Talking about sex is uncomfortable.
I never got the sex talk from my parents, nor did I want one. I was content not knowing what sort of naked shenanigans transpired to produce some sort of child. I didn’t even need a stork story. Because even if there was a stork involved there was something strange about the entire situation.
Which is why I was particularly annoyed in third grade when my friend asked me, “Do you want to know what sex is?” I answered no, of course not, and tried to get back to playing with my Barbies.
“It’s when a man puts his penis in a woman’s vagina.”
OK, wow, that’s enough. I changed the subject to last night’s “Rugrats” and tried to put some clothes on the Barbie because I was suddenly aware of her nakedness.
Talking about sex in school was even weirder, especially when they made us touch tampons and label uteri. The spectrum of awkward sex education is vast and mortifying, from private to public schools, from Jewish to Catholic schools, from abstinence-only to here-take-these-condoms approaches.
Sex talks tend to start around fifth grade, roughly around the time you start getting strange urges and hair. My friend Allison, who attended a liberal Jewish day school, was once made to sit in a circle with her fifth grade class and shout, “Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Penis! Penis! Penis!” The point of this exercise was to make talking about sex less intimidating. My friends in more conservative Catholic schools had opposite, though equally terrifying, experiences — for one friend, sex ed was a chapter in her religion book, which explained that sex before marriage not only gives you diseases, but will also probably kill you (and definitely land you in hell).
You would think these discussions would become more sophisticated in high school. They don’t. Freshman year at a Boston public school, my friend Molly had evangelicals come to her class and explain that having sex was like jumping off a diving board into the ocean, where you would get attacked by the pregnancy piranha, the STD shark and the emotional eel. In Lubbock, Texas, a pastor explained the following to my friend’s health class: “Sex in marriage is like fire in the fireplace, it will keep you warm and make you feel good. Sex outside marriage is like a fire in the middle of the floor; it will burn your house down and destroy your life.” He then passed around a magazine profile of Jessica Simpson, to demonstrate that you can be beautiful and talented and stay pure.
Scaring kids into not having sex is an unfortunate approach because a) it doesn’t work — teens are horny and will always have sneaky, awkward sex and b) fearing sex has dangerous consequences. Young people should feel comfortable talking about sex, which will make it easier in the future for them to seek help and ask questions when they need to, and to feel comfortable talking about sex to their partners — and not just at that moment when they’re already unclothed and giving consent.
Another problem with the sort of discussions about sex that young people are forced to have is the lies. It’s an unequivocal lie that the first time you have sex is going to be amazing. It won’t be; it will be awkward, uncomfortable, and messy. Sex, just like any activity, is better when you practice it. This is why the most recent “Twilight” movie made me so angry. Did they expect us to believe that Bella and Edward’s first time having sex is mind-blowing, that it was worth waiting until after the wedding? I’m willing to go along with the vampire and werewolf plotlines, but this is where I draw the line.
Salt-n-Pepa were on to something in “Let’s Talk About Sex” when they rapped, “Don’t decoy, avoid, or make void the topic/Cuz that ain’t gonna stop it.” Maybe we would do well to all get together and shout “Penis!” and “Vagina!” — this would be more complex, open and useful than many of the dialogues we have about sex, which are too often packed with judgment and fear. And while the emotional eel, STD shark and pregnancy piranha are all very real concerns, there are ways to explore these issues in a way that doesn’t vilify or mystify sex. I dream that we can all one day live in a world where we won’t die of embarrassment if we get trapped next to our parents on the couch and an unexpected sex scene comes on TV.