DAD, SEX ED, AND ME
If “sex” was mentioned when I was a little boy, I don’t remember it. I do remember grown-ups talking about birds and bees or saying someone had “a bun in the oven.” The tone of their voices meant they were using code because children were nearby, which made me really want to know what they were talking about.
I was eight years old when I first encountered sexual activity. Croaking noises were coming from a drainage ditch near our house, so I checked it out. I found lots of smaller frogs on the backs of bigger frogs, a kind of froggy piggyback. What was happening? I took a pair home to show Mom—she always had an answer.
“Look what I found,” I said, opening my cupped hands.
She frowned. “Take them back to where they came from.”
“They’re just playing, ain’t they?”
“Don’t say ain’t. You put them back where you found them like I told you.”
“And wash your hands with soap and hot water. The Old Folk say if a frog pees on your hands, you’ll get warts. I don’t know if that’s true, but you best come right back to this kitchen with clean hands.”
Mom was not ready to talk about the sex lives of frogs. In fact, she would never be prepared to talk about sex, frogs, or otherwise. Dad and Mom were typical Fundamentalists; they feared that the more their children knew about their sexual selves, the more they would want to experiment. So, they avoided the subject.
Ignorance about sex did not keep my hormones in check. By the time I was in fifth grade, they were not only awake but beginning to reveal themselves at odd moments.
I had a crush on my teacher, Miss Compton. She had pale red hair and a dusting of freckles on her face. I thought she was pretty, even though she was old, not old-old like my mom, but old, like in her middle twenties. One day she dropped a pencil as she walked down my row, and when she stooped to pick it up, I saw the lacy top of her boob holder. I went hot and cold at the same time and couldn’t concentrate the rest of the afternoon.
When I was in middle school, Dad skipped the preliminaries when he decided I needed to know about a man’s responsibilities to his women. The night before The Talk, Mom, Dad, and I watched a television show set in the late 1800s. A scary-looking man stopped a young woman riding alone in a horse-drawn buggy. After a commercial, she staggered out of a barn, her face dirty and her clothes disheveled. The next day, I was reading on the living room sofa when Dad came in and cleared his throat several times.
“Mike,” he said, “there’s something I, ahem, I want to talk to you about.”
I sat up. “Yes, sir.”
“You, ahem, you, um, you know what happened to that, um, woman in the TV show last night?”
“Yeah. Some guy beat her up.”
“That’s not everything. Do you know what rape is?”
“Well, if anyone does that to your mother or sisters, I’ll kill them. And if for any reason I can’t, you kill them. Understand?” With his face red and his fists raised, he looked a little scary.
“I will,” I said, thinking I should find out what rape was before I killed someone for doing it.
“Okay. You go on reading your book, but don’t forget the grass needs mowing.”
Fortunately, I knew how to use a dictionary. I looked up “rape.” I was curious about “intercourse,” then “sexual coupling,” then “coitus,” then “rape.” It was a circle of words, a snake eating its tail.
Meanwhile, puberty kept my life interesting. My male organ had a mind of its own in school. I never knew what would trigger a sudden inflation: the crackle of a crinoline petticoat, a whiff of perfume, or just feeling drowsy during a boring lesson. Whatever the cause, it frequently happened just as the bell rang.
Sex Talk Number Two happened, sort of, when I was fourteen. We were in the car with Mom and my twelve-year-old sister, Sophie. Mom was a good driver, but Dad wanted to drive and insisted I go with them. I preferred to stay home, but when Dad said we all would go, we did.
I overheard Sophie telling Mom she needed Kotex and Midol, so I knew she was having her period. I was not exactly sure why girls had “visits from Grandma,” but interpreting the talk in the boys’ locker room, I guessed it had something to do with being fruitful (as the King James Bible put it).
Sophie and Mom got out of the car in front of the store. Dad, having an aversion to paying for parking, began our journey around and around the block. I was wondering why I had to come when he glanced into the rearview mirror and cleared his throat.
Suddenly I knew why I was there. “Yessir.”
“You, um, you know what your mom and sister are buying?”
“Yessir. Kotex and Midol. Sophie is having her period, and she always has cramps.”
“Okay. Good. You know about that. I was thinking of taking us to Elmer’s Family Restaurant for supper. Sound good?”
When I was a junior in high school, it seemed like most of the guys had girlfriends. I wanted to be one of the lucky ones, but a girlfriend meant dating, and for me, that meant coming up with places to go and things to do that were acceptable to God (meaning Dad) and whomever the girl might be. I was not allowed to dance or attend parties where dancing might happen. Movies were forbidden because (according to Dad) everyone knew what went on in the flickering darkness of the theater.
Church and church-related activities were the center of my parents’ lives, and they insisted their offspring share their commitment. This meant I could not participate in events that would cause me to miss church on Sunday (morning and evening for Southern Baptists), Wednesday (Prayer Meeting), or the yearly weeklong revivals (Southern Baptists needed to be revived often). Although I never felt snubbed by anyone during my high school years, I felt as if there was an invisible fence surrounding me, causing me to miss out on the fun my classmates were having.
I was delighted when a cute little blonde named Jenny drifted into the picture, and she was willing to go to church with me. Other than church, places to go on dates were limited, so it did not take long before we were steaming up the windows of Dad’s car in the darkest corner of the parking lot of the local doughnut shop. I was learning some of the wonders of the female body while discovering the boundaries of my self-control.
Pregnancy was a big concern. This was the era when pregnant girls from good families were sent away until the baby was born. Decades later, women told their stories of being forced to give up their babies to adoption before being allowed to return home. We heard rumors about this from our high school friends. We didn’t talk about intercourse (what teenagers did?), but we had heard about other girls getting pregnant after “just one time.”
I would prefer to write that my teenage motto was: No Protection-No Sex, but my thinking was not that well-defined. Two ideas wiggled around in my youthful psyche, both based on fear: screwing up our futures with pregnancy, and an angry God making my dick fall off. Although my belief in God was fading, Pascal’s wager made sense to me. The protection issue was a big problem.
In the 1960s, the Pill was only available for married women in a handful of states. Not until 1972 would the Supreme Court rule that contraceptives should be available to all women, married or unmarried, in every state. Protection was up to me, and that was a stumbling block.
Mom and Dad drilled it into me that everything I said or did reflected on Dad’s ministry. My sisters got a pass if they screwed up, but I, being the son, represented my father. People took the adage “Like father, like son” seriously. Buying condoms meant that I was expecting (or hoping) to have sex, which was a sin. Even worse, it could lead to eternal damnation, not for me (“Once saved, always saved!”), but for a bunch of unlucky schmucks who would not hear Dad’s message. Why would my having sex lead to eternal damnation for anyone? Bear with me—this will take a bit of explaining.
In those days, drugstores sold condoms but kept them hidden behind the pharmacy counter so gentle people would not be offended. This ensured that I would have to ask for them loudly enough so anyone within three hundred feet would hear. With my luck, “anyone” would be a member of Dad’s church, maybe even a deacon, or worse, his wife. Boom! That would be the sound of Dad’s reputation disappearing, followed by his ministry, all because I was planning to have sex. He would lose his meager income; we would be evicted from the parsonage and forced to live in the streets with my kid sister selling matches to leering strangers.
As for the lost souls who might have been saved by Dad had I not succumbed to fleshly desires, what would happen to them? On Judgment Day, just before some angel drop-kicked them into the pit where the fire burneth forever and ever, they would point at me screaming that they never heard from my dad, so they missed their chance to be saved, and now look at the mess they were in! With the eternal destination of so many souls weighing on me, no wonder I had acne problems.
The summer before my senior year in college, Jill and I married. I was twenty-one, and she was twenty. A month before our wedding, she made an appointment with her family doctor for a premarital examination. I wanted our wedding night to be good for both of us, so I needed to talk to an older, experienced man. Asking Dad for advice seemed out of the question since he would likely have a stroke, so Jill arranged for me to talk to her family doctor.
She was going to ask the doctor for contraceptive pills because we were on the final approach to our honeymoon, where sex was not only condoned but expected. Starting our lives together was exciting, as was the prospect of having sex without putting any souls in danger.
Her family doctor agreed it was okay for her to be on the Pill.
She came out of his office after her appointment, escorted me in, introduced me, then left.
“What do you want to see me about?” he asked as soon as I sat down.
“I’ve never had intercourse, so I was wondering if there was something I should know about the first time.”
He didn’t move for a couple of seconds; then he opened the middle drawer of his desk, picked up several paper clips, and put them on the desk.
Paper clips to demonstrate intercourse?
“Well, um, I, um, don’t get many guys asking about…” He scrutinized the clips for a moment, then picked two up and deftly linked them. He leaned back in his chair and cleared his throat.
“My advice is to be sure that you juicy her up.”
I wasn’t sure I understood him, so I asked him to repeat it. He did. It still took several seconds for me to grasp what he meant. Meanwhile, his attention was back on the damn paper clips.
“Do you have any more advice?” I asked.
“No. That’s it.” He stood, shook my hand, and said good luck.
A few days later, Dad reminded me that he wanted to talk to me before I was married. I had hoped he would forget that he had mentioned this several times over the years, but two weeks before our wedding, I made an appointment to visit him at his church office.
It felt strange to talk about this in Dad’s office, but it was what he wanted. A small sign on the door read, “Please knock.”
Dad’s familiar baritone voice was strong and clear as he said, “Come in.” He greeted me, then sat behind his desk, and I sat on the other side.
“So, what brings you here?” he asked.
“You often said you wanted to talk to me before I was married, so here I am.”
He rolled his chair back a few inches from the desk and opened the drawer. If he pulls out paper clips, try not to laugh. He didn’t. Instead, he pulled out a wooden ruler.
“Do you know that I do a lot of marital counseling?”
“I haven’t thought about that.” I don’t even want to think about that.
He toyed with the ruler a bit. “A lot of times, it’s because there’s trouble in the bedroom. You know what I mean?”
“I’m not sure what you mean?”
“Okay. Um, a lot of men are too rough. They don’t mean to, but they hurt their wives, um, down there, um, in their women parts.” His face reddened.
“Right. I understand that. I should juicy her up, then take it slow and easy.”
“Yes. How come you know about the juicy thing?”
“Her family doctor.”
“Okay. That’s good. Did he tell you more?” He sounded hopeful.
“No. Just that.”
“Okay. All right.” He pulled his earlobe, a sign that he was thinking. “Um, okay, there’s another thing I’ve discovered…”
“The thing is that a lot of men shoot too quick.”
He made a gun-like gesture with his thumb and first finger. “Shoot too quick,” he said as he fired his imaginary gun. “You understand?”
Being a virgin, I never had the opportunity to “shoot” before, so I had to think about what he was talking about. When his meaning became clear, I had to stifle my laugh.
“Yes,” I said. Don’t ask any more questions!
He looked relieved as he put the ruler back into the drawer. “Yes. So, on your wedding night, just be careful that you don’t shoot too soon.”
“Okay,” I said as I stood up. “Thanks, Dad.”
“I’m glad we finally had a good talk,” he said.
Jill and I were married for twelve years and had two sons. During those years, we drifted apart and eventually realized that our sons were our only reason to stay together, so we ended the marriage. Several years later, a working friendship with Alana became a love affair that continues to grow stronger even after four decades. One summer, when the older son, Rob, was twelve, he and his younger brother spent part of their summer with me when Alana was out of town working on her doctorate.
Rob was asking some questions about sex, so I put the younger boy to bed, then sat down with him to talk about what would be happening to his body over the next couple of years. Having no role model to follow, I decided to jump into the topic. Being an academic, I led off with a Latin-based term.
“Do you know what masturbation is?”
“Nope.” It wasn’t long before he interrupted my dissertation when he said, “I know what you mean—jerking off, that’s what my friends call it. I do that almost every night—it helps me to go to sleep. What was that big word again?”
Things progressed from there until the phone rang: it was Alana checking in. I told her we were having a nice talk about sex.
“Oh,” she said.
“Yeah, I was drawing a vagina on a napkin when you called.”
Children, even adult children, spend little time wondering what their parents’ love lives might be like; there is an Ick Factor that never goes away. However, I had an unexpected insight from Mom after Dad died.
About two months after his death, my younger sister, Sophie, and I were helping Mom discard or give away Dad’s clothes. Mom had been in the bathroom, pulling Dad’s stuff from the medicine cabinet, when she appeared in the room where we were working. She carried a bottle of aftershave lotion.
“Smell this,” she said, passing it by our noses. “I can’t throw this away—this is what your daddy wore on ‘sweetest’ nights.” She closed her eyes, inhaled, and smiled.
Sophie and I wrapped her in a hug.
Well, Dad, you were a better doer than a talker. Thanks for even trying to explain it to me. I miss you.