For the first twelve years of my life, my family and I went to church every Sunday.
My dad was brought up in a Catholic Italian family, so our church-going felt like a natural continuation of his upbringing.
I went to Catholic primary school that had our local church on the premises, and in addition to going to it as a family every Sunday morning, we also went every Monday morning at school.
I quite liked church. I found the majority of the talking pretty boring, mostly because the monotone voice of our priest was more relaxing than engaging — I would often find my mind wandering during service, but I was okay with that. It was actually quite nice to have space to think.
But there were some parts of church I really liked, like the singing — I was part of the church choir and would often be asked to do solos, which really satisfied my desire for attention at a young age — but I think that my love for performing was actually born out of singing at church. We had these amazing choir leaders and singing teachers that really inspired us to give it a shot and not be afraid, and they were full of positivity and love.
I also really liked to pray. I used to just chat to God or Jesus every night before bed and give them a debrief of my day. Sometimes, I’d ask them questions about things, and although they’d never verbally reply, I always felt listened to.
When I think about experiences like that, when I was asked to sing at my first communion, when my best friend and I performed Let the Sunshine In at Monday Mass in front of our whole school, when I think of the magic that is incense and candles and joyful music in beautiful cathedrals on Christmas eve, I forget that the teachings of Catholicism hindered my sexual empowerment as a teenager.
By the time I was 14, my parents had stopped going to church. My dad insisted that the politics of the parishioners was toxic, and we’d be “better off believing on our own agenda”. We continued to attend masses on special occasions, like Christmas and Easter with my Nonna and Nonno (Italian grandparents), but other than that, our regular church life dissipated.
When I started high school, at a non-religious school; it was a bit of a culture shock. For the past 13 years I’d been forbidden to swear, forbidden to speak of crushes, or of any romantic feelings towards anyone, forbidden to kiss, touch and definitely forbidden to engage in sexual activity of any nature. At my previous school, if we’d even whisper of wanting to kiss someone, or wondering what it would be like, we were slapped with a detention.
The kids at my high school were already swearing a lot, and most of them had seemed to have some sort of sexual experience, whether it was kissing, fingering, touching, handjobs, blowjobs… and some had already had sex. They would say they loved each other, using terms like “ily” or “ilysm” or even just a “love you!” which had been forbidden to say at my primary school.
More than anything, I felt afraid and under-prepared. What if someone propositioned me for a blowjob? Would I have to do it? Would I even know how? Would it make me feel sick?
During my first week of high school, I watched some porn in secret because I wanted to be prepared, but all it did was make me sick to my stomach. At the time, I wondered why it had this effect on me, but in hindsight, it’s pretty clear. I’d been taught that as a woman, sex before marriage was dirty; it meant that you were easy and therefore, less valuable. It also showed weakness in your feminine power; if men didn’t want to wait to marry you to have sex with you, then what did that say about your allure?
Sex, as a concept, frightened me. I thought that if I had sex with someone, they’d be instantly uninterested in me anymore because they’d already had all of me. When boys would try to flirt with me or touch me affectionately on the arm, or hug me or whatever, I always felt wary. It felt like a trick. I wanted to please them, but I didn’t want to decrease in value.
It’s crazy to think back on this meek and frightened 14-year-old as I sit here now, at 26, as a bisexual woman, with immense sex positivity and a true understanding of the power of being female.
Although my upbringing in church wasn’t as strict as some; my parents didn’t preach anything at home and I never felt forced to believe in something I didn’t agree with (but to be fair, I didn’t know better), the general beliefs of Catholicism were more ingrained in me than I realised.
I didn’t kiss anyone until I was fifteen, and when I did, I felt such immense shame, that I couldn’t look him in the eyes for weeks later. Each time a boy would show interest in me and I’d develop a crush on them in turn, it usually eventuated in a kiss (or more often, a make-out session) and after that, they’d always act weird and distant. I thought that this was just continual proof that men don’t value you unless you withhold sexual activity from them, including kissing. If I just didn’t kiss anyone, I thought, then people will respect me and fall in love with me.
Oh, how wrong I was.
It took me seven years to start to reprogram my relationship with sexuality.
By the time I was 21, I’d had a boyfriend that had broken my heart, and many experiences with men that were disappointing. I’d only ever had sex with one person — my ex — and so far, he’d been the only person I trusted to have sex with, and not become instantly disinterested in me afterward.
I finally realised I was giving them all the power. Instead of owning my sexuality myself and feeling empowered by it instead of afraid of it, I was allowing myself to be the victim of greedy men.
I just didn’t know the power of being a woman. I’d grown up being taught that God is the creator of everything, the ruler, the person in charge, the most powerful force of nature — he created the entire world and humankind for f*ck’s sake — and he was a man. He created man first, and man wasn’t the one that betrayed God, that was the first woman; Eve — all because she’d be seduced by forbidden fruit.
It’s really no way to set the scene for female empowerment. If Eve was punished for the rest of her life because she was tempted by the forbidden fruit (let’s assume that it’s a metaphor for sex, because what else could it be?), then what chance did the rest of us have?
I was exhausted from feeling ashamed about sex. I wanted to have it and I wanted to enjoy it; I didn’t want to be thinking about the punishment I might receive afterward. So, I just did it.
I had lots of sex, with lots of different people. I did it for me. Whenever I started to feel bad for enjoying myself and afraid that the man I was having sex with would leave, I’d tell myself that it didn’t have a reflection on me. I wanted to learn about sex, what I liked, what I didn’t like, how I felt having sex in didn’t scenarios, with different emotions. I wanted to learn about myself through the most natural, vulnerable and human exchange; S. E. X.
It was truly liberating. I couldn’t believe how good it made me feel. For something that I’d been so afraid of leading me to my demise for so long, to experience it as so freeing and empowering, was such a relief and also, so rewarding. That shift in mentality, when I decided to embrace my sexuality, was the start of shaping me into the adult woman I am today.
When you open your mind, surprising things start to evolve and come up — at least, they did for me. Like the first time I had sex with a woman and felt confused by my instinctive shame, but then realised that I’d never been able to dream of a future with a woman. In the eyes of the church, marriage and union were only “right”, when it was between a man and a woman, and I couldn’t believe how much I’d internalised that belief.
Or when I mistook sexual abuse as something I’d caused, because I was taught that the desires of men can’t be controlled, and if he was saying that it was my fault for flirting with him, then it probably was.
I mean, I could go on. Most of these experiences deserve their own article entirely, TBH.
As a woman who is sitting here now, with countless sexual experiences under her belt (some great, some awful) and a true sense of self-confidence and sex-positivity, I can say that when it comes to sex, what you’re taught as a child impacts how you experience it.
For me, although I don’t remember my teachings at church to be particularly harsh or drilled into me, if certain ideas are repeated to you enough times, they become your internal fabric. To recognise that means to take your power back.
I don’t often talk about my relationship with religion, because there’s still so much that I don’t understand about it. Although I may have freed myself from the limited understanding and allowances for female sexuality in Catholicism, there is still loads to unpack when it comes to simply being a woman in this world.
I still experience shame in sex sometimes. When I want to do something kinky — like be choked, or have rough sex, I still feel that pang of shame I was taught to feel as a woman who asks for what she wants.
But I’m not afraid of it anymore.