I grew up hearing I would go to hell if I had sex before I got married. I was also informed that after a few years of married life, sex became less important and what you ended up with was a “nice friendship.”
My bedroom was next door to my parents’ room and I don’t remember ever hearing the sounds of creaking bedsprings. What I do remember is the exchange of perfunctory pecks on the cheek, pats on the back, and my mother’s shoulders heaving as she burst into mysterious, terrifying sobs on a regular basis.
When I was five, I fell asleep most nights after grinding on the smushed head of my yellow cloth doll. I didn’t know what I was doing, exactly, but I knew I should keep it a secret. When I was ten, my mother insisted that we read aloud the book I’d been assigned in sex ed. This was a horrific experience: my mother sobbed some more and I was sure that my saying the word “penis” had something to do with it.
At thirteen, I laid in bed at night praying for a boyfriend. I also prayed that I would have the will power to wait the appropriate amount of time before we explored each other’s bodies. The fact that I was even imagining a boy’s fingers parting me open, let alone the fingers of a boy I barely knew, made me convinced that there was something deeply and darkly wrong with me.
But because I was a gangly, frizzy-haired, awkward girl more comfortable with my nose in a book than in a crowd of my peers, there was little chance of becoming easy.
Until the fall of my eleventh grade year, when I arrived back at school after hatching over the summer. Suddenly, my body was commanding the attention of males of all ages, a shift which I found both exhilarating and frightening.
Exhilarating because I had always felt different and apart from others, and now my sexuality had submerged me in the stream of life. I was in awe of its power. It was a gift that I cherished and exploited, luring boys and men with braless t-shirts and lingering gazes.
And that was the frightening part. My overt sexuality became a lightning rod at home. It induced more tears from my mother and more shame for me. I was not a teenager who fell easily into a long, “going steady” relationship model. I was easily bored and embarked on a relentless quest for novelty and sexual adventure. I was pretty sure this made me a bad person, and a terrible daughter.
But I couldn’t stop.
If shame hadn’t permeated my household growing up, if my mother had perhaps been more sexually fulfilled herself, if we had been able to have a conversation about sex that did not include horror and tears, it would not have taken me 50 years to understand who I am sexually.
I would have embraced my desire for novelty and boundary-pushing and sought out a husband who needed the same things. Some couples are able to save their marriages by growing together sexually, but my husband and I were so profoundly incompatible that we would have continued adrift. We would have been one of those couples that eventually gives up sex altogether, or pursues it furtively outside the marriage until the inevitable discovery blows up the family and makes the betrayed wonder if anything they believed was ever the truth.
The last thing I want is for my kids to grow up the way I did, in a household steeped in shame and unuttered longings. My daughter knows there’s latex in my closet (she thinks it’s tacky, although she may change her mind). We read the American Girl Body Book without either of us bursting into tears. I make sure my son packs condoms in his wallet. Both of them have had the HPV shot, and they know why they’ve had it.
My daughter’s sixth grade class did a sex education module this year. The teacher asked them to name all the sexual slang words they could think of.
“Everyone was so embarrassed,” said my daughter in the car on the way home from school.
“Were you?” I asked.
“Nooo…” she gave me a beleaguered sigh and a why-would-you-even-ask-that? shrug.
“Well, did you learn anything?”
She shook her head.
“The whole thing was dumb. I knew all the words already. But maybe it helped some of the other kids.”
I smiled, confident that my daughter is poised to embrace her sexuality in the absence of shame.