Habitual behaviour: A brief look at nun sexuality

It was while I was researching a previous blog on nun fetishism that I came across a number of academic papers that had written about and/or carried out research into the sex lives of nuns. Given that nuns are meant to be celibate I couldn’t help but be interested in a topic that on the face of it seemed a non-research topic. Having said that, I am aware that there are lots of stereotypes surrounding nuns’ sexuality, and there are certainly lots of sexual jokes at the expense of nuns. For instance, in researching this article I came across a joke that I found in an academic paper by Dr. Christian Hempelmann in a 2003 issue of the journal (appropriately titled) Humor:

“100 nuns live together in a convent. One morning the head nun gets up to make an announcement. ‘Sisters,’ she says, ‘I have terrible news: There has been a man in the convent.’ 99 nuns gasp, 1 nun giggles. ‘Still more,’ says the head nun, ‘we have found a condom.’ 99 nuns gasp, 1 nun giggles. ‘The worst news is,’ says the head nun, ‘we have found a hole in the condom.’ 99 nuns giggle, 1 nun gasps”.

OK, a little frivolous I know, but the joke at least suggests that not all nuns are celibate. One of the most enduring stereotypes of nuns is that they are lesbian. There are certainly examples in the academic literature relating to lesbianism among nuns dating back many centuries. For instance, Dr. Judith Brown published a book in 1984 on the life of seventeenth century Italian nun Benedetta Carlini entitled Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Carlini’s lesbianism was exposed by her companion Bartolemea Crivelli. According to Crivelli’s account, over a period of two years, Benedetta forced Crivelli to regularly engage in lesbian acts (and gave rise to the ‘immodest acts’ in the title of Brown’s book). Jacqueline Murray reviewed Brown’s book for the journal Renaissance and Reformation, and noted the wider importance and implications of the book:

“[Brown’s book] is a study of unparallelled detail of a lesbian mystic in pre-modern Europe. Benedetta Carlini is the only lesbian from this period for whom any detailed information survives. Recent studies of the history of homosexuality either make fleeting references to lesbians or, despairing of information, define them as outside the parameters of study. Thus Brown’s work is important as the first in-depth study of female homosexuality in the pre-modern period”.

In my previous blog on nun fetishism I made reference to a 2005 book chapter by Richard Zacks (in Russ Kick’s Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong). Zacks described what he claimed was “unquestionably the longest and kinkiest list of medieval sexual practices still in existence”. Zacks managed to uncover a medieval text that refers to having sex with nuns. He wrote that in 1012, a German bishop called Burchard of Worms wrote a 21-volume text including a long section on sexual sins. In Chapter 5 of Volume 19, Burchard lists 194 different sexual sins. In this list there is a section entitled ‘Questions for Men’ relating to the penance for having sex with a nun. More specifically, the entry reads:

“Have you committed fornication with a nun, that is to say, a bride of Christ? If you have done this, you shall do penance for forty days on bread and water, which they call a ‘carina’, and [repeat it] for the next seven years; and as long as you live, you shall observe all six holy days on bread and water”

There are other papers that make passing references to nuns’ sexuality. For instance, a 2009 paper by in the journal Culture, Health and Sexuality Professor Marjorie Muecke examined female sexuality in Thai discourses about ‘lay nuns’ (known as ‘maechii’) by interviewing monks, maechii, and lay persons. The paper noted that although maechii vow to be celibate, the social constructions of their role are grounded in sexuality. More specifically, Professor Muecke reported:

“[My] findings suggest that maechii comprise an ambiguous category linguistically, Buddhistically, and in terms of their sexuality. Case studies of the founders of nunneries conducted in ChiangMai indicate that maechii leaders have been resisting the prevalent views that most maechii are social misfits, yet also are capable of undermining monks’ celibacy and, by extension, the larger social order”.

However, the most interesting academic paper I have come across on the topic of nun’s sexuality was published in a 1978 issue of the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy by Margaret Halstead and Lauro Halstead entitled ‘A Sexual Intimacy Survey of Former Nuns and Priests’. Halstead and Halstead’s study reported:

“Men and women who have lived in a celibate religious community experience a unique set of sexual, social, and psychological problems upon resuming a secular life style. In many instances the personality factors and circumstances which led both to a decision to enter and then to leave a celibate religious community are not easily appreciated by the nonreligious professional counselor and do not readily lend themselves to extrapolation from other population groups. [We report] the findings of a preliminary study to identify the sexual experiences and problems of persons who have left religious communities”

The data collected and reported were from the responses to a mailed, anonymous questionnaire. The survey was sent to 223 former nuns and priests living across the United States, and was completed by 126 of them (76 ex-nuns and 50 ex-priests). The survey examined (i) sexual behaviour and enjoyment prior to, while living in, and after leaving a religious community; (ii) current sexual behaviour, satisfaction and problems; (iii) sexual counselling experience; and (iv) general problems and concerns with integrating sexual intimacy into present life styles. The survey asked the participants if they had engaged in various sexual activities before, during, and/or after they had been a nun or priest. It was reported that:

  • In relation to masturbation, the figures were 47% before, 57% during, and 85% after their time as a nun or priest
  • In relation to sexual intercourse, the figures were 11% before, 15% during, and 82% after their time as a nun or priest
  • In relation to oral sex, the figures were 9% before, 5% during, and 75% after their time as a nun or priest
  • In relation to homosexual activity, the figures were 11% before, 21% during, and 16% after their time as a nun or priest
  • In relation to being celibate, the figures were 46% before, 32% during, and 10% after their time as a nun or priest

The results also showed 50% of the ex-nuns (compared to 53% of the ex-priests) reported being less satisfied sexually after relinquishing their religious orders than they would have liked. The reasons most frequently cited for decreased sexual satisfaction were lack of sexual partners (57%), religious and/or moral reasons (44%), feelings of not being desirable  (35%), and/or communication problems (20%). One in five of the nuns also admitted that orgasmic dysfunction was a reason. Despite the relatively small sample, the paper dispels the idea that all nuns are completely celibate. At the very least, a replication study would be a really interesting piece of research to carry out

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brown, J. C. (1984). Lesbian sexuality in Renaissance Italy: The case of sister Benedetta Carlini. Signs, 751-758.

Murray, J. (1988). Immodest Acts. The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy [Book review]. Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme, 24(2), 132-135.

Gerber, A. (2005). Sex by numbers: Excerpts from The Book of Sex Lists. In R. Kick (Ed.), Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong (pp.340-344).  New York: The Disinformation Company.

Halstead, M. & Halstead, L. (1978). A sexual intimacy survey of former nuns and priests. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 4, 83-90.

Hempelmann, C. F. (2003). “99 nuns giggle, 1 nun gasps:” The not-all-that-Christian natural class of Christian jokes. Humor, 16(1), 1-32.

Muecke, M. (2004). Female sexuality in Thai discourses about maechii (‘lay nuns’). Culture, Health and Sexuality, 6(3), 221-238.

Murray, J. (1988). Immodest Acts. The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme, 24(2), 132-135.

Visser, R. O. D., Smith, A. M., Richters, J., & Rissel, C. E. (2007). Associations between religiosity and sexuality in a representative sample of Australian adults. Archives of sexual behavior, 36(1), 33-46.

Zacks, R. (2005). Burchard’s Medieval sexual menu. In R. Kick (Ed.), Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong (pp.327-329). New York: The Disinformation Company.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on November 29, 2013, in Case Studies, Gender differences, Psychology, Religion, Sex and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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