Sexual objectification and gang culture

‘Girls used, abused & discarded’. In the Evening Standard or in gangs? Will that be the story of former child star Miley Cyrus who is allegedly ‘keeping her kit on’ here?!

Last night as a favour to some final year broadcasting students I participated in a live TV show streamed on the internet discussing the subject of female sexual objectivisation both in the media and in nightclubs who admit scantily clad women for free. (I hope the students get a first, their production was as slick, professional and as well run as any big-name media group as well as being an innovative concept).

It was quite timely, following on from public ‘revelations’ about the fact I had once had a bar job requiring me to wear quite a provocative uniform, which was admittedly mild compared with the job of the presenter who was a former ‘Hill’s Angel’.

One of the points made was that women are actually choosing to wear next-to-nothing in order for commercial gain in order to build a brand or image around a single, although one has to question how ‘free’ that choice really is, if making themselves sexually provocative is allegedly the only way to sell their music.  The point I made was that though women wearing their underwear is nothing new these days, they are having to go to more and more outrageous lengths to sell themselves, hence the outrage wasn’t so much over Miley Cyrus’ outfit rather her twerking. Lily Allen’s recent pastiche  video featuring sexually explicit images of attractive women ironically reinforced the very sexual objectification that she  was overtly rejecting to in the lyrics, although I find the word “b*tch”  objectionable and offensive as a point of reference to women, regardless of who is ‘reclaiming’ it.

I also worked as cabin crew, another profession which at the time I was a member of it, was solely concerned with the image of their female crew as fantasy sex-objects as opposed to anything else. Look at the adverts for Virgin Atlantic, capitalising on the nostalgia of the uniform worn in the late eighties/early nineties, with its tight double breasted bright red jacket, matching short skirt and bright red shoes, colloquially known in the business as ‘f-me pumps’.

Whenever I got on the tube in uniform ready to go to work at 5am in the morning, I would always attract an obvious amount of attention, some of it flattering, others not so, but it always centrered around my appearance. Working in a profession that puts a high value on appearance which presents you as an object of sexual fantasy (note today’s uniforms are a massive improvement) means that unless you are exceptionally strong-minded, that is the attitude that you subconsciously adopt and absorb about yourself – i.e. that your value or stock as a human being is entirely dependent upon your appearance, even if you have done so willingly. One of the motivations for the bar work was that it was comparatively well paid, compared to say other jobs available to 18 year old cash-strapped students. In many ways it was a free choice no-one forced or compelled me to do it, but I wonder how many women in similar situations are doing it for the sheer enjoyment, or for the extra money, in which case how free are they?

In the case of cabin crew, the role was not simply about sashaying up and down the aisles or mixing a celebrity passenger their favourite cocktail, but predominantly about safety, however your appearance as an object of male desire, completely undermines the function of your job. Cabin crew are there to ensure passenger safety but it’s hard to be taken seriously when you are viewed as a vacuous dolly bird, there only to satisfy the whims of male passengers. At the time of the British Midland Kegworth disaster, it’s very telling that Cabin Crew/Flight attendants were not listed as coming under safety or within the remit of operations, but were under the control of ‘marketing’. In the event of an emergency, no-one is going to care if your lipstick matches your nails and hatband, if your hair has wispy bits, you need a spot more blusher or if you are half a pound overweight and yet these were assessed on a daily basis, pay rises being dependent upon consistently scoring well  in these areas in assessments. Additionally, the tights that are a non-negotiable part of the uniform (I am racking my brains to think of an airline that lets its female crew wear trousers) are a hazard and will exacerbate terrible injury in the case of disaster. Set a pair of tights (pantyhose) or stockings on fire and see what happens. Now imagine wearing them and high heels while trying to operate a slide or in extremes of temperature, or while stepping around fuel spills.

The final straw for me was when a former colleague decided to strip off for one of the red-top Sunday magazines. Handing out sweets during boarding, I noticed a sea of men engrossed in photographs of a woman stripping down to a skimpy pair of pants, whilst discarding the identical set of clothes that I was wearing and became acutely aware of the appraising glances of men, comparing my appearance to the girl in the magazine. One didn’t need to be a mind reader to be know exactly what was on their minds.

In the long run working in professions which set a great store on sexual attractiveness was not helpful for my spirituality or psyche. As C S Lewis’ Screwtape observes “all mortals turn into the thing that they are pretending to be”; making your living out of being a sexually desirable object, even if on your own terms, will distort your own self-perception.

I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to determine whether or not one could or should identify oneself as a feminist if one works in the sex industry or in a profession which uses the female sexuality to sell sex as several self-identifying feminists do just that, however I would question whether feminism, which is about ensuring female flourishing, equality freedom and independence is best served by reinforcing the idea of women as sexual objects.

What caught my eye on the journey home last night was the dreadful story in the Evening Standard about the sexual violence and abuse of women endemic in gang culture, where women are passed from man to man and severely beaten and abused. Juxtaposed next to the story on the next page were several images of sexually provocative women at the American Music Awards ceremony, together with comments about their appearance.

While all sorts of measures were being proposed to combat gang culture (not least more sex and relationship education) how on earth are we supposed to stop women from being seen as only good for one thing, when we are ourselves subconsciously buying into this and are saturated by such images in the media, although to be fair, there is an increasing trend of the sexual objectification of men. Joey Essex being one such contemporary example who comes to mind.

It’s absolutely pointless telling girls what a consensual relationship is supposed to look or feel like (I think most inherently have a sense of this) when a wholly different message is being sent out by the culture. I am not sure that explicit sex education is going to stop men from wanting to sexually abuse women, or even relationship education, which could even enable men to be able to emotionally coerce women into abusive relationships, persuading them that sex is what they ‘want’. Most abusive relationships do not start out that way from the outset, it is a gradual process and yet no woman should assume that because a man may treat her well, be attentive and charming, it signals that he is a secret sexual psychopath who is no doubt going to abuse her later down the line. Besides gang culture is not simply about a manifestation of misogyny, but is indicative of the crisis facing working class young men in urban societies.

One has to ask where are parents in this mess. In the terrible story of the middle-class girl who spent five years being abused, the parents seem to be wholly absent, proving that it is not class that is the determining factor, but the quality of parental relationships.  It is not meant as blame, but parents seem to be assumed to be taking passive roles, whereas children need good relationships, trust and respect modelled for them as opposed to being taught in a purely didactic fashion. How is a young teenager with crazy unstable hormones supposed to absorb what a healthy relationship should look and feel, simply by being told. They need to be able to intuit and most girls can intuit that something is not right, but not until it is too late.

Parents need to be empowered and enabled to keep tabs on their children and each others, either forming groups to ensure that children are kept occupied after school and reinforce each others’ house rules and curfews. Should thirteen year olds be allowed out late at night, especially on a school night? It’s not just about helping children to keep themselves safe, but teaching parents to help keep their own children safe and impose boundaries, instead of acting like they are powerless in the face of their children’s inevitable rebellion and physical responses to puberty.

Ultimately if we object to sexual objectification in the media and world around us, which contributes to the culture of abuse, self-loathing and brings nothing but long-term damage, both on an individual and societal level, then we need to take steps not only to pressurise our media, film and music industry to clean up their act, but not buy into it ourselves and for our children.

If we object to women being used as worthless sexual objects then we should not surround ourselves with music and videos or newspapers or media that refers to them as ‘b*tches’ or further entrenches the culture, whether that be in the Daily Mail or on the X-Factor.


Admittedly I’m feeling incredibly vulnerable following yesterday’s post, being ‘outed’ is an uncomfortable experience, but God willing, it could turn out to be something of a blessing.

Firstly I am beginning to feel a little more comfortable in terms of referencing my own very personal experience, which is not atypical of women who have been through an abortion.

 It could also turn out to be an opportunity for apologetics.

Those who made the accusation have continued to taunt and abuse, openly discussing my  blogpost (which is fine in many ways, if you blog about a personal situation you are putting that information into the public domain) and mooting whether or not I am excommunicated from the Church, whether or not our children are illegitimate (who cares) and indulged in the usual sixth-form pop psychology antics about the amount of guilt that I must be carrying around. How unfortunate, they say, that rules which she tries to impose upon others have got her into such a mess, whereas the irony is that had I been aware of the rules I wouldn’t have got into such a state in the first place! And of course living by those rules has brought me greater peace, contentment, joy and bliss and fulfilment than I ever gained previously, which is why I passionately promulgate them.

One of the reasons that I believe that those who promote an authentic pro-life vision come under so much attack is because time and time again, it’s thanks to that particular Catholic doctrine that attracts so many converts, whether it be through investigating what the Church teaches about marriage, about contraception, family-life or abortion.

 My experience of abortion was definitely an enormous part of my journey home as for the first time I truly understood what was meant about God’s most severe mercy. A generic faith in God had never deserted me and bitter experience taught me that Christ’s commandments were not designed by an arbitrary capricious vengeful god, but are there to keep us from harm. I wondered that if the Catholic church was in fact right about abortion, then what else were they right about and why?

It wasn’t the great Damascene conversion, but a gradual process of looking back at my life and seeing those moments, where in retrospect, God was definitely present and planting seeds of grace.

To answer some of the ridiculous assertions, firstly I am not excommunicated from the church. Abortion does carry an  latae sententia sentence of excommunication, meaning that one automatically excommunicates oneself from the church upon having an abortion, however one has to be over the age of 16 and aware that it is an excommunicable offence.  In addition if you are are forced into it, acted out of grave fear, lacked the use of reason (unless culpably via drink or drugs) then excommunication wouldn’t apply.

 It needs to be remembered that excommunication is a medicinal measure, the deprivation of the sacraments is designed to make people bring their lives back into conformity with the church, not cast them out eternally. Regardless of whether or not one was excommunicated for abortion, this is always lifted upon receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, although there are certain reserved sins that a priest needs to apply for permission from the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome or his Ordinary, in order to absolve you from. Abortion is technically one of those sins which not every priest has faculties to forgive, however in the UK and other countries such as the US there is a blanket permission given to clergy to issue absolution for on the unfortunate basis that it is so common.

Are my children illegitimate? The answer is no, and I doubt anyone really cares. Illegitimacy is historically bound up with inheritance rights and though the church might recognise that a marriage never sacramentally existed, it does recognise that it had civil validity and thus any children are not deemed illegitimate. So neither my eldest child, nor my subsequent children are illegitimate as they were all born as a result of civilly legal marriages.

The Church does not care whether or not children were born within or outside wedlock, every single person is of equal dignity and worth, circumstances of birth are beyond all of our control and no decent person would wish to attack anyone’s children on this basis. Pope Francis has repeatedly called upon priests to ensure that they baptise the children of unmarried mothers and in a personal phone call offered to baptise the baby of a woman who wrote to him in great distress after discovering that she had fallen pregnant by her already married lover. It takes great bravery to decide to keep a baby in a society that looks upon abortion as a desirable solution for unplanned pregnancies.

But here’s the best thing of all, and that is that once you have confessed to having sinned, no matter how terrible or dreadful the crime, (provided that you make adequate reparation through penance and resolve not to re-offend) then you are forgiven. I don’t carry about a hulking great chunk of guilt, because I laid it at the foot of the cross and trusted that it was forgiven. Regret remains, but all of this is a manifestation of Romans 8, 28. The abortion can never be justified, God neither wanted or willed it to happen, He allowed me to make my own choice, however now He has caused good things to come out of a terrible evil and sadness.

 It is true that having confessed I felt liberated, I made my confession in Oxford and remember almost floating down St Aldates on a cloud of air, but actually confession is not about how it makes us feel. Sometimes you can go and for whatever reason, not feel wholly forgiven or that perhaps the priest didn’t really take your sins seriously but the whole thing is an exercise in faith and trust. A little like having been forced to make a public confession in fact.

There is a large part of me which feels that having admitted to such a terrible thing, I can never show my face in public again, a feeling which is exacerbated when I see Catholics quibbling over whether or not I incurred an latae sententia, together with their friends who outed the information in the first place, stating that I only confessed for ‘attention’ and I may now regret it as everyone will know that I am excommunicated and my children are illegitimate. It is hoped that I will now face great shame and disgrace.

But my faith tells me that I am a walking lesson in the power of redemption and how Catholics apply the principle of hating the sin but loving the sinner. What I did was undoubtedly wrong, but in common with most post-abortive women, there were several mitigating circumstances. Abortion is murder, however that does not make post-abortive women murderers and I have always been extremely judicious in my choice of language. A murderer, especially if one adheres to the legal definition, is someone who possesses intent. Most women who have an abortion do not have the intent to take the life of a human being, rather they do not see the baby as a life, and tie themselves into Gordian knots of illogicality, aided and abetted by contemporary attitudes and abortion providers. There is a silent unspoken conspiracy between the woman seeking the abortion and those who participate in the act, to obscure the nature of what is happening.

Of course I was misguided hoping that people might now leave me alone, my existence is naturally going to be jarring and dissonant to those who disparage the Catholic church, those who have been laughing about the bones of St Peter and transubstantiation as being sick and hocus pocus.

What self-identifying ‘liberals’ (who are in reality anything but) hate most is grace, repentance and transformation because it assaults them to the core of their being. It tells them that they can change, sin can be forgiven and that God is calling them to repent. Which means that they have to accept that they might be doing something wrong in the first place, a concept which the narcissist cannot cope with. Why does it matter if I consider certain actions to be sinful, i.e. separating from you from God?

I have to be attacked for having once been in a similar state of mortal sin, because to do anything else accepts that their position is not immutable. Admitting that something could be wrong is an anathema. They have to scream hypocrisy because the alternative to is run screaming for God’s mercy.

There’s a certain provenance that all this has occurred on the occasion of the end of the year of faith. Reflecting upon yesterday’s readings, Pope Francis said this in his homily;

Jesus speaks only a word of forgiveness, not of condemnation; whenever anyone finds the courage to ask for this forgiveness, the Lord does not let such a petition go unheard. Jesus’ promise to the good thief gives us great hope: it tells us that God’s grace is always greater than the prayer which sought it.

Lessons from St Augustine

St Augustine of Hippo, arguably one of the greatest doctors of the Church, is one of my favourite saints, not only for his blinding theology, but also because of his brutal honesty when describing his previously rackety and louche lifestyle before being converted to Christianity by the grace of God.

Confessions, his apologia which is a spiritual classic, does not hold back when it comes to describing some of his past sins. He writes about taking pleasure in stealing, how he revelled in a self-indulgent lifestyle, enjoying chariot-racing, gambling, the pleasures of the theatre, played rude and unkind tricks on people and his sex-life was legendary. Augustine recounts how he spent thirty years of his life lost from God and Confessions reflects upon this time and how he believed that God had used this period to save him, but far from being a navel-gazing autobiography, Confessions is a work that seeks to praise God.

Some scholars believe that one of the reasons that St Augustine wrote this defining work, was because he was attempting to give an answer for Catholics in response to the Donatists who had a legalistic approach and did not forgive sin very easily. Augustine had been building a solid reputation as a faithful convert, he’d been baptised ten years previously, but at time of writing his Confessions had only been a bishop a few years and therefore was encountering much jeering from the Donatists who did not afford him much credibility because his reputation as a past sinner preceded him.

I could never hope to attain the intellectual brilliance of Saint Augustine although I aspire to his holiness and have great sympathy with him, not least because like him I have a ‘past’.

Today, on Twitter, once again the same group of people comprised of a hotchpotch of gay activists and disaffected Catholics, launched one of their attacks and did so very publicly and very specifically, using my name and hurtful events in my past as a means to attack. The accusation being that due to having behaved in a less than holy way in the past, I am now a terrible example and appalling representative of my faith.

I don’t claim to be a plaster-cast saint and like Saint Augustine I have made some disastrous mistakes in my past. I told a few people about this in confidence, and on one occasion briefly went public on this for about 2 minutes, before deleting a post, as I was advised that I was opening myself up to a lot of personal attack and would need to ensure that I had the necessary emotional strength to cope with it.

Those who scan my feed with gimlet eyes 24/7 obviously saw it and/or they were informed by the former friend whom I once told and now toss this about with impunity, believing that it validates their contention about the state of my soul. When I did an interview for Vicky Beeching’s faith in feminism site, within 5 minutes, a commentator steamed in with a comment containing personal information, then complained bitterly when upon my request Vicky kindly deleted it, appreciating the inappropriate nature of the remark. She later related how she was repeatedly emailed and told about my past, the claim being that I was a secret pro-choice advocate!

So here are the three accusations. I have screenshots of the vile tweets, but I won’t use them here because I don’t want to make this about personalities.


1) I have divorced and re-married. That’s not very ‘Catholic’ is it and in reality I’m still married to another man and committing adultery. Yes really, that’s what a fake account set up using the name @realfarrow and my photographs said. As did another fake account @stain_of_sin which tweeted bible verses from Revelation about the ‘hating the whore’ and ‘her flesh burning’. Really. The latter account still exists at time of writing. It made a list called ‘mummy’s friends’ and made threats that they should all be told the truth unless I got off Twitter.

I’ve written about this before. I was never validly married in the eyes of the Church and for reasons I’m not going to go into, there are doubts surrounding the civil legality of my former marriage.

I’m not going to get overly defensive about the affair because I turned it over to a Church marriage tribunal who ruled that no marriage ever previously existed. I have to bear some blame because I did not understand the nature of the sacrament of marriage, that it entailed being open to children, was life-long and unbreakable. Neither did my former partner who still believes that marriage should have nothing to do with children.

The lesson I have learned from that is to ensure that my children fully understand what marriage is all about and take real care in discerning whether or not it is for them as well as in discerning a potential spouse. Like many people of my generation I suspect, I walked into something, without thinking about what came beyond ‘the big day’, because I was cohabiting and it was believed to be the ‘next step’ and because I felt under pressure from family that it was the right thing to do. I also liked the idea of respectability that being married and having a nice flashy ring afforded. Yes, I was that shallow.

Relationship breakdown is always a painful experience, especially when children are involved and mine was no different. Had the pair of us been more honest with each other about desires for children, then a lot of heartbreak would have been avoided on all sides.

Dodgy Bar job

2) I once worked in a bar called Hooters in another country. At least three different people have made specific reference to this, it stems from something I told a former friend a few years ago, not being public information. The reference is used frequently in an attempt to shame and humiliate me, because those familiar with said establishment will know that their gimmick is to employ attractive women who wear a relatively sexy uniform.

Hooters is billed as family restaurant. Kids eat free there. So basically I served beer and food at the age of 18, whilst wearing short shorts and a vest top. Big woo!


3) Most seriously, and there is a whole other post in this, when I feel emotionally ready and strong enough, as this group frequently  tells people privately and now publicly, I had an abortion in 1997. I am one of those ‘baby-killers’ who I allegedly judge and despise. Except I don’t because I’ve been there.

Some of the factors that influenced my decision was that the baby was the result of a non-consenual encounter and it was clear I would be bringing up a child alone. I was on a six-month temporary contract at work and would undoubtedly lose my job. I was scared of the stigma of being a single mum on benefits as well as the reaction of my family and my reputation. I knew one day I wanted to get married and had been told that “no decent man will look at you twice”. There is something of an irony in that I eventually went on to marry someone who was delighted that I had a beautiful daughter and couldn’t care less that I was a single mother.

Adoption was dismissed as “you don’t want someone knocking on your door in 18 years time” and thus I found myself at  the door of the Marie Stopes clinic Whitmore Street in July 1997.

I had been warned to expect protestors or demonstrators by the clinic and was almost disappointed that there was no-one there. There was a part of me that wanted to be confronted or challenged, I don’t know what the result of that encounter would have been, but my feeling is that I would now have a 17 year old child who was alive.

What bothered me was not the circumstances of conception, but the idea of coping alone with a baby along with the accompanying shame and stigma.

I used biological sophistry to defend my decision, despite knowing inherently that this was a human life who deserved the same protection as everyone else. The ‘counselling’ in Marie Stopes consisted of a woman telling me that ‘there is no other choice, it’s clear-cut, you’re obviously in no position to be able to look after a baby’.

There’s a lot more for another time about the horrors of the procedure itself, the way that Marie Stopes treated me like a contemptible stupid piece of meat, from the monosyllabic person who carried out the scan, to the aggressive woman on reception who shouted at me the morning of the procedure, for not having brought the right piece of paperwork, one which she subsequently found she had all along. As I burst into tears, she then looked at me with a hint of remorse and said “are you sure you’ve made the right decision”? It was too late, I’d already taken the tablets to poison the baby and cause the foetal sac to detach from the placenta the day previously. One memory that stays with me is of the slightly chubby West Indian girl, listing like a beached whale, stretched out flat on the bench to entrance, vomiting profusely into a kidney dish and crying, all alone, whilst everyone looked on rather nervously. I wanted to reach out and touch her hand, but I didn’t.

Despite the fact that I thought abortion was the ‘right’ decision for me, that I didn’t believe that the baby could feel any pain and walked out of the clinic, physically traumatised, but too exhausted really to think or absorb what had just happened, it hit me the next day.

I was at home, sitting watching Coronation Street with the family, when all of a sudden the after-pains kicked in and I experienced stomach-wrenching contractions, which caused me to writhe in pain. It hit me. What the hell was I doing watching Coronation Street, pretending everything was alright when really my baby was dead? I ran to my bedroom lay on my bed and howled pitifully, like a wolf at the moon. There was a palpable, visceral sense of emptiness and loss, which no-one had warned me about and which I didn’t expect.

My baby was dead and gone, would never come back and I had killed him or her. I would have given anything to turn the clock back 72 hours just to have my baby back, to hold them in my arms, to see them, but it was too late. I couldn’t actually believe what I had done. The best analogy is that of the character of John Coffey in the Green Mile, when he discovers the bodies of the dead children and desperately cradles them and attempts to use his supernatural power to save them.

“I tried to take it back, but I couldn’t”.

I vowed then, that I never ever wanted any woman to suffer either physically or emotionally in the same way that I had, and it’s one of the reasons that I am so passionately and vehemently pro-life.

I am ashamed that I did such a dreadful thing, but equally I brought this all to the Lord in the sacrament of confession many many years ago. The thought of confessing to having killed my unborn child was terrifying and deterred me from going to confession for years, but once I had done so, it was the most beautiful, liberating and healing experience of my life. I walked out feeling 10 stone lighter, knowing and trusting that I had been forgiven.

I am as healed as one can ever be from such an experience, although there is always a sense that one (now two) of my children are missing, I should also have a seventeen year old who isn’t here. I know one day I will have to look that child in the face and apologise for the fact that I deprived them of the chance of life, and I cannot justify my decision. There may have been mitigating circumstances but it was the wrong thing to do nonetheless and I accept that, which is why so many women struggle with the healing process. It’s a delicate balance of accepting that one has lost a baby, accepting your personal responsibility in that, but at the same time being gentle with yourself.  Looking at teenage mothers who had the courage to continue with their pregnancy fills me with a sense of awe, inspiration and shame.

Going through the recent experience of a managed miscarriage, which had many similarities to the abortion, has thrown it all into sharp and painful relief – the contrast of giving birth to a deceased child, instead of one that you had caused to die, along with according him or her the respect and dignity that they were due as a human being, rather than allowing them to be discarded as a piece of clinical waste in the incinerator.


I’m coming clean as this has been repeatedly used to attack me over the past few months in an attempt to shame and hound me off public forums.

I made some hideous and reckless decisions when I was young, which inflicted some lasting damage. Like all of us I am wounded, but it’s Christ who heals our wounds and like his they can be transformed and glorified. One of the reasons I deviated so far from the path of God, was not just my own sinful nature, but because I hadn’t been brought up with strong faith foundations and didn’t understand the teaching of the Church or have any vision to aspire to.

I look at certain members of Catholic youth with a certain enviousness; armed with similar grace, faith, trust and certainty at that age, I could have prevented a lot of heartbreak and unnecessary mess.

And funnily enough, the only people who wish to berate me for my past are those who are outside the Church in one way or another, who are living irregular lifestyles. From those so-called orthodox, traditional Catholics, I’ve had nothing but acceptance and love. It isn’t Catholics doing the ‘judging’.

Like St Augustine I learnt that our hearts are restless until they rest in the Lord. And if my painful experience deters just one person from entering through the abortion clinic doors, if my witness inspires others to learn why it is I am so passionate about our faith, or to make people approach the faith with an open-mind or concede that my ideas are based on reason and truth, then the psychological cyber-bullying is worth it and will no doubt continue.

But yes, I made a mess of my life, including an attempted marriage and an abortion. But I am secure in the knowledge that I’ve made amends, conformed my life to God and that His love for has not diminished. And if there’s hope for me, then there’s hope for everyone.

Pray for me.

The taboo of behaviour change

Most people accept and acknowledge that behaviour is an important factor when it comes to matters of health. Although we cannot change our genetics, certain people are predisposed towards conditions such as cancer, there are things that we can do to mitigate risk and attempt to maintain optimum health. We know that smokers substantially increase their chances of contracting disorders affecting their pulmonary and circulatory systems, we accept that eating saturated fats and salt in large quantities increases our risk of heart attacks, we accept that obesity is linked to diabetes and that ideally we should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day as well as take regular exercise.

Very few people kick up a fuss when the benefits of adopting certain behaviours are suggested and promoted by the government, we know that excessive drinking is bad for us, we know that pregnant women shouldn’t smoke and various health authorities and advisors are playing around with the idea of financially incentivising or discouraging certain behaviours in the interest of public health. One health authority is trialling the idea of financially rewarding mothers who breastfeed with a voucher system, in order to reboot and kick start a culture of breastfeeding which, if the mother is able to do so (the overwhelming majority of women can breastfeed with the right advice and support) is best for the child. We’ve seen minimum alcohol pricing introduced in Scotland and mooted in the UK, along with taxes on fast food, dubbed the ‘fat tax’. There’s also talk of making vaccinations compulsory for children in order to qualify for child benefit.

So why  is it, when it comes to issues of sexual health, proposing certain behaviours should be adopted, such as abstinence until marriage and remaining faithful and monogamous to one sexual partner only, becomes the subject of immense vitriol and scorn?

Those who follow me on Twitter, would do well to have a look at an illuminating discussion held over the course of the last few days. Leaving aside the usual awfulness comprised of “you have bizarre morals, you’d rather your children got cancer than had sex, you are twisted, everyone hates you, oh look now you’re playing victim again, you’re only doing this for attention, you ought to get off Twitter, no one listens to you and thank God you are not like most Catholics” (requisite skin of a rhinoceros is yet to form, it is hard to repeatedly attract such unfounded abuse) what seemed to be causing unprecedented amounts of opprobrium was the idea that sexual behaviour is key in terms of maintaining optimal sexual health and avoiding the transmission of STDs.

The first issue being that of the HPV vaccine which it is recommended that girls receive in early adolescence before they commence sexual activity. In a misleading advertising campaign, the NHS suggests that once the girls receive the vaccine they are therefore “armed for life”. As this interview with one of the lead researchers responsible for the development of the vaccine used in the UK, Gardasil, makes clear, HPV vaccination has its disadvantages as well its advantages. Instead of being armed for life, as the NHS advert suggests, the vaccine has a limited effect, lasting up to 15 years maximum.

Armed for life, or 5-15 years? Armed against every strain, or just a few?
Armed for life, or 5-15 years? Armed against every strain, or just a few?

The vaccine is not an immunisation against cervical cancer, but rather the HPV virus, which is present in almost all forms  of cervical cancer and believed to be responsible for the condition. While considering whether or not one ought to allow one’s child to be vaccinated, one needs to weigh up all information available, such as efficacy and benefits versus the risks.

As with all vaccines, there are risks with Gardasil, including auto-immune disorders and even death, although these are rare. As Marcia Yerman points out, this vaccine does not protect women for life, they can still get other HPV infections which are not covered by the jab and they must not neglect regular cervical smear tests, which are vital in terms of discovering and treating pre-cancerous cells.

An immunisation may protect you from certain forms of HPV which could lead to cancer, however cervical cancer is as my gynaecologist once put it, “one of the must stupid cancers to die from” in that is is easily treatable if caught early. Regular pap smears detect abnormal or precancerous cells which are then promptly removed before they have a chance to develop into full-blown cancer.

The best way to avoid infection with HPV, which is a purely sexually transmitted disease, is to limit the number of sexual partners you have, the ideal being to have just one sexual partner and remain faithful them to the rest of your life. If your sexual partner has equally never had any sexual contact with anyone else then your risk of developing an HPV infection which could lead to cancer is negligible. Worringly, there seems to be an emergence of head and neck cancers related to HPV infection, contracted through oral sexual contact.

While HPV vaccination could prevent infection, aside from the small risks of an adverse reaction, the danger is not that it will encourage promiscuity, (and regardless of vaccine, promiscuous behaviour is risky) but that it will encourage the phenomenon of risk compensation, as experienced by Professor Edward Green, former Professor of HIV Prevention at Harvard. Believing that they have been immunised against cervical cancer, girls may be encouraged not to use barrier forms of contraception and/or engage in sexual behaviour that they would otherwise have avoided, under the illusion that they were safe and protected. Most concerning is that they may be discouraged from participating in the cervical screening programme, (most women approach their smear with reluctance, no-one relishes the experience, it is a necessary uncomfortable part of health care) believing that they are protected from cervical cancer. An HPV jab isn’t going to prevent the development of precancerous cells let alone treat them.

Pap smears have never killed anyone. Pap smears are an effective screening tool to prevent cervical cancer. Pap smears alone prevent more cervical cancers than vaccines. The argument is best summed up by Marcia Yerman thus:

Gardasil is associated with serious adverse events, including death. If Gardasil is given to 11 year olds, and the vaccine does not last at least fifteen years, then there is no benefit – and only risk – for the young girl. Vaccinating will not reduce the population incidence of cervical cancer if the woman continues to get Pap screening throughout her life.

If a woman is never going to get Pap screening, then a HPV vaccine could offer her a better chance of not developing cervical cancer, and this protection may be valued by the woman as worth the small but real risks of serious adverse events. On the other hand, the woman may not value the protection from Gardasil as being worth the risk knowing that 1) she is at low risk for a persistent HPV infection and 2) most precancers can be detected and treated successfully. It is entirely a personal value judgment.

What is left out is that 95% of all HPV infections are cleared spontaneously by the body’s immune system. The remaining 5% progress to cancer precursors. Cancer precursors, specifically CIN 3, progresses to invasive cancer in the following proportions: 20% of women with CIN 3 progress to invasive cervical cancer in five years; 40% progress to cervical cancer in thirty years. There is ample time to detect and treat the early precancers and early stage cancers for 100% cure.

So really there is no need for the “Lord spare us from ignorant Catholic houseswives putting out dangerous information” “your daughters will get cancer”, “Farrow is spreading dangerous lies”, “you are pro-cancer and pro-HIV” invective spewing across my timeline.

Problem is, in a society when personal autonomy and choices are gods, suggesting anything other than all choices are of equal value (moral relativism) is akin to judgemental bigotry. It might be extremely convenient for me that Catholic doctrine on sexual morality is  scientifically sound, natural law is entirely logical, but it’s a nightmare for sexual libertines, most of whom seem to be unhealthily preoccupied or obsessed with others’ approval. Advocating a certain course of action is automatically deemed ‘judgemental’ or ‘blaming’ of those who don’t take that course of action and allegedly stigmatises those who do suffer from adverse health, regardless of whether or not they have engaged in risky behaviour.

The idea of a society when people can have as much sex as they like, with as many people as like, consequence free and that we can protect people from STDs might well be a beguiling one, but it is highly irresponsible. HPV vaccines, condoms, birth control and abortion all add to this masquerade, which is why people become so angry when their lifestyle is challenged. It’s easy to dismiss moral concerns as being based upon religious grounds but pointing out irrefutably scientifically established health risks raises things another notch. It must be disconcerting to learn that the prejudiced bigots are right, better to attack their motivation, values or character, instead of the issue itself.

The whole canard of HIV prevention in Africa was once again raised, with all evidence being dismissed as biased, simply because of the fact that it was presented by me and supported Catholic doctrine. As has been demonstrated, the Emeritus Pope was entirely correct when he pointed out that condom promotion exacerbated the problem of the spread of HIV. Condoms have a typical use failure rate of 18%, the spontaneous nature of sexual urgency makes laboratory conditions of perfect use, extremely difficult to replicate. Problems are exacerbated in countries such as Malawi, which as aid workers testify, are flooded with condoms nearing their expiry date and which have been stored and shipped in conditions making them more susceptible to damage. People are making risky decisions on the false premise that they are protected.

I guess I’m rather nonplussed, it’s bizarre to see coherent evidence denied simply because it supports your worldview. The ‘debate’ veered from accusations of making stuff up, of putting out irresponsible information on internet that would cause deaths, to an admission that I hadn’t actually said anything factually incorrect, but was cherry-picking the evidence to suit my own purposes. Isn’t that what most people do, come to a conclusion based on the evidence available?

Sexual health is not the only area in which emotions are inflamed when suggestions are made of an unhealthy lifestyle as being a contributory factor to certain conditions, and the age of moral relativism means that all are equal. Hence the perennial wars on baby websites about breast versus bottle. Health decisions, especially for children always involve  heavy personal investment. I’ve taken decisions (such as miscarriage management) that may not have been advocated as the best course of action as others, but the difference is, I’m not going to get offended if someone suggests I should have done something else, in the same way, I couldn’t give two hoots if someone thinks my cesarian-sections were because I was too posh to push. I know a natural childbirth is ideal but just because life doesn’t always work out the way you’d hope, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aspire to the best.

Trying to discourage promiscuity, instead of relying upon the illusions and false promises of the pharmaceutical society, has to be a much more sustainable, long-term and ultimately cheaper solution. Pointing out that condoms don’t always work should not be an issue to cause such bad feeling. Why aren’t we asking why until the HPV jab was developed, that condom manufacturers and family planning officials were not widely publicising that they didn’t fully protect from HPV?

Evidently I’m still a naif, in that I’m still taken aback and surprised by the animus coming in my direction, for stating a medical fact. Stick to one sexual partner only (or remain celibate) if you want to seriously lessen your chances of contracting a sexually transmitted condition. It may not be the easiest, it may take willpower, but it’s no more impossible than say quitting smoking or cutting out the booze. You just have to want to do it. Stating the ideal does not blame the unlucky.

I may well get a t-shirt printed – Catholic teaching on sex corresponds with medical fact, get over it. What is more dangerous, giving an illusion of protection, or presenting the pure unadulterated facts as they stand?

While I should no longer be surprised, I still find myself taken aback nonetheless. Why are otherwise intelligent people so willfully blind when it comes to the consequences of sexual behaviour? Uncharitably, the only conclusion I can arrive at that is that it’s concrete proof that sin really does darken the intellect and make you stupid. People are too attached to a certain behaviour to want to admit that it could cause harm.

Clerical celibacy and clergy wives

Taken from the Catholic Universe 17 November 2013



The topic of clerical celibacy has been hotly debated on the letters page of the Universe of late and I’ve been intrigued to note the general theme has been overwhelmingly in favour of the notion that the Catholic Church ought to change her discipline regarding whether or not priests may marry.

It’s an issue in which I have a degree of personal investment; as my bio notes, my husband is currently in the process of formation awaiting ordination to the Catholic priesthood, following fourteen years of ministry as an Anglican vicar.

While one might automatically assume that I would be a natural advocate for a married priesthood, the reality is that I find discussion of the subject rather uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, not least because I am not wholly convinced that a married priesthood is in the best interests of the church, and because I find myself agreeing with St Paul not least in terms of the divided heart. Which arguably makes me something of a hypocrite!

From the point of view of a clergy spouse, one of the most irritating aspects is that the whole debate centres around the man himself and the benefits to him and thus his vocation of priesthood, of being married, many of which raise the canard of the benefits of a regular sex-life. The pedophile scandal has propagated a flawed narrative which holds that if a man is married he will therefore be enjoying frequent bouts of sexual activity and therefore less likely to go out and abuse children.

Leaving aside the fanciful notion that marriage is a guarantee of regular sex, statistics demonstrate that married men are just as likely to commit sexual offences as those who are single. There is no evidence to suggest that healthy heterosexual men develop erotic attractions to children or adolescents as a result of abstinence and even if there were, this would not excuse the heinous crime of sexual abuse. The other disturbing aspect of this line of thinking is that it validates the misguided idea that sex is a basic human need, on a par with food, water, shelter and rest. I’m yet to hear of the case of a man or woman who died as a direct result of lack of sex, and it’s more than a little insulting to the many millions of people who manage to live happy and fulfilled lives of celibacy, to suggest that there may actually be something wrong with them for not desiring sexual intimacy. The message that sexual intimacy is a necessary part of adult life runs is in direct opposition to Catholic teaching and one we should strongly reject.

 From my perspective, what I find enormously offensive about all of the arguments surrounding married priests is that no matter how well-meaning people are, they inadvertently take on a misogynist tone, in that the clergy wife herself is never considered as person, she is always reduced to the status of a chattel and often by those who would no doubt otherwise consider themselves bastions of a progressive attitude. It is beyond abhorrent to be referred to as some sort of faceless sexual object, there to fulfil one’s husband’s sexual needs in order to make him a more rounded person. Christ set the standard of celibacy, I don’t remember anything in the Gospels about needing to use women as either sexual or domestic objects in order to build up the Kingdom of Heaven.

 What is never mentioned and definitely needs to be borne in mind is that being a clergy wife is a tough call and a vocation in and of itself. Wives have to innately understand the demands of priesthood, this is not merely a job to put bread on the table, it is an indelible mark on the soul, your husband has responsibility for the care of souls and therefore it requires more self-sacrifice than in other marriages. On a practical level you have to accept that your husband probably won’t be there most evenings, a phone call or knock at the door means that children’s parents evenings will need to take second place to administering the sacrament to the sick or dying, weekends will be a wash-out, especially during the summer wedding season, you’ll need to run an open-house, keep a well-stocked larder, take full responsibility for childcare and accept the fact that your husband will not be able to retire until he is 75. In addition you will feel under constant scrutiny and pressure to be modelling the perfect example of family life and domesticity at the same time as trying to make oneself as inconspicuous as possible, in order not to be seen to be trailblazing a path or making some kind of political point about the merits of a married clergy.

Being married to a priest means that one needs to be able to support and not impede his ministry, so that on the terrible day of judgement, I will not be complicit in having prevented my husband in shepherding his flock. That’s not a responsibility, I, or any clergy wife I know, take lightly.

I never imagined I would wind up married to a Catholic priest, but life as an Anglican vicar’s wife has been a good preparation for the role. Convert clergy wives go into this with their eyes open and have to endure a great deal of personal upheaval and sacrifice before their husbands are even ordained.

 The laity may well believe that Father ought to take a wife. But whether or not he can find one that not only wants to marry him, but is prepared and equipped to deal with the unique and demanding life of being Mrs Father, one which has a potential to strain a marriage, is another matter entirely.

Nano Nagle – a beacon for 21st Century Catholic women

Taken from the Catholic Universe 10 November 2013


Having stated last week that it was possible to be both a Catholic and a feminist, my heart leapt at the announcement from the Vatican this week that Nano Nagle, the Irishwoman who founded the Sisters of the Presentation Order is to be declared a Venerable, the next step on the path to Sainthood.

Born to Irish Catholic gentry in Ballygriffin, North Cork in 1718, Nano (who was Christened Honora) was born against the backdrop of Ireland’s notorious penal laws, that were designed to subjugate and oppress Catholics, with the aim of wiping out the practice of Catholicism within Ireland. In the words of Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman, politician and philosopher, Nano’s distant relative, “Their declared object was to reduce the Catholics in Ireland to a miserable populace, without property, without estimation, without education”.

Eighteenth century Ireland banned the opening of Catholic schools and also forbade Catholics from travelling overseas to receive an education, therefore Nano’s family took some risks in smuggling her and her sister Ann to Paris where they were able to enjoy a full Catholic education.

It was witnessing the plight of the Parisian poor that inspired Nano to consider how she could best serve them and upon discerning a vocation, following advice from her spiritual director she decided to dedicate her life to providing an education for children in poverty.

The world is currently captivated by the story of the courageous Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai who was shot by the Taliban for her activism encouraging girls to attend school, against considerable cultural pressure and yet 250 years ago, a Catholic woman was displaying the same bravery and pioneering spirit in terms of overcoming a cultural bigotry and prejudice that was enforced by law. When Nano’s brother accidentally discovered what she was up to, his initial reaction was anger as she was placing herself and the family under considerable risk.

Embodying the spirit of the Gospels, Nano’s first school in Cove Lane, Cork, admitted thirty children, from the poorest and most deprived backgrounds, by the time she died in 1784, a whole network of schools had been established, teaching over 400 pupils in seven different parishes, all funded by her own inherited wealth. The schools taught basic reading, writing and arithmetic alongside fundamental catechesis. She also introduced classes in practical skills such as needlework and lace-making in order to enable girls to be able to earn their own living and lift themselves out of poverty.

When her personal fortune ran out, she began begging on the streets on behalf of her schools and eventually founded her own order of religious sisters with the constitution of educating the poor. As the penal laws were still in force, instead of being able to be called Mother Superior or wear a habit, Nano was known as Miss Nagle. A hundred years before the work of Florence Nightingale she became known as the the Lady of the Lantern and her sisters known as ‘Nano’s walking nuns’, her love of the poor not confined to the education of children, but she extended her work to visiting the homes of the poor and doing rounds in the backstreets of Cork.

At a time when the media, the Irish media in particular and public life is preoccupied with sneering at Catholic Religious Orders, it is worth highlighting their contribution to Ireland and the world at large. Presentation Nuns alongside other orders were the first to provide Irish people with the opportunity for an education when no Government or other public body was willing or able to do so and at great personal cost to themselves. Through the foresight of those such as Nano Nagle, and the thousands of religious who dedicated their life to this work, generations of pupils were given a first-rate education, equipped with skills and thus able to elevate themselves out of poverty and contribute to the common good.

Today, many Catholic religious orders continue to provide education, often the only education available in some of the poorest and most unstable parts of the world, such as in Africa, Latin America and in Asia, a fact that is sadly all too often overlooked or ignored, even by Catholics. Nano’s Sisters of the Presentation Order has spread as far afield as Peru, Chile, Ecuador, India, Pakistan, Slovakia, Pakistan, the Philippines, the United States, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Nano Nagle, set down the foundations of the education system in Ireland and inspired generations of educators to come, including a number of notable women who founded their own religious orders and network of schools. Those who so often rush to accuse the Church of misogyny ought to examine the history of Nano and her spiritual descendants, recognising and celebrating their contribution and the contribution of the Catholic Church to the education and empowerment of women.

Nano Nagle’s lantern became the symbol of the Presentation Sisters all over the world. Now her life has been officially recognised as being heroic in virtue, she continues to remain a beacon for twenty-first century Catholic women, showing that fighting for the causes of women and social justice do not need to be mutually exclusive.

There’s absolutely no contradiction between being a feminist and a Catholic

Taken from the Catholic Universe 3 November 2013

Syrian Christian women facing persecution

I was privileged to be asked to participate in the BBC’s 100 women conference this week, which was the culmination of a season of programming and online features designed to highlight and propose remedies for the inequality still faced by women around the world.

At times the conference felt surreal in that being part of what appeared to be a conference mainly perpetuated by prolific middle-class women, most of whom had achieved either professional or personal success, hence coming to the attention of the BBC, the idea that we were all still somehow unequal, being discriminated against or not being listened to by the world at large, seemed contradictory.

To give the BBC their due not every woman was a notable or big name and it was particularly humbling to meet women such as Joyce Ako Aruga, a Kenyan woman currently studying to be a teacher at university, who had to fight every step of the way for her education, only being able to attend school, once she had escaped from her marriage at the age of thirteen.

 The overwhelming narrative was that of women as victims, which when one listens to stories such as those of Joyce’s, or Feresheth, a blind Iranian musician whose parents have threatened to burn her if she sings in public, is hard to disagree with.

Which is where Western feminism needs a wake-up call. Upon introducing myself to fellow delegates as a ‘Catholic feminist’, the responses from fellow delegates and activists ranged from a politely raised eyebrow to open-mouthed horror, people being unable to process that the two were reconcilable, as indeed are many of my co-religionists, feminism being thought of as a total anathema.

But as I reminded the assembled women, Catholic social teaching demands that we listen to the demands of the marginalised and oppressed, which is complementary to feminism when it is women who are particularly targeted by poverty and who have their rights and dignity as human beings, continually violated, with practices such as female genital mutilation, child marriages, being sold into sexual slavery and gender selective abortion.

To echo the words of Cardinal Martino, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice Peace, ‘it must not be forgotten that today extreme poverty has, above all, the face of women and children, especially in Africa.’ Amongst the UN Millennium goals is the aim to reduce global poverty which identifies gender inequality and women’s access to employment, education and health care as economic problems. The majority of those who live on less than one US dollar a day are women and therefore putting food on the table, especially when it comes to feeding children, is predominantly a women’s issue.

There are many ways in which Catholic feminists can act in solidarity with these women, while at the same time explicitly rejecting the other Millennium goals regarding population control which are used to coerce women into taking potentially harmful contraceptive measures and in some cases act as justification for enforced sterilisation and abortion. Development efforts such as micro-loans for women, co-operatives and education programmes are key strategies for development which can all ethically be supported- it is a proven and widely accepted fact that economies grow where women’s conditions improve.

Another important issue when it comes to women’s rights is that of law enforcement for crimes relating to sexual and domestic violence. All too often in countries where the dowry system operates, various agencies turn a blind eye to dowry-related violence or so-called honour killings, with the perpetrators of such terrible crimes not pursued or given extremely lenient sentences. When sexual offences are treated as being of little consequence by the authorities, this further reinforces a culture of disrespect towards women, which is epitomized in the practice of gender selective abortion and the implicit acceptance that a girl’s life is of lesser value.

Where women are treated as a lesser species and denied basic human rights, then there is plenty of scope for Catholics to consider themselves as feminists. So why is this concept treated with such unmitigated horror by the contemporary feminists of today?

Part of the answer lies in the infallible teaching of the Church with regards to the male priesthood. The general public fails to get its head around the difference between job and vocation as well as the theology that disbars women from ever being able to be ordained. Being a priest is falsely perceived to be the only way of exercising any power or leadership within the church and the fact that a large proportion of the faithful are women who are completely happy with this state of affairs and not acting from a sense of oppression, seems to have escaped many.

But perhaps more crucially is that the feminist movement has rooted itself in the ideology of reproductive rights, despite the fact that abortion has done more than any other single measure to harm the cause of the woman.

 When it came to the final debate of the day centering around the issue of whether or not faith and feminism are compatible, thankfully most women were keen not to be seen to be excluding those of us who had a faith, particularly due to the many participants who were wearing the Muslim hijab. It’s a rum kind of sisterhood that is only open to those with a lack of religious belief and more like a club for self-identifying intellectual elites

 Ultimately feminism goes beyond albeit important issues of pay and workplace parity, frankly smashing the glass ceiling is irrelevant to the majority of women, for whom we should be ensuring that the floor is steady beneath their feet. By concentrating on the issues of reproduction and equal pay, the feminist movement have forgotten the deeper philosophical issues which should underlie the movement. Who is woman? What are her roles and responsibilities and what is going to lead to her freedom, happiness and flourishing?

 Which is why it is imperative that Catholics do not simply reject feminism as mere victim identity politics, but fight for more a more holistic and authentic movement.