How I learned about sex…*shaking my head*

I learned about sex from a book. Actually several books. Books my parents gave me.

My dad considered himself a highly advanced intellectual though he never finished high school. Smart though he was, he had to support his mom and his siblings; he worked while they attended school. But he always read voraciously – in fact in the small coal mining town where he grew up nearly everyone went to him to borrow books for school. He sent off for correspondence courses to learn as much as he could, and collected all kinds of encyclopedias, history books, and almanacs. He thirsted for knowledge. And he managed to turn my mom into a “quasi intellectual” as well; he would often boast about how much he improved her in this department. I was born into a house that had a “library”…a room dedicated to books, with bookcases lined with several different encyclopedias offering information on everything from Physics to Latin, philosophy books, high school and college textbooks, novels, maps and globes, magazines (Reader’s Digest and Time were always favorites in my house), and collections of short stories and poetry, especially American poetry. And in one particular corner of one particular self, there were the sex books.

Now, in all fairness, what was in that particular corner wasn’t really that mind-jarring. It was a copy of “Our Bodies, Our Selves”, and a copy of a book called “Your Child In Adolescence”. If I recall correctly there was a “Joy of Sex” there also, but some days it wasn’t on the shelf. But “Your Child In Adolescence” and “Our Bodies, Our Selves” both had significant chapters related to puberty. When I was a young child I didn’t read these books; I was made to understand that the things in them were for “when I was older”. When my family moved to Baltimore, all the bookcases and books came with us. Somehow the books even ended up in the same places on the shelves. Since we moved to Baltimore when I was almost 13, I guess it was decided that I needed to start reading “the books”. I say “I guess” because I really don’t know how it happened. All I know is that I woke up one morning and the book “Your Child In Adolescence” was on my dresser. It had been removed from its sacred place in the bookcase, and left in my room.

I ran downstairs, book in hand to find my parents. I needed an explanation. I found them sitting at the dining room table. I placed the book on the table, but before I could ask any questions, my mom began talking.

SIDEBAR: During most of my growing up years my father rarely addressed me directly unless I was really fucking up. He gave instructions and directions to my mother on what to say to me and do with me, and carried out his marching orders. So even though my mother did the talking, I knew this was my father’s thing primarily – he completely ran the show in our house, even though my mother was usually the one onstage. I could hear his voice coming out of her mouth; it was extremely surreal.

“Petula, you’re getting older,” mom/dad began We want you to understand what is happening to your body as you get older. Read that book, and please come to us if you have any questions.”

“Ummm…okay,” I stammered in response. I didn’t feel like I could really inquire any further at that point. I did want to ask why he/they felt I needed to read these books right now. I wanted to know why he had snuck the book into my room in the middle of the night for me to find it in the morning. (Though I hadn’t caught him at it, I knew my dad did it.) But that statement was all I got. It seemed rather anti-climactic to me. I had always envisioned what getting “the talk” would be like when the time came – how my parents would be nervous, doing their best to talk to me and failing miserably. I had never been afraid of getting “the talk”; I just wanted to see what it would be like. And…this was all I got? Read this, and let us know if you have any questions? All things considered, I should have expected it. This was what we did in our family. We read. We looked things up. When we were happy we read. When we were sad we read. When we were troubled we read. So why wouldn’t we read now? Feeling somewhat let down, I took “ Your Child In Adolescence” back to my room.

In hindsight, I’m not sure it was the best way to present me with information on this delicate subject. The cold, clinical way that the book gave up the secrets of puberty was more traumatizing than anything they could have said to me. The first phrase that burned itself into my memory was “nocturnal emission” (that’s the fancy term for a wet dream in case you didn’t know). The idea that boys had dreams so powerful that it could make them have orgasms really troubled me for some reason. I didn’t like the idea of not being in control of your body and what it did. I was glad to read that this didn’t happen to girls, but then it made me wonder which of my male classmates had wet dreams.

I read about masturbation, and about breast and pubic hair development. The masturbation part didn’t interest me too much because I didn’t really get why you would want to do that kind of thing yourself – it seemed more sensible to me that you should just find someone to have sex with if you wanted the feelings that came from sex. (I’ve always been a highly sensible, practical girl you see.) The part about breast development didn’t interest me too much either. I’d had breasts practically all my life – I was pretty much born a B cup and by the time I had started reading the book at around 13 I was a sold 36C, much to the amazement of my classmates because it pretty much happened overnight. There wasn’t much the book could tell me about that. Now the pubic hair part did concern me because something about growing hair “down there” seemed nasty to me. Why did you need hair down there? Wouldn’t it stink? How would you keep it clean? Did you have to keep it cut so it wouldn’t go off growing and growing until you couldn’t walk without looking like you’d just gotten off a horse? I did a little check, and discovered I had a few strands at the time I started reading the book, I immediately cut them off with a pair of child’s safety scissors I found in my room with some old crayons.

I read about the pituitary gland, which lived in the brain and triggered all this madness. I read about the swift jump in hormones that caused boy’s voices to get deeper, girl’s hips to grow rounder and wider, and everyone’s mind to turn to sex, in one way or another. It frightened me actually. It sounded like the invasion of an army that I would be unable to fight. These hormones were going to take over me and make me into this…sex thing that I didn’t want to be. I felt like I was going to be possessed.

Now of course being a normal teenage girl, I did what all teenage girls did when they got hold of anything related to sex. I passed it on to my friends. So “Your Child In Adolescence” went into my book bag one day, and went with me to Herring Run Junior High School, to the seventh grade GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) Class.

Being in GATE meant you were officially a nerd. You had certification, paperwork proving your nerdyness. Every brainiac in the school was in GATE classes, where they were a bit safer from being taunted by the rest of the student body, and got offered extra stuff like more field trips and assemblies. The students in GATE were identified as being smart at early ages, but since I was new, I was put into a “regular” class when I started at Herring Run. Shortly after school started, my teachers recommended me for GATE, and I was invited to be screened. This meant taking a battery of tests given by psychologists and psychiatrists, including IQ tests. You had to look at ink blots, put puzzles together, all kinds of crazy stuff. This went on for two days. I was found to be sufficiently geeky, and got transferred into GATE. When I got there, I found that even in a class of misfits I was a misfit; the program’s director, Dr. Johnzak had announced that a new student was about to join the class, and that I had gotten some of the highest scores on the tests that he’d ever seen. He told them they had better be on point because I could easily beat them all out (I found this out after I’d been in the class for a few weeks) for the top spot in the class. When I got there, most of the kids already hated me.

So, seeking to ensure my popularity amongst the misfits, I showed the book to my desk mate in homeroom. She was a very flat chested girl who feared she would never grow boobs, and I quickly took her to the section of the book on breast development. She was happy to read that breast development often went on in teenage girls until 18, and I knew I was on my way to junior high school stardom. Over the next few days, the book circulated through the class. I never let anyone take the book home – the students would read it in class or during lunch or before or after school, but it always had to come back to me at day’s end. Suddenly I was popular, a sex guru, a legend at school. Everyone found out the real deal about sex – being the nerds they were, they loved all the intimate technical details about the inner workings of the body when you got an erection or when your nipples got hard. They especially loved learning all the proper terminology for everything, because expanding one’s vocabulary was important – learning terms like vas deferens, testicles, scrotum, labia, clitoris, vulva, areolas, and so on was empowering for them. And we went around using these words too, so the boys in class didn’t say “suck my balls”, they said “orally manipulate my testicles”. (It seemed much funnier at the time than it does now.) No longer were they limited to dick and pussy and titties, and maybe vagina and penis.  They loved it, and I rocked because I provided the knowledge!

When I finished the book, I returned it to my parents. My dad nodded thoughtfully as my mom asked (for both of them) if I had any questions. I really didn’t, so I said “no”. And I nodded back at my father in acknowledgement. And truthfully, I guess I didn’t. The book was pretty self explanatory, and I had figured out by then that they gave me the book because they didn’t want to talk to me. Why force it?  I was relieved not to have the book anymore, though my classmates were saddened. It had been a bit of a burden for me mentally and emotionally, carrying it around. But now the “sex talk” had been accomplished, I didn’t have to worry about the whole thing anymore. Or so I thought. Little did I know this was just the beginning.

After “Your Child In Adolescence”, periodically magazine articles would appear in my room related to puberty, teenage development, teen pregnancy, and so on. I would read the articles and return them to my mom and dad, always shaking my head “no” when she/they asked if I had any questions. The articles weren’t particularly graphic and were fairly easy to dismiss. I think the lack of reaction I gave my parents to the books and articles may have troubled them; I sometimes wonder now if I should have asked questions or engaged them more. I think they were looking for a response. And when I was fifteen, they broke out the big guns.

The big gun was a book entitled “Teenage Sexuality”. To me it was 387 pages of pure porn, disguised as scientific research.

“Teenage Sexuality” was a huge collection of studies about the sexual activities of young people aged 13-19. The research was thorough, broken down by gender, race, socio-economic groups and geographic locations (urban areas, rural areas, small cities, large cities, suburbs, etc.), and the age ranges were even broken down into young teenagers (13-14), middle teenagers (16-17) and older teenagers (18-19).

Since this was a scientific book, it was as brutally graphic and unflinching in its explanations as “Your Child In Adolescence”. But this time I was ready. I pored over the studies in the book and added tons of new words to my growing sexual vocabulary:  cunillingus, fellatio, mutual masturbation, auto fellatio, anal intercourse, outercourse, and more. I learned more than what percentage of teenagers were sexually active – I learned who they were, where they were, and what they were doing. Were they just getting straight to the sex, or were they having oral sex? Was this with one partner or multiple partners? Were they using more than one position? How often? What hours of the day or night were they most likely to be sexually active? What days of the week? Did they have sex with more than one partner simultaneously? Did they use sex toys? Did they record themselves? Did they share these intimate details with their friends? Did they use birth control? What kind did most teenagers use? And, the most important, burning question for me as a teenage girl – did most teenagers have sex with someone because there was an established ongoing relationship, or were they just having sex just to “do it”?

Now “Teenage Sexuality” was a GIGANTIC hit in my high school. In addition to all the studies, it had anecdotes from teenagers, who talked about their sexual experiences, what they did and why. I started out just showing it to a few of my close friends, and the next thing I knew classmates I didn’t even know were asking to see the book. This went on for most of the school year, and I am sad to report that eventually I lost track of the book and never saw it again. But strangely enough, this was the one book my parents never asked me to return. I guess they wanted me to keep it.

By this time I was sixteen. The grown men in the neighborhood that never paid much mind to me before were now rather lustfully admiring me. I had to wear bras all the time. I was no longer allowed to engage in the tomboyish activities of my pre-adolescence with my male friends. Suddenly the boys I had known for years treated me differently. I had even caught one of my male teachers admiring my breasts. Yuck! A lot was happening, and all I had were these books. And while my parents always asked “if I had any questions”, by this time I had so many I couldn’t get any one of them out. So none of them came out.

The one disadvantage about my “book learning” when it came to sex was that I never knew how my parents felt about my burgeoning sexuality. They never once told me what their opinions were. They never made any recommendations to me about what I should or shouldn’t do sexually. In fact not once can I remember them telling me not to have sex – at least not in so many words. That’s not to say they wanted me to, but it didn’t come across that way to me. I felt like they were leaving the decision to me after providing me the information, and that lulled me into a false sense of trust where they were concerned. When I finally did have a boyfriend (we’d been seeing each other casually since I was 14 and he was 13, but once we got a little older it got more official), it never occurred to me that I should keep it a secret. So I brought him to the house, and he was free to visit me as long as he left before 11 pm on school nights and midnight on weekends. And he could only come over a couple of nights a week. Unfortunately one day my parents caught me sitting on his lap, both of us engrossed in a “Newsweek” magazine article about the upcoming presidential elections (yes, I had a boyfriend as nerdy as me), they went ballistic. Now had I known better I would have done more to hide our relationship, but because my parents never led me to believe that sexuality was bad, it never occurred to me to hide it. Now it wasn’t as if I was giving him a lap dance, but the obvious physical closeness and the suggestive nature of it was too much for them. Funny thing was that I didn’t see me sitting on his lap as sexual, though he did, and hadn’t wanted me to sit there. He had said that if my parents came in they’d go crazy, but I told him they wouldn’t because they knew he was my boyfriend. They knew him, it wasn’t like he was some random stranger. Of course they banned the boyfriend from the house, which just meant I started sneaking around to see him, which included going to his mom’s house, and later his grandmother’s house when he went to live with her, where there was NO supervision at all. The first time we had sex was early one morning before school, in his grandmother’s bed after she had gone to work. I was 17. He and I had been discussing having sex for nearly two years prior, and of course he’d read my books. We did research, reading everything from “Playboy Advisor” and “Penthouse Variations” to the “Kama Sutra”. (Yes, I had really found a boy as nerdy as me.) We used condoms he’d brought some two weeks prior for protection, and once we began having sex regularly I started taking the pill. All total we were together five years; we broke up when I was 19. I never regretted the way my first time happened.

And according to “Teenage Sexuality”, we were the exception in many ways, because as teens in a major urban area we should have had sex earlier, without protection, and not with someone we had an ongoing relationship with.

Now I have an 18 year old daughter. My discussions with her about sex over the years have included books. But I don’t hand her reading material and send her on her way. I always read the books first – I learned years later that my parents NEVER READ any of the books they gave me before giving them to me from cover to cover, they just flipped through them. Technology being what it is now, it is web sites just as often as it is books that we have read together. I haven’t waited for her to come to me with questions; at times I have gone to her and just opened up conversation about this or that. I have been very truthful about sharing what sex was for me growing up. I have always told her what my thoughts and opinions were regarding sex when she asked, but always told her as an adult she would make her own choices. The most important thing I think I have given her is that I have encouraged her to own her sexuality. So many times I hear mothers tell their daughters “don’t let a boy…” do this or that, or “don’t let yourself get pregnant…” or “ you can’t allow him to…” The passive language drives me crazy, as if the girls had no ownership or say in the matter, as if sex was just something they have to keep from being forced upon them. So what were they supposed to do if they wanted it? I have encouraged my daughter, as she has become a young adult, to take ownership of her sexuality. To think about what type of man she wants to have sex with, especially the first time, and what circumstances does she want it to be under. Does she want it to be with her husband on her wedding night? Would she be okay if it wasn’t her husband, or just someone she was in a monogamous relationship with? Would she want to have a one night stand? What does she expect of her sex partners? I’ve told her, in so many words, that, at the very least, she never wants to have sex with someone who isn’t as just interested in her sexual pleasure as his own. (And there are way too many of those men out there, but that’s another blog entry.) And I’ve told her that sex doesn’t equal love. All in all, I want her to be as committed to maintaining herself as a healthy, functional, mature sexual being as she is to maintaining any other part of herself; I want her to make wise choices sexually.

As for me, I don’t read books about sex anymore. Now I write them. Well I don’t write books about sex specifically, but sex is a huge part of them. But I don’t write studies or clinical books; I write erotica, mostly short stories and poetry. But I guess it had to happen. My parents have been training me for this for a long time whether they realized it or not. So the next time I am selling a story to a publisher or performing a piece onstage, I’ll thank my mom and dad.

Advertisements