Shine a light
From the day she entered the world as the child of unmarried parents, Jennifer Souness’ life was impacted by society’s sense of shame around sex. Later, as the owner of an escort agency, she was exposed to a whole lot more of that attitude. Now, as more a
In 1963, my Australian birth mother discovered she
was pregnant – out of wedlock. She was in her early
20s, the youngest of nine children in a conservative
Protestant family and the sense of shame and fear was immense. Like many young women at that time, to avoid detection, she crossed the ditch and waited out the final months of her pregnancy in New Zealand. My father was to follow soon after and they would then decide what to do. But finding herself under constant pressure from the hospital to give up her baby, my mother relented and 10 days after I was born, the nurse came and took me away.
They informed her I was going to a “nice married couple”. Their unsubtle implication being that a fallen woman could not love and protect her child like a married one. This couple would give me a life free of the stigma and shame I’d experience with a solo mother.
My birth mother never told another soul she’d had a baby. It was unfathomable she subject her parents to such shame, so she carried her secret for 33 years. My parents went their separate ways after my birth, but a few years later they reunited, married and had two more children who grew up unaware they had a third, older sibling. Me, growing up in New Zealand.
When I was 5 my adopted parents told me I was “special” as I’d been “chosen”, but that logic was something I failed to grasp. All I knew was that other kids had nice parents, mothers and fathers who’d been good and were allowed to keep them. I grew up ashamed, regardless of my specialness.
I guess it’s that primal experience, as well as many that followed that have shaped my lifelong quest to extinguish the strange, censorious attitudes that we as a society have around sex. I know from experience that they are damaging.
I feel strongly that the place to make this change is in the home – with parents talking honestly and frankly to their children about where they come from as soon as they’re old enough to be curious and understand. This conversation should continue – not relentlessly, but here and there throughout childhood and into adolescence with topics like consent, pornography and pleasure being explored. Yes, schools need to cover this too (and, according to recent news stories, the curriculum needs a serious overhaul). But I think the best sex ed should come from parents.
A response I often receive when I voice these views is, “you’d feel differently if you were a parent yourself”. Well, putting aside the fact that I was a very involved step-parent for more than a decade, I do feel qualified to talk about sex. What qualifies me is pretty rudimentary stuff. I’m a human being. I was once a vulnerable child then a vulnerable and confused teenager. As a young woman I was frequently sexually harassed but learnt to defend myself. I had many relationships, long and short, happy and not so happy. I’ve had good sex, and I’ve had lots a of bad/boring sex. I’ve had sex without my consent. I’ve orchestrated sex for other people and I’ve endured way too many uninformed opinions as to why I shouldn’t. I’ve taught women how to stand up for themselves when having – or selling – sex.
When I was 11, my adopted father passed away, leaving my mother to raise four children on her own.
Like many kids of that era, I grew up with a mother who was unable to discuss the nuts and bolts of sex, let alone the psychology of it. This ensured that I too was left vulnerable and wretchedly unprepared for many of the situations I encountered growing up. And it was this same shame that prohibited me from defending myself, when older powerful men began to exploit their authority. Men in professions and positions that society had told me to trust, and continues conditioning us to trust.
In the early 2000s after a career as a model and an event organiser, and a long period spent living in Italy, I opened an upmarket escort agency in
Wellington (and later Auckland) in which my employees’ rights were given utmost priority.
One day, an American doctor booked an early afternoon appointment with an our escort. While chatting over a glass of wine, he mentioned his speciality was sexually transmitted diseases. He was here to give a talk on STDs at a conference – in fact he was giving it straight after this booking. Fifteen minutes later, after exiting the compulsory shower, he informed the escort he didn’t want to do anything with a condom. She laughed – and refused, reminding him why he was in New Zealand. He persisted but company policy (and the law) was on her side. She stood her ground.
“Finding herself under constant pressure from the hospital to give up her baby, my mother relented and the nurse came and took me away.”
Some of our New Zealand doctor clients also tried to reject the obligatory rain coat. Perhaps it’s the profession that convinces them they’re bulletproof, or perhaps our higher prices lulled them into a false sense of security. Interestingly, the escorts’ safety was not considered.
It seems to me this lack of empathy and concern for others is closely linked with shame. They’re like opposite ends of the spectrum. One involves understanding our fellow humans and caring about them; the other involves pushing people away, holding them at arm’s length or below us. To shame someone for their sexuality is also a form of denial – denial that we are sexual too.
Children aren’t born full of shame about sex, we teach them to be. Deflecting their questions is merely repeating the process, instilling the same feelings that we grew up with. It’s learned behaviour, not biological.
When I was a child and kids at primary school excitedly whispered new words I’d never heard before, like “periods” and