The famous French crime writer, Georges Simenon, was once asked if he had been religious as a child. “Oh, very religious. When I was eleven I got a scholarship to the College of St. Louis and I was thinking of becoming a priest. I got rid of that idea when I was thirteen.” And what happened when he was thirteen? “I made love for the first time. I saw all that about guilt and sin was nonsense. I found out that all the sins I’d heard about were not sins at all.”
I suspect that at thirteen, M. Simenon, like most adolescents, fell into sexual activity out of natural curiosity and inclination rather than for the purpose of “making love.” For all its bad press, sex is fairly easy to learn, even for teenagers, and far less confounding than love. Nonetheless, the French writer does touch on a universal social phenomenon; that of the relationship between religion and our view of sexual behaviour formed from a young age. The effects can be profound and deep and yet rarely positive, particularly in respect to our sense of guilt.
My own childhood and adolescence, however, while imbued with generous portions of both sex and religion was relatively benign in its articulation of the relationship between the two. Despite attending Sunday School and church for almost all of my formative years – under duress, it’s true – the matter of sex was never raised. If it was alluded to then I was too obtuse to recognise it.
The only lasting effect of Sunday school was that brought about by our 16-year-old lay teacher who told enthralling tales of the strange and lingering deaths of missionaries in far away jungles. I remember that one such story involved the hapless Christians being tied upside down in a bag of snakes. If it were not for Sunday School I would never have learned that our small-town war memorial was actually filled with the bones of dead soldiers.
But my religious and sex education remained separate and unrelated experiences. The theory of sex was as absent in church as the practice of it and not for me the wandering hands of conniving clergy or preying priesthood.
I believed in God and that punishment for sin was as inevitable as school on Monday and the infallibility of parents. I just had not made any connection between sex and sin.
And between the ages of eight and sixteen my sex life, with boys and girls, was prolific and richer in variety and purer of motive than it was to be at any other time of my life. That this life was hidden from the adult world was not at all the product of guilt or shame but of that very peculiar English inheritance, embarrassment. I was never remotely imbued with a sense that God would punish me for sex with others and myself. But the thought of my parents learning about the games we played was mortifying.
When a sixteen-year-old friend returned home for holidays after years in a Catholic boarding school and told me that he believed masturbation was a sin against his body, I was genuinely incredulous.
Did my little town protect us from sexual guilt, was our little church aware of the need to keep scripture and sex separate? Not at all. We were a community living out the last vestiges of our English ancestry and we did so with equal measures of hypocrisy, ignorance and, it’s true, a deep distaste for public indiscretion.
But I am grateful to have lived in that time and place. Nothing sexual abhors me, only its use to exploit, control or hurt others. And that’s not a bad legacy for life.