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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.

Sacred hearts: What is the relationship between sex and religion?

“I have a sexual attraction and fetish for religious objects and people who get off on having sex or masturbating while in a religious setting. People might think that this type of fetish is an act of deliberate blasphemy, complete with visions of Linda Blair ramming a crucifix into herself while mocking a priest” (quote supplied by ‘The Goddess’)

Sex and religion have always had a somewhat uneasy relationship. When the two intersect there is often controversy, heated debate, and/or scandal. A book chapter by David Steinberg on sexologist Alfred Kinsey (in Russ Kick’s 2005 edited collection Everything You Know About Sex Is Wrong) noted that:

“The publication of Kinsey’s study in 1948 [on male sexual behaviour] was the opening salvo of a monumental battle that has been raging ever since between science (factual information) and religion (moral judgment) on the subject of sex. [There is an] ongoing conflict between secular and theological forces for control of sexual desire and behavior in America”

In the same book, Joseph Slade also made the interesting observation that talking about pornography is a lot like talking about religion: Nearly everyone brings to the subject assumptions that color the debate”. When I started researching material for this article I came across a really interesting historical aside in relation to religion and fetishes. Dr. AnilAggrawal in his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices wrote that the word ‘fetishism’:

“…arose from ‘fetish’, a term used in anthropology for an object believed to have supernatural powers. Early Christians frequently attributed magical and metaphysical powers to such objects as skulls, bones of saints, severed and mummified fingers and arms, etc. These objects were referred to as ‘fetiches’ (sic). When 15th century Portuguese explorers arrived in West Africa and discovered that local people had their own fetiches in the form of religious carvings and other inanimate objects, they began to refer to those inanimate objects as fetiches too. The French writer Charles de Brosses (1709-1777) coined the term fetishism in 1756 (in an anthropological sense) and developed the concept of religious fetishism in his 1760 [book] Duculte des Dieux Fétiches, where he discussed the worship of material objects such as amulets and talismans among ancient and contemporary African populations. De Brosses called this cult ‘fétichisme’ after ‘fétiche’ derived from the Portuguese trading term ‘feitiço’, which designated the small objects and charms on which European merchants would take oaths in sealing commercial agreements with Africans”.

Dr. Aggrawal then noted that when early sexologists were looking for a term to describe sexual fixation on inanimate objects, they borrowed from the Portuguese term because – like a religious fetish – an erotic fetish “also possessed magical powers” (i.e., it had the capability to sexually arouse emotions in those who otherwise seemed asexual).

“If a person who could not be aroused by normal erotic stimuli (say, a nude woman) could be aroused by an inanimate object, say, a sandal or a shoe, the object did have a kind of magical power on that person, and was thus a fetish”.

However, there are small numbers of people who are allegedly sexually aroused by religious artefacts, rituals, and/or behaviour. For instance, hierophilia was defined by Dr. Anil Aggrawal in his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices as a sexual paraphilia in which individuals derive sexual pleasure and sexual arousal from religious and sacred objects. He also made reference to teleophilia (i.e., those individuals who derive sexual pleasure and sexual arousal from religious ceremonies). Aggrawal reported that elements of sexual sadism were present in several Western European medieval religious ceremonies involving flagellation. For instance, in an early 15th-century Catalan painting (The Flagellation of Christ), those inflicting pain on Jesus appeared to be deriving sexual pleasure from their activities.

Dr. Brenda Love in her Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices described hierophilic acts as including masturbating with crosses or masturbating on church pews. She also notes that someone from Austin, Texas (US) wrote to her to say they had broken into churches at night to have sex on the altar. She also reported that:

‘Many of the early goddess religions revered sex and included it as part of their worship. Statues, animals, priests, and priestesses were all provided for congressants’ sexual gratification at one time or another”.

A 2005 book chapter by Dr. Jenny Wade (also in Everything You Know About Sex Is Wrong) makes some interesting connections between transcendent sex and religion. More specifically she says:

“The fact is, the ordinary act of lovemaking can be the most widely available path to higher consciousness for most people. People who have experienced a transcendent episode during sex usually believe they have tapped into divine forces, even if they are atheists or agnostics. These experiences are so extreme, they change people’s views of sex and spirituality…This provides an explanation for the sexual-spiritual basis of most ancient religions by showing that mystical experiences happen every day in the bedroom to a significant portion of the population. Sacred sex is still going on…The act of lovemaking can trigger intense episodes that feature the identical characteristics found in the highest spiritual states documented in such diverse religions as Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as those cited in the annals of yoga and recent research on shamanism”.

In a previous blog examining genital self-mutilation (GSM), I noted that some research had indicated that some males who engage in GSM do so for religious reasons. GSM as part of a religious belief are typically diagnosed as having Klingsor Syndrome. This was derived from the character Klingsor in Parsifol (a Wagner opera) who engaged in an act of self-castration to gain entry into the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Holy Grail. According to Samir Shirodkar and colleagues in the Saudi Medical Journal, group genital mutilation is a custom of a sect of Australian Aborigines where the blood is drunk by the infirm (who believe it restores their health).

A speculative online essay abut hierophilia written by ‘The Goddess’ made a number of claims about the behaviour although there was no empirical support to support her claims. The said that:

“The majority of those who reportedly practice hierophilia are in fact deeply devoted to their religion. Theories as to why a person may develop this unusual fetish go to both biological and psychological levels. Frequent churchgoers are often subjecting themselves to a very highly charged atmosphere (such as a religious revival) that tends to get emotions running high among the congregation. These joyous emotions can often manifest themselves into sexual arousal, especially if the members of the congregation have very close bonds to one another…It is not difficult for one to make the connection between religious settings and sexual arousal. Over a period of time, a hierophiliac becomes conditioned to respond to religious icons or locations with feelings of sexual excitement, or even begin to associate the act of sex itself as a religious experience”.

The article also claims that hierophilia is far less common among atheists. She also speculates that the hierophile derives sexual pleasure from the objects or in the places of their particular religion, but is simultaneously overwhelmed with the guilt that their sexual behaviour is sinful and that they are an evil person for having such thoughts. Because of this, the hierophilic behaviour is claimed to be sexually masochistic.

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

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Gibson, I. (1978). The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After. London: Duckworth.

The Goddess (undated). My strongest proclivities: Religious sexuality.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Love, B. (2005). Cat-fighting, eye-licking, head-sitting and statue-screwing. In R. Kick (Ed.), Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong (pp.122-129).  New York: The Disinformation Company.

Shirodkar, S.S., Hammad, F.T. & Qureshi, N.A. (2007). Male genital self-amputation in the Middle East: A simple repair by anterior urethrostomy. Saudi Medical Journal, 28, 791-793.

Steinberg, D.  (2005). Everybody’s sin is nobody’s sin: Alfred Kinsey and the breaking of sexual silence. In R. Kick (Ed.), Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong (pp.57-60).  New York: The Disinformation Company.

Wade, J. (2005). Transcendent sex. In R. Kick (Ed.), Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong (pp.13-17).  New York: The Disinformation Company.