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Archive for the ‘Sex Education’ Category

Barber's shop pole

The story of when I was given sex-education has passed into our family’s folk-lore. I still remember it extremely well. I was in the fourth form, or Year 4 in today’s money, (aged 8 going on 9), when a letter came home from school, that we were going to be taught about the birds and the bees, by the headmaster, together with a note about the explanatory material.

In 1982 or it may have been 1983, (I can’t remember which precise term this took place, although I do remember it was most definitely Form 4, I can still recall the desk I was sitting at), this was a big thing. Especially in an independent preparatory school in the heart of a quiet ancient Essex market town. The school was a single-form entry, the ethos was that of muscular Christianity, the pupil intake consisted mainly of children of local wealthy farming families and the headmaster made liberal use of the slipper on naughty schoolboys.

The headmaster who despite being the proprietor of a decidedly middle-class private school and the son of peer of the realm, appeared to nurture progressive, left-wing views and suddenly out of the blue decided to take it upon himself to teach the fourth-form sex ed.

What do I remember from it? Horrible cross-section drawings of a man and a woman engaged in the marital act, together with diagrams of male and female reproductive parts, which I found to be boring and meaningless. In fact, I found the whole thing so dull, that I coloured in the A4 cross-section diagram of male reproductive parts, which was supposed to be labelled, in pink and green diagonal stripes, resembling the pattern of a barber’s pole!

Freud would have had a field day, but oh how my parents roared with laughter when I brought the booklet home, in order for them to be able to see the material we were covering for themselves and ‘support’ the curriculum. Instead of the embarrassing baby photographs, for the past 30 years they have regaled friends and family with the story of the time that Caroline coloured in the diagram of a man’s willy in garish barbershop stripes.

Parents like talking about these things, not to embarrass us, but because they like to wistfully recall the time before we had put away child-like things. They remember with fondness and no doubt, rose-tinted glasses, the innocence of our childhood. These stories are only embarrassing to those who are desperately trying to cultivate an image of sophistication or coolness and the story of that time that you stuck a pea up your nose which had to be removed by the GP (yep, me again) is a reminder of one’s base humanity and that like the rest of us, you were born, have bodily functions, and will one day die. Nobody seriously judges the adult on the basis of some barely remembered childhood escapades.

My parents like telling this tale because it is inherently funny. The 8 year old more interested in treating the picture of the male organ as a piece of colouring rather than deriving any educational benefit from it and who had no idea that colouring it in could be seen as inappropriate. I vaguely remember doing it as well. I think it was because I found the whole thing deadly boring.

The idea of men and women ‘doing it’ was utterly repellant, there was no way, thought my 8 year old self, would I entertain the idea of one of the boys in my class ever doing that, not even when I was grown up – it looked painful! And of course, no kind of context was provided, that the couple might be in love, would be married, that the love meant that they’d want to have a baby together, no, it was the sheer mechanics of the thing. Being the youngest child of two only children, I had no first cousins and very little experience of younger children or babies, wasn’t that fussed about them and certainly not enough to suddenly decide to do ‘that’ with a boy. It just seemed so cold and revolting.

At the same time as being taught about reproduction however, we were also taught the word ‘gay’. It meant, said our headmaster earnestly, that a man or a woman may sometimes fall in love with each other, instead of with the opposite sex. People who were gay ‘could not help it’, it was not funny, no laughing matter, they should not be mocked and should be treated the same way as everybody else.

That was something we took on board, along with the previous warning we’d had about the amount of trouble we would be in, if following episodes of Blue Peter, we were overheard calling anybody a ‘spastic, spas’ or ‘Joey’ in the playground with accompanying hand gestures. You’d be in very big trouble indeed!!

Now all this was fair enough, though from what I remember, outlawing specific terms of insults in the playground, just made them more exciting for the really naughty children (usually boys) who were trying to push boundaries. They’d still use the words, but in the wooded area behind the school hall, where the teachers didn’t bother to patrol, not because they wanted to be ‘able-ist’ or homophobic or whatever, but because they got a frisson out of being naughty. The only effect banning words had, was to encourage children to snitch on each other. Sometimes this would be genuine; you’d get the child who understood why the term ‘Joey’ was really wrong, but sometimes, one child would misreport another, just to get them into trouble. It’s been a feature of playgrounds since time immemorial.

I remember thinking that it was wrong to mock people because they fell in love with those of the same sex, but I thought that was primarily about adults. Aged 8, the word ‘gay’ wasn’t really milling around the playground as to the best of my knowledge, sex wasn’t something we were thinking about. Not even in 1982/3. The contents of the sex ed lesson were universally received with an ‘eurgh’ by a class who were too shocked to say much about it to each other. I’m not aware that we had any pupil (though we are culturally obliged to call even 4 year olds, the adult term, ‘students’ these days) who was gay, but neither did we have any pupils who were ‘going out’ with anyone either. Children being sexually interested in each other, just wasn’t a thing. Kiss-chase was something you did to wind the boys up, just as they would run after you with plastic spiders!

When we revisited sex ed in Year 6, aged 10-11 it was met with much hilarity, still due to embarrassment. My little friend Rebecca kept talking about the “scrotchum” instead of the ‘scrotum’ when labelling her diagram and we racked our brains as to what one of these was, still not fully understanding. We had ‘the period talk’ and for a while discussion about sanitary products prevailed and we wondered who had a mum who wouldn’t talk about these things, like the grim-faced snappily silent mother of the booklet, and breathed a sigh of relief that we’d still be able to go swimming and play netball.

Can I say that aside from knowing not to be unkind about people who were gay (or had cerebral palsy) that my primary school sex education was especially necessary or relevant? Did it help equip me ‘morally, culturally, spiritually and socially’? Does it stand as a shining example of why we so apparently need high quality sex-ed in primary schools today? Does it explain why pupils specifically need to be taught that some people are ‘born in the wrong body’ (a statement with no scientific evidence behind it) and why 4 year olds need to be encouraged to believe that changing your sex is as easy as deciding that you’d prefer to wear a dress and that being male and female is all about the toys you wish to play with and the various superheroes or children’s characters you like and dislike?

Does the fact that Savannah has two daddies or that Kacey-Eve only has a mum, mean that children need to be taught about adult sexuality in depth in order to be ‘safe’, or will a simple ‘be kind, be nice, be loving and respectful to everybody, including to those different to you’, no longer suffice?

My pink and green diagonally striped ‘barber’s pole’ is as sound a metaphor as any, when we’re talking about the usefulness of primary school sex ed.

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This morning, I was invited back on to breakfast television to reprise the argument I made on the programme last year regarding the NICE guidelines which recommended that infertile couples should be given 3 cycles of IVF on the NHS.

Since then it transpires that over three quarters of NHS trusts are disregarding the guidance, leading NICE to issue even stronger advice forcing Clinical Commissioning Groups to implement their IVF guidelines, to end the ‘postcode lottery’ system which produces massive inequality in terms of how qualifying couples are treated.

In this instance inequality is not an inappropriate description of the situation. The NHS should provide an equal standard of care across the country – if it has determined that infertile couples should be afforded 3 cycles of IVF treatment then that should apply to you regardless of whether you live within affluent city suburbs, in a remote part of the country or on a run-down council estate.

If IVF is an accepted medical treatment on a par with chemotherapy for example, then it should not be withheld from anyone because their local health trust has decided that they cannot afford it and their priorities lie elsewhere.

The trouble is, of course, that whilst IVF is a medical treatment, opinion is massively and legitimately divided as to whether or not this ought to be funded by the NHS, given that infertility in and of itself is not a fatal, life-threatening or even life-limiting condition, unless one extends the medical definition of life-limiting to encompass quality of life issues.

That’s not to downplay the devastating effects of infertility which can undoubtedly cause emotional ill-health, but simply to note that an inability to conceive won’t actually kill you neither is there any research to prove that it might shorten your lifespan.

This certainly seems to be the view that various CCGs have taken faced with increasing budget constraints and difficult decisions as to where to channel their funds, and its one with which many of us will have sympathy. If the choice is between paying for drugs to extend the lifespan of a cancer patient, a hip operation or heart bypass for an elderly patient and whether or not to fund a form of therapy which could lead to a couple having a much wanted child, then for most right-thinking people, the choice is clear. Our priority should be with assisting the already-living and vulnerable rather than ignoring them in favour of creating their replacements.

As I pointed out last year, NICE guidelines have a habit of becoming quasi-legislation and thus last week former health secretary Andrew Lansley (responsible for the stealthy and undemocratic liberalisation of abortion law) has said that CCGs have a responsibility to obey NICE rules despite the fact that they are not actual pieces of legislation. Spot the inconsistency. In the eyes of Mr Lansley, NICE comes before the letter and spirit of the law.

So slowly but surely, British law has introduced and supported the notion that a child is something that every single person or couple should have a right to and for which the state  should pay. Consider the language of Sarah Norcross, co-chairman of the National Infertility Awareness Campaign who says “it’s high time that patients were allowed to access the treatment that they were entitled to”.

The ethics of entitlement and so-called equality therefore override any other considerations. If you are entitled to medical treatment on the NHS, then you should be given it regardless of other factors. If not being able to have a child is automatically designated as being a medical issue, because it takes clinical measures to achieve one, then it’s some kind of ‘ist’ or phobic to deny the treatment to someone, taking into account their lifestyle or individual circumstances. The needs of the adult are paramount, the needs of the child secondary – all that’s needed is love and the desire to access costly and gruelling treatment is sufficient evidence of suitability and should overcome all other considerations.

Apologies for beating the same allegedly homphobic drum, but recent HFEA stats show that there was a 36% increase in lesbian couples using IVF between 2010 and 2012. No matter how much sympathy one may or may not have for two women deciding to disregard a child’s right to a father, it’s not bigoted to ask whether or not this is really the sort of thing Bevan had in mind when he put in place the founding principles of the NHS? Should a single man or woman have the same right to access this treatment as married opposite gender couple? If resources are scarce, and IVF is going to be an accepted treatment, is it really so heinous to prioritise the married couple in a stable relationship who have been trying to conceive over a number years and have suffered a number of miscarriages over other scenarios? Or does the defining zeitgeist of equality mean that all situations and circumstances have to be treated equally regardless of merit? To say that one person may be more deserving of another, whether that be in the field of IVF or the even more controversial field of welfare and benefits, is today’s unspeakable heresy. In our relativistic world no one set of circumstances must ever be judged as being better or worse than another.

Another unpalatable fact that no-one seems to want to discuss when discussing the ethics of IVF on the NHS is the ethics of IVF itself. So when I attempted to point out that for every live birth that comes about due to IVF, another 30 embryos are created and that of the 4 million embryos created since 1991, only a tiny proportion have made it through to birth – this point was brushed aside. The discussion has to centre around the ethics of the treatment being made available for free, regardless of whether the treatment is in itself ethical.

I don’t know what is more frustrating, the entitlement culture, the disregard for the welfare of children or the wilful short-sightedness. Any other expensive treatment costing around £3.5K to £5K a time which had a less than 25% chance of success would not see NICE attempting to impose it upon CCGs as a matter of routine, especially when the treatment itself is so physically and emotionally demanding. It would instead be allocated according to individual circumstances.

As I said on the programme, it seems that we’ve got ourselves in something of a pickle with regards to fertility. On the one hand there’s couples crying out for IVF and the opportunity for a biological child of their own, on the other almost 200,000 abortions take place in the UK every year. Added to which abortion rates amongst women in their ‘30s and ‘40s are rising as women believe that they are no longer fertile.

It’s time for some joined-up social policy thinking on this issue. We know that with a little bit of training women can be trained to monitor and track their monthly cycles and pinpoint with a high degree of accuracy the fertile periods every month.

Women are given so many mixed messages and conflicting signals about their own fertility it’s not surprising that so many of us fail to navigate successfully through the reproductive minefield. Instead of teaching young women how to avoid pregnancy and that sex can be devoid of consequences how about teaching girls (and boys for that matter) the specifics of how to track female fertility. Instead of teaching them that fertility is an obstacle which must be suppressed via chemical hormones and abortion a useful and necessary back-up, why not help them to empower themselves in terms of learning the ebbs and flows of their own unique monthly cycle.

Armed with that information, they can then make the decisions which they feel are most appropriate, especially during the window of peak fertility. Tracking monthly cycles has another advantage in that it enables abnormal cycles or potential issues and barriers to conception to be identified and treated.

If the NHS is serious about wanting to tackle infertility, then instead of chucking money at what is a not very effective sticking plaster, a more pragmatic and cost-effective solution is to enable both women and medical practitioners to become specialists in natural female fertility instead of attempting to artificially suppress it until such time as it might be needed and then attempting to employ a costly treatment with a 75% chance of failure.

Even more radical, instead of teaching young girls that pregnancy is to be avoided until an indeterminate date in the distant future, how about education that focuses their minds on real family planning and the pros and cons of early versus late motherhood? How about going a step further and implementing far better childcare and maternity solutions and options for university students. While we’re at it why not chuck in cheap starter homes for young couples and measures to make life more attractive and conducive for young families?

Unfortunately the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to IVF and it would take a heart of stone not to sympathise with women like Jessica Hepburn who was interviewed alongside me earlier. What I wouldn’t do to be able to wave a wand and give her a baby and find a method that was successful, devoid of harmful physical side-effects and didn’t involve the destruction of life. Disagreeing with the use of technology does not extend to blaming or shaming those who want to avail themselves of it.

Heartbreaking, unexplained and untreatable cases of infertility cannot be completely eliminated, but with a bit more joined up thinking, the need for both IVF and at the other end of the spectrum abortion, could be drastically reduced.

Catholics reading this might be aware that today marks the start of a novena to Mary, Undoer of Knots. Dedicating it to couples facing the pain of infertility seems a good place to start.

 

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It’s rare I re-blog, but YES YES YES!! Finally a feminist who speaks my language and ‘gets it’.

I give you the divine Camille…

TIME

Fertility is the missing chapter in sex education. Sobering facts about women’s declining fertility after their 20s are being withheld from ambitious young women, who are propelled along a career track devised for men.

The refusal by public schools’ sex-education programs to acknowledge gender differences is betraying both boys and girls. The genders should be separated for sex counseling. It is absurd to avoid the harsh reality that boys have less to lose from casual serial sex than do girls, who risk pregnancy and whose future fertility can be compromised by disease. Boys need lessons in basic ethics and moral reasoning about sex (for example, not taking advantage of intoxicated dates), while girls must learn to distinguish sexual compliance from popularity.

Above all, girls need life-planning advice. Too often, sex education defines pregnancy as a pathology, for which the cure is abortion. Adolescent girls must think deeply about their ultimate…

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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.

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An unpleasant type of snobbery seems to be pervading certain parts of the internet at the moment, with bloggers such as Protect the Pope coming under fire for their continued and persistent promotion of life issues.

“Why can’t you widen your focus to include matters of social justice?” goes the refrain. Pope Francis’ recent interview having been interpreted by some quarters that Catholics need to stop focussing on issues arising from matters of human sexuality and instead concentrate their efforts on the poor.

Much ink has already been spilled over this, including my own in the Catholic Universe (apologies, recent events mean that I haven’t been up to date with posting my columns on the blog) but Francis has not said that we must abandon these issues, but that they must not be our only Gospel. Evangelisation does not begin with bashing another over the head for their shortcomings, or lecturing people solely on one area of doctrine while forgetting that the aim is to engender a love of Christ and a desire to focus on His message. Issues such as sexuality, abortion, poverty and hunger all flow holistically from the two main commandments of Christ, to love your God with all your heart and soul and then to love your neighbour as yourself.

This loving one’s neighbour as oneself means speaking the truth with charity. A love of one’s neighbour means attempting to stop them from falling into error, therefore we cannot ignore it when someone imperils their soul, we cannot validate sin by ignoring it, but rather act with love and compassion.

Figures such as Deacon Nick Donnelly and myself who have quite a strong pro-life bent to our output are not being urged to stop, or widen focus, but to remember what it is precisely that we are attempting to achieve. I can’t speak for Deacon Nick, but it’s something that I consider every single day and why at times, my writing can sometimes have a tortuous quality, in that I am trying to consider all angles and not alienate the very many non-Catholic onlookers who pop into the blog from time to time.

To those interlocutors who would urge me to concentrate on other matters of social justice, my riposte would be to “stick with what you are good at”. My particular vocation and charism when it comes to writing, blogging and speaking is that of issues surrounding the family, the unborn, human sexuality and the feminine vocation. In the spirit of Vatican II, if you perceive there to be a gap, then why not fill it yourself? If the wholesale killing of the unborn, the destruction of the family and the exploitation of the sick and elderly are not matters of social justice, then I don’t know what is?

I was someone who was brought up without any sort of understanding of what the Church taught regarding contraception. All I knew was that the Church said you couldn’t use the pill or condoms and not being the most intellectually curious of children, it didn’t occur to me to ask why. My mother used to tell me that the Church’s stance on condoms was wicked and it was a line I swallowed hook, line and sinker, even being so daring as to put it into an RE essay on one occasion, to which Mr Glynn smiled indulgently and said he thought that was a bit strong.

We had the mandatory SRE talk on contraception in what is now called Year 9 (third year in old money) and my thoughts were ‘oh wow, okay this is how it works, the pill seems like a jolly sensible thing, I might go and ask for it’ without any sort of guidance or comment, or even balancing biological information as to the downsides or risks. Of course in my day, the morning-after pill or long acting reversible contraceptives such as the implant were yet to be invented, but I’m sure that had they been, I would have thought them advisable and the Catholic church was just being silly and out of date. We were not even informed of the potential side-effects, contraception was ‘impartially’ presented as being an effective way to avoid pregnancy. There was no discussion about relationships whatsoever, aside from an unspoken sense that if you did have sex, be sure not to get caught.

Despite completing a GCSE in Religion with an ostensibly Catholic syllabus, the subject of contraception was never covered. Sister P once came out with the unforgettable statement that if you were having sex to round off the end of an enjoyable evening then you had no self-respect, a statement that never made any sense as an adolescent and needs further explanation. I would never insult any non-Catholics or leading feminist figures by claiming that a love of sex, or treating it as a recreational activity denotes a lack of self-respect. While I suspect that there are many women whose sexual behaviour does stem from a basic lack of self-respect, it cannot be said of everyone.

Culture encourages us to treat sex as a meaningless recreational activity at the same time as promoting the god of personal autonomy and self-respect. To have multiple sexual partners, to engage in outrageous sexual practices, does not automatically denote a lack of self-respect, rather the opposite. Indulging one’s own sexual proclivities, no matter how deviant or potentially physically and psychologically unhealthy is seen as a good.

So it makes no sense to be telling adolescents or adults that to succumb to their sexual appetites and cravings denotes a lack of self-respect and is not an affective or appealing argument without further exploration. It certainly didn’t chime with me.

But by not being taught about what we should aspire to, because no-one held chastity up to me as a goal or a good, because abortion was never explained in anything more than abstract philosophical terms, and never explored in any detail, I was profoundly hurt and damaged in my teens and twenties and subject to a lot of unnecessary heartbreak and mistakes.

Funnily enough once I embraced the church things turned good and fell into place, but not without forays into co-habitation and an attempt at marriage in which I lacked all understanding of what marriage actually was and what it meant, never having received any guidance or preparation.

A combination of parents’ embarassed silence on these issues and a school whose attitude was ambivalence, indifference and turning a blind eye to the obvious sexual escapades of their pupils, (unless they were caught when sanctions had to be seen to be applied) meant that I was extremely susceptible to the influence of women’s lifestyle magazines like Cosmopolitan, whose dissonant message has not changed over the past 30 years. Have as much sex as you want, with whomsoever you want, here are some tips to make it spicy, if you’re not swinging from the chandeliers or not wanting to swing from the chandeliers, you are doing something wrong and in all likelihood sexually repressed, besides which you need to make sure you are good at it if you want him to call you again.

These two articles demonstrate the dissonance nicely – a Telegraph columnist deliberates on how soon one can call a relationship a relationship without scaring off a man, but unashamedly admitting that a long-term relationship is the goal, and this piece in the Daily Mail gives women tricks to please men the first time that they have sex, in order to please him and keep him interested. This is really the tip of the cultural iceberg, basically women are expected to sexually objectify themselves, there is an admission that sex makes us vulnerable, we put ourselves on the line, not to mention risking pregnancy and STDs and IF we do things right, look great, are not too emotionally clingy and are sexually pleasing and financially independent, then eventually we might find a man who might want to commit to us. Although be careful not to bore him, if he has an affair, it might well be your fault. Women are being sold a paradox of sexual self-objectification in the name of sexual empowerment with an admitted price tag of physical and emotional vulnerability. Getting naked and swapping intimate bodily fluids with someone does not give us license to claim any sort of romantic relationship or emotional attachment to them, until they deem it appropriate. Having sex no longer entails any sort of responsibility towards the other, an attitude underlined by contraception and the wholesale availability of abortion. Wanting a long term relationship as a result of having repeated sexual encounters with one person is perceived as a sign of weakness or dysfunction, unless the other person desires it too. Women who want to get married are an embarrassing anachronism.

At time of writing, I am engaged in a twitter exchange with the political editor of the Daily Mail and the social media editor of the Wall Street Journal, the latter of whom thinks that sexting amongst teens should not be considered shocking as ‘it’s no longer 1998’. Sexting encourages already vulnerable teens to open themselves up to abuse, harassment and coercion. We should not be normalising it as a harmless adult practice. But by speaking out, one risks being written off as a joyless puritan.

We are marinading in a toxic cultural sewer and unless we have an alternative vision to aspire to, a healthy culture of sex and sexuality, a better vision of equality, based on sound moral principles, then it can hardly be a surprise that so many people sink into the squelchy immoral morass that masquerades as healthy adult behaviour and suffer as a result. I should know, I was one of them. if we stop talking about these things then there is nothing to counter the very powerful lobbies that seek to entrench and profit from a culture of sexual libertinism.

Through the grace of God I managed to turn my life around and I can testify to the joy and fulfilment of living out a female Catholic vocation. Those of us who have been hurt and let down as a direct consequence of not having been passed on the beauty of the church’s teaching in all her fullness and glory, feel a duty to continue to speak out in order that no-one else should have to learn the hard way and it’s precisely love for one’s neighbour as propounded by the Gospel, which motivates us to do so.

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home cooking

I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I am becoming increasingly unnerved by the clamour being made by those in the business of sex education, such as assembled ‘experts’ who are repeatedly calling for better state sex education in schools, including teaching pupils that ‘not all porn is bad’.

No doubt these are the same advocates who bitterly complain about the ‘indoctrination’ of pupils in faith school, who seem to be utterly blind to the irony that even espousing a so-called neutral view, is an ideology in and of itself. I am boggling at how the notion ‘not all porn is bad’ can be seen as anything other than subjective opinion.

As for becoming porn literate (and I cannot bear that particular neologism), what does that really mean? As in the sense of computer literate, i.e. having competence or knowledge? Or more likely, being able to think critically about porn, able to discern between what is good and what is bad? And who on earth makes those decisions? What constitutes good or bad pornography or erotica is entirely dependent upon the subjective lens of the recipient and their personal tastes. Not to mention Aristotle, under whose definition all pornography is good. Those who complain vociferously about the role of the nanny state when any changes to the law regarding the accessing of internet porn are mooted, ought to think about long and hard about whether or not our children should be taught that xyz makes for ‘bad’ porn, whereas something else is deemed as ‘good’ as well as the acceptable context in which to use porn.

And let’s face it, in order for children to be taught how to become discerning viewers of porn, they are going to need to be exposed to a fair few different genres and the whole point of porn is that it is not designed to be rational. Responses to pornography are never rational or cerebral they are always visceral, instantaneous and physical which is why it is so hugely popular and addictive. Habitual users of porn are well aware that rationally and intellectually, it isn’t realistic, addicts are often well aware that a porn addiction is psychologically unhealthy and impede real-life relationships, but it’s never that easy to wean oneself off, especially when the next hit is only a click away. And let’s not kid ourselves about the purpose of porn either. It really isn’t rocket-science to note that the release of the various neuro-chemicals and hormones involved in reaching climax are an intoxicating and heady mix, as this secular site, designed to help young men beat a pornography addiction, explains. Whilst there are several other Catholic resources designed to help people spiritually, such as for example porn no more, reading about the science behind the effects of porn upon the brain, is both compelling and terrifying.

Exposing children to porn, even with good intentions, borders on the abusive. It normalises and contextualises something that should be a taboo, as being a perfectly harmless habit. Thirty years ago, if men wanted to see porn, it would involve a fair bit of effort, such as shuffling off to the newsagent when no-one else was around or attending a grubby and squalid peep show in the backstreets of Soho. The internet enabled burgeoning of the porn industry has been every male pervert’s dream, no longer are they seen as sordid, seedy, sleazeballs but as sophisticated consumers of a product. And women have been co-opted in their own sexual objectification to a degree that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.

Children, especially teenagers faced with fluctuating levels of hormones, are not intellectually equipped to make decisions about sex, whilst not lacking intelligence, they lack the requisite wisdom that comes with experience. Exposure to porn at this age is especially harmful, whetting their appetites and forming neural pathways and associations with pleasure that will inevitably require rewiring. Most men of my generation admit that their first exposure to porn was via some mucky magazines found in their father’s bedroom or study, or surreptitiously sneaked into school. They also admit that these early experiences seem to have shaped various ideas and preferences, again, one doesn’t need to be an expert on Freud or psychology to understand that early feelings of sexual arousal and the accompanying associations, can prove enormously powerful. It’s stupefying naivety and ignorance to believe that by discussing and attempting to rationalise pornography with children, that they will then be able to control their physical responses to it. It could well backfire in that by deeming certain porn ‘bad’ it becomes ever more alluring.

A school classroom made up of thirty pupils of differing stages of sexual and emotional development is not the appropriate place for discussions of this nature. The schoolteacher is not responsible for the sexual formation of a young adult.

Which is also why the classroom is not the place to teach about what the state regards as ‘good relationships’. Why does the state believe that it has the monopoly on defining and teaching about such deeply personal matters. Most of us are able to recognise an innately dysfunctional relationship, even if we were brought up in such an environment ourselves. Whilst we might need help in identifying and overcoming issues that may have occurred as a result, even those in abusive relationships realise on one level that what is happening is not the ideal state of affairs. There are many complex factors that are involved in why people may end up in abusive relationships, that they were not taught how to recognise them at school seems to be an insignificant factor, generally people find themselves trapped for a variety of reasons, relationships that turn toxic, usually do so gradually.

As for teaching primary school children about adult sexual relationships, instead of ‘placing too much emphasis on friendships’, speaking as a parent of a 9 year old who will soon approach puberty, this is unbelievable stuff. A child’s world is made up of their friendships, when something goes wrong in the playground it can have devastating consequences. Of course the emphasis must be on friendships and how to get along with others, how to be kind, generous and respectful. Priming children as to what healthy adult sexual relationships should look like, is akin to grooming and leaves them very vulnerable to predatory adults.

Whilst of course, any PSHE element should help children to recognise and ask for help in terms of unwanted sexual behaviours or advances, there is a danger in placing emphasis upon a good quality sexual relationship, almost as if this should be a given in a romantic relationship or is indeed a necessary part of a fulfilling life. By teaching children a subjective definition of good and bad relationships, they also encourage a tendency to discard anything that falls short of the ideal standard, or when things become difficult, when very often problems and difficulties can be rectified.

Relationships are not always ideal and perfect, from the Catholic point of view we know that the graces conferred upon us by the sacrament will reinforce us, but ultimately even the best marriages go through the odd sticky stage. Which is why the marriage vows include a promise to love, which sometimes requires an act of will, it is not simply a confirmation of being romantically in love, but a promise to love the other person, even when they are being at their worst.

What seems apparent is that the state is trying to package up, homogenise and clinicalise every single sexual relationship and impose this utopian vision upon our children. This is the type of sex you should be having, here’s the type of relationship that you should have and here’s the pornography that is okay to look at and here’s how you should use it. It feels deeply unpleasant and intrusive.

I read earlier that the pornography industry is becoming safer than the food industry when it comes to health and safety standards. Which really says it all. Do we really want our sexual relationships monitored, regulated and served up to us like a tasteless, plastic, microwave meal. Or do we want something home-made, free of artificial ingredients, wholesome, comforting, heart-warming, authentic, nutritious and made with human love and care. It might not look as perfect or uniform as the mass produced product you take out of the packet, or be made conforming to the same stringent standards of health and safety. It may often be harder to produce. But it sure tastes and feels infinitely better.

Do we really want children sold a state-sanctioned convenience-meal version of sex and relationships?

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A friend suggested that I download the excellent unspoken sermons of George McDonald the other night, when I was casting about for recommendations for free reading material of a political, historical and theological bent.

The first chapter is entitled Child in our midst, and is a reflection of Mark 9: 33-37, and the relationship of the child-like and the divine.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when briefly discussing the result of the Parliamentary vote with my daughter, who it seems had been engaged in conversation at school. Though my initial reaction was horror, I guess to some extent the playground is a microcosm of the adult world, the school admits pupils to the age of 13, we live in liberal Brighton and one can hardly be surprised if things have filtered down.

Our daughter doesn’t know about sex, but she does know the biology behind reproduction, i.e. that when men and women get married, they can then have a ‘special cuddle’ (yes it’s twee, you try explaining it to a then 6-7 year old) whereby the man gives the woman a sperm which fertilises her egg etc. The subject arose when she asked how the babies were getting into mummy’s tummy, I don’t hold with lying to children, nonsense euphemisms about gooseberry bushes and storks just confuse children, hence we told her the truth in an age appropriate way. She was more than satisfied by the response, no special books or silly furtiveness was required, but we did show her some pictures of what the baby looked like in the womb at certain stages during my pregnancies, which she enjoyed. (Pro-lifers take note).

I was told what homosexuality was at the same age in Year 4. Looking back it was a scream. The ernest and stern Mr Sutton, headmaster of our interesting and eclectic prep school (consisting mainly of the children of farmers in the backwaters of the Dengie hundred) decided that as an experiment he would personally supervise sex education lessons for the fourth form. We were given blue workbooks with diagrams of the male and female organs in cross section as well as a couple in flagrante, so to speak. It looked a ghastly, painful and disgusting business to my mind. There was no way I was ever going to do that – ever! To the great amusement and perhaps relief of my parents, I coloured the male member in green and red diagonal stripes resembling a barber’s shop pole, for reasons best beknown to myself.

I remember distinctly Mr Sutton explaining what ‘gay’ was, that it meant two women or two men had fallen in love with each other, we might read about it in the paper and that it absolutely wasn’t funny, these people couldn’t help it and we mustn’t laugh about it or make fun of those who were gay. Anyone who did would be in trouble, whereupon the bell rang for playtime and Damian Jones proceeded to call everyone a “gaylord”, as a change from the previously preferred insult of choice – “Joey”.

Which kind of brings me to the point. Bullying and name calling sadly will always occur at school, although it should always be given zero tolerance when uncovered. I remember being grieved when Jennifer Holland Brown, cheeky upstart in the third year accused me of being a lesbian because I’d accidentally kicked her leg in the swimming pool, whereupon all her friends joined in. It lasted 10 minutes if that, but these days there would be scores of counsellors telling me ‘its fine to be a lesbian, you should celebrate that’ and reporting her parents for installing homophobia, whereas actually kids can be rather horrible to each other at times. I was irritated by the sheer cheek of a younger girl as well as peeved by the untruth because I knew that I most definitely wasn’t a lesbian! Calling people out for being supposedly different, whether true or false has happened and will happen in schools since time immemorial. Nobody’s race, faith (and it was the fish wearing Christians at my sixth form who got the grief) sexuality, hair colour, weight, appearance or family life and standard of living should be used to single them out, but sadly it does happen and schools need to do what they can to ensure it isn’t ignored or tolerated which includes punishing offenders. Enacting the gay marriage bill in the name of stamping out homophobic attitudes is a panacea.

But back to George McDonald and becoming like a child, here was my 8 year old’s response.

“Two men and two women? That’s just silly. But that would mean two sperms and two eggs? How would they have babies”.

It was gently explained to her that men and women sometimes did develop feelings for each other.

“But if everyone did that we wouldn’t have any more babies and then what would happen?”

But I suppose to explain it is unusual, is homophobic?!

As George McDonald says:

“God is represented in Jesus, for that God is like Jesus: Jesus is represented in the child, for that Jesus is like the child. Therefore God is represented in the child, for that he is like the child. God is child-like. In the true vision of this fact lies the receiving of God in the child.”

We forget that God is child-like at our peril. The most absurd thing I think I saw yesterday was this clip from Channel 4, with a gay man explaining with child-like simplicity how a gay couple could now be married in the eyes of God. Because God was clearly waiting for the Parliamentary result to change his opinion.

Suffer the little children.

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