think my next growth path was an
intimate relationship, and I couldnít do that in the convent because
when you fall in love with someone you want to be sexual with him or
her. I thought, this is ridiculous that Iím trying to stop this being
sexual just because I have this vow and I think falling in love and
being sexual is a holy thing. So that was the cutting edge for me
personally, it was to test the waters in an intimate relationship. The
convent I would say was the place where I healed. The sisters taught me
that life could be different than the life I grew up in. The joy and a
curiosity about life and growing, the world seemed to open way up.
Sara expressed a certain empathy with Ione when it came to her feelings about supporting a Church, which felt repressive to her. In fact Sara was quite a lot stronger in her feelings when she spoke about her experience on the African mission.
It was really transforming. It shattered
any worldview that I
had. It just put me back to square one and it scared me out of my
mind. All my symbols were gone. We had to look at life in a very
basic way and rethink things from the bottom up, [re-think] the Church
that I was a part of. It was the first time to cover your head and
wear a veil and stuff. That was never a part of what I wanted, we never
wore habits or anything. It was very oppressive of the native cultures,
yet there was tremendous work being done to educate people and help
them along, there was something very primary that was being destroyed
and had been destroyed over time. I was so alienated from the
structure that I was a part of that it was very, very difficult. The
missionaries would go out to the outlying Churches that were just
communities of people. I remember I went to the Easter service with an
Irish missionary priest. We went up into the hills to this one tribe
that was so inbred they couldnít even build a house that would stand
up; they were all desperately retarded and so were isolated from the
rest because the other tribes didnít want to deal with them. This
priest would go up there and help build houses and do things for them.
He would perform the midnight Easter services for them, lighting the
fire and all that. People made instruments from cans and stones, they
sang their own songs. The babies were being nursed, people were being
baptized, the sky was black, there was a full moon and there were
thousands of stars and the ritual was so real. I knew what was
happening in a way that I never tuned into before. I never understood
the rituals the way I did in Africa. You just have this conflict of
the church constantly destroying their symbols, so what do you do?
That set up such a conflict in me, it was such a culture shock, it was
almost as much a culture shock coming back as it was experiencing it
and if Iíd had my druthers, I would have headed back to Africa.
It became evident as my interviews progressed that there was a great deal of curiosity and continued questioning among the group, around sex and intimacy issues. Of course, it is difficult to assess or compare my findings to the general public. I began asking the question; ďDo you think the slow development of your sexuality has led to a prolonging of your sexual curiosity?Ē The answer was invariably ďyes.Ē Several of the women had virtually no sexual experience prior to leaving their communities and once they became sexual their curiosity and interest had not waned in the subsequent years as testified by their autobiographies.
Ruth was in the convent for 13 years and when she went home to tell her parents she was leaving, her mother told her that her life now had no value. Her photograph was on the mantle with her brother a priest; they were the success story of the family. Ruth had no sexual experience up to this time. The convent did an aptitude test on her and the results came out highest for wife and mother and lowest for teacher/nun. She said this astonished her. She had remained a teacher for many years following her departure from the convent, but found eventually her heart wasnít in it and finally decided to leave teaching and became a massage therapist, and loves it. When she left the convent she tried to meet men in a variety of the usual places. Dances proved fruitless, she disliked bars and friends introduced her to men she made no connection with. Eventually she applied to a dating agency. She had a few dates through this service but none worked out until they sent her the name of John, the man who was to become her husband. He had been married before and therefore needed to get an annulment. She said
It was cute. I wanted someone tall, dark and
handsome and I got a
small, fat and blond one, who looked just like me. We just had a very,
very good time. We married in June and he died the following August,
not that year, the following year. He was killed. [The car he was
working on fell on him and crushed him to death, 19 years ago]. It was
very pleasurable and exciting. We had a very playful time. We played
in every room in the house, in the car, everywhere. John used to say
the Lord kept me on ice until he came along. He said ďYou were slow to
get started but now I canít keep up with you.Ē At the end of the
homily at Johnís funeral I stood there and kind of grinned and said, at
this moment I feel the same kind of feelings that I had when I had sex
with John. Well my girlfriend said sheíd never heard me say the word
sex in the whole of my life! Which I never did. There was a pause and
a bit of giggling. Then I said, ďI am totally satisfied, but if I
could get more Iíd take it.Ē Then everyone in the church broke up and
laughed. Itís not that Iím not sexual, because I am. I have a good
time. I used to tell John Iím my fatherís child, not my motherís.
Because my motherís idea of sex was just to have kids and that was it,
but my father was hot to trot.
A measure of Ruthís sexual growth came when she told me that John once shared with her that when he was married to his first wife he would always have to look at Playboy magazines to ďtake care of himselfĒ after they had made love. Ruth wanted to know what was it in the Playboy magazines that really turned him on, because she wanted to learn how to do it. She said she had told her husband, ďYou know my background. You will have to be my teacher. If I had to do it again I would still choose to do it, even knowing it was going to be as short. There was an urgency in everything we did.Ē Ruth mourned her lost love and she moved on. In the ensuing years following the death of John she had friends with whom she became sexual.
Thereís one friend who all I need to do is
lift up the phone and say come over and
he would love it. I know I don't want a permanent relationship with him and
weíve talked about that. Thereís another friend who Iíve known 11 years. He
married four years ago but we slept together many, many times. He asked me to
live with him but I didnít want to give up my house. Then he wanted me to buy
this little island with him; we went to visit it. It was very romantic, it sounds like a
phenomenal fantasy but it wouldnít have worked. He asked me to marry him,
but he is an alcoholic, and I couldnít share my life with a bottle. We had a lot of fun
and it was very playful but we both agreed that once one of us was in a
committed relationship our relationship had to stop. And when I say somethingís
going to stop, itís going to stop. I get on really well with his wife, and she knows
of our past and she said thanks. I have taken care of myself. I know Iím a very
sexual being and I know when to say no. Iíve had a lot of support.
Ruth had done a lot of therapy, where she was able to address and deal with the abuses in her childhood. ďThose types of things have really helped me in my life.Ē Five years after John died, her doctor convinced her to go to an intimacy workshop and from there she learned a lot about sexual freedom. I asked Ruth if she could reflect and compare herself now to those early days.
Oh Iím an absolutely different being, total
freedom, total freedom. You know and
even in the process in the past few years I know there has been more change and
more change, and I know there is more coming. I also know I will re-marry, I
donít know who he is, I havenít met him yet. Iím very content, but when I meet
him I know Iíll marry. Iím 58 years old and having fun. When I left the
convent my brother said ďyouíve got a lot of catching up to do.Ē I told him
recently Iíve caught up with you and gone way beyond you, because I think I had
experienced an intensity in life that was so powerful.
Josephine joyously ran around her office telling everyone she loved oral sex. She also told me sex was so important to her she strung flashing Christmas lights around her bed and left them there to celebrate her sexuality. She was 42 years old before her first experience with a man and now looks upon her relationship with great enthusiasm and exuberance. She told me she was more interested, more playful, more intense than her partner, which we agreed was probably due to the fact that she was still processing a new experience. After being a devout nun for so many years her spirituality was lost and she was in transition searching for an alternative source. In her own words she said
I donít have resolution to that, itís really
hard for me and Iíve
done everything I can imagine to find it. I really wonder if it can
even happen because I don't think I even believe in God. The place
that I best find myself besides being a Catholic, for whom it didnít
work, is a Buddhist. It influences me a lot.
While she was still in the convent Josephine searched for many years (as described in Chapter 5) to find her way back to the spirituality she once had; her search continues. She was not alone in feeling that coming to terms with her sexuality was somehow entwined with her spirituality. She rejoices in the former while she seeks the latter. She still waits to marry her lover; when that happens the alienation she suffers from her parents will hopefully heal. This is a source of great upset to Josephine and on some level is a stumbling block to reconciling her spirituality with her personal life.
Ruth spoke briefly about attending intimacy workshops. Lisa, unknown to Ruth and on the opposite coast, also attended these workshops. A long time into our interview after sharing some intimate details of her relationship with her friend within the convent Lisa told me
God, Iíve never ever told anyone these things
before, I must feel
really free to talk. Iíve never ever talked about it before, you know
I donít even know that I would be able to be this open with you if I
had not experienced these workshops. No way, I would never have shared
these things with you, that is just a realization. That workshop just
said, hey this is your humanity, this is who you are, this is okay,
itís not wrong to be like this with another human being whether it is a
man or a woman. Thank you, thank you for that because it was love, it
wasnít using, it was love. I can understand people who are gay. God,
our society is so screwed up about that. Iím proud, Iím proud that I
had the courage to do what I did at the times when there were so many
restrictions about not doing it. My God, Iím a damn courageous woman!
Iím a damn good woman! Sex is indomitable unless you castrate
yourself, unless you rip that part of you out.
This statement said two things. First is the growth that was evidenced by both Lisa and Ruth in attending these workshops in order to explore and gain knowledge about their own sexuality. They are not alone in this search; most of the women had been in some form of therapy and all were most eager to explore the question of their sexual growth. Second, it is testament as to the usefulness of this methodology for eliciting personal feelings and insights.
Sophia was a virgin until her wedding night and her 28-year marriage was monogamous. There was no history of self-pleasure because she felt it was not necessary when she had a partner. As far as she was aware, her husband never self pleasured either. Although theirs was a very traditional marriage she had always considered herself a very sexually open woman. She said
I have gay men friends, for the opera, shopping
things like that. Iíve always had
gay friends. I like to be around gay men, I feel real comfortable. I have lesbian
friends, in fact I have one friend at the moment who was lesbian and then got
married. Her husband died and sheís openly gay now and weíre good friends. Itís
not a problem. My brother and his lady friend say, we love to be around you
because we just never know what to expect. Iím very comfortable with anybodyís
sexuality, anybodyís race, it doesnít bother me.
In the two years since her husbandís death her life and home have been transformed. One of her gay friends took her to a sex shop and helped her buy toys and condoms. She laughed and said
I never practiced birth control but lost a
lot of pregnancies. Now Iím buying all
this stuff. I bought the Joy of Sex and lots of other books because he told me it
would be good for me. Heís a great friend. When my husband died I didnít date
or go out much. I had my gay friends and my girlfriends. There were one or two
attempts by men but I thought it was rude so soon after my husbandís death. One
man asked me out to dinner and I told him Iíd have to ask my son. My son and his
roommates got dressed up and waited to see this guy before I went out.
This last comment points to Sophiaís traditional views and practices, [obtaining her sonís approval before she went out on her first date]. Yet at the time of our interview she was dating a much younger man and said she had a lot of fun with him [sexually]. She is openly vivacious, sexual, and very happy. At the time the Church refused to allow her to marry her late husband she told the priest to ďgo to hellĒ and now only goes to Church to support her friends and family by attending services.
Kateís life-story was one of major change, with the exception of her job. When she left the convent after 30 years she continued her career, but she said
Now I never pray, never go to Church and my
friend the priest, I
loved when I was in the convent, canít understand it. It used to mean
so much to me, and now I just donít think about it. I donít know, I
guess Iím over that too. I did it; itís finished. Itís not that I
donít like God; itís that I donít have any reason to aver to God, I
donít think Iím mad or upset. My life is very full and being religious
at all is just not viable at all now. I may go back, but not right
now. My relationship with God was always close even when I was a
child. I was in such distress because of my Dad. Isnít that amazing?
So it really ties back to my Dad and alcoholism and so itís been a long
relationship. So being in love with God filled a big space in my life.
Since Kate left the convent she had made attempts to meet people through dating agencies with no success. Her priest friend was leaving his order but she felt this was not a viable relationship because she felt he was insecure. Since she had now established her bi-sexuality, her options are wider. She said
I see myself open and I love people in general
and now Iím open to
lots of people. Iím lots more relationship oriented. I think lots
more things are going to happen to me. I tend to still be
passive--just as I said that--things are going to happen to me. I need
to make things happen for me.
One of the group who left the convent after a short time was June. She went back home after one year in the convent and married her old boyfriend within another year. She was a virgin until her wedding night and said she owes her positive feeling about sexuality to her husband. She had six children in eight years because birth control was not allowed in any form for practicing Catholics. Her brother who was a priest ďwould not give permissionĒ for her to use contraception and so she rationalized
If itís evil to stop conception, itís also
evil to have so many
children you canít look after them. Thatís how I made my decision. It
caused great anguish at the time, but it also allowed me to be more
open sexually with my husband, every contact was not a cause for fear
of getting pregnant. How can you be open to sex when youíre scared to
death of getting pregnant?
Because June was so young and inexperienced when she married, her sexual growth took place within the marriage. She said sexuality had grown in importance over the years. Her voracious reading habit had given her a lot of food for fantasy. The fantasy she was most attached to involves bondage and rape. This leads her to quite considerable conflict in her relationship with her husband. She had not shared this fantasy with him but finds it difficult to turn on sexually without the stimulus of her fantasy. This made her feel guilty because she felt it detracted from her intimate relationship with her husband. This fantasy also had a mystical quality for her, one that she was in the process of trying to understand. She told me the fantasy causes her some distress, since her mysticism and spirituality are entwined with her sexuality. She denied ever having been sexually assaulted, and repeated that the genesis of the fantasy was in the books she read. June did not say, nor did I ask, if the male in her fantasies was a God-like figure. This would have been an important question since all of us were potential brides of Christ with daily reminders about keeping our virginity and chastity pure for our only lover. I am reminded of the holy cards I received from my fellow sisters on my clothing day [the day one receives the habit]. One inscription read, ďThis Love is Being showered on you Frances, prove yourself Worthy of it. Do all for the Glory of God-your Beloved and future Spouse.Ē Another read, ďAnd looking up they saw no man there but only Jesus.Ē Finally, ďJesus Christ is mine and I am His.Ē All the messages, both explicit and implicit during formation are to see God and Jesus Christ as lover on a spiritual level. It was possible that some of the stimulation for her fantasy could have been formed in the convent. A young impressionable 16-year-old, a voracious reader all her life but sexually naive and repressed may form sexual ideation from gazing at images of the crucified Christ for many hours. Later in life perhaps this experience could explain the fantasy of the bondage scene.
June was very much involved with the Church and actively supported her husband in becoming a Deacon. There was some conflict here because she felt she was instrumental in her husbandís success. She worked harder in the course, scored higher than he did yet it was her husband who put on the robes of office and she cannot. With a little laugh she recalls ribbing the priests while she was helping her husband, ďI straighten the vestments and say, see what you celibates are missing, you have nobody to dress you.Ē She strongly believes priests should be allowed to marry. She was independently involved in an organizational role in a new parish, and finds her spirituality growing as well as her sexuality.
Hazel, the wonderful storyteller, remains devoutly Catholic and also thoroughly focused on learning more about herself on every level. She expressed real pleasure in having a forum to examine her past sexual growth. Today she and her husband are going through more changes as they adapt to her husbandís health problems. She was very aware of the impact on their sexuality of this illness and was attentive to finding ways to overcome those issues. Sexuality was still important to her, as was her devotion to Catholicism and her personal spirituality.
Stephanie was 28 when she left the convent after being there for 10 years. She said she didnít want to have a relationship immediately upon leaving the convent. It was a year after leaving before her first relationship. Sexuality, she said, was never a big deal for her, and she was a self-described conservative person. Yet when she left the convent she remembered a conversation she had with her mother about sex.
I remember having a conversation with my Mom
about it because she felt you
shouldnít have a sexual relationship before you were married. I remember saying,
Mom, Iím 29 years old, this is stupid. Who cares if Iím married or not married?
The only thing that matters now at least to me is if I had a child out of
wedlock. Not because it was moral but how would I take care of the child, I
wasnít making enough money to do it all.
I asked Stephanie if she felt that the man she married courted her, or did she go out looking for a partner?
Definitely courted, I was afraid to be aggressive.
No, not so much afraid, I was
uncomfortable with being aggressive and I still am. Thatís the way I was trained
sexually, thatís the way I was brought up. Iím still uncomfortable with that.
Watching my daughterís generation they will call boys and I think thatís great but
some little part of me isnít comfortable with it happening too much. I guess thatís
from my past.
I asked, ďDo you regret the restrictions placed upon you when you look back?Ē She responded, ďI think there is probably a happy balance between the two and I would have preferred to have walked that line rather than the completely free flowing.Ē I asked if she could take a look at herself now and try to imagine what her life would have been like without those restraints; a very difficult question,
I probably would have been--um--itís hard to
say, Iím a shy person
naturally anyway, and I donít know why Iím shy. I donít know if itís
the way Iím made or the way I was trained. So I donít know that I
would have been any less restricted anyway. I donít know why I was
that way, there are so many factors that made me the way I am, maybe I
would still have been fearful anyway. I think I probably thought Iíd
never have children. I never planned to have children because from
being twelve I wanted to be a sister and when that didnít work out I
didnít have a plan. I was open to it but I didnít think I needed to
rush out and find someone and have children. Although by the time I
was about 33 I thought if I donít meet someone by the time Iím 35,
maybe Iíll adopt a child because I felt I wanted children by then but
not initially. I was in a vacuum for a while. When I first saw the man
I married I thought, ďphew heís a handsome guy,Ē and he is still a very
good-looking man, not so young anymore but heís cute. Then as I got to
know him a little more, I thought this man is a real pompous ass. Heís
very in charge and very confident, and he irritated me. I remember
talking to Mom about him, she was interested in getting me married off
so that I was squared away so she could relax, but I told her heís a
pompous ass and Iím really uncomfortable with him. We were
acquaintances for a couple of years, we would see each other
occasionally and then he called me and asked me out to a play and I
said Okay. I went just because I wanted to see the play. Then I got
to know him on a more personal basis and I realized he was a very good
man, and he is a very good man. It gradually, very gradually, grew to
be love and wanting to have his children, take care of him and do the
family thing. It came together once we got to that point.
She added a sardonic comment of ďboring, right?Ē as an end to this statement. I wanted to know what she felt about her sexuality today, and so therefore asked her what she felt.
Itís dull, itís very dull and itís like we
are so busy thereís no
time to enjoy each other. Itís like itís a little corner stuffed
somewhere. Even if I had time for it, itís not something I would
choose first, Iíd much rather go put my feet in the ocean, bake in the
sun, or read a good book. Itís not a large part of my life anymore, it
was for a long time, Iíd say until seven or eight years ago. My
husband is a really intense man, heís a workaholic, heís gone all the
time. I feel he doesnít have time to do enough pausing to spend time
with me and I probably resent that. I feel like heís always rushing in
and rushing out. I donít know if he cares if Iím even there as long as
the food is there and the clothes are washed and the house is clean. I
know he would deny all that and he would say, ďThatís not true, youíre
number one,Ē but thatís how I feel and that colors our sex life. I
donít want to be intimate with someone who doesnít have time for me so
Iíve just lost interest. Certainly I watch TV or a movie and see a
cute hunky little guy on there, or see some cute little butts at a game
or something and thought I wouldnít mind patting their little butts.
Of course I wouldnít do it in real life, but I sat there and fantasized
about it. I still have all those feelings, but not for my husband.
Stephanie denied ever contemplating an affair. ďNo, I wouldnít do that, and not because itís immoral but because itís hurtful. I wouldnít hurt myself and I wouldnít hurt him or my kids, it would be damaging to everybody.Ē At this point I asked Stephanie how she dealt with her sexual feelings since she told me that she did not self-pleasure often, and she said,
Itís not a big deal, I put it away; itís not
the important thing
in my life; my kids are, and now they are getting to the point where
they will be going off on their own and that will be a big issue for
me. What does Mom do with Mom when they are off doing their own
thing. I think I felt, once I had children, I was a real person and
now theyíre going off and does that mean Iím not going to be a real
person? I donít know what to do about that, I have to do a whole lot
of exploring around that.
Stephanie still considers herself a Catholic, though she describes herself more as a Christian.
I certainly have the basic philosophy, I think
Iím Christian. I
donít care what the Pope says, I honor him as a good man, but I donít
do everything he tells me. It is difficult to raise my children in a
Catholic environment that I donít agree with at least in this area.
Itís not like it was for me, there probably is no religion like that
anymore. Iím really down on institutionalized religions. I donít
think thatís what Jesus meant to do in the first place.
Another long-term married woman was Alison; she and her husband have had twenty-five years of marriage. She entered the convent at 18 years and stayed for 11 years. Alison met her husband at the wedding of a friend of hers before she left the convent. She didnít see him again for a year after her departure from community. However, after their next meeting in the summer, they married within a year. The reason Alison gave for avoiding intercourse prior to marriage was fear of pregnancy. She became pregnant almost immediately after her wedding but this pregnancy failed. She went on to have three live children in quick succession. When she thought she was pregnant again four months after the birth of their third child her husband had a vasectomy. They are both active, devout Catholics and she justifies the decision to have the sterilization as it made no sense to keep having babies one after the other. She said she knows they should be excommunicated but they still continue in their religious practices undaunted. ďThe rule didnít make sense. I didnít feel the Vatican or the Pope had any business making that decision for me.Ē
Alison and her husband have always been steadfastly monogamous. She had a hysterectomy at 40 years and breast cancer six years ago. The chemotherapy affected her sexual drive somewhat. However, she still felt herself to be a sexual woman. She wishes they could be more sexual but felt confident that they have a very good sex life, ďItís never been just sex for us, itís always been making love and is very special.Ē
It is astonishing to consider the power that could repress such strong, independent women as this group proved to be. It was a power which was so much stronger for so long than their sexuality. The following stories will illustrate that it was, on occasion, a corrupt power, which the women were fully aware of. Yet while some women attempted to live their own vows of chastity, priests who should have been bound by equally strong vows perpetrated abuses at worst and at best simply ignored their vows.
The next contributor to this chapter is somewhat different from the rest. She was asked to leave her community, not as in Loisís case for being an outspoken radical but because she ďblew the whistleĒ on the misconduct of priests and seminarians in the parish where she worked. The focus for me in this story was to evaluate how a woman dedicated to her religious life, with no intention of leaving, was impacted by her own desire for honesty and the need to protect her integrity. Rachael had been a nun for 13 years when she became embroiled in a situation which was to change her life trajectory.
I was working in quite a traditional setting
doing counseling and
teaching. At that time we were still being assigned to our jobs and I
got what was supposed to be the plum assignment. One of the women who
had been a council member in our community, which is almost a life long
deal, her brother and this priest were class-mates, and the two men and
this woman went to Catholic university together, so thereís a long,
long history. One of my first shocking introductions to any kind of
sexuality was when a priest was sent to our parish to live and for
counseling so that he could go back and work, a relative of the
pastor. The reason I knew about this is that I was on the parish
council and I had approximately one third of my meals with the priests
every week, so knew everything that was going on. It was mentioned at
one of the planning meetings that he had been arrested for soliciting
in one of the neighboring towns and that he had been in a psychiatric
clinic. You know I wasnít getting this so I asked if the man was
selling drugs, why is he going to live half a block from a Catholic
girlís high school? And they looked at me like I was very innocent.
It was so funny as the pastor explained in great detail to me that the
man was homosexual and the girls were in no danger. There was always a
lot of discussion about married clergy and married religious. I guess
another of my enlightenments came when I was asked to deliver a package
to another parish out of town. The pastor said I want you to know that
this is Saturday, and when you get there, and he mentioned the name of
the priest, his wife and child will probably be there because they stay
at the rectory every weekend. He didnít want me to say some stupid
thing. I worked in the parish for four years. There was more and more
sexual activity among people that I was aware of. I donít know when it
started but the two priests that I worked with were dating and
apparently the pastor also because shortly after I left, he left and
was married. One of the women from a religious community that was in
the school came down and I mentioned that she was going to be coming.
The guys said I know so and so will be here in a month. I said whoís
so and so? Oh thatís her lover, and sure enough the guy was living in
the rectory in a month. This was very common knowledge.
It transpired that this couple followed each other around in their religious houses. I asked if they remained in religious life.
This particular couple left. I know others
that did stay and it
was a real awakening for me during those years. It wasnít something I
considered for myself, maybe because I never met anybody, I donít
know. I didnít have much time. I was doing so much and religious life
and work life were so important to me I couldnít see that anything else
could be included. One of your questions was, would it have made any
difference to you if you could have been sexual and stayed in the
convent? No. The reason I left the community was, well, I didnít have
any problem with people having these personal sexual relationships.
That was their own decision. But I was responsible for training
seminarians and I was responsible to have them visit people and have
different groups do social activities, religious classes, scripture
discussion, this sort of thing. I had them for a couple of years.
Everything seemed to be going reasonably well and then we had a
switch. Some went to another parish to work and we got some more. A
couple I had known for a long time in the parish were very helpful and
I had them do extra work with the seminarians which they volunteered to
do. One day they called me up and asked if I would go over to see
them, they had a problem they would like to discuss with me. They
wanted to know if they really had to have sex with the new guy? I was
absolutely horrified, because it was not a real consensual agreement.
These guys were using their position and taking advantage of people.
They were young clerics in their 20s, the ones that we got at that
point were all college graduates.
I asked Rachael if they were trying to coerce both the men and the women into sex?
It was both. One of them was going and
having sex separately with
both and playing them off against each other. In other cases, it was
just one person. There were about half a dozen people involved in
this. It was just too much for me. I didnít know how to handle it; I
did not know how to approach the pastor. We were literally the first
parish to have the students, experimental situation. I was trying to
figure out what I was going to do when one of these guys came to me and
told me heíd heard about the people coming to me and wanted to know if
I was upset. I told him I was more than upset, that these young men
were here as a representative of the Church to nurture these peopleís
lives not to take advantage of them and use their position to abuse
them. I told them, ďIf you want to have a personal relationship with
someone, thatís different.Ē Well he didnít see it that way and thatís
not what his confessor told him. Then I found out that these guys all
had the same confessor and they were having relations with him. It was
beyond me. So I decided the best thing that I could do was go back to
the community with this. It was a very bad mistake. I went back to
the community to the Sister who had been my work supervisor who had got
me the job and who was the woman I mentioned previously who was close
with the pastor. Anyway that was just before she was elected the
Superior General of the community. I told her I really needed some
help in dealing with this but I knew it couldnít go on. She accused me
of lying and that I was trying to destroy the seminary and destroy the
Church, and that if I didnít recant what Iíd said she was going to
throw me out of the community. I had no choice. So I said fine, Iíll
just have to sign my papers because itís true, I canít say itís not.
Something has to be done; it canít be allowed to go on. So I signed my
papers that day and that was that. I donít know what happened but the
pastor left town soon after that and the people were not willing to
continue the training program because there was nobody there to do it
and then it went into more of a diocesan-wide program for all of the
seminarians. Iím sure it went on and I know very well in view of all
the things that have come to light in the diocese of this city that it
continued and that it wasnít just limited to that small area. I have
always been very sorry that I didnít do anything to stop it. I mean I
didnít know what to do at that time. At that point I left the
community and went to work in social services in the city and have been
there ever since; that was in 1968. I was 32 years old.
This was a real shock, I had absolutely no plan, but I had no
choice. As I speak to people now they say, ďbut you had rights.Ē What
did we know about rights back then, come on? We didnít have any
rights, nobody thought about rights. It was very, very difficult. I
had some very low periods and I still do. I was able to resolve that
and got on with my life.
A seminarian that she worked with for a while developed a very strong relationship with her and they became lovers. He was from the same seminary as the priests in her previous story and was still a practicing priest. She continued with her story with these words.
He told me he had been lucky because he had
been assigned to the
confessor from the previous group and, after he made a move on him he
had asked to be reassigned to a new confessor. He was ordained and we
were still seeing each other; we were very close. I donít know why he
got ordained because he always talked about leaving but that was his
thing, not mine. I went to his parish one day for something and the
assistant pastorís girlfriend was there, and she said something about
my friendís girlfriend, and it wasnít me. I questioned him and I found
out that he was also having relations with the other assistant. That he
had lied to me about his confessor also, because it was the same man
and he said he learned from this confessor that it was okay to tell
people whatever you wanted to. That was that, off I went. Now with
hindsight and maturity if there is this problem I donít want anything
to do with it. This was my first experience and I thought I donít need
someone like this, for anything. That was the end of that. Later he
married someone else and I havenít seen or heard of him for years.
Afterwards I wondered how I could have been so stupid after all that
went on, how could I have even talked with someone from there.
I asked for clarification if she felt that this was an isolated incident in one seminary with one unscrupulous confessor? She told me, ďI know that there have been some similar, more isolated incidents in smaller areas. Thereís no way of knowing how widespread this is.Ē Now this incident has been behind her for many years and she got on with her life. I asked her how she saw her sexuality had changed over the years since she left the convent and stopped socializing with men of the Church. She continued,
I dated a few people, I was not really interested
in developing a relationship and
having children; I have never seen that as my role in life. It seems interesting and
pleasurable but not something I want to do. I met my partner 20 years ago
through someone at work.
For a year he asked her to go to lunch until she asked outright if he wanted lunch or a date. He wanted a date and so they began to see each other. They developed a close friendship. They decided that they would live together and share everything but neither wanted to get married and have children. She explained
In the beginning we had a sexual relationship,
on and off I enjoyed it, like every
other couple itís up and down. Itís hard to answer a question how often do you
have sex? Because it varies, sometimes weíd have lots and sometimes little. Then
about 15 years ago we did some experimental group-sex.
They stayed at a motel that was used almost exclusively by nudists and swingers, and they met someone they knew who invited them into a playroom. They went to the room and enjoyed it, and went back a few times. She said she found it exciting, but the AIDS scare curtailed their participation. She continued
Maybe about 10 years ago, our lifestyles got
very active. We really took stock
of our lives and we eliminated a lot of things. I said I really have to see what I
want to include in my life. I suggested many things that we should give up and
one of them was sex, for time and energy. I loved it but I donít know, it was just
time and energy; when I got home it was just too much and it became just another
chore. It was not essential to our relationship. So we decided to do that and we
have been in this celibate relationship for about 10 years and itís worked very well
for us. There may be a time when that will change but weíre not looking at it right
now. We were happy when we were having sexual relations and weíre happy
now. I miss it occasionally, sure. If I really thought it was something essential, for
him or for me, I would resume it. So that is where I am in my life.
I was curious to know if she engaged in similar methods to sublimate her sexuality as she had done when she entered the convent? She answered
No, I donít think so because I donít see sexuality
as sex alone, I see it as sensuality
and really your whole being and I donít feel that itís gone. I masturbate, but not
very often. All my life if I was going to do something I set my mind on it and
thatís the way it was going to be. I think thatís the way I do each day, and
whether Iím sick or have a headache, this is what Iím going to accomplish this
day. It wasnít as if I decided I was giving it up because I didnít like it. It was
simply that my life was overcrowded and at that point I couldnít give up going
to work or any of the other demands and sex to me was something that was
expendable. It took time and energy. It wasnít the cement that held our
Rachaelís story is significant in that she was the only one who was forced to leave in this fashion. Although while in the convent she would not engage in sexual relationships with clerics, she did so once out. She made no reference to this contradiction. Her sexual practices also are deserving of mention, namely being open to group sex, to living out of wedlock amongst other things. She was able to make the transitions in her life with a lot of calculation. Maintaining her integrity was integral to her decisions. Given the huge blow her expulsion from the community dealt her life plan, it was a great credit to her flexibility that she was able to make such a success out of her life. At no point in our interview did she express any regrets apart from disappointment at the ill treatment by her Superior and her involvement with the seminarian.
Elizabeth also spoke about sexuality of priests and nuns as being a widespread issue and she learned about this because several years into her career in the convent she was chosen to be a leader in her community and went away to school to prepare for the job. She met a man who became a very good friend.
We talked a lot, we shared a lot, we gave each
other back rubs, I
was into learning massage at the time but there was nothing sexual,
nothing overtly sexual even though the energy probably was, there was
nothing overtly so. I got close to other men and women there but we
never did anything sexual. One of the women actually had a friend come
visit and they were lesbians, she left her community and moved in with
this woman. Another nun fell in love with a brother from Australia and
theyíre still friends and theyíre still in their communities so I had a
lot of experience at that time. Then I came back and was working in my
new position and I got really sick; things were difficult from then
until I left the community eight years later. I really feel it was my
body rebelling. I had been repressing parts of me, including
sexuality, enthusiasm, joy. My body finally gave out. I did a lot of
spiritual direction at the time, I did a lot of retreats for priests
and nuns, I was kind of surprised that every priest and brother that I
ever worked with on retreat or spiritual direction had sexual
relations, every one of them. Some long term, some occasional. Only a
couple of women did, and I worked more with women than men. Every man
did that, I think that was really interesting. Whatís this about
celibacy, whatís the Church really doing to these men?
I wanted to know if this was any specific area of the priesthood, for example diocesan priestsí only or missionary priests? She answered
Orders and diocesan both, some missionaries.
I worked with so many.
There were a lot more homosexuals among the diocesan priests and
in this one group of brothers. Most of those in community had some
needs met by being in community, their personal, not sexual needs. I
think that, for men, the preservation of the species is just so strong
that they are a lot more sexual. I still work with men and I think
every man that I work with has relations with someone other than his
wife. Isnít that interesting? They donít all act on it. Iím thinking
of one client who always has another woman and in the guise of
spirituality. Itís not sexual, but most of the others have been. I
just find men different from women. Women are often satisfied with
closeness and cuddling, but men have that drive so strong. Thatís been
my experience anyway. This is an important point. When I was doing
spirituality for a center at a university, one of the guys who was in
the group had a friend who was a novice master in another state, who he
wanted me to meet because he said we were so much alike. So he did
finally come to visit and we had an immediate connection. It was really
powerful. We shared all the same interests, all the experiences. He
was doing the same job as me and had gone through the same training a
year ahead of me. We grew to be really good friends, even though he
was in another state and I was here. He decided the next year to take
sabbatical the next year to do his Masterís and wanted me to fly to his
state and drive out with him. I couldnít do that. But the next year
he came out for my birthday and we went to dinner. He said heíd been
working with his spiritual director and decided heíd done everything in
his life except make love with a woman. Finally with the help of the
Spiritual Director he had decided that this was the time. I told him,
ďWell itís not my time because Iím choosing to stay in my community.Ē
He said, ďOh Iím choosing to stay in community too, but this is what I
want and I want you to be the woman.Ē I said ďNo way, but Iíll still
be your friend.Ē He in fact did have an affair with this woman on the
same program, which was clearly his next level. I felt really
betrayed. How could he do that? I wanted to keep it at the level of
friendship. In fact he became the stimulus to make me take a good look
at myself and decide whether this is really what I want for the rest of
my life. Thatís finally when I left. I did a lot of work with my
spiritual director and my doctor; he told me ďThe environment youíre
allergic to may be the community.Ē I took one yearís leave of absence.
With the help of my Spiritual Director I got well. Meanwhile, my
friend the priest before he left the priesthood, before he said
anything to his community, married a woman. It was really ugly. Then he
left his community. I left my community during winter Solstice Ď88 and
met the man I married in May. I dated him for a couple of years. We
were sexual before we married.
In retrospect Elizabeth regretted not taking the opportunity to be sexual with the priest. However she pointed out that it would have been impossible given her senior position within the order. When I pointed out the conflict in the situation she responded, ďIt was, [a conflict] and it wasnít. The conflict was felt in my body but my head was very clear. Because I had made my choice, I had made my vows.Ē Elizabeth became very sick in her years at University. The illness presented as allergies and progressed until
I was curled up in bed; I thought I had flu.
I went home at the
end of that year quite sick and they called it environmental allergies
to all sorts of things. I went from being very healthy, real capable,
to wanting to sleep a lot. I felt rejected a lot because of the changes
in me. One of my friends said, ďI donít even know you anymore.Ē Thatís
how sick I was. I probably had it for five or six years. Then I took
my year off and felt a lot better. I went back to Formation work. It
began in the year of my 39th birthday, so it happened when I was 40. I
talked to my Spiritual Director who was a Jesuit. I told him, ďIím
happy in community; they really love me, I really love being here, I
have no reason to leave.Ē Finally, he said ďRemember the story of Abraham.
God didnít call him from something but for something, and so it
was on blind faith.Ē I thought that maybe God does have something in
store for me and, if so, then Iíd better be off. Maybe itís the
environment Iím in that Iím allergic to, so I left. Then I got well. I
didnít take the whole year and when I wrote my letter I said, ďI made
my vows until death and in many ways Iíve died.Ē Iíd been so sick that
I felt like Iíd died, so I left for health Iíd say. My husband is
great. Going in the convent the week after I turned 18 I didnít have
much experience of the world and he is very grounded. I carry more of
the spiritual for him. Heís not religious at all.
When she left, she wondered how she would support herself and what had all the training in spiritual life prepared her for. She was burned out on teaching but what she found was that
People are hungry for God. I still feel
like a Formation
director. I have groups of women who come and I teach spirituality in
all religions and all modalities, so Iím still doing my work. Itís my
personal love and Iím very satisfied now. I donít feel like my time in
religious life held me back from growing. It stifled a little bit of
my growth, but I feel very fulfilled. Very few of my friends are truly
fulfilled with who they are and what theyíre doing, but I truly am. A
lot of my clients say they are not happy, they are still searching.
I asked if she now sees a sexual and spiritual connection. As stated earlier in Lua Xochtlís story, Elizabeth showed me a picture of Teresa of Avila to illuminate her profound reply. ďTo me they really are part of the same. I look at that picture of St. Teresa and doesnít that look like sexual ecstasy as well a spiritual ecstasy? In a lot of my experience itís the same, just a wonderful gift that Godís given us.Ē I asked if she ever regretted staying so long in her community? She answered
No, I was ready when I was ready. If
I had just gone to college
and then got married, I wouldnít have the richness of life that Iíve
had. Iíd probably be a very straight woman. Right now Iíd say my
spirituality is not a Church thing at all. Itís beyond it. When I
left, an ex-priest came to me and told me that when he left the
priesthood a woman came to him in an unthreatening way and offered
herself for him to explore his sexuality with. And he said I just want
to make the same offer to you, and I did and it was wonderful. He said
ďI have to be careful because Iím falling in love with you. You have
so much passion.Ē So much more than the woman he was going to marry,
who had never been in a convent. I didnít like it when we stopped but I
met Luke soon after.
The last piece of insight is that she reiterates her free spirit-attitude, that she wouldnít follow the rules if she thought they were stupid, and that most of the other women she knew, who left, were like her.
Sara was the single respondent to this study who entered a missionary order, and as such can attest from personal experience what Elizabeth told me from anecdotal evidence.
I think my experience of being attracted to
people there [in
Africa] is important. I mean the missionaries are desperate. I could
have had a date every night. The Irish missionaries particularly were
just very attentive, ďcome to the seminary, come to dinner, rock
climbing, and mountain climbing.Ē It was just fun you know in that
way, just sick. I donít think thereís a celibate missionary over
there! I donít in any way blame anybody because itís just so
different. Itís the comfort you need to survive over there for any
length of time. I wasnít sexual myself although I had the
opportunity. I just didnít see myself as a sexual person. I wanted
adventure more than that. I didnít take up any opportunities and they
were there very easily but I think I was in such culture shock. Then I
got malaria and youíre a pariah for a while after that. I found myself
being flattered by the attention that I hadnít had, and feeling very
desirable, but finding that people were seeking comfort for the wrong
reasons. They were seeking the alternative, not the structured Church.
Sara left the convent after being a missionary nun for 12 years and becoming disenchanted by the life as well as facing the prospect of not being allowed to attend law school. She denied any sexual involvement within the convent although she had ample opportunity while on the mission. Once she left the convent she attended law school and dated occasionally but made no real connection. She became aware of ďthe old biological time clock tickingĒ and began to think that she didnít want to spend the rest of her life alone.
The loneliness issue came out at that time
and the issue of having
a child. I thought I wasnít together enough to have one. I wanted it
in terms of a relationship. After law school I just had fun. You know
you have this kind of an ideal image of the exact person youíd like to
meet and the magic of the whole thing. A friend of mine told me about
this man who was working in her firm and said she thought weíd really
hit it off. I said, ďTell me about him,Ē and she said, ďwell heís
married.Ē So I said, ďOh, I donít want to meet him.Ē Well, she set up
a situation where we would bump into each other. We did, and if I
could have painted a picture of somebody that really would have gotten
my rocks off this was the person. He was immediately attracted to me
in the same way. It was like soul mates meeting in time, but he was
recently married. His wife was living in another city. I didnít
believe such a person existed, and that he should feel the same was
just incredible. We had a three and a half year extremely lively
erotic relationship and just very connected.
I asked Sara if that was her first sexual relationship and she hesitated for a moment before deciding to edit her story by refusing to give me details of her first sexual encounter. She made no further reference to that subject. Her story continued with the lover that she had enjoyed so much, yet knowing it wasnít going anywhere because
I felt guilty about his wife. Iím sure
he felt guilty but it
didnít stop him. It was the most incredible sex and sexual experience
Iíve ever had. Maybe it was because it was my first prime partner.
That could wear off quickly, but we could talk about anything, we did
everything. We liked similar things and it was just incredible. Then
his wife became pregnant and I said, ďThatís itĒ [she ended the
relationship]. And then I met my current partner.
This person still holds a lot of her loyalty, for one thing because he was the father of her child. However, at the same time she felt as if it was an abusive relationship and she had been turned off and felt that she had to put a stop to the manipulation she felt. Sara concluded
I want someone whoís there for me. I
want a full relationship,
not just get my rocks off. He said I was just not sexual but thatís
not true. You go through the question and wonder, ďAm I?Ē But no, I
want more and so I just stopped being intimate with him just because it
was so much a part of the abusive relationship. He would get what he
wants and then heís out the door and down the road. I just had to stop
that in my life. It was like a fix. I really wanted it in my life but
I didnít want it on the terms Iíd have to get it with him. Now thereís
just no opportunity, time or people, Iím kind of stuck for a while.
This concludes the narratives of the 29 former nuns.
Continue to Chapter 9
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