Dear Lily June,
Though she vehemently denies these were the only contents of the conversation, my mother’s sex talk with me was as simple as this:
“If anyone ever touches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, you come and tell me immediately.”
That was it. And I reiterate those words to you for a reason: It’s as true for you as it was for me. If anyone ever touches you, Lily, in a way that makes you uncomfortable, please know that it is my job to protect you, and you should tell me right away so that I can take actions to make you safe. I will talk to you about this early and often, so that, hopefully, you’ll never be put in this scenario.
Arguably, my mother’s words were not even a sex talk so much as they were a preventative measures lecture; my mother was attempting to send the message that I should be free from sexual violence, and for that message, I am grateful. And no one ever did try to touch my body in ways that would have been inappropriate before I was ready. But I was drastically underprepared when the time came, and I was ready. And I was drastically underprepared to even make the decision of readiness.
Because I want you to, as much as possible, make an informed decision about your own body and your own sexual encounters, I’m going to, regardless of whether it makes us both uncomfortable, share some of my beliefs and values about, and history with, sex so that you can take that information, as well as what you get from your father, friends, the media, school, etc., and attempt to make the right decision for you when, and about whether, you’re ready.
On Waiting Until Marriage
The predominant religion in America is Christianity, and because many lawmakers hold deeply rooted beliefs in their faith, you may find yourself in school getting an “Abstinence Only” education. In this view of the sexual world, the purpose of sex is for reproduction, and you should wait until you are married to engage in the sexual experience with your partner so that you can provide a stable, spiritual home life for the children that might be produced as a result of your coupling.
Because I married the love of my life, I’m inclined to see the value in this belief, even though it wasn’t the reality of my life. In truth, I don’t know that it’s a very realistic position to take: You may find that between newfound hormones and affections early on in life, you don’t want to wait. Proponents of this position believe that your virginity is a gift you should save for your future spouse, allowing that person the first and only access to your body. I won’t say I don’t believe that’s a beautiful and romantic position, and if someday it’s your position, I will fully support you. However, it wasn’t mine.
I did think of my virginity as a gift, but it wasn’t one I was willing to withhold giving until I’d crossed the threshold. I was a teenager when I felt stirrings toward sexual affection and pleasure, and I didn’t feel that marriage should be the golden coin that purchased my virtue. In fact, I was glad to live in a world where a woman was no longer labeled “damaged goods” once she had lost her chastity, and I was willing to embrace the spirit of my age, holding that I could choose when, and to whom, I gave my gift, as long as I felt ready.
I also held the belief that virginity wasn’t the only gift: Granting someone access to my vulnerability, nudity, desire, pleasure and love, was the gift that could keep on giving. I may have thought that the person I gave up my V-card to was the love of my life at the time, but deep down, some part of me knew that any time I gave of my body to the one I loved, it would be a gift, even if it wasn’t the first time.
First times are often riddled with embarrassment, failures, missteps and mistakes, and mine was no exception (but that’s a story for another time). Sex gets better, like any physical act, the more it’s practiced, but to me, there’s nothing especially sacred about the fumbling first other than by virtue of it being something entirely new.
To me, the first time you give yourself to anyone, be it partner #1 or #100, should be special and memorable. I think women especially run into problems when they try to put all of their emotional worth into the first time they perform that act. You, and your body, no matter how (or how much) you use it are always special, sacred, and beautiful, and anyone who doesn’t treat you this way, to me, isn’t worthy of the gift of all of you–your intellect, heart, wit, talents, soul, love, sex, body, etc.–ever.
On Waiting for Love
I tend to think of sexual purity as a spectrum, with the religious approach on one end (where sex is only granted in the context of marriage) and the scientific approach on the other end (where sex is considered a physical act of copulation only, the insertion of one body part into another or the stimulation of one body part by another). Somewhere in the middle of sex as a spiritual act and sex as a pleasurable act lies sex as a romantic act. This, Lily, is where your mother’s heart falls.
A serial monogamist, I have, at thirty years old, had four sexual partners over the course of my lifetime, and the last of these is your father. (Don’t act shocked, Lily; How, after all, do you think you were born?!) I was never in a relationship with one of these partners for less than a year, and that includes three relationships that started in high school. (I dated my “first” boyfriend for two years, my rebound boyfriend for one year, my first love for five years, and I’ve been with the true love of my life now, your dad, for seven years.)
I initially started this section with the line, “In the secular approach to sex, I’m a strange bird,” but upon doing a little research, I deleted the sentence. According to data compiled ten years ago by the National Center for Health Statistics, the average number of sexual partners an American woman has in her lifetime is 4. A year later, a study conducted by the University of Michigan of 2000+ heterosexual adults aged 40 years found that number was 8.6. So am I average or woefully behind? Does it matter?
To me, all that mattered is that, with each partner I shared my bed and body with, I was sure I was in love. I waited until I knew the person–their full name, their birthday, their interests, their desires, their fears, etc.–before I engaged in sexual activity with them. We were friends before we experienced benefits, and for me, this heightened the sexual act into one of trust, love, romance, and possibly even spirituality.
When you’re young, falling in love requires less effort: If you like the person in that moment, you can “love” them. As you get older, you find you generally need to respect who they’ve been and what brought them to the present. For me, true love, which you find as you get even older and more sophisticated, happens when you respect where they’ve come from, who they are, and where they’re going. I don’t mean to say you fall in love with your partner’s potential because that isn’t love.
Just as I’d never advise you to buy an outfit for how it might look on you once it fits (after you lose or gain weight, for instance), I’d say never fall in love with a person for who you think they might become. (I made that mistake with Partner #3 but people have a way of becoming who they are, not who you hope they’ll be.)
Instead, I mean to say, you fall in love with where you might go, together, with your partner. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, once said,
“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
I wouldn’t have married your father if I couldn’t have pictured him as a father. Because I knew, eventually, I wanted children, I couldn’t have married him if he didn’t want kids, and if he demonstrated he wouldn’t treat his children well. I wasn’t waiting for him to become that guy; if he hadn’t shown he wanted to, and could, be a good dad, I never would have married him with the hopes that he’d someday change his ways and/or his mind.
But love, in any form, was key to me. I wanted someone who would accept me for my strengths as well as my weaknesses. As the dad advises to his daughter in my favorite movie, Juno:
“Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person is still going to think the sun shines out your ass. That’s the kind of person that’s worth sticking with.“
And as the song goes, What’s love got to do with it? Well, for me, sex is highly emotional, not just physical. I give of my body once I’ve given of my heart. I want my sexual partners to be pleased because love drives me to take happiness at their pleasure. I want to be pleased by my partners by their showing that they know my body and its needs.
In moments of pure love-making, I have felt at climax, while my body lay shuddering on the mattress, that my mind and soul was elevated to the stars. Sex drove closeness and intimacy; I felt more open and vulnerable to have long talks after the act about my future with the person who brought me out of my body. I felt safe and free to explore and discover new things about myself physically and emotionally. The act involved the head and the heart and the body, and I couldn’t have taken joy from it if any of these elements were removed.
That is my truth, Lily, and that means my bias will be towards that approach. I will want, desperately, for you to find someone to love before you find someone to make love with. I will want for you beautiful romance and friendship first. But if that isn’t what you want, it’s a moot point. You must choose what is right for you. Just know where my bias lies, so you’ll know how much of this letter to trust, and how much to question.
On Waiting for Pleasure
Okay, so I’ve admitted that I don’t see the sexual act in a solely physical way. But some people do, and you need to be aware of that. Maybe it will be your choice, too, or maybe you’ll just need to be cautious of those who would see you, not as a whole person, but as a vehicle to their pleasure. When I think about sex without love, I’m pulled immediately to the Sharon Olds’ poem of the same name:
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other’s bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health–just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.
For me, the poem is ironic; it appears to praise the physical lovers, but the descriptions are cold (ice-skaters), grotesque (faces red as steak), sad (children…whose mothers are going to give them away), and lonely (the single body alone in the universe). But I’m being unfairly biased to give you this view, and I know it.
The truth is, sex can just feel good. Like eating a bar of chocolate or watching a Twilight film, it can be an indulgence that you enjoy without having to get emotionally or spiritually wrapped up in it. People have what are called “one night stands,” where they engage in the act for a single time with partners they barely know, and the next day, they move on with their lives. Or, there are those who are “friends with benefits,” buddies who add sexual acts to their companionship without wanting more than enjoyment.
No one should dictate to you your choices with your body (not even me). We live in a culture that’s just really starting to critique “slut-shaming”: the double-standard we apply to women who want sex outside the context of a relationship. You see, women are often called derogatory names for doing this (“slut,” “whore,” “tramp,” etc.), while men are praised (as “players,” “macks,” “pimps,” etc.) But there’s nothing biologically that would allow a man to take more pleasure from sex than a woman (and, in fact, given a woman’s additional nerve endings and ability to climax multiple times, there’s some scientific evidence for some women enjoying sex more).
As long as you feel safe, and the sex is consensual, I will try to support whatever choices you make. That includes the what, the who, and the why, Lily. I hope to talk to you at some point about sexuality and your choices there, too, as well as heteronormativity and cis- and trans-gendering.
When the time does come, whenever that might be, I hope you’ll feel comfortable coming to me to talk about other topics I’ll surely plan to write to you about: the first time, protection, contraception, STDs, peer pressure, menstruation, reproduction, relationships, etc. I promise to listen without judgment and advise without expectation that all of my choices will be yours. But I’ll always wish you love, even if the choices you make are just dictated by the fact that you love and trust yourself, body, mind, and soul.
- “Where is the love” by Tatoli ba Kultura – Tatoli ba Kultura. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Where_is_the_love.jpg#/media/File:Where_is_the_love.jpg
- “Jean-Jacque-François le Barbier – Cupid in a Tree – Google Art Project” by English: Jean-Jacque-François le Barbier – bQF1saZvHgEWCA at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean-Jacque-Fran%C3%A7ois_le_Barbier_-_Cupid_in_a_Tree_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#/media/File:Jean-Jacque-Fran%C3%A7ois_le_Barbier_-_Cupid_in_a_Tree_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
- “Psyché” by Antonio Canova (Italian, 1757–1822) – Eric Pouhier (May 2007). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Psych%C3%A9.jpg#/media/File:Psych%C3%A9.jpg