Daphne and Zoe Merkin
Zoë and Daphne Merkin
By Daphne Merkin
Despite all the felling of taboos that characterizes contemporary life, it seems to me that sexual awakening is still a highly individualistic and self-conscious process, one that is hard to convey to the next generation simply through two or three nuggets of good counsel. My own mother, for instance, an Orthodox German-Jewish immigrant to these shores, mostly proceeded on the assumption that ignorance would take care of itself—which conviction she interspersed with occasional, somewhat primitive, and deeply unromanticized references to the act itself. But she was also the least pious of women, and once, when I was in my early 20s and expressing some ongoing fear of defloration, she said exasperatedly, "Stop acting like the Virgin Mary!"

I have taken a somewhat different route with my own daughter, who is 19 years old and an only child. Perhaps because I have written extensively about erotic life and at some point she became aware of this (notwithstanding the fact that she sedulously avoids reading anything I write), I have always been open to her inquiries and not shy about putting in a word or two about my own experience. I don't think I have pushed her in any direction other than the one she feels is best suited to her, however, except for emphasizing that desire is a two-way street—something that seems particularly, tragically lost on this generation of teenage girls, who seem set on pleasing boys without giving much thought to their own wishes.

This aspect of youthful sexual interaction at this cultural moment was brought home to me one Saturday night during my daughter's senior year in high school, when a bunch of her friends had gathered in our kitchen over orders of Chinese takeout for one of their impromptu and endless girl talks. I knew enough not to intrude on these sessions—and in case I didn't know, the glass door to the kitchen had been firmly shut—so I was especially surprised when I was invited in to render my opinion concerning the crucial matter under discussion: Was oral sex more or less intimate than sleeping with a boy? I was somewhat taken aback at the specifics of the question (God knows, it was not something I would have thought to ask my own mother, nor was it an issue that reared its head for my generation with such precocious urgency), but I was flattered to be included in the conversation.

What ensued was a kind of roundtable discussion in which seven thoughtful 17- and 18-year-olds described their feelings about romance versus sexual compliance, the wonder of a good long smooch versus the unease of performing fellatio on a virtual stranger and not being sure exactly what to do. I listened and occasionally asked a question—What would happen if one or the other of them didn't go along with the expectation that they were available for advanced tongue-work? Would it put them out of the running?—or inserted a quasisociological comment, such as how for the longest time (until after the '60s sexual revolution) married men went to mistresses for oral sex.

As the hour grew late and the kitchen table became covered with layers of dishes and candy wrappers, we seemed to have arrived at a greater understanding of the complexities of sexual arousal and longing and the pressure to conform, but no definite conclusions. I put in a final word for the pleasures of real intimacy—of waiting to see whether you actually liked the boy before rushing to "service" him so he would call you again—over the quick fix of hooking up and acting like a professional call girl.

As far as I know, most of these girls have gone on to the de rigueur freshman loss of virginity, while my own daughter, bless her ever-romantic soul, is still waiting for true love to strike her down before opening herself up to more sophisticated carnal joys.

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