My sister and I were sitting at the dining room table having lunch after a long day at middle school. My mom sat at the far end of the table between us. She said something about procreation, love, and marriage. The one thing my prepubescent mind got out of that conversation was that according to the Catholic faith, my faith, to make love, one must be married. If one is not married, it is a sin.
In that moment, I took this belief as an absolute truth. I assumed every person in the world lost their virginity on their wedding night, and anyone who didn’t would go to hell. Years later, I understood why my mother emphasized being married so fervently; the first time she had sex, she got pregnant with my sister.
Imagine you are 18 years-old and you are leaving your boyfriend’s house. You met him four months ago, and he has been your rock since you moved to a new country by yourself. The night was perfect; it was everything you could have wished for. You say to yourself, “It’s okay, I’m going to start birth control.” You make a doctor’s appointment and get birth control. You start the pill and wait for 28 days. But your period does not come. You visit the doctor again, and he says you are pregnant. What happens after? What do you do when your plans get sidetracked?
My mom went through this during the ’80s in a Latin American country where abortion was, and still is, neither legal nor accessible. She had just started medical school and had to drop out in order to become a mother. She received limited support from her parents. The only viable solution to this was marriage, because, God forbid she became a single mother in an extremely Catholic society where premarital sex was sacrilegious.
Today, I understand my mother’s stance on sex, but it was not as clear to me when I was growing up.
When I started dating, my parents made sure to talk to me about sex every chance they got. But the talks were not about contraception methods, healthy relationships, how masturbation is normal and healthy, or about safe sex. The topics of conversation were about how sex is a beautiful act made for the union between a man and a woman consecrated by God. Thus, one must be married to have sex. If a woman had sex before she is married, she would have long-term mental health issues as a result of her sins.
Sex was an activity reserved for married couples who needed to procreate. It was an act of love and duty, not pleasure, and it was definitely not meant to be experienced by two teenagers. Thus, most of my sexual education came from a private browser window. In the depths of a web browser, I learned about the effectiveness of contraception methods, how condoms worked, and researched my way to tranquility when my period was a few days late.
I was never allowed to go to my boyfriend’s house if his parents were not there—not even for lunch, not even if other people were there. My parents became stricter as time went by, and our parent-daughter relationship suffered because of it.
The first time I had sex, I was so scared that I had to go to confession soon after. I could not sleep, I thought I was pregnant, I thought my life was over. I sat down in the windowless waiting room counting the minutes until I could be absolved of my sins.
The priest opened the door and I walked in. I sat across from this 80 year-old man who was wearing a long white robe and looking at me like I was a lost sheep, and I immediately broke down. I struggled to find the words to tell this man, who I believed would judge me and send me to hell, that I had sinned. I focused on the depictions of Jesus on the wall to avoid making eye contact. After what felt like forever in a room with limited air, I finally told him I had sex. We locked eyes and he raised his hand as if to cast a blessing on me. He told me that it was okay and absolved me of all my sins. I left the room with a handful of prayers to say and a firm warning to not have sex again until I was married. And I almost didn’t, not until college.
I did not have an orgasm until I was 19.
When I got to college, I made sure to go on birth control. I told my parents it was because I had irregular periods, which was true. But the main reason was because I needed to know that when I decided to sleep with someone, I would have a backup. It was in college that it became clear that the way I was brought up was not the norm, that experiencing sexual pleasure was healthy, and that there is no formal marriage contract one has to have in order to enjoy sex.
Nevertheless, I truly believe my family is not at fault. My grandma’s biggest commitment in life is to the Catholic Church, yet, she got pregnant before she was married because no one taught her about contraception. My mom had her first kid at 19 because no one told her that she must take care of herself. The problem is the institutionalized Catholicism that still guides most Latin American countries, and the lack of sexual education as a result.
I can still be Catholic and disagree with the Catholic Church as an institution. I can still be Catholic and attempt to get rid of the misconceptions around sex I developed growing up. And I can still be Catholic and strive to have a healthy sex life.