HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on July 18, 2011.
Children who go to public school receive sex education. Some sex education programs are better than others, some are more comprehensive, others less so, but at least children attending public schools get sex education. I didn’t. My parents never told me about sex, never had “the talk” with me, nothing. My parents taught me that sex within marriage was the most wonderful thing ever but that sex before marriage was the most sinful thing ever, but they never actually explained what sex was. They just told us that it was a “special way of loving.” Weird? Yes. In an ideal world children will learn both about sex and to hold a healthy view of sexuality from their parents. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world.
Now of course, I was curious: just what was this “special way of loving?” What was this thing at once so dangerous and so wonderful? And why was it so taboo, kept hidden from me like a secret? I pieced this secret together here and there from various sources over the course of six or eight years using a variety of sources:
A Biology Textbook: When I was in middle school I found a description of sex in a biology textbook. The two or so sentences of clinical explanation horrified me, and I quickly closed the book and put it away, more confused, terrified, and ashamed than enlightened.
An Art Book: Around the same time, I found a book full of pictures of statues in a stack of art books my mother had gotten from the library. The statues were nude. I stared, fascinated, looking at the pictures in an effort to learn more about human anatomy. I then felt incredibly dirty and put the book away quickly before my mother could notice that I had seen it.
A Book Store: When I was around fifteen, I was at Barnes and Nobles and ran across a book on how to tell your child about sex. I hid behind the shelves of books and listened anxiously for footsteps. I skimmed the pages furtively, hungry for whatever information I could find, information that would help explain this confusing thing to me. Given that I was terrified of being found and that the time I had was limited, the only thing I remember learning was about masturbation, which I had never heard of before. I felt extremely guilty and dirty afterward.
A Christian Sex Guide: At some point during high school, I found a Christian guide to improving your sex life in my parents’ bedroom. Closing the door and extremely nervous I might be discovered, I leafed through the book, slightly concerned that my parents might be having marriage problems and very frightened of being caught looking at the book but more curious than anything else. After a few minutes, I returned the book to where I had found it, feeling guilty and dirty, but slightly wiser.
The Internet: When I left for college I could use the Internet without being afraid that my parents would check the computer’s history. Finally I could solve questions that had been puzzling me, like just what “oral sex” was – I had heard the term somewhere several years back and had been curious ever since, but had been unable to find the term in a dictionary. Finally my questions could have answers. I clicked through pages of Christian sex advice websites, always afraid that my search terms might bring up porn sites. I justified what I was doing by reminding myself that I was now an adult and besides I was only looking things up on Christian websites.
A Mirror: I realized during my first year of college that I had no idea what parts I had down there. My parents’ emphasis on purity had made me feel that my private area was somehow dirty and unclean, and I had therefore never paid any attention to it. I didn’t even know where my vagina was, just that it was down there somewhere. Curious, I looked up anatomy images on the Internet and then then stood naked in the bathroom using a hand-held mirror to explore body parts I had not even known I had. I was both fascinated and horrified by what I learned.
Romance Novels: After I had been in college for some time, I held the hand of the man who is now my husband for the first time. This made me feel warm and wet in certain places that I had not known could be warm and wet. I was completely baffled. I had no idea what was happening to my body. I might now know the basic mechanics of sex, but I knew nothing about how it actually worked in practice, or what it meant for the body to be “aroused.” What was this? And so, I turned to the lurid romance novels one of my friends kept in her dorm room, reading the sex scenes in depth to try to find out what sex was actually like.
And that, reader, is how I learned about sex. Is it any wonder that I wish I had had a sex education class? Some years later, after I left my parents’ home and was married, a fifteen-year-old girl in a youth group I helped out with started asking me questions about sex. I answered her questions, every one of them, with the openness and honesty I wish my parents had had with me. I didn’t want her to have to learn about sex by sneaking her mother’s Christian sex book or reading romance novels. I didn’t want her to be nineteen or twenty and completely ignorant of her own anatomy. I didn’t want her to be like me.
I’ll never understand how my parents could on the one hand teach me that sex was something beautiful and sacred and at the same time leave me in ignorance about it and make me feel like it was something dirty and unclean. It was the most wonderful thing ever…but it was completely taboo as a topic. It was a sacred bond between husband and wife…but please don’t mention it or think about it. The contradictory messages I received gave me a very warped view of sex. I both looked forward to the sacred bond of sex with my future husband and felt dirty any time I thought about it. Learning about sex piecemeal here and there didn’t give me a very accurate view of sex either, even discounting the sense of guilt I felt about doing so.
When I finally got to the point of actually having sex, I was disappointed to find that it neither felt sacred nor lived up to the descriptions in the romance novels I had read. Picking up knowledge of sex in bits and pieces here and there while awash in guilt does not lead to a comprehensive understanding of sex or a healthy sexuality. I had no idea that sex took practice or effort, or that sometimes one partner wouldn’t feel like it and the other would, or that it could be sweaty and gross. It has taken me years to iron all this out and to come to a healthy view of sex. I wish that instead of focusing on keeping me ignorant of it, my parents had informed me about sex and focused on giving me a healthy view of sexuality. But then, their beliefs about sex would not allow them to do that.
What I would have given a sex education class, a safe place where I could have found the basic information and asked questions! Sure, it wouldn’t have been perfect, but it would have been something.
I didn’t get a sex education either, and I”ve found this extremely common among homeschoolers.
I thought oral sex was talking about it until 13. Also thought AIDS was a “gay disease.”
Guerrilla sex self-education is what I did too. I remember the moment I found the proper entry in our ancient 1970’s encyclopedia and wondered what all the fuss was about. Information about sex totally shorn of context.
Also: “When I left for college I could use the Internet without being afraid that my parents would check the computer’s history.”
For future reference ctrl+shift+p is private browsing in Firefox. ctrl+shift+n is private browsing in Chrome…they leave no history. If you use IE, just switch to one of those.
My mother gave me the bare blunt mechanics of it when I asked, but, even though I went to public school, until I hit high school I didn’t learn much about it. In middle school, we were given abstinence education. None of this prepared me for what sex was really like. I learned what masturbation was from the V.C. Andrews book “Flowers in the Attic”. If that plus an extremely christian upbringing doesn’t give you a warped view of sex, I don’t know what does. I have been married for two years and my mother still doesn’t even want to talk about my birth control let alone sex.
I was in public school, but my story is similar to yours. A book found tucked away, VC Andrews, Teen magazine, etc. I had questions, and asked them, but my mother never had time for them. She finally pulled me aside AFTER my wedding, dressed to leave for my honeymoon, to tell me that it might hurt. Gee, thanks, Mom.
I’ve tried to do much better with my homeschooled kids. My oldest is a tween, we’ve talked about sex since she was around eight, and comes to me often with little details of her maturing body.
I found out about sex from the encyclopedia. To this day, 15 years later, my mom has never discussed it with me.