Molly O'Keefe prevously wrote about her love of Bruce Springsteen, and is back with a discussion of how she – and we – learn about sex.
I never had a discussion with my parents about sex. Or even a vague and confusing birds and the bees conversation. Which is odd considering my dad was a high school health teacher and my mom was a nurse. Instead what I got was a musical montage of pornography, sexual health pamphlets and romance novels.
Growing up, my brother’s room was the cave of wonders and at every opportunity I was in there breaking stuff, eating secret stashes of candy and pop tarts and reading notes from his girlfriends. At some point my parents allowed him to put a lock on his door to keep me out. As you can imagine – this only made me rabid.
The second my brother left for college I was in his room.
I was eating his Swedish fish and going through his bookshelf when I found them: a stack of dirty magazines. I still vividly remember the full body pins and needles I felt looking at those Hustlers and Penthouses.
This was big. This was bad. This was AWESOME.
I was twelve.
Immediately I called all my friends to my house to see this and for a few months I was the most popular kid in the seventh grade. So much so, I had to move the magazines, one at a time, smuggled under my Strawberry Shortcake nightgown from my brother’s room to my own pig sty of a room. Just after Halloween my mother – tired of the slovenly mess I called home – began to clean my room. Starting under my bed where I kept the magazines.
I got called out of typing class to the office where my mother was on the phone. She asked me (in a terrifyingly calm voice considering, she’d found Spankalicious under her 12 year old daughter’s bed), where I’d gotten the magazines and instead of ratting out my brother (noble of me, I think) I ratted out one of the boys from my class. To this day I don't know what mom did with that information.
That night Mom worked so Dad and I ate dinner in front of the TV in the kind of silence that rightfully should have smothered me. Right after dinner I went to bed only to realize the Choose Your Own Adventure book I was reading needed the dice from the game that was in the TV room with my Dad. I knew if I went there was a good chance he’d say something about the magazines, but I REALLY wanted to read that book.
Any good book addict knows how this played out.
Dad didn’t look up from whatever game was on the TV and I had the game box in my hand and was halfway into the kitchen, thinking I was totally home free when Dad spoke.
Oh, it was like my heart dropped to the center of the earth.
“You know what your mom found in your room? You know it’s not really like that.”
And that was it. There was no further discussion about the magazines. Or sex. Or what Dad meant by sex not being like that.
However, my father began leaving all kinds of pamphlets and books about sex and disease and birth control around the house during every slumber party. And my friends and I got a fairly thorough education.
A year later I began reading romance novels (thank you The Thorn Birds) and mom took me aside, while I was devouring every word Elizabeth Lowell ever wrote, and told me “You know, Molly. It’s not really like that.”
To which I responded, “Yeah, Mom.”
Obviously I had no idea. Was she talking about marriage? Relationships? Men? Gold mining? Sex?
The sexual messages I got from the pornography and the romance novels totally cancelled each other out. Romance told me that inexperience and naiveté about my body and sex was valued. Trust my partner to understand my body better than I did and pleasure would just kind of happen. Magically. Delivered in waves by manhoods.
I had no frame of reference for the pornography, but experience seemed like the prize. The more the better. And it was explicit – nothing vague about Hustler. But those bodies? Is that how I was supposed to look? Was that sexy? No one I knew looked like that – were we all lacking?
The middle ground between the porn and the romance was information, so thank God for the health pamphlets.
I would imagine there are a lot of women who learned about sex through the colorful euphemisms of the romance novels from the late 80’s early 90’s. Just like there are plenty of boys who learned about sex through their father’s stash of Playboys.
I’m over-generalizing obviously, but if boys learn about sex through pornography and women learn through romance novels is there any wonder sex at the beginning is so confusing? That we’ve got our expectations and politics so skewed? We’re not learning or valuing the same things. And it feels like far too often girls are taught to value emotion more than information, which we all know can be manufactured and faked and has the potential to make women victims.
Information is not the same as experience. And arming girls with information is not the same as sending them naked into the streets. Information protects. Information can create valuable experience, healthy experience. Girls need all the information they can get.
For a moment I thought all of this was moot in the internet age – because anyone with an internet connection can find out plenty about sex but with recent legislature in some states sending women's sexual health back to the middle ages – I think it might be more important than ever. And since a cell phone picture can go viral in an hour sex and the internet has become a whole new realm of confusion and potential victimization.
Romancelandia is the one place I know (besides a good mom's group, but that's a different discussion) where sex from the fantastical to the realistic, from the extraordinary to the awful is talked about. And celebrated.
Now, I know it's not romance's mandate to inform or educate. Neither is it pornography's. But that it's a by-product we can't really deny.
And frankly, I am totally heartened by the fact that if a girl is learning about sex through romance novels being published right now she’s getting a more powerful message about her body. About the dangers of sexual naiveté. About how pleasure isn’t sinful and it doesn't arrive without direction.
I remember with almost the same pins and needles sensation as finding the magazines, discovering – as an adult – Robin Schone. For me, Schone's erotic historicals were the first romance novels I'd read that had heroines taking their limited sexual experience and naiveté in hand and searching out an education. This was the first I'd read about female masturbation, about women having a period (except for some very vague Jennifer Blake novel when I was much younger). There were detailed conversations about sex and sex organs which, in direct contrast to the Judith McNaught historicals I'd been reading – were mind-blowing.
For me, Schone kicked open a door and more authors are trickling through, bringing realism to their sex. Ruthie Knox (Ride With Me) and Courtney Milan (The Duchess War) have written memorable female masturbations scenes. Anne Calhoun's latest (Uncommon Passion) features a heroine on a fact-finding mission about sex and pleasure and the three Cara McKenna books I've read (Willing Victim, After Hours and Unbound) feature characters that talk and make decisions about sex and kink and pushing personal boundaries in a way that I found astonishingly equal and informed. Romance novels increasingly depict healthy sexual relationships as part of a woman's full and happy life, which, when you think about it, is no small miracle.
So, what about you? Did Catherine Coulter teach you about sex? Did you find your brother’s dirty magazines? And if you have daughters how do you plan on talking to them?
Molly O'Keefe is the RITA® award-winning author of more than twenty-five romance. Stay tuned shortly for a giveaway of her newest book, The Wild Child.