Stephen King Should Not Have Been My Sex Education Teacher

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The Losers Club, a group of friends I strongly identified with in Jr High

“You would have [a girl] be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant—taught to cling to others for direction and support, and guarded, as much as possible, from the very knowledge of evil.” —from Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

An actual, honest-to-goodness conversation that took place last semester between myself and one of my LDS college students:

[Scene: Poster presentations, just before class ends. I approach the final student’s poster, an argumentative outline in favor of comprehensive sex education.]

Me: This is such an important topic! Was it hard to research or have you found some good sources? [casually glances over the student’s prepared bibliography attached to the poster]

Student: I think I found some good sources. It was a really interesting topic to read about, but I’m not done with my research quite yet.

Me: Well, it looks like you’ve found some good scholarly sources. I have to say that I’m glad you are writing about this topic. I definitely could have used better sex education when I was a teenager.

Student: Me, too.

Me: No, really. I mean, I didn’t know anything—I was so uneducated. I think it was dangerous how little I knew about the actual mechanics of sex as a teenager.

Student: I didn’t know what sex even was until I read about it in a book by accident.

Me: Yes! That happened to me, too—but it was particularly awful, because it was a Stephen King novel!

Student [clearly gobsmacked]: ME, TOO!

Me: YOU’RE KIDDING. Which one?

Student: IT!!! It was IT! The sewer scene with the kids!

Me [fully freaking out, fortunately after most of the other students had already cleared out of the room]: ME, TOO! ME, TOO! It was Stephen King’s IT for me, too!

Student [laughing off the shock]: Well. I’m glad I’m writing about this, then.

END SCENE

I was 17 years old and reading Stephen King’s IT in my parents’ backyard in northern Utah when I learned what the actual mechanics of sex consisted of. I had been “dating” since I had turned 16, by which I mean I had attended girls’ choice school dances and had been asked out once or twice by friends of friends. I was a late bloomer. But I loved scary stories, and watching the made-for-television IT miniseries starring John Ritter, Seth Green, and Tim Curry was one of my favorite rainy-day pastimes.

If you have never read the book, you will probably not know that there is a scene in the sewers when Beverly Marsh galvanizes her group of best friends—Bill Denbrough, Richie Tozier, Ben Hanscom, Mike Hanlon, Stanley Uris, and Eddie Kaspbrak—by having sex with each of them in turn before their final faceoff as kids with the child-eating, sewer-dwelling clown: American literature at its most American.

Fortunately for the naive young me, King is actually somewhat careful in his depiction of the scene, and the point of view is largely from Beverly. The details coming from this fictional 12-year-old character were conveniently blunt and explicit, and I finally understood what sex was in a way that all of the sexual innuendo I had encountered from PG-13 movies had never made clear. Suddenly, I understood the jokes I remembered hearing on the school bus or from Seinfeld or Friends. Suddenly, I realized that I had been horribly, embarrassingly mistaken in my assumption that sex happened mouth-to-mouth (I had always thought that condoms went on the boy’s tongue).

I was no dummy, generally speaking. I was an honors student who excelled in AP Calculus, AP English, and AP Music Theory. I was an A-student. I was learning to explore and appreciate nuanced arguments, and I enjoyed reading Shakespeare, Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain, and Chaim Potok (although, a female masturbation scene in Davita’s Harp perplexed me for years until, at 25 years old, I finally understood what I had read at age 16). I had received an A grade in my sex education class taken my sophomore year of high school. I had passed every exam that tested me on the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and how abstinence is the only surefire of avoiding pregnancy. I knew everything I needed to know to show proficiency in “sex education.” Except for one thing: I didn’t know what sex was.

As a very devout and spiritual young Latter-day Saint woman, I had grown up with teachings that made me fear sexual contact to the point that I never would have gone out of my way to learn about it on my own. I’m old enough to remember Young Women Sunday School lessons in which more than one of my teachers would include an anecdote about a young woman who was threatened to be stabbed with a knife if she would not have sex with a rapist—the young woman bravely responds that she would rather be stabbed. When I heard quotations from prophets and apostles about sex, this only confirmed my black-and-white view that a person could either be clean or dirty, pure or impure, chaste or sexually sinful.

“Before marriage there can be no sexual contact with a boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancée, or anyone else, period. While a commandment, that standard is for your happiness. That’s why the Church counsels you to go in groups and not to date while you are young.” —Richard G. Scott, “Serious Questions, Serious Answers,” October 1995 New Era

“If you are married, avoid being alone with members of the opposite sex wherever possible. Many of the tragedies of immorality begin when a man and woman are alone in the office, or at church, or driving in a car.” —The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, “Keeping the Law of Chastity”

“Sin is still sin and always will be. We stand for a life of cleanliness. From childhood through youth and to the grave, we proclaim the wickedness of sexual life of any kind before marriage, and we proclaim that every one in marriage should hold himself or herself to the covenants that were made. In other words, as we have frequently said, there should be total chastity of men and women before marriage and total fidelity in marriage” —Spencer W. Kimball, “The Time to Labor Is Now,” November 1975 Ensign

“If we are seriously interested in being successful in any endeavor, we shall avoid every type of immorality as we would avoid the plague” —Marion G. Romney, “A Glorious Promise,” January 1981 Ensign, Jan. 1981

“The Lord specifically forbids certain behaviors, including all sexual relations before marriage, petting, sex perversion (such as homosexuality, rape, and incest), masturbation, or preoccupation with sex in thought, speech, or action (see A Parent’s Guide, pp. 36-39).” —For the Strength of the Youth Pamphlet

The only thing I knew about sex was that I shouldn’t know about it.  Until I was safely secure within the bonds of marriage, I would not need to know about my body or men’s bodies or anything having to do with the sacred act of procreation.

The only problem was that, in retrospect, not knowing how human bodies worked or how my own body worked put me in a very vulnerable position. Looking back, I cringe as I relive certain scenarios in which I could easily have been taken advantage of because of my naïveté and my miseducation. I was taught to laugh and giggle when I felt uncomfortable or confused, and I wish I could have reacted instead with clarity and educated consent or dissent. I wish I had understood my own body better, and that I could have better contextualized and understood the confusing dreams I started having from fifth grade onward that made me feel sinful and guilty and strange afterward. Why can’t I be perfectly pure and chaste? I remember wondering. I did not understand that what I felt was natural and normal; instead, I felt like an aberration, inherently perverted and permanently incapable of true cleanliness.

If I could go back in time, I would tell my young self to embrace a curiosity about sexuality and to read all sorts of age-appropriate books about bodies, desire, relationships, and pleasure. If I could go back in time, I would remind myself that innocence does not equal ignorance, and that education gives someone the power of consent and the power of agency. If I could go back in time, I would know what sex involved from my earliest age, so that I never had to view sex with an aura of mystery and danger that was frightening, bewildering, and intimidating. If I could go back in time, I would not view sex as a looming, dangerous trap lurking in offices and carpools and rated-R movies. If I could go back in time, I would not be afraid of my own sexuality, because I would be educated enough to know my own body and be confidently in control of it.

Two young LDS women learning what sex was in their late teens through a Stephen King novel is two too many. And unless our conversation was insane coincidence, I doubt we were the only two people to ever find themselves 17 years old and completely clueless about the mechanics of sex. We need to ensure that in our attempts to protect our children from sexual impurity we don’t forget the importance of sex education that empowers our youth to give or withhold consent.

Comments

  1. anon anon says:

    Oh yes on so many levels with this perspective. As a parent I recognize how much responsibility I have to ensure my children and especially my daughters are empowered by understanding their own sexuality. It has to start at a young age and evolve with many short and longer conversations such that sex doesn’t seem like some strange, wicked thing we never talk about except to condemn it outside the bounds of marriage.

    Do you mind if I ask though, what was involved in your 10th grade sex education class if the mechanics weren’t described and imagery didn’t explain what went where? My own parents were useless with sex education though they got better at it by the time it came to have “the discussion” with my younger siblings. But school, (East coast in elementary and junior high and Midwest in High School) the sex ed classes left very little to the imagination in very clinical terms. I still cannot forget a rather enthusiastic health teacher who showed how the condom was put on and taken off using a banana as a prop. Because she called it what it was, there was no mistaking what the banana represented.

    With our children even though we start with good touch / bad touch as soon as they can talk, our district still is legally mandated to provide supplemental education about that topic starting in Pre-School and the clinical conversation starts in 5th grade sex education. Then the topic is broached twice more in middle school with further detail and finally in Health in high school with even deeper detail.

    Not that I would ever rely upon the school as the singular source of education for this topic but I guess I must recognize that we don’t live in the Bible belt/Green Jello belt where this topic may be more problematic. But as a youth leader in the Church I have to be honest I worry about what I can or cannot say with youth at the risk of being yelled at by parents. If I were the Bishop I would probably feel less concern since everyone expects the Bishop to have that talk at least once a year with the youth. But honestly, most Bishops I’ve known weren’t as forthright as they should have been except for the YSA Bishop I had at BYU who spelled it all out and wanted to make sure there were no misconceptions of what was appropriate including consent.

    We, as a faith community, need to continue to get better at this.

  2. Great post. I read Steven King’s It in college, my freshman year I think, when I was home for Christmas break. I still remember this scene–just how inappropriate I thought it was to have twelve year old kids having sex in the sewer. For weeks after reading it, I felt guilty.

    Your last paragraph is so, so important.

  3. Hi anon anon, I do agree that not just anyone should be giving the “sex talk,” and that’s why I am in favor of a comprehensive sex education curriculum written by scholars and educators and taught in schools. I do NOT think it is appropriate for bishops to give sex education classes, for example. Teachers should be trained in the curriculum.

    The sex ed class I took in 10th grade did mention the word “condom,” but I never saw an actual condom with my own eyes until I was in Las Vegas in my early twenties and saw some wrapped as colorful suckers. I thought they WERE colorful suckers until my college roommate said, “Ugh, gross,” and I figured out what they were on my own. The first time I ever saw a condom on a banana was when I saw Never Been Kissed, a few months after reading Stephen King’s IT.

    I remember learning about reproductive systems, and I knew more or less what and where my reproductive organs were. The confusion that was never clarified in class, though, was how the sperm actually traveled to the woman’s vagina. I thought (because I had never heard otherwise, and I’m not very creative) that sperm traveled through spit, and that “making out” was, in fact, “having sex.” I thought, laughably, that if you “made out” long enough, this would cause the sperm to enter the woman and somehow travel down a different tube to a different part of the body. I know that makes no sense and is super weird, but, again, I prided myself on never ever ever thinking about sex or anything having to do with it. I never thought about it too much.

    In fact, weirdly, I knew how dogs and horses had sex before I knew how humans did. It had always been a strange testimony builder that one difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom was that our form of procreation was far more elevated and less embarrassing than that of cats or dogs.

    Once I read IT, though, I realized that we were no different, and that was the strangest realization of all at the time.

  4. Thanks, Mike.

  5. More Anon says:

    In Utah, when I was in high school at least, you could sign up for health class either with our without sex education. I’m pretty sure I and most of my conservative LDS peers opted for without. I don’t think I knew what male anatomy really looked like until around age 20, and only then from looking at statues that hadn’t been fig-leafed. I had some exposure to sex in books, but very carefully avoided any visuals, and there’s a big difference there.

  6. The broader problem isn’t new, and (echoing a previous post) it’s getting better overall. The problem is in getting people to be comfortable both in asking and answering uncomfortable questions. Sex and puberty have got to be the #1 and #2 on the list. Religion and politics have got to be pretty high on the list as well.

    Schools (and churches) should be the -last- resort for these subjects, as they can’t do more than a “one size fits all” approach. Exposure should not be the goal, but discussion and understanding. No single source can bring that.

    But it’s certainly getting better. How many of us can remember how many things “we just don’t talk about” or “we don’t discuss in polite company”? It used to be much more prevalent for parents to discourage children asking questions then wondering why the children don’t know things that were “painfully obvious”. I hope as we grow older that we don’t fall into the same habits of not being bothered to get into discussions with our children because we’re uncomfortable or we feel they just aren’t ready for “our level” of knowledge.

    It’s getting better. The kids will be all right.

  7. Well said, Grover. I don’t remember how exactly I figured the mechanics out, but I was similarly naive. Three cheers for comprehensive sex ed.

  8. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    …whereas I grew up in Illinois, and even in a conservative semi-rural area I had a full sex education curriculum in junior high, which included the health teacher counseling the male students not to engage in autoerotic asphyxiation “because it’s the stupidest possible way to die.” (Thanks, Mr. Lamping!)

    Sex and sexuality are part of adult life as much as personal finance and housework are. You shouldn’t have to wait until you’re an adult to learn about them, the same way you shouldn’t have to wait until the first time you run out of clean clothes as a college freshman to learn how to use a washing machine.

  9. Carolyn says:

    My parents opted me out of sex ed at school because it should only be taught at home, and then never taught it at home. I picked up super early on that if I were to even say the word “sex” at home my mother would likely have a heart attack. Thankfully I have a sister who is 12 years older than me and got married when I was 11 — and I started peppering her with all of the questions I didn’t understand. So I understood the literal mechanics at about age 12. But there were still a TON of gaps. For example…

    Age 12: I learned that “french kissing” was “kissing with tongue” and not “kissing somebody’s butt”

    Age 13: I learned that “pornography” was an adult word for “sex-related” things. I knew I didn’t know anything about sex so I decided to secretly look the word up in the dictionary when my parents weren’t home. But right before I did that I was reading the Church News and President Hinckley had an article about how pornography was evil so I didn’t even look it up in the dictionary because that would be sinful.

    Age 15: I discovered that sometimes when I was reading clean cheesy christian romance novels, that sometimes when the couple kissed, I got a little flushed. I felt insanely guilty. Especially when I read a month or two later an article in the Ensign about how romance novels were like porn for women. From then on, if I started to feel at all flushed or if a chapter looked like it might maybe be getting slightly sexual in any book I read, I automatically flipped to the end of the chapter.

    Age 16: I vaguely learned that erections existed from hanging out with my high school guy friends (I knew that penises went in Vaginas, but I had no idea what arousal was or how that biologically played out in men). I learned what condoms were around the same time.

    Age 17: I learned vaguely that an “orgasm” was a man’s end of / peak pleasure from sex

    Age 17: I learned what “oral sex” was, because my high school newspapers did a story/survey on our high school students’ sexual experiences and opinions.

    Age 21: I realized it was not a sin to use tampons. I had only ever used pads because I believed any form of penetration would be a sin.

    Age 22: I learned that female masturbation existed when a coworker made a crass joke about it. I literally did not know that it was possible for women to masturbate or orgasm before that time.

    Age 16 (when I first started dating) – 25 (when I got married): I believed that having sex was like getting drunk. One minute you’d be making out — and then suddenly you’d be so aroused you would black out, all your clothes would come off, you wouldn’t even be able to think rationally enough to grab a condom, and you’d wake up naked and pregnant.

  10. hahaha! Carolyn! I’m sorry to laugh, but it’s so nice to find a kindred spirit. I can relate to so much of this. I definitely also skipped to the end of book chapters or closed my eyes during kissing scenes in films and television.

    Age 21: Home from college for the weekend, I asked my little sister (who was still in high school) what “69” meant. She laughed and said, “just think about it.” I said, “I HAVE BEEN. I have no idea what it could possibly mean—I just know it is a joke about sex, somehow.” She said, “It’ll come to you someday.” A few years later, it did.

    Age 25: I had a boyfriend break up with me after he made a crass joke about women masturbating and I said, “Haha, that’s so weird. Is that even possible?” He could not conceive of continuing to be with a woman who knew so very little about sex; he replied: “I don’t think it’s going to work out. I mean, what if we got married? I wouldn’t even know how to help you.” In retrospect, I’m very, very, very glad things didn’t work out with dude-who-told-crass-jokes-and-couldn’t-help-me, but I also decided I needed to educate myself. After crying all week over the break-up, I texted a guy I had dated for a week in college just before we both graduated and moved far away. He was a lapsed Catholic who knew everything but had respected that I was devout LDS knowing nothing. I asked him if he could tell me about the female body, and, in his defense, he didn’t take it up as an opportunity to belittle me, take advantage of me, or embarrass me. He called me from his grad program in Korea and explained everything to me over the phone that I wanted to know (I remember thinking, “So THAT’S what a clitoris is! It’s a body part!”). Then he told me it was going to be all right, and that I would figure things out. Weirdly, it was one of the better conversations I can recall having with another human being, and I’m so glad he recognized where I was coming from and didn’t make it crass.

    By the time I did get married and had sex at age 27, I was considerably more educated, and I’m glad that I was able to start my relationship with my husband knowing basic human biology and being able to just enjoy the experience. (My husband also did not complain that I knew a thing or two. And I’m not being crass. I mean, it was a really excellent experience to meet each other as equals figuring things out together but neither of us terrified or feeling completely ignorant. I honestly think it made a much better start of a sexual relationship than it would have been had I married in my 21-year-old ignorance.)

  11. Carolyn says:

    Laughing was the point!

    I didn’t know what “69” was until I was 26 or so…it randomly came up a year into my marriage! My husband knew — I most definitely had never heard that phrase.

    I also commented on your other post a while back, but at age 20 I made a joke in an LDS Institute about engaging in “foreplay” with my new boyfriend — because I thought “foreplay” was a synonym for “making out!”

  12. Sex was a bad word in our house, but I managed to figure things out from a pretty early age thanks to a combination of girl talk at sleepovers and a “How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex” book that my parents FOR SURE didn’t realize was accessible (and the contents of which they never put to use ;-) Hi mom, love you!!). But to their credit I was never opted out of sex ed, and we lived in places with comprehensive, explicit curriculum. Most of the mechanics-of-sex information wasn’t new to me, but I do remember internally scoffing at a boy for asking what oral sex is (phone sex, DUH), then being HORRIFIED at the answer.

  13. My “talk” about sex was my father giving me the pamphlet “For Young Men Only” by Boyd K Packer. My dad entered my bedroom chucked me the booklet and told me to read it and ask him any questions. That was it.

    While I’m on good terms with my father today, but remains one of the things I still hold against him and the church. Truckloads of guilt associated with anything like sex tainted my teenage years and part of my marriage.

  14. My east coast elementary school taught me about puberty and my high school taught me about abstinence and lots of STD’s. My parents never gave me the sex talk—I asked about it later, and they felt bad about it and reassured me they had improved a lot with my little siblings—and instead I learned a lot of stuff from overheard school bus conversations with terms that would fit better in UrbanDictionary than a classroom. Eventually I just started looking things up myself (on UrbanDictionary) so I didn’t have to guess, and every time I did I went “Oh, gross! That’s what that means?” and felt guilty about it. It took time to get used to the idea of sex until I didn’t think it was gross anymore.

    Then one day at BYU, a freshman hallmate was taking a human development class and they covered the reproduction unit. She came to our apartment absolutely terrified. Then we had to teach her the basics and answer her questions, and let me say, none of us were very qualified. I remember she was so devastated and sad, and she sobbed about being worried her husband would squish her under him! I made an effort to learn more about sex in the following years, and had a couple more, albeit less dramatic, sex talks with different roommates. Then when I got engaged and married, there was a LOT to learn in a small space of time!

    Comprehensive sex education—I don’t care whether it’s from parents or schools, as long as they GET IT DONE and get it done well—is so needed! Especially for women, since you have to grab a mirror to even really know what your vulva looks like, your reproductive health is more fussy, and basically all of the sex ed you get from pop culture is only focused on hot penetrative sex, which isn’t how women usually get orgasms. Knowing how sex works doesn’t cripple you into being powerless to sexual temptation, it empowers you into knowing that sex is a not-scary, not-all-powerful thing that you have control over! We can do better than this!

  15. Well, my sex ed teacher was Colleen McCullough, when I read The Thorn Birds at age 12. I was thinking about reading It this year, but I’ve since decided that I will never be old enough for the sewer scene. (Frankly, I’m impressed it didn’t turn you off to sex forever.)

    I admit that I’ve never understood how people reach adulthood (or even mid-teenagerhood) without learning what sex was. It’s always struck me as somewhat inescapable. I mean, it’s everywhere! But apparently I was just really bad at avoiding the evil influence of The World.

    To be honest, though, I actually learned about sex first from a second-grade peer of mine, who described the mechanics of it to me, but at the time I thought it sounded so gross that probably only perverts did that. So when I got a little older and figured out that was how babies were made, I was like, “Huh. So not just perverts, then.” (Still seemed pretty gross, though.)

    Any sex ed curriculum that doesn’t explain how sperm reaches egg is a waste of time and money. You as a student and your parents as taxpayers were ripped off. Attention, school districts: a paperback copy of The Thorn Birds is only $6.47 on Amazon. (Used copies as low as $0.25, plus shipping.)

  16. I guess more kids need to grow up on a farm. When I was 8, my 9 year old cousin explained to me exactly what was happening while the bull was on top of the cow. My dad had previously told me they were giving each other piggy back rides. The same cousin showed me a porn flick on some illegal bootleg satellite channel his parents had a few years after that. I feel a little of my innocence was robbed from me so I am on the opposite end of the spectrum. I do believe I would have enjoyed a little naïveté.

  17. I was lucky that we had some decidedly adult-level romance novels in our house. And that I got really bored in the summers. And that they weren’t hidden very well. (To be fair I actually learned about the mechanics from a scene where a kid, who had been taught sex ed by her mom, was explaining it to her friends — but the rest of the book was hardly PG-rated.)

    The funny thing is, although that was where I learned the actual mechanics (around age 11 or so), I had some inkling of what was going on from… a Stephen King book. Eyes of the Dragon. In third grade, because my teacher had read it, had forgotten about that one scene, and thought it was a fun fantasy and would be a nice book to read aloud to us. When she got to that one scene she started stammering and finally put it away and never referred to it again. So of course I had to get it from the library. I didn’t quite get it, but I got a vague idea of what was going on.

    This is probably a good thing, because my school’s idea of sex ed was for biology to say we were going to learn it in health class and health class to say we were going to learn it in biology. My mom’s idea of sex ed was to show us a scene she taped from a soap opera where two characters were talking about how it was important to use condoms. Which… sadly, sounds like it was better than some people got.

  18. never forget says:

    Haha, this is a great post.
    For me it was reading at 11 years old Piers Anthony’s Adept series. Then some other fantasy series and it was off to teenage hormones!

  19. I think I was like 6 or 7 when my parents told me about the mechanics of sex. I don’t really remember ever not knowing it, but I have a vague recollection of hearing it for the first time and thinking it was weird and that I wouldn’t have to worry about it for a ling time. The rest came from being a kid in middle school. By the time high school sex ed came along, it was all old news. At BYU I would hear these apocryphal stories of newly married couples not understanding how sex worked and I never believed it because I just had no idea that a person could grow up and go to middle school and high school without learning about sex. But I guess my friends were just perverts.

  20. My parents taught me the mechanics, but I truly learned about it from Clan of the Cave Bear age 12.

  21. Not a Cougar says:

    I truly think the general ignorance (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) of LDS youth about the actual mechanics of sex has come to an end, by and large, due to easy access to pornography. If you’re under 25 you’ve had access to high-speed internet and smartphones since you began high school. Those two factors alone make it highly likely that you have seen pornography, accidentally or not (and please don’t misunderstand, I’m not praising pornography use). I’m sure there are many people who are exceptions to what I believe is the general rule, but I’m willing to bet at least half of active LDS girls and 80% of active LDS boys will have viewed pornography by age 18 (understanding that what constitutes pornography is a can of worms). Of course, learning about sex by watching porn brings its own set of serious problems that are best left to another discussion.

  22. Bro. Jones says:

    Not a Cougar — excellent point, and should be encouragement to modify some of our institutional conversation from “Never watch it!” to “Here’s what you’ve misunderstood from porn.” I actually brought this up in a recent EQ lesson I taught on chastity.

  23. Not a Cougar says:

    Bro. Jones, thanks for that. My own learning experience was a hodgepodge of parents being willing to discuss some of the basics, blunt and straightforward sex-ed in public school, a romance book my mom got from someone and forgot to throw out, and a lot of locker room talk from non-LDS friends. While it would have been ideal to have someone provide a more comprehensive explanation, by the time I left home, I knew what sex was, how a condom worked, and how the the menstrual cycle worked.

  24. wreddyornot says:

    I’m almost 70, a teen in the ’60s. We didn’t have sex education in school in Utah. The girls learned about menstruation in 5th grade (I think) and how to take care of the themselves, but the boys got nothing (at least from formal school) about anything. I had discovered masturbation by happenstance in the bath tub sliding back and forth on my tummy when I was so young that I’m thinking it was even still during the time that my mother still washed my hair before giving me a few minutes to play before having to get out. Sex topics were very common among some of the kids in my Davis County Utah neighborhood growing up. Before I was twelve, a friend and I had talked about having sex with a neighbor girl that was our age or a year older who’d already shown us her boobs and privates through her front screen door. We were a little fuzzy of course about how it would all work out, but we felt we had the gist of it. (Incidentally, I remained a virgin until after I served a mission and met my wife.) My parents had given me a brochure about sex when I was 11 or 12 to read, but by then my older neighbor boys had told me everything I thought I needed to know and the brochure was only slightly informative. Both my mother (an inactive Mormon) and my wife’s mother (from a very active Mormon family) had given birth to children out of marriage at young ages and gave those two kids up for adoption. Through DNA I’ve been able to meet my half-sister and half-sister-in-law in the past couple of years.

    I’m surprised at how ignorant many faithful members remained for so, so long. I have to admit that most of the “knowledgeable” people that I knew growing up weren’t from very active member families or weren’t members of the church at all, even in Davis County.

  25. Bro. Jones says:

    Editing to add: man, I’m doing such a better parenting job than so many of our parents. I have roughly semi-annual “talks” with my daughter, all of which have been geared to her age. At 3-4 it was about touching and privacy, 5-6 was more about basic anatomy, 7-8 have been about puberty. She’s always felt comfortable asking questions and we’ve always felt comfortable asking them.

    Decades ago: my dad hardly talked with me about anything at all, let alone sex. My mom was simultaneously a hippie/free love type and also neurotic about sex (probably because she was a CSA survivor), so she managed to expose me to pornography, lampoon Mormons and the concept of chastity, and at the same time instill a strong sense of shame and inadequacy in me. (“You’re sixteen and you haven’t kissed a girl yet? Hah. Maybe find an easier girl than those stuck up Mormons you hang out with!”) I’m definitely a better parent than that!

    So yeah, if it’s any consolation: non-LDS parents of the 70s/80s were pretty awful at sex ed, too.

  26. Bro. Jones says:

    Related to puberty: I informed my daughter that, if she’s not embarrassed, I wanted to celebrate her first period with a magnificent event. She asked for a trip to Quebec City and a stay in Le Chateau Frontenac. I find this acceptable. :D

  27. My sex ed at home was nothing. I took sex ed as a sophomore in high school, and I remember being so excited because I was going to finally learn how sex worked. I was disappointed as I was taught only ‘here are all the bad things that happen if you have sex before you’re married’ and nothing about the actual mechanics of sex. From what I hear that is basically still what the kids are getting (high school in rural Idaho). My friends were as ignorant as I was. The mother of one friend shared with us that sex was messy and horrible, and that she was so glad she was done having children so she never had to do it again.
    The next semester I resorted to Google for answers, where I learned and saw much more than I bargained for. I am lucky it didn’t lead to a lifelong problem with pornography addiction. In college I did more research (I ditched the porn and found more reputable info), so I went into marriage at 22 with good information about my own body and sex in general, and have always had a positive sexual relationship with my husband.
    I turned out okay, but I doubt I am an isolated case learning about sex from porn. I hate to think how badly things could have gone.

  28. Jack Hughes says:

    When it came time for each successive stage of comprehensive sex ed in my west coast public schools, my Baby Boomer parents would murmur about how “inappropriate” the curriculum was, and continued to ramble about the deplorable state of public education…but ultimately they never opted me out, because that would place the onus back on them to teach me about sex, which they all but avoided. I learned quite a lot in school (good), but also from friends and the media (not always good), and I still had a lot to figure out on my own, and eventually, with my wife (awkward at first). For one, I wish I had been taught about consent–not that I ever did anything untoward, but in hindsight I realize that as a young man I put myself in situations that easily could have gone in a different direction and would have ended up causing a lot of pain and grief for my then-girlfriend, not to mention getting me in a lot of trouble unnecessarily. I wish my parents had talked about sex more openly, especially to dispel a lot of the fear-based rhetoric I was getting at church–I came of age when HIV/AIDS awareness was becoming a national conversation, and more than a few youth leaders framed the situation thusly: “See? Premarital sex will KILL YOU!”

    I’m certain things will improve in this area now that the Baby Boomer generation is largely out of the child-rearing business.

  29. I guess I’m glad my parents bought us a set of World Book Encyclopedias and encouraged reading. I learned all the mechanics when I looked it up at about 10.

  30. Sounds like Steven King is a really bad person for society.

  31. My parents kept a copy of The Joy of Sex hidden in a bottom dresser drawer under some old blankets. When I was 15 or so we moved, and as part of packing, my Dad found it. Right there and then, he offered it to me if I wanted it. I (a teenage girl) was HORRIFIED. But as much because he was giving it to me as because I didn’t want him to know that I (and my siblings) had found it years ago and already peeked at it many, may times. The funny thing is that I don’t remember the book at all, other than finding the drawings hugely embarrassing. I never had any confusion about how sex worked though. My own body though… Well that’s a different story.

  32. Hedgehog says:

    My mother explained the mechanics when I was 8 years old, so it feels like I was always aware of that. As a teen I read a great deal, including books about teen relationships that might have been disapproved had my parents or YW leaders been aware of them. My grandmother was a big fan of Catherine Cookson and similar authors, so I learnt a great deal about human relationships from the books she passed on. One novel in particular introduced me to the idea of female sexuality as an empowering thing. Sadly I can remember neither the title nor the author. Reading it was a rather guilty pleasure, and at the time I was quite conflicted thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t be reading it, but I have to say that I have never regretted reading it. Looking back it had a powerful effect, and I am glad I read it. It was one passed on by my grandmother, so thank you Grandma.

  33. Hedgehog says:

    And the book was: The Flowers of the Field by Sarah Harrison. Thank you google!

  34. AP Biology, circa 1986: “Kids, the State of Utah doesn’t permit me to teach you about birth control, so don’t read Chapter 29 in your books. That would be Chapter 29, on page 386. Don’t read it.”

  35. My parents never talked to me about anything. Not sex, not puberty, not menstruation. My older sister gave me a high level summary of the mechanics of sex and school covered puberty/periods, but my mom never said boo to me. My four year old daughter has already had a more thorough conversation than I did.

  36. When I was six my mom was pregnant so my parents rented the Nova episode about human reproduction, on VHS from the library. When it was over my parents asked my sister and I if we had any questions. I had one for my dad. Didn’t it hurt when he entered mom? He said no.

  37. Anyone who follows this blog who hasn’t commented yet needs to do so, for some reason we all seem to be interested. (And that’s a good thing), but I must say I am feeling a teensy bit flushed…
    Seriously, nice post – important topic. Thank you Grover.

  38. MDearest says:

    I got zero help/education/menstrual guidance/throwaway comments regarding sexual matters from my parents. If sex intruded into our conversation it was quickly shut down. It was just too shameful a thing to recognize its existence, and good parents sheltered their children (or just daughters?) and defacto left it to the school and the streets. Anyone who knows my history can tell how well that turned out. This was not uncommon for the kids who grew up to be baby boomer parents. I can’t remember when I learned about the mechanics of sex, I just remember that I cobbled together an understanding bit by bit from other sources than my parents. I found a girlie magazine someone had thrown out, read a slightly explicit novel (Forever Amber) in the 7th grade; I now recall much more about the historical stuff in it, and that it raised the eyebrows of one of my teachers. I did a lot of reading. I read “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask” as a teenager when it was first published. Recently my kids received a vintage copy of it from their grandma (the Presbyterian one) and we browsed it, laughing at the errors. I didn’t learn about real-world LGBT stuff until I was an adult woman with children. Q came much later. I didn’t learn about consent until about 10 years ago. We’re all still somewhere on this learning curve.

    My memory of teaching my kids is a handful of extremely awkward and short conversations, full permission for whatever the public schools and YM/YW taught, including a regular schedule of bishop’s interviews. (FTR those two bishops during their adolescence inspired my trust and still do– we dodged that bullet.) I made much more effort made to be open and truthful than what I experienced, with much less shame about questions, non-sexual nudity, etc. I didn’t eradicate all shame mind you, but made a concerted effort to model a different approach. I asked my adult daughter yesterday what I did to help educate her, she cited the awkward conversations and recalled that I gave her tampons and it helped when I pointed out the detailed instructions in the box, and said she learned a lot on the school bus. I have to say that most of their childhood and adolescence was largely pre-internet, which were relatively more sheltered times. Today’s parents face a much more daunting task.

    If I had to educate children now, I would use as my primary resource the Our Whole Lives program which is taught by UCC and UUA churches. Yes, you can get sex-ed at sunday school, just don’t tell your Mormon grandma. Google it (OWL sex education) and be amazed and encouraged; there are several different forms available. The young people I know who take the curricula learn about human sexuality as they are developmentally ready, and at age 14 attend 21 weekly classes taught by two trained instructors, one male and one female. They are given full information, everything we know at present in an effort to arm them with accurate (as possible) knowledge that they need for their futures. Included is usual stuff we think sex-ed should consist of–anatomy and physiology, STDs, reproduction, etc. And also attention to what’s developmentally appropriate about diversity, consent, guiding values, self-worth, responsibility, justice. If I had the opportunity to teach my children again, this would be the template. The youngsters taking this are as well-prepared as they can be, before they are challenged by the things I had to navigate, and perhaps worse. Their parent told me, “Its the first time my kid has never been late to sunday school.”

  39. Lona Gynt says that anybody who follows this blog and hasn’t commented needs to. I hesitate because my “sex education” was being sexually abused. I didn’t understand what was happening so had no way of protecting myself. So, my kids got the “if anyone touches you where your swim suit covers, tell me about it” at two or three, then a children’s illustrated ” how babies are made” book read to them at three or four as if it was just another bed time story, and the book left out for them to read as long as they were still in my home. So, I don’t know if my children even remember any official “sex education” because they were so young when they got it. Then when their Utah biology book had the chapter on the reproductive system cut out of it, we had another discussion because they didn’t understand the censorship and felt angry. That was harder to explain than the sex Ed had been.

  40. Anna, I am saddened to hear of the abuse, and find your courage to comment very tender. My plea to have everyone comment was not meant to be entirely serious, it was meant to be wry and ironic. But this is, however, a serious topic, and I apologize if my comment or tone was inappropriate or misunderstood. Every child needs to be able to be protected, and any effort at appropriate education can only help. Thank you for your brave willingness to share and underscore how we need to be able to give our children the information and resources that can best protect them.

  41. Merely as one more data point, note that in Utah elementary schools (I think 5th grade, but might have been 4th) in the 1960s, we had a “maturation” meeting. Our mothers were invited. It was very positive, very thorough, and somewhat hands on — sanitary equipment was different in the 1960s (google “sanitary belt”), and we practiced tying a Kotex pad to the belt. There were diagrams of the female reproductive system, and a calendar to teach us how to track and predict future periods, and clear explanations of everything. I was totally prepared when the time came.

    Beyond that, I learned about the mechanics from a book on the family bookshelf. Wish I could remember the title — it was a set of 6 or 8 volumes, mostly for kids (a volume of nursery rhymes, one of fairy tales, one of poetry, one of crafts, that sort of thing) but with one volume for parents. I had looked at that volume earlier but it was boring, long chapters about stuff I didn’t care about. But when I was 11, give or take a year, I read the chapter on teaching your children about sex. There were diagrams, and very frank explanations, although I was still mystified by much of it. After thinking about it for a few days, it suddenly became clear, or clear enough for my needs at that age.

  42. Ardis, I Googled “sanitary belt” and I suddenly feel like I have so much less to complain about in my life.

    Reading through these comments brings on a rush of a very mixed emotions: there are comments hilarious, alarming, and tragic.

    Anna, I am so sorry that you went through that. My fear of my children being taken advantage of has been my #1 reason for letting them know as early as their toddler years what consent means and what their bodies do and why certain body parts are deemed “private.” I also anticipate that internet pornography will be their sex educator if I don’t lay down a more credible foundation of knowledge for them first.

    Thanks, everyone, for these most excellent comments.

  43. As a young child I asked my parents where babies came from, and they were very frank with me about it. I then told my entire Primary class!!! Then I forgot all about it til I was about 8, when my mom planted an age appropriate book about human reproduction in the kid books (I was a voracious reader). I thought it was absolutely hilarious. It was less hilarious when my parents had the family watch ‘The Miracle of Life’ for Family Home Evening. So, I understood where babies came from, but it wasn’t until after I was married at 21 that I even knew what an orgasm was. (HS sex ed was basically ‘don’t do it or you’ll get pregnant and die.)

  44. Ardis, from your description I am totally thinking those were the Childcraft books, which we had and love and which I took for my own children (if one wasn’t sleeping in the room right now with them I’d go and look). I am now totally judging child!me for never looking in the For Parents volume — it wasn’t like I didn’t get into literally all the other literature in the house that was supposed to be for parents (despite my previous comment, most of which was not racy — but I learned way more at a younger age than I really probably should have about the techniques my parents were learning about to Parent a Gifted Child).

  45. We had sex ed in my PA high school in both 9th and 11th grade. The 9th grade program was a bit lazy (taught by the male coach). The female coach did better in 11th. We also, incidentally, watched a fairly explicit childbirth film, and at the end it said it was from BYU (which almost nobody in my high school had even heard of in the early 80s).

  46. Aussie Mormon says:

    We started our sex-ed in grade 3 or 4, with the basics*, getting progressively more explicit until grade 10*, after which the sex-ed stopped.

    *super basic anatomy, condoms exist for safe sex, even though there wasn’t a lot of talk about what sex actually was outside of the way babies are made
    **the mechanics of intercourse

  47. cahn, I think you’re right! Childcraft sounds right. If you check your set and find what I’m remembering, I’d very much appreciate a heads-up, with the exact title and other title page information, so I can hunt them up. AEParshall (at) aol (dot) com.

  48. cahn, I think I found the set on Amazon — we didn’t have the full set, apparently but I find an edition where the bindings look very familiar. Thanks!

  49. Ardis, email sent (though it looks like you have found them yourself). Sorry about the late reply — I just checked back on the comments here (crazy week). My edition doesn’t look exactly like you remember yours looking, but close enough that I’m willing to believe it may have looked like that in the past (perhaps you had an older printing) and shuffled around in mine.