My parents, to this date, have never discussed sex with me. We have never talked about the biological act of sex, safe sex, STDs or birth control. We never discussed consent or how to say no. My mum gave the briefest of explanations about periods when I once asked as a younger child why there was some blood in the toilet. That was it.*
I still wasn’t prepared for my first period. It happened at school camp, when I was 11. (Our school’s first puberty talk was several months later). I had to ask someone else’s mum to help me. As you can imagine, super awkward for a timid pre-teen. My second period was even worse; I had since told my mum that I had started, and she gave me the most limited of information, including the suggestion of daily panty liner use from now on, and off I went. For some reason, and I am almost too embarrassed to write this down, I thought my daily panty liner would be sufficient when my next period came. You can see where this is going. The collateral damage was one chair in my math class and the teacher obviously chose to approach my friend to get them to talk to me and I was so mortified I denied even having my period at all.
Safe to say I didn’t have much of a clue about what was going on with my body or how it related to sex, let alone how to navigate talking about it.
In my first year at high school, I recall the sniggers and stifled giggles whenever someone made the decidedly foolish mistake of calling out in class “I’m coming!” I could tell that the joke, whatever it was, was crude in nature, but I definitely didn’t get it. Once at home, I found a decent-sized dictionary and looked up all the alternate meanings for ‘come’ as a verb. And therein I found the answer. Now I, too, could be privy to bawdry teenage humour.
Much earlier than this, I also looked up sex in the dictionary. I am almost certain that this is how I understood for myself what the actual deed was. Of course this old-school stock-standard dictionary limited it to the heterosexual act of a penis entering a vagina. Not exactly the most inclusive description, but I guess it was a start. At some point I also looked up ‘fuck’, but not because it was hilarious to find swear words in the dictionary.
So. All my knowledge of bodies and sex all came from teenage magazines – the likes of Girlfriend, Dolly, and Cleo. Cosmo, if you wanted to feel more grown up, whatever that meant. It came from snippets of conversations at lunchtimes and at parties. The kind where you pretended you knew what people were talking about but had no idea. (How many others had no idea either?). Things like someone holding up their index and middle finger in a V and poking their tongue through it (honestly, I found this out after leaving high school). I feel like I always found out these things so much later than everyone else. Even to this day I feel a mild pang discomfort in asking what some sexual slang means. As if I am still behind the times, the nerdy kid who doesn’t know what teabagging is (I found this out approx age 20). Though now, thanks to the internet (and a non-shared computer in my own house), I have a bizarre and varied search history.
I suppose all the slang just comes and goes through use and word of mouth. But all the basics, the ins and outs as it were, they had to be gleaned from the only sources I knew were available to me at the time – and ones that didn’t obviously betray my ignorance. The aforementioned magazines and social gatherings and whatnot. These fountains of mainstream knowledge did not exactly give an all-rounded or feminist view of the world. Articles were about how to please men in bed and the difference between sexy and slutty (the idea being to aim for the former while avoiding the latter). Our high school only dared to have a sex ed lesson in our second to last year (I was 17). I only remember one useful thing from this class: which way to unroll a condom. We didn’t even get to put them on bananas.
I guess some people might find it funny how sexually sheltered my early years were. Two friends (that I met in my late 20s) even laughed when I made a comment about some story I’d told and how I didn’t sleep with some guy – something like, “Oh I was like 16, I wasn’t having sex then” – followed by knowing laughter between them, obviously they had been. Which is fine for them, but it seemed as though not losing my virginity until I was 19 was somehow straitlaced and prudish.
In some ways I suppose it’s amusing. But in other ways it had given me such a limited worldview on sex and sexuality, about bodies and pleasure and morals. But I think I am – and always have been – a very sexual person, and it took me a long time to understand that. I’m still trying to understand it.
*Well, except for that time when I had my boyfriend over – we were both 16 – and I happened to be making my bed (for no reason other than it being a laundry day) and the mattress was bumping against the wall as I shoved it back into the corner. My mum called me from down the hallway to say something along the lines of stopping what I was doing (it was that vague). I was super confused; I had no idea why she thought we were doing anything in there – with the door open, parents home, my room shared a wall with their room – or even what she thought we were doing. That’s not to say we weren’t getting our clothes off at other times, but at that moment she was so ambiguous about what she was referring to (sex! Have I ever even heard my mother say the word?) that I was completely baffled. This is how my parents talked about sex: by not ever talking about it.