Recently someone asked, “What will you tell your daughter about sex?” Whoa, who knows? Parenting is improv. I sometimes try to do it like I teach my courses — with clear objectives and planned out experiences, but mostly I just wing it and try to be fully present for her and hope that’s enough. Really, that was all I was missing as a kid, fully present, listening adults. Like I say all the time, I was loved but I also had to learn really early how to fend for myself when it came to just about everything. Sex was no different. What’s perhaps noteworthy is that — in spite of the messaging and pressures all around me — most of my early sexual experiences with peers were positive even if they were awkward, fumbling, and totally not what adults sanctioned or expected.
As a kid I read everything I could get my hands on. And if it looked like something I shouldn’t read, I set out to read it. Well before I had any interest in finding out what sex was for myself, I had already read about it in books I’d found laying around my house or standing in the stacks of the library section that I wasn’t yet allowed to check out books from. To give you some perspective, by 11 I’d read the entire King James Bible (mostly out of boredom while waiting for my mother to be done in church meetings) and there’s a lot of ‘lying together’ in that book. I’d read Harlequin romances and about sex scandals in Time magazine. By the time my friends began whispering about sex and adults started to give cryptic warnings about being careful with boys but no real explanations, I already had determined two things about sex — 1. it seemed to cause a whole lot of trouble and 2. if I were going to understand it, it was up to me to figure it out.
By middle school everyone I knew, knew the basics of what sex was and had some idea that it was supposed to be fun, no matter what the adults were saying. And I’m not talking about plain ole hetero plug and push sex. My group of friends had a much longer list of acts that we thought of as sex and way more expansive imaginations about it before we started experimenting with it. We weren’t doing it yet, but soon most of us would be. Then, half of us were terrified of sex. Good God-fearing parents had made the thought of intimacy frightening. Half us were far too excited about sex. All the adults were preoccupied with it, it must be great. I was always an outlier. I was neither excited nor afraid.
Sex was for me, like so many other things, something to be studied so that I could make sure I could control it so it wouldn’t hurt or kill me. You probably think I am exaggerating. But by the time I reached my preteens I was worried daily that the things in my life that I couldn’t figure out would be the death of me. It made me both bookish and angry. Bookish because that’s where I could find the information I needed and angry because I often found that there were so many things out of my control.
After elementary school, there was this gap between adult oversight and the world of kids. A lot of the kids in my neighborhood spent a lot of time outdoors and with little to no adult supervision. The adults in our lives worked long hours, if they worked, or struggled with addictions that made them absent even when they were present. We were a society onto ourselves in the hours after school and before the dark sent us home for the night. We made up games to pass the time.
One day a group of us were playing cards on the patio of someone’s apartment.
“Ain’t none of y’all got nothing I want to see.”
“Let’s play strip poker,” one of the boys said. The card game was something he’d seen in a movie. By then everyone knew that boobs were for girls to try to hide and boys to try to see. His suggestion was an obvious attempt to get the girls out of our tops. But his suggestion wasn’t dead in the water, we were bored. Potential nakedness would liven things up.
I was already shorter than all of my friends by then. I was smaller by every measure but one. I had more boobs than the three other girls present combined and because I was the only one of us whose bra had an underwire, it sort of fell on me to make the decision about whether or not we would agree to play.
I still remember the pressure of the moment. I knew at least one of my friends didn’t want to play. She was the one that made us pray over our school lunches in the cafeteria. She had a purity ring and had warned me once that my perfectly regular fitting tee shirt was going to distract boys. She was the keeper of our innocence, until she stopped wearing the ring the next summer.
Another of the girls was indifferent and she gave me a shrug when I sought her out for some cue as to what to decide. She had three older brothers and she often seemed to know so much more than the rest of us about boys. Once she’d said to me, “My brother takes hour long showers, my dad says it’s going to fall off.” I had been mystified at the time, later I got the joke.
“Ain’t none of y’all got nothing I want to see.” The girl who was my closest friend in the group announced that she wouldn’t be playing. The boy who had made the suggestion made it clear that he wasn’t that keen on seeing her naked either. Back and forth they went. We all laughed.The moment passed and we did something else, the pressure to decide about the game lifted.
Later that night I was at home alone on the phone with my best friend at the time. S was a boy who lived about a mile away. We first met at the park when we’d both been the “bring a friend” to a meeting between our other friends who’d met at church camp and were calling each other “boo.”
Ours was an unlikely friendship. S was a quiet boy who stayed in his apartment instead of hanging out. His friend had dragged him out to the park date because my friend had told him that I liked books. We had that much in common.
S lived in a two bedroom apartment on the top floor of a housing development that required his mother to prove that his father didn’t live there, even though he definitely did. His dad had gone to jail before S was born.When he got out 9 years later, the apartment manager told his mom that felons weren’t allowed. S’s dad and mom fought all the time but managed to keep it together enough to keep a roof over their four sons’ heads and to dupe the apartment manager. S’s younger brother was a toddler. S was his default babysitter while his mom worked at a local motel and his dad drove a truck.
S’s older brothers were well known in his neighborhood for stealing things. Any thing. Cars. People’s mail. CD players from the rec center. All the stop signs in their neighborhood. They stole them and sold them, mostly to other kids for a few dollars. It would be a few years yet before they both went to jail. When we were young, they were extremely popular, even though they were likely to steal from you if you left anything of value in their reach. S had none of their bravado and all around him people let him know it, especially his father who worried he was too soft for the realities of his neighborhood.
S and I were unlikely friends not because he was a homebody and shied away from fights and I was outgoing and prone to drama. No, we were unlikely friends because we’d reached the age where folks thought it was strange for a boy and girl to be friends without being a couple. After exchanging phone numbers at the park, we’d talked on the phone but it didn’t really come to calling each other boo.
“I’ll show you mine. “
I told S about the naked poker proposal. Of course I don’t quite remember what we said word for word, but it went something like this.
“What would you have done if they’d all wanted to play?”
“Yeah, I would have kept all my clothes on. I’m good at cards.”
“You wanted to see them naked?”
I don’t know that I had thought about it until he asked. Had I wanted to see my friends naked? I had mostly thought about what it might mean to expose myself, to debut a body that was changing rapidly in ways that I was having a lot of trouble understanding. It hadn’t occurred to me that everyone playing would being doing the same.
In health class they’d segregated us by gender and made us watch a video that featured ridiculous animations about how our bodies were maturing because of puberty. Two dimensional boys suffered unexpected erections while diving off of diving boards, while answering questions in front of the class, while sleeping. We’d all been stunned. No one asked questions, no one laughed. A few weeks later, someone had drawn a crude copy of the diving board scene and passed it around. The proportions were all wrong. I’d fixed them during math class and passed the improved drawing along to a friend. (Later in life I’d notably draw at least three more penises as educational diagrams for friends. This was before Google.)That drawing, a health class cartoon, and an unfortunate pantsing prank on a kid in the hall, were the closest I’d come to seeing a penis.
I’d read a lot about penises in all of those books. I had an academic understanding of what they looked like and how they functioned. I was, until the conversation with S about the naked poker proposal, wholly uninterested in them. I had been trying to figure out my own body, I hadn’t given them much thought. I had learned about sex in books but hadn’t quite connected it to the bodies of people around me. Suddenly, naked boys were a research project. Shouldn’t I know more about them?
I remember S being frustrated with me. He knew me well enough to know that I was likely to go out the very next day and find someone to show me what I wanted to see. He cautioned that any boy who I was likely to find to show me his would want me to show him mine. He was adamant that it was a bad idea when I told him that maybe that wasn’t such a big deal.
“And then he’ll tell everyone.”
“So?” I had already been the subject of a rumored make out session with a boy who I didn’t like at all. It hadn’t mattered that it wasn’t true. Once he told people that we’d kissed, everyone had assumed it had happened. The more I denied it, the more people believed it. It was a rumor that resurfaced every few years from 7th grade until I went away to college.
“I’ll show you mine,” he offered.
Will I tell the kid this story?
S was a good friend. We talked on the phone sometimes through the night until he fell asleep or until his mom came home and made him hang up. When he wasn’t watching his little brother, and I could convince him to come outside, we met up at a school in between our neighborhoods. Sometimes our friends came, most times it was just us sitting on the swings talking about nothing and everything.
Right now you’re probably one of two readers — the one who wants to know if S ever showed me his or the one who doesn’t because it would make you extremely uncomfortable to read about it, we were young, after all. I’ll risk frustrating both readers by being vague.
The best thing about my friendship with S was that it didn’t require me to pretend that I knew what I did not, that I had figured out sex when I had not. I’d had a strange day that included a proposal to play strip poker and I could tell him that I was intrigued by the prospect. I’d had trouble telling my girlfriends that it didn’t seem like a wholly bad idea. There was no adult I would have dared tell. But he and I could talk about it.
Having S to talk to made really difficult times in my life bearable. Between the two of us we figured out a lot of things. We talked about sex and all things related to it. We each brought our own woefully incomplete knowledge to the conversations. I had read a lot about it and was curious enough to risk going against gender norms and ruining my good reputation to find out more. S lived in a household were sex was ever present.
One of his brothers had stolen a stack of porn magazines from the adult bookstore and distributed them to his friends one day on the school bus. He got suspended. The principal threatened to expel him when he showed no remorse. His mother had been enraged, his father had all but patted the boy on his back. S had seen the magazines and told me what was in them. He’d been clear that nothing like what was going on in the staged photos seemed like what sex must be really like. Once, his father had been kicked out of their apartment for a few months because his mother suspected that he was ‘carrying on’ with the woman downstairs. At some point when he returned, S had walked in on his parents during the deed. We had talked about all of it.
Though it wouldn’t last, we were both lucky. Lucky to have someone who we could turn to talk about sex with without pressure.
Adults in S’s life had assumed he knew what sex was and sent him mixed messages. His mother frequently ranted at her sons about not bringing home babies. She thought I was a fast girl and warned S not to have me in her house when she was at work. His father encouraged his sons to “be men” and teased S for not having more interest in girls. He’d been excited to meet me and called me, S’s little girlfriend, though I never was.
Adults in my life, well, they didn’t tell me a substantive thing about sex that I can remember. Years later, I’d sit through a pretty explicit “save yourself for marriage” speech at a youth event at church but it had come too late to save what they wanted to save. In my late teens I had a huge argument with my mother about sex, but that’s a story for another day. When S and I were friends, I had only been warned that sex was sin and I ought to avoid it even as my developing body was receiving increased sexual attention and my own curiosity grew.
Will I tell the kid this story? Maybe one day I’ll let her read this and some of the other hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written about my childhood. I want my daughter to have the benefit of lessons I had to learn the hard way — that sex is, like so many other things, just one part of life, not the most important, not the least. I want her to know that she should actively decide what she wants, needs, and desires, and that she should never be ashamed of her body as a body that feels both pain and pleasure. I want her to talk to me. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t. I do know at least this, I’ll talk to her because though S was a good friend, all those books taught me a lot, and when I did finally play strip poker two weeks later, I was wearing two pairs of socks and a hoodie, so I stayed fully dressed even though I lost a few hands— what I desperately needed was a caring adult to help me understand what it all meant.