The very visible conversation of sexuality, particularly in the recent months with Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition and the legalization of gay marriage, has caused me to partake in some serious internal reflection.
Sex was never explained to me growing up. It was just something we never talked about. When I turned 18, my parents said, “There are things that boys are going to try and do. We’ll talk about it.” That was that.
Needless to say, sexuality has always been a taboo subject for me. I was not raised in a religious home like many of my friends, so I was never explicitly told that premarital sex and non-heterosexuality were wrong. Both of my parents come from families that are not big on sharing, and even less inclined to share personal details about their sexuality.
All my grandparents, and even my parents, grew up in a time where any sexual proclivity was largely stigmatized and something you kept quiet, and this translated to the way I was raised. I don’t think I heard the word “sex” in my home until I was 20.
I am the generation between the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and “Love is Love” campaigns. I was too young to question the condemnation of non-heterosexuality at 10 but too old not to question it at 15. I had a very mechanical, scientific idea of (heterosexual) sex from health class and hushed, misguided whispers behind my classmate’s hands.
Any sex in the media was highly censored by my parents, which further stigmatized sex itself and solidified the divide I believed to exist between people who had sex and people who didn’t. If we accidentally caught a glimpse while flipping channels or late at night when we were supposed to be asleep, the TV was immediately turned off. I came to believe that seeing a naked body or any talk of sex was dirty, wrong, and inappropriate.
So, I fell somewhere between knowing sex and sexuality existed but having absolutely no concept of how to talk about it, let alone do it. I assumed that the only way to have sex was between a man and a woman over age 25, behind closed doors, under the covers. No one ever told me this; I was simply not exposed to anything other than heteronormative, missionary sex for the purpose of procreation.
This lack of dialogue left me with very misguided and melodramatic views on sex. I thought only “deviants” watched porn. Vibrators? Masturbation? THREESOMES?! Those words weren’t in my vocabulary, let alone things that real, functioning members of society did. Those people didn’t have jobs, friends, children or stable relationships. They hid themselves from the rest of the world and only materialized at night, under the cover of darkness.
In college, even at a large public school in a liberal state, masculine men and feminine women were overwhelmingly the majority. Granted, I had a very small social circle, which further pigeonholed my experiences. It wasn’t until after college that I learned of exactly two gay and two bisexual people in my friend group, and I won’t pretend I wasn’t kind of shocked.
This upbringing has largely affected me in my adult life. I moved to an extremely liberal city after graduation, and my comfort zone has all but exploded. I know people who are bisexual, transgender, and polyamorous. Complete strangers will tell me about their Grindr experiences. I went to a drag show! I marched in a pride parade!
The idea of myself as a sexual being has also been both enlightening and scary. No one ever told me that I was allowed to have desires, let alone say them out loud. My sex life is complicated and turbulent, because I frequently and randomly will decide that I don’t want anyone else’s hands on me. Sometimes I can’t wrap my head around being naked in front of another person. It has been a slow and lonely journey to find my voice and my sexual identity.
Part of me resents that so much was hidden from me for 20 years. I feel shameful for wanting to have sex. Sometimes I still instinctively wonder what has led a person with particular sexual desires that deviate from my own to feel that way.
We take many things with us from our childhoods. Many of these things are harmless: a favorite story, a best friend, a music box, or the belief that our parents are invincible. Unfortunately, the permanent impact that our young convictions can have on adulthood can also be negative.
I am by no means a close-minded individual; I completely support and welcome any and all consenting lifestyles. It is simply a world that is very foreign to me. The adults in my life frequently shuttered at two men holding hands while I was growing up, and as I grow older the lines are blurring. I’m learning that there is no right answer when it comes to sex and sexuality, and the “new normal” is that there is no normal.