My expectations of what a Catholic girls’ school would be like were formed by repeated viewings of Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows, a sixties movie starring Hayley Mills as a rebellious girl who learns to stop being such a pain in the ass and love the Lord. Plaid skirts, long hallways, good-natured but strict nuns-the kind who will surprise you with a mean game of softball-green-and-white linoleum floors, red lipstick, snuck cigarettes, high-jinks.
But my school, Carden, was something else entirely. It didn’t have an overtly Catholic name. No nuns, save for one wrinkled old specimen who served as school mascot. We had Mass once a week, but only school councilors and goody-goodies went, so the school’s living room was big enough. The school itself was a mansion and it was so absolutely,positively fancy and mansiony that it was frequently used as a film set. I remember ducking out of Spanish class one afternoon because of ‘cramps’ -I wasn’t above taking advantage of the all-female atmosphere-only to find Diane Keaton sprawled out on my chaise longue in the powder room. Argh! Ever since, I have been unpleasantly jolted out of the waking dream of many a film and TV show by recognizing the dreaded site of my gilded incarceration.
Two hundred of Southern California’s finest young ladies attended this school, all outfitted in summer uniforms (the preferred pastel dresses) or winter (dorky tweed skirts), complete with rubber-soled shoes. We couldn’t wear loafers because we might slip and fall on the marble floors. Because of the amounts of money involved, I think the school felt a certain, shall we say, liability towards the stakeholders.
There were other liabilities as well. Spelled out: girls who went to Carden didn’t get pregnant. One girl left suddenly during our freshman year because of a rumored pregnancy, but it wasn’t too shocking-her hair was all wrong, and her name was kind of countryish, and she seemed like one of the ‘organ people’ as my friend Claire called them. You know, the kind of people who have an organ in their living room, and live in places like Downey. Where the Carpenters came from.
It’s Not the Sex That’s the Problem
There’s a lot of don’t-ask-don’t-telling going on in the families of the rich and modern religious. It’s not the sex that’s the problem. The real trouble is when there’s evidence. Perhaps your daughter is having sex, and perhaps you even know about it, although you won’t acknowledge it, even to yourself-it doesn’t really matter as long as there isn’t an unfortunate occurrence. An accident. The kind of accident that requires you to suddenly go on a yearlong “trip to Europe” and return pale, flabby, and shaken to a welcome-home party complete with a cake bearing miniature flags of many nations.
To avoid such horrors, Carden dished out forbidden knowledge on a regular basis in bio and chemistry. We handled diaphragms, birth control pills, condoms, sponges. The most detailed contraception exposition happened one day in science class. The teacher, perpetually sheepish (as are most male teachers afloat in a sea of teenage girls,) Mr. Smitson, vanished, only to reappear at the end of the period to remind us of an upcoming test.
Two of my more advanced classmates, Veronica Twohey and Lizzy Frayne, who actually volunteered at Planned Parenthood, marched to the front of the room. They were efficient, practiced, businesslike. They seemed much further ahead on the curve of womanhood than the rest of us, who were still giggly and coltish.
Veronica held up a condom in its little square package. It fairly glowed with mystery. We had touched the objects, but now it was time to see them in action. She and Lizzy were a practiced two-headed beast of contraceptive information. While Veronica explained the outside of the condom package (check expiration date, peel gently down the side) Lizzy was readying a canister and a plastic syringe.
This was something new: contraceptive foam. “It’s kind of like mousse,” she said, and squirted a little puff on her finger. She wiped it off with a tissue and produced a syringe-like plastic applicator while explaining the advantages of using both foam and a condom. Then, she inserted the nozzle of the foam into the tip of the applicator. “You just fill it up, like so,” and it turned white with the foam inside, “and insert it right before you’re going to have sex. If you have a hard time getting it in the vagina, you might want to use a little lubricant like K-Y.” She held up a tube of jelly. K-Y? So that’s what it was. An unknown thing previously glimpse in medicine cabinets and inside adults’ nightstand drawers.
Another mystery solved. The world was full of them.
Then, without hesitation, the girls launched into the main event. The sheathing of the mighty banana. Veronica gingerly liberated the quivering latex balloon from its foil prison. “It’s important to make sure you unroll it the right way, and you can tell by the little ridge at the bottom, which you want to be facing up,” said Veronica, holding it up and pointing with her index finger. “It’s hard to see if you’re in the dark, so you might want to practice this beforehand.” There were a few giggles and Veronica cracked a smile, stepping out of her official role for a second.
Lizzy held the banana while Veronica unrolled the condom on it. Lizzy narrated: “Make sure it’s completely unrolled, down to the base, and then pinch the tip so there’s room for the ejaculate.” She expertly did so, in a way that seemed almost cute. Those of us who had already done the deed probably picked a up a few pointers that day, while those of us who had not ventured into the land of “It” looked on impassively. When the future reveals itself to you, you greet it calmly and respectfully.
Adult Christian Living
There was a price to be paid for such Dutch-style levelheadedness, and that price was a class called Adult Christian Living. This was a class about lifestyles, Christian lifestyles, and specifically, Catholic lifestyles, your three choices being: religious (no sex;) single (no sex;) and married (sex, but.) Becoming a nun seemed far off and perilous, the kind of thing that only women who got themselves killed in Latin America ever tried to attempt any more. I had never seen a nun who wasn’t old and grey. We didn’t spend too much time on this, anyway, because the stakeholders wouldn’t actually be pleased if their daughters got religion in a non-grandchildren-providing way.
There was a lot of discussion about the single lifestyle. Mainly about the fact that you couldn’t have sex. And you also couldn’t masturbate. We had to memorize a mantra about the shame of Onan which stated: “Masturbation is an inherently disordered act because our bodies were made to glorify God, and our precious sexuality can only be expressed in the full commitment of marriage” Repeat as necessary.
Another topic of singledom was infatuation vs. “real” love, love that waits until after the wedding to get it on. Infatuation was merely lust, and lust was, you know, sinful and stuff. The teacher, Ms. Flather, who was herself a single lady, was forcefully cheerful about her own lifestyle-but certainly, she was protesting too much. I felt tired just thinking about her. How old was she? In her 30s? And still fending off the guys? You really just wanted to say: Oh, get it over with already, lady. There was a “discussion” about living together and a couple who came in to talk about how their relationship fell apart when they lived together. Then, once they moved out, started dating again, and quit doing the deed until they got married for real, things were just great. We were tested on them: “How did Bill and Patty’s relationship change once they made a real commitment in the form of marriage?”
Each day of Adult Christian Living was a little more humiliating than the next. As we moved into the marriage unit, the contraceptives made a quick appearance, were passed around the circle once again, and quickly ushered out. We were going to learn about the only Church-approved form of birth control: Natural Family Planning.
This lesson was presented by another religion teacher, Mr. Grapwell, and his wife, Cindy. Mr. Grapwell was the kind of teacher that you almost feel sorry for as you paint your nails in his class and he doesn’t stop you, or turn in an original poem about Diet Coke for an assignment about being grateful to God, and he still gives you a B plus despite indicating it wasn’t exactly what he was looking for. We called him Grappy.
Grappy and Mrs. Grappy came in and set up a large calendar on an easel. They began to tell us about the practice in a tag-team fashion. “It isn’t the so-called rhythm method of yore.” “It’s 99.9 percent accurate when practiced carefully.”
“It’s the only way to go if you want to limit your family size and still be a good Catholic, because you’re merely abstaining from intercouse on days when the missus is fertile, not stopping a human life from being conceived.” “It really makes us both involved in the process.” “It’s brought us even closer as a couple.”
Mrs. Grappy began to explain the process of Natural Family Planning: Every morning she shoved a thermometer under her tongue and made note of the temperature. Then she examined her vaginal mucus. As she said this, she rubbed her thumb against her index and middle fingers to indicate texture.
Mrs. Grappy’s fingernails were varnished a metallic lilac, and way longer than you wanted them to be. We had to think about her fingernails going up there, and wince internally. Because we were sitting in a semicircle, there was no place to hide, no place to look away. Everyone’s faces were blank with the sure and terrifying knowledge that she was going to continue and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it.
Mrs. Grappy talked about the mucus. She talked about its color, fragrance and consistency, and how it changed from day to day. Sometimes clear, sometimes cloudy. Sometimes sweet, sometimes mustardy. Sometimes sticky, sometimes elastic and ropy “like melted cheese.” She kept rubbing her fingers together. Grappy stood alongside her, goonily smiling in that way that people who are totally convinced that the Lord is on their side do.
She kept saying, “the mucus.” Here was this woman, in a nondescript green dress, tan hose, and brown sandals, coming into our classroom, and talking about her vaginal secretions. What could we do but cross our legs, hard, and hope that it would end soon?
Grappy soon got in on the act. He explained how he helped. On days when Mrs. Grappy wasn’t fertile, he marked an X on the calendar with a pen. He demonstrated this. On days that temperature and texture (fingers again) indicated that conditions were favorable for conception, Grappy put a sticker of a baby on the calendar. He demonstrated this, and explained that, although the egg is only present for three or four days, fertility extends to seven, because semen can wait it out it the hot and moist vaginal environs, hoping to get lucky. He put baby stickers on an entire week.
Grappy and Mrs. Grappy stood alongside their calendar, which, by now, was a map of Xs surrounding a week of pink babies. The stickers scared me the most. I felt them looking at me-all seven of them. The horror. The Grappys explained that they “abstained during Baby Week.” Said Grappy, with a grin, “It really gives us some time to appreciate each other as people.” A brave soul, Heather Waters, who was herself put on the pill by her family doctor because of “cramps” and enjoyed its other benefits with her college boyfriend, raised her hand and asked why they couldn’t just use condoms during that time.
Grappy chuckled. “You could,” he said, “If you punched holes in it.”
Frottage, Felching, Fisting, Whatever
Heather looked puzzled. “No, really,” he said. “That’s the Pope’s opinion. You see, conception is the Lord’s will, and we don’t have the right to interfere in that process. Natural Family Planning is all about abstaining during certain times, so as to avoid conception. It’s a nice break for both of us. But any kind of barrier would mean that we were putting our own pleasure above the Lord’s will. So, no, you really couldn’t do that.” As if anticipating our thoughts, he added, “And you really have to be careful about fooling around. Did you know that you can get pregnant without even having sex? If ejaculate, or semen, is near the vaginal area-on the vulva, or even, in some cases, on the inner thigh area-and there’s enough mucus present, it can swim up and into the vagina, and bingo! You’re pregnant. You really can’t be too careful with this stuff.”
This was a whole other side of Mr. Grapwell that I never knew existed. He was loose, comfortable, authoritative. In his element. Calling the shots. The only man in a roomful of women, and talking about vaginal mucus like it was the most blessed topic in the world. Also, by implication, he was talking about his penis and its activities. We had never had to grapple, so to speak, with the thought of anything living in those corduroy trousers, but today, we were learning its schedule.
At such a time, I wanted scrawl a sign and hold it up, facing skyward, in case anyone was out there in the universe besides God: THIS WASN’T MY IDEA. What can a fertility-obsessed religion do in modern times, when the time between sexual maturity and marriage (if any) stretches into decades? It’s important to hew to your beliefs, especially if you are the Catholic Church and holding steady at number one on the chart of Christendom. Rome hasn’t forgotten that whole Reformation/Counter-Reformation episode, and the Protties, although certainly outnumbered, continue to nip at the One True Church’s heels like a yippy little pagan dog that steadfastly insists a piece of bread is just a piece of bread. If the Catholic Church dilutes its signature issues, it risks becoming yet another denomination, instead of the only church in the world that rules from a unique city-state.
But when you have a school full of impregnable teenage girls, this is where theology breaks down. One has to be practical: the technical information at Carden, according to my public school peers, was far more detailed than anything they were ever taught. I admire the school for slipping us the info on the sly, but the counterprogramming had another effect entirely. Preaching abstinence is a popular approach in public schools these days; but, judging from the number of teenage girls I see pushing strollers, it really isn’t working.
I’d like to suggest another approach: give the kids all the facts, and I mean all of the facts. Frottage, felching, fisting, whatever might possibly happen between young hormonally charged humans. Add dental dams, finger condoms and latex gloves to the party pack. Tell them what it all means. Then, bring in the Grappys to put them off the idea for a few years, at least, when they will, with any luck, be more conscientious about using the equipment properly.
A few years ago, on the other side of the country, I met a man who had, as an adult, dated one of my classmates. “Oh, I know all about Carden,” he said. He rubbed his fingers together. “The mucus.”
Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.