Childhood sex-play is another of those phenomena that is common and rarely talked about. We’re born with our sexuality, and from the time we become curious about our genitalia and the concept of sex, we begin to explore: alone, in pairs, in groups. The age at which this occurs varies widely, and for many of us it begins in young childhood. I can remember using the spray from the handheld shower nozzle on myself at the age of six because I noticed it felt good. Before I discovered orgasm at age ten (and even sometimes after), I was interested in imaginary games about sex. I used to play a game called “husband and wife” with a friend, which involved us pressing our lips to each other’s and moving our heads around—a simulated movie kiss. Sometimes we had sex, her lying on top of me (because she was the husband, sigh) and us squiggling around. As we started to go through puberty, our game evolved to “Playboy studio”, where I was the model and she the cameraman. Basically it was me posing in and out of my mini-bra and underwear on her parents’ bed while she pretended to take photos. By the time I was in eighth grade I was hosting topless slumber parties, so we could check out each other’s varying growth rates, shapes and sizes. Freshman year of high school I was making out with my girlfriends and feeling each other’s tits, under the guise of showing each other the way guys we’d been with kissed and felt. Eventually I garnered enough male attention, which is the gender to which I’m primarily attracted, that the games ceased, and the various forms of sex with men (boys) began.
One night during graduate school, a classmate hosted a girls’ night at her place, which consisted of many bottles of wine and conversation around a dining table. At the time I was on my first round of alcohol abstention, watching bottle after bottle drain away into glasses. The talk became heady and excited, eventually turning toward the sexual customs of a non-American fiancé one of us had. The person sharing the tales of cross-cultural sexual challenges expressed her discouragement, and began to clam up after a few minutes (what is it with people’s discomfort with talking about sex?). Some of the women at the table rushed in to assure her that every culture is different when it comes to sexual development and practices, when another woman blurted out, “I used to have play sex with my neighbor growing up!” Hot-faced, tipsy and ashamed, she looked away from the table. Slowly, and quietly, each woman at the table shared a variation, “me too, with my classmate”, “I used to play doctor with my cousin”, or “my best friend was the first person to touch my naked body”, until the air was leaden with shame. I threw my head back and laughed, drawing accusations that I was making fun of people as the only sober person in the room. I’m sorry, I said, but haven’t any of you ever read a Judy Blume novel? All of these scenarios are part of normal, healthy childhood sexual development. Did all of you really not know that, until just now, when we had this mass-confession?
Sheesh. I realized then how much I’ve taken for granted the sex-positive, clinical education I received in school, from my parents and various books. I have never felt ashamed of the consensual sexual experiments I had with friends, and neither should anyone else. The whole point of childhood is to explore the world, and that truly begins with our own bodies. One day a baby reaches in her mouth and discovers her tongue, wow! It’s only natural that eventually she’ll be curious about how other people’s tongues look and work, and feel. Judy Blume wrote novels about growing up that included scenes of children and teens checking out their bodies in varied ways, including with each other. Her prose so matter-of-fact, you couldn’t help but connect and feel validated. We should fear living in a world where no one is talking about sex. Where even the basics of normal development are shied away from. It creates a sense of isolation, that leads to shame and anxiety about experiences that are common. No one should carry around that kind of needless weight. I mean, what if we hadn’t gotten on the subject that night?