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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28 Comments

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28 responses to “Sense and Sensibility on Schools and Virginity from a journalist at The Age

  1. As a woman and as the mother of four daughters, I believe the feminist movement has abdicated the right to speak on behalf of women by lying to them about contraception, abortion, marriage and sex.

    There was an excellent post recently on Inside Catholic that makes the sex, contraception and abortion point: http://insidecatholic.com/Joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=7560&Itemid=48

    As to marriage, just the fact that it survives as an institution, and remains the goal of those in love, should give them pause to reconsider.

    • I believe the feminist movement has abdicated the right to speak on behalf of women by lying to them about contraception, abortion, marriage and sex.

      Yep.

  2. Abbott should have added that he would give young blokes the same advice…

    The dreadful immodest feminist rant about Abbott fetishizing virginity does have a point, though – St Jerome long ago confessed, “I am a virgin in body, but not in mind”: purity of soul and of thought is a far greater gift, in every sense, and in the correct ordering of things the rational mind governs the body, so that a healthy mind in a healthy body will choose what is still the best option, even leaving aside religion – monogamy, which the majority of the human race now and down the ages has attested is the norm, and for good reason.

    • Abbott should have added that he would give young blokes the same advice…

      I haven’t read the original article in WW, but he needn’t have made the point, if the question was really just directed at him and his family.

      Only Abbott-haters make needless assumptions along those lines. In fact, if you’ve heard Abbott talk of his own regrets, it seems pretty obvious to me that he would discourage his sons from being “callous.”

      • Tony

        Yes Louise, we should be careful about making assumptions.

        The article is a available on-line: http://aww.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=1004317

        Abbott was asked about ‘the issues’ and he chose to use his daughters in his response to ‘Sex before marriage’; not Sex before marriage and women’ and not ‘Sex before marriage and daughters’ and not ‘Sex before marriage and fathers’.

        It was only later, when the reaction wasn’t to his liking as a politician, that he span the notion that he was speaking as a ‘father’ and wasn’t meaning to ‘preach’. He made no such disclaimers about the other ‘issues’ he opined about.

        I suspect that if he’d used terms similar to those of Katherine Murphy — ie, something recognisably not out of the 50s — there would have been next to no fuss.

        • Ah the fifties! Most Evil Age Ever!

          But thanks for the link – I’ll check it out.

          • From the article, but a bit OT:

            “I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that the Liberal Party has just elected a leader who is anti-abortion, anti-IVF, anti-stem cell research and who wants to ban no-fault divorce,’’ influential blogger Mia Freedman wrote.

            I wish that were all true, but I have read somewhere else, that Abbott is all for IVF for instance.

        • This is what the article said:

          On the issues
          Tony Abbott’s religious faith is why his supporters hold him in such regard and why his critics call him “Captain Catholic”. Here are his views on a number of issues that relate to women and families.

          Abortion
          “I have never suggested that it should be re-criminalised. All I have ever said was that I would like to see fewer abortions.”

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

          I have to say Tony it’s by no means obvious that Abbott chose those issues at all. The interviewer was just as likely to have asked him about those contentious issues.

          Also, he said, “I would say to my daughters…”

          Sorry, but it’s clear he is speaking as a father.

          But I’d be just as happy if he were speaking as a politician.

          • Tony

            Sorry, I just don’t buy it.

            He makes no such disclaimers about the other ‘issues’ he speaks about. Each opinion has the same status, ie, ‘this is what I think about these issues’.

            The disclaimer only came afterwards in reaction to the reaction.

            I think the whole article shoots holes into the notion that Abbott is a ‘straight shooter’. Most of his answers are politicians answers. The content is pretty much what Rudd would say, except mercifully shorter.

            I suspect Rudd would keep his family out of it, but I don’t condemn Abbott for that on principle. He should have either not gone down that path or, true to his (bogus) straight shooter image, not ‘softened’ it afterwards.

  3. Paul

    The Coslovich rant about the word “gift” reminds me that a few years ago I had the misfortune to attend and (heaven help me), pass a course on sociology. I recognise the sociology style in the Coslovich article: pick on one word in an essay, amplify it, draw conclusions that the writer never intended, make irrelevant analogies and comments, attack your opponent, and then withdraw, having made no worthwhile contribution to the debate.

    Other attacks on Abbott have been on the form “of course” this advice only applies to girls. Huh? Evidence anyone?

    Another, particulary distasteful comment I read was that only religious people make such a fuss about sex. Its not that important (he said), learning about sex is the same a learning how not to urinate in an inappropriate place. Good grief!! Tony Abbott has in fact started a really important discussion.

    I note the rage of Tony Abbott’s critics on this issue. Methinks they protest too much, and deep down have had the fearful thought that he might be right.

  4. Paul

    On the subject of the myschool website, I had a first hand look at the year 5 NAPLAN tests that are part of the data for this site. I volunteered last year as an aid in a classroom and had the job of “assisting” some of the children doing the tests. Of course this was carefully controlled, so we could only encourage them to keep going and of course not give any help with answers, which was very frustrating.

    I am no educational experts, but I thought the tests had been very carefully designed, and it would not have been possible to “teach to the test” by simple rote learning. Any child who did well in the tests would have to have a deep understanding of reading, writing, grammar and arithmetic.
    I have also looked at the website, and it seems to me that they have designed it to avoid simpistic comparisons, but rather to indicate areas where the schools could improve.

    From the load on the website, we can see the interest in this, which is surely not a bad thing.

  5. Kyle

    Gabriella Coslovich is wrong. Virginity is not about the presence of a hymen. For example, the Virgin Mary in giving birth would have lost hers yet she is called the perpetual virgin. Virginity is not primarily a physical state. Writing about the consecrated virgins who were forcibly raped, St Augustine said that even though physically defiled, they remained unpolluted because their virginity is grounded in the will and soul:

    “But is there a fear that even another’s lust may pollute the violated? It will not pollute, if it be another’s: if it pollute, it is not another’s, but is shared also by the polluted. But since purity is a virtue of the soul, and has for its companion virtue, the fortitude which will rather endure all ills than consent to evil; and since no one, however magnanimous and pure, has always the disposal of his own body, but can control only the consent and refusal of his will, what sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity?”
    Book 1, Chapter 18.

    • I actually think there is something in some patristic writers (help me please here, anyone who is more knowledgable) which speculated that the BVM’s hymen remained intact in the birth of Jesus. Odd stuff. Cardinal Pole could probably help.

      • Kyle

        Yes, I retract what I said. In the Summa Theologica, St Thomas quotes the Council of Ephesus teaching: “Whosoever brings forth mere flesh, ceases to be a virgin. But since she gave birth to the Word made flesh, God safeguarded her virginity so as to manifest His Word, by which Word He thus manifested Himself: for neither does our word, when brought forth, corrupt the mind; nor does God, the substantial Word, deigning to be born, destroy virginity.”

        Nonetheless, virginity is not destroyed by the mere rupture of hymen as Coslovich suggests. St Augustine does not question the virginity of the consecrated virgins who were raped. As he points out, and as you say too, it involves the whole person, the body and soul.

  6. Clara

    My problem with NAPLAN is that it fails my children one of whom is dyslexic, but rates in the 95th percentile in perceptual reasoning, the 80th percentile in verbal comprehension but only in the 35th percentile for processing speed – which brings his IQ down to just in the gifted range, but he will score below average in the NAPLAN tests.

    Because he is so bright teachers presumed he was lazy rather than experiencing real difficulties. Primary school teachers did not pick up the problem and by the time I paid $700 to a private psychologist – he had lost interest. There is no federal or state government funding to assist these kids – although picked up early they can be helped. I fail to see that Myschool does anything more than pick up superficial data. (the primary school he attended scored higher than average, they were very good at drilling kids to pass the tests but not good at identifying learning difficulties)

  7. 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.

    Very very good.

    Pleasant surprise. (Why should I be surprised?)

  8. 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.

    Pure bile.

  9. Paul

    It might be a long bow, but I think there is a link between the two threads of this thread (viz, attitudes to Catholic theology and school testing).
    An article in todays paper talks about the NAPLAN results for two schools, John Colet non-denominational school, and St Francis of Assisi, Paddington:
    http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/tests-just-childs-play-for-topperforming-school-20100129-n48k.html

    The former is described as an educational paradised, including the rote learning of times tables. St Francis, on the other hand, is described as a factory of repetition without any good education. This is based on an interview with the headmaster for John Colet, and one letter to the editor for St Francis.
    In fact, I doubt that there is any difference between the two, but the popular jibe is that the Catholic school teachers for the exam and is not interested in developing the child. I see no basis for this claim except for an anti-Catholic bias.

    Incidentally, I read on the John Colet webpage that it was set up by the School of Philosophy. I once attended an adult course at a branch of this organisation. (I am 99% sure it is the same organisation, because they were interested in Sanskrit, meditation and calligraphy, which they do at John Colet). The course I did was a lot of fun, but it was based on a mish mash of every philosophy they could think of, and in my opinion, became a little confused.

  10. Susan Peterson

    Won’t you as a father be telling your daughters to wait until marriage?
    I urge you to have the courage of your Christian and Catholic convictions and to do that.
    If you convey that you believe this is unrealistic, they will pick that up.
    While waiting until “you really love the person” is better than using sex as a plaything, it also means even greater pain when the relationship ends.
    I lacked that courage of conviction, not having lived that way myself. I can’t tell you the amount of pain my children and their children have gone through. I see my friend, married to a Catholic, whose large homeschooled family is growing up into adults who save sex for marriage and who meet similar partners, marry in the church, and start to have children right away. Don’t settle for less! Convey to your daughters that you expect them to save sex for marriage, and to marry men who are also Christians with the same beliefs.

  11. Cherub

    Susan is right. Marriage is about the gift of a man of himself to a woman and of her reciprocal gift of herself to him. We are not to be”Indian givers”, taking back such a gift. I have three daughters and no sons and like Tony Abbott I would give that advice to my daughters. And if I had sons, I would give them essentially the same message together with a strong message about respect for self and for women. The reaction to Tony Abbott by Ms Gillard et al is just plain sad.

  12. Tom

    You know, what strikes me as the most ridiculous of all is that its somehow an ‘exception’ when the issue at stake is sex, or the body.

    What parent, at any stage, says to any child in regards to ANY (re: not necessarily sexual) action (boy or girl) ‘go ahead, do what you like, it doesn’t matter to me one bit what you choose to do in any circumstance, just so long as when you start doing whatever it is you do, you want to as such.’

    It seems though, that come the question of sex, this is the expected response. It just seems so utterly confused. Also, I think in a way if a parent did that to a child they would have to really hate them. It would mean a parent would have to generally not give a flying toss what happened to their children.

    The response of people like Coslovich is just typical of the neo-feminist movement caught up in its heyday of neo-marxist ’empowerment’ and ‘activism’. Only people that stupid could be daft enough to suggest that the absence of a hymen is empowering…

  13. 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.

    Of course, because all religions ar the same.

    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.

    What garbage. I’m a bit more worried about the condom-fetishists, myself.

  14. From the article:

    How do you get more women into politics? “A good question. The trouble is, unless you are super ambitious, super idealistic, super competitive or a combination of all three, politics is not a very attractive life,” he says, before admitting he does not have a solution.

    I don’t think we need more women in politics so no solution required.

  15. More from the article:

    On paid maternity leave
    One of the few women’s issues he has won plaudits for was a plan for six months paid maternity leave, detailed in Battlelines. However, as leader of the Liberal Party, his support for this radical policy initiative is not quite as clear.

    “My thinking has moved on a bit since then and I think … it’s very important that any national scheme doesn’t disadvantage small business.”

    Do you think that it is doable? “Uh-huh”. You can do it, six months paid maternity leave? “Well, I think that is certainly desirable.”

    Six months paid maternity leave? Stupid! People being paid for six months not to work in their jobs? Ludicrous.