When I sat down at my desk to begin typing out the words streaming through my head, I hadn’t intended on turning towards my thoughts regarding sexual education. However, an acquaintance of mine posted this article on Facebook from this past February, and the floodgates have opened for me. In summary, when drafting the proposed federal budget for 2017, the President cut out an annual $10 million federal grant that funds abstinence-only sexual education in public schools. While this is definitely a victory, it’ll be up to Congress to approve it, and they have until October 1 to do so.
Frankly, I’m not confident that they’ll go for it.
Either way, it’s got me thinking about how I first learned about sex, and how my knowledge has developed over the course of my life. Sooner or later, we all gain access to this knowledge, and I feel compelled to put my orientation out in writing.
I was about eight years old and rifling through my mother’s side of the attic (there are two attics in my parents’ house, one for either side of the roof) for a book to read. She kept the old, valuable books on shelves in our living room and the tattered books in her attic; to this day, I’m not sure why she did that. Anyway, I found a thin hardcover titled I Wonder, I Wonder. The cover seemed interesting, so I swiped it from the cardboard box, took it to my room, and gave it a read. The summary is thus: an obviously Christian family awaits the arrival of Mom and newborn twins. The older children ask their dad about where babies come from, and Dad tells them about sperm and eggs and how God and married people get together to make babies.
Talk about riveting.
Well, that was all well and good, but it left me with way more questions than answers. About a week later, my dad drove me home from karate practice. My father, wonderful man that he might be, is a perpetually silent man. I think that having his oldest child on the cusp of puberty scared the shit out of him, but I’ve never asked. I was sitting in the front seat next to him in silence while the classic rock radio station played between us. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me, and I recited the monologue I’d practiced in my head:
“OK, Dad. So I read this book I found in the attic called I Wonder, I Wonder. And it was alright, but I’ve got a question. OK so I get that boys have sperm and girls have eggs. But, like, um, how do the sperm and egg meet up?”
I could almost see my father’s tunnel vision. Even in the darkness of the nighttime drive, I saw his knuckles turn white as he gripped the steering wheel of the 2000 Honda Civic that I would total nine years later. After a painful thirty seconds of silence, my dad blurted out the simple statement: “Sexual. Intercourse.”
I recognized that he was uncomfortable, so even though I desperately wanted to ask him what the hell that meant, I left it alone. We passed the remaining seven minutes of the drive in awkward silence, and didn’t speak of the incident again.
Lo and behold, the next week he was in Rhode Island for work, leaving my mother in charge for a brief period of time. She still practices as a veterinarian, and while perhaps a bit idiosyncratic, I knew she’d be more open about defining the mysterious term my father had used to answer my burning question.
The evening that my father had flown out to Rhode Island, my mother had made macaroni and cheese for the three of us. I distinctly remember this because my dad loathes mac ‘n cheese, so whenever he left, Mom made sure to make it for dinner. My little sister had since gone upstairs, leaving my mother and I at the kitchen table. Again, I inhaled and broke into the monologue, this time adding another line: “OK, Mom. So I read this book I found in the attic called I Wonder, I Wonder. And it was alright, but I’ve got a couple of questions. OK so I get that boys have sperm and girls have eggs. But, like, um, how do the sperm and egg meet up? I asked Dad and all he said was that it’s called ‘sexual intercourse,’ but that doesn’t make any sense.”
The color drained from my mother’s face, then went back into her cheeks. She giggled a little, then said, “Alright. Do you remember that in the book, they showed private parts?” The illustrations in this little book were hastily drawn, but they at least showed the difference between external genitals. I nodded. “OK, so the sperm is inside the boy and it comes out of his penis. The egg is inside the girl and is in her ovaries. The sperm gets to the egg because the boy has to put his penis in the girl’s vagina -”
“EWWWWW! Mom, they pee from there!” Again, I was eight and had only seen my mom’s male horse take a piss. My knowledge of male bodies was rather rudimentary.
She laughed and laughed. “Yeah, you remember in Titanic? When Jack and Rose are in the car?” I nodded, my eyes strained with discomfort. “That’s what they were doing. It’s called sex.”
Oh, but dear readers, that was not the end of it. Hand to God, this is all true. My sweet, slightly bonkers mother wanted to show me parts.
A week later, my mom came home from her clinic. That day happened to be a surgery day for her, and in one hand she carried her purse. The other held a cooler. When my mother comes from her job with a cooler, it is not good news. She doesn’t have beer or picnic supplies.
My dad, understandably, ensconced himself upstairs, muttering, “I don’t want any part in this.” My mother said, “Alright, go get newspapers from the recycling bin. Cover the kitchen counter with them.”
I did as she had asked. She told me to put on an apron as she snapped latex gloves on her hands. Once the counter had sufficiently been covered, she opened the cooler and pulled out a plastic bag that held pinkish, purple elliptical organs. She pulled them both out of the bag, and plopped them on the newspaper. “OK, so this is part of a boy dog. These are called testicles. Sperm are made in these.”
She procured a scalpel, cradled one testicle in her gloved hand, and elegantly sliced it in twain. One half bounced once on the newspaper, while she held the other. She pointed at the thin, pink ridges. “These are called the seminiferous tubules. This is exactly where sperm cells are made. There are millions here all the time.”
I kept silent. She was enjoying this far more than I was. Still, it certainly was educational. She placed the organs back in the plastic bag and exchanged it for a bigger plastic bag. This time, she pulled out what looked for all the world like linked sausages.
“Um, Mom? What’s that?” I can still remember the trepidation in my voice.
She laid it out carefully. “Well, today, I had a client come in with her cat. We were able to see that her babies had all sadly died, so we needed to spay the mommy cat. This is her uterus and her unborn babies.” She carefully picked up a lumped section and ran the scalpel across the membrane. A tiny alien-looking thing pushed out of the exposed tissue and into my mom’s hand. I could see its little head, the tiniest nose that had formed, and the webbed phalanges. “All mammals start out looking kinda like this,” she said. She was loving this hands-on demonstration, but I was beginning to get overwhelmed by the whole thing. I helped her clean up the kitchen, then went to bed a changed person.
Look, I do honestly think my mother was not trying to scare me about mammalian sex. I really do think her intentions were good, if unconventional. I certainly will never forget this event, and God knows I have a great story. However, the reason I tell it is to say that I was lucky to get an extremely detailed lesson in the anatomical aspects of reproduction. The numerous other aspects of sex were in no way taught in as great a detail as the anatomy.
In middle school, our health class was given an anonymous question box. We were also given an acronym to remember topics that were not going to be covered by the school: HAM, or Homosexuality Abortion Masturbation. Even if we had questions in the question box about these topics, they went straight in the trash. To the best of my knowledge, I didn’t learn what a clitoris was until high school. Contraception was a topic that was skimmed over, but always with the statement that abstinence was the best option. I remember thinking, “Ideally, yes, but let’s be realistic.” I know we didn’t cover female orgasm at all until my senior year, and that was given a brief paragraph in my AP Biology textbook. Up until I actually started reading issues of Cosmopolitan did I learn that sex doesn’t necessarily have to end with a man ejaculating.
Oh, and consent? Never even brought up.
I’m certainly not about to say that everyone needs to get in on the dissection action. But it continues to boggle my mind that in the US, we don’t have a national standard for sexual education. While I think it’s outstanding that Obama is moving to get rid of federal funding for abstinence-only education, I certainly feel like a national standard for this facet of human life is common sense. In my dreamy dreamboat dream world, every student in the United States would learn about sexuality thusly:
- Human anatomy, including the clitoris, and what each part contributes to the sexual experience.
- Consent. What it means, how it is expressed, how it is not expressed, and its vitality to the sexual experience.
- Futility of sexual double-standards.
- Contraception, because let’s face the facts: the majority of Americans have their first sexual experience in the teen years. Might as well let them know how to be safe.
- Kinds of sexual experiences, meaning not only vaginal, but also oral, anal, and mutual masturbation.
- Orgasm and its nuances.
- Resources available.
I’d be curious to find out how other countries pass along this knowledge to students, as well as what others would add to the list. In the meantime, I’m going to reapply my lipstick and get back to writing my stories.