How I Grew Up Frighteningly Ignorant of Sex

I came from a strictly religious (Mormon) family of eleven children. We never had enough money, food, or clothes, though I never thought of myself as poor, either. It was a weird combination of neglect and manipulation. Clothes were heavily regulated to be modest. We were expected to attend all of our church meetings. Cursing was punished with mouth washing. If we didn’t obey immediately, we were spanked. Saturdays and summers were often spent doing chores far into the night. But more than once, my parents accidentally left one of the kids behind at a gas station while we were on a long family trip, and we had to drive back an hour or two to retrieve said child.

When I tell you that my parents “forgot” to tell me about sex in my teenage years, or rather my mother did since it was her job as I was one of the girls, I think this was a genuine oversight of the kind that happened fairly often in my family. It’s one of the hazards of having a big family and not being one of the squeaky wheels. After having talked to my other sisters, I am not sure how helpful my mother’s idea of the “birds and the bees” would actually have been. I suspect she would have been vague on all the parts that I needed information about because she was embarrassed to talk about such things.

I suspect that many people imagine that keeping girls ignorant of their own bodies somehow protects them. Let me assure you that it does not. It only makes us more likely to end up being used by someone who has more information than we do — or possibly who is just as ignorant as we are. I shudder sometimes to think about the near misses I had, and the terror I felt through most of my growing up years because I didn’t understand any useful facts about my own sexuality.

What I recall from my early years reveals terribly dangerous ignorance of my own body and pregnancy which included:

  1. When I was ten, I let my little brother (who was 4) sleep in my bed with me because my parents were out of town on an anniversary trip. For weeks, I was afraid that I would get pregnant from this, because all I knew about getting pregnant was that it happened when a girl and a boy slept together.
  2. I was the victim of a sexually explicit phone call at the age of eight, when a stranger called and asked me if my parents were home. When I revealed that they weren’t, that I was home sick from school, he proceeded to talk me through masturbating myself (not that I had the vocabulary) to call it that. Then the phone call ended and I was left with the disturbing feelings he’d stirred up in me. But I never told my parents about, not even as an adult. I’ve never told anyone about it until right now. I don’t know that I wish my parents had told me what to do when a sexual predator calls, because hopefully most children don’t need to be prepped to deal with that. But I do wish I’d had the vocabulary to talk about it and the sense that my parents would have wanted to know this information to protect me. Instead, I was sure I would somehow get in trouble because talking about my “private parts” wasn’t allowed. Sex was, apparently, dirty and not something “good little girls” would have questions about. I had already internalized the very dangerous idea that no matter how ignorant I was about sex, it was always my fault as a female if it happened.
  3. My little sister came to me a couple of years later about some of the rumors about sex she’d heard on the playground in elementary school. I have no idea if kids just a few years younger were talking about sex more openly than they did when I was the same age or if I was just more oblivious than most (probably the latter — since I spent most recesses reading a book while walking around). I told her what everyone said was a lie because I was sure my parents were not doing “that.”
  4. I started reading James Bond novels when I was thirteen and it was the first time I’d read about sex in such blatant terms. It was useful, in a way. At least I found information somewhere. But let me just say that learning about sex from a James Bond novel is perhaps not the best introduction to being a woman.
  5. While the school “maturation” class in fifth and sixth taught me about menstruation (which was just as well since when I told my mother I had started my period at age eleven, she insisted it was impossible and refused to help me so I had to go to one of my sisters for pads), it didn’t tell me anything about male body parts, male maturation, or about how the parts worked together to create babies, or at least not in any way that made any sense to me.
  6. A male friend convinced me to play “strip poker” in early puberty while we were unsupervised. We didn’t do anything that could have gotten me pregnant, but I wonder how much of this was just happenstance, since I still didn’t know what things would have gotten me pregnant.
  7. At church in my teen years (when you think I should seriously have known more), our bishop (pastor) tried to give us advice about not masturbating. I had no idea what he was talking about. When he said we shouldn’t “get down” in the shower, I thought he was talking about hygiene and that shower tiles were dirty, so I should never sit on the floor tiles of the shower. I took his advice to heart and never did this.

In college, I spent many nights talking to my roommates about how awful and painful we all thought sex would be. We were crushing on young college guys, and many of us got married within a year or two of these conversations. I still don’t know if secretly some of us thought sex would be great and this was just posturing for the sake of sounding like we were “good,” but that wasn’t true for me. When I hear stories about Victorian women fearing sex, I wonder if no time has passed at all. At least in some places in the country, little has changed for women.

By the time I was married, I had read plenty of books better than James Bond about sex. But I still had internalized a lot of crap about female sexuality that I wish I could go back and undo, specifically that women never enjoy sex as much as men. I had also internalized the idea that “good” women weren’t supposed to think about sex, fantasize about sex, or really get into it. I knew there were plenty of different positions to have sex in, plenty of different ways to have an orgasm. But I didn’t care. Sexual pleasure wasn’t important for women, only for men. And this was part of what gave me identity, purpose, and a kind of superior position above men, because I was more “spiritual” than they were.

If you’d have asked me if I had hang-ups because of my religious ideas, I’d have vehemently denied it. I didn’t think of sex as purely for procreation. Mormonism (compared to many other religions) has pretty healthy theology around sex. It’s meant to be enjoyable and to build intimacy between a husband and wife, and even God has a body so there’s probably sex up there in heaven, too.

I thought of myself as liberated. (I had a PhD from Princeton at age 24, for God’s sake!) I often enjoyed sex, but I wasn’t ever in control of my enjoyment of sex. That is, it was something that seemed to happen to me rather than something that I understood about myself. I also spent almost no time in my life trying to think about how to enjoy sex more because my identity as a godly Mormon woman was still caught up in pedestalization and repression of my own sexuality.

I thought I did a better job with my children than my parents did with me regarding sex, but that’s a pretty low bar. I answered questions they had with so much information they sometimes begged me to stop talking. I talked frankly to my daughters about sex when they were ready to start having it. I’ve argued with extended Mormon family members about the importance of knowledge, despite the fact that they continue to insist that ignorance helps prevent teen pregnancy. But what I didn’t do was give my children information to protect them, to help them understand what was normal in their bodies and what wasn’t, and I regret this. I still had some ideas about what was appropriate information and what wasn’t.

We all need to do better, as parents and as a society. I have heard way too many stories about young Mormon women who were lied to by their boyfriends, about what “counted” as sex, how you get pregnant, how you use birth control, and on and on. Keeping information about their own bodies from children and teens is abusive. We are doing damage by allowing parents to “opt” their children out of sex education anywhere in this country. You can teach abstinence if you want, as long as there’s a wealth of real information for young women and young men. Please, don’t continue the belief that ignorance is bliss. It isn’t. It’s dangerous. And don’t lie to yourselves that your children are in some protected bubble where they don’t need to know until later. They need all the information you can give them, because if you don’t give them information, they’ll learn from someone who has other interests than your children’s safety in mind.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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