SMC Speaker Delves Into Sexuality and Religion

WellandDr. Christauria Welland is the executive director at Health Transformations and a psychologist in the San Diego area. She is also the co-author of Healing From Violence: Latino Men's Journey to a New Masculinity. She visited Saint Mary’s last week to deliver a lecture entitled: "Catholic and Sexual: Not an Oxymoron." Afterward, SMC student Indrani Sengupta ’12 met with Welland for a Q&A on religion, sexuality and issues of exploitation.

In your discussion of the Church’s position on sexuality, you mentioned that Pope John Paul II spoke of the "nuptial meaning of the body.” Can you explain that idea and its implications for young people today?

I think that there is a real tendency to forget what sex means. Of course, it can mean anything to anybody, but in terms of what spiritual traditions view sex as, it's not just a casual encounter. It's a true encounter that is both spiritual and sexual. The nuptial meaning of the body is the gift of self to the other person in freedom, a reflection of the image of God.

I realize that this is very countercultural. I mean I'm talking like my mother might have talked back when I was a teenager and I was like, "Yeah, whatever." But now I understand it in a much deeper way.

You discussed the importance of abstinence before marriage for men and women alike. In many cultures, including our own, there has always been more of an emphasis on the maintenance of female virginity. What are your views on this?

I have always been an egalitarian. I think if you're going to have one rule about virginity it should apply to everybody. It becomes a form of sexual abuse when a woman, for whatever reason, is not a virgin before marriage, and her husband throws it in her face for the rest of her life.

In your lecture, you spoke of the importance of mutuality in relationships. Why does the Catholic Church deem homosexuality unacceptable, even if those relationships are "mutual"?

The Church bases itself on natural law, how nature has set things out, the polarity of male and female (it's the same in Hinduism, in Buddhism). The Catholic understanding of the natural law is that God has ordained that male should be with female. It's not a matter of despising people or hating them, but just a matter of saying that that union would not be appropriate for the sacrament of marriage. I don't think the Catholic Church will ever change that, but no one's saying to gay people that they can't live together, or love each other, or get married in the state.

Although Saint Mary's is a Catholic college, about 50 percent of our students do not identify as Catholic. How would you like them to utilize your message?

Everyone has dignity, whether or not we practice it. It's having the personal freedom to be able to wait. [You all] know what it is to delay gratification. Being in college, you're looking at a long-term commitment. You don't get your degree the day you walk in the door. And I think there are real advantages to that.

Although Dr. Welland visited Saint Mary’s to talk about religion and sexuality, most of the time she works as a psychologist dealing with intimate partner violence (IPV), particularly among Latino men, so we wanted to ask her about this area of expertise.

You focus on counseling the men who commit the acts of violence. Do you also work with the victims?

I work with lots of women in my private practices one-on-one. Probably at least half are victims of IPV. [They] need to be heard, for someone to validate [them], because often there's a lot of bitterness and anger toward the victim, and they come in burdened with that.

Why did you choose to focus on domestic abuse within Latino families?

I was offered a job working with violent Latino men in 1995. I wanted to put together a culturally appropriate program for [these] men, who are immigrants to the United States.

Since I have worked with Mexicans for 36 years, that's where I put my focus.

What are some of the topics that are covered in your group sessions with these men?

The first one is the importance of parenting education. All of these men didn't want to be the kind of dads they had, but they didn't know how to be anything different because that was all they'd been exposed to.

The next thing I found that was really important was the whole idea of machismo, the rigid masculine identity that many of these men had. They're treating their wives as second-class citizens, expressing their power in a violent way. We talk about the issue of discrimination. Because they're Latino immigrants, their experience is sometimes very painful. I use that as a bridge for them to think about what it's like to be a woman and to be discriminated against just because she's a woman.

We talk about sexual abuse. We define what is unwanted sexual contact. And the last topic we talk about is spiritual life, as a method of preventing further IPV.


Dr. Welland is on the Advisory Committee of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Immigration.