I was brought up Catholic. I went through the Catholic school system, was taken to mass most Sundays and was taken to confession. Growing up I spent all my time at school or at church and in those two institutions I was taught one important thing - God is always watching.
I was first introduced into the wonderful world of sex when I was in year eight, when I was 12-years-old. The experience took me by complete surprise. I was the most innocent and naive 12-year-old a parent could have hoped for and not even really understanding what sex was. I am the oldest child in my family and was never sat down for an iconic ‘birds and the bees’ conversation. My dad was forced to talk to me about it after what I like to call The Feminine Hygiene Incident of 2004.
I was at a scout meeting and the leaders were going through all the essential items needed when packing for a camping trip. One of the items were pads. I naively put my hand up to ask what they were for. The scout leaders had to pull my dad aside after the meeting and advise him to maybe have a chat with his daughter about puberty. I remember dad trying to talk to me about it in the car and I’m pretty sure I responded like any 12-year-old girl would, I was mortified and embarrassed and wouldn’t listen to a word he was saying.
A few days later dad gave me a book called ‘Why is my body changing’. It was full of silly cartoons about puberty made to try and make me laugh. Looking back now I have nothing but affection for my dad for trying to help me. I don’t know whether it was him or my mum who bought the book, but it must have been hard for him to sit down and give it to me. I of course wanted nothing to do with it. Until a few months later.
I was a huge reader and one day my grandmother’s house she gave me a basket of books she’d been given. I took them home and picked the fattest of the bunch, with the least appealing cover you can imagine. I think I thought I’d look ‘grown-up’ walking around reading it. Anyway, my grandmother obviously didn’t read the books first, because this one - Blood Lines by Liz Ryan - was a romance novel, and to a 12-year-old with no prior knowledge of sex, it was the beginning of a wondrous world of sexual education.
I began to read the book obsessively, driven by the idea that I was doing something I shouldn’t be. The book was a glorious 568 pages long which gave me ample material to work through. I would dog ear pages of the racier stuff and take it to school the next day to show my friends and we would revel in the content together.
Here is an extract, just to give you an idea.
She spooned some chilled yogurt into her mouth.
Taking her tray, he put it down on the floor with his own and eased the pillows out from under her back.
She looked at him quizzically, and lay down.
Removing the spoon from the bowl, he swung himself over, knelt between her knees and, without any warning, inserted it, yogurt and all, insider her. She yelped in shock, and he waited a moment to watch with satisfaction the succession of diffused emotions on her face. Then, leaving it there, he scooped a handful of yogurt up from the dish, smeared it on her left breast and lowered his lips to suck it off, rolling over on to her so that she felt his full weight, pressing down on the spoon.
It was around this time I discovered masturbation. I went through a number of intense emotions when I started, least of all the actual orgasm. The first thing I did was secretly pull out the book on puberty my dad had given me months before and flick through to the index to see if there was a chapter in there about what I was doing. I remember sitting on my floor with a torch reading it in the dark, as though even just reading about it were a sin. Thankfully, there was a chapter dedicated to my secret in the book. It was the only solace I had in regards to knowing what I was doing was completely forbidden or disgusting.
Despite trying to justify my actions, I couldn’t shake the feelings of guilt and shame I felt every time I orgasmed. I felt sick afterwards and began having trouble sleeping. I’d spend my days promising myself I would never do it again and my nights resisting the urge to pull out my book with its dog eared pages and giving in.
Most nights I would cave and afterwards, I would pray. Because the crux of the matter was, I thought God was going to punish me for what I was doing. I can’t say the school or the church was actively teaching us God smites those who masturbate because the topic never came up, not even during our PDHPE classes. Not once throughout my high school education were we taught that masturbation is okay. Forget okay, we weren’t even taught what it was. If it weren’t for the book my dad had given me I wouldn’t have known where to get my information from, too scared to look it up on the internet on the shared family computer. The school left me completely unprepared for the experience, a completely natural step almost every single person encounters. All we were taught was: don’t have sex - but if you must have sex, use a condom or take the pill. Sex was a science, not an act of pleasure or fun and I grew up feeling ashamed of sexual urges.
What we were taught in school is that God is omnipresent and all knowing. He watches you all the time and you share no secrets. I think this information, coupled with my guilt about the fact that what I was doing was sexual and therefore not allowed, made me think I was definitely going to go to hell.
Every time I went to confession for the next few years I babbled on and on about homework I hadn't completed and chores I hadn’t done hoping against hope the priest wouldn’t read my mind and know what I’d done. Putting aside how creepy the idea of a young girl telling an old man about touching herself would be, what I was doing was driving me crazy with worry all the time and I couldn’t even tell the one person I trusted who could have forgiven me.
It took me years to admit to anyone that I masturbated. I was 16 at the time and admitted it to a guy, while we were standing in my lounge room. I had never felt so sexy in my life. I could tell the idea turned him on. By this time I was in year 11 and had made the transition to atheism over a couple of years, although I was still in the Catholic school system. That conversation though, was the moment everything changed for me in regards to masturbation. I’m not sure if I knew it then and there, but I always look back at that moment as the time I realised it was definitely a way to feel sexually empowered and to take control of ones sexuality rather than anything to ever feel shameful about.
The reason I’m so passionate about normalising sex for young people is to avoid situations like mine. Whether we like it or not, at one point or another they are going to encounter sex and we need to make sure they are educated for the moment they do. They need to know there is absolutely nothing wrong with masturbation. It is a safe, fun, pleasant way to learn the way around your body and feel good about your sexuality. It even helps you for when you’re ready to share your body with someone else, to help show them what feels good for you. But for some reason, no one is talking about it. Opening up the conversation about sex, for me, would have meant not having to spend years walking around carrying a secret which made me feel sick to my stomach. It would have meant not having to hang my head in shame. It would probably have meant I could have walked into a sex store to buy my first vibrator, instead of a couple of fun-loving male friends having to do it for me. C’mon guys - talk more about sex, for the sake of the vibrators. God knows, he should have no fucking opinion about what I keep in my top drawer.