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Op-ed: What I Didn't Learn in Catholic School

Op-ed: What I Didn't Learn in Catholic School


Comedian Cameron Esposito explains why comedy has become her new religion.

I was onstage, transitioning from a hilarious bit about lesbian porn into some pretty sweet butt sex material, when I heard a lady's voice yell out, "They didn't teach you that at _____!"
_____ is the name of my high school, and even though this particular show was in my hometown of Chicago, someone yelling that detail at me was a surprise. I was raised 15 miles outside the city. My high school was 15 miles further west than that. We were at a low-ceilinged, downtown comedy club, I was telling jokes, and I'm 32, kind of past the yell-the-name-of-your-high-school age.
I put my hand to my eyes to try and see under the lights and addressed the voice. "Did I go to high school with you, or were you my teacher?" -- the voice had seemed a bit older. "Neither," she said, "We know your parents."
I didn't ask the woman's name. I didn't ask why she thought she should name my Catholic high school right at that moment, or tell me she knew my parents while I was trying to work. I asked, "And how are they? I saw them yesterday for Thanksgiving and they seem like they are doing well." I didn't wait for an answer. I moved on and finished my set.
As the yelling lady yelled, I went to _____, a very conservative suburban Catholic college prep high school outside Chicago. My sister had gone there, and the school's red brick buildings -- it formerly been an orphanage -- were exactly the right amount creepy and pretty. I had attended football games and watched my sister pom-pom it out as a part of the half-time show. It seemed fun, and since my parents had budgeted to pay for private tuition for us, it was an option for me to attend as well.
Plus I was raised Catholic, so that part seemed natural. My parents met at a Catholic college. I was an altar server at my Catholic grade school. As a little kid, one of my favorite games to play had been mass. My sister and I took turns priesting and my Nana took the Better Cheddar crackers we used for eucharist with a "Body of Christ" and an "Amen."
It didn't seem odd, then, to show up at high school and have monks for teachers. And, academically, _____ was an excellent school. _____ was second in the state at the time I went there -- you had to take a test to get in. The best school in the state was a live-in, dorm-type thing my friend's brother went to. Moving away at 14 years old was a bit too intense for me and that school also focused exclusively on math and science. I've always been an English and history type of gal.
At _____, you could commute and still get a great education. So I took the train 15 miles from my house to school and stayed after for sports practice and student government meetings. I didn't live at the school, but I often stayed there for 12-hour days. Sometimes longer, if my basketball team had a late practice.
The teaching staff was mostly kind, accessible. Besides the monks - all of whom lived at the abbey that neighbored our school and had taken an oath to educate - we had laymen and laywomen who genuinely seemed to care for their students. They got there early and stayed late, edited together massive clip reels of important moments in history and taught us poems to recite at the beginning of every class. I still remember some E.E. Cummings.
Could we take AP classes? Yep. We could even take class at the college across the street. Did we have mass in the gym so that all 1,200 students could attend at once? You bet! And prayer retreats, too.
But the overall focus of the school, if I had to put it on anything, would have been critical thinking. We wrote long research papers, had frequent pop quizzes, memorized hundreds of vocabulary words a semester and read The Great Gatsby A LOT. They were getting us ready to kill our SATs without teaching to the test and write college essays about our important work with the French club and whatnot.
What we didn't have was sex education. None. What the school called sex-ed was lumped into our religion class, and that's where all the thinking stopped. The biblically-rooted curriculum left sexually active kids completely on their own, especially the girls. Girls who so much as kissed multiple guys were labeled as "skanks" and ridiculed as relentlessly as they were pursued. Forget putting condoms on bananas, condoms were never even mentioned. Neither was the pill. Or sex, really. We covered the act of sexual intercourse by watching a video in class that included footage from an abortion. Did you read that right? We watched an abortion. In class.
We covered sexuality by reading about Sodom and Gomorrah -- sorry straights! You weren't even mentioned! We wrote five-paragraph essays detailing our thoughts on homosexuality. I found that essay on a floppy disc years later. In it, I wrote that since I was not gay, I didn't know whether or not it was a choice and therefore couldn't pass judgment on whether it was wrong. Of course, I was massively gay and didn't realize it, and honestly: how could I have? To my knowledge, I had never met a gay person. All the effeminate men I knew were priests.
I was also goofy and pretty well liked. So when time came to run for student council president, a friend of mine asked me to run with him. He'd be vice president; I'd be president. I told him I didn't think a woman could ever be student council president. I just didn't think students would vote for a chick. The school itself had a male president, male principal, male vice principal, male dean, and a bunch of priests and monks. We had one female assistant dean. And one nun. I ran instead for vice president, alongside a different guy friend. We lost to the dude who had asked me to be the president on his ticket.
This feeling that I couldn't be a leader at the school didn't come out of nowhere. A faith that doesn't include women in its leadership positions is sending a very strong message to young women -- stay off the altar, whatever the altar might be. There is a part of mass where the priest stands in for Jesus, and blesses the stale communion wafers for the congregation. This is why the church says women can't be priests -- we can't even for a moment -- stand in for a dude.
It took me until college -- also at a Catholic university -- to see this sex-ed-free sexism as the load of horse shit it was. I studied comparative theology and English. The theology part is what made me an atheist. Reading what you are supposed to believe is a great way to figure out what you definitely don't believe. But the comparative part -- that's what renewed my faith in humanity.
It taught me that much of human history boils down to this: we're scared out of our minds. We don't know why we are here, what we are supposed to be doing, or how to protect ourselves from one another. So we write books and rules and come up with ideas to organize our existence. We set certain things as taboo so that we can flourish. But those taboos can change with time. It makes a lot of sense to push heterosexual sex when your population might die out and you need to make some more babies. It makes sense to tell women they are only vessels for childbirth, and never priests, when neonatal care is a tent and a stick. And Sodom and Gomorrah? Well that's really a story about how you shouldn't rape people if they come to your town looking for shelter. Truly it is.
So we're scared out of our minds and we're grasping at straws for an answer and we settle on a tradition. And then we hurt one another. Because though we evolve and the world evolves, we sometimes forget to mix thought into tradition. That's honestly why I believe people love comedy -- comedy stands in the face of tradition and tries to bring thought. This type of thought doesn't come from high school or college or a Catholic upbringing. It comes from experience. For me, I think it's come from traveling a lot for work, and having a zillion different jobs, and listening to other comics tell jokes, and watching movies, and having conversations and reading Dan Savage. And from just being a gay person.
I'll tell you: ever since I got engaged over the summer, I can't stand the idea of straight dudes being "into" lesbians. It's a beautiful, historic moment for our country and unexpected moment for me -- I never imagined a future where I'd be legally able to marry a woman, but since I live in California, I can. If I mention this at a show, or even if I'm just walking down the street with my fiance, and I get a whistle or a "That's hot!" from a straight guy -- both of which happen all the time -- I get crazy with rage. I hate that guy for taking my private life with my fiance and exerting a sort of ownership over it -- a fetishized version of our life together that includes him as voyeur. The whistles and catcalls feel so cheap and easy after such a deliberate and constant struggle.
I am working to create a stage appropriate version of the above sentiment. Right now it centers on a critique of lesbian porn, and I pair that critique with a joke about straight dudes being afraid of butt sex. It goes something like: How can you be into women's butts but so grossed out by the idea of two men together that it affects legislation? The different parts are in the front, I say. Butts are the same across the board. And that's what I'd been talking about when that woman yelled out the name of my high school.
"They didn't teach you that at _____!" she said and, was she right. For vocab words and geometry problems, I couldn't have had a better education. But in a greater context, they taught from within a tradition where, as a woman and as a gay person, I had no space. It's a tradition I'll never again follow, and a tradition that would never let me lead. That's why I speak as thoughtfully as I can about butt sex -- it's real! It affects lives! And I can stand up and talk about it! With jokes! That's why I'm so in love with my job, with being paid to create my own space and speak honestly about my experience. It's like better church with beers and no hell!
So, no, yelling lady: they didn't teach me about butt sex at _____. They didn't teach me about sex or sexuality at all. But they taught me to think, and thankfully, I'm teaching you about that now.

CAMERON ESPOSITO is a Chicago-bred, Los Angeles-based comic and the host of the Put Your Hands Together podcast. Follow Cameron on twitter at @cameronesposito. This was originally posted on and is reprinted with permission.

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