Between a Rock and a Hard Place: How the Hierarchy's Approach to Sex Education Leads to Difficult Choices

By Grzywacz, Anka | Conscience, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: How the Hierarchy's Approach to Sex Education Leads to Difficult Choices


Grzywacz, Anka, Conscience


IT'S FUNNY HOW THESE MESSAGES of traditional Catholic morality get stuck in your head one way or another. I remember a time when I was a child and read about masturbation. Straight away, I started to believe that masturbation was a sin and something one was not supposed to practice. I don't know how it happened. While my parents were too shy to talk to me about sex, they never taught me that it was something evil. They were typical Polish Catholics: churchgoing--but not every Sunday; never (or rarely) went to confession and generally did not take their faith very deeply or seriously.

Then, my elementary school friend got pregnant at the age of 16 and had to marry early. Watching this situation somehow shaped me into who I am today--a sex educator. My personal experience of living in a country where abortion is practically illegal and unplanned pregnancy is greatly feared took me on a path of self-education. I realized that to avoid the hell of a back-street abortion, I needed to know everything possible about contraception. I also understood that I wanted to help other young women and men become better informed about sexuality. Immediately after I came to Warsaw to study I became involved in the prochoice movement and co-organized the pioneer peer sex educators' group, Ponton.

As my feminist and prochoice views were taking shape, I had the increasing realization that I could no longer be a part of the institutional Roman Catholic church. Not only did I support abortion rights and contraception, I was also very much in favor of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. How could I not have been? My best friend was gay. I stopped going to Mass, taking communion, only occasionally did I stop by the church to pray. I continued to volunteer as a sex educator and advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights in Poland.

When I first met Catholics for Choice, the idea that you could actually be a good Catholic and have progressive views was immediately appealing. It wasn't the bishops with their never-ending criticism and sexist comments about feminists and the "civilization of life" that brought me back to the pews but the brave and open-minded Catholics supporting a woman's right to choose. Since then, I became more interested in how (and if at all) the teenagers that I work with could reconcile their Catholic faith with their sexuality.

In more than seven years of work in peer education, I have rarely encountered a question regarding the moral aspects of sex. Teenagers want to know whether you can get pregnant the first time you have sex. They don't really care if it is acceptable to be Catholic and have premarital sex. And I assume most of these teens are Catholic, since the majority of Polish population is. Once in a while somebody raises doubts whether masturbation is a sin. Even then, they are usually just worried about whether masturbation will make them infertile.

The church, however, does interfere in the work done by Ponton. We are not invited or welcome in Catholic schools. In small towns and villages, the situation is even more difficult. There, the role of a priest who teaches religious education (which is practically obligatory in Poland) enjoys a respect equal to that of the school principal. We were invited once or twice to give a class on contraception and HIV prevention in a small village, which is difficult for us as it requires more time and energy (and some funding from the host school) to travel any distance out of Warsaw.

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