As human beings, our bodies are built for sex, and our well-being is enhanced when we engage in consensual sex. It’s natural and normal for us to like sex, and to want to have sex. It’s also natural and normal for us to have sexual preferences that are individual to us, from who we have sex with to how we have sex.
And yet, when we were young women, sex did not feel natural or normal. Masturbation, to learn about our bodies and what we liked? To give ourselves pleasure and comfort? No. Not only sinful, but yuck. Disgusting. Sex if we weren’t married? Gravely sinful, and on top of that deeply shameful if anyone found out. And if, God forbid, what if we did have sex and we weren’t married, and we got pregnant? The most awful of fates. We would have to go away to have our babies, to a home for fallen women, and then give them up for adoption so no one would know. Because if people did find out, they would know our shame. Relationships with our community, with our family, would never recover.
And whether we were married or not, if we had a partner who thought that what felt good for him must feel good for us, and that we had orgasms because he did, we couldn’t ask for anything different. We couldn’t suggest there was more for him to do, and we couldn’t show him what we wanted, what we needed to have our own orgasm. Too much shame, about asking someone to do something as disgusting as touching our bodies.
On top of the fear and the shame was the compulsion to convince the man we were having sex with that his performance was deeply satisfying, whether it was or not. It was our job as women to be selfless, to think of others, and to take care of men’s egos.
Fear, shame, the negation of any right to sexual pleasure, the ignorance around how to achieve sexual pleasure, the compulsion to lie to protect a man’s ego – sex was so, so complicated. The polar opposite of natural and normal.
How were we taught about sex?
The Catholic church has a very clear set of beliefs about sex and female sexuality. As children, to help us understand and accept these beliefs so we could become good Catholic women, we were taught two stories. The first is the story of Eve, mate of Adam and cause of so much suffering. The second is the story of Mary, virgin mother of Jesus and sexual role model for every girl raised Catholic.
These two stories are the foundation of Catholic teachings about female sexuality. They are the basis for everything we learned about our female bodies and our purpose as women. Before we knew what sex was, before we knew anything about sexual pleasure and sexual attraction, we were imprinted with these two stories and the Catholic beliefs based on them, about our sexual selves and the potential danger of our sexual behavior.
And because those beliefs were implanted when we were too young to question them, they are very deep. They are difficult to correct, and they cause a great deal of confusion and suffering when they collide with our attempts to understand and inhabit our natural and normal sexuality.
The story of Eve
We all know about Eve. God took one of Adam’s ribs and created her to be Adam’s companion, because he was lonely. Adam and Eve lived in paradise, but Satan (in the form of a serpent) tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which she did because she was weak and unable to resist evil. Then she tempted Adam to taste the fruit, and because she was so good at tempting him, at seducing him, he too ate of the fruit. When God saw what they had done, he banished them from paradise, and to punish Eve he sentenced all women to suffer greatly during labor and delivery. He also declared that “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” (Gen 3:16)
We learned from the story of Eve that women are born with the power to seduce men, who can’t say no to us. And we have neither the ability to understand when Satan is tempting us, not the strength to resist him. Our sexuality is a dangerous attribute, and we must be kept on a very tight leash by our husbands. Good women, who respect the will of God and understand the necessity of a leash, desire their husbands to control them. Bad women reject what God wants, and choose to exercise their power freely, without the control of a husband.
We were taught about Eve first because her story is found at the beginning of the Old Testament, while Mary’s story happens much later, in the New Testament. But this order also served a larger goal, which was to show us the dangers of our nature first, and to teach us why we must be controlled. Once we absorbed this lesson, this fear, we were primed to learn the story of Mary, which taught us how to be holy and good in spite of our female nature.
The story of Mary, our role model
Mary, as we know, was completely different from Eve. Mary was so holy that she was the only human being ever conceived without original sin. When she was a teenager, she was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her she would bear God’s child, and reassured her that she would remain a virgin throughout the process of pregnancy and childbirth. Mary agreed, and became pregnant without having sex with God. And even though she married Joseph, they never had sexual relations either, and she remained a virgin for her entire life. To reward her for her perpetual virginity, God took her directly into heaven at the end of her life.
From the story of Mary we learned that in women, God values two attributes: virginity and motherhood. He wants us to have children, but he doesn’t want us to have sex. Impossible, of course, and very confusing. How can you have children without having sex? If that’s what God really wanted, why didn’t he make it possible for all of us to be virgin mothers? Why create females who are sexual, if he doesn’t like our sexuality? Why make sex pleasurable, if not to use sex for pleasure?
If we’d asked these questions during religion class the answer would have been that we cannot know the mind of God. He is so far above us that we can’t understand why he does what he does, and we don’t need to. We only need to have faith. We only need to be like Mary, not like Eve. Because purity and goodness are equated with virginity – with not experiencing sex and discovering sexual pleasure. Once we are no longer pure, once we have discovered sexual pleasure, we must be safely sequestered inside marriage, where our sexual urges can be controlled.
And so, as girls being raised Catholic, we learned to accept that there was something wrong with our sexual natures, something potentially very sinful. While we were created to have children, our sexual natures must be very tightly controlled, abecause like Eve, we do not have the strength of character to control ourselves, and to resist evil.
What the church taught us about sex
After we learned about Eve and about Mary, we were taught the explicit teachings of the church around sex and sexuality: Sex before marriage is a grave sin. Sex inside marriage for pleasure only, and not for reproduction, is a grave sin. Sex with a man who is not your husband is a grave sin. Sex between men is a grave sin; sex between women is a grave sin. Self-administered sexual pleasure is a grave sin. Sexual positions that do not facilitate pregnancy are a grave sin.
The boys in our classes were taught the same rules, but they’d also learned about Eve and Mary. They’d also learned that our sexual natures were the problem, not theirs. There are no Biblical models for controlling male sexuality, no stories of male sexuality leading to terrible consequences for humanity, no stories of God even caring whether males were virgins or not. The Bible doesn’t say much at all about male sexuality, and the Catholic church doesn’t teach that male sexuality is inherently dangerous and needs to be controlled by a spouse.
And while the church’s proscriptions against so many kinds of sex apply to men as well as women, when men engage in forbidden sex (sex before marriage, sex outside of marriage, sex for pleasure, masturbation) they’re so much more easily forgiven because, well, they’re men. When women engage in the same forbidden sex, we are shamed. We’ve made a choice to be sluts, not virgins. To be Eve, not Mary.
So what is our natural and normal sexuality?
For women raised Catholic, it can be difficult to know what’s natural and normal. We were taught that sex is simple - the purpose is procreation, and sex happens between a man and a woman who are married. It requires vaginal intercourse so that if God wills, it leads to pregnancy. Anything outside this narrow definition of acceptable sex is gravely sinful. It’s forbidden.
But human sexuality is much more complex. We have a lot of un-learning to do before we can re-educate ourselves about ourselves. We can spend years learning about our sexual preferences and our sexual natures.
And then, once we understand ourselves as sexual beings, it can take longer to find the courage to accept ourselves as we are, and practice our preferences, whatever they may be.