When I was three, my younger brother was born, and during her pregnancy my mother answered all my questions about how the baby got in and how the baby was going to get out. She was always open and accepting and honest with me, not just about the mechanics but also about the fun. She didn’t expect me to wait until marriage, and she made sure I knew about birth control. I hope I do as well with Eve as my mother did with me, but I think I’m missing one essential teaching tool – the books.
There was a line of John O’Hara novels on the shelf in our den when I was growing up (they’re probably still there). I realize now that they were mostly his later and lesser works. In particular,Elizabeth Appleton, Lovey Childs, and The Ewings stand out in my memory. My father gave them to my mother as gifts, handsome hardback editions, and that tells you something about my parents, I suppose. I started reading those books when I was 11 or 12. O’Hara wrote explicitly about sex and desire; in his world both men and women were constantly on the prowl. Sometimes sex brought about social and professional catastrophe, but that always seemed to be due to the narrow-mindedness of others, who sneered at the lovers and punished them. O’Hara wrote about stifling, conservative, straight-laced small towns; in a cosmopolitan big city, such liaisons would have been of no consequence*. Reading O’Hara fired my sexual curiosity and helped me recognize sexual desire when I began to experience it.
The summer I turned 14, Fear of Flying was the book. Everyone was talking about it. My mother took it out of the library, put it on her dresser, and said “Don’t read this. It’s not appropriate”. My mother had never before put a book off-limits.
Then she went out to dinner.
I was halfway through the book when she got home.
Erica Jong and her doppelganger, Isadora White Wing, introduced me to teenage sex (Forever, by Judy Blume, wasn’t published until the following year, when I was 15. I devoured that, too). Isadora loved sex. She wanted to have sex – lots of sex – on her own terms, for its own sake. Just because she liked it. My mother had already told me that sex was enjoyable – now I knew why, and how.
When I read Fear of Flying, I’d been kissed once by a boy at camp, and I was two years away from anything more (although there was more kissing later that year. Gotta love backstage rehearsal rooms). I was still pretty freaked out at the idea of actually doing any of the things I’d been reading about, but that freaked-outness receded over the next couple of years, and when I felt safe when a guy, I was curious and eager and amazingly unafraid of my own desire. I did take my mother’s advice and delay intercourse until I was out of high school (by six months), but that didn’t mean I was chaste. There’s a lot of fun to be had without risking pregnancy (we weren’t worried about STIs; this was the 1970s, before even herpes was really discussed, and we were both inexperienced). My first sexual experiences were joyous, thanks to a loving and remarkably sensitive partner, and also thanks to my mom and John O’Hara and Erica Jong.
I think I can for Eve what my mother did for me, but her first experience of reading about sex will probably be Twilight. I think I need some counter-programming. Time to put some Judy Blume books on my own shelves, and ask Mom to move the John O’Hara set into the guest room, where Eve stays when she visits Grandma.
*I haven’t read any of O’Hara’s books since my teens, and I’m sure they are rife with misogyny and racism; I’m writing here of my impressions of them as an unsophisticated middle-schooler. Mostly I remember the sex.