“It’s Not Really Like That” or How We Talk To Girls About Sex - A Guest Post from

 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.

“Molly?”

Oh, it was like my heart dropped to the center of the earth.

“Yeah, Dad.”

“You know what your mom found in your room? You know it’s not really like that.”

“Yeah, Dad.”

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.

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  1. 1
    kkw says:

    I’d say I got more misinformation from other kids than from any printed source (possibly excepting Piers Anthony). And so much of it boiled down to “it’s not really like that.” People tend to believe that their own experience is universal, or at least indicative of what other people can expect.
    Some sexually naive and uncommunicative women have had fabulous sexual experiences from the get go, and some women look like pornstars naturally, and so on. Whatever strikes one reader as impossible is likely to ring true for someone else (maybe excepting Piers Anthony again).
    Fantasy has no obligation to be realistic, and didactic art is an abomination to me. Delusions about what to expect sexually are like any other attempt to predict or control the future. I don’t know how to produce realistic expectations about something that is so unpredictable and intensely personal, but lots and lots of information seems like a start.

  2. 2
    astrakhan says:

    I actually have a question for you, Molly, and I’m trying to write it in a way that doesn’t sound judgmental of your family (since I’m sure they’re great people). Do you think they put as much effort into teaching your brother about sex? I definitely think there’s a double standard (again, in general).

    I’m personally not a romance novel reader (I’m mostly here for the snark) but I think the male equivalents are pulp adventure novels with just enough sex to keep you reading. There’s always some gratuitous sex scene in the Dirk Pitt novels, for instance; even my favorite one, “Dragon”, takes some time out to talk about the love interest’s ginormous boobs and I don’t think Dirk even sleeps with her. Those were all books that I got from my dad.

    Some of the reviews of historical romances remind me of Wilbur Smith’s books, just with a whole lot more violence; many contain some extreme WTF-ery both on the violence and sex fronts. There was one set in the “modern day” (read: 1980s) that spent way too much time talking about how a toddler’s butt looked like a pair of grenades. I think it made sense in context.

  3. 3
    astrakhan says:

    Oh God, I just re-read my comment and I realize I sound like one of those Men’s Rights Activists on Tumblr. I’m really sorry if my comment came across that way.

  4. 4
    Rei Scar says:

    I had sex ed in school when I was about eleven. I vividly remember the line in my biology textbook about the actual sex act: “The penis can now slip into the vagina. Moving it backwards and forwards gives the man and woman feelings of pleasure.” Sexy.

    My *actual* sex education was a weird mixture of books, the Internet and, um, thinking about it a lot. I do not recommend fanfiction as a good sex education resource, but with female homo- or bisexuality Not Talked About in sex ed it was pretty much the only place a young queer teenager could look (and realistic girl-on-girl sexuality is still, in my reading experience, pretty thin on the ground in the romance world).

    I don’t think it’s necessarily the job of fiction or pornography to educate, but I do think that the state of media that talks about sex reflects the way a lot of people think about it, and that’s kind of what worries me when I read romance these days. I grab every single book I find with a mention of genuinely crap sex between the hero and heroine and it’s always because of some kind of emotional or psychological block, or it’s bad once and awesome ever after, which is disappointing. I suppose the fantasy here is that you experience ultimate pleasure in the arms of your true love, but I’d honestly appreciate some books in which that is more of an eventuality than a given, if that makes sense.

    If I have daughters, I will answer their questions as honestly as I can. I will tell them that consent and safety are the most important things in any sexual act, no matter who it’s with, and that as long as those things are there is no right or wrong way to give or receive pleasure. And that nobody gets to dictate how much or little sex they have, because sex isn’t bad or dirty but it’s also not essential and not everyone wants much or any of it, and that’s okay. And for what it’s worth, if I ever have sons, I’ll be teaching them the exact same thing.

    (P.S. I am DYING to read a book about a hero with a small dick. SOMEONE WRITE A HERO WITH A SMALL DICK. He can still be a womaniser! Maybe he gives great head!)

  5. 5

    astrakhan – I’m pretty sure my brother had less communication about sex than I did. At our high school (where my Dad was the teacher) Health and Sex Ed used to be taught to SENIORS! 17 year olds! When I came through years after my brother it was taught to Freshman – and that was still way too late.

    When do teachers start talking about sex ed now?

    I thought, reading that article again that I’m interested in whether other romance readers think that sex in romance if more idealistic now, or more realistic?

    And thanks Sarah!

  6. 6
    Anonymous III says:

    The first time I ever learned about a whole lot of things was when I found “To Trust A Stranger,” by Karen Robards, shoved behind the couch cushions of a vacation cabin.  I was thirteen.

    I’ve never watched porn.  Most of what I think I know about sex (and I don’t have any firsthand experience, even at the ripe age of 23) comes from romance novels and a few issues of Cosmopolitan.  But even I know “it’s not really like that.”  I read one eighties-era romance where the hero’s NINE INCH ERECTION was described as “respectable.”  (?!??!) 

    I started masturbating when I was around four or five.  When I was maybe ten, I tried to talk to my mom about it and find out if what I was doing was okay.  She said, “It’s better to wait until you’re married,” and that was all.  I did get a clinical, this-is-where-babies-come-from talk when I was six, but that was pretty much it.

    So what is it like?  I still haven’t figured it out yet.  I’ve got all manner of hang-ups about sex and men that, so far, have prevented me from ever being in a relationship.  I’m still addicted to masturbation despite years of trying to fight it.  At times my inability to control myself has filled me with self-loathing.  At the current phase of my life, I pretty much try not to think about it until I need to attend to the physical necessity, and then move on.  I don’t know if that’s okay or not.

    I’m definitely planning to talk to my kids more than my parents did.  That way, at least, even if I haven’t figured out the secrets of Sex, the Universe, and Everything, they can at least get something better than “it’s not really like that.”

     

  7. 7

    Tsk. If you’d grown up with four brothers, Molly, you’d know the best hiding place is between the mattress and the box spring. That way the reading material is [koff] close at hand when you need it.

    Anyway, my education about sex, like so many of the rest of you, was enhanced by dirty books and magazines. In an earlier generation we passed around Harold Robbins’ The Adventurers and Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell and Modesty Blaise books and Beeline Doubles (I think that was the name of the porn line). I recall snickering in a used bookstore when I was in college because they’d shelved Of Human Bondage in the S/M dirty book section.

    We survived. I did promise myself though that when I had children I would be willing to talk with them about anything related to sex, and I think I kept that promise with my sons. They still laugh about how I sent them off to summer camp as teens with a box of condoms each and the admonition, “Better you have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.”

  8. 8

    I learned a lot from romance novels in my teens – maybe they weren’t accurate, but it was still hugely important to me as I was living with parents who couldn’t stand each other and a father who was a misogynist, and romance novels taught me that some men like women, and that relationships can be caring and positive and not necessarily filled with hate. They gave me hope that there was something more, and they were right.

    I intend to teach my own daughter that sex is natural and normal and that it’s completely natural and normal to be interested in it and to want it. I think current romance novels have taken this stance more and more, and are slut shaming less and less (though we definitely need more of this. Virginity needs to stop being portrayed as a prize, and FFS please get rid of the heroes who can magically tell if a woman hasn’t had sex before).

    Anonymous – 23 isn’t a ripe old age. Take it from me :) Nor is there anything wrong with masturbating – there are plenty of psychologists who would argue that actually, orgasms are important and healthy. The sex life you have with yourself is just as important as the one you have with someone else, if not more so. Embrace it. x.

  9. 9

    Molly and Sarah, thanks for this lovely post. It’s a subject very dear to me. I’m both a romance writer and an Episcopal priest, and it falls to me at my day job to teach about sex to 11-14 year olds.  I’ve been doing it longer than I’ve been writing, and I’m pretty sure the teaching nudged me toward the writing.  Since most the kids parents don’t talk about it with them, I am the source of the information like “people have sex not just to make babies, but because it’s pleasurable, and a way to be close to each other.”  I get to drill into kids heads the importance of consent and to say aloud, “sex is not a sin” and talk about how silly, fun, serious, and risky it is—oh, and I left off holy.  I especially make the girls learn all the parts of their anatomy (I got rid of the materials that LEFT OFF the clitoris (yep—those are the ones I must have had in school). The great honor I feel to teach this subject surfaced for me my passion for realistic conversations about the physicality and the emotions involved in sex.

    My mom did talk to me about sex, but yes, I learned most of the emotional aspects from Romance Novels—Catherine Coulter for sure.  Her vikings did skew my own fantasies a bit!  But yes, I am DELIGHTED that romance has changed since the 90s, and adore the sexual boldness of the heroines we see now and so proud of the way our genre has embraced that with great writers like the ones you named. Also, I love that since I’ve left seminary, my primary place for discussing feminism is on Twitter with other romance writers!

  10. 10

    Anonymous III – I think I found my first Karen Robards on vacation too!! In a take one, leave one bookshelf in a motel out west.

    My husband and I made a decision to talk about sex when our kids started asking – I know we were unprepared for how early that would be. Now, I’m pretty sure my son is in the playground explaining to other kids what masturbation is.

    Thank you for sharing so candidly your experience – I am sure you are not alone and somehow we just don’t talk about it.  Thank you.

  11. 11
    Selena Blake says:

    I recently heard a story in the news about how high school aged kids honestly think that sex = doing it like they do in porn. Evidently there’s so much porn filling up their facebook feeds that these kids go about intimate relationships thinking that it’s all about wild (uncomfortable) positions, lots of moaning, spitting, and ugh, other things.

    I find that incredibly sad. I can’t even remember how old the kids they surveyed were but I’m sure it was between middle school and highschool seniors. In the UK, I want to say. I’m not saying that what they’re learning from the porn is wrong-wrong-wrong. I just think there needs to be something else to balance their learning and expectations.

    Maybe we just need to air drop all our favorite romance novels over the UK (or whereever). ;-)

  12. 12
    Lil' Deviant says:

    My mom gave me an illustrated cartoony book about sex.  That was it.  *ha* 

    With my girl….who is now a sophomore in collage…..I have talked sex at every opportunity.  Movies, stores, commercials, music if it has a sexual connotation we discuss it.  I have always tried to be very plan spoken about it.  Sex is everywhere.  Teen girls are so bombarded with sexual imagery they need to know they have choices. 

    I have also been plan spoken with her friends.  The planned parenthood is up this way next to the cici pizza.  You have questions you don’t want to ask your folks, talk to them. 

    We still talk about sex.  I just keep my fingers crossed that it has been enough to keep her healthy and safe and NO BABIES for a while.

  13. 13
    jimthered says:

    I don’t remember where I learned about sex—but Richard Thompson did a great job singing about the perils of *not* talking to kids about sex: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nw7d4pVKHyo

  14. 14
    Vicki says:

    My first “sex education” came from a friend explaining in detail to me (at 8 years old) what one of the elders at church did to her. I then went into my dad’s study (he was a doc) and started reading his books on gynecology. So I had mechanics early on. In high school, I found that my gynecologic knowledge, now supplemented by Harlequin, was in demand so I ended up being the sex counsellor for the girls in my dorm, even though I was still a virgin (not even kissed, at that point). I did force my mom to have “the talk” with me when I was 15 but all she added to my knowledge was that it was enjoyable when done with the right man (Harlequin told me that!). Weirdly, I was counseling girls about condoms with only the vaguest idea of how to put one on. The pill was also coming on the market then and I would talk to the girls about how it worked and what to tell which doctor in order to get the pills. (“My periods really hurt and make me bitchy” worked with certain docs whose names I got from overhearing my dad talk about them.)

  15. 15
    laj says:

    My grandfather’s bathroom was a treasure trove of sex. It was off limits, but I managed to get in there anyway. Mostly it was decorative items like the rhinestone encrusted toliet seat ashtray that had “rest your ash” inscribed on the seat or the beautiful Bettie Page like pin ups that were a marvel to a six yr old, but the stack of Playboys were hypnotic. The pictures blew my mind and I loved the comic strip Little Annie Fannie even though I had no idea what the joke was.

    My mother was very prudish….so my education was from older girls and books.

    I was lucky. My first boyfriend and I had a lot of fun in my closet of a dorm room learning about sex. That relationship was so important in my sexual growth as a woman. We read about sex, saw erotic foreign films and practiced A LOT! We broke-up after graduation, but both of us are stii married to the person who was the next relationship.

    Romance books came later for me. I was very critical of the genre in the 80s and 90s.

    I have boys. My husband is the go to guy for talk, but as my guys get older they are coming to me more and more with questions about female sexuality. It’s sometimes difficult, these are my babies and now they are young men are contemplating or having sex. My husband is very happy not to have a teenage daughter.

  16. 16
    redheadedgirl says:

    I’ve said it before, on the record, and I’ll say it again: Romance novels are why I ever tried sex a second time.  My first time was AWFUL (two virgins, unlubed condom), and I reasoned that it had to be better than THAT, or people wouldn’t write about it so much. 

    Also romance novels gave me a better idea of what sex could entail beyond the pure “insert tab A into slot B” mechanics.  While it’s not all like that, romance novels gave me a better view of what female sexuality is than anything else I’d gotten my hands on.

  17. 17
    SB Sarah says:

    @Molly: Thank you again for the article. I am with you – my sons are 6 and 8, and I was not prepared for my 8 yo to ask me about something his friend told him during recess (No, boys cannot have babies and babies cannot come out of a penis). There was great relief upon learning this. (I have no need to traumatize them with explanations of kidney stones.)

    It’s sometimes difficult to remain chill and relaxed when asked questions because I worry I’m going to say something wrong, but I want them to feel comfortable asking me or their father anything – and they’ll probably be the ones correcting the other kids at some point soon. I think giving them correct information is way more important than delaying their acquisition of that information in the first place. I figure they’re going to get info – and most of it is scary wrong.

    @Anonymous: you’re not doing anything wrong, and there’s nothing wrong with you. As Jane O’Reilly said above, “The sex life you have with yourself is just as important as the one you have with someone else, if not more so.”

  18. 18
    Sarina Bowen says:

    My sex ed came from Judy Blume. And from the Cosmo magazines my mother had. But although sex positive, they weren’t great. I still remember a headline… this had to be in the 1980s. “Is Female Orgasm Real?”  Seriously.

    Oh, and I learned a lot about birth control from Seventeen Mag.

  19. 19
    Wendy says:

    This post and resulting thread is great, interesting, funny and moving. Hurrah!

    When I was about eight, my younger sister became completely obsessed with the How Babies Are Made book that appeared in our house from gods only know where. It became all she wanted for bedtime story for longer than I cared to deal with. (This is when I started reading to myself, beginning a life-long love affair with reading long after I should have been asleep.) Anyway, I remember it being clinical and having vaguely disturbing paper-cut art illustrations (there was a dog sitting on his hindquarters proudly displaying his penis) and that love was mentioned in the context of the human sexual relationship.

    A couple years after that we had our first dose of sex ed at school and church (boys separated from girls), and I sort of understood that my parents’ marriage was messy because of something to do with sex. Thus, being ten and already a devotee of Artemis, I decided I was going to become a nun and never deal with any of it.
    At 12, one of my mother’s friends, who knew I was interested in prehistoric human archaeology, loaned me Clan of the Cave Bear. The rape scene jarred me, and had me hiding in my bed for a long time while my mother tried to puzzle out what was wrong. When she finally drew me out from under my blankets, we had a very cozy but intense conversation about sex being used as a tool of domination. I renewed my intention to stay away from sex.

    My mother and I never had a conversation about sex being a positive thing until I was an adult and we were both in good relationships. I suspect that my mother had not had a good sexual relationship until her current husband (who she married at 55).
    The only words I can ever recall having with my father about sex occurred when I moved in with my boyfriend at 21: “Are you sure you want to do this? There are obligations.” (Dad’s such a charmer. Really.)

    In high school, my friends and I spoke of sex in veiled terms. We had physical infatuations with famous people and understood more or less what our bodies were after. We just had bigger, academic fish to fry, so we didn’t give it much thought. That said, I was reading some fairly explicit fanfiction and learning a lot. I’m pretty sure some of those fic authors are solely responsible for my ability to have healthy outlook about sex. (And The Mists of Avalon. Pretty sure that one should be given a nod in this context, too.)

    Somehow, in spite of growing up in a very sex-negative (or at least sex-weighted) household, by the time I was in a relationship, I had a very good idea of what I would allow and what I wouldn’t. I got into a relationship (with the man I wound up marrying) because I was curious about sex and no one had ever shown interest before. I shrugged and went for it. My husband, who was from a small town where sex was one of the only options for recreation, was always very patient as I figured out my body and its likes and dislikes. He was also amused by my enthusiasm.
    I hope if we wind up with children, we can be open about sex with them. I’d be happy if our kid was the one explaining masturbation on the playground.

  20. 20
    Lostshadows says:

    I got lucky and found a pretty good book in the ya section of a book store. It gave pretty good facts about sex and birth control. No clue what the title was.

    My only conversation about sex I remember having with my parents was about some AIDS prevention pamphlet, and the only thing I remember about it, was them asking if I knew what oral sex was and taking my “yes” at face value. (Turns out its not the same thing as French kissing. Who knew? ;) )

  21. 21
    Jessi Gage says:

    I’m going to attempt an answer to Molly’s question in the comments: is sex in romance more idealistic now or more realistic?

    I never read romance until about 5 years ago, and most of what I read is current (written in the last 10 years). I keep meaning to try one of those 80’s or 90’s bodice rippers, but there’s just so much awesome literature out there written by women with fresh, current voices. Molly listed some of my absolute favorites (Ruthie Knox, Cara McKenna, Molly herself, Serena Bell). I’d add Charlotte Stein, Penny Watson, and Penny Reid.

    I can’t compare to what’s come before, but I can speak to the question: Is sex in romance idealistic or realistic? I think it’s both.

    Romance novels aren’t written to teach, like Molly said in her awesome article. But they DO teach. It’s not their purpose, but it’s a byproduct. To me, it’s a VERY important byproduct.

    I’m one of those women who grew up believing sex was dirty, sinful, and wrong so save it for the one you marry. Is it any wonder both my husband and I ended up in tears on our wedding night?

    At that time, I had never read a romance novel. But like Molly, I was parched for information as a teenager. I sought out information about sex wherever I could, and one place information was readily available was late-night Cinemax and HBO. Sadly, I got most of my pre-marital sexual education from porn and my own porn-driven fantasies. This probably explains why I was disappointed in the reality of my inexperienced, excited, and super cautious husband who didn’t have an alpha bone in his body when it came to doing this new, intimate, somewhat scary thing.

    No woman (mother, mentor, friend) spoke into my life about what to expect after I got married. This is inexcusable. And it’s an epidemic that could be addressed in an entire blog post all itself, the disservice the religion-driven abstinence movement does to young women on their way to the altar. (I’m not bashing religion, I love Jesus! I’m just bashing the way certain denominations propagate a black-hole of information about sex, leaving women to fend for themselves when it’s time to figure it all out).

    The point I want to make here is that if I’d read some romance novels before getting married, I would have known so much more about what to expect. I would have been less surprised when things didn’t go perfectly. I might have even laughed with my husband rather than cried. I might have been able to put my own disappointments aside temporarily and help my husband with his insecurities and disappointments.

    Romance novels that contain explicit sex are educational about the sex, yes, but they’re also educational about the emotion and ups and downs. They celebrate overcoming challenges or communication, challenges of personality difference, challenges coming from external sources, and challenges rising from one’s own heart.

    If I’d read romance novels before getting married, I would have had a much more varied, realistic set of “normal” couples whose experiences I could draw from. All I had was my parents, whom I’d been pretty sure had never actually had sex before (I must have been created in a petri dish), and my pastors and deacons and their wives, whom I rarely saw cuddle or kiss and could similarly not imagine getting naked and horizontal).

    Point: romance novels present variety. And through variety and quantity, a woman can begin to construct a concept of “relationship” that may be more realistic than the real-life samples she’s exposed to.

    Romance novels are also idealistic to a certain extent. I mean, we read them to be entertained, and what’s more entertaining than idealized love, sex, and relationship? But if we engage our brains when we read, we can pick and choose which lessons to take away.

    I do worry that some young woman as parched for information as I used to be might not have the life experience to be able to separate truth from fiction when reading romance. She MIGHT think that the first man who takes her to bed, who might just be an inexperienced virgin, will be all the things a romance hero is. She might be expecting an idealized sex god when in reality, she’ll get a man who loves her deeply but doesn’t know her clit from her navel.

    This is why women need to TALK to each other about sex, love, and romance. No one source of media (and no combination of sources) takes the place of loving mentorship.

  22. 22

    AMAZING comments! Amazing.

    I walk my kids home from school and I was getting peppered with sex questions on the walk home along busy streets and I would answer to a point and then say “We’ll talk about this at home.” Well, by the time we got home they had moved on and I was relieved and it didn’t come up again until the NEXT walk home.  One morning the questions came up and my husband just did it. He just did the whole conversation. And he was frankly brilliant at it. So good I think I will rent him out like a clown for sex ed talks.

    I will say my parents were fonts of information for my friends – not about sex but about our bodies. I remember vividly my mother explaining the menstrual cycle to my friends and urinary tract infections to girls who couldn’t ask their own moms.

    Judy Blume was another book passed around – Tiger Eyes, right?

  23. 23
    Fiona McGier says:

    I was caught by my Mom masturbating when I was about 3.  As I grew up, Mom told me that sex with a man would be “even better.”  The first real romance novel I read was The Sheik, by E.M.Hull, and I she left me her old copy, pages falling apart, but still readable. (which is why I was so incensed that an author recently “rewrote” it to have erotic scenes.  Is nothing sacred anymore?)

    When I was in high school I got tired of not being “in on” the fun, so I chose a likely candidate and didn’t “lose” my virginity as much as gave it away, so I could start enjoying myself with a partner.  Which is funny since he was a virgin too, so there wasn’t any enjoyment in the act for me, and I wondered if Mom had been lying to me.  It took until I was in college and “hooking up” regularly, before I actually experienced orgasms with men that were better than what I could do myself.  They took longer also, which made things even better.

    I married my husband of 30 years because he was the best in bed I’d ever experienced.  He said the same thing about me.  When our 3 boys and 1 girl got older, I talked about sex whenever I got the chance to work it into the conversation.  The boys learned that “when Winky comes out to play he always needs a raincoat”, and my daughter learned that self-respect goes a long way in not becoming abused by any man…not that she has any trouble with that, since riding herd over her 3 older brothers comes naturally for her.

    Children learn what they see.  Husband and I have always expressed our affection and passion for each other.  As the kids got older, they’d roll their eyes at each other and tell us to “get a room”.  We’d point out we have an entire house and we’re just waiting for all of them to move out so we can resume sleeping naked and “doing it” on the kitchen table.  Which led to more eye rolls.

    I write erotic romance about real people, women and men who fall in love with each other because the hot sex that they have initially convinces them they belong together…and in my books, it’s usually the man who realizes that, and has to convince the woman.  And yes, I’ve written about men with average-sized cocks who are told by the heroine that, “It’s not the size of the wand, but the skill of the magician that matters.”  Also, women are proportional “down-there” as men are, so a very tall, well-endowed man can be painful for a short woman. (don’t ask how I know.)

    I don’t write about virgins because I’m not interested in the first time.  I barely remember mine, and it wasn’t anything to write home to Mom about.  So my heroines are experienced and usually in their 30s or older.  My current WIP has both heroine and hero in their 50s.  Sex levels vary with the story, since I allow the characters to “tell me” how much sex is involved in their courtship. 

    We are bombarded by sexual imagery, but real knowledge is lacking.  Romance novels can give as skewed of a view as porn…Joseph Gordon Levitt’s recent movie, Don Jon, is about that theme.  I’m waiting for it to come out on video.  I’m not into pain with my pleasure, nor can I imagine men being willing to “share” a female, since my own boys couldn’t ever even share toys without hurting each other. Men and women still live on opposite sides of a chasm.  Only through reaching out to each other honestly, can we make relationships work.

  24. 24
    Rosa E. says:

    I honestly don’t remember ever getting any version of “the talk.” My parents have some pretty diverse interests, so in addition to fiction our bookcases were filled with textbooks, art books, histories, and academic publications of all kinds. Between the Renaissance paintings of naked people and my older sister’s biology textbook, I sort of figured it out on my own.

    I remember the first romance novel I read, though: “The Barbarian Princess.” Talk about a learning experience!

  25. 25
    Anonymous III says:

    Thanks to everyone who replied . . . can’t believe I didn’t think to mention this before, but a HUGE thanks goes to SBTB and all the posters on here who aren’t afraid to talk about these things honestly.  It’s fun, educational, and way more healthy (I think) than trying to figure this stuff out on my own.  There was a thread some time ago where people shared the stories of their first time and how it did or didn’t compare to the earth-shattering screamgasms felt by the innocent virgin heroines of romance.  Most educational thing I’ve ever found about what it’s actually like – namely, different for everyone!

    Another thing I remember finally learning from that Karen Robards book was how erections worked.  I puzzled over the mechanics of sex for years before that.  (“So the penis hangs down, but the vagina goes up . . . How do they . . ?  Do they have to go head to toe?”)  The reality was far less bizarre than my wild uneducated guesses!

  26. 26
    Julie Brannagh says:

    My parents didn’t talk with me about sex, either. My knowledge of sex and sexuality was gleaned from other kids, books, and magazines. Like Jessi, I was told that sex was evil, dirty, and sinful. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was extremely enjoyable. (Snaps to Mr. Brannagh.)

    I started reading romance about ten years ago. The flowery, euphemism-filled, and over the top descriptions of sexuality in some romance novels can be pretty comical. At the same time, I have to thank those authors for their positive portrayal of an adult relationship. Sex scenes are such a small part of most mainstream romance—as little as ten pages in a 100,000 word manuscript, for instance. The rest of the book shows the emotional growth of that relationship, and sets an example I hope the reader sees.

    All women deserve a loving and mutually supportive relationship, and joyful, uninhibited, pleasure-filled sex is part of that. The authors of romance novels today show heroines can ask for what they want or need in the bedroom (and every other room of the house).

    I also enjoy reading sex scenes that don’t go perfectly. People do stuff like fall out of bed and hit the headboard in real life. Why shouldn’t we show this?

    And yes, all my heroes use condoms.

  27. 27
    Sarah says:

    I’m 100% certain that when I was a tween/teen all of the useful knowledge I had about sex came from Sassy Magazine’s sex column (this will definitely date me).

    It was full of extremely useful information, like how things actually worked in terms of what fits in what (why don’t they explain that in sex ed?), the usual contraception/disease prevention stuff, things about boundaries (like, “If I have sex once, do I have to keep having sex?” sorts of questions and how to talk about these things), fantasies, masturbation, etc. It was all very sex- and girl-positive and I swear, without it I would have been very confused. Since I grew up in a small, rather conservative rural community, a lot of my friends weren’t allowed anything as edgy as Sassy, so my copies were circulated pretty widely—and was far more informative than the sex ed we got in school, which was basically, “If you have sex, there’s a very big chance you’ll DIE!” and my mom’s attempts at being the frank, open mom that just made me uncomfortable (sorry, Mom).

    I do remember my one experience with romance novels back then was a historical that was passed around and there’s a horrible “deflowering” (I’m certain that word was used) in which the couple was riding in a carriage and it was bumping and she bumped onto his lap and then they kind of accidentally had sex. That wasn’t traumatizing for a 12 year old reader at all. I didn’t read another romance (except Nora Roberts) until I was probably 30.

  28. 28
    Kati says:

    My sex ed started coming from books being passed around in seventh grade. I remember vividly a copy of Lace by Shirley Conran being passed around my French class. There’s a scene in that book where a man puts…wait for it…a goldfish up a woman’s vagina. The wiggling stimulates her orgasm. Well. You can imagine the horror and fascination.

    I then began stealing my sister’s Judith Krantz books. I remember Princess Daisy making me all tingly. But it was my sister, who was training to become an RN, who gave me the sex talk. She sat down and VERY clinically told me the facts of life. I’m surprised there weren’t charts and graphs. But she was also the one I went to in high school when I decided at a ridiculously young age to have sex. And she facilitated my seeing a doctor and talking to him. She’s beyond awesome. My sex talk from my parents came from my dad. Who informed me that he and my mother were both virgins on their wedding night (he was 21, she was 19, it was 1957), and they did NOT approve of sex before marriage. That’s it. The sum total of their sex talk with me.

    I started avidly reading romance at 12 and remember telling my best friend at around that age that the KEY to losing your virginity was once he put it in you, he had to be still until your body could adjust. You know, because that’s how they did it in Johanna Lindsey novels.

    One of my favorite programs on television was Friday Night Lights. The episode that sticks out to me was called “The Giving Tree”. In it, the main character (a football coach in high school) finds out that his teenage daughter is sleeping with her boyfriend. His wife has this incredibly poignant conversation with their daughter.  One that I honestly believe every mother with a young-ish teenage daughter should have. It was just so beautifully handled.

  29. 29

    KATI – THAT TALK!! THAT EPISODE!!! It was totally on my mind while writing Wild Child (there’s an awkward sex conversation between a girl without a mom and a woman who isn’t sure she’s the right person to be having the conversation)

    - if you haven’t seen the show or have forgotten how awesome that episode was – here is a recap:

    http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2009/03/27/on-friday-night-lights-tv-sex-talk-done-right/

  30. 30
    Dread Pirate Rachel says:

    kkw said

    I’d say I got more misinformation from other kids than from any printed source (possibly excepting Piers Anthony).

    Ha! Piers Anthony! I started reading him when I was so young I didn’t even realize the books had sexual content. Man, was I surprised when I reread them as a teen.

    My parents never had the talk with me. My initial education was sort of, “All Wikipedia, all the time.” I didn’t even know bisexuality was a thing until I fell in love with my (female) best friend. Damn, that was confusing. How I went from being the sheltered, naive daughter of missionaries to my current state of whoredom, I will never know. I’m glad I did, though. Slutting it up is underrated.

    Rei Scar said

    realistic girl-on-girl sexuality is still, in my reading experience, pretty thin on the ground in the romance world

    Agreed. So, so thin. Le sigh. I have this sinking feeling that if I want more realistic portrayals of female bisexuality in romance, I might have to do it myself. A lot of what’s out there is pretty insulting.

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