Letter 10: My Body is Not a Spit Cup
CW: sexuality, shaming
Have you ever had a memory that haunts you? A memory from childhood that was dormant for a while, but then bubbled to the surface, slowly become more and more invasive, more and more disturbing?
Junior high. Catholic school in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. My class is seated in what I remember to be classroom 7A, where lab tables were in place of traditional desks. The context is murky; whether it was during religion class or another segment of the day never registered in my memory.
The teacher asked for four volunteers.
One, two, three,
and I was the fourth.
We were lined up in the front of the classroom, facing the rest of our classmates.
Four 12- and 13-year-olds in a row.
Each of us was given a clear, plastic cup filled with water, and an Oreo cookie.
Once each of us held the cup of water in one hand and the Oreo in the other. The teacher counted "one, two, three," and said "You can put the cookie in your mouth and start chewing, but don't swallow it."
To me - the fourth in the line - she said, "Don't eat your cookie yet."
I stood there feeling very sheepish, holding my single Oreo.
After several seconds, the teacher said to the chewers, "Okay, you can spit your cookie into your cup."
The room filled with sounds of disgust and the uncomfortable giggles of restless seventh graders. The four of us ducklings in a row exchanged glances, the first three visibly disappointed they weren't allowed to finish eating their cookies, me uncomfortable because I somehow narrowly escaped having to spit out a chewed up cookie.
"The cup of water with chewed up Oreo?" said the teacher. "That's what you give your future spouse if you have sex before marriage. But if you wait to have sex until you're married, you give your future spouse the full dessert."
She motioned to me, still with an individual Oreo resting in my hand.
The single, untouched Oreo. An edible, artificially flavored symbol of my virginity. My barely-teenaged, never-been-kissed virginity.
My cheeks flushed, sheepish. Thirteen, gawky, forever the crush-er and never the crush-ee. As I looked into the faces of my classmates, I felt a collective "of course she's the one to not eat the cookie" emanate from their pubescent stares, piercing my armor of feigned confidence.
I returned, disoriented, to my seat at my lab table desk, timidly eating my virgin Oreo that had sat tauntingly in my clammy thirteen-year-old palm just moments before.
For some reason, this memory has been particularly prevalent in the past weeks, although it was surfaced many times over the past years. I could muse as to the Whys and What Ifs - my recent exploration of my faith, my critiques of the Church, my ongoing mental health journey - but one thing is certain regardless of the memory's reason for clinging to my mind:
It's messed up.
I was told at age thirteen that my value to my future spouse was contingent on my sexual decisions prior to meeting them.
That unless I was a virgin, I was as good as chewed up, spat-out, backwash cookie.
That virginity was both real and the foundation of my worth.
I wonder if my complicated relationship with my body has its infant roots in this moment of being told - nay, illustrated - that my body could inspire repulsion because of a way it interacted with another person. That one "misstep" could render me worthless, discardable, and forever alone.
The language around sex and virginity is, in short, problematic. Whether it is visualized as it was to me as a child, or if it is framed in terms of being "lost" or "taken," it drips with the misogyny of owning a woman's body and her value being purely transactional. Whether or not someone chooses to have sex, and when they choose to do so, is wholly intangible. It is not something that can be lost or taken. If someone is raped or is the victim of any other form of sexual violence, what is taken from them is their sense of safety and security, not some nebulous construct surrounding their sexuality or worth.
One of the most well-known figures in Christianity is Mary, Jesus's mother, also known as the Virgin Mary. In school, we were taught that Mary had to be a virgin so that she would be pure enough to carry Jesus. (I squirm a bit at "pure enough.") To be completely honest, I never think about Mary's sex life. Her virginity has no influence on the high regard in which I hold her. Her purity presents itself in her demeanor, her selflessness, her unconditional love - pure of heart and pure of spirit. I'm sure that none of that would change if she were sexually active.
The Church could make strides if it listened to the women who have felt shamed for their bodies by very misguided teaching by its agents. Generations of girls would come to see their bodies as vessels of empowerment and beauty if ideas of "purity," "virginity", and abstinence were replaced with wholistic education on sexuality and discussions on the choice of chastity and what it means, not only from a physical perspective but an emotional and spiritual perspective. (Can you imagine... I went through 13 years of Catholic school and didn't learn the difference between celibacy, religious chastity, and lay chastity until literally one month ago? Shout out to Fr. James Martin and his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.)
I really, really hope that the school I attended no longer presents this... um... demonstration. While at least two of my classmates have a similar memory, my younger brother (who was three grades behind me) has no recollection of Oreos being spat into water cups. I sincerely hope his lack of a memory is because it was not done, and not because he was absent that day or didn't have enough of a reaction to remember.
As the Pope opens the synodal process, and as World Mental Health Day is observed, I pray that we use our bodies for love and in health, not out of fear or a trauma response, but out of respectful choice. I pray that the Church moves away from fear-based tactics in addressing youth. I pray that victims of sexual violence know that they are worthy of love and have a priceless value.
And a polite "screw you" to whoever thought it was a good idea to tell seventh graders that their future spouse would be revolted by them if they had premarital sex.