I finally rebelled against my mother yesterday—I was at the gym. As I peddled away on the elliptical (sloughing off bite after bite of doughnut/grease-pooled pizza/late night Taco Bell runs, wondering what mistakes I had made in life to actually pursue this sort of torment), Salt ‘n Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” popped up on my Spotify playlist. It was there—surrounded by fist-bumping bros and barely-sweating cardio bunnies—that I finally listened to the entire song for the first time.
I’d heard snippets here and there—mostly through open windows in passing cars, or—later—at house parties, where white girls would top off their rum and coke with a shot of vodka (it was all they had left!) and scream “Oh my god, I remember this song!” We all do, honey, it was the 90’s, not a coming-of-age vision quest you experienced at seventeen in your vegan, boho fringe boots you bought off Etsy, with enough peyote in your system to kill a small horse.
The first time I heard Let’s Talk About Sex—or, at least part of it—I was nine years old. We had just moved up to Portland from that rat king of hippies and tie dye that is Eugene, Oregon, and my cousins had come over to visit us in the apartment my dad’s company had temporarily set us up in. That apartment belonged to a complex that—fifteen years later—I would move back to after a particularly nasty breakup. That apartment was where I had—for the first time—access to cable television and a swimming pool. That apartment was where I would discover my love for The Secret World of Alex Mack, and where I would wake up one morning in a panic after being viciously slapped by some unknown force. I would later discover that the experience was some tactile, dream-fueled hallucination, but, at the time, my parents solemnly assured me that it was, actually, a devil spirit entering the room and trying to fuck with me. Or an angel trying to wake me up for some extremely important purpose that I had to figure out—you know, either or.
As my mother cooked dinner and my father watched Fox news, my older, douchier cousin Jeremy belly-flopped across my bed and turned on the radio. With the bored, edgy air only a tween with a bowl cut can fully achieve, he flipped through channels until he came to a top 40 station.
“Aunt De Lise won’t like her listening to that kind of music,” Kelsey warned, glancing nervously from Jeremy, to my open door, to me. My eyes widened as I nodded imperceptibly from my spot on the floor, picking at little bits of carpet fluff and cat hair on my jeans. Jeremy shrugged at his little sister. Fuck it. He turned the music up.
“Let’s talk about sex for now
To the people at home or in the crowd
It keeps coming up anyhow
Don’t decoy, avoid, or make void the topic
Cause that ain’t gonna stop it…”
My jaw hit the floor. They were saying what? On the radio?! Was this shit even legal?
“Now we talk about sex on the radio and video shows
Many will know, anything goes
Let’s tell it like it is, and how it could be
How it was, and of course, how it should be…”
The level of unabashed candor over such a private, forbidden topic—it was sacrilege—almost unheard of! I leaned forward, gears turning as I soaked it all in. This must be what it felt like to be a public schooler.
“Uhh, what are you listening to?” my mother appeared in the doorway—how did she get there so fast?! She had an uncanny talent for checking up on me at the worst possible time.
“Jeremyturnediton!” I chucked him under the bus before I even realized that words were coming out of my mouth.
“Those who think it’s dirty have a choice
Pick up the needle, press pause, or turn the radio off
Will that stop us, Pep? I dou—”
Click! Mom snapped off the radio, carefully scrutinizing the three of us. The irony of the section of the song she had chosen to interrupt was either lost or simply unacknowledged in the room.
“Let’s not talk about sex,” she joked, thinly-veiled death threats lurking behind her wan smile.
Our purity maintained, she left the room, leaving Kelsey and I to bore holes into the carpet—determinedly avoiding Jeremy’s gaze. He had judged our strength in times of adversity, and we had been found wanting.
“Let’s talk about sex baby
Let’s talk about you and me…”
I like to think that my parents were so incredibly strict when it came to sex because they knew it was such a natural, deeply-ingrained part of my personality. Well, I don’t like to think it, but I believe it nonetheless. When I was four, I once asked my mom why my vagina would sometimes throb, and why it stopped when you ground your heel against it until it hurt. She said I was making eggs. Not, like, bird eggs, more like a fish, or a frog, or an eel. Wide-eyed and panicked, I decided that it would be a long time before I asked her anything else about my “private parts.”
Years later, as a hormone-ravaged teen in high school, I would wander the halls with fire boiling in my veins, my temper flaring at the slightest provocation. There was an itch somewhere deep inside me, and I couldn’t figure out how or where to scratch.
“Geeze,” the guys in my class would say, “you on your period or something?”
“No!” I’d snap, and hustle off in an indignant rage. I didn’t say “I’m just fucking horny, alright?!” because I had no idea what the fuck horny was. I did, however, recognize how miserable I was the vast majority of the time. I’m not saying it was entirely due to my hormones (shitty family life had something to do with my moods, I’m sure), but—you know when you’ve been through a particularly long dry spell, and you eventually give up on all hopes of getting laid and just resolve to be consistently miserable forever? The kind of misery where the closest thing to relief you experienced was the occasional jolt delivered to you by a pair of particularly tight-fitting jeans? It was like that ALL THE TIME, only without any knowledge of what was going on.
“Let’s talk about all the good things
and the bad things that may be…”
To say that my sexual education was inadequate would be an understatement. I didn’t know penises changed size until I was nearly seventeen. I always assumed the Romans must have been constantly warring due to those tiny dicks all the statues showed. I had heard the rumor of the magnificent 12 inch dicks, and I would be mad, too, were I cursed with a nubbin’ penis. I also was never taught about the use of idioms in sex. Hand to God, when people talked about being “caught up in the moment,” I genuinely thought you were incapable of controlling your body because you wanted sex. I assumed it was like being some kind of sex-crazed zombie—some possessed creature incapable of thought—which, to be fair, it kind of is, but not in the “our name is Legion, for we are many” sort of way. I was sure I would become a slave to the devil because of this weakness that was placed deep inside of me, ready to rise up and engulf me some horrible day in the form of premarital sex. My parents—God bless them—seemed hell-bent on saving me from such a condemnation.
When I was 16, my “sweet sixteen” birthday party was cut severely short because my mom caught me fast-forwarding through the sex scene in the second Matrix movie.
“You just wanted to watch that movie so you could watch sex!”
“Mom, I didn’t even know there was a scene in it, and I was trying to work the remote, and we just wanted to watch a movie…” My pleas fell on deaf ears. For over an hour she screamed at me, as—one by one—my friends retreated to the safety of my bedroom. From there, they listened with pity, confusion, and fear that the backlash would turn to them.
Eventually, after much wheedling, my punishment was lessened: I would be allowed to go shopping with my friends for only two hours, instead of not at all—those two hours including the half hour commute each way, and without someone to drive us.
“Let’s tell it like it is, and how it could be
How it was, and of course, how it should be…”
At the same time, my parents were uncomfortably open and jovial about their sex life.
“I grew up in your gramma Janice’s house,” my mom would say, walking across the room wearing nothing but a smile and my horrified judgment, “and no one there was shy about being nekkid.” When I got my first period, my mother insisted on showing me how to use a tampon—by showing me. She had one foot on the floor, one foot braced against the bathroom counter, naked as the day she was born, the mini blood cork ready for launch in one hand. I left the ordeal so traumatized that I had completely forgotten everything she had told me—all I could see was that giant, middle-aged mom-bush…all I could hear was her telling me to not be so uncomfortable with the naked body. Every body is beautiful, but—when you’re a kid, nobody’s body is beautiful—especially your parents’.
“Those who think it’s dirty have a choice
Pick up the needle, press pause, or turn the radio off
Will that stop us Pep?
I doubt it.”
They were big on alluding to things, my parents, so I never knew just where the line was drawn. This was a problem in most aspects of my relationship with them, but it was never so obvious as when sex was involved. As former members of The Way International, they believed that a woman’s job was to be subservient to her husband, and to please him sexually. I never heard what the man was supposed to do for the woman’s sexual well-being, but it was clear that—when I grew up and got married, and no sooner—I would have to please my husband, lest I be considered an unsatisfactory wife.
Something about their behavior—the sly grins and subtle movements when they nestled on the couch, the brazen scoldings when I accidentally displayed some childish reflection of their own play—made me uncomfortable around sex, perhaps even more than I should have been. A house that both passionately encourages and yet strangles with guilt anything sexual is a house divided. In Salt ‘n Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” they were blunt nearly to the point of satire about what they wanted to discuss: the good and bad, how sex could help and harm, and how to protect yourself while engaging in it. None of this was allowed in my home; you were celibate, and then you were a sex kitten for the Man of the House. I wasn’t allowed to experience anything remotely sexual until I was married, and then…then I was just supposed to know. To know how to please my husband, how to be a good wife, how to stay faithful when you developed feelings for someone else. God would lead me, they said, and, if I was ever confused, I just wasn’t trying hard enough to make up my mind, or change my feelings. I was wandering out from under God’s umbrella of protection, because I didn’t know how to not find women’s curves attractive. Because I was 15 and unsupervised for 12 hours a day with unfettered access to the internet. Because I wanted to know what a blow job was, and why Tim Z. asked me for one. In a home where sex was both taboo and cherished, puberty was an extremely confusing thing.
“What we have here is subject to controversy
A three-letter word some regard as a curse, see
He may fiend and have a wet dream
Because he seen a teen in tight jeans…”
When I was 13, my father was fired from his job for downloading copious amounts of child pornography at his job. I mean, like, all the porn. All of it. It wasn’t so much an addiction, as it was an unchecked, rampant compulsion. Addicts went to meetings. My dad reveled in his perversions, getting off to the self-loathing it triggered as much as the images themselves. As I was learning about sex “up close and personal” for the first time (“What was it? How did you do it? Was it okay? Why would you put your mouth on something people pissed out of?! Don’t you get sick that way?!”), I was also experiencing one of the worst deviations of what was normally a natural and healthy act (“How could children be sexual? Was I missing something? Was this something that would happen to me?”).
“Your father has a problem,” my mother said one afternoon, pulling me aside after I had run from the shower to the bedroom in a towel, “A problem with porn. You can’t be running around wearing nothing but a towel—you’re 14, and that’s inappropriate. It’s a struggle for him, and you’re making it difficult.” I was floored. The thought that my father would consider anything I did even remotely sexual had never entered my head. How could you take someone seriously who was fond of saying “Why by shampoo when real poo is free?” After that talk, though, I never left my room in anything less than a full outfit—double and triple-checking my dresser mirror before I left to make sure no underwear was poking out, no cleavage was visible. I didn’t want to make things more difficult for him than they already were.
A year and a half later, my mom kicked my dad out of the house for relapsing. Since I had been the accidental nark (He told me she knew! How was I supposed to remember that we had bought a completely new computer to give him a fresh start?), I needed to be disciplined. The next morning, he snuck into the house while my mom was at work. In a low-voiced rage, he pulled me out of bed, told me to “tear all this fantasy shit off the walls,” and lectured me from the bible about my (online) sexual explorations for two hours while I wore nothing but a long t-shirt and underwear. Half-torn dragon posters and a box full of phoenix stickers and unicorn statues watched me with sympathetic, glassy eyes.
“You say you’re a woman of God, but then you go jump into bed with my enemies? Now you want to date? What are you gonna do—go get a boyfriend and start fucking him every day?”
“No—!” Cybering was one thing, but actual sex? Have you read what goes on with that shit? Shit was fuckin’ nasty. Pass.
“I don’t believe that.”
Is he doing this because I really am bad? Because I’ve sinned? Or is it worse than that… I tugged at my t-shirt as I sat on the floor, stared at the giant Minnie Mouse smiling up at me, tried to cover all parts of me at once. Perhaps it was that event that triggered the dreams for so many years—dreams that would wake me up in the middle of the night, the room reeking of sweat and panic and sex, my pillow and face streaked with tears and day-old mascara.
“Hot to trot, make any man’s eyes pop
She use what she got to get whatever she don’t got…”
The older I got, the more I began to see all the different ways sex could be perverted. I came to realize that my father had been sexually abusing me since I was 10—tickle fights have never been the same. I saw how it had become a key component to my mother’s desperate quest to find a husband immediately following the divorce—so what if he goes to the strip club and dates other women, he only has sex with me, right? I heard rumors of girls in my high school flushing their birth control pills in the hopes of getting pregnant and forcing their boyfriends to stick around. Joke’s on them—it only sometimes worked! I was bombarded with a never-ending barrage of variations on the same message from the media: sex sells. To be sexy is to be adored. Buy this, wear that, sing this—be sexy. Be loved.
Ironically, it wasn’t until I had an affair that I saw how loving and emotionally powerful sex could be. The emotional affair (in itself a painfully long, probably boring story) culminated in a weekend stuffed in a two bed hotel room with his Marine buddy, and our mutual friend from high school. All four people in that room were married and having sex—none of them were with their spouse.
My Mister was that guy I’d never been able to work it out with—after dating briefly in high school, it became a constant cycle of one of us falling in love with the other while one and or both of us was in a committed relationship. We fought with blood lust and a ruthlessness when we were around each other for more than a few hours. We would push each other’s buttons until we were ready to break the barrier of physical violence, and then we’d fuck like angry cats. This passion—this deep, seething need for each other that evolved into clawing, raging fights cats at the slightest spark—made our love as toxic as it was intense. The times we connected that weekend in the hotel (or fucked, or had sex, whatever) were the only times I can ever truly say I “made love,” and I hate that fucking term. To this day, I have yet to meet someone who is as quick-witted, cold-hearted, sentimental, hilarious, and capable of eliciting such madness within me. Anthony, I miss you.
An old fuck buddy was fond of saying, “You are who you are in bed.” Crass though it may be, it’s only become more true throughout the years. But, then again, he had chlamydia, so, you know…win some, lose some. As an adult, sex has turned into another language for me. It’s a way to discover Truths about people you’d never be able to learn any other way. (“Are they really a giving person? Do you hold their full attention? Can they laugh things off, or do they take themselves too seriously? What do their fake boobs feel like—oh…kinda crunchy…gross.”) Sex enables people to discover things about each other at a rate that is rivaled only by being stranded on a deserted island together—or locked in a puzzle from Saw. Apart from seeing them naked—which is in itself a pretty rad thing—you get to experience that person in a way that almost no one else does. You experience their flaws and insecurities from ground-level, and you can choose to alleviate or contribute to them. It’s a god-damn mind-trip—an empowering, addictive experience, compounded exponentially in those last few moments before climax, when you wrap your legs around your partner and tell them how much you need them—in flesh and in heart—when you make them feel more wanted right in that moment than they have ever felt. It’s a way for you to show a little bit of good in the world, by being very, very bad.