When I was a 13-year-old growing up in Fleetwood, Lancashire in the early Nineties, I used to attend the nine o’clock Sunday Mass on my own. There was no singing and the sermon was shorter than the later Mass my mum and sisters went to. I liked being there by myself, particularly in the still moment after communion where I would kneel down and talk to God.
My prayer might go something like this: “Lord, I am sad and lonely. Lord, I am in love with Samantha Wright. Lord, you know I have been in love with her for three years without daring to tell her. Lord, you don’t need to make her say yes. That’s her choice. I just want the courage to ask her out.” I would feel guilty for asking for something trivial, so I’d also ask him to save the homeless people and the people with cancer, and I would promise to be kind to others.
My faith was fraying then as I read fiction and thought about how natural it would have been for us to have invented God – but I still needed him. I was utterly obsessed with girls and there was no one else I could confess this to. I was devoted to them. I played a game with my complicated Dungeons and Dragons dice when I got home from school every day, to determine who I would fantasise about. I included some teachers on there too: to make the game more exciting, there had to be some girls or women I didn’t want to fantasise about. But I also enjoyed being forced to fantasise about them.
My father, when he gave me a talk about sex, told me I would probably think I was gay at one point. But at the time there was no room for thoughts of anything but girls. My father had gone to a boys’ school, but I was in a mixed Catholic school, surrounded by girls in royal-blue skirts and knee-high socks. This is an interesting dress code to enforce while telling children that sexual thoughts are evil.
I believed that I was miserable because I was being punished for giving into the urges that looking at these girls caused. I would cycle home every day promising myself I wouldn’t play my game with the dice, and then I would go home and do the devil’s work.
Afterwards, I was bereft. I don’t even know how I knew that masturbation was evil: the word had never been mentioned in my earshot by an adult and there was no discussion of it in class. But I was convinced that I had angered God. I knew that this was why I was so lonely and would never find the strength to ask Samantha Wright out. I would pray to be better.
I had been an altar boy throughout primary school. Our priest was very serious. We let ourselves into sacristy each morning before school and put on our maroon cassocks, pulling our white surplices over them. I watched him kneeling at the front of the altar as he held aloft the bread and wine as they were turned into the body and blood of Christ, ringing my bell at the moment transubstantiation occurred. But I could not change myself into something else. Every Sunday after Mass, I would visit the newsagent, scanning the top shelf carefully while pretending to be looking at the football magazines (one of which I would reluctantly buy when I felt that the shopkeeper knew what I was doing).
After a while, I realised the staff trusted me. Sometimes, they would nip out to the back room and leave me in the shop alone. I could do it. I could take one of the magazines and run out and no one would know. I reached up, thrust a copy of Club International down into my jeans and ran outside to jump on my bike and ride to the beach, listening out for the sirens that I was sure were soon to sound out.
The smell of the glossy pages was utterly obscene. I read it hidden in the dunes. It was not the first time I’d seen a picture from a porn mag. My friends and I were always finding scraps of them in the alleys and parks where we played football. But I had never spent so much time with one on my own. In the next ten minutes I read every page, realising I liked the pictures far less than the stories. Then I ran to the nearest bin and shoved it in, convinced that all the new experience that had flooded into me would now show itself on my face.
When I got home I regretted throwing this impossible treasure away. But I was glad I had, too. My mum and my sisters were on their way out to church.
My prayer for help in asking out Samantha Wright wasn’t answered until the night I discovered alcohol two years later, when I was 15. Five years was a long time to have been secretly infatuated with someone. I rang her up after four cans of Stella and asked her if she’d like to go out with me. No, thank you, she said. My infatuation ended almost immediately.
New distractions followed – drinking with boys and girls in the same dunes where I had read my stolen magazine. I kissed a girl for the first time. It had nothing to do with the magazine. Hangovers replaced early-morning Sunday Mass and I managed to convince myself, just about, that lust was no longer sinful – for a while, anyway.
Such shame about sex might seem archaic to younger people who have never seen the ancient relic of a print porn mag. Today, I suspect most men have a relationship with online porn that is probably more problematic than we make out. What will I tell my unbaptised toddler when he reaches adolescence? Can I tell him about shame and loneliness without shaming him? I hope I will at least give him the opportunity to be embarrassed by me, for trying to talk to him about a subject he will almost certainly rather suffer with alone.