My sexual education formally started in a fifth-grade classroom. A man and a woman, both pasty, thin and white-haired, walked in and told the boys to go to the next classroom over. The man herded them across the hall, and the woman stayed behind. I remember thinking she looked like a Q-tip. Little did I know, that Q-tip was going to teach me about the miracle of life.
Her name was, I kid you not, Mrs. McGee. I remember because my friend still sings the song that she wrote about her: “Mrs. McGee / Will you teach me / All I need to know / About puberty?”
I attended public school, but I think the couple came from a Christian organization. The closest we came to learning about birth control was a vague description of the rhythm method. To this day I have never put a condom on a banana, a cucumber or any other phallic fruit. And I’ve definitely signed at least two abstinence pledges.
Three years later I had a refresher course on sex ed in middle school, taught by two women gym teachers. The man gym teacher filled in for my class once, and he literally couldn’t bring himself to say “vagina.” He approximated with “fine china.”
But my favorite sex ed memory has to be an activity when every member of the class had a ball of Play-Doh in a unique color. Each ball was its own character with a fun alliterative name like “Jump-On-It-Johnny” or “Promiscuous Polly.” There was a script that told the story of these characters’ pervy exploits. Every time two characters had sex, their assigned students smashed them together. The plot was Shakespearean in its drama and complexity. It ended with “Jump-On-It-Johnny” — his former blue now vomit-brown from smashing against too many people — having sex with “Pure Pat,” who had saved herself until after graduation. But for all her waiting, she still ended up the same nasty color as Johnny. In hindsight, the exercise was probably a metaphor for STIs, but I thought of it as an exchange of shame. I signed the abstinence pledge that day with gusto.
My sister learned about sex in Catholic school (shudder) and had mostly this to say: “I remember that [sex] was basically talked about in a symbolic way. Anatomically they pretty much were not specific at all.”
Her words made me realize that I might have my warped sexual education to thank for being a writer. Sex ed was my introduction to metaphor. I learned that people can be balls of clay, staining each other. I learned that a woman is a stick of gum and that if she lets someone chew her, then no one else will want her. Or that a woman is a flower, and every time she sleeps with someone, a petal falls off.
Birds, bees, cherries, fine china. My sexual education was communicated through objects. We talk about sex via metaphor so much that it’s easy to forget that the people having it are human beings.
The Literary Review gives an annual award to the author of the worst sex scenes in otherwise good literary fiction. The 2018 nominees were, unsurprisingly, dense with metaphor. Here is a list of things that they compare vaginas/whole women to: a pleasure cave, a ratchet, a boa constrictor, an enameled pepper mill and “an empty vessel for what feels like disembodied consciousness.” I almost miss fine china.
Metaphor conceals sex while claiming to reveal it, and there are consequences. Learning about sex via symbols taught me to objectify myself. Once I entered a sexual situation, I became a thing. Now all I know about desire is that I want to be wanted. That’s no way to engage with the world.
People have tried to overcome the problem of sex education with intellection. Most Yalies can engage in the discourse around sex all day long, but the fact remains that our sexual climate sucks. Interpretation has its place — in fact, the interpretation of sex is an important part of liberation — but we’ve intellectualized sex so much that we’re even more alienated from what we want. In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag writes, “None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself.” The statement holds true when you replace “art” with “sex.” Maybe we treat sex as figurative because we cannot justify having sex for its own sake.
Sontag finishes her essay by calling for an erotics, rather than hermeneutics, of art. I’m going to copy her and say we need an erotics of the erotic. Ask yourself what you want. Ask other people what they want. Feel what you want and give others the freedom to do the same. Intellectualizing sex when you’re not in touch with your own desire is like trying to run when you haven’t learned to stand.
For me, sex ed was at best a funny anecdote and at worst, mildly traumatizing. Here is the good news: my sexual education is ongoing. So is everyone’s. Sex ed is not a discrete moment in time that happened in fifth grade. It is continuous, and it is up to us. So I’m doing my best to be my own Mrs. McGee only, you know, better.
Monica McDonough | firstname.lastname@example.org@yale.edu .