This piece is dedicated to all the women who went to Catholic high schools. The women who became pregnant and seemed to have scarlet letters on them, in a Catholic institution that did little to give its students proper sexual education. I write this for the young teenagers who suddenly disappear from the hallways of their schools and take their lessons in the guidance office, as though they were being hidden from the rest of the student body (that’s what it seemed like). This is for the silence hidden behind white blouses and uniform skirts that seemed to get shorter the more teenage girls blossomed into women. This is for the Catholic school girls who had an endless amount of questions about sex that never got answered, only through experience.
Last year, I was on a layover in Denver sitting next to a woman sipping a milkshake. We began to strike up a conversation and she discovered that I am a midwife. She began to share her belief that Planned Parenthood should be eradicated and abortion should be stopped in all its totality. She argued that everyone should wait until marriage because a person’s sexual history can interfere with their present and/or future relationships. I chose my words carefully and did my best to address this “pro-life” mindset respectfully.
I went to Catholic schools for 12 years of my education. I can safely say I learned nothing about healthy sexuality. Sure, the overview on the female and male reproductive systems were explained, but never in a way that penetrated us in a meaningful way. It was awkward and surrounded by immaturity, on the part of the classroom and teachers themselves. The most detrimental lack of education and shaming I experienced was in high school. Puberty hit us like popcorn, each young woman exploding with confusing emotions and a cascade of overwhelming hormonal surges at different times. We were taught to be pro-life. We were taught to wait until marriage. It is also noteworthy to speak on the homophobia that is embedded in this type of Catholic mentality. Imagine the burden to carry for some of us whose sexualities were just beginning to bud stuck in an all-girls’ school. Some of us experimented, some of us trapped by the fear of homosexuality. This too was never given any attention in our education outside of condemning it.
I took a short survey of women who had been through the Catholic school system to compare my experiences with them. Some had not been as clueless as I felt, having had access to education from their parents and/or other sources about sex. Still, more women shared with me the insistence of their teachers for us to be chaste, sometimes acting shocked at their questions, sometimes declining to answer them because they would risk losing their jobs as Catholic school teachers. I remember seeing disgusting photographs of sexually transmitted diseases and an insultingly vague video about sex, all in an effort to both scare us from engaging in premarital sex and not telling us anything. I remember us asking our teacher to tell us about condoms and she refused, implying her job would be at stake if she told us anything more than what she taught. My sexual education was supplemented with pornography, my peers, and the media. I had to learn a lot of things the hard way.
When we were dismissed for the day, we all had the proverbial Catholic school girl skirts still on. Some of us hiked it up the few inches that otherwise would get us reprimanded in school. Some buttons of our blouses were popped open to reveal blossoming bosoms. The world outside the immaculate walls of our school building was temptation after temptation waiting with baited breath. Imagine how appealing we must have seemed to the men on the street and the Catholic school boys who were also freed from their respective cages. We were young and in a world without much guidance practically thrown to the wolves.
I remember having pregnant classmates at the age of 15 years old. They would often disappear to the school office or guidance counselor’s office when they got further along in their pregnancies. I always suspected it was to hide them from the general student body, to keep up an appearance: a straight-laced, pure and chaste facade of Catholic wholesomeness. Perhaps it was for their safety and comfort; I’m not actually sure. Still, I wonder if my classmates felt ashamed, kept apart from us and even worse, feeling the judgmental eyes of their peers for not keeping the chastity vows we made in religion class.
The woman at the airport looked bewildered when I finished telling her all this. She began to say something but I continued. Some of my peers got abortions. It was a choice they needed to make for their own reasons, and also felt ashamed because of the Catholic indoctrination that loomed over their heads. We were miseducated, never taught about our bodies in a holistic or realistic way that took into account our lives in low-income communities as majority women of color. I know it would have been helpful to know what to do when I had yeast infections or agonized over my irregular cycle. What other choice do you leave a young woman with no comprehensive information on contraception, sexuality, general wellness or pregnancy? What can we expect living in a society that has no conversation around healthy relationships and cycles of abuse? I am of the belief that it is incredibly irresponsible to send young women into this world with no true knowledge of these topics. It is obvious that the world can be a dangerous place for women, given the astounding rates of gender violence globally. We must be more realistic and make sure our women can at the very least take care of themselves throughout their reproductive lives, learn to speak up when a healthcare provider is being disrespectful and have guidance from a young age about how to see red flags in relationships and beyond.
Furthermore, the shame that comes embedded in Catholicism as it pertains to sexuality is psychologically scarring. Many of us recovering from our Catholic upbringings experience abnormal amounts of guilt & shame for our lifestyles. It’s a cognitive dissonance between what was taught for years and what one discovers in adulthood about themselves and their bodies. It took me years to stop feeling impure for my sexual traumas and experiences. Though I enjoyed some of my sexual experiences, there was this feeling of being a whore for having multiple partners. Somewhere inside me were unresolved feelings of failure for not waiting until marriage while my conscious mind became more aware that there was no reason to be ashamed.
It is not true that telling a young person to abstain from sex or to wait until marriage is the solution. That is a failure to live in objective reality. The reality is that people have sex all the time. I would almost bet every second of every day. The reality is that many of these sexual acts are not consensual or healthy. So given the fact that as a society we must heal from sexual trauma and lifting the taboo on the subject, the best course of action is to let our young women (and men) make informed choices based on healthy conversations around contraception, sexual expression and self-esteem. We cannot control our children (nor should we try to); at the very least we can tell them the truth.