This week I came upon two features that spanned the age spectrum of the sex timeline. One was by an older teenager complaining, My Boyfriend Broke up with me Because I Wanted to Have Sex in The Huffington Post and the other a podcast by Senior Sexpert (Don’t you just love that jargony term?) Joan Price on polyweekly.com.
The obvious draw to the first title is its immediate incongruence. Isn’t it usually the other way around–girl breaks up with boyfriend because HE wants sex? That is the stereotype of sexual lore in American culture anyhow. But the writer, Nadia, has this to say about stereotyping:
Let me start my rant by saying stereotypes suck. We all know it, but we still take part in it, even parents. Mine told me to be careful when I started dating and not to feel pressured by all the sex-crazy boys. Little did they know, the very things they told me to make me feel “not pressured” fueled the fire of inappropriate generalizations and damaged concepts in society.
She is referring here to the pressure her boyfriend felt from peers and his brother to “go for it”, which caused the break up; he felt he was not ready.
This passage in particular struck me not so much for the irony as much as my own position sandwiched between caretaker of two teenage daughters, one of whom is 18, and of aging parents, one of whom told me the same about pressure and boys from early on in my youth. If my daughters were amenable to a frank discussion about sex (they are not–“Mom, please, no”), I often think what I would tell them. And I yearn to tell them.
I have so much insight to offer them from my own experience as someone who explored sex in my teens despite hearing the age old warnings and typecasting that all boys want is to get in your pants. While that may be true for most teenage boys, saying so is merely a dismissive attempt at preventing pregnancy, a parent doing the minimum to safeguard her daughter.
Posturing boys and girls as enemies or boys as invading armies and girls as defenders of the fortress, sex is framed from a vacuum of reliable information that is only later legitimately informed through actual intimate experience, and therefore distorted. Sex in this opaque light then becomes more a vehicle for rebelliousness than to satiate curiosity and hormonal insistence. It is fraught with youthful daring, irresistible attraction and yet unrealized trepidation.
My mother’s intention was to protect me, shortcutted without giving me the entire picture of sex, through an acquired perspective that comes with time and growth in love and familiarity. Looking now at her frail remnants of a former warrior woman and wife, I realize she did not have the information herself, having married knocked up at 16 by the first or second boy she ever knew. What could she offer her four daughters about sex?
To add to my mother’s advice to fend off the boys and save it for marriage, I grew up in the heat of Second Wave Feminism when of necessity women were also framing sex and womanhood against men and their patriarchy. Capitulating to sex seemed to me like ceding the war. And at the same time, the 70s of my teen years were also a time of free love and sex, a hangover from the 60s revolution.
The cluster of contradictions did nothing for my sex life. I rebelled, had sex young, had lousy sex, felt lousy about sex, like I had unwittingly given up something valuable of myself to the undeserving, all of which led me to the conclusion Nadia came to:
Sex is just sex. It’s an act we perform. Whether this performance is considered sacred or fun, whether you wait until marriage or do it every night, whether you do it as a profession or some kind of proclamation to God doesn’t matter. If it’s your body, your mind, it’s your choice. No one else matters. So if you’re confused about this subject or worried about the choices you make, I’m on your side. Regardless of how you decide, if you make the best decision for you, I’m proud of that. You should be proud of that as well.
While the obvious is true–sex is just sex–the obvious is also not true. Sex is an act, but it is also so much more. It is a reflection of self, an identity, a connection, an oasis, a weapon, a tool, a livelihood, a happiness, an expression, a biological urge, and much, much more. To say that no one else matters in your choice is to deny that we all grow up with voices in our head that become us, parentally and culturally derived. Our attitudes about sex–a force so powerfully destructive or healing–are derived from a variety of sources and so are complex and not wholly our own until fermented experience kicks in to weed out the garbage.
And it changes in time. Sex at 18 is far different from sex at 68. Take it from Joan Price, who enjoys sex in her 70s and is comfortable with herself–her body, her ability to love and her age. The benefit of good physical and mental health cannot be undervalued. Sexual enjoyment is holistically entwined with physical and mental health. I know that once I felt at ease with and knowledgeable about my body correspondingly with accepting others as theirs, I enjoyed sex a whole lot more than in the confusion of unsorted out slogans and untested values of others.
If I could give my teens advice they would listen to, I would tell them to learn their own bodies so well that they do not have to rely on anyone else to figure out how to pleasure them. In that way, they could be both informed and empowered as well as compassionate by helping their partners. Bodies do come with instruction manuals–owners’. Sex, at its best, is sharing in the heights of intimate pleasure.
I would also teach them to consider their own boundaries, where they end and the next person begins, so as not to lose themselves within the borders of someone else’s need and expectation. Sex is a meeting of minds and bodies in mutual satisfaction. Though sometimes, it is a purely giving act even as it is sometimes a pure taking, both fine in the trust between people performing loving acts, or, at minimum, in mutual understanding of those acts.
Sometimes sex is just sex. For me, whose history is largely long-term monogamy, it is release. If I want to use it to cry or scream or slap, I express and decompress upon the foundation of commitment and mutual caring–for that time, that day, that decade or lifetime, whomever the case may be. Even the same person shows up to the act differently day to day.
Cultural expectations particularly of marriage and monogamy, stress the painted picture of procured bliss through intensely connected oneness and love, a romantic notion that puts a lot of pressure on the act, specifically for youth. And sometimes it is that bliss while at other times it is sacrifice and uneventful working out the strategy of keeping things going, in peace. Sex is part and parcel of being, multifarious as hell. All I know is, it is not what I was told it was.