Taking a sexual history

Taking a sexual history

By Sister Lynn M. Levo C.S.J.


Vocation directors want to establish a trusting relationship and allow people to tell about themselves over time in an ongoing process.   

AS WE PROGRESS IN OUR UNDERSTANDING of what it means to be fully human and sexual, it becomes clearer that sexuality is far more complex, comprehensive, broad, rich, and fundamental to our human existence than simply genital sex. The word sexuality comes from the Latin word sexus and suggests that we are incomplete, seeking wholeness and connection. In essence, sexuality is the divine energy within persons moving them to connect with others. 

It is important for individuals to be aware of who they have learned to be sexually if they are to make informed decisions about how to live healthy adult lives. This makes it imperative for vocation directors to understand potential members’ sexual histories to assist them in discernment. To understand a person’s sexual story requires time, opportunity, and a vocation director and psychologist working together. Taking a sexual history is an important, complex task best accomplished in more than one way, with more than one person and at more than one time. 

Perspective matters

One’s mindset or perspective matters for any undertaking, and this is particularly true for taking a sexual history, the term I and other psychologists use for coming to learn a person’s sexual story. I suggest four essential attitudes for those charged with obtaining information about an inquirer’s sexual and affective life.

1. Take a developmental perspective. 

This approach—rather than an evaluative, judging, or pass-fail perspective—is helpful. To effectively discern a vocation, people need to be aware of their sexual history or who they learned to be sexually and affectively, and they need to be able to share their story with those accompanying them. By conveying an understanding that all people are in process, vocation directors help discerners see that a sexual history is an opportunity for increased self awareness through self disclosure, rather than a matter of having “right answers” or passing a test.

2. It’s an ongoing process that includes the present. 

Vocation directors need to keep in mind that taking a sexual history is not just about the past, but it is also about now and includes what is happening with them and the inquiring person. This requires that vocation directors have a solid understanding of healthy, integrated sexuality, that being sexual is more about connection with others in various ways than having sex, and that taking a sexual history is an ongoing process that will happen formally and informally now and throughout the formation process.

3.  Make it us together, not us-them.  

Third, vocation directors and inquiring persons need to be aware that this is not an us-them task. Rather, the inquiring person and the vocation director are sitting side-by-side on the same side of the table, looking at an individual’s sacred sexual story as a way to assist the individual to grow in self awareness about this essential aspect of self. Ultimately, the information gleaned from a sexual history will help individuals discern whether living a consecrated life of celibacy in community is the best way for them to be authentically human, to love and be loved, and to give their gifts in service to others. 

4. Work together: discerner, vocation director, and psychologist. 

Finally, taking a sexual history involves at least three persons: the discerning individual, the vocation director, and a competent psychologist who will, as part of his or her clinical assessment, actually conduct the thorough, formal psychosexual history.
Learning a person’s sexual history is an ongoing process that is about both the past and the present, happening not once but throughout the formation process. That said, I would like to discuss some fundamental questions: why take a sexual history, what is the role of the vocation director and of the consulting psychologist, what does a sexual history entail, how can it help the individual and the community, when should it happen, and how best to prepare for it? Finally, I will address some challenges for vocation directors as they approach this task.

Why take a sexual history?

Regardless of one’s chosen lifestyle, everyone’s first vocation is to be human and therefore, to be sexual. And each person has a sexual story, a sacred sexual story, with positive and often not-so-positive experiences. A sexual history can help people be clearer about who they learned to be sexually. It is one way to identify where they are and what areas may need to be addressed either before or during formation and beyond. An up-front approach early in their discerning journey may assist individuals to be more comfortable being in-process and unfinished (not an easy notion for a culture that promotes being all together and not self disclosing). An open approach also helps people talk about what they’re working on in their development.

Individuals can take this time to identify their positive learnings and development and to be grateful for and build on them, as well as name any mistakes, abuses, and subsequent consequences (e.g., shame, poor self esteem, lack of trust). A good sexual history will help the individual and the community to identify potential strengths and challenges that will likely be part of the candidate’s discernment and formation.

In addition, taking a sexual history and talking about sexuality raises the individual’s awareness that women and men religious do not leave their humanity or sexuality behind, that they are fundamentally called to love and be loved. It also offers an opportunity to address some myths, such as: celibate means not being sexual, being sexual requires being genital, or that intimacy is optional for vowed religious. 

Finally, the multiple conversations entailed in taking a sexual history may help uncover a hidden and often unconscious motivation for religious life, such as a desire to escape one’s sexuality. Individuals might be avoiding an aspect of their sexual self (such as a lesbian or gay orientation or compulsive cybersex use), or they may be trying to rid themselves of sexual shame resulting from past abuse or behavior. Uncovering unconscious motivations and discovering healthier motivations is essential to freely choose a celibate life in community. It will also free discerners to utilize their sexual energy to form healthy, intimate, mutual relationships with both men and women, within and outside the community.

Role of vocation personnel

Sexuality, the all-encompassing energy in every one of us that moves us to seek connection, includes three aspects, each with multiple sub-aspects: primary sexuality (embodiment, sexual orientation, gender identity), genital sexuality (genitality and sexual expression), and affective sexuality (emotions, boundaries, relationships, intimacy, friendships, mutuality). Given this broader understanding of sexuality, it becomes clearer that taking a sexual history informally and indirectly begins from the very first contact the vocation director has with an interested person. It begins with what the vocation director sees (e.g., how the individual dresses and cares for his or her body) as well as how he or she experiences the person (e.g., warm and trusting or cautious and distant). To observe an inquirer well requires adequate knowledge of the various aspects of being sexual and a sense of ease with oneself so that the vocation director can use his or her energy for observation.

There are also more direct ways that vocation directors can explore an individual’s sexual and affective life: structured interviews, live-in experiences, guided written autobiographies, and letters of recommendation. One way to understand a person’s sexual history is to ask him or her questions about various aspects of life, to conduct an interview. I encourage a structured interview, that is, asking the same basic questions of each person. The structure affords an opportunity to develop a sense of how people respond and to sharpen one’s skills.

Regarding the content, I strongly suggest that vocation directors focus their questions on the affective and relational life of the individual. Before asking any sexual history questions, however, the inquiring person needs time to get to know the vocation director and begin to trust him or her. How long this takes depends on the individual. Trusting is not automatic and is even harder to achieve in today’s climate because of the violations of trust that people have experienced personally or are aware of. For fruitful self disclosure, it is important to prepare the individual for self revelation on topics such as prayer life, relational life, experiences of service to others, and especially to expect conversations related to sexuality during this “getting to know you” phase of exploring religious life. Showing that you talk about these same topics with everyone can help put a person at ease. In addition, the vocation director’s personal ease or lack thereof will either encourage or discourage the individual’s self disclosure.

Another effective tool is an autobiography written by the interested person to be shared with those involved in admitting candidates. I suggest asking the person to answer questions about aspects of their sexuality. A major focus should be on their affective life. This portion can respond to well-defined questions about the individual’s relational life (family, friends, co-workers, supports) in order to get some sense of how they see themselves in relationship to others. Although these same topics and questions will be covered in-depth by the consulting psychologist, having an autobiography is one way to ascertain whether a person is consistent.

Again, by giving each person the same task and guidelines, vocation personnel will be able to examine how people respond and thus sharpen their assessment skills. Noncompliance or avoidance of certain areas will suggest areas for further exploration. Although much can be gained from a person’s autobiography, it also has limits. Self reporting can be biased, intentionally or not, as most people want to put their best foot forward. This type of inquiry is best supplemented by seeing candidates in action and also hearing from people who know them. When a person is a serious candidate, the community usually asks for honest, frank appraisals from those who know him or her. Rather than asking for a general letter of recommendation, I advise asking people to address specific areas. These letters are more likely to offer specific, valuable information about the person.

Short live-in experiences are another way to understand who a person has learned to be. These are particularly valuable as a means of seeing how a person responds to certain situations and how he or she interacts with others. They allow you to assess if the person’s sense of self resembles what you see as they interact with other potential candidates and with the community. 

Likewise, a live-in affords discerners an opportunity to see how the community functions. Discerners can then talk about impressions and experiences. For some people, articles about sexuality or celibacy may be helpful during a live-in as a means to explore ideas, beliefs, and attitudes about sexuality and consecrated celibacy.

To effectively explore another’s sexual story, vocation personnel need to prepare through ongoing opportunities for growth, support, and challenge. [Note: the author regularly leads a psychosexual workshop for the NRVC.] Opportunities should help vocation directors:

 

  • Develop a solid, practical understanding of integrated sexuality and consecrated celibacy, including the chance to talk about and practice using sexual language. 
  • Foster an ongoing awareness of their own sexual history, including issues resolved or in-process.
  • Do what candidates are asked to do, such as write an autobiography.
  • Take part in peer supervision or consultation with a professional.
  • Role of consulting psychologist

 

Once a person is considered a serious candidate, most congregations require some form of psychological assessment, which most often includes both psychological testing and an extensive clinical interview by a competent psychologist. The psychologist in most cases shares his or her findings with the candidate and with the community representative designated to receive such reports. I believe that the consulting psychologist plays an important role in helping the individual and the community to understand his or her sexual history and is the best person to be assigned the task of doing an extensive sexual history. 

A good psychologist has expertise in making inquiries and maintaining a confidential setting. Well-trained, skilled psychologists will have experience exploring sexuality and will not be timid about asking difficult and personal questions. They are more likely to recognize and cope with resistance. Because of the confidential nature of the relationship, a person may speak more openly. And if a person shares something that he or she doesn’t want the community to know, the candidate can then choose not to release the report. Although this would be a red flag for most congregations and will most likely terminate the process of entering, it does protect the individual.

Because the consulting psychologist is an agent acting on behalf of the community, it is important that the community be clear ahead of time about what it expects in content and process. The community should clearly spell out what it wants to know. It is very helpful if the community shares its understanding of religious life and what it takes to live a healthy life of consecrated celibacy in community. The community cannot assume that a psychologist understands religious life and consecrated celibacy. Even with experienced clinicians, it is essential to have a frank conversation about the content to be explored in a sexual history. Lastly, the process of sharing the information with the individual and the community needs to be clearly understood in advance by all concerned.

What to cover in a sexual history

A sexual history should explore each of the three aspects of sexuality: primary, genital, and affective and should include questions to explore healthy development as well as any deviant sexual development or behavior. A sexual history needs to address these fundamental questions:
 

  • How do individuals see themselves as sexual persons? How do they care for and accept who they are?
  •  How have they and how are they dealing with their sexual energy?
  • How do they relate to others? In particular, what are their capacities for intimacy, friendship, and support?
  • How do they use social media and technology?


Again, I recommend that an extensive sexual history be performed by a consulting psychologist. The vocation director does best to focus on the individual’s affective and relational life. I suggest that the following areas be explored by the psychologist.

 

  • Any form of abuse, be it sexual, physical, emotional, or neglect, including how the individual has coped or is coping with the action and its consequences.
  • Sexual orientation and attraction and the degree of integration and acceptance of this aspect of themselves.
  • Use of the internet and cybersex.
  • Indications of sexual compulsivity.
  • Relationship history, including assessment of the capacity to relate to others in a healthy way.

 

To break down a sexual inventory even further, I offer the following categories for exploration. These were developed by Father Stephen J. Rossetti and Carmen Meyer of St. Luke Institute. They are part of the unpublished St. Luke Institute Psychosexual Interview, and I use them with permission.

 

  • Family of origin: attitudes about sexuality.
  • Prepubescent: the individual’s earliest sexual feelings and experiences.
  • Sexual abuse history: any sexual abuse or exploitation and possible consequences.
  • Puberty and adolescence: sexual development during adolescence, particularly with regard to puberty and masturbation.
  • Embodiment: the individual’s perception of and care for his or her body.
  • Relationships, dating, and adult sexual activity: dating in school, adult relationships, and adult sexual activity.
  • Problematic sexual behavior: deviant, compulsive, or problematic behavior.
  • Current management of sexual behavior and feelings: how the individual experiences, manages, and integrates sexual feelings in light of aspirations to live a celibate, chaste lifestyle.
  • Internet and cybersex: use of email, websites, social media, etc. and the impact on communication, relationships, and sexuality.

 

Intercultural awareness and sexuality

Being able to work effectively with candidates to religious life will require a solid understanding of healthy sexuality, of how to promote ongoing healthy development, an awareness of your own psychosexual journey, and a capacity to sensitively and directly inquire about another’s sexual history. To work effectively with the increasing number of people from cultures outside of the United States, vocation personnel must be capable of suspending judgment. They must be aware of cultural and age differences and what is appropriate for the individual. Furthermore, vocation personnel must be able to collaborate with discerners, formators, leaders, and professionals. They need to process important information with community leaders (those with a need to know), be able to seek and utilize the expertise of professionals, and above all assist those in discernment to use their sexual history for awareness, acceptance, and appropriate action.

An authentic intercultural perspective is inclusive, requiring us to look both at how we are different and how we are the same. Although individual cultures have distinct understandings and perspectives regarding sexuality, there are also some fundamental understandings that cut across cultures. Vocation and formation ministers need to know what is fundamental to a solid, psychospiritual understanding of being human and sexual. 

They also must be able to share this understanding with those seeking entrance into religious life. My experience in Central and South America, Mexico, Ireland, Canada, and Australia supports foundational understandings that are relevant to all cultures, as well as some diverse perspectives that need to be noticed, understood, and sometimes even challenged.

At no time in our recent history has promoting healthy, integrated sexuality for women and men religious been more important and necessary. For our religious communities to thrive, we need healthy members. Taking a sexual history of candidates and doing it well is a step toward fostering healthy integrated sexuality, essential for healthy adult living. 

A version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2004 edition of HORIZON.

Sister Lynn M. Levo, C.S.J. is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and a licensed psychologist, lecturer, and consultant. She has presented workshops nationally and internationally on sexuality, celibacy, relationships, intimacy, and mutuality in community. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of New York at Albany, completing her clinical training at The University of Kansas School of Medicine.
 



Published on: 2023-10-31

Edition: 2023 HORIZON No. 4 Fall -- Vow of celibacy


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