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.
"Perish the Thought"
By Rosemary Mahoney
What did my mother say to me about sex? Not a damn thing. In all my formative years I got not one word about sex from my mother, a woman who had seven kids in exactly seven years. My mother's parents were both born in Ireland in the early 1880s and fell victim to the dire warnings and searing admonishments that the Irish Catholic clerics promulgated about sex. In the Ireland of the time, sex was probably considered the most shameful evil. That sentiment naturally cast its shadow on my mother. She was hardly a prude, but as far as I can remember she never raised the subject with me until I was approaching my 30s.
I have a photograph of my mother taken just after Catholic Mass on Easter Sunday, 1963. She is surrounded by her many children, her head draped in a long black lace mantilla worthy of the papal countess. (The papal countess at that time was Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, another Irish Catholic woman who produced children with notable volume and urgency—nine of them in 18 years.) According to the dictates of Vatican I, no woman was allowed to enter a Catholic church without a proper head covering. The veil was evidence not only that the woman was respectful of her church but that she was also modest and chaste.
This has always been the weird paradox of the Roman Catholic Church: Sex is evil, shameful, and unspeakable, but by all means do go ahead and have as many children as you possibly can. (My mother's grandmother, a devout Catholic, had 13 children in a yet again mind-bogglingly short period of time.) But the thing about producing so many children so quickly is that everybody knows exactly how you've been spending your spare time. I have a friend who says that when he sees a pregnant woman all he can think of is the sex that led to it. The pregnancy is always somehow sacred but the act that led to it somehow isn't. This, of course, is why the Blessed Virgin had to be a virgin. If she was the mother of God in any ordinary way, then some guy had to have climbed into bed with her. Perish the thought.
With three older sisters and three older brothers, one comes to know about sex one way or another. By the time I was 12, I had learned the basics in bemusing bits and pieces. My case could, I suppose, have been worse. I could have suffered the Catholic mother a friend of mine got. When my friend went to her mother at age 13 and announced in bafflement that there was blood in her underpants, the mother wound up and slapped her full force across the face.
"Hey, Like, Things Happen"
By Lorene Cary
I was just 11, my mother's first child, and my period caught us both off guard. She thought she'd have a little more time. I thought my innards were leaking out, like when Mitzi chewed her spaying stitches and her intestines unraveled onto the floor. Panties in hand, I ran downstairs. The writer (far right) with her two daughters and her mother, 1999.
"Already?" Mom said.
We established what sex was and that I was not, repeat not, to do it.
I can't remember what I told my own daughters. I did some basics, gave them books, told them not to do it: prudish, the older one says now, in the face of the inevitable.
But suddenly, women's bodies appeared everywhere, draped over things, laughed at, offered up by popular culture for anyone to enjoy. You like? You buy? From Iowa's cornfields to East Coast cities, everywhere we'd been and they were going, America poured its poison into their ears: Be available.
I tried to say that so much sex so early distracts us all from the real work of growing a generation into compassion, work, power, resilience. One, just one, fellatio experience can generate enough anxiety to wipe out years of confidence.
Girls, not boys, are diminished. Even their immune systems take a hit. America's answer: Hey, like, things happen.
As if to inoculate them and to calm myself again, I ask them to widen their minds as Buddha taught, into rooms so large that paint thrown into the air will not spoil the walls. And then I walk a generation behind while adolescent American sex, all bright, neon color and corrosion, splashes over them.
"Be My Best Girl"
By Abigail Thomas
It's hard to remember having sex, let alone what I told my kids about having sex. It was the '60s, and I assume I threw a lot of love in there ("...and there comes a moment when you just want to be as close as you possibly can..."). I felt I had to tackle the subject when my eldest daughter (age 5) came home with the news that my best friend, a single mother, had told her kids she had made them all by herself out of a little kit, like model airplanes. My hat was off to my friend, but I needed to set the record straight. I don't remember what I said, how much unnecessary detail I went into, and I'm afraid to ask. I have enough guilt about my kids' upbringing already. But whatever I did say, it prompted my young daughter to ask if she could run down to Rowley Street and try it with Karl, the son of my friend. No, I told her, horrified. No, you cannot. Clearly, I had done too good a job.
I think full disclosure skips a generation.
I do remember what my poor mother told me, after I questioned her rather desperately, back in 1954. I had been hearing a lot of different rumors about the reproductive process, and I hoped they weren't true. (You do what?) She was uncomfortable with the question, poor woman, but I pressed on. Normally, my mother enjoyed holding forth on obscure subjects like the Albigensian heresy, and it was hard to get a word in edgewise. But on this occasion, my mother was mute. I stood in front of her, unyielding. Finally she answered: "Oh, Abigail, I don't remember," to which I responded indignantly, "But Mother! You've done it three times!" (I have two sisters.) One of them tells me now that our mother told her the best part of having sex was saying no.
Well, she had a point. Making out was, as I recall, usually much more fun than "going all the way," and I would urge today's youth to try to pretend that it was all still forbidden fruit. I would tell them to get into a car, preferably one with a gearshift, turn on the radio, listen to something with a beat, steam up the windows, and then stop short. There's nothing like it.
I remember when I went off to college, having acquainted myself with the joys of making out (and there are so many places you can do that standing up, although I still prefer a car), my mother's parting words were "Be my best girl."