All I Learned In Sex Ed Was To Fear Sex

sex education

“Your body is a temple,” my mom said. “It’s sacred so don’t let just anyone in.”

The sex education classroom, as I remember it, can be divided into three respective groups: those who giggled at the word sex, those whose faces disappeared behind their folded arms or contorted into a sour-faced cringe, and those whose necks extended in rapturous wonder, backs straight and ears perked to what had long been hidden from them.

I fell into the last of the three. The category for the ones who were teased by a slip in their parents manual blocking system, the hands used to cover ears and eyes before cable companies thought to capitalize on the trend.

For me, the slip happened when I was 8 during the three-hour premiere of Titanic I was forced to sit through with my parents, my Leo-obsessed pre-teen sister, and my supposedly too-young-to-understand 6-year-old sister. The build-up to Rose taking off her clothes for the drawn-out scene of Jack sculpting her breasts out of charcoal was long enough for my mom to prepare me to look away, but the sex scene afterward caught her off-guard.

Don’t look, my mom said as she struggled to shield my eyes, her hand a magnified mirror of the one sliding down the foggy car window glass.

Through her fingers I caught fragmented glimpses of the exposed breast, the uncovered thigh, the marriage of two sweaty abdomens deemed too unfit for a child’s eyes. I found myself mesmerized by the open display of sexuality and then ashamed of my wonderment, knowing that it wasn’t permitted.

“What were they doing?” I asked my mom. Why couldn’t I look?

“Just something mommies and daddies do,” she said. “But only after marriage, OK?”

“Do what after marriage?”

“Shush, now,” she said. “Enough of that.”

Enough of what? I wanted to ask. What have I supposedly had enough of? But I knew better than to press on a matter that seemed closed from the start.

I instead averted my attention back to the catastrophe unfolding on screen—the bodies bouncing off propellers, the frosted-over faces of our fornicating heroes punctuating the black-lit water, the search team paddling past corpses strapped to life jackets, a last hope effort to be saved—and I took in the carnage as no hand rose to stop my gaze.

Past that moment, I attempted and failed to extinguish my now lit curiosity of the body and its new-found potential. Though I shied away from directly addressing the topic of sex, having witnessed how quickly my parents shut down at that, I took every opportunity to introduce my nagging inquiries in round-a-bout ways. Anatomically-enhanced Barbie dolls positioned suggestively over happy meal toys and doodle bears became tools of communication. The routine nakedness that signaled bath time, an outlet for exploring the necessity of clothing. Commercials of shirtless construction workers and women shorn of their glasses selling the sexiness of Coke, an opportunity to gauge my parents’ reaction and sometimes, to reenact for even further reactions.

The response to my subtle push toward an in-depth exploration of sexuality: You’re too young to hear or know or see or even think. Don’t think about it, OK, Sweetie? Baby? Honey Pooh Bear? You’re just not ready.

I soon became convinced that gaining answers to my growing questions would result in a monstrous mutation, visible to anyone that dared to look me directly in the eye.

She knows, they’d say, turning away in horror. She knows about the sex.

When the day came that I no longer had to hunt for answers under the guise of childish ignorance, I, unlike many of my fellow sixth graders, was bursting with excitement. My seat the closest to the video screen we all crowded around when the teacher released the VHS from its case and popped it into the VCR slot. And I only just managed to bottle my enthusiasm when the lights went down. This was it, I thought, the moment of uncensored truth.

Before me, a rainfall of blue pixels stacked to form “Sex and Puberty” in large block letters before disintegrating into a montage of kids clad in khakis and collared shirts exchanging elbow nudges then lying in a circle on the grass, smiles pasted and arms linked. Eighties sitcom music swelled in the background and the mood was set.

But then, the most disappointing thing happened. Like a pay-phone operator threatening to discontinue the most important call of your life if you don’t put in another damn dime, the narrator intruded on the scene, her calm robotic voice directing our attention away from the happy row of hormonal children and on toward the onslaught of faceless diagrams. Diagram after diagram cut with only flashes of real-life bodies. A stenciled portrait of a fetus-filled uterus needled with medical terms cuts to a girl brushing her hair by a window cuts to an animated sequence of sperm swimming upstream cuts to teenagers sitting on opposite sides of a couch cuts to a badly drawn cartoon featuring disembodied sex organs acting out penetration cuts to a boy flipping his collar up in the mirror cuts to a PSA about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases cuts to the same row of now seemingly less hormonal kids frolicking toward a picnic table away from a playground. Sex means no more playgrounds, I concluded.

By the end, I felt cheated. Where was the carefully crafted model of how to correctly smoosh your bodies against another? Where was the explanation of how sex creates fog on the windows of ship-bound cars? Where was the reasoning behind the sounds that escaped from Jack and Rose in the middle of it all? Where were the long-awaited secrets?

Even the Q&A portion proved disappointing with many of my most pressing concerns being met with: “I think that’s a question best suited for your parents.”

Fat chance they’ll want to talk about it, I thought. This was before I came to realize that a school-enforced lesson on sexual education was exactly the push my parents needed to finally initiate a dialog on the subject. In fact, once my parents knew that I finally knew, the previously closed discussion about sex became a very open and relentlessly ongoing one about the dangers of it.

“Now that you’ve had the talk,” they said, “It’s time for another.”

It was then I learned of all the possibilities sex opens up to you. The possibility of having your body invaded by another body, twice over if you get pregnant. The possibility being made untouchable by the invisible torrent of acronymic diseases—HIV, STDs, AIDS. And the possibility of puncturing and deflating the divine cloud of your virginity, leaving it a wrung-out rag.

“Your body is a temple,” my mom said. “It’s sacred so don’t let just anyone in.”

But I was curious: What made temples the sacred spaces they were? The golden gates, the jewel-encrusted stone heads, the sanctity bestowed by time? In the end, I settled on the existence of the myths that surround them.

Considering this, I began to miss the days of being shut out of the conversation, before I was tied to the responsibility of guarding my body like a temple from the threat of sex—the intruder, the desecrator, the conqueror. I missed the time when I was straining to steal glimpses rather than struggling to protect all I risked losing because of it. When sex was simply a hand pushing against my mother’s hand, fighting to be more than a break from the fog on the window glass.

Amy DeMien recently graduated from Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis with an M.A. in English and Certificates in Teaching Writing and Literature. She is an avid watcher and reader of people, both the real and fictional sort, and spends most of her time absorbed in all their possible lives. She’s also an aspiring writer of essays and short fiction.

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