When I was in about 5th grade, I was hanging out with my neighbor friend Nancy, and we were talking about sex. We talked a lot about sex, and we talked a lot about bodies, and how bodies have sex. We had each been newly initiated into the cadre of people who knew the basics of sex. Our mother’s had talked to us about it, but those lessons has been recently reinforced at school.
The 5th grade boys and girls were separated into adjoining classrooms, classrooms that usually had the connecting door open. Today the door was closed, the shades were drawn, the lights were dimmed, and all us girls were quiet, nervous. The luminescent, white screen came down, and the VHS machine and accompanying projector whirred to life. Fallopian tubes and ovaries, urethras and testes, all came to life in a scientific animation of bodily biological realities. We learned about wet dreams, which were spoke of as analogous to menstruation. These were our bodies; these things that were happening to these bodies– bleeding, reproduction, desire for sex—were things that were going to happen to our bodies, were things that our bodies were going to do to us.
It was terrifying. It was enthralling. It made us curious to know more. My step-mom had read me Where Do We Come From? She had gifted me a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves, and she had made clear to me that I was to be aware of my body, how it felt, and to take ownership of that body as my own. Nancy and I talked about all of these things. What would sex feel like? We asked each other. How gross would it be to get our periods? Would bleeding hurt? Would sex hurt? Did these things have to happen? We talked about how embarrassing it was for Lisa, who had to wear a bra already. I confided that ever since the video I’d been carrying around a folded up maxi-pad in my pocket so that if the deluge began I would be prepared. I lived in fear of the impending bleed.
We gave heterosexual sex a great deal of thought, and when we were done thinking about that, we began to wonder how other kinds of sex would work. What, for example, were the logistic of homosexual sex? We pondered: how would they do it? We imagined all these bodies coming together, male-female, male-male. When we came to ponder female-female, we were stumped. We had been presented with sex as an act that requires penetration. We thought it through. If men could penetrate, and both women and men could be penetrated, but women could not penetrate, then how could women engage in sex? Could there be sex without penetration? Our 10 year old minds could not wrap our brains around this seeming conundrum.
Nancy’s mom Mrs. Johnson was in the kitchen when we trooped in with muddy shoes, and she sat us down for a snack. “Mom,” Nancy began, “how do lesbians have sex?” Mrs. Johnson looked stricken.
“Where did you hear about that?” She asked. At the time, I didn’t know why she would want to know that, but now, as a parent myself, I know she wanted context. We had none to provide but our own imaginations. She sent me home before I had a chance to eat my Fig Newtons, and suggested I ask my step-mom. I ran home in the gathering dusk, visions of bodily forms pressing together dancing in my mind along with the wind-blown leaves. I did not ask my step-mom. I looked in Our Bodies Ourselves, but I did not find the answer. I learned more words, I sought out more answers. I asked my aunt what a blow job was, and she laughed at some length, then asked where I heard about that and why I was asking her and not my mother. When Tim Hall called me a slut in 6th grade I came home and asked my step-mom what that meant, only to hear the familiar refrain “where did you hear that word?” (When I told her, she called the boy’s mother.)
These words and ideas are everywhere. These words and ideas spring forth from the imagination, peers, media. My first exposure to the concept of a blow job was in the late 1980’s when a black and white, pornographic newspaper blew against my feet while crossing the street in Times Square. My Uncle Sid had a stack of Playboys on an end table in the foyer. My Dad had an Esquire magazine in the bathroom. My friends and I had vivid imaginations. We wanted to know how bodies work, how bodies work in tandem, how pleasure is given and received. We were curious about sex organs, sex acts, the role of men and women as penetrators and receptors. We wanted to know what people do, and what we were supposed to do. We wanted to know what would be expected. We wanted to know what to expect. We wanted to know how to relate to our own bodies, how to relate to other people’s bodies, how to organize our ideas about men, women, bodily interactions and operations.
In the fraught debate and righteous conversations about the functionality of transgender people, gender queer, gender fuck, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, heterosexual, non-normative, bros, and basics, we forget that what is at the root of the questioning of these identities and frameworks is curiosity. We are curious. We are interested. We want to know. There is a little social media statement that keeps going around that says “if you can’t tell the gender of a person walking down the street, don’t worry about it!” There are transgender activists who balk at being asked details about the transgender body, or sexual practices of those bodies. It is as though asking personal questions about the sexuality of bodies is something we ought not do. But why? We human beings have been wanting to ask, and the more brazen among us have been asking, these same questions since we were children.
If we are to live in an age when all of the various multifaceted arrangements of mind and body are to be tolerated, accepted, celebrated, then it should come as no surprise that we want to know how they work, how they penetrate and/or receive, how they experience and give pleasure, how they interact with their own reproductive organs, and the reproductive organs of their sexual partners. These are not new questions. We asked them about heterosexual behaviors, we asked them about homosexual behaviors, and we will continue to ask them, whether these be behaviors and modes of sex which we would like to participate in or not.
There is no shame in being curious about the human body and all of its aspects. Yes, I want to know how people have sex and how they experience pleasure. I want to know how they have babies and raise families. I want to know not so I can judge people and their practices, but so I can have a better understanding of my fellow human beings and our shared experiences. When there are things about which we do not know, why is it considered insulting that we should ask? Why are we scolded for seeking to explore the ideas and practices of others of our kind?
There is fear here, and resentment, all around. There is an assumption, that if a person wishes to know about the practices or experiences of an individual who hails from a different culture, is of another race, worships according to the tenets of an unfamiliar religion, engages in alternative sexual behaviors, or has a differing view of the roles and definitions of men and women, that the inquirer makes a drastic faux pas of entitlement and privilege in asking. We are all human, we are all planets in the same universe, and we ought not stifle our curiosity about the human body, it’s elements, and functions, simply because context is wanted before answer is proffered. The context is our shared humanity, shared interest in bodies, shared desire to understand sex, and no amount of discomfort, fear of the unknown, or fear of being known, should seek to curb that necessary curiosity.