what they didn’t teach us (and what we learn)

stencil graffiti: i wanna tie u up for a while (with image of a twisted coil of rope)There’s so much going on right now (two impending moves, several workshops, day job, grant prep possibilities — not to mention the book proposals that are sitting off to the side, gathering some dust, too tired and frustrated to keep poking me in the back, trying to get my attention) and yet I sit down in front of the computer and go quiet for a second: what on earth could there be to say?

I’m sad and lonely and sore and grateful, feel held and met and warm, scared and overwhelmed and at peace. Thank goodness I still get to feel.


I’ve got a prompt and a write for you today — the prompt is one I offered this weekend at the Reclaiming Our Erotic Story workshop in Sacto: Take 10 minutes (or 20!) and write what you (or your character) learned and/or didn’t learn in sex ed — keeping in mind, of course, that sex ed can be in school or out of it.

Here’s my response from the last time I offered this prompt, this past fall during the Declaring Our Erotic workshop: this is the version that I shared with folks at the 2010 Litquake LitCrawl (note: contains some explicit talk of sexuality and sexual trauma):

What they didn’t teach us

Let me just start here: My secondary school sex education didn’t teach anything about fisting as an option in sexual pleasure – none of the informational packets in the guidance counselor’s office or the decades-old film reels contained any description of the pleasure a hand could bring when it’s folded like a duck’s beak and slowly, persistently eased, with much lube and lust, into one’s cunt or ass. They did not explain how, at first, it doesn’t even seem remotely possible that this breadth could fit into such a tight space, and then, suddenly, through your rocking and panting and cries you become aware that you have someone else’s hand entirely contained in your body, and that you are flying. Now that would have been some information I could’ve used a few years later.

In fact, in jr high or high school, I don’t remember anyone teaching us about sexual pleasure at all.

Of course, I do remember the period presentation (you remember the reproductive cycle conversation), when the boys are split up from the girls and who knows what the boys learned during this gendered time-out while our Home Ec teacher described the ovaries and uterus and our monthly sloughing off of blood and then went into great detail about her daughter’s flows, that were so heavy she needed two maxi pads at the same time, and frankly, I thought that was too damn much information.

During this one excursion into anything close to an official conversation about sexuality in school, I didn’t learn anything about sex: nothing good about desire, or gayboys or girls, or safer sex as lifesaving and joyful: only as pregnancy prevention.

In any of the formal or informal sex ed, I didn’t learn about the hungers, I didn’t learn about the way more than just my cunt could keen for sex, the way my mouth could swell with wanting your shoulderblade there, and how each nerve of my hand left unencumbered with the thick clutch of her cunt could stretch with wanting, how my legs could know to ache at the not bending, my belly could long for the pressure of a table, a bed, a anything beneath it.

I didn’t learn about the blasphemous thrill of a finger first finding slick between another woman’s legs, and no one in high school ever explained how dangerous a single moan forced between clenched teeth could be. I didn’t know that cocks could be that slick sweet push and, at the same time, someone’s deep awful vulnerability These were all the things they didn’t teach us. We had to learn each of these lessons alone. They didn’t say we’d worry the bands of normalcy off our arms just for one more taste of someone’s forbidden lips, how we’d mark ourselves outsider, brand ourselves expendable, just to have another of our own kind kneel down in front of us and claim something monosyllabic and urgent between our legs for themselves, and for us, too: not just flesh or wet or hard but yes and now and please.

They don’t tell us how we’ll need to find a whole new language to contain who we will find ourselves to be. I didn’t have to meet this break between language and experience until I was twenty, the morning I was in the mussed sheets of another woman’s bed and she did not believe I hadn’t had my mouth or hands between a woman’s legs before – how could it be that my body could be so comfortable with acts that I had no language or practice for, no modeling, behavior that no one had felt the need to warn me away from because it was so singularly unthinkable in Omaha, Nebraska. They don’t tell us that sometimes the hunger drives us to put our mouths around the cool and slick barrel of a handgun, puts the steel to our wrists, fills our mouths with whatever pills our parents or roommates kept in their bathroom medicine cabinets—when we have eaten of the shame, and no other option appears on our horizon, when the hunger just won’t fucking leave us alone and we have taken into our bodies their assurance that the only good thing left to us is humiliation and destruction: this is the end result of that brutality. It is in our bodies already; the suicide just lets it out for our families and communities to see again. The only time I’ve been suicidal, I was up finally against longing that broke me into shame, understanding that I would have to leave someone I’d shaped my life around so that I could reach my hands, my body, for more, so that I could spread myself, my legs, this need, for someone else, unable to reconcile the good butch I’d been with this girl, this phoenix, who would destroy everything to get to rise again.

I want to tell you about my high school’s wood floors that echoed hollow and the marble walls that carried our heat and footsteps and how every single kid in that missing sex ed lecture was already holding too many worlds of secrets and terrors and fears, already had one kind of knowledge about sex or another – I want to tell you about the violence they did to us when they didn’t close the regular routine curriculum and look at us head on, there in our straight rows and Benetton sweaters and Chuck Taylors and too-moussed  hair, when they didn’t push an errant curl back behind one ear or adjust their toupee and say, “Ok, listen, sex is amazing. But it can be scary, too. Do any of you have any questions about it? Me and Ms Benson here, we’ll do our best to answer.”

And even then, could one of us have raised our hand and asked about what we really wanted to know? Could we have pushed into the dense webbing of our peers’ unspoken rules and regulations and asked, Am I really going to hell if I jerk off? or I don’t really feel anything when my boyfriend’s, you know, got his penis in me – am I doing something wrong? or How can I make my dad quit coming into my room at night? or I think I like another girl – I mean, I really like her. I mean, I already kissed her, in my dreams and stuff. What should I do?

Even then, even if we could have asked, would we have gotten what we needed? They couldn’t possibly have told us about the vulnerability, the anguish, the way it can feel like one person has all your longing and satisfaction knotted between their fingers or beneath their tongue– they couldn’t describe it to us because we wouldn’t have believed them, we thought we understood about sex, we got it about fucking or not fucking, we had already had it used against us        or had used it            against              someone else, we were whipsmart and cocky.

We hadn’t met yet the one with the eyes like something golden and broken, with the hands like laced butter, with the mouth that made us tense our thighs and drop open somewhere thick inside – and                    we hadn’t yet learned that pleasure so good you think your throat will tear from the howling can even exist, we hadn’t learned about a touch that you can’t possibly bear to be silent through. They would never have been able to describe how my body, twenty years later, learned to feel with you, how I came to understand all the songs that promised she’d do anything for her man just so long as he came on back and did that to her one more time – and how devastated I was to want you that much and know you could walk away.

We were 14 or 16 or 18 and we were too young and scared and queer or not and horny and underinformed and curious and gorgeous, we pushed hands under clothes, we opened when we should have stayed closed, because our bodies knew something that we didn’t have the words for. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have the words cunnilingus or fellatio: we had other words, and we each had mouths that wanted to taste, we learned the sweet slick of sweat lifted off someone’s skin, we learned the taste of urgency under someone’s tongue, we learned how good it felt to make someone else feel good – we had flashes of connection, moments when our high school personae fell away and we could just be our raw and hungry selves, and so often we paid for that vulnerability later: we were a slut or a pussy the next day at school, a nympho or a faggot or a whore—these words were used against all of us

but our desire did not die. They could not silence it and seal it away. We found more opportunities to let our mouths and bodies fall open, in the front seats of cars, in the back rows of movie theaters, in bedrooms and living rooms, in back yards, we found bars and public bathrooms, we found adults or other kids who we asked to show us – the silences couldn’t keep us from learning what our bodies so badly needed us to know.

Thank you for all you learned, what you taught yourself, even when no one wanted to teach you. Thank you for your words, still and always.

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