I watched Spotlight last night and it had a profound effect on me, not just as a writer whose background and first awards were in print journalism, but also as a woman raised in a strict Catholic family in which sex, sexuality, and people who were sexual were judged sinful and evil.
One of the sanest voices in the film is Richard Sipe, a guy who abandoned the priesthood and now works as a therapist and researcher (and it’s always noted that he married a former nun!!). Before the Globe team ever put together the story that broke the Boston Catholic child-sex-abuse scandal, Sipe wrote a rather obscure academic study called Sex, Priests, and Power. It confirms ideas that have been living inside me for decades in an inchoate way, I think because my upbringing put such a stringent prohibition on sex and sexual enjoyment. I’ve simply doubted my ideas and my ability to think them through. Sipe writes:
Sex, pleasure, sin, and women were [in the fourth century] woven into a theological equation that solidified the celibate/sexual structure of the Roman Catholic Church and influence every aspect of its development. Power was consolidated in sexual terms. That structure is crumbling under the weight of its own hypertrophy, if not corruption. . . . The sexual behavior of priests must be understood against the clear and unbending sexual moral doctrine of Catholic Christianity, namely: Every sexual thought, word, desire, and action outside marriage is mortally sinful. Every sexual act within marriage not open to conception is mortally sinful. Sexual misbehavior constitutes grave matter in every instance [emphasis his]. No other area of moral life, including murder, is treated with this same moral rigidity. The majority of Catholics simply do not believe this teaching, nor do they think that natural law [meaning science] supports it.
So the prohibitions on sex were at the very heart of the way this religion developed from the start.
My parents, each of whom had themselves considered taking clerical vows before they met each other, were not among this majority who Sipe says do not buy catholicism’s sexual strictures. They promulgated them in their own family. I was the eldest and expected to be an example for the younger two, especially my sister. When my parents discovered that I was having sex, they disowned me in a five-hour Spanish-Inquisition-style interview at their kitchen table. No thumbscrews or rack, but because I refused to say I thought I was evil just because I was having sex, they told me never to come home again for help. Expelled. I was 23—a grown woman.
And I’d already been drinking for five years. I had my first drink, not coincidentally, the night I had my first sexual encounter. Dude just wanted to make out with me. No taking my clothes off, nothing, but still, I wasn’t so sure. I was nervous (no kidding!!), and I didn’t know how to negotiate that stress, so I drank his gin.
The fact about this extreme response that supports Sipe’s ideas is this: four months before my parents issued this edict, I had crashed my car in a blackout. I realize now that because my dad drank enormous amounts, they could hardly disown me for that behavior. Not much would have driven them to this extreme.
But sex sure did.
I was never raped. Thank goodness. (So many women and girls have been. And so many boys.) But my parents’ expulsion of me hurt me deeply. I’ve worked for years on forgiving them because I no longer want to be trapped by my anger.
My new book is part of that work of forgiveness.
For the past year I’ve been interviewing people in recovery from addiction about their sexual histories for a book that will be published this fall. Exactly zero people have turned me down for interviews for this very intimate and anonymous look into how we negotiate sex after we no longer have drugs to control our fear and shame about it.
I’m so grateful to my sources. Their stories are amazing.
Many of the people I’ve interviewed across the country have been not just physically abused, but also sexually abused. As adults, and many as children. Believe me, I did not choose them for this characteristic. I just started talking with them, and out it came:
My uncle had sex with me from the age of 8 to 13.
My stepfather used to take my clothes off and put his hands on my genitals. I think my mother knew.
My neighbor, after school, would force me into his basement make me go down on him.
It wasn’t everybody. The studies say upwards of 50 percent of women (maybe more) and about 20 percent of men in recovery have experienced childhood sexual abuse. Stephanie Covington, who conducted some of the groundbreaking research on women and sexual abuse in recovery, found 75 percent of women recovering from addiction have survived sexual abuse of some kind. Self-reports of sexual trauma are usually considered to be low.
This means that at any given recovery meeting anywhere, in any modality (12-step, SMART, LifeRing, Women in Sobriety, Hip Sobriety, or just your morning coffee klatch), most of the people around you have experienced sexual abuse.
I mean, what the fuck, man. It haunts me. Listening to these stories has changed me.
It doesn’t matter whether kids grow up catholic or protestant; Sipe writes. If it’s christian, it’s fucked up around sex. And this country is largely christian.
In 2,000 years no Christian church has developed an adequate theology of sexuality—that is, no one has worked out an overarching, comprehensive, and integrative understanding of the nature and place of sexuality within the scheme of salvation and theological system [emphasis mine]. . . . Practical reality, scientific development, and spiritual awareness of the origins and meanings of sexuality, life, and love expose the inadequacy of the system to sustain its own stated goals.
A lot of us parents are not physically or sexually abusing our kids. But we’re definitely not talking to them about sexuality, either. Clearly Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug-use slogan “Just Say No” (which is NOT what abstinence-based recovery systems are about, btw—they’re about working out this understanding of the nature and place of sexuality) came from christianity.
What’s so amazing about the people I’ve interviewed is that recovery has enabled them not only to quit drinking and using but also, in great measure, to heal from the super-bad shit that was foisted on them. To the last one, they said they talked with me so they could help other people know that this healing was possible.
My book is called Sex in Recovery: A Meeting Between the Covers. It’s structured like a recovery meeting. There are about a dozen speakers and topics. The book is designed to:
- help people who don’t know how to talk about their sexual conflicts and pleasures to begin to find language for them
- give people a sense of the breadth of sexual experience—before, during, and after active addiction—among people in recovery
- provide a tool that can be used to suggest topics in meetings, and to begin to talk with therapists, sponsors, friends, and family
- show that sexuality and pleasure are normal, natural, joyful, superfun and awesome parts of a whole life
Most of all I hope it makes people understand none of us is alone. None of us has to think we’re looking at friends who have secretly figured everything out, while we ourselves have a super-fucked-up sex life. We also don’t have to feel forced to shut up about our healing when sharing would be so helpful.
None of us has to keep up a deadly silence.
Stay tuned! If you want to know more, leave a comment or email me.
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