Dormant

This blog is currently dormant, however I do use this avatar to interact online. I reserve the right to post here again sometime.

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The virgin diary, or: What Tony Abbott should have said to his teenage girls

The first time my virginity was called into question, I was no older than 12. I had taken my younger sisters to play on the school playground, very close to home, and we were hanging about doing those flips and somersaults that girls like to do on monkey bars (when I think of it now I am amazed by the flexibility my body once had!). Some slightly older boys had appeared on their bikes and interrupted our play by starting a conversation. They didn’t seem at all threatening, just curious and a bit annoying. Even in retrospect, I don’t think they meant anything dangerous.

They had a lot of questions, most of them quite boring, until one asked me if I was a virgin. I confidently said no. He asked if I knew what it meant, but although the meaning was a bit hazy to me, I was too proud to admit any doubt. Perhaps he wasn’t sure what it meant either. In any case, the word virgin was not entirely unfamiliar to me – I had at least come across it as “vergine” in my mother tongue, Italian, and I thought I had a fair idea of its meaning. A virgin, I thought, was a young woman, older than me, with breasts and a woman’s body. I had a very firm concept of myself as still a child, and I reasoned that I was not old enough to be a virgin. If I really thought about it I might even have said that a virgin was a woman old enough to have sex. And that, surely, was not me! Those boys left shortly thereafter and I never saw them again.

A couple of years later I started attending a catholic school and quickly learned what virgin really meant. As the years passed I began to understand the problems associated with the concept of virginity. First of all, virginity was different for males and females. Girls were supposed to stay virgins as long as possible, for strict catholics even until marriage.  However it was a truth universally acknowledged that for boys, the opposite was the case, catholic or not. There was some lip service paid by teachers and priests to the notion of boys restraining their desires until marriage, but no-one really believed it. The fact was that for boys virginity was an embarrassing weight to be got rid of at the earliest possible opportunity. Girls who lost theirs too early were clearly sluts, but eventually even us catholic girls knew it was pretty uncool to wait until marriage to have sex and we’d snigger at the homilies and lectures given on the matter by the teachers and priests. But when exactly was the right time to lose your virginity? Most of us had a vague idea that we’d wait until we were at uni or had finished school. We thought we could plan it.

I was a shy, sheltered girl, so securing my virginity until I was at uni was not exactly difficult. I figured that my time would come and for a long time I did not worry about it. One by one my friends all started having sex. Some were more public about it than others. One old schoolfriend I’d not seen in months raced to catch me between classes to announce with studied casualness that she and her long-time boyfriend had “done it” the previous night (I was surprised, having assumed they’d been having sex all along). Others were more discreet, but they all started on a series of mostly monogamous relationships while I waited patiently. The embarrassment of advanced virginity crept up on me slowly, until I realised painfully that I was now the odd one out. What had once been desirable was now something to be hidden at all costs. I had missed the “right time” to lose my virginity! Had I met those boys from the playground I would have lied to them again, knowingly this time, and accompanied by a deep sense of shame.

I eventually did have sex but if the guy involved guessed he was my first, he thankfully never let on. What really struck me afterwards was that I was exactly the same person I’d been before. I experienced the sense of relief I imagine school boys feel when they lose their “cherry”, but other than that, I was still just me. I could not see why there had to be a word to describe the person I was before having sex. Nothing had changed. And if I was a virgin before, what was I now? Just a young woman. A person. Just me. And it strikes me now that losing one’s virginity is one of those life events which seems huge in anticipation but as time leaves it behind it becomes quite small and of comparatively little significance.

When I heard last week that Tony Abbott had said that girls’ virginity was “the greatest gift that you can give someone”, I was reminded of those priests and nuns from high school that we all ended up sniggering at.  Mr Abbott has been much criticised for his remarks, made in an interview with The Women’s Weekly in response to a question on pre-marital sex. (“Pre-marital sex”: isn’t that a funny little expression too – why do we need a description for the kind of sex that happens before marriage? We don’t start calling it “marital sex” after marriage.) Abbott has his defenders too. They say that he was just being a caring father, that his answer was aimed only at his daughters, and only if they asked, not at all Australian women. That’s what Andrew Bolt says anyway. I would argue that when the leader of the Opposition is interviewed, he knows his comments will be published and he is therefore speaking to the public.

As for being a caring father to his daughters, I don’t have any daughters, but our friends who do sometimes joke about locking them away until they’re 21 (or even older). I never hear such jokes about their sons. The jokes invariably come from the fathers. I suspect many fathers feel a sense of empathy for Mr Abbott. What should he have said to his teenage girls instead? asks Mr Bolt.

So here is what I think a father should advise his teenage daughters, and what all parents and sex-ed teachers should advise teenagers: virginity is meaningless. It is not a gift to give somebody else, nor is it something to feel triumphant about if someone else “gives” it to you. If someone puts their trust in you, that is something to treat with care. It doesn’t matter when you “lose” your virginity, because it won’t change you: you will be the same person after that you were before. What does change you are other things, some of which will come up at the time you first have sex.  But mostly they will come up gradually, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes painfully. Embrace them and learn from them. These things are (this is neither an ordered nor an exhaustive list): intimacy with another human being, fear of the unknown, regret for mistakes you’ve made, trust in another, desire, power, pleasure, embarrassment, curiosity, boredom, surprise, rejection, elation, disappointment, excitement, loneliness, joy and wonder. And we should always remind our children that sex brings along with it a raft of responsibilities, foremost being protection from disease ranging from minor to life-threatening and from the possibility of pregnancy.

In my opinion, that is what Tony Abbott should have said in his interview with The Women’s Weekly.  But I do wonder how they would have edited it down for convenience, and how it would have been re-reported by the media.

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A kind of woman

Yesterday morning, I watched about 30 seconds of television that rankled so much I’ve hardly stopped thinking about it.  It struck a chord particularly as it came not long after I’d read this great post about breastfeeding in public on the excellent blog Spilt Milk. I’d been thinking that surely it couldn’t be true that people were still so bothered by seeing women breastfeeding while out and about with their babies. That must be happening in Some Other Country.

Girl, oh girl, did I get a rude awakening. I flicked on the telly while taking out a dvd the kids had been watching and saw Mia Freedman on a chat show (it was the weekend version of Today). She was talking about breastfeeding in public (for more, see here), so I stopped for a moment. The male host, a fellow with a vaguely familiar face called Cameron Williams, interjected at one point, with something along the lines of “Yes, but it’s better to be discreet, a woman should cover herself with a shawl or something.” This is when I felt a sort of nervous twitch start up. I thought I saw Freedman’s smile tighten just a little as she tried to explain how hard it can be when you have a wriggling baby and you are dealing with the various difficulties of breastfeeding, to worry about covering yourself up. The male host was not to be deterred by such justifications. “Yes, but there’s a kind of woman who approaches it like she’s going into combat…” At this point I started hyperventilating. My husband, who’d been quietly reading the newspaper, said “Oh, my God. Any sentence that starts off like that cannot end well. Turn it off.” I promptly followed his advice, fearing that further exposure to such b******t could induce a grand mal seizure (and I’m not even epileptic).

For the past day I’ve had that phrase echo in my head: “a kind of woman”. I still don’t know how to express in words the outrage, the deep sense of personal offence that I feel. I remember the times, not long ago, when I breastfed my babies while out at a restaurant, a cafe, a shopping centre, a park. I remember battling with my own prudery and lack of confidence, telling myself to get over it and that no-one minded or even noticed if I gave my baby a feed there and then when he wanted and needed it. I probably did sometimes look like I was going into combat, struggling to calm a screaming baby who sometimes had trouble latching on, determined as I was to conquer my shyness and do the right thing by my baby. Thank God I didn’t really know that all along, some people were looking at me and thinking I was that “kind of woman”, or my milk would have dried up in about a nanosecond.

I like to imagine that after I turned off the tv, Freedman stood up and did a Matrix-style martial arts manouvre on Mr Williams, leaving him huddled and chastened. Or that the female co-host, who did not say much in the 30 seconds I was watching, turned and said “You know Cameron, I find your face quite offensive, you really should be a bit more discreet and cover it up with a shawl or something.” I can dream, can’t I?

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Diagnosis

I didn’t realise that diagnosing cancer is a speedy process these days. Or in any case it can be in a Western country like ours –  in the Third World someone like my mother considers herself lucky to reach the ripe old age of 67, let alone have the luxury of regular checkups, gastroscopies and biopsies to reveal what it is that has made her feel rather tired lately.

It took a couple of tests over less than a week to diagnose it. First mum went for her regular check-up and casually mentioned the fatigue. The next thing you know, she’s got a camera taking photos of the inside of her digestive tract.  My sister Elly went to the gastroscopy with her and they saw a doctor straight after. “It’s not good news, I’m afraid,” he told them. Then the phone rang and he said he had to take the call and left them waiting for 15 torturous minutes. When he came back he was more forthcoming. “You’ll have to wait for the biopsy results to be sure but I’ve seen enough of these to know it’s Cancer.”

The first thing to do is rule out spread so the next day there is a CAT scan. The day after that, an abdominal ultrasound. This time I go with her. Mum is still in shock. She says it is like watching yourself on TV: it looks like it’s all happening to someone else. Perhaps it is a desire to make it more real that drives her to tell the ultrasound operator, a brisk and businesslike woman with a fake smile who clearly doesn’t want to be at work on a Saturday morning. She introduces herself – Belinda – and explains the procedure. “Perhaps I should tell you why I’m here,” mum says once she is lying on the ultrasound bed. Belinda stiffens. I can see that she doesn’t want to know.  I put my hand out to mum’s arm to try and warn her, but she ignores me. “I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus.”

Belinda jumps in before mum has a chance to reveal any further uncomfortable details. “Oh I don’t have anything to do with that!” Her nostrils flare and she shakes her head slightly. “I don’t do any of the air-filled organs like the stomach or the lungs. I only do the liquid-filled ones.”  All we can do is smile tightly and move on. The ultrasound continues and I try to make some sense of the greyish blobs on the screen.  I am very familiar with the machine and the process: it is exactly the same as for a pregnancy ultrasound, but without the excitement. There is no growing foetus, only blobs which, for all I know, could be growing metastases. What are those little spots on the kidney screen, I wonder? What about the shadow on the screen called liver? Belinda refuses to tell us anything. “No,” she chops. “Talk to your doctor.” She finishes, hands mum a kleenex, smiles vacantly and is gone. I wonder how a health professional could be so cold. Would it have hurt her to say “I’m sorry to hear about your cancer”? Or to wish mum luck with everything? The more I think about it the more I want to slap her.

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I’ve been wanting to write about this, but I still feel hesitant in re-starting my blog. This will be my first post about mum’s cancer. Will there be a last post one day? When? Under what circumstances? What will be the path ahead?

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I’ll be back

I’m finding it just too hard to sit down and write anything cohesive at the moment. Hopefully I’ll be back within the next few weeks. Thanks for popping in.

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Somewhere (a place for us)

I am a long-term fan of renting as a lifestyle. It has many benefits: it’s cheaper than a mortgage, it’s easier to move on when you want a change, someone else has to pay when the hot water service breaks down, and so on. And I have a habit of getting attached to rented houses as if they were my own. That is, I believe that while I was living there, they were my own. The concept of “home” goes so much further than a mortgage. I know the smells, the cracks and peeling paint, the cupboard doors that stick, the creaking floorboards.  Each of my past homes has a special place in my nostalgic heart and I even feel a little violated at the thought that someone else is living there now.

I think I’ve retained a child’s view of the matter, as I was recently reminded by my firstborn (whom I will refer to here as Primo). We were driving home from my mum’s place and Primo asked if we could go to Nonna’s house. I replied that we’d just been to Nonna’s house and now we were going to our own house. But that wasn’t quite correct and I felt I had to elaborate. “Actually it isn’t our own house. It’s somebody else’s house. Soon we will have our own house. But right now we’re going to the house that we’re living in.” He was silent for a moment while he mulled it over, then he simply said “Home.” Wise word for a three-year-old.

Home. I’d never had a problem calling our rented houses “home” until now. Now that I have two children, one of them about to start preschool, I want to live somewhere where I can scout the local primary schools. Somewhere where I know the owner can’t ask me to leave with only a couple of months’ notice. Somewhere where I can paint the walls whatever colour I like, hammer up a picture hook without asking for permission, let my cats come live inside if they want (OK, I already did that, but don’t tell the real estate agent!). I want to get to know the neighbours, instead of thinking “Why bother, we’ll only be here a short while.”

So, we have now completed the last remaining stage of what my husband cynically calls “the adulthood triumvirate”: marriage, kids, house. I wonder how this will affect my concept of home. Will I be more at home in this house than I have in my rented homes? Will I get bored after a couple of years and yearn for the ease of moving without having to sell?

In the meantime, I have to confess I haven’t started packing for the move.  A few days ago I scrubbed the visible surfaces and hid the mess so that fifty or so people could trundle through my home to consider renting it for themselves. I felt as though they were judging me and yearned for their approval – at the same time I wanted to kick them all out, yelling “Go away, it’s my home!” But in four weeks it won’t be mine anymore, even though I know all its peculiarities and oddities better than anyone.

One day I might drive past and feel a twinge of jealousy when I see someone else’s car parked outside. I will remember bringing home my second baby here, celebrating birthdays in the back yard, running loops with the children indoors and hundreds of other little things that happened in the years we have lived here. Those memories are of our home and it will take some time before we make new memories in our new house. You can’t buy that.

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Precautionary measures

I’ve just discovered the tag surfer function in WordPress and found a great blog site dedicated to answering FAQs on feminism (see new link at side). I read the interesting entry on “What’s wrong with suggesting that women take precautions to prevent being raped?“, where comments digressed into a discussion on the finer legalities of carrying a handgun. Then I came up with my own idea for a precautionary measure and thought I’d post it here too.

Perhaps as a precaution women should at all times wear a badge, or a T-shirt with a slogan on it, or even just get a tattoo on our foreheads saying: “I do not want to be raped.” All those altruistic sexual assaulters out there (”Your honour, I only did it because she wanted me to”) would find it so much less confusing to channel their inner desire to be helpful.
And *if* it doesn’t stop rape it would at least save time in court. Instead of all that searching through a victim’s sexual history, she could just point to her forehead.
But I suppose it could be argued that the victim’s clothing distracted the assaulter from the tattoo, so maybe to clarify things the tattoo needs to be more specific: “No matter what I’m wearing, I do not ever want to be raped.”
Or what if the victim got drunk and passed out – amend that tattoo to read: “No matter what I’m wearing/doing, I do not ever want to be raped.”
Or what if the victim had had sex with her assaulter in the past or she’s had sex with a lot of people – amend that to: “No matter what I’m wearing/doing/what my sexual history is/whether I’ve had sex with you before, I do not ever want to be raped.”
And it is true that occasionally men are raped too, so everyone should have the tattoo. Perhaps on our backs as well as our foreheads, just to cover all bases. It should be done at birth, sadly it’s never too early.
However by now everyone’s forehead and back is full of writing, you could even call it small print. And no-one ever reads the small print, right?
Hang on, I’ve got a better idea: as a precaution, why don’t we teach everyone to just ASSUME that no-one EVER wants to be raped? And even build that assumption into our legal system?
Genius.

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