Dr. Julia Sadusky is a Catholic psychologist practicing in Colorado and working with adolescents and adults through a trauma-informed lens. She has co-authored several books about human sexuality and gender. Her newest book is Start Talking to Your Kids About Sex: A Practical Guide for Catholics. We talked with Dr. Sadusky about a wide range of questions related to sexuality and gender: the need for better care for people who are wrestling with their sexuality and gender; common faith-related struggles that they experience; what’s behind the gap in faith-based resources about sexuality and gender; the need for sex education that’s rooted in faith instead of fear; and how breaking out of silos can help us take better care of children and ourselves. We learned so much from Dr. Sadusky about the sexuality- and gender-related landscapes in the Church and our culture today, and we’re excited to share our conversation with you.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Sadusky’s Journey to Studying Sexuality and Gender

Victoria Velasquez-Feikles: It’s great to meet you virtually, I’ve been looking forward to this moment forever! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your faith background?

Dr. Julia Sadusky: Yeah! I grew up on the East Coast; my family is from Delaware. I was raised Catholic and my parents were both practicing Catholics, so I would say that faith was integrated in my life. There was an important social justice component in my faith, too. My parents did prison ministry, worked at the local pregnancy help center, and other things like that. I think that was formative educationally but also spiritually, seeing the faith be effective in the world but also not feeling like I had to be removed from the world to be Catholic.

VV: What got you into your work as a psychologist specializing in sexuality and gender identity?

JS: I kind of knew from a young age that I wanted to be a psychologist. When I was a child, my parents had a family friend who was a psychologist, and I also had loved ones who experienced mental illness and whose therapists were seemingly not effective for them.

Later on I studied psychology at Ave Maria University in Florida and came across Mark Yarhouse’s work on sexuality when I was doing thesis research during my senior year. His work is what brought me to Regent University to get my doctorate. In graduate school, I started researching sexuality, sexual orientation, and the intersection of those and Faith with a group led by Mark Yarhouse. He had written a book called Understanding Gender Dysphoria and it was around that time that I started seeing clients as his supervisee and began my own work in this area.

Discovering a Need for Better Care for People Wrestling With Sexuality and Gender

VV: Wow, it sounds like God gave you insight into your direction from a young age! Was there any part of your experience, either growing up or during your studies, that made you think, “There is something a little bigger here,” with sexuality and gender?

JS: I think the most formative piece was when people shared their stories with me. Catholic loved ones were asking me really important questions like “Do I need to become heterosexual to be holy?” and “If my attractions don’t change, will I go to hell?” I didn’t know the answers to those questions, so I was really struck by that.

I immersed myself in Theology of the Body to understand more about what theology had to say about human sexuality more broadly, including same-sex sexuality. The biggest gap I saw was in how the Church actually cares for people with that experience. I found the teachings very instructive, but in the Church’s ministry to people, I wasn’t hearing a positive vision of human sexuality that each person could be brought into and that answered these questions in a robust way. That’s what propelled me to dig deeper.

Common Faith Struggles Among People Wrestling With Sexuality and Gender

VV: Did you notice any trends in the stories of your loved ones who confided in you about their sexuality or discomfort with their gender? Were there any shared experiences?

JS: Yeah, there are a lot of evidence-based trends. Some people will give their own anecdotal version of trends based on something they see twice or ten times and feel confident it’s “a thing” – but it doesn’t quite work that way.

One of the most notable trends that we see in the research (and that coincides with my own work and research) is gender nonconformity in early childhood. Most people who identify as LGBT or who are exploring questions around sexual orientation or gender are people who experienced gender nonconformity when they were kids. They felt different from other people of their sex for gender-related reasons.

Also, there are certainly trends in mental health challenges for this group, which became increasingly relevant to my work as a therapist. I started to share more in youth groups and churches because it seemed like there were messages coming from our Christian circles that were not as helpful to people in this space. I think it’s important to ask what we are doing (or not doing) in our faith communities to help or hurt.

A final trend I’ve noticed is that many people who have questions about sexuality or gender feel like even having questions precludes them from having a relationship with Jesus. They might feel like, “I have to have those questions answered, and then I can approach God and He will want to talk to me – then I can be a good Christian.” That is where I see a lot of young people ruling out a faith life, because they feel like they have to have it all figured out and they feel ill-equipped to do so.

VV: Where do you think that might come from? What seem to be contributing factors to these feelings?

JS: I think, in Christian circles, we tend to elevate fascinating conversion experiences. For example, talks during high school youth groups given by people who had crazy lives and then totally put all of their old ways aside, changed their minds on a dime, and gave their lives to Jesus. If we’re raised Catholic, we also have these incredible stories about saints who were always deeply connected to Jesus and laying on thorns at age 14.

These stories prescribe something about the typical path of holiness. That type of transformation story sounds really great and looks really great, and God bless those people – it’s just not my experience that these are the trajectories for many of us. Even as a person who never had a radical conversion and was always pretty “sold out for Jesus,” I didn’t resonate with those stories. I don’t think it has entirely served us well to elevate those stories above others.

Even as we have become passionate about ministering to youth with conferences and missionaries, people go to them and only see Catholics on fire. We don’t really see the lukewarm Catholics and, if we do, we begin to see them as the “bad” Catholics. So, when people experience times of spiritual suffering or psychological concerns that compound spiritual challenges, it can make them feel like they’re out of the fold.

What’s Behind the Gap in Faith-Based Resources on Sexuality and Gender

VV: Absolutely, so much of this resonates with my own experience. Something I’m lingering on is that gap, the over emphasis on the ideal without much emphasis on the low points. Growing up, I heard messages like, “When you give yourself to Christ, that’s it! It’s a commitment and it all works out after that, though the struggles may continue.” No one gives you a net to fall back on. I wonder if this might have something to do with the general discomfort among many Catholics with approaching the subjects of sexuality and gender. The message we usually hear is, “Well, it’s not rightly ordered, and if it’s not rightly ordered then just don’t do it and you’ll be fine.” In your experience, do you think this might signal the need for a more robust sexual education for everyone?

JS: Yes. As you were saying that, as a psychologist I’m thinking about defense mechanisms like intellectualization and rationalization, and how these make us feel secure in the face of something that is anxiety-provoking. I see a lot of that happening in what contributes to this gap in resources.

I think there’s an assumption that – because we have a clear, coherent, and consistent theology and a robust framework for human sexuality (which I believe is true) – we don’t have to get into the nitty gritty of how to live those teachings out. Eve Tushnet has a great quote about this. Something to the effect of: “You can’t give teens merely a theology of no’s.” I think that has been a lot of sex education in the Church. You might make a few comments about the beauty of human sexuality, and you might describe sexual intercourse as a reality once a child hits puberty, but that’s not sufficient in helping people develop into whole sexual beings as adults.

Certainly, it’s not a path to living out our values, either. I can think about my values all day and not actually live according to them. I think we have seen something similar in the study of sexuality from a theological perspective. Studying sexuality and theology isn’t exhaustive of what we need to do for ourselves or other people.

This is evident in the ways that people experience and express sexuality in ways that aren’t in line with their values. It can be expressed in masturbation, pornography, sexual experience outside of a marriage – all of that can take place in the lives of Catholics who are pursuing Jesus. It’s clearly not enough to say, “These are my values.” So, what is it that actually helps us live out our values? I think knowledge in the sexual realm has a lot to do with this, and there is a lot that psychology has to offer that hasn’t been consistently interwoven with our faith.

The Need for Sex Education That’s Rooted in Faith, Not Fear

VV: Have you encountered a reason for why women in particular struggle with their own sexual expression, even after marriage? Part of me wonders if purity culture is why there’s a push to keep everything hush-hush about women’s sexuality in Christian circles. It’s almost as if there’s a belief that, if we keep women ignorant of how their bodies work, their sexual function, and how they experience pleasure, then we can keep them “pure.” 

JS: Yes, I do think that in terms of strategies to promote a moral life for women in particular, we’ve elevated women all throughout Church history for their virginity. We’ve elevated virgin men, as well, but we don’t call them virgins in quite the same way. There’s a lot to that.

The assumption is that, if you can maintain virginity (either until marriage or in becoming a religious sister), then you will be a healthy, whole adult woman. But that doesn’t account for experiences of rape or sexual assault, and it doesn’t account for the current state of pornography and female experiences of masturbation. There is so much that women are facing today that notions of virginity don’t account for. Is this notion of virginity something you can’t walk back, is it irrevocable? I wonder if we haven’t asked those questions because we’ve been taught that the goal is virginity, full stop.

That really has been the conversation for female sexuality, and it’s a fear-based approach. The thought process seems to be, “If you give women more knowledge about their bodies, sexuality, or certain genitalia, and if you teach women that they have a clitoris and that its only purpose is sexual pleasure, then they’ll all be masturbating all day!” But, like I said, that’s a fear-based strategy. I think that knowledge is power, and that if we really believe that we’re rational beings who are capable of self-control and submitting our desires to human reason and our faith, then we don’t need to be so afraid. And, if we don’t teach women and some of us get married, then that light switch that’s been turned off now has to be turned on all of a sudden. That is a lot of pressure, and in the realm of sexuality, pressure is not exactly a conduit for pleasure.

From a psychological and spiritual standpoint, we get to ask the question, “What if our strategies are rooted in fear and not faith?” Is our approach to morality guided by a belief that says, “God will punish me if I’m bad, or He’ll tell me how bad I am so I can get it right.” What if that thought has been a driving force in some of our approaches to sex ed for women? And what if that hasn’t been serving our broader goal of encouraging healthy, integrated sexuality for women and men in the Church?

How Breaking Out of Silos Can Help us Take Better Care of Children and Ourselves

VV: This makes me pause and reflect on so many of my own experiences. There is so much truth in all of what you said. It also makes me wonder what your experience has been in both your field and the Church. How have you been received? Have there been any challenges?

JS: Yeah, I would say in my field I am seen as a fascinating anomaly.

Colleagues who aren’t people of faith are intrigued by me and my work, they wonder about it. Some are suspicious about it, but we can have conversations that clarify my approach and those are helpful. I think people in my field would critique me and say I don’t go “far enough.” In my field, being aligned with Catholic tradition is seen as historically oppressive and problematic for people with gender and sexuality concerns. It can feel like a confusing intersection for people. But I think they’re grateful that there are Catholic and Christian people in the field. At their best, they might think, “You’ll do well in working with these kinds of religious people.” At the worst end, they might think, “We’re so glad you exist so we don’t have to work with these kinds of religious people.” I’ve heard both! People in my field value sex education, so they’re excited that I’m writing a book about it. They think it’s really great and hope it’ll help a lot of people.

In the Church, I think there is a lot of fear and suspicion towards my work, almost a fear of “a wolf in sheep’s clothes.” I believe that trust is earned, so I respect the suspicion on all sides. I don’t think I’m necessarily deserving of all trust because I’m Catholic or a psychologist. I have to earn that!

I do think the biggest pushback from the Church is a protectiveness that’s rooted in fears, which lead people to foreclose on opportunities to learn more. There’s also a suspicion of the secular, of psychology, and of ideas that have been deemed as “woke.” There has been such a politicization of the sexuality discussion, so even when you talk about things like rape or sexual assault, or the impact of purity culture on sexual functioning, it sounds secular or “woke.”

But really, the reason I wrote my book is because I had plenty of Catholic friends who were calling me and clients coming to meet me with questions about sexuality with younger children; questions like, “My three year old said this…” or “My five year old did this at a sleepover, what do I do?” They just kept saying, “I wish someone would write a book about this.” And so, boots on the ground in the therapy office and in my personal life, I saw that so many people are desperate for this information. I just wish we could be honest about that. If our approach in the Church were working in the practical realm, I don’t think friends would be calling me, I don’t think that I’d be hearing from my faith-based clients who are desperate to get their questions answered. The book is really what I do in therapy, which is modeling conversations with children and teens, conversations that I have seen in therapy to be effective strategies and that research gives us something to have confidence in.

VV: You’re right, there is a desperation, even just in the responses we get to our related content on FemCatholic. So, what is your main goal with this book series? I know you have another one coming out this spring, and you’re definitely meeting a need.

JS: It’s a great question. These books feel like they happened to me, to be honest with you. I couldn’t not write them. I was talking to Ave Maria Press about writing something and I had a completely different proposal, but I kept getting these calls from friends and everyone was saying, “Someone should write a book!” I ended up writing a sample chapter in about an hour, it came really naturally.

I’ve worked with a lot of people who have experienced unwanted sexual experiences, especially in childhood. When I became aware of the research that shows that teaching children the accurate names of their genitalia is a powerful protector against sexual abuse, I thought to myself, “I need to write that down!” That was really the springboard to thinking, “How do I help proactively protect children from harm?” I also started wondering if we can get on the same page about common things that we’ve learned from research that cultivate healthy sexual development in kids.

I also wanted to write something that applies to kids who end up being attracted to the opposite sex as well as kids who end up being attracted to the same sex. I kept thinking, what needs to be different in education in Catholic families? If we look at the research done by people who treat compulsive sexual behavior, what are the messages these kids got in childhood that are correlated with sexual shame? And how can we address this on the front end?

The hope is that a proactive model for healthy conversations with kids will help protect them, help parents respond when their children have been harmed, and be a starting point for parents thinking deeply and robustly about these topics. The book series feels like a starting point, though. As someone who is not a parent, I was pretty hesitant to write something for parents, but I hope the books give them a springboard for conversations.

VV: I know I have mine pre-ordered! I think that the approach you’re taking is very much needed. Given your skillset and the work you do, I have no doubt that this is going to be a great reference for people everywhere: parents, foster-parents, grandparents…

JS: Yeah, it really takes a community. That’s what gives the Church such an opportunity for cultivating healthy sexual development. It’s not just one of us, we need everyone to have a baseline understanding of what helps and what hurts. If we can get on the same page about that, we will have more credibility in the broader culture to weigh in on human sexuality in ways that can really make an impact, and I think our communities will be better for it. 

VV: Agreed. I have the same hopes! Speaking of culture, I know a lot of what we see in the media is about sexual diversity, either in gender identities, sexualities, or alternative lifestyles. Do you ascribe any of that to a general cultural problem, or do you think that it’s more of a search for knowledge? In other words, is there something “diagnosable” in our culture today that’s pushing for conversations about sexual diversity, or are these conversations the result of something else?

JS: That’s a great question. I imagine that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to sexuality in the world. I think that, in every age, people felt that they’ve hit the brink of the worst they could see, so it’s no surprise that we would feel the same way. I’m hesitant to offer a single factor.

I think the common narrative within the Church, though, is what you said first, “This is woke culture.” That trivializes the role of the Church in the broader world, though. It’s also just too simple to say that there’s only one factor in the world for anything.

One thing I see happening now is that there are a lot of conversations about sexuality and gender happening among people who agree about it, and not a lot of conversations happening across different groups. And whatever wisdom we could glean from secular research about human sexuality, we don’t talk to each other enough to have a productive conversation. If Catholics could critically engage cultural narratives out of human anthropology, psychology, our theology, and philosophy, I think we could make a meaningful contribution.

I think the approach from people in the Church has generally been, “This is a lost cause, we need to hunker down and pull away.” And then, on the other end, it’s, “We need to box the Christians out, we need to have legislation that ties their hands. They’re dangerous and outdated, and they have nothing to say or offer.” That kind of siloing isn’t helpful.

Having Confidence and Courage to Engage in Conversations About Sexuality and Gender

VV: It sounds like a goal that we should be working towards is to raise a new generation of people in the Church who are equipped with knowledge, as you said before – an understanding of their bodies and what it means to be a person, a man, a woman. That could bring the Church into more conversations in social and cultural spheres, and carve out that space again in a way that isn’t combative.

JS: And creating the space to have effective conversations across the sexes, without shame, is essential. It really is meaningful to learn about that realm with other people. There is nothing to be afraid of!

The last thing I’ll say – and it’s been on my heart to say it – is that our theology and our beliefs are not fragile, and that gives me solid footing to enter into any context and not feel threatened by any child, teen, or adult who agrees with this ethic, disagrees with that ethic, or has questions about it. And that also feels like solid ground to be effective in the world and engage in our culture. 

VV: You are totally right. Thank you for sharing that. I really appreciate you sharing your expertise with us, in both psychology and theology. I look forward to reading your book!  

JS: Thank you!

Want to learn more from Dr. Sadusky? She's one of the experts featured in the FemCatholic Sex Ed Course.

Victoria Velasquez-Feikles

Victoria is a trilingual, first-gen Colombian American with a passion for bridging the intricacies of Cognitive Neuroscience with the Arts. While her primary day job consists of working on international cognitive research for neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental disease studies, her evenings, weekends, and any time in between are spent creating art in many forms. When she's not writing poems, freelance pieces, or short stories, she loves to make music with her drummer husband and create developmental friendly artwork for her daughter's nursery.

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