“I wasn’t allowed to date until I was sixteen.”
“I used to cuddle on my daddy’s lap but after I turned twelve, he wouldn’t even hug me anymore. He yelled at me to ‘put something on!’ when I came downstairs to watch television in my pajamas when I was fifteen. “
“We used to have sleepovers with all the cousins, boys and girls, together.”
“My cousin, Sally, and me, we would sneak to the pond and watch the boys when they swam naked.”
“It was almost by accident, I pressed the hair brush handle against myself.”
“I used to love sliding up and down the playground pole.”
“My mom and I went horseback riding…”
“I found a bunch of magazines in my brother’s room. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at!”
“The pastor of my church was very clear that dancing was the Devil’s work.”
“My mom got so embarrassed by the sex education material that the school sent home that she hurried from the room, leaving me to stare at the floor and my dad to shift awkwardly in his chair.”
“We used to watch Sex in the City together.”
“When mom caught me touching myself in the bathtub she explained that there were pleasurable feelings that were good but that I couldn’t touch myself around other people.”
“In high school, someone had a copy of Fanny Hill. We passed it along until the pages began to tear.”
“My best friend and I were comparing our boobs. One thing led to another and soon we were kissing and touching each other…”
These are just a few examples of ways that women come to understand something essential about their sexuality. The exploration and awareness of what we are feeling in our bodies is our introduction to our sexuality. The truth is that we do not find our sexuality so much as we “rediscover” it as we get older. What I have found enlightening from my many, many discussions with women is that when I ask them how they found their sexuality, many of them refer to a time long before puberty.
In other words, long before a time that we normally associate with being sexually mature.
For small children, discovering their penises and vaginas is a time of delightful discovery – and pleasure. Those “privates” that had been hidden away in thick diapers and clothes become available in bathtubs or running around the house without any clothing on as our mothers chased after us, imploring us to get dressed. But they were laughing and smiling when they did.
As we become toilet trained, we begin to associate all sorts of pleasurable – and sometimes shameful – feelings with our genitals. A few scenarios to illustrate this, I will introduce Mona.
I have a friend, I will call her “Mona”, who recalls the first time she was conscious of “discovering” her vagina. And that there was some kind of shame involved with her discovery.
I was with the other kids on the block. We always played together. God, how old could I have been? Maybe eight or nine. Anyway, I don’t know how it happened but the four or five of us started showing each other our bodies. It probably started because it was a warm day and the boys weren’t wearing shirts.
It seemed silly to me that I had to wear a shirt. After all, it wasn’t as if there was anything different between my chest and the boys’ chests at that point. We were all just skinny little bean poles. We were children for God’s sake.
Anyway, we were running through the sprinklers and, of course, the clothes we kept on were getting wet. So, it made perfect sense to simply take the clothes off.
I’m sure we were aware that we were doing something “wrong.” After all, we didn’t generally run around naked. I remember not long before this my dad had accidentally walked into the bathroom when I was taking a bath. He seemed so unnerved and embarrassed. He practically fell over himself to get back out of the bathroom. I wondered if there was anything wrong.
Of course, I didn’t ask him about it. We didn’t talk much in general in our house. My parents were lovely people but they were a bit emotionally distant. They could be strict but most of the time they were just there, background presences. I think most parents were like that then.
So, we were running through the sprinklers naked when Bobby, I think it was Bobby, pointed at me and laughed. I asked him what he was laughing at and he said that I didn’t have a penis. I can still feel the way I felt. It was a combination of defensiveness and anger and… and… and a sense that something was missing. Isn’t that terrible? That I would think that.
Of course, I was smart enough to tell him that I wasn’t supposed to have a penis, that I was a girl. I had a vagina. He asked how I peed without a penis. The other girl in the group, Susie, told him that she would show him. So she just squatted down on the grass near the sprinkler and peed.
We all giggled. It was all good-natured. We were all the best of friends. Our parents were good friends. We had BBQ’s together.
I made Elliot, the seven-year-old, bend over so we could see where he “made” from. Then we all showed our rear ends to one another. I think it was about then when my mom appeared. I don’t know if she’d been watching us or if she’d just showed up but I looked up and saw the expression on her face and I couldn’t place it. She was shocked. Outraged. Unnerved. Everything at once. She sure wasn’t amused.
She marched over and even though the sprinkler was spraying on her she grabbed me by the arm and began to drag me away.
“My clothes!” I cried out, not wanting to be dragged across the street to our house without my clothes on.
“You should have thought of that before!” she snapped.
She dragged me while I cried and screamed. She smacked my bottom a couple of times as we crossed the street. When we got home, she really gave me a spanking. Then she made me stay in my room, promising to tell my father as soon as he got home.
Which she did.
My father came into my room and looked right at me. “I’m very disappointed in you, Princess.” That’s what he said, in those exact words. He told me I should never, ever behave like that again. Then he told me that he would have to smack me with the belt – the most severe punishment in our house and one that was generally only visited upon my brother. But that day, I got the belt.
Later, I heard my parents through my bedroom door. They seemed to be talking about whether I had to be taken to the doctor, although I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why – unless it was because they’d spanked me too hard.
I’m sure it is just the way I am misremembering it, but I can’t recall ever playing together with those friends like that again.
From then on, girls played with girls and boys played with boys.
And no one ever spoke about the incident again.
Mona’s experience is very insightful in that it brings into play many of the things that contribute to our sense of our sexuality. There was a peer group. Clearly, there was some “objective” knowledge that the children had gained from someplace – family or books – because they knew what their genitals were called and that boys had penises and girls had vaginas. In addition, despite no “spoken” prohibition, they all knew that being naked was somehow “not allowed” even though they could see no reason for it.
Finally, Mona’s family had a tremendous impact on this event and experience. Unfortunately, the message she received from her parents’ reaction was a powerfully negative one.
Just a few of the lessons that Mona came with were that nudity was wrong, that her behavior, though childlike and innocent, was wrong and bad, that what she did was deserving of punishment.
There was no discussion. No explanation. No acknowledgement that everyone is curious and that there are better (“more comfortable” for her parents) ways to learn.
Imagine what could have been.
Mona’s mother could have let Mona collect her clothes. She could have held her hand as they crossed the street, making it clear that even though she was separating Mona from the activity she didn’t think that Mona was “bad.”
When they got back to the house, she could have suggested that Mona get cleaned up and dried off.
“Why don’t you take a quick bath and I’ll make a snack?”
Then, when they were sitting together enjoying a snack, Mona’s mother could have acknowledged Mona’s curiosity and found an appropriate way to discuss her body. In other words, Mona’s mother could have nurtured Mona’s sexuality.
It was, of course, very unlikely that she’d do that. Mona’s mother no doubt struggled with a blunted sexuality herself. Sex was not discussed in the house. There were no overt displays of affection between Mona’s parents.
“Just a coolness. A distance,” Mona said. “They were such lovely people, really. I can’t say that I thought they were ever happy though.”
Ah, happiness. There’s a difficult concept to address. We all want to be happy but that “pursuit of happiness” seems to trip us up frequently. Perhaps because we are only guaranteed the “pursuit” and not the “happiness.”
What I can say is that Mona is only now beginning to feel comfortable with her sexuality – after two divorces and several unsatisfying relationships.
I would not suggest that there was a direct link to Mona’s playful experience, her parents’ reaction, and how she developed into a sexually struggling and then sexual mature adult. What the incident does do is highlight the various factors that come into play in our developing sense of our sexuality and why, for so many women, the task is to rediscover their sexuality rather than to “find” it.
Mona, as it turned out, was developing her sexuality in a wonderful, organic and comfortable way. Her parents’ reaction blunted that and submerged that quality, causing her to struggle to “get back” to that same kind of view of her sexuality.
As Mona indicated, there was nothing in her parents’ reaction that was inconsistent with the way she was raised in general.
It is worth noting that other than comparing her chest to the boys’ (we were “skinny little bean poles”) there was no mention of other physical descriptions. No one was fat. No one had freckles. No one had big ears. Or stretch marks. Whatever.
This experience was pure sexual exploration – without the sex! – without the hang-ups and obstacles that make the process so difficult for us as adult women.
Until her mother showed up. Then there were only hang-ups.
There is no greater influence on our sense of ourselves as sexual selves than our families. Let me be very clear, I am not including those horrible situations when there is sexual abuse in the family. Clearly, such experiences are beyond damaging and demand intervention. But we are not talking about abused children.
For if history has taught us anything, it is that it does not take an abusive home to sow the seeds of sexual dysfunction. Another example to illustrate the development of sexuality is Meredith’s experience.
Meredith grew up in a solid, middle class family. Her father owned a service station. Her mother was an aide in the local elementary school. She grew up with an older sister and a younger brother. Her older sister was six years older. Her younger brother only two and a half years younger than she was.
“I was always close with Bruce,” she said, referring to her brother. “From the time I was six, I babysat him. I was around when my mom changed him. We always had a special bond.”
She and Bruce took baths together when they were small children and, while she was bathing them, her mother was not at all reluctant to answer their questions about Bruce’s penis or Meredith’s vagina.
Meredith’s father, though hardly a professional, was a lover of music and a reader of books. He was an affectionate father who encouraged Meredith to play ball just as much as he encouraged Bruce.
“Lots of summer nights, we’d be out playing catch with my dad after he got home from work,” she said wistfully.
The only “fly” in the ointment was Meredith’s older sister. “Sue was always a little wild. At least, that’s what mom said. Rebellious. Although, I couldn’t say what she was rebelling against. Seems to me we had a pretty good life.”
Although Meredith’s parents were very young when Sue was born, there was a degree of enlightenment in the household. Perhaps it was the connection to the school. Maybe it was their father’s devotion to music and books. At one point, he had wanted to be a musician and still harbored dreams of writing his own book. Maybe it was just that they had enjoyed the “fruits” of the sixties without the flame outs. Whatever it was they were very permissive raising Sue.
But when Sue hit adolescence, she seemed to have lost her way.
“Don’t worry,” Meredith’s mom assured her dad. “It’s just hormones.”
She wasn’t reassured. She started smoking cigarettes and sneaking out of the house at all hours of the night. When her parents tried to set limits, Sue screamed and shouted.
“She got pregnant when she was sixteen,” Meredith said with a shrug. “What was I? Ten years old? I don’t remember a lot. Just that there was a lot of tension in the house and my mom always seemed worried.”
Sue went to live with an aunt and she gave the baby up for adoption.
“She didn’t come back to live with us after that. It was almost like she was never part of the family,” Meredith said. “At least, not physically. Bruce and I used to refer to ‘Sue’s ghost’ all the time.”
What she meant by that was that her parent’s experience with Sue changed their outlook. They went from progressive, open parents to cautious, worried parents determined not to “make the same mistakes twice.”
Meredith was not allowed to date until she was seventeen. She wasn’t even allowed to go to boy-girl parties until she was sixteen, and then only if her parents knew that parents would be home during the party.
“But none of that was particularly damaging,” she said. “I understood where they were coming from. What was damaging was the silence that took over the house. It wasn’t for a long time after that that I realized that my dad didn’t listen to his music so much anymore.
“And he didn’t read very much. He’d just sit at the kitchen table and stare out the window.”
Seeing – and feeling – the sadness in the house had a real impact on Meredith. Without a conscious decision, she determined to be the model daughter, the perfect girl that Sue was not.
“It was like I was walking on egg shells, not wanting to make a mistake.”
She was valedictorian of her senior class. She was accepted into a very good college and, after that, medical school.
But there was always a sadness. Like a cloud, a cloud that settled upon her sexuality.
“I guess it made sense,” she said with a sigh. “After all, it was the sex that really changed everything. Until then, there were just the fights. But when Sue got pregnant… well, that just changed everything.”
Between focusing on her studies and her determination to never do anything to upset her parents, Meredith didn’t have a real boyfriend until her senior year of college.
“And we didn’t do much,” she admitted.
Her second boyfriend became her husband. They met in medical school. The first time they had sex it was quick, uncomfortable and not particularly satisfying.
“I loved him – I love him,” she said, quickly correcting herself. “But the sex thing somehow got locked up someplace deep. I mean, I studied anatomy. I was even thinking of becoming a gynecologist for a while.
“And yet, I was so uncomfortable with my own sexuality. Ironic, isn’t it?”
Ironic but not surprising. The cues we get as children have a powerful impact on how we develop into adults. In Meredith’s case, it would have seemed that her home and family environment was perfect for the development of a healthy sexual sensibility.