how I really learned about sex

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My sex education began on an ominous afternoon in the fifth grade when, without warning, the girls and boys were split up and maneuvered into two different rooms to watch a “health film.”

Looking back, it was all very shady. I should have had some misgivings about this so-called “health film,” or been at least a little suspicious about the fact that everyone with a wiener was being marched down to the gymnasium to watch it while we girls stayed behind. But I was too busy having my usual response to the audio-visual cart, which was:

“YAY! A FILM! WHAT’S IT ABOUT? OH, WHO EVEN CARES. THE IMPORTANT THING IS THAT I DON’T HAVE TO GO TO GYM CLASS! HOORAY! MAYBE IF I’M LUCKY I’LL GET TO RUN THE PROJECTOR! WHEE! FILM!”

So, completely oblivious to the fact that something unusual was going on, I plopped down on the threadbare carpet, sat criss-cross applesauce, and waited eagerly for the “health film” to start. Which it did.

And innocence, as they say, was lost.

Sex education in the mid-1980’s meant a lot of things, but “a wealth of accurate information about sexual development and self-discovery” was not one of them. There was a lot of hemming and hawing involved, and an abundance of “facts” that had been customized to avoid certain awkward truths. For example:

Fact: Boys start puberty when they experience their first ejaculation.

Awkward Truth: Teaching this requires the schools to address the topic of…

*gasp*

*GASP*

*GASP!*

…masturbation.

1980s Solution: Since talking to kids about masturbation is uncomfortable and yucky, the schools decided to just HEAVILY imply that boys only ejaculate during wet dreams. Because wet dreams are involuntary. They can’t be helped! A pair of boobs just floats by in a dream and whoopsie! Ejaculation. WITH NO PENIS TOUCHING INVOLVED.

Long-term Consequence of the 1980s Solution: No, it’s cool. I mean, some of us girls didn’t realize male masturbation was even a thing until we were like 13, but whatever. We just spent FOUR YEARS under the mistaken and hilarious impression that boys were having wet dreams all over the place, every single night of the year. But no big.

I guess what I’m saying here is that back in those days, with no Internet and more than a buttload of societal hangups, most of us kids didn’t get the straight dope on sex for a really long time. The “health films” were outdated, full of half-truths, and overloaded with complicated medical jargon that meant nothing to us. (Fallopian tubes? Vas deferens? Nocturnal emissions? Please. I zoned out after “vagina.”)

The “birds and the bees” talks we got from our parents were no better—IF we got them at all—and most of them were totally squicky and embarrassing. Here’s an excerpt from mine:

Mom: “So uh… when a man and a woman love each other very much… the man puts his penis into the woman’s vagina.”

Me: “UM. GROSS. WHY?”

Mom (stuttering): “Uh… it feels good?”

Me: “WE’RE DONE HERE.”

So what were we children of the 70’s and 80’s supposed to do between fifth grade and whenever our school district finally deemed it appropriate to teach us the real deal? How did we actually learn about sex?

We learned from porn.

OH, I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT THE KIND OF PORN ON THE INTERNET TODAY. I’m talking softcore stuff. Scrambled porn. Skin mags. Dirty books. I know it all sounds super duper lame, but it’s what was available back then, and its availability was very limited. You think kids go to crazy lengths now to find porn on the Internet? Here’s what my friends and I would do to catch a glimpse of a boob or a mention of a wang:

1. Watch scrambled porn. For the kids in the audience who don’t know what this is, let me explain. Back before digital cable, all premium channels and channels with adult content would be “scrambled” by the cable company. They’d only get “unscrambled” if your Mom or Dad started subscribing to those particular channels, which of course mine never did.

As methods of television encryption go, analog scrambling wasn’t very effective. You could still listen to the audio, and you could still *kind* of see what was going on. Enough to get an idea. Enough to learn some things you didn’t know before. Enough to harvest plenty of wack-off material. And in the end, isn’t that what mattered?

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2. Go through our neighbors’ garbage. I can hear you saying: “OH NO YOU DI’INT.” But oh yes. We did. One particular neighbor of mine had a subscription to both Playboy AND Penthouse, and he’d even class it up occasionally with an erotic novel or two. Seriously? His trash was a treasure trove of porn. My friends and I would root through his garbage, score some skin mag gold, and then spend the rest of the afternoon reading Penthouse letters and giggling over the liberal use of the word “pussy.”

SIDE NOTE: When we were done looking at the busty, big-haired Playmates of the 80’s, we would do our neighborhood a humongous favor and hang all of the centerfolds from tree branches. Right near the street, so you couldn’t miss ‘em. Because we were GIVERS like that. GIVERS.

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3. Read and reread and reread Forever . . . by Judy Blume. If you are a girl who was born in the 70’s, or probably even the 80’s, you’ve read this book. When I was a kid, Forever . . . was one of the most censored books in America, and it was famous for its extremely graphic (and very informative) sexual content. Most parents knew it was completely inappropriate for middle schoolers, but there was always one clueless mom who would say “OH IT’S BY JUDY BLUME IT’S FINE” and buy a copy for her daughter without taking a closer look.

And for that one clueless mom, we were thankful.

There was one—and I mean ONE—incredibly dog-eared copy of Forever . . . that circulated around my junior high school, and the pages with the sex scenes were worn so thin they felt like used Kleenex. The binding was cracked too, and when you opened the book it would flop right open to the part where the two teenage protagonists are just straight up doin’ it on the living room carpet.

Eventually the book got confiscated and girls throughout my school sighed a collective “Awwww” of disappointment, but we never forgot what we read. In particular, we never forgot that one of the main characters nicknamed his penis “Ralph.”

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The actual cover of the edition that made its way around my middle school. I’m not sure what a locket has to do with two teenagers fucking their way through their senior year of high school, but whatevs.

Sex education is a whole different ball game these days, and as an uptight Catholic American, I’ll admit I’m not looking forward to having to answer certain questions from my son. Still, I will answer them. Honestly, thoughtfully, and with love. Because anything is better than growing up thinking it was totally normal to hang spooge-stained centerfolds off of tree branches, or that it was common practice to name one’s genitals “Ralph.”

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Photo credits:
“Scrambled cable”: A scrambled version of the 1993 Paramount Pictures logo; Fair use; File: Scrambled cable channel.jpg; Uploaded by Saltine; Uploaded: 29 October 2009 — Modified
“Boy and girl”: Русский: Юноша ухаживает за девушкой; English: A young man courting a girl; Date 18 January 2014; Source http://500px.com/photo/58109660; Author Iulia Pironea; Licensing: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. — Modified
“Judy Blume – Forever . . .“: Vintage 1975 cover of Judy Blume’s novel Forever . . .