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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.
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.
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?
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.