In 2013 I was designing the cover for the book Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, an interfaith collection of memoir-style essays, and threw out a hail Mary to my art director: Was the anthology still looking for submissions? When I heard that the editors were still hungry to find work by emerging authors, I forced myself to write something and send it in. It was an opportunity to at least be seen, to have my personal writing read by editors who matter. Gearing up for a polite rejection note, I scribbled out thousands of words, refined them into a story, and hit Send. What I got from the editor a few days later surprised me.
Congratulations. Encouragement. Acceptance. I would be in a book.
Over the next few months I worked closely with the anthology’s editors, Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, to polish my work into something that would flow effortlessly to our readers. The author–editor experience was nothing I hadn’t seen before. This time, though, my nerves tensed a bit with the realization that I was working with a personal story—not to mention the complex idea of sex.
I open the essay with an account of playing author in my mom’s library, using one of her many romance novels as my pretend life’s work:
“One day I held a reading before a corps of taffeta-clad Barbie dolls and cracked open a volume at its midpoint to a randomly selected paragraph. I was new to reading but the best in my class, so I wavered only a little as my tentative, little-girl voice visited the subjects of thrusting manhood, supple breasts, and coming together as one. My face grew flush, and I gently closed the book, blushing in to my appliquéd teddy bear sweatshirt.”
My mother’s library had been my first primer on sex, with a few romance novels like that one, plus a litany of scientific books she’d consulted heavily in college, while I was still little. I looked up to her and knew that those books meant business, so whenever I got the chance I crept into the library and took down a book. And that’s how I came to understand the mechanics of childbearing, breast feeding, and impressing hunky gents named Darius or Raul. With the word itself unspoken in the house, I had turned to print to fill in the blanks. Only slightly later, I turned to TV, noticing the word cropping up from The Simpsons to Seinfeld—two shows that my brother and I were allowed to watch, as non-religious Midwestern kids.
What I learned, I didn’t really absorb. I knew that sex was a thing, and if forced to think about it, I pictured something similar to what Sloane Crosley recounts in I Was Told There’d Be Cake: a sort of nebulous private act, between a mom and a dad, where the woman wears sexy lingerie and heels. I didn’t even need sex until I began to see it being sold to me from everywhere. As a Victoria’s Secret subscriber, my mom brought in a new catalog from our mailbox every few weeks, and I often flipped though with what began as sheer curiosity and became increasingly inquisitive as I grew older.
In high school, when sex began to matter, I was taught at school a comprehensive program that covered everything from the How/Why to the And Then: consequences that ran the gamut from pregnancy to a positive HIV test. In the company of my second-period peers I sat through taped after-school specials that showed the consequences of having sex, or the ills of getting “too serious” in high school. My mom briefly mentioned sex, but only after I’d been dating my boyfriend for a while, and only then to tell me which specific brand of condoms to stay away from.
“Don’t use that kind. They break!” she’d said in a stage whisper, with a similar tone used for such phrases as “Doing…that” (having your period) or “Going potty” (explosive diarrhea). She’d always communicated the information but done so under the pretense that she was being spied on, that speaking normally would trigger the hidden microphones and catch her on tape saying something embarrassing about the human body. I knew I could talk to her, but like any other news outlet available to kids, she unwittingly communicated that certain topics weren’t spoken of too freely.
So started my primer to sex. The rest, I learned from religion, which I made a fixture in my life at age fifteen. The messages seemed to come from everywhere, but never in a useful way. Sex was scary, weighty, and irrevocable. It spoke volumes about who you were as a person. Coming from that background, an ultra-conservative person had to switch gears, upon marriage, to thinking of sex as a beautiful act. I too had to forget everything I’d been taught and learn to think of something dirty as something that was not only clean but ordained as almost a sacrament.
I grew to see things differently from what my religion had proposed, and I even branched out to learn on my own, beyond the conservatism of religious discourse and the damage of my ex-husband’s unrealistic porn-bred expectations. I learned to think of sex as something in between those two extremes. And now, on days when I entertain the possibility of someday rearing a child of my own, I like to think I’ll speak above a whisper, and do everything my mother tried to do and more. Just to set the record straight.