An article about a ‘23-year-old virgin’ lifted my heart

A recent column in this newspaper shows just how far we’ve come from days of sexual repression

“The ‘News of the World’ published racy news stories, often about prominent personalities having affairs or running off with other people’s spouses.” Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

“The ‘News of the World’ published racy news stories, often about prominent personalities having affairs or running off with other people’s spouses.” Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

 

A recent headline in The Irish Times which read ‘Do I have to tell a guy I’m a virgin?’ made me think, for some reason, of men who used to kneel in the church porch at Mass with a folded copy of the News of the World under their knee.

The thought, I believe, came from the realisation that we have come a long, long way in these matters. I recall an Irish agony aunt back in the 1970s telling a woman that she should not have sex with her husband for pleasure alone, in other words without the possibility of conceiving, because the purpose of marriage was to have children.

That is what we have come from. The headline was from Roe McDermott’s column, which was responding to a 23-year-old woman who was fretting over whether to tell a young man she fancied that she was a virgin.

McDermott’s response, though she gave a bit of a lecture about heterocentric definitions of virginity and so on, was that she should have an open and honest conversation with this man about the situation.

What does this have to do with men kneeling on the News of the World in the church porch? It’s about sexuality.

The News of the World published racy news stories, often about prominent personalities having affairs or running off with other people’s spouses. It opened a door into a world which was meant to be kept tightly locked away.

The newspaper, for that reason, was frowned on by the church and by “respectable” people in general. Indeed, it was technically banned for at least some of the years during which it was on sale in shops here.

The men in the porch were also a symbol of a time when, if you were born Catholic, you were under a strong social obligation to go to Mass. Long after I had stopped going to Mass in Dublin, I continued attending Mass whenever I visited my parents only 20 miles away in Kildare because I didn’t want to embarrass them by staying at home.

Sneaky read

Those men who went only as far as the porch must have included many who would not have been there at all if they felt they had a choice about it. For some of them, the News of the World had more to say that was of interest than the priest on the altar. Some even managed to have a sneaky read of the headlines in the newspaper under their knee.

Their practice of coming no further than the porch was annoying to priests, who often made pointed announcements to the effect that there were plenty of seats at the front. However, these men were not to be drawn into the body of the church and stayed put.

The attitude to virginity at the time was that a woman who was not married was a virgin; and that if she was not a virgin she was in some way immoral. She certainly would not be telling anybody that she had ‘lost’ (odd word) her virginity. If she did so, the result would almost certainly be social disapproval and isolation.

It was all part of the same horrible set of attitudes that had single pregnant women having babies in mother and baby homes and then returning to the parish childless, apparently having been working in England.

In my teenage years, that era was dying but those attitudes still packed a punch – so headlines such as ‘Do I have to tell a guy I’m a virgin?’ lift my heart as an indication of liberation.

Which doesn’t, by the way, mean there’s something wrong with you if you’re still a virgin at 23. People’s sex lives happen at different rates – but the great thing is that the level of repression and nonsense and cruelty that we were subjected to over sex has diminished to the point that the question raised by that young lady can be raised – and can be answered in the manner in which it was answered.

– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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