And now that is how I view my life before the Internet. How did I survive without it? Growing up would have been so much easier had I been born twenty years later! Join me, won't you, as I recount my fumbling quest for knowledge in the old-timey world before the Internet and groundbreaking sex-ed sites like Scarleteen were invented.
Remember when your parents used to look at your grades and say, "Why can't you be more like Girl X?" I was Girl X, and I speak for all the intelligent, shy girls who were raised in a sexual vacuum, whose friends didn't talk about sex at all or at least not with them, and who were too square to be invited to join in their contemporaries' high school reindeer games. It kind of goes without saying that my parents never told me much of anything, not that I ever asked. Learning about sex in the late 70s/early 80s was like taking an independent study course with a couple of professors who couldn't be bothered to keep office hours.
When I was little, Dad's anatomy textbook fascinated me, and not just because of its expensive-looking transparent overlays showing various organs, although those were very cool. The image of a cross-section of a woman's abdomen with an upside-down baby inside was burned into my memory. I had seen big women like this and was able to conclude that babies come from inside women. But how did they get there? A man giving a woman "a special kind of hug," as I had heard it explained, seemed unsatisfyingly vague, but I didn’t care about it that much. There were caterpillars to collect, cherry trees to climb, and teepees to draw.
I quickly realized that the social aspect of school was a necessary evil--it wasn’t that I didn’t like my classmates, I just didn’t seem to have much in common with them, and holy crap we were learning how to READ! My mind was being blown on a daily basis by teachers who were heroically cracking the code of letters and the sounds they made. I was in awe, and the fact that I had to take breaks from figuring out that mystery and, you know, actually play was sort of the price I had to pay. The boys were kind of nonentities except for one, the tall-as-me and fabulously named Jimmy Blue, the only boy who seemed to take an interest in me. He was probably my one hope for finding lifelong romance in my tiny town, but in second grade he moved to the other side of the state. I sometimes wonder how radically different my life would have been had he stayed.
When I was in 4th and 5th grade, students were bused to a school building seven miles away, and I spent many of those bus rides sitting with Roger, a good kid I genuinely liked a lot, and I suppose he was my boyfriend in that he gave me a piece of petrified wood and a skinny scrap of white suede that he claimed was fringe from one of Elvis' stage costumes. He was nice to me, and sometimes we even held hands, but our little-kid romance fizzled once we hit junior high and the bus rides ended. And honestly, the seven boys in my class started to seem more like distant brothers as we got older. In junior high I proceeded to develop hopeless, unrequited crushes on much older boys (high schoolers!) and people like Christopher Reeve in Superman II. All the while I pined for a cute, smart boy from someplace exotic like Ohio who would move to our town and scoop me up. I'd only have to wait 27 more years for that kid to make himself known to me.
When I was 11, Mom gave me a pamphlet called "Growing Up and Liking It," which featured a dated photograph of a smiling blonde teenage girl in a blue dress on the cover. The pamphlet described menstruation and really seemed to push Modess ("rhymes with oh yes!") sanitary napkins, which no longer existed. Included in the pamphlet was an insert about bras. This was lavishly illustrated with drawings of fabulous, impossibly-stacked women wearing various bullet bras and did little more than cause me to want to become a fabulous, impossibly-stacked woman wearing various bullet bras. The menstruation information, however, was old news. They had already shown us The Film at school. And that, apparently, was all we needed to know about sex. Except they were skipping what seemed to be the most interesting part! I’ve always believed that innocence is underrated but probably not the most practical thing in the world. I was used to being The Smart Girl, and being ignorant about something that was so important was disturbing. Being self-reliant, I set out to learn about sex via the only tools I had available to me: books. I knew the act was called sex, so I consulted Webster's Student Dictionary, but looking up "sex" was a big disappointment to say the least.
Seventeen magazine had a column called Sex and Your Body, where an expert answered one or two questions per month. It seemed to assume that its readers had a certain amount of knowledge and experience under their belts, and if the magazine didn’t cover anything that applied to you on a given month, that was too bad.
Later that school year I had a period that lasted a month--it simply did not stop, and I told Mom, who was hugely pregnant with my sister. She told me she’d get me an appointment with her doctor, by which I thought she meant “ordinary doctor I see when I have the flu,” and thus began what I like to refer to as The Great Gyno Ambush of 1983. Before I knew what was happening, I was in the stirrups and getting an exam the likes of which I had never thought possible and a pill that eventually stopped my period. For my cooperation, Mom let me buy a new Duran Duran album from the record store in the mall. I was still no closer to understanding sex, but my eyes had been opened to one of the joys of being a woman.
A few weeks later, I was in a hospital waiting room as my sister Emily/Poof was being born. Bored out of my mind and having exhausted my beloved stash of Creem magazines, I started reading the hospital's offerings from cover to cover. I came across a Redbook with an excerpt from a popular romance novel reprinted on pulpy, peach-colored paper. The story's heroine described an encounter with her lover and said something about "how good it felt to have him inside me." This concept was a complete revelation to me: The man has to be inside the woman! It all makes sense to me now!
Upon realizing that a man has to be inside the woman in order for sex to happen, and having a sketchy idea of where things were thanks to Growing Up and Liking It, everything seemed to fall into place (Tetris-style, with a few gaps here and there) thanks to books. At sixteen I began working at our town's sleepy library, where I discovered an astonishingly robust cache of soft-core pornography written by bestselling authors like Judith Krantz (shockingly favored by old ladies I knew from church) and, remarkably, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). I couldn't believe that this book had not been discovered by one of the town's upright citizens, who would have undoubtedly organized a torch-hoisting mob hell-bent on burning the library to the ground. To protect my library from certain destruction, I checked the book out to myself repeatedly, and what do you know, it answered a whole lot of my questions. I was able to look at this (unillustrated) book at home, often right under the eyes of my parents, who took zero interest in anything I was reading.
All of this information was purely theoretical, of course, because on the social front, I was never asked out on a date or even to dance by any boy at my school and basically ignored. I would sincerely like to ask the boys who knew me then, What was up with that? My art teacher adored me and introduced me to her son Adam, whom I soon considered a boyfriend (while I’m sure he considered me a girl who was also a friend). He lived 45 miles away, and we exchanged a rapid-fire, years-long correspondence of hand-drawn comics, collages, and hilarious letters, the significance of which I overestimated way too much. We went to school dances together and saw each other once every couple of months or so. Adam’s behavior went against every sex-crazed teen boy stereotype--he never pressured me for anything at all, and we shared an awkward first kiss on our seventh date, initiated by an exasperated me. Adam loved his car so much he probably would have gone to 3rd base with it had that been physically possible (their love affair continues to this day, thank you, Google).
Back in my sex vacuum, I discovered "Sex Talk with Phyllis Levy" a talk show on Chicago's WLS radio station. I listened to this on headphones at night, and the wonderful Phyllis filled in more to-be-used-at-a-later-date blanks for me. Also on my headphones: Prince, who set the standard for what I thought all men sounded like during sex: screaming, howling, panting, hitting high Cs, etc. Oh what a letdown I was in for...
Ultimately, the fact that I had to learn everything about sex through good old-fashioned library research wasn't so bad. In the end I felt like I somehow owned sex. I had to fight for it--it wasn’t just handed to me. But it would have been so much easier if I’d had a box connected to a phone line connected to The Hive Mind. I would have loved to have had a resource written specifically for teenagers that would have provided information, answered my questions, and if nothing else, let me know that I didn’t have to feel so alone. Thankfully, that resource exists now. It’s called Scarleteen, and a friend of mine from college asked me to write a blog about sex education to promote the site and hopefully help it raise some money. Please check it out here and donate. If you’re not sure what to give, ask yourself this: how much money would you have spent when you were a teenager to have this kind of information at your fingertips?