My first question was where he first learned about sex and from whom. He wanted clarification—did I mean the concept or “the intricacies and what to actually do”? Oooh, good point. I wanted both, now that he mentioned it. We started at the beginning, when he learned about human reproductive systems and development in school, as a nine year old. I wondered if his parents had added any information, or initiated conversation on the topic. “Not that I can remember. I remember coming across my dad’s prescription of Viagra about four years ago. That’s the extent my family spoke about sex.” Was there any conversation at the Viagra find? “After I found my dad’s Viagra, I high-fived him. He said, ‘you don’t think this is weird or gross?’ I was like ‘no, lack of sex is a leading cause of divorce, I’m glad my parents still do it’. I was the sex-forward one in the family.”
A recently engaged, early thirties man, he had generously offered to be interviewed to continue Candid Uprising’s exploration of how what we learn about sex as children influences our sexuality. It was immediately clear that I was speaking with an open (or sex-forward, in his words) individual.
I asked him how his sexual attitudes came to be, when there was zero discussion of sex in his family, no modeling of healthy sexuality or openness. “I think because I made such a big deal of sex in high school and wasn’t getting any, by the end, I was determined to not care about sex, that it was no big deal, so once I started having it, the no-big-deal attitude stayed.”
I wanted to know if there were perceived messages about sex, certain values around sexual behavior or an insinuated family culture. “One time my mother walked in on me shirtless with a girlfriend, I was 16 or 17 I think. She was younger and my mom said something along the lines of ‘don’t you touch her’, later in the evening.” This was the only instance he could recall where he and his mother discussed anything close to sexuality. A prohibition, no dialogue about why.
Later, he pushed the envelope with his family, probing their discomfort with the topic. “One time I was at dinner with my parents and grandfather, and had a steady girlfriend, I was 21. I mentioned to my parents, ‘just so you know, Samantha and I are having sex, we are being careful and using protection.’ My dad said, ‘Ok.’ My mom said ‘I don’t think this is the right place to talk about this’, with a really disgruntled look on her face.”
In a previous conversation with me, he had told an anecdote about how the same grandfather had decided to stop drinking as a younger man. Essentially, while out on a binge one night he met a woman who accompanied him to his apartment for sex. He had been so drunk he passed out, and when he woke up she was gone, leading him to decide sex was more important than alcohol. Given this tale, I wanted to know what grandpa had to say during the dinner conversation. “My grandpa said, ‘atta boy!’.” Perhaps the sex-positivity was modeled by grandpa.
I wanted to talk about how he went about exploring sex, given the discomfort with the topic in his immediate family. I wanted to know when he became interested in sex, and whether that was influenced by the silence in his family. I was curious about male sexual development, since even with my experience at Planned Parenthood, I still mostly only served women. And I do believe that there’s not much room in society for men to express themselves sexually beyond the damaging stereotypes. “Well it started with getting a Playboy in the 5th grade. Coming across some harder stuff at a neighbor’s house, then buying a few videos off a classmate in 7th grade. My first real memory was seeing the opening scene of Timecop…which is a naked woman on a bed, and stopping and rewinding a lot.” Stopping and rewinding a movie scene with a naked woman, checking out Playboy, secretly recording soft-core porn on HBO (the Real Sex documentary series exploring diversity or sexual expression) after parents have gone to bed were among his first experiences.
He told me about the messages he perceived from peers when he got to high school and sex was on his mind. He would hear girls telling stories about being talked into sex by their current and ex-boyfriends. He sensed other guys were using guilt and coercion to get girls to have sex with them. “It gave me such disgust, especially because one of the guys I despised was doing that. So it was kind of like, if that’s something he does, I’m never going to do that, which caused me to be overly cautious with sex.” He was so off-put by the pressuring behaviors he observed and heard about that although he was driven, he didn’t have sex until he was in college. He didn’t want to be part of the problem.
But the feelings behind his choices were more nuanced than his initial comment. He said about the guy he felt distaste for, “he was one of the popular kids. I just didn’t get why he was getting laid by being an asshole and I wasn’t by being a nice guy.” An age-old dilemma, which he blew away by continuing, “Although before that, I remember doing the same sort of shit. I traded a girl a ride home for a BJ. I remember working at Baskin Robbins and my coworker telling me and a female coworker that she could have half my tips (like 5 bucks) if she blew me in the bathroom.”
I asked him to slow down and tell me more about his mind frame during this period of brokering cash and favors for sex acts.
Oral sex wasn’t sex in his teenage mind, and thus it didn’t carry as much weight as vaginal intercourse. “I remember talking about sex, oral, etc. and then seeing an opportunity to experience it for myself. I think the car thing came about by that I’m-joking-but-kind-of-not thing. Girl asked for a ride, I was like, what’s in it for me, half-jokingly, and she says ‘I’ll blow you’. I jumped at the opportunity. It was my first.” I was surprised by the disconnect between his disgust at coercing a girl into sex and his opportunism when it came to oral. He described his peers buying into the idea that oral carried fewer consequences, making it less of a big deal. “Society/media/religion says sex is this big huge thing….it’s all kind of silent on oral.” I paused to consider this, and realized it’s true. Of course a young person would be influenced by social silence on certain types of sex, and interpret meaning for themselves. I can remember being very surprised when I was informed that oral sex is sex. I too believed a lot of what my peers told me in high school, for lack of accurate, medical information and knowledgeable adults steering the conversation.
In college, he learned about the mechanics and “what to do” from his third and fourth sexual partners, both women. “They were very open minded and it’s where I learned a lot about sex and women’s bodies and getting a woman off.” Being with them seemed to create a place for him to explore himself as a sexual being, and he credits them with having a positive impact on his development. Secret viewings of Real Sex as a kid had exposed him to a range of sexual expression, which he credits with opening his awareness and perception of acceptable practices. When the time came for him to explore sex with partners, he was ready to learn and try and experience.
He considers himself highly sexually driven, and I wondered if he’s had partners whose drives didn’t match his. Not exactly. In a recent relationship he found that he and his partner were “sexually incompatible”, which was frustrating because, “I was VERY scared that if I brought something up I would be judged. and the few times I did bring things up, I did feel judged.” In other words, his partner at the time wasn’t interested in trying sexual activity that appealed to him. He dealt with it by trying to compromise between getting his needs fulfilled while being mindful of hers, but ultimately the relationship ended. The lack of communication became fear of expression.
I asked if sex is a priority in relationships. “Sexual compatibility and open mindedness are priorities. After my last relationship, a lot of pain was caused by fear of communication, so I’m creating the possibility of bravery in communication.” He and his current partner, to whom he is engaged, enjoy sexual compatibility and open communication about sex. I asked what they talk about. “There are going to be people we want to sleep with. There are going to be opportunities to fuck those people. There is going to be a buildup of sexual energy with other people. I made her a promise that I would take that built up energy, bring it home, and drill her through the floor.”
I’ve often found that when people come from families where sex is treated as a taboo, or there’s a general lack of communication about the subject in any regard, that inner confusion and shame can become entwined in a person’s sexuality. In hearing his story I found myself surprised and refreshed at his openness and seeming lack of shame. I was surprised to find he had accepted himself as a sexual person, allowing his partners to guide him toward new understandings of himself. I admired his decision to leave a relationship with a partner with whom communication about sex was a struggle. I left our conversation with an appreciation for his candor in the survey of his sexuality he had provided to me, and us. No judgments, no big deal.