My mother gave me the sex talk in fourth grade, only after my public-school teacher had shown the class an educational video on the topic, to my evangelical parents’ horror. So, to correct my public school’s overreach, my mother planned an excursion for her and me: she would perform her due diligence as a good evangelical mother and give me the sex talk. Or at least she would pop in a Christian audiobook about sex into the tape player while I sat next to her.
We drove north from our home in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania to Lancaster, toward a Comfort Inn with a duck pond out front. Later that day, we had planned to meet up with my aunt and favorite cousin Carrie, with whom I liked to play MASH (Mansion Apartment Shack House) to plan our future lives, when Jonathan Taylor Thomas would propose to both of us, and to sketch out our latest plan to “Save the Whales” in her Lisa Frank notebooks.
But before the fun began, my mother checked us into the hotel and we wheeled our suitcases through the carpeted hallways, entering our room with a swipe. I sat on the foot of the bed as my mother drew the curtains then fumbled with a tape deck she had brought from home. I stretched after the long drive, raising my arms over my head. My small breasts lifted beneath my Old Navy t-shirt and my unshaven legs tipped me backward onto the bed, where I sighed contentedly: I was still a child, but today, that would change.
My mother inserted the tape into the machine, clicked “play,” and the film whirred. A saxophone blared beneath a man’s voice: “Puberty is a special and exciting time,” the man on the tape said. She sat back against the headboard, chuckling awkwardly, glancing at me to see how I would react to the word “puberty.” I sat up on the edge of the queen bed, suddenly fidgety, and felt myself blush. I studied the pattern of mauve, teal and burgundy triangles on the comforter, determinedly not meeting my mother’s gaze. A foot of faded comforter now separated us, and my insides squirmed.
“Girls go through many changes,” the narrator’s midwestern voice droned. “Menstruation, for example, is a miraculous and exciting time when a woman’s body prepares for pregnancy.” I sighed, wondering if I had to endure this recording just because my period had sort of barely started already—just a few drops of blood, and not even every month. Or maybe the reason was my trip with my grandmother to the department store to buy my first sports bra, for which I had been mercilessly teased by my public-school classmates when they noticed the straps peeking out from beneath my t-shirt.
Either way, I found myself wishing I had never mentioned my changes to my mother, and I especially wished I had never mentioned the VHS my class had watched together, detailing the reproductive process (not that I’d actually paid attention—instead, I had stared at my desk, mortified, vowing to immediately and permanently block the footage from my memory).
The man on the tape continued: “In pregnancy, a baby grows in a special pouch inside a woman’s body and exits from a special opening at birth. Pregnancy is the most amazing thing that ever can happen to a woman!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I considered my mother, back against the headboard, noting her frizzy hair, a shade lighter than her natural color; her pink lipstick and polished nails; her curved hips; her rounded thighs and calves; her bra straps peeking out of the wide collar of her blouse. To me, she was womanhood—or at least the grown-up woman I knew best. I wondered, was I really the most amazing thing that had ever happened to my mother? My mother stared hard at the carpet, now avoiding my eyes as diligently as I’d avoided hers.
The man on the audiobook droned on: “You may notice that your breasts grow; this is normal. You may notice other changes as well. Boys will begin to show interest in your body, but you will only be attracted to their personalities. One day, you may want to have sex. When a man and a woman have sex, the man’s penis becomes hard and straight, the man and woman lie naked together, and the penis goes inside the vagina. Then the man and woman move rapidly until they get a tingly sensation.”
I focused intensely on one swirl in the carpet—perhaps the same one my mom had picked—and I found myself imaging the ducks outside in the pond that we’d passed on the way in, paddling in circles, pecking the dirt, jumping onto each other’s backs, spastically trembling, honking in pleasure…
The man continued. “However, sex is dangerous outside of marriage. Getting an STD could be a death sentence. Those who have premarital sex may experience personality changes, becoming cold, bitter, and miserable. And if you’ve had sex even once outside of marriage, you may never enjoy sex again. But you won’t have to worry about that as long as you and your partner both have never had sex.”
My eyes widened as the audio book continued, blind to the tone of the room: “You will likely experience sexual thoughts as you go through adolescence, and you may feel guilt or shame about this.” Now my face burned. I wondered if the man on the tape read my thoughts. I had only ever had a crush on a boy once before, and that was because he often played “house” with a friend and I on the playground. I had never even seen a penis, had never masturbated, never even imagined sex before now; yet, I felt the uncomfortable curiosity of adolescence creeping in. I would not kiss a man until my husband and I would not even learn my own anatomy until my wedding night. Still, the cloud of guilt would follow me into dating, into Kissing Dating Goodbye, into purity rings, father-daughter dances, youth group meetings, college, and afterward. Whenever I felt drawn toward a man, my body warm and eager to be touched, the shame followed, reminding me that to give in to desire would make me damaged goods.
In the moment of the audio book, however, I endured—silent, fidgeting, guilty without knowing why or how, my mother’s silence loud. She never did add her own words to those of the man on the tape. But that afternoon, both still blushing, she and I left behind the audio book, the ducks in heat, the swirling carpet of our hotel room, and we met my aunt and cousin at Hershey Park, where we gorged on chocolate.