Growing up, I had never thought the clerical landscape I grew up in had the potential to hurt me. The church steeples all pointed upward, not at me, and as hands reached over to clasp mine on Sundays, ‘amen’ felt like the most natural words in the world.
It was not because I was ever overtly religious, but because the Virgin Mary and a crucifix had stood above every door of every school I had ever been to, at the bend of every country road I had journeyed down. And like the statues, Catholicism hung over almost every word uttered beyond classroom doors, offering divine intervention during classes, teaching the crucifixion instead of consent.
I remember learning merely the biological, learning off the exact curvatures of the vas deferens like my two times tables. I learned of the tribulations of puberty, the ‘inevitabilities’ of STDs and the brass tacks of pro-creation as I listed off the female hormones.
It was never something that felt like it needed urgent contemplation, but even as I try to bizarrely will memories of later classes - of condoms and consent - onto my tongue, they just aren’t there to articulate. ‘Rape’ was merely part of a portmanteau of a Facebook hack, ‘consent’ was just an absent-minded click of terms and conditions.
I never had the vocabulary to navigate sexuality outside the compounds of our phallic diagrams - my very Irish-Catholic teaching went by the ethos of what goes unspoken, can be ignored. And ignorance is always bliss until you are fifteen and wondering why your ‘no’s’ don’t mean anything, until you are sitting at home coaxing bruises from your hips at sixteen—wondering why sex ed never taught you how to take down swelling.
Although we never learned the words, ‘sexual assault’ was there. But even as it swirled at the confines of our consciousness, we exorcised it. So, without words to articulate experiences I had deemed incomparable to those of the phantom of sexual assault, they became the means by which I navigated my identity.
Vulnerability was deemed inevitable, objectification the synonym for a compliment and malaise the female equivalent for pleasure - my Catholic rendition of sex-ed was having it’s very palpable ripple effect. It took years for the final waves to wash away sexual fallacies which seemed to fester in my subconscious, the swash threatening to swallow up #MeToo in myths of ‘she was asking for it’.
But it was the #MeToo movement which finally granted validity to my experiences, which gave me vocabulary I spent months turning over on my tongue - foreign, new, but welcome. ‘Consent’ sat heavy on my chest for the longest; as soon as it was given, it was just as easily ignored, but also the strongest thing I had in exercising my own strength when it came to my own body.
Being a prop to pleasure was no longer an irrevocable clause which came in the fine print of having a vagina, instead ‘no means no’ was written in bold letters at the Women’s March, scrawled on toilet cubicle doors and hashtagged in the algorithms of the internet. Inclusive and comprehensive sex education is intrinsic to the development of young people.
My age-group are self-taught in consent and self-medicated in situations where consent was bypassed. Learning through experience is more harmful than a simple lesson on what it means to practice safe, consensual and protected sex. All it takes is just one person to tell young people that it is not just sex which denotes sexual assault, and victims can be encouraged to seek help rather than second-guess themselves and their own discomfort.
In Ireland, the Catholic ethos of most schools negates any approach to sexual education which does not consist of abstinence. Historically seen as sacred, unspeakable and sinful, sex in Ireland has been the country’s best kept secret along with the heinous acts the church and government did to keep it as such.
The Magdalene laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes, the Eighth Amendment, the necessity for the now seemingly ludicrous contraceptive trains of 1971 - Ireland has many sins of oppression, and of cruelty, many of which still remain unchastised.
While it has always been the Irish way to forget what makes the country squirm in collective guilt and discomfort - it cannot continue. By giving Irish young people more words than the lyrics of hymns and more space to speak about sex education than the few worksheets of hormones and diagrams, then we can begin to see sexuality as inherent to a functioning society - and sexual assault as something which does not go away just because we refuse to speak of it.
- Maeve McTaggart
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