The winter holidays always meant a few days off from school, and that usually meant my friends and I had a lot of unstructured, unsupervised time, and that usually led to trouble, like the time I told my friend Jerry about sex.
Let me back up a bit.
Learning about sex was like learning there was no Santa Claus, but weirder and more uncomfortable. Supposedly my friend John, whose mother was a gynecological nurse, had explained the facts of life to my first grade class but all I remember was that he told us babies came out of women’s bodies. He didn’t go into specifics about how the babies got there. So I thought pregnancy happened randomly. At a certain point in each woman’s life, I thought, she’d just spontaneously get pregnant. For some it happened multiple times. I held onto this belief through a lot of my childhood. Based on others’ experiences it seems extremely bizarre that at ten years old I still didn’t know that it took two to make a baby.
I knew adults did naked stuff together, primarily from my next door neighbor Mr. Rick who was gone a lot and had boxes and boxes of Playboy and Penthouse magazines in his basement. I mean tons of them. This was the seventies and neither magazine had been around that long, but it seemed like his collection just went on forever. He kept his basement open all the time so his dogs could go in and out. My friend Troy loved going in there and looking at the magazines. I kind of liked it too, but didn’t entirely understand what the big deal was. They were mostly women and mostly naked, which seemed strangely fun, but I didn’t think of it as something that everybody did or that might have some purpose other than just being something to do.
At this time I believed we men were unnecessary. I didn’t think women would undertake wholesale slaughter of roughly half the population, but I also thought that men should treat women with respect and give them equal rights and pay. I was the only boy in my fourth grade class who supported the Equal Rights Amendment. I didn’t do this because I wanted to curry favor with the girls. The whole idea that girls and or boys had cooties and purposely stayed away from each other never seemed to be the case when I was in school. Most of my friends were fellow boys, but I had no problem hanging out with the girls as long as they weren’t playing with Barbies or doing something stupid like that.
To clarify: I no longer thing playing with Barbies is stupid. In fact it was a notion I got over pretty quickly. I was never big on playing with army men either, which are basically just tiny dolls with guns. I realized this when Star Wars came out. I became an insane collector of the action figures and I spent hours playing with them. And one day I heard my mother describe them as “dolls for boys”. Okay, I thought. I play with dolls. They just happen to be special science fiction dolls.
Eventually I’d figure out the basics of reproduction, mainly from what I read about animals. As a kid I had dreams of growing up to be a marine biologist like Jacques Cousteau, so I was always reading about ocean animals, especially octopuses. There was a book about octopuses I checked out from the public library so many times I had it memorized. It included an explanation of octopus sex. I took this information in stride, and even once explained octopus sex to my grandfather. The male develops a modified tentacle as it ages, I told him, and shoves it inside the female. He was silently impressed.
I knew that among octopuses, frogs, lizards, crabs, snakes, and all sorts of other animals that interested me the females would have eggs and the males would fertilize them. It just took me a long time to extrapolate that humans, being animals, must be the same way, that human males do have, to quote Navin Johnson, a “special purpose”. It took me a while because it’s not like nature is consistent. Hermaphroditism is rampant in the animal kingdom, and anyone who’s seen Jurassic Park knows certain reptiles and amphibians can self-fertilize or even change sex under duress. And humans don’t have sex solely for the purpose of reproduction. Neither do some other animals. It was confusing because it was complicated, and made even more complicated by how uncomfortable it makes some adults even when they try to talk to each other about it, never mind trying to explain it to children, and it doesn’t help that a lot of adults find it so uncomfortable that if human beings reproduced by spontaneous parthenogenesis it seems really unlikely we’d have ever developed stand-up comedy or even jokes, but that’s another story.
What finally settled it in my mind was an after-school cartoon I happened to stumble upon about the changes boys’ and girls’ bodies go through when they hit puberty. It showed an egg rolling down the fallopian tube and explained that the egg would dissolve unless it was fertilized by a male. I had no idea how the fertilization took place exactly, but from bits and pieces I’d picked up from other places I realized it would be sort of like how the octopus did it, except that human males are born with a modified tentacle between our legs.
I don’t know why but at eleven or twelve when I first realized all this I felt like it was something I shouldn’t know. I felt like I’d stumbled upon something that was supposed to be kept locked in a box until I was eighteen, or at least until my parents had The Talk with me. I knew about Talk from Very Special Sitcom Episodes that conveniently avoided including the actual talk but made it clear from the context what it was about. And I felt like I would be in serious trouble if my parents ever found out.
So naturally I talked about it. I did manage to keep my parents from knowing what I knew for three or four years, but then one day when we were out of school I talked to my friend Jerry about it. Jerry was a year younger but knew pretty much everything I knew about sex. He’d been in Mr. Rick’s basement too. He’d even torn pages from some of the magazines and kept a pretty big stash hidden in his room. But for some reason when his sister, who was two or three years older, heard me talking to Jerry about sex she was horrified. He was too young to know about that stuff! And she told my mom.
Deep down I like to think my parents were relieved they didn’t have to have The Talk with me in its entirety, that I knew enough that there wasn’t much left for them to fill in. The only bad part was my mother asking me what exactly I’d said to Jerry—his sister was sketchy on the details—and then telling me we’d have The Talk later on. Please, please, please I thought, let her forget about this. Let’s skip The Talk. Having been caught talking about it was punishment enough, I thought, without having to talk about it with my parents. And my mother did seem to forget about it for about a week until one night when I was about to go to bed and she started talking about it. I think it was a spur of the moment thing on her part. And fortunately my mother’s version of The Talk was very sparing on details. The most memorable part was her saying, “Your father and I aren’t embarrassed when we see each other naked because we love each other.” I could almost hear muscles popping in my father’s head as he strained to keep his eyes from rolling. I wish he’d just given in. It would have given both of us permission to acknowledge that I was fourteen, not four.
Fortunately that was the end of it, at least as far as my parents were concerned. I never wanted to talk to them about sex and, beyond that greatly modified version of The Talk, never would. And I wouldn’t become a marine biologist. I also didn’t really understand sex until I’d done it, so there at least I learned something every scientist knows: theoretical knowledge is worthless without fieldwork.