Daily Archives: January 29, 2010

Sense and Sensibility on Schools and Virginity from a journalist at The Age

Readers know that I read The Age rather than the other daily rag here in Melbourne, despite the fact that its political and moral views are less conducive to me. Quality can be guaged in more than one way…

However I have been pleasantly surprised by two articles written by an Age writer in the last two days that seem to have a lot more sense and to be a lot more sensible than some of the stuff you regularly find in its pages.

Katharine Murphy (a good “Catholic” name, but that in itself tells you nothing – as the example of Catherine Deveny shows) writes in today’s edition that “My School [website] increases transparency and opens the way for robust debate”:

My School is by no means a perfect beast, but it has already done two significant things.

It has begun a significant national conversation about educational standards, a genuine and substantive policy debate. And it has increased transparency for parents.

Transparency for parents matters both in the primary decision families make about where to educate their children, and in creating a more effective and informed parent body to support and, at times, challenge the institution.

She may not know it, but she is in tune there with Catholic teaching, that one of the primary rights (and responsibilities) of parents is the choice of where and how their children are educated (see this circular letter last year from the Congregation for Catholic Education).

In our household the “My School” website and the tests upon which it is based has been the subject of some disagreement – partly because the other half is an ex-school teacher, the daughter of two retired school teachers. All three are dead against the test and the website. Me? I don’t really care about that the facts might make life a little harder for some schools and those who run them and are employed by them. I’ve got two daughters, and their education is my primary concern.

And while we are on the topic of daugters and parental concerns, Katharine Murphy has also weighed into the Tony-Abbott-Get-Your-Rosaries-Off-My-Ovaries-And-Don’t-Tell-Me-What-To-Do-With-My-Virginity debate in a piece in yesterday’s Age entitled: “The Monk Might Make Sense”. She wrote:

In an interview with The Australian Women’s Weekly, one designed to present himself favourably to the voting public ahead of an election year, this is what Abbott had to say on the subject of pre-marital sex. ”It happens.”

”I think I would say to my daughters if they were to ask me this question . . . it is the greatest gift that you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving and don’t give it to someone lightly, that’s what I would say.”

Leaving aside the Opposition Leader’s hackneyed ”gift” metaphor – an idea possibly lifted from a Mills and Boon romance novel where the hero’s name is Rock or Brutus – what is Abbott saying?

He’s saying don’t bang the first randy, pimple-faced adolescent you smooch at the school disco just because he insists he loves you. He’s saying think about it.

Isn’t this what many parents would advise their growing kids?

Think. (Please.) The motivation for such advice could range from public health concerns, to religious beliefs, or a desire to hold on to kids who defy their soft-hearted parents by casting off their childhood. I’m a secular feminist and this is more or less what I would advise my kids and I don’t think hasten slowly represents a compromising flight from modernity. On my calculation – again, a personal one, much like Abbott’s – such advice could help plot a pathway towards settled and confident sexual selfhood.

The fact is that a lot of ink has been spilled on this subject by people who forget that he was speaking as a father of three daughters, not as policy maker for all Australian virgins. A lot of that silly reaction has come from people who are NOT parents, our deputy Prime Minister being one of them. As a perfect example of this silly reaction, The Age (in its attempt to be balanced) also published on the same page an opposing point of view to that which Katherine Murphy so sensibly outlined: “Memo Abbott: Virginity debate is no man’s land” by one Gabriella Coslovich. She takes issue with Mr Abbott’s imagery of virginity as a “gift”:

And now we have an Australian politician espousing similar views about the preciousness of virginity. It is no coincidence that Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is also a religious man. Religion is the preserve of patriarchal views. Let’s not forget the comment made by Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali comparing immodestly dressed women to uncovered meat – bound to be mauled by cats. Abbott’s remarks are nowhere near as incendiary. But in its own way, the Opposition Leader’s description of virginity as ”the greatest gift you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving” was nauseating.

The comment both fetishes a woman’s virginity and reduces her value to the presence of a hymen, to the unpenetrated state of her vagina. Why is that the greatest gift a woman can give someone? What about her mind? Her actions? Dare I say it, her soul? If I were one of Abbott’s daughters I would be furious to have my value reduced to the state of my hymen. Is that really the greatest gift you can give? And if it is, what does this say about relationships between men and women? It’s a pretty superficial exchange.

For the record, Abbott was not speaking as “a religious man” or as an “Australian politician”, although he is both of these. He was speaking as a father. I guess Coslovich might see this as proof of “patriarchal views”, but in the very literal sense, the answer is yes, this is a view of a patriarch, a father, a parent. One might quibble that had Tony been thinking a little more on his feet, he might have spoken less of “virginity” as such as a “gift” and more about the fact that the act of sexual intercourse is of its very nature about making a “gift” of your whole self (=mind+soul+hymen+everything) – but of course we can see why such language is no longer acceptable. We want to think that we can casually engage in sexual acts with others, not only without giving anything, but also without losing anything of ourselves. Yet this is precisely what happens in casual sex – and so often it is the woman who ends up the loser. Which is why, as a father, I will be giving my own daughters exactly the same advice that Tony gave his.

(PS. Memo to women who don’t have daughters of their own: This isn’t your land either.)

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