Toad in the Hole

November 18, 2005

More Whys: A Little Bit about Sex

When my mother had to explain what we in the early Pleistocene called "The Facts* of Life" to me, she resorted to a little blue book called Mother’s Little Helper. (It had a counterpart for boys, a little red book called Listen, Son.) It was an instructional book put out by the Catholic Church, about sex and reproduction. Sort of. For your contextualizing pleasure, this was, oh, maybe 1962.

Now, my parents were, at least when I was young, relatively progressive. They were good Catholics and all, put us all in Catholic school, church every Sunday and novenas for Mom and me on Sunday night, regular donations, that stuff. Still, when the younger kids wanted to go to Lutheran Bible School with all their little friends, Mom looked into the course of study, saw that it was all Old Testament and nothing they couldn’t have seen in Catholic school, and sent them. (Think of it: a situation where sending your kids to Lutheran Bible School was progressive. Lord, Lord.) The pastor was pissed off at her for this, and actually scolded her (though not by name) from the pulpit one Sunday, the old prick. But she stood her ground. Go Mom!

In our stratum, which I’ll call lower middle-class, the Church was where you went for help – we never thought of seeing a shrink, for example, and of course a Church source was logical for "FoL" instruction. Mom herself had been an only child, born when her mother was 40, and raised, from what she told me, without much information about sex, to such a degree that she was scared half to death when she had her first baby – me – because nobody had told her quite what to expect. So she took it upon herself to find a helpful book; the idea was she was supposed to read it to me.

Well, she started out doing so, and got embarrassed enough to just let me read it myself after a chapter or two. What embarrassed her wasn’t the subject; she shrugged and said, "I think you probably know all this by now, so how about if just read it for yourself?" What embarrassed her, and ticked me off when I thought about it later, was that the thing was so damned uninformative. There was lots of talk about God’s wishes and sanctity and such, but I don’t recall "penis" or "vagina" or "vulva" in it, and certainly the word "clitoris" never appeared. Never mind the possibility of lusting (not that "lust" was exactly explained either) after a member of one’s own sex.

There was some stuff about menstruation, no surprise, and it was pretty discouraging. I don’t think it went as far as "Eve’s curse" (because of course that was all about subjection and painful childbirth) but the one sentence that stuck with me was approximately, "You can do nothing to stop the flow, and you would only hurt yourself if you could."

A friend of mine has argued that if there were a loving God, not only would She have made chocolate-flavored semen, but She’d have given us one more sphincter. Can’t quarrel with that.

What I am certain about, because I found the thing and took it back to the dorm with me one year for a more critical reading when I was being that English lit. major, was that the closest to mentioning actually having sex was the phrase "the marital embrace." As in explaining that children were conceived during "the marital embrace." That was it; that was as specific as it got. An ordinary seventh-grade kid at the time could be expected to know what "embrace" means – why, a hug, of course, unless one was embracing something abstract like principles.

I re-read that silly thing just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything when I was young and stupid; no, I was right the first time: that book left the reader with the idea that a women became pregnant via hugging. Hugging one’s spouse, of course. That was some official someone’s idea of what girls needed to know about puberty.

Fortunately, my mother was right, and I already knew better than that. I don’t exactly remember where I learned it, either – possibly from my aunt Jean’s antique nursing manuals, which my cousin Jane and I used to dig out of the attic trunks and read on rainy days. Good thing I had street knowledge to fall back on, huh?

*This was enough of a cliché that the seventh-grade boys made the word "facts" a sort of dirty word. High times in grade school!

Posted at November 18, 2005 12:33 AM