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Growing up, the best technology I had to learn how sex worked was the written word. A little creativity with a library card can work wonders.
Note: This story contains graphic descriptions of my own sexual experiences. If reading about my sex life might be TMI for you, then you’ll want to skip this post.
When I was growing up, I was extremely curious about how sex worked, but because of my conservative religious upbringing, I had no obvious way to learn anything about it. All I knew was that sex was something that should only happen between a married man and his wife. No one ever told me outright that it was shameful or embarrassing, but the fact that no one ever talked about it — or when it did come up, how uncomfortable everyone acted — taught me that sex was something that you weren’t supposed to talk about. Since I couldn’t ask anyone about it, I ended up turning to books for my sex education. I absolutely loved to read, and I devoured as many books as I could get my hands on. I kept a special lookout for anything that might have to do with sex.
When I was in about fourth grade, I persuaded one of my friends to loan me her children’s book on where babies came from. I still remember the pages: a naked man across the page from a naked woman, and the two of them in bed together in the middle. I felt a chill run down my spine when I read that “the man places his penis inside the woman’s vagina.” Finally, I had some idea of how the logistics of intercourse worked! That book was enough to satisfy my curiosity until I was into puberty.
At that point I realized that some of the R-rated movies my friends were getting to see contained “sexual situations”. My parents forbid me from watching any R movies until I was 18, but I was dying to know what I was missing. This is when it hit me that many movies are based on books…maybe it was true for R-rated movies, too?
I searched the library card catalog for titles of R-rated films which I had heard had racy scenes. I read both “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Sliver” excitedly, savoring the feeling of reading forbidden content right under my parents’ noses. In the end, I was pretty disappointed with both of these books. They each had maybe one interesting sex scene, but that was it. Besides, there wasn’t really enough detail in those scenes for someone who had never had sex to make sense of what was going on.
I still remember the day I was flipping through one of the many mail-order catalogs sent to our house, and in between the pages of housewares and greeting cards I found a listing for a collection of Victorian erotica. I don’t know that it was labeled “erotica” specifically, maybe it was tales of Victorian romance. My heart sank as I realized I had no way to order the book without my parents’ knowledge. As I read the description more closely, however, I saw it listed the titles and authors of some of the books which were excerpted. I carefully wrote down each title, and after my next trip to the library, I returned home in triumph with “My Life and Loves” by Frank Harris.
I could not believe my good fortune. Frank Harris described in great detail all of the sexual encounters of his youth: the women he slept with, what they looked like, and how they fucked. I bookmarked my favorite scenes. I would read the same scene over and over until I was dripping wet and then begin touching myself, trying to recreate with my hands what Frank had done with his lover. To this day, I consider it the best book I’ve ever checked out from a library. I never actually finished the whole book because as Frank got older he stopped describing his exploits in detail, and I quickly lost interest.
My last major innovation in sex education growing up was the internet. By the time I was in high school, we had dial-up internet service at home. Unfortunately, the only computer we had was in the room next door to my parents bedroom. This meant that the only time I could look at porn was when my parents weren’t at home (which wasn’t nearly often enough). I don’t remember how I discovered literotica.com, but when I found stories that I liked, I printed them out and brought them down to my bedroom. I read the stories over and over again while masturbating, and I didn’t have to worry about my parents’ screen surfing over my shoulder. I still have the first two printouts that I made, tucked away in a drawer by my bed.
About the middle of my junior year in high school, I started spending a lot of time on instant messenger and internet chat rooms. I was just having conversations with guys about what we would do to each other if we were physically together — first just flirting, and then more intense activities. The chats were fantastic. It was like interactive erotica, with my partners responding to me in real time. I loved it. I would keep printouts of the chat logs under my bed in a three-ring binder with my other erotica, reading them over and over while playing with myself.
The amazing thing was that during my chats, my partners would tell me that I had made them come, even though in real life I had almost no experience with sex. I had read enough erotica and I knew my body well enough to speak the right language. I could tease my partner, beg for him to fuck me, and talk about how wet I was and how deep he was pushing inside of me. I squirmed as I waited for the long pause that meant he was finishing himself off. (While I attempted some one-handed typing, it was generally too difficult for me to focus on the conversation while trying to come at the same time. I was more than happy to run back down to my bedroom after the conversation was over and climax there.)
It wasn’t until I was in college that I found out there was a word for my chats: cyber sex, or cybering. I hadn’t thought of it as sex at all at the time (or maybe I didn’t want to).
That was how my erotic education began: with the written word. I could read about sex, I could talk about having sex, and I could make myself and my partners feel good, which made me more eager than ever to do all of the things I was talking about in real life.
Looking back, as much fun as I had trying to scrounge up information about sex, I wish that I had had someone I could trust to talk about real-life experience. Trying to learn from erotica is about as realistic as trying to learn from other porn–which is to say, not very. Sure, it was hot, and I got off on it…but it doesn’t do justice to the experience of making love to another person. You don’t have the moments of awkwardness or humor, and you don’t have to learn how to build a relationship with another person. Besides which, trying to learn about sex without anyone finding out feels lonely and shameful. I’m grateful that, eventually, I did have opportunities to learn that were much more positive, and I think I’ve turned out just fine.