One week ago, a fatal shooting spree in Santa Barbara sent shock waves across the Atlantic. For once, this wasn’t just a conversation about gun control. It was also a conversation about gender. Laura Penny wrote a pitch-perfect article on misogynist extremism in the New Statesman. Rebecca Solnit spoke eloquently about the patterns of sexual entitlement in an interview on Democracy Now. In The Daily Beast, Arthur Chu made a valuable contribution about masculinity. The hashtag YesAllWomen unleashed a flood of female frustration and anxiety, with many users retweeting Margaret Atwood’s chilling aphorism: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
I was surprised to see how many of my Irish friends were sharing these stories and articles, mostly accompanied by poignant silence rather than personal commentary. Most of these women I’ve known since we were teenagers, and most of them I would consider feminist only in the sense of keeping their heads down and trying to run their own lives. And here they were talking about this case, not only in solidarity with one another, but also, I suspect, because they wanted their male friends to understand what it’s like to grow up in the face of constant low-level sexual harassment, and with statistics for extreme violence against women that range from one in three (globally) to one in seven (at the national level).
In comparison with the Isla Vista killings, there was barely a ripple when it came to a story that broke a lot closer to home. One of the Sunday papers published a report on a former ‘Mother and Baby Home’ in Tuam, Co. Galway, where the skeletons of 796 children, aged 2 weeks to 9 years, had been found in a disused septic tank. Their bodies had been disposed of between 1925 and 1961, when the Bon Secours nuns had taken in women and girls who – to use the terminology of the time – fell pregnant out of wedlock. The care that they gave these children amounted to nothing more than death by slow starvation and infectious (but curable) diseases. Children were dying at the rate of one per fortnight behind the 8 foot walls that surrounded the former workhouse. The history of the ‘Home’ is being well documented by Limerick1914 on Storify.
This is primarily a children’s tragedy, but it is also part of a bigger story about how the Church and State in Ireland colluded to control women’s sexuality in the twentieth century (and not only then). If you want to talk about people feeling entitled to women’s bodies, then look no further. It’s only fifty years since the ‘Home’ closed its doors. The last of the Magdalene Laundries – a uniquely Irish institution that has been singled out for criticism by the UN Committee Against Torture– continued to operate up to 1996. Religious orders in Ireland, in many cases funded by the state and supported by local councillors, thought that it was perfectly okay to take in these “loose” women and force them to endure unwanted pregnancies, only to allow the children to die and be dumped – you can hardly call it a burial – in unmarked mass graves. It hardly needs to be said that the fathers all disappeared; and the families of the women acquiesced in their incarceration.
And yet – there appears to be widespread resistance to this story, from mainstream media, from political and religious institutions, from the Garda Síochána (though you’d think that surely to God, the death by neglect of 800 children would warrant a police investigation?) and most of all, from people themselves. It took five days for me to become aware of the story, and like Bock the Robber, I’m still struggling to understand why we’re not shouting about this from the rooftops. A mass grave filled with tiny skulls and bones. Does this discovery really fail to touch a chord? Are we so unaware of where we came from that we can disassociate ourselves from 796 child skeletons in a way that we can’t from Elliot Rodger and his victims? Is this story not an integral part of how we in Ireland should understand contemporary issues around misogyny, sexuality, entitlement and consent? Is our culture not deeply affected by the abuses perpetrated against tens of thousands of Irish women and children within living memory? We know that Ireland’s laws on abortion are – literally – like something out of the 19th century, but do we really think that as an ‘enlightened’ society we are somehow insulated from all that history otherwise entails?
I’m not an expert on the current state of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Ireland, but I do remember – vividly – my own education. As kids growing up in the countryside, my friends and I went to village schools where we learned about sex somewhere between being taught how to identify potential rapists by their long coats and unmarked vans, and looking up “immaculate conception” in the dictionary. As teenagers, we were sent to a girls-only secondary school in the city. It was Catholic, of course, but more Catholic than most, which earned it the nickname Virgin Express. Interestingly enough, in the years before the Easter Rising the convent was home to the writer Kate O’Brien, whose novels dealing with gender, sexuality and politics were banned for several decades in Ireland and Spain– a strange anomaly, given the education that we received sixty years after our wayward alumnus published Mary Lavelle.
The majority of our teachers began each class with the obligatory recitation of the Hail Mary in Irish, English or French. We received annual talks on chastity and how important our virginity was in our relationship with Jesus. On one memorable occasion our teacher for Social, Personal and Health Education informed us that even masturbation was a sin, albeit a venal one. Our Religion teacher was a conservative woman who brought foetus feet pins into class. In terms of sex education, we were never so much as allowed to handle a condom, though when we turned 16 we were treated to a slideshow with disturbingly graphic images of sexually transmitted infections. Naturally, this served to reinforce the fear of sex, rather than encourage safe (let alone pleasurable) sex. The word clitoris was not one that we heard spoken aloud by anyone in authority.
Outside of school, we had J-17 magazine and Dawson’s Creek and the experiences of our older siblings to give us hope. Many of us also had supportive parents who provided additional literature, and later enabled us to move to bigger cities with college campuses and understanding doctors who cheerfully prescribed contraceptives – though more than one of us ended up living at first under the watchful eyes of relatives or even the Dominican Sisters at Muckross House. Gradually, we shed our inhibitions, accepting that we were free to do whatever we wanted to do. Even if you were too overwhelmed by the sudden thrust into independent living and the reciprocal awkwardness of Irish boys to do very much in the beginning, you always had your Erasmus year or a J1 summer in America to test your boundaries.
One by one, we lost our virginity. And our parents, to our surprise, turned out to be more or less okay with it. In return for our having spared them the stigma of ever having to deal with a teenage pregnancy under their roof (and yes, I know they protected us because they loved us), they finally rewarded us with their trust, or at least decided to withhold judgement. We were free at last, even though in practice most girls seemed to settle with relief into long-term relationships in which the risks – of pregnancy, STIs, gossip, violence, loss of self-esteem, abandonment – appeared to be at their lowest. Many of my friends are still with their first or second (sexual) partner. One-night-stands or casual affairs are considered an aberration, though these conversations can always be steered into familiar waters by uttering the age-old question: “but did you use protection?”
Contraception is the common thread in all our stories, because if we’re being honest with ourselves, the one thing we’re all still terrified of is getting pregnant. Even though having an abortion these days is as simple as a cheap flight to the UK to “visit a friend” (and who hasn’t thought about this scenario, planned it out in her head?), you don’t know, in the end of the day, how you would cope with it. You’d never be able to tell your parents. You might not even tell your partner. Maybe you’d confide in a friend or two, but you’d find it hard to share the news at the annual Christmas get-together. You might have made jokes in the past about “taking the boat” (a reference to the days when women would travel by the mail-boat to England for abortions – the only thing that’s changed is the form of transport), but you wouldn’t joke about it afterwards. It takes a very brave woman to talk about her abortion publicly.
In short, you’re pro-choice, but you fervently pray (even if you’re an atheist) that you never have to exercise your right to that choice. You’re probably not a vocal supporter of the Abortion Rights Campaign or even a member of the Irish Feminist Network. When my friends and I get together after a semester or a year apart, we laugh about UTIs and UIDs and the horrors of online dating, but we still talk about pregnancy scares – if we talk about them at all – in the hushed voices of those who have survived a potentially fatal illness or severe trauma. And why is that, if you stop and think about it? Why is something as simple as missing a period a source of genuine terror for so many of us? Now, as we move into our late 20s, we’re starting to take these things in our stride. But why the hell couldn’t we approach them so rationally ten years ago? It’s not a sign of how immature we were as people, but how immature we were as a society.
The truth is that male entitlement is only a part of the issue when it comes to female sexuality in Ireland. Yes, I have encountered far too many boys and men who think that it’s perfectly okay to stare, to follow, to grope, to comment, to whistle, to catcall, to keep on texting and calling and harassing because when a woman says no, she means ‘not yet’, and ‘the fun is in the chase’, etc. But an equally big problem in Ireland is that women don’t grow up feeling truly entitled to their own bodies. We don’t know how to act other than to say no, even if we mean yes. I look at the lack of response to the discovery in Tuam, and I wonder, just when are we going to be able to claim our bodies entirely for ourselves? When are we going to move out of the shadow of the Bon Secours, the Magdalenes, Ann Lovett, the X Case, the Ryan Report?
The silence has been broken, but we still talk about all these cases with a “there but for the grace of God…” kind of attitude. We’re haunted by the idea of all those little bones, those tiny dead babies, and they’re mixed up in our heads with the abortion issue. There’s a part of us that’s haunted by the idea that if we do something wrong we’ll get pregnant and someone will come and take us away and lock us up and force us to have the baby and then take away the baby, as well. My friends and I were part of a well-educated country elite, but we weren’t the only ones who were hopelessly uneducated – if not to say miseducated – about sex. And what we learned for ourselves through experience could never quite compensate for the fear that was instilled in us as teenagers.
Here’s a conundrum for you: how can you even talk about teaching “consent” to adolescents when it’s considered normal to preach sexual abstinence in schools? How can you talk about undoing a culture of male entitlement unless you trace it back to its roots – which in reality go far beyond masculinity in the media, and into a much darker zone of state-sanctioned misogyny and child abuse? In the end of the day, it’s not just the education system that’s failing us – it’s the entire culture we’ve built around it. It’s not men who are to blame – it’s all of us.
In an interview with the BBC last week, Catherine Corless, the local historian who uncovered the story of the mass grave in Tuam, said of the local community that they were ashamed of the discovery, and that “people just don’t want to go there.”
Personally, I think that as a society, we desperately need to go there.