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Faith in Practice

Unlearning a lie

Hannah Kowszun

Not many sex therapists begin working life as a nun, but Fran Fisher was a cradle Catholic who took vows at 18 only to discover she couldn't tolerate the obedience. Several years later the process of acknowledging her own sexuality has led her into helping others to do the same.


FiP.jpg I loved my church and my faith growing up. I was a daily communicant and any opportunity I could get I would go to church. I became a nun when I was 18 but I couldn't tolerate obedience. Truly, I did not have what it took to remain in that disciplined lifestyle. You were expected to follow wholesale things that didn't make sense to me. But there are people for whom that is the perfect place. I loved my religion even after I left.

Now, I would not describe myself as a Catholic. My core as a believer, my link to God, is the purity of Catholicism in childhood. For instance, I like sitting in old churches: it's emotional comfort where I can meditate and pray, but it's not the prayer of a Catholic, it's the prayer of a spiritual woman.

I finally left the church in 1996. Before that my family would come with me even though my husband was an atheist and we had not brought our children up Catholic. We were in Australia for Christmas and at the service the Bishop of Sydney said the reason for all the abortions, war, drugs and mayhem on the planet was inferior religion. I looked at my husband, who was sitting letting it all flow over him, and said, 'You don't want to be here do you?' He replied, 'Absolutely not.' To which I said: 'You know what? I think I don't either. Let's go'. On the way out we passed the chalices ready for communion. I reached in and took a host from the chalice, taking with me the only thing that I truly valued in that church: access to Jesus. And I never looked back.

I was 45 before I said I loved sex. I would never have had that discussion before that, not even with my husband. When I went on the sex therapy course I didn't so much have my eyes opened as my heart wrenched. It was shocking, horrifying how ignorant I was of myself and any kind of reality; I had lived in a bubble and yet I had grown-up kids at the time!

In the beginning I went on the sex therapy course because I had had such difficulty in my marriage: being able to comprehend and live a well-adjusted sexual life. I'd always had problems with my husband. We had a great sex life but I couldn't be on the same page as him exploratorily. My comfort zone was very narrow.

Looking back, it's hard to believe because anybody who knew me would never have believed it of me. I was never a wallflower, I wasn't a little Catholic mouse; I've always been very outspoken, but if people did talk about sex I would leave the room, because I thought it wasn't right.

I thought I'd just be on the course for a few months. But on the first weekend I was there I was so unnerved I came home and said I would never go back again - it was a bunch of 1960s hippies making a science out of sex, how ridiculous. You know that British way of looking down on something you can't understand?

At the end of the weekend one of the deans of students said that some of us - and I'm sure she picked me out right away -would take a while to process all we had been exposed to. I just wanted to get out, to get home. I didn't go back for a month, but during that time I would be driving down the freeway and find myself crying; I didn't understand the emotional turmoil I was going through. At that moment I began the unlearning of the lie, I began to accept there was a big void of understanding and that I had to fill it, no one else could. That was when I realised I had to go back. I was scared to death.

I'm a very obsessive-compulsive learner once I put my head to it. I couldn't stop - it was amazing. Two years later, while I was on the Masters course, the school said that I should go on to do a PhD. It took me a while to be convinced that I had the wherewithal to accomplish it, but that's how I ended up writing this book: I had to do a dissertation rather than a thesis and I had no idea what to write on. I was told not to worry about finding a topic because it would find me. In the end it came all the way back to my childhood and to being a nun, how it had crippled my sexuality.

I adapted my PhD dissertation to make it more accessible to the general public. All of the women in my book were raised Catholic and the prologue is my own story: I describe my childhood, where sexual fear was instilled in us as children at Catholic school, at home and in church. Very subtly in school, because it was never mentioned: it was just an overlay of 'thou shalt not'.

Regular therapists are as hung up about sex as anyone else. Many of my referrals come from therapists who don't deal with sexual issues because they're very complex. I have a lot of people from religious backgrounds come to see me. They say that when they read my website my background gives them a feeling of comfort and security. There's empathy rather than sympathy because I know how they feel and how they can heal themselves from that kind of rigidity and fear around sexuality.

I would say to anyone reading this who can relate to my experience that owning and understanding our own deep reverence for our bodies and our sexuality is such a gift from God. No one else owns that. If you're under a veil, if you're under the Taliban even, no matter what severity you've grown up with, you should be able to intrinsically respect your own sense of sexuality, however you perceive that. It may be time to look at the issue with a gentle awareness and begin to explore what is actually holding you prisoner. We're not all the cookie-cutter people that religions want to turn out, because that kind of harmony is such a hairy place to be. Literally.

Fran Fisher was talking to Hannah Kowszun

In the Name of God, Why? Ex-Catholic nuns speak out about sexual repression, abuse & ultimate liberation is available now.