What Catholic high schools teach teenage girls about sex affects them for years to come. 21-year-old Lucy Kelly looks back on her Catholic education.
So here’s me aged 14. We’ve just been handed our forms for the Gardasil vaccine. A public health nurse explains that the vaccine is most effective for HPV contracted by sexual activity (including skin to skin contact anywhere from your upper thigh to your lower abdomen) in the next five years. An hour later I’m walking out of a Religious Education class and my teacher sees the form tucked under my arm. After a brief conversation she sighs and rolls her eyes and says they shouldn’t advertise sex to us like this, and then asks me if I’m really going to let them put chemicals and viruses into my body when it’s unlikely I’ll be getting married in the next five years. I later refuse to get the vaccine, and my parents do not argue with me.
Flash forward three and a half years and I’m sitting half naked on top of my boyfriend, telling him we can’t let our upper inner thighs touch but that we can do everything else. He asks if this is some “Jesus shit”. I don’t answer. In the end, I get two of the three vaccines before I let my boyfriend touch my upper inner thigh with his, and the final injection shortly thereafter.
Another three years later and I lie on a gynaecologist’s table with my legs splayed while she tells me the procedure to remove precancerous cells from my cervix. She says that if I hadn’t been so on top of my smear tests, and if I hadn’t had the Gardasil vaccine, I might well have been sitting in this office in three years’ time being told I have cancer.
I remember the first time I learnt about smear tests. It was in my second semester of my degree in midwifery. And I remember the first time I wanted to learn about smear tests: I was 15 and had just been handed the aforementioned vaccine forms. I asked about smear testing and the health teacher gulped and told me I’d have to ask my RE teacher. This was a rule at my school – anything to do with sex, sexuality or sexual health was only to be discussed in RE. The reason? To make sure we learnt nothing that went against the Catholic curriculum.
I went to a Catholic school for my entire schooling, except for a two year stint on an academic scholarship in a private primary school, where the girls had to curtsy to all adults and I got suspended for calling the boys names. I didn’t go to Catholic school because my parents were religious; I simply went because it was the closest to our house.
I consider myself to be fairly sex and body positive, but that’s been a long time in the making. A lot of self hatred, self doubt and confusion went into building the woman I am continuing to grow into. None of this was helped by being at an all-girls Catholic school. We didn’t talk to each other about sex, we didn’t talk about masturbation, we didn’t talk about the length of our pubes or whether to shave them off or not. When we did talk it was in a religious education classroom, where Jesus was definitely listening.
We were taught abstinence. The sin of abortion. Life skills for a happy and loving marriage (to this day I know so much about ‘love languages’ and compromise). And we were taught how to join a nunnery if we decided we didn’t want to get married. If I remember correctly there was a brief lesson in the correct use of tampons and deodorant when we were about 11, but that was it.
I was 12 the first time they made us sit in a hall and hand around tiny little silicone fetuses and be lectured on how awful abortion was (I wrote about that here). I was 13 the first time we had a dedicated “sex education” class in RE. Topics covered: Can girls orgasm? How to know if he’s ‘the one’. Is IVF moral? (in case you’re wondering, it is not – children are a gift, not a right, we do not get to play God). When I was 15 we were taken out of class for a whole day, without our parents’ prior consent, to sit in the chapel while an American man lectured us about sex and marriage. He told us that his wife used to be a wayward woman – and then she met him, a wholesome Catholic man, and her life changed and it was beautiful and they lived happily ever after. The lesson from this story? Before we so much as kissed or touched a boy, we should think about how we would feel if we knew our future husband had kissed or touched another girl. We were told that by kissing boys now, we were cheating on our future husbands, and this was sinful.
Kudos to this guy, because it takes a really special level of screwed up thinking to believe that having relationships prior to finding your mysterious ‘one’ is cheating, and sinful. And quite frankly if I met a guy and he told me he’d never been with or kissed a woman before all sorts of alarm bells would start ringing. Is he an axe murderer? Is he lying about his age? Is he really a bearded 15 year old? Does this mean the sex is gonna be shit for the first, like, six months? Are we ever going to have sex? Does he like sex? Has he truly never touched boobs before?
At the end of this highly educational day we were all encouraged to sign ‘promise cards’, dedicating our virginity to God until we were married.
I tried to have a conversation with a teacher about contraception when I was 17. She told me if my boyfriend wanted me have sex, he was not the right man for me, and I owed myself better. (To be fair it turned out he was not the right man for me, and I was definitely punching below my weight, but she didn’t know that).
We had one RE teacher who was particularly shocking. She told me very seriously that I was going to hell because my parents had separated. She told my sister that she too was damned to hell, because she was born out of wedlock. She told the class if we didn’t go to confession we’d end up in limbo with all the unbaptised dead babies. This lady actually has a licence to teach. In New Zealand. In the 21st Century.
As easy as it is to laugh at the absurdity of all this, the truth is it’s terrifying. Every day, girls are entering a school system that will try to make them feel like criminals for expressing sexual desire, or for wanting to know how to keep themselves safe when exploring their sexuality, or for developing their own set of ethics and morals that go against the Catholic Church. Catholic school turns sex into a crime comparable with theft. In our last year of high school one of my closest friends was completely ostracised by our little group after they discovered she’d lost her virginity. She was in a loving, stable relationship, she was 18… and they stopped talking to her because she had sex. The toxicity of abstinence-only sex education had never been so apparent to me as in the moment we stood outside the school church and I held her as she sobbed, realising she’d lost nearly all her friends.
I should point out here that I’m only 21; this wasn’t something that took place in the 80s. All of this happened a few years ago, and it’s still happening now. I should also mention that I was a particularly naive child, desperate to please those around and above me. I have no doubt that the consequences of this pseudo sex education weighed heavier on me than on many other girls. Having said that, I’ve discussed this with a number of women I went to high school with, whom I consider self assured and sex positive. All of them told me the main thing they remember about sex education was the little plastic fetuses we had to hold. One of them said she thought our Catholic education had set her up to believe that the sexual abuse she endured after leaving school was simply a rite of passage. The one thing I heard over and over from these women, coming from many cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, was this: “It fucked me up.”
This is the 21st century. We are moving in a positive direction but yet we still send our girls to school every single day to be taught that sex is a sin and that our bodies are our enemies.
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Catholic school taught me a lot of good things. I had one amazing RE teacher who tried to teach us about love and radical empathy and fill us with an awe for the world. Catholic education taught me to be compassionate, to be kind, to be giving. It taught me to have the courage of my convictions, and how to fight for a cause.
But it didn’t teach me anything about sexuality. It didn’t teach me how to be safe nor how to be loved. It didn’t teach me how to be a strong woman outside of marriage or the church. It didn’t teach me how to love myself and it sure as hell didn’t teach me about how to love others in a physical capacity. I was taught to hate my body, to hate my sexuality, to hate my reproductive organs. To believe that they only existed to house and birth a fetus given to me by God, or as a space for my husband to seek pleasure. That it was my duty to him to keep that space untouched and virginal. I was taught to base my worthiness for respect on how many times I’d opened up my legs. I was taught that I wouldn’t need to know about smear testing until I was married, that I wasn’t to kiss boys, and that I sure as hell wasn’t to kiss girls. I was taught that the breasts growing on my narrow chest were there to feed a baby, and nothing else. I was taught that my body was a prison of temptation, and that it was my responsibility to stop men being tempted. I was taught that my sexual desire was a devil within me that I had to tame, and never to admit that I had wants and needs and desires too. We were supposed to be crafted into little paper chain girls, all matching. Light to hold, and easy to crumple.
I’m not saying Catholic schools are bad, or that they’re a lost cause. What I’m saying is that if you choose to send your daughter to a Catholic school, you can safely assume her schooling will be a write off in terms of sex education. What you do with this knowledge is up to you. The age of women hating their bodies and basing their worth on the number of men who’ve touched them needs to be over. If our school systems can’t catch up, then we have to.
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