I thought the average reader would be more familiar than British agony aunt Bel Mooney with the attitudes displayed in this letter, but I wasn't expecting such passionate responses to my post.
I've had a furious response from a Catholic woman for cutting Mr Toad some slack, and an agonized one from a Catholic man because I call him a toad at all. The Catholic man is also confused that I said men should not expect women to be like hermetically sealed aspirin bottles, for after all we're all supposed to be virgins before we marry.
The reason why I posted the letter in the first place (besides amusement at Bel's astonishment) is that I thought it applied to two ancient worries of men and women: first, women's worry that we will be rejected and reviled (or even killed) for our sexual sins; and second, men's worry that the women they love will lie to them.
There is also the worry of immature men, or men in immature, deeply patriarchal societies, that oh-so-important Other Men will laugh at them because of the behaviour or condition of "their" women. It makes me incredibly angry that some men still care more about the opinion of male strangers, acquaintances or enemies than they do for the happiness of the wives and children who love them, but I'm not sure what I personally can do about that. Learning Polish is way hard; you can forget about Arabic or Dari.
To retell the story of Poor Mr Toad and Mrs Toad, I think it necessary to stress that they are British, presumably non-Catholic and married in 1972. Christian Britain arguably ended in 1963; here is my long essay on the subject, and here is my short.
In 1972, Mrs Toad was 22, the Sexual Revolution was nine, and Mrs Toad had been sexually active (whatever that meant for her) for four years. The Sixties were called the Swinging Sixties for a reason, and the UK was on the cutting edge of them. All kinds of taboos, including sex with underage girls (although still illegal), had been thrown out the window.
By the way, since there had never been such widespread sexual license, nobody yet knew what the social and health results would be. You may recall Austin Powers' utter astonishment that he needed to use "protection", e.g. "I'm not a SAILOR!"
But not everyone had signed onto the revolution of 1963, and the future Mrs Toad found herself in love with an old-fashioned virgin guy who wanted to marry a virgin girl. Gulping, the future Mrs Toad eventually confessed to not being a virgin (good), but made up a story of how this came about, painting herself as a victim of pressure who was nevertheless very, very sorry (bad). Believing this lie, but (I'm guessing) also convinced by other things that he would be happy with the future Mrs Toad, Mr Toad married her.
Forty years go by and Mr and Mrs Toad had a happy life with children, friends, work, etc. Then Mr Toad found out that Mrs Toad lied back in 1972, freaked out, left and now says he wants a divorce.
Now, I do not think Mr Toad is a toad because he wanted to marry a virgin. He was a virgin himself, and probably knew squat about the realities of sexual life. Possibly he feared comparisons with other men or some hard man down at the pub saying "I 'ad yore missus, guv. Ho ho ho." Presumably he was not much older than 22 himself.
And I do not think Mr Toad is a toad because he freaked out because his wife told him a serious lie, a lie on which he may have based his decision to marry her. He's nearing retirement age, and apparently men get very sensitive around then.
I think Mr Toad is a toad because he has abandoned his wife, age 62, and not answered any of her letters, and allowed her to think he thinks she is next door to an adulteress.
The fact is that Mr Toad is married to Mrs Toad and married people vow to be faithful to each other in good times and in bad, for richer for poorer, and sickness and in health. We are not allowed to pretend the other is dead. Mr Toad looks like he is pretending that Mrs Toad is dead.
(As I said, I am glad Mr Toad is at least continuing to support the household financially. This makes him less toady.)
Therefore, although I am sympathetic to Mr Toad's need to grieve what for him was something very important, I am not sympathetic to his current treatment of his wife. It goes without saying that she ought not to have lied.
Now, let's talk about our own worries.
It is no longer 1972. It is 2012, and the Sexual Revolution is forty-nine years old. We know a lot more about sexual behaviour and sexual diseases than Mr and Mrs Toad did when they were 22.
Mr and Mrs Toad did not know, for example, that that funny Jimmy Saville was having sex with underage girls up and down the length of England, or that children were being raped in care homes, or that other children were being abused by clergymen on a much wider scale than The News of the World was reporting. Nor did they know the extent to which boys and girls were abused by family members, or the extent to which girls would be abused by their mothers' boyfriends as the revolution utterly destroyed family life for the working classes.
But we know, and I have come to the conclusion, my dears, that those women who are physical virgins on our (first) wedding day are as lucky as we are virtuous.
We were not messed with, or groomed, or overpowered, or tricked. When we got drunk (if we did), nobody took serious advantage of us. We were not put through the emotional wringer by someone we loved (or thought we loved) very much until we succumbed. Not to minimize the sufferings of chaste women who saw men they admired walk away because the women would not put out (sufferings I myself experienced), but being a physical virgin on your wedding day is definitely a case of "here for the grace of God am I."
We also know more about disease, although obviously not enough, since governments seem to feel it necessary to inoculate underage girls against the Human Papilloma Virus they might later catch from boys. (Why are boys not inoculated?) Hitherto, teenage girls have just had the Pill and condoms chucked at us, not to mention abuse from the campus condom crusader (whether in or out of an obscene costume) to whom we say "No, thank you."
We also know how hard it is to espouse a sexual morality different from that of the majority. Now women are afraid that we will be unloved both if we have sex and if we DON'T. If I had a zloty for every time I have read or heard "No man will want me now" AND "No man will want me if I don't compromise" I could buy a holiday home in Sopot.
And all this is on top of the fact that--big shock--women also experience sexual desire, possibly as strongly as men do. The difference is that we can immediately see how it is not in our best interests to have sex whenever the opportunity arises. And, yes, it arises more often then it does for men, or would if we didn't avoid going to bars on our own.
Oh, and not all women are naturally monogamous (monandrous, to be precise). Some of us make a conscious choice to be faithful every day. And, on top of this, and sorry to bust this bubble, it is not true that all marriages between virgins last forever. Churchgoing virgin + churchgoing virgin may make up the smallest number of future divorced people, but we still exist. It takes more than sexual inexperience to make a happy marriage, and sexual experience does not immediately cancel out the possibility. It all depends on the people involved.
I am sympathetic to the fears that some Catholic women have that we will be found unworthy of love because some men are pigs and others are prigs. And I am sympathetic to the fears that some Catholic men have that they will marry the wrong woman, be divorced and have to choose between sex/danger of hell and no-sex/long earthly purgatory. These are terrible fears to have, and if they dominate your life, I suggest you discuss them with both a priest and a therapist.
Meanwhile, I will write out a fictional dialogue between a fictional Catholic engaged couple, which more or less illustrates what I think many mature, loving, Catholic engaged couples sound like:
Fiance: Well, honey, since we're on the subject, I guess I probably should tell you about that time at high school when I did X. And I did Y and Z at college, too, and I felt pretty bad about it later.
Fiancee (mulls it over): Huh. Did you go to confession?
Fiance: When I got my head back on straight, I did.
Fiancee: Well, I can understand all that because when I was X years old I did Y, and I very much regret that now.
Fiance: So did you go to confession?
Fiancee: Yes, of course.
Fiance: I guess we're both sinners, huh?
Fiancee: Looks like it.
Fiance: One more reason to celebrate the Incarnation.
Fiancee: Well, exactly. Otherwise we wouldn't know God forgave us this stuff.
Fiance: So I guess we should get tested before we get married, then.
Fiancee: I already... You didn't get tested?
Fiance: Well, I really hate needles. Sometimes when I give blood I pass out.
Fiancee: Don't worry. I'll come with and hold your other hand.