My mom likes to tell the story at family gatherings and other social occasions. “When I approached Matt and told him it was time for us to have, ‘the talk,’ he replied, ‘Sure mom. What do you want to know?’”
It is a chuckle-worthy story that illustrates two things – one accurately and one inaccurately. As a teenager, and into my 20s, my sexual confidence often bordered on arrogance. But it also might lead one of my mom’s guests to believe we had open and honest communication about sex and sexuality. She tried, and so did my dad. But they both viewed “the sex talk” as something to check off of a list. We did not engage in the kind of honest vulnerability that might have led to a healthy education about sex and intimacy for me as an adolescent. I don’t blame them, really. I have yet to meet anyone from their generation who could talk about sex as openly as is required to lead youths to a healthy adult outcome. My generation isn’t doing much better.
I am 49 years old. It was a long time ago when I was experiencing puberty. Long enough that I definitely conflate the influence and the education I received from my parents with the formal education I received from the public school system in my small town in Southern Indiana. As I recall, the messages from those two of the four sources of my sexual education were basically the same: sex is for love and marriage, and if you do commit the sinful, irresponsible act of premarital sex, use a condom or you will die of AIDs. I came of age as the HIV/AIDs epidemic exploded onto the scene, so the latter of those two messages was impactful, and easily received. The popular media (the third sexual education influence on me at the time) certainly joined my parents and my school in screaming about the importance of condom use. Birth control was a generic term that included lots of methods of contraception that might prevent unwanted pregnancy, but would do nothing to prevent me from dying a tragic death. My friends and I knew that if we were going to do it, we had to wrap it.
Proud of the condom rings worn into their leather wallets, my friends were the fourth influence on my sexual education during my youth. I heard stories about people who believed that French kissing or sticking a finger into a belly button led to pregnancy. As bad as my formal and informal sexual education experience was in the mid 1980s, it wasn’t that bad. I never believed ridiculous myths like that. We were ignorant for sure, but we were never oblivious.
Probably the most regrettable and damaging area of ignorance for me, and millions of kids in my generation, was the complete misunderstanding of sexual pleasure. I was a boy. I knew from masterbation that orgasm and ejaculation felt great. I knew that a hand-job, a blow-job, or sexual intercourse felt even better. I assumed that oral sex or penetration felt just as good for the girls with whom I was experimenting in high school and college. I didn’t know what a female orgasm looked like. I assumed that the longer I could last, and the faster and harder I could pump, the better the experience for the girl. I did not understand foreplay or clitoral stimulation. Stick it in and think about baseball, was the full extent of my sexual prowess.
With the three hours that my school system spent on sex education (which was two-and-a-half hours more than my parents spent on the topic), there wasn’t time for anything more than focus on STDs and teen pregnancy. Granted, those are two decent things to emphasize. But they aren’t the only issues. I often argue that adolescent sexual education, with the four aforementioned influences (school, parents (who brought religious influence into their brief messaging), media and friends) set me up for an adulthood of problems with sexual satisfaction and intimacy.
And what about the females of my generation? The same or similar messaging presented them with even more confusion and challenges. What am I doing wrong? Why doesn’t sex feel good? I have had dozens of conversations, as an adult, with women who wondered what was wrong with them because having sex with awkward and inexperienced boys either hurt or felt dirty or both.
Pleasure wasn’t part of the equation.
Pretending that the act of penile penetration, with a young man she is attracted to, is enough to bring sexual pleasure for a young woman, without the other necessary conditions and context, is absurd for the majority of females. And yet, the needs of the majority were completely ignored as I grew up and matured. I would argue that the topic of pleasure is both the most important topic in sexual education, and still grossly underdiscussed in formal and informal sexual education in this country.
As a writer and podcaster in the alcoholism recovery community, I spend a lot of time interacting with people attempting to recover their marriages from the ravages of alcohol addiction. Many of the couples with whom I engage have sheepishly confirmed that my experiences, and the experiences of my wife, align with their experiences related to woefully inadequate sexual education and the resulting aftermath. For this reason, my wife’s experience is both typical, and relevant here.
My wife experimented with sex in high school and college. The only pleasure she felt was a thrill from receiving attention from boys for whom she felt an attraction. She made the right sounds, and moved her hips in the appropriate motions, but there was never any danger of her experiencing an orgasm during sexual encounters with young, inexperienced men.
If she wasn’t going to get the pleasure that was advertised as the reason for having sex in the first place, she had to find an alternative motivation for engaging in sexual acts. For my wife, as for so many women in my generation, sex became transactional. If he bought her dinner or gave her a ride to the party or let her wear his jacket, “something” was expected in return. I know this is incredibly crass, but it illustrates my point accurately. While my wife and I went to high schools over a thousand miles apart, and we wouldn’t meet until my 21st birthday, our high school sexual experiences were tragically similar. For parties, the boys brought the beer and booze, and the girls showed their appreciation by hooking up with the boys. It was unspoken. It certainly did not fit into any definition of prostitution with which I was familiar at the time, but transactions were clearly taking place.
Just to make the challenges more daunting for budding adolescents with laughable sexual educations who were under the influence of alcohol and assuming pleasure was a two-way street, the transactional nature of sexual relations was not required, but it was expected. Here’s what I mean by that: I never felt like a female had given up her right to consent because of anything I did for her. Never. I often felt like I did enough to earn oral sex or sexual intercourse. I was often disappointed when the relationship was not consummated in some way, but I never felt entitled. This is an incredible gray-area for people with immature prefrontal cortexes to navigate while experimenting with, and often abusing, alcohol.
I now have a crystal-clear understanding of the importance of clear, sober consent for both the females and the males (or any combination of gender identities) in a sexual transaction. But in the 1990s, the message was far more muddled. I recently watched the 1977 film, Saturday Night Fever. In that John Travolta movie, the lead female character is basically raped in the back of a car while the rapist’s buddies pretend not to know what is happening. As the movie moves on, the rape victim continues to interact with her attacker and his friends as if nothing happened. When I was in high school and college, the bar of appropriate behavior had advanced to the point where that was clearly unacceptable, and personally unthinkable, but the idea that if I behaved like a generous gentleman, there would likely be a sexual payoff, was alive and well. Consent is a black and white issue. When I was in my teens and 20s, we naively navigated a lot of gray.
How does this formal, informal and experiential sexual education translate into adult navigation of sex and intimacy for me and the people with whom I engage professionally? About as poorly as you might imagine.
I had a demanding job, a pretty high sex drive, and a need for stress relief. I loved my wife deeply, and intimate connection made me feel safe. Orgasm made me relax. I wanted physical contact in our young marriage on a very consistent basis.
My wife worked too, both in and out of the house, and she wanted to be appreciated for her contribution to our young family. My penis was not the appreciation she had in mind. Conversation, non-sexual touch, and acts of service to care for our shared household were forms of intimacy for her. I didn’t understand, and had not yet learned to consciously separate sex from intimacy.
Somewhere along the way, through experience and reading, we both learned about female sexual pleasure. Learning that I had been “doing it wrong” for years was a blow to my ego for sure. And for my wife, after years of engaging in transactional sex, chaging her mindset to look at sexual contact as a source of pleasure was a monumental cognitive shift. A shift that took years of patience and effort.
Add alcohol (the only thing as effective as orgasm at stress relief for me), and we were destined for relationship failure, sexual and otherwise. Sobriety was the second hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished. Due in large part to the horrendous sexual education I received for the first 25ish years of my life, recovering my marriage was the only thing harder.
Preventing unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are important issues. But they aren’t the only issues. Pleasure, emotional connection (intimacy), gender identity, sexual orientation, libido, consent, sex-positive language, and the destigmatization of all of it are incredibly important topics that effect us for the rest of our lives. Maybe we can spare a little more than three hours of health class in fifth grade.
If you can relate, and you and your spouse are trying to recovery your marriage from alcoholism, please consider joining us in the Marriagevolution.