“The key to preventing unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases is abstinence! Abstinence until marriage!”
It was Monday, which meant instead of running miles or throwing dodgeballs at each other, my classmates and I were corralled into a musty, windowless classroom to learn about sex.We might as well have been lined in pews as we listened to our freshman gym coach preach fear of our own bodies once a week. I didn’t know anything about sex, but it seemed that all I needed to know was that I should not have it.
I was a late-bloomer in terms of exploring my own body. At 14 years old, I had only poked around my lower region when necessary. Even then, I refused to look directly at it, like I’d be staring into the sun. I was scared of my own anatomy—I didn’t know what it did or what it was for, and I was far too mortified to learn.
After an entire semester of public school sex education, I still wasn’t really sure what it could do, or that it could feel good. All I knew was to keep it away from boys until one of them put a ring on my finger, and if I didn’t, I would either die or pop out a baby before graduating high school.
During our weekly lessons, we briefly touched on the logistics of intercourse. Abstinence was the central focus of the curriculum, but boys will be boys, right? I watched my gym coach teach my male peers about ejaculation and erections. She taught them about applying condoms and masturbation and pornography. The boys smirked as they slid Trojans onto bananas, while the girls sat idly, blushing with embarrassment and fear of handing over our purity. Every Monday, we learned about sex from the perspective that it was normal for boys, and taboo for girls.
Once I began to learn about sex from my own experiences, it felt only natural to attach it to shame. When I was 17, I accidentally lost my virginity to a boy I hardly knew. When it was over, we laid naked together in the same bed my mother tucked me into as a child. I immediately began to cry. He asked what was wrong and through my sob-clogged throat, I could hardly explain how ashamed I felt. I felt like I had done something dirty, and would never be able to wash it off myself.
Even as I grew to feel more comfortable with my sexuality, I was still living in a boy’s world and I didn’t even realize it. I didn’t know anything about receiving pleasure, only giving it. My gym coach had taught us about the biology of boners, but never once mentioned the term clitoris. I was conditioned to understand that sex was a natural desire for a man that women needed to satisfy. That’s what sex was to me—letting boys get out those urges that girls do not or should not have. It was clear that the dudes I was having sexual interactions with had the same understanding: the act of sex was just for them.
While in college, I dated a boy who was more freaked out by my body than I was. He was always ready for a blowjob, often stopping by my dorm unannounced to ask, “you down for sex stuff?” I pleasured him in my twin-sized bed, to which he always refused to reciprocate because he thought it was too gross. Sometimes he wanted to have penetrative sex, but only if my pubic region was shaven bald. During the summer, I dated another boy from my hometown, who would often ask to come over to my house, just so he could initiate sex moments after walking through my front door. He once insisted he wasn’t leaving until we had sex, despite my parents being in the other room. He always fell asleep right after the deed had been done and left the moment he woke up again. One weekend, he invited me over because his mother was out of town until Sunday. He promised a weekend of playing house—making pancakes, watching movies on the couch, cooking dinner. When I arrived Friday evening, he answered the door with an erection. He aggressively herded me to his bedroom, mounted me, and fell asleep right when it was over. When we awoke the next morning, I asked if he wanted to get breakfast and he said it’d probably be best that I just go home. During my sophomore year of college, I became involved with a boy who told me things would be much better if I were a virgin. I thought back to my high school gym coach—maybe she was right about the whole abstinence thing after all.
My first few years of being sexually active, it never felt as amazing as everyone said it should. It always felt dirty or shameful or mandatory, even when I wasn’t in the mood. One year ago, I decided that I wanted to re-educate myself; provide myself with the sex education I hadn’t received elsewhere. I wanted sex to feel like a connection, not a chore. I wanted to feel proud and familiar with my body. I wanted to like sex, to be open about it.
Actively practicing sex positivity has been like rewiring my brain. During sexual interactions, I must be conscious of how I am treating myself and allowing myself to be treated. If I desire something from my partner, I force myself to ask for it, which never felt natural beforehand. If something doesn’t feel good, I force myself to speak up instead of just letting it happen until it’s over. It is not only a learning experience and journey for myself, but for my partners.
I often wonder if I will have a daughter one day. Will she dreadfully gather in a musty classroom once a week with her embarrassed peers to learn about her body? Will they teach her to fear it and keep it hidden, or encourage her to embrace it? I hope they will teach her about intimacy, consent and healthy relationships, and if they don’t, I want to be able to do it for her. I want her to feel like she can be open about sex, about how natural it is for all genders, and how it is not something to feel ashamed of. If she ever exists, I want her to learn that she has freedom to her body and sexuality. And that is why I need to learn myself.