CHEWED UP GUM
By Alice Houlbrooke
Imagine a piece of gum. Someone puts it in their mouth and chews it a couple of times before spitting it out. They then hand the gum onto another person and then they chew it a couple of times and spit it out. Gross right? Well, if you’re a woman then in this analogy you are the gum and the chewing is having sex. The people chewing the gum are the men you are having sex with, and each time they chew you up, spit you out and pass you on to the next man you are being damaged. Used up. Who would want a piece of chewed-up gum? This analogy is pointless. Women are not gum, and having safe, consensual sex doesn’t permanently affect your body in any way. Yet, it is still taught to many girls in conservative Christian and Catholic environments all over the world. From the ages of 5 to 18 Catholic influence surrounded me. I went to Catholic schools, my parents dragged me to church every other weekend. You get the gist. By the time I got to my government-mandated sexual education class, I had already decided I wasn’t a believer. A common phrase within classes that featured sex-ed was something like: “We still have to teach you Catholic values, even around sex.” What this included was my teacher handing out information pamphlets about STIs, the ones you can pick up at the medical centre. Then putting on a documentary about the benefits of abstinence. I don’t remember much of that documentary. But I did figure out that Twitter wasn't banned on my school's wifi.
Most of the ‘Catholic values’ had been taught us in separate assemblies. You know the ones where they hire some young and hip speaker to talk to the kids about topics the teachers aren’t qualified to teach. So, this 25-year-old blonde youth pastor put a big picture of tomato sauce on the screen and said “I’m sure most of us here love tomato sauce. You love it in burgers, or to dip your chips in. But would you drink it?” If you’re reading this and thinking yes, I promise I won’t judge too harshly. Pretty blonde youth pastor continued to compare sex to tomato sauce. In that when you have sex in a serious relationship it’s amazing and wonderful and special. But if you’re having a casual fling, you feel wrong afterwards. That you feel empty, unfulfilled. Wrong. Like something is missing. As with most of my peers, I thought this was a load of crap. We all left the theatre afterwards joking about drinking sauce and waiting until marriage. But that didn’t stop the small seed of doubt from planting itself in my head. What if I regret it? What if I feel empty inside? What if I choose the wrong person to share myself with? What if it isn’t special?
The first time I noticed this was when my friend had a study period and I skipped Economics to get coffee with her. She told me she had lost her virginity to a guy she met on a camping trip. To me, the idea of losing my v-card to someone I had just met, let alone in a goddamn tent, was unheard of. How could you give yourself away to someone you had just met? Why would you make such a big decision so spontaneously?
Looking back at how I used to think, I can see how the religious influence of sex and purity in my education affected me. As much as I thought I was accepting and non-judgmental of my friend, deep down I knew that wasn’t true. These ideas were all deeply rooted in my education of sexuality. It’s the idea that virginity is special and sacred, and that losing it is some big life event. While I knew that ultimately how my friend had her first sexual experience is up to her, I couldn’t help but feel that she had ‘wasted’ an opportunity to make it special. Looking back as an adult with more experience, I realise it isn’t a big deal.
When I was 11, I would read tween romance novels where the protagonist’s first kiss would be all butterflies and fireworks. After my first few kisses, I realised that kissing is just kissing, it’s nice but overall, not a big deal. The same is applied to sex, especially in religion-biased sex ed. It’s hyped up as some big life event, which I understand from a Catholic point of view as usually for Catholics sex is accompanied by pregnancy. But on its own, sex is just sex. It can be special, it can just for fun, it can be messy, and it can be awkward. You get to an age where nearly everyone around you is having sex regardless of relationship status. That is when I realised at the end of the day, it’s just sex. It’s as special and sacred, or as casual and fun, as you want it to be for you. What sex means to you is a decision you make for yourself. No one should have the power to influence that choice.
Sometimes, I wonder how different my opinions would be if I grew up without the Catholic influence. I imagine I would be a very different person. All I can do now is try to unlearn all the beliefs I was taught. Try my hardest to know I should have no guilt or regrets about my feelings. That there is no shame in acting on sexual impulses and feelings, if it isn’t hurting anyone. I hope that if you can relate to what I’ve said here, you can unlearn them too.