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My journey through sex ed in Catholic school

On surviving the awkwardness and figuring things out on my own.
"It was revealed to me then that prayer is, in fact, every Catholic girl’s first line of defense against semen," Julia Walton writes.
"It was revealed to me then that prayer is, in fact, every Catholic girl’s first line of defense against semen," Julia Walton writes.Kate Dehler for TODAY

Julia Walton is the award-winning author of "Words on Bathroom Walls" and the new novel "On The Subject Of Unmentionable Things," about a girl who rewrites sex education, out Aug. 23. In an essay for TODAY, Walton shares her own story about learning — or not learning — about sex as a young woman.

It probably goes without saying but Catholic school was not the place to learn about sex. 

Even my first introduction to what might be classified as sex education didn’t have the word sex in it. It was called Family Life, and it was only permissible to discuss sexual intercourse with the understanding that any sexual activity should at least be an attempt at baby-making and of course the two individuals involved needed to be married. Preferably in a church. Full stop.

We were separated into groups of boys and girls. I remember the school nurse talking about our periods and our changing bodies and a very basic “mechanics of sex” discussion where the word penis was not mentioned and “male sex organ” was used instead. I also remember being sent home with a small bag that contained tampons, pads, deodorant and a prayer sheet. It was revealed to me then that prayer is, in fact, every Catholic girl’s first line of defense against semen.

The second line of defense is, of course, guilt, which doesn’t exactly deter people from having sex, but definitely deters them from asking questions about it. Or seeming too eager to ask questions. Or making eye contact while asking the questions.

I looked down at my bright red vest and pleated navy skirt and then up at the crucifix, and decided to keep my mouth shut.

For anyone who was not heterosexual, there were no resources provided and the phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner” was a Pavlovian response to any comment regarding homosexuality. We weren’t supposed to talk about homosexuality beyond that and I was so wrapped up in my own unanswered questions, I didn’t consider how much more was missing from the discussion. It didn’t hit me until much later how many more people were left wondering how to get their awkward questions answered when, according to the church, they shouldn’t exist. 

Some parents were angry that there was any discussion at all.

At the end of fifth grade there was a meeting for parents of students starting middle school. One girl’s parents were so upset by the Family Life curriculum they withdrew their daughter. Turns out they thought the idea of teaching anything sex-related in school would lead her down the “wrong” path. They enrolled her in an ultra-conservative Catholic school whose beliefs regarding sex ed allied more completely with their own.

Julia Walton
Julia WaltonDave Miyamoto Photography

That girl eventually went on to become an escort in Las Vegas, so perhaps it’s important to note that limiting her access to all school-sanctioned sex ed did not garner the results her parents were after.

High school sex ed filled in some of the blanks. There was at least some discussion of birth control. We learned the correct way to put on a condom.

To this day I can’t look at a banana without imagining our high school’s football coach (who was also our sex ed teacher) yelling, “To the pubes!” Which was how far he said you were supposed to roll the condom down — not a toast to pubic hair.

The class hit all the highlights, but again failed to invite questions.

Questions like: What are my options if birth control fails? Is it normal for sex to hurt? What is a dental dam? Can I get pregnant if I’ve never had a period? Is it normal to not want to have sex?

It was still a heteros-only info session because that same high school football coach told our class that anal sex was not something he was going to discuss at all because “that part of your body is not for sex.” 

Thanks, Coach. That’s super helpful coming from someone who is supposed to field embarrassing questions from anxious teenagers.

I kept my mouth shut and didn’t ask questions until college when a lovely nurse practitioner in the student health center patiently explained everything I needed to know about sex and birth control which made me realize how much unnecessary anxiety I’d been holding onto simply because I hadn’t felt comfortable asking questions sooner.

I was embarrassed. 

Shouldn’t I know this already? 

Doesn’t everyone know this already? 

I should know this already …

It’s too late to ask these questions.

It wasn’t too late, but I was ashamed that I didn’t have all the answers, which is why I wanted to write about someone who did! (Not quite, but almost!) 

Years later, I wrote “On the Subject of Unmentionable Things” from the perspective of a cisgender girl whose curiosity about sex leads her to create a painstakingly researched blog that allows teens to anonymously ask questions about everything from orgasms to body insecurities to birth control. It was written against the backdrop of a local election in a conservative town because the discussion of this subject is still politically divisive.

The story is based on my own curiosity as a teenager and Phoebe’s blog is the resource I wish I’d had when I was younger.

Because sex shouldn’t remain unmentionable, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people to talk about it.