A Confession: Sex and Catholic Guilt

When I lost my virginity, I felt guilty. My first time was with my boyfriend and I’d thought about it for a while beforehand, so I felt ready. But when it actually happened, it felt wrong. I remember afterwards, we were naked and watched Clueless with a tub of ice-cream. Lying there, I felt empty. I don’t know what I’d been expecting. Some surge of feelings, some change in myself? I guess I’d at least expected to feel something, but instead I felt hollow and wrong. The worst thing was that I knew that these feelings were not my fault.

I never made a conscious choice to be Catholic or believe in God. My mum’s a Catholic and I attended a Catholic primary school, so religious values were instilled in my early life. At primary school, they embedded religion into our learning; we said prayers three times a day, studied art through a religious prism, and sacrificed lesson time for hymn practice and mass. Most significantly, we learnt about sex and relationships in a way that respected the Church’s views. This meant that, the only sexuality ever acknowledged was heterosexuality, that you didn’t have sex before marriage, and that sexual acts were for reproduction not pleasure.

Around the age of ten, I remember being scandalised when my friend told me that her parents used condoms when they were having sex. I knew her parents were Catholic too, so I couldn’t comprehend that they were both using contraception and having sex for pleasure. I adamantly denied her assumption that my parents still had sex too; it was an unquestionable truth to me. But of course my parents still had sex. I eventually asked my mum about it. It turns out that my dad had been snipped after I was born so they could have risk-free sex. My mum said she believed that sex was a key part of a healthy, loving relationship. While this debunked my image of the abstinent, Catholic marriage, it still preserved my belief that sex came hand-in-hand with a relationship.

My perception changed again at about the age of twelve when I started talking to my older siblings about their sex lives. I discovered that they’d both had casual sexual experiences with a number of people. Their openness broke down more of my taboos and meant that I had many of my questions answered without judgement. Their sexual liberty seemed to justify me to be the same, especially since they’d had the same upbringing as me and still acted in this way.

Perhaps it was their openness that meant I started having sexual relations at the relatively young age of fourteen. Foreplay didn’t give me the same guilt as my first time having sex. Thankfully, my guilt wasn’t so overwhelming that it deterred me from sex, and after the first few times, I really started to love sex. Since then, I’ve had sex with a fair number of people, both casually and in relationships. The vast majority of the time, sex is fucking great. However, despite no longer being a practicing Catholic, there are still the odd occasions when sex feels sinful. I find that it’s most often when I orgasm. At this culmination of pleasure, I feel dirty. It’s not something I can define exactly and it rarely happens, so when it does it catches me unaware, making me even more uncomfortable.

I never masturbate either, perhaps from a subconscious feeling that it’s wrong to be alone and horny. The only times I’ve successfully masturbated have been while sexting. I seem unable to give myself pleasure without the assistance of another. Masturbation has the fundamental purpose of pleasure, without any possibility of reproduction. Therefore, maybe my guilt stems from knowing that I can’t correlate the carnal desire behind masturbation with Catholic values.

Catholicism has by no means ruined my sex life, but the negative effects that it has had piss me off. I never chose to be a Catholic or to believe in the Church’s values, so how is it fair that it has the power to warp my perception of my natural sexual desires into something unnatural? It scares me to think about the amount of impact Catholicism could have had on my sex life if I hadn’t had the liberal influences of my family. I wonder if there are Catholics who get to their wedding night and are so used to condemning sex that, at the point when it is condoned, their bodies cannot allow them to enjoy it. Luckily for me, I know myself now much more than I did as a child, so if a negative thought pops up, I can push it away with the knowledge that sex is great and I love it and that’s okay.

Mary Magdalene



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