ISSUE NO. 1 • To Have a heart
Gabby wrote this piece for this issue on love and sex as her last will and testament as she is reflecting on how for the first time since kindergarten, she will be not be attending Catholic institutions, and she is thinking of how the Church has affected her even in the most intimate parts of her life.
The Catholic Church remains distinguished among other Christian denominations for its elevated placement of Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary. Virgin Mary. One name just like Jesus Christ. You can call her the Blessed Mother or the Holy Mother, but at the end, her full name is that. Going through Catholic grammar school, I would ponder this, working backwards to figure out what “virgin” means. It was not as innocuous an adjective as “holy” but I knew it wasn’t a name in the same way just Mary is. I think my religion workbook simply defined it as “pure.” Even after I learned the general definition a couple years later, it took a little while before the whole story took shape. Virgin meant you never had sex. Mary never had sex to create Jesus, and that’s why she’s a Big Deal. Not because the pregnancy, where she faced the risk of being stoned for infidelity, or you know, because she did the actual raising of actual Jesus Christ. After the Resurrection, Jesus’ conception is the most prominent miracle of the New Testament. By the end of elementary, I had had hundreds of lessons about the angel Gabriel, about Joseph’s misunderstanding, and about Mary herself, but no one thought a basic explanation of sex was relevant to this narrative.
That would not be introduced in the classroom until the seventh grade. Like most seventh graders, at this time, we were constantly making dirty jokes. If I could find some way to tie something to sexual intercourse, the joke would kill. I had never seen a penis before (despite many logged hours of unsupervised internet time), but we were constantly drawing them on any available surface. We once played a grade-wide form of tag where we were spreading “chlamydia.” In the midst of this hormonal storm came “Sex Week.” Every teacher gave their own version of the sex talk to us, even my algebra teacher finding a way to squeeze it in. The centerpiece of the week was a visit from Generation Life.
Generation Life’s website advertises their mission of “building a culture of life by spreading the pro-life and chastity messages to other young people.” On their homepage, they lay out their argument that because most abortions are had by unmarried woman, the best way to prevent abortion is to promote chastity outside marriage. This is built on the Catholic belief that sex should not and cannot exist without the intent to reproduce and make a bunch of little Catholics. In this logic, unmarried mothers and, of course, abortion are assumed evils.
But I don’t think that way yet. I am twelve years old, and it is 2012. I do not question that abortion is wrong, and I have been trained in pro-life rhetoric, regularly spouting it for all my argumentative essay assignments (and one particularly cringy student film) because that topic guarantees an easy A. All my sex education is coming from television, movies, and my peers. I want desperately to be seen as sexy or hot to some, to any man (and I am still brushing off admiration of actresses’ legs as a desire to be skinnier). I was recently forced to wear a back brace to correct my scoliosis, and I sobbed on the ride home from the doctor’s, saying “no one is going to want me.” In other words, Generation Life is creeping in at a girl’s greatest period of vulnerability, when sex is a new concept in my life but one I am desperate to understand and, despite my age and my ugliness, master.
The boys and girls were split up into separate groups which made perfect sense at the time. The separate genitalia was enough to render one gender’s experience of sex as completely foreign from another’s. In the girls, there were two teachers. The first was an older woman who had waited until marriage. The second was coincidentally named Maria, and she was not a virgin. She had had a rough life, leading her down a reckless path of drugs and abuse and worst of all, having sex with her boyfriend at 15. Now she was married, but she said she had apologized to God and to her husband (who was currently in the other room teaching the boys) continuously for her mistake. She lamented how selfish she was because her husband had waited for her, and she didn’t for him.
We covered a wide array of subjects. We talked about pregnancy and saw the biologically incorrect models of the growing fetuses that are recognizably human even when they are the size of walnuts. One woman took out the instructions and warnings from a box of birth control. She stressed how condensed all the language was and how if you weren’t willing to read all of it, you shouldn’t take it (Someone pointed out half of it was just the Spanish translation. It was unappreciated). She read aloud the possible side effects, stressing the possible risk of death as a highly likely one. We talked condoms, not how to use one but how not to. First, we were told that condoms were only 25% effective so basically useless (I was told later that in the boys’ seminar, someone had heckled “So use 4!”). The real point they made, though, was that sex was only meant to create life, and if you used a condom or birth control on top of having premarital coitus, you were doubling the sin, the state of your soul being determined with simple addition.
The centerpiece of this was the tape metaphor. Many have heard of this, but I was able to score front row tickets. Megan, an eighth grader who wore the boy’s uniform every day, was chosen to partake. She was smiling like she always did, and we were all, too, because Megan was the class clown, and we were waiting for her to make us laugh. The lifelong chaste woman put a fresh strip of Scotch tape on Megan’s arm and then ripped it off with a surprising harshness.
“Ouch,” Megan said, chuckling but eyes a little bit wide, the ripping pretty clearly a rebuke for her smiling.
The chaste woman then with much flourish tried to replace the tape on Meghan’s freckly arms, showing how the glue wouldn’t stick as much this time. She held up the tape to the light and pointed out the dead skin cells on it. That was us. Every time we had a different partner, we become a little more like that dirty, finger-printed piece of tape.
Something in me snapped. I got the giggles, bad. The other girls looked at me like a weirdo, an older one telling my friends to “control me,” but as self-conscious as I was back then, I wouldn’t stop even for the sake of peer pressure. I looked back at them like, Isn’t this insane? How are you not laughing? The woman continued her speech, and she and my teachers gave me dirty looks, but I couldn’t be stopped. I was tearing up, I couldn’t breathe. Why was it so funny to me? First, there was the fact that the thing we talked about constantly was now being discussed in a classroom by adults. Also mixed in there was a middle-schooler’s disrespect for anyone with a strong conviction about anything. Finally, there was the one small part of it that this topic was being discussed from an insane perspective that even an ignorant tween like me knew crumbled outside the insular walls of a parochial school. I wanted desperately to know what the hell adult sex lives were, but as clueless as I was, I knew this wasn’t it.
I got a grip, eventually. The seminar ended, with everyone getting stickers that said “I am worth waiting for.” The boys were reunited with us, and they said their talk was fairly relaxed, with their teacher joking freely about how of course every boy masturbated. I remember being a little jealous of that. Our instructors had acted like we were in trouble from the first moment. At the front of the room, our homeroom/theology/science teacher, Mrs. Rentas, who had come to us that year from a nearby school that closed, was trying to get our attention. On Fridays in her theology class, we did scrapbooking and listened to Christian rap, her singing along to the choruses. Now she whispered, as if afraid of anyone outside the class hearing. She said that even though we shouldn’t have sex, we should use condoms if we do, that she’d lost a lot of people to preventable diseases, and that after AIDs, she was upset someone would tell us not to use them. My class mostly wasn’t listening. It was the end of the day, and we were chatting in our coats, but I remember her serious whisper and restrained anger that an educator had just told us advice that could kill us.
Did that day harm us? My peers became neither an army of celibates or defiantly sexually liberated. Even of those that share anti-choice memes on Facebook, none seem to be following Generation Life’s model of celibacy. It was only 90 minutes of toxicity, and despite other reinforcements in our education, we weren’t in so cloistered a space that it could cancel out the outer world. Yet, I can’t separate this from the general culture of misogyny in my twelve years of Catholic school that I still work to unpack- guys touching girls as a game, a disdain for anyone beyond a certain waist size, sexual reputations being written and rewritten to suit the whims of spoiled boys. The Church does not allow women to be priests or bishops or to interpret catechism in a meaningful way, but during my twelve years of parochial schooling, the majority of my teachers and administrators were women. Yet they seemed complicit in the male superiority of the Church. They passed on an internalized misogyny, telling girls to pull down their skirts and wipe off their make-up to mold them in their image- well-off, Church-going wives and mothers.
On our sixth grade field day, it was going to be almost ninety-seven degrees. I wore blue cotton athletic shorts from Limited Too, thinking only of how I’d beat the heat while still running around during flag football and hopefully winning tug-of-war. All the other girls had seemed to have the same thought with our rainbow of athletic shorts. Then our teacher had all the girls line up in the hall, arms straight down at our sides. A group of teachers were in the hall, and I, a total goodie-goodie, was confused by looks of derision in their eyes. They said a few things, asking us how we could think these shorts were appropriate, implying the girls had conspired this attack on propriety. I had never been in trouble before, and never for something like dress code, my shirts being tucked in and collars straightened always, and I was just plain confused by this new attitude. They marched us down to the nurse’s office, and I remember noticing Hannah, whose mom was a teacher, got to hang back even though her shorts were just as short as mine. Our principal Ms. Lily and the nurse, usually nice ladies who complimented my spelling and helped me use my inhaler, sternly told us to call our parents and ask them to bring us new clothes or else we would spend all of field day with the nurse.
My mom hated nothing more than having to come to my school unless absolutely necessary. I took the bus, and she griped about chess club and carpooling and conferences. By asking this of me, it was like they were trying to get my mom in trouble too. I didn’t know how mad my mom would be at me for dragging her into this. I would have chosen the nurse’s office if she wasn’t giving me such a dirty look right now.
“Are you sick?” My mom is a loud woman. The principal and my classmates could definitely hear her.
“No. The teachers are saying my shorts are too short. If you don’t bring me new ones, I have to sit in the nurse’s office all day.”
“Your shorts? That’s ridiculous!”
My mom was on my side? I was floored. “That’s what I said!”
“Finish it up,” Ms. Lily interjected. I looked up in surprise. I wanted to really emulate my mom then with a classic “be quiet, I’m on the phone.”
“Uh, can you bring me my tan shorts?” I needed to direct my mom so she wouldn’t bring me something ugly, “And can you bring something for Amanda? Her mom’s at work and can’t come.” Amanda was crying on the nurse’s bed over the prospect of missing the whole day.
“I’ll be there.”
My mom isn’t Catholic. She says in southern California, where she’s from, they didn’t really do that whole religion thing. She came to Church with us but didn’t take communion. She is also a Democrat, whereas almost the entirety of our school was Republican.
In eighth grade, after Generation Life, I told her in the car one day that I just didn’t understand how abortion could be legal. It was murder, plain and simple.
“Do you know what happened before abortion was legal?” she said, launching into the high pitch that meant I was in trouble, “Women did it themselves by sticking wire hangers up their bodies. Do you want to go back to that?”
My mom is not one for subtlety.
“I didn’t know that,” I said, “They don’t tell me that in school.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” she said.
I didn’t say I agreed with her because that breaks the laws of twelve-year-old girls and their mothers, but that image horrified me instantly and thoroughly. Next year, when other people would still be doing their argumentative essays on abortion, my stomach twisted at my mother’s words.
Yet, this was sort of a mixed message as my mother was the also one who sent me to Catholic school, saying long ago the public school wasn’t challenging enough. When your teacher tells you something, you’re supposed to believe it. Maybe I was challenged there in all the wrong ways, challenged to sit silently and not ask questions, to not laugh when people say ridiculous things, to not look to outside sources except that one big book and the men who were allowed to interpret it.
I was talking to my mom recently, enjoying the new perk of adult child-parent relationships where you finally heard all the gossip that happened when you were a kid. Every Sunday, Mrs. DeMarco’s daughter Nicole asked her to buy Plan B for some of her friends on the cheerleading team who would have unprotected sex the night before in a guest bedroom at the football-cheer parties. I wondered aloud why these apparent jock orgies never used condoms, but I know now how against them teenage boys will be. These cheerleaders’ own mothers would punish them if they went to them, but Nicole knew her mother would help them out, and Mrs. DeMarco knew if her daughter needed it for herself, she would tell her. On the flip side, my mother also told me about the PTA president who led the bus of parishioners and students to the pro-life rally in DC every year. At sixteen, her daughter was pregnant. My mom derided the mother. She said she heavily favored the son in the family, the way many Catholic moms still do, the way I’ve seen my aunts and relatives do as well. My mom had been hearing about that girl acting out from the first grade, but always the PTA president got her out of trouble and gave her none of the attention she needed. Unsurprisingly, the mother took her to get an abortion, none of the slogans she shouted down in Washington mattering. The rules seem to not apply when it’s your own daughter that wants the choice, when it’s your own sins that would be put under the microscope, and when you have the means, when it’s someone you know and not some anonymous girl in a place you would never visit.
My priest told me that abortion is a sin, even if the doctor says that the pregnancy will kill the mother, that the slightest chance of preserving the child’s life is the sacrifice every mother should readily make. If she wouldn’t die for her child, why did she even have sex? They despise abortion, but if the sixteen-year-old girl had that baby, they would despise her for it, not praise her for the sin she avoided. Women were instrumental in building the Church and doing the work today the men will not, but still the only great thing a woman can do in the eyes of the Church is have a baby. A woman should not have sex if she will not marry, should not marry if she will not have children, cannot be a priest because she must marry and have children. It’s an endless cycle where children are the balls and chains to preserve women as property.
The most important thing Mary ever did was be a virgin. She carried a child to save a world that would have stoned her for being pregnant out of wedlock. If she had had loving, consensual sex just once before, the Church would have thrown rocks too.