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5 Things I Learned About Consent at Catholic School
Claire J. Harris
*Editor's Note: This piece was previously published on Harris' blog.
Last year, I followed the Brett Kavanaugh case pretty closely. I watched the most powerful man in the world mock a sexual assault survivor, the crowd around him laughing and nudging each other — and I was amazed to see that many of them were female. I replayed that video several times, looking at those women and wondering what was going through their minds as they scoffed.
When I looked in their faces, I saw the teachers at my Opus Dei Catholic School in Sydney. The “c” word was never mentioned in my sex education class, because we didn’t even have one. But I learned a lot about consent anyway:
1. Sex and rape are both sins — equally.
Before we were old enough to know what sex actually was, but we knew that it was evil, a teacher told us the story of an Italian saint from 100 years ago: a twelve-year-old girl whose male neighbor attempted to rape her. She (allegedly) begged her would-be rapist to kill her instead so that she could go to heaven. He did, and she became a saint that our pre-adolescent selves prayed to for the strength to retain our purity. It is better to be dead than raped because that way you won’t go to hell for being impure.
2. Men are unable to control their base instincts.
Strictly kept away from boys, our concept of masculinity was shaped by endless analogies over years of religion class: men are like dogs, if you put the food in front of them they have to eat it; men are wild stallions and women hold the reins; men are cars with their engines constantly revved up and women have their foot on the brakes; men are inclined to just go ahead and jump off cliffs when abseiling and it is up to women to act as the harness. In every scenario, women are entirely responsible for men’s behavior. If you are raped, it is your fault.
3. Women must be always mindful of their impact on men.
The males around us were limited to the gardeners and the priests, but we were constantly reminded that they might be lured into impure thoughts about the teen girls in front of them at any time. As a 13-year-old, I received a detention for “flirting” — on the basis that I was wearing shorts and sitting with my legs apart while in the vicinity of a school camp instructor in his 30s. In an incomprehensible outburst, the principal called me into her office to rage about my lack of fidelity to my future husband. Sex was an ongoing obsession, implanted into the most innocent of scenarios.
4. Sex makes women dirty and worthless.
The closest we ever got to a sex ed class was watching a video of a southern Christian evangelist who teaches kids that the pill causes sterility and death, and compares sexually-active women to sticky tape that loses its stickiness. That was how I learned that my intrinsic worth was no greater than that of a banal inanimate object with a single function. It does not matter if this sex is consensual or non-consensual because the end result is the same and you’re just used-up sticky tape, ladies.
5. There’s no such thing as marital rape.
While sex was bad and would probably kill you before marriage, somehow all these negative side effects disappeared as soon as you got married. Your husband would likely maintain the same uncontrollable urges as a man, but now it became your duty to please him. Women’s pleasure in sex was utterly irrelevant, since it had no impact on procreation. Basically, whenever and however your husband wants sex, so be it — therefore, marital rape simply can not and does not exist.
A final note about consent…
There is a lot of talk in the media about whether the Me Too movement has “gone too far”. But as long as women continue to be complicit in the silencing of other women, when they ridicule a woman who suffers trauma at the hands of a man, while an Opus Dei Catholic school in suburban Sydney is still teaching little girls that they are to blame for their sexual assaults — then I say it has barely even started.
I shudder to think what they were teaching the boys.