Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Sexual Education: Everything I Ever Wanted to Know About Sex

I learned about the birds and the bees in third grade, the day that my best friend Teresa walked up to me at recess and announced, "Wanna know how babies are made?"

Well, of course I did.

A gleam in her eye, Teresa took me behind the scrubby forsythias that grew along the fence at the edge of the tiny playground. In their shade, our little sneakers kicking up whirlwinds of dirt, she made me lean forward and listen to the details through cupped fingers. "A mommy and a daddy go into the little boy's room, then they drop down their pants and show each other their hineys." That was the word she used. Hiney. I'd never heard it before. It sounded exotic, some undiscovered land just off the coast of me. My ignorance scandalized her even further. She explained the term, and then proceeded. "Then they rub their hineys together! And a baby comes out."

I blinked, dubious. She swore up and down that she was telling me the truth, and then before I could ask any questions, ran off to spread her information to the next victim. I remember pondering the scenario all that afternoon during fractions. If anything, Teresa's news made me more curious. Why, I remember thinking, did the mommy and the daddy have to go to the little boy's room? Why not a girl's room? Why did it have to be a public restroom at all? What if they lived in the country, where public facilities were few and far between? What if someone walked in? It sounded awful.

About the hineys, however, I didn't doubt Teresa. She was the sister of a future famous rock star, and until then her credentials had been impeccable.

"So," I told my mother when I got home that day, as I pulled some chocolate chip cookies from a Tupperware container. "I learned how babies were made, today."

When my mother wasn't teaching, she had three favorite pastimes: college basketball, murder mysteries, and crossword puzzles. That afternoon she was sitting at the rickety kitchen table with a cigarette in her left hand and a Ngaio Marsh in her right. She maintained a level expression while smoke curlicued from the corners of her mouth. "How?"

I gave her the nitty-gritty. She listened with a stone face that would have rivaled anything erected by the Easter Islanders, a long and brittle ash drooping from the end of her cigarette. "Good god," she said at last. Then she stubbed out the cigarette, stood up, and rapidly went to shut the doors between the kitchen and the living and dining rooms. Once satisfied that she'd created a cone of silence, she cleared her throat and said, "Pull up a chair, kid."

When I went to school the next day, it was with a much deeper, accurate, and scientific understanding of the human reproductive process than Teresa's parents apparently taught her. The problem was that my gospel arrived so late in the game that it was apocrypha; Teresa's had been such a stunning development in the third grade mentality that anything I had to say sounded like the knockoff philosophy of a jealous rival—I was the Treet to her Spam, the Hydrox to her Oreo.

But the upshot of the Teresa incident was that my parents decided it was time for me to get more than just the most basic of outlines of the ins and outs, as it were, of sexual intercourse. That's how I ended up, as I've mentioned before, with a collection of sex manuals at the tender age of nine or ten.

The first, and the most informative, was Dr. David Reuben's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). The book held an important place in popular culture for most of the nineteen-seventies. Legions of married couples clung to it, before The Joy of Sex made its way into their bedrooms instead. Woody Allen gently spoofed it in a film of the same title. The reason for its popularity is that EYWTKAS was pretty much a Sex for Dummies manual. It started with the very basics—the reproductive organs, what they looked like, and how they worked, and how they fit together.

Apparently I was quite the little dummy back then, because these opening chapters were a mystery to me. Part of the problem was that although I knew the proper terms for the male and female anatomy (we were not a family that used words like 'pee-pee' or 'cookie'), I had absolutely no conception of how they were supposed to be spelled. I assumed that penis was supposed to have a double-E in there, somewhere. And the female organ? My childlike mind thought it had a J or at least a nice ZH in its middle. Something soft and sweet, like the organ itself. Not the hard G that appears in the the actual word.

So for several days I read and re-read the anatomy chapters, mystified what this odd-sounding pen-is (the word I kept reading in the book I was thinking rhymed with tennis) and the harsh-sounding vagina (which I mentally rhymed with beginnah) might be. When I made the connection between the printed words and the terms with which I grew up, it was a real Helen Keller moment. In the movie of my life, some ten-year-old is going to win an Oscar stumbling around with his hands open, excitedly shouting "VAGINA! VAGINA!" instead of wah-wah!

Subsequent chapters moved on through pregnancy and childbirth. Once the very basics had been laid out, the book started to go into frills. Impotency. S&M. Homosexuality. Prostitution. The book's structure was something like a FAQ, with the doctor authoritatively responding to what he seemed to assume were common questions that the average person would have about sexuality.

Only wow, some of the misconceptions I picked up from the book. Since the other sex manuals my parents assigned me to read were quaint and euphemism-filled marriage manuals from the nineteen-fifties (the only good sex tip I got from them was that the husband loves it when a wife licks the palm of her hand and rubs it hard over the tip of the glans . . . to which the only thing I can say is ouch, motherfucker!), I had to assume that EYWTKAS was the most up-to-date and accurate source of information.

It wasn't.

Some of the things I learned as gospel from that august book:

All male homosexuals are sexual deviants who meet each other in bowling alley restrooms. It was like the Teresa story all over again. I somehow recognized part of myself in the chapter on homosexuality, though the doctor's assertion that all homosexuals were either super-butches or cross-dressing queens didn't ring true. I assumed with some despair that I'd never meet another homosexual, ever, because the only bowling alley in Richmond was way the hell on the other side of town.

All prostitutes are lesbians and all lesbians are prostitutes. I'm not really sure of the doctor's logic on this one, but apparently it was an impeccable product of its era. Which, I would like to remind everyone, was also era when people invented the Pet Rock and sat in bean bag chairs.

All kink and any fetish falls under sado-masochism. It doesn't matter how mild a fetish it is. If a man starts having a hankering for lacy women's underwear, sooner or later he's going to end trussed up with a leather-clad dominatrix whipping the fuck out of him. Oh, and every shoe store is stocked with perverted clerks who took the job so they could fondle their female customers' feet and then masturbate in the stock room.

Vaginas are dangerous, evil, penis-trapping devices. No lie. The book contained a horrifying chapter on frigidity that basically stated that sexually unresponsive women are pretty much bitches, and that if you try to fuck them, their vaginas will clamp down upon your hapless penis and refuse to let it go. Want to know why so many boys came out as gay in the years EYWTKAS came out? It's because we all read the chapter about the man whose limp penis was strangled in a woman's vagina with such force that the fucking fire department had to come out and separate them.

Dr. Reuben, on the whole, was a very strange man.


  1. I've always been appalled by that ridiculous and condemnatory description of gay people. I didn't learn about it until many years after the book came out (I wasn't given a copy the way you were) but when I did, I thought, "But so many people took that book seriously! How can that be?" The good information in the book, as far as I'm concerned, is eclipsed by the outrageous and ignorant misstatements of fact. I can only wonder how much damage the book has done over the years.

  2. P.S.-- hope you continue to feel better!

  3. 8:33 Anonymous,

    Sex manuals, more than just about any other form of literature, seem to represent the zeitgeist of an era. They really encapsulate all its fears and misconceptions and prejudices. This one was no different—it was just wildly popular, like no sex manual before ever had been.

    It was an eye-opener, that's for sure. And the misinformation wasn't any worse than what I was getting at school—at least there was no talk about hiney-rubbing. But was it accurate? God, no.

    And thanks for the well-wishes. I'm feeling better, day by day.

  4. I read the bowling alley thing too when I was but a child....and spend many an hour in ours with nothing to come of it. Lies. All lies!!!

  5. BikeGuy,

    I will credit the book for giving me the idea that if I didn't have a bowling alley, I should look at other restrooms. But it is an awfully specific direction.

    Did you at least get a good right hook out of it?

  6. I found a copy of EYWTKAS* when going through boxes of stuff at my grandparents' house. I'm *so* glad that so many things sound absolutely ridiculous today.

    Also, I was mildly disturbed by their underlined and notated passages and, also, nude pictures of grandpa. But more power to them, I guess.


  7. Ms. Inconspicuous,

    Goodness. You did come across quite the treasure trove, there. What was underlined? (Secretly I'm hoping it's from the S&M chapter.)

  8. Why "sex sells," and how, will never cease to amaze. Thank The Stars I read Reuben at 18 (2 years before you) and smelled a money-hungry rat. In 1969-1972, American psychiatry still considered homosexuality a mental illness, officially. Small wonder, eh? With shrinks like Reuben, who needs witch doctors?

    Reuben re-issued in 1999, it appears. What a dainty dish to set before . . . the queens.

  9. 11:23 Anonymous,

    I'd be interested to get a synopsis of what revisions he made in '99. That's a long time between editions, and a lot happened in the meantime, don't you think?

    Even when I read some of the chapters in that book, awed as I was, I couldn't help but think, Surely this can't all be right, can it? A healthy dose of academic skepticism was the happy byproduct of an academic upbringing.

  10. 1. Is that the reason my town had three bowling ally's when I was a

    2. The Joy of Gay Sex cleared alot of things up.

    3. What's a Ngaio Marsh? And I'm not even sure I want to know what 'cookie' meant, pee-pee I know, cookie no.

    4. And what became of Teresa with all that rubbing hineys together knowledge?

  11. Cyberi4a,

    The Joy of Gay Sex didn't come out until looooong after, in my timeline. Marsh was a mystery novelist, and from what I understand, Teresa became a suburban housewife (though with a rock star sibling for cred). I never did get my due for having the correct baby-making explanation, either. But Teresa and were friends all the way through seventh grade, regardless.

  12. Breeder:

    Why Reuben published a new edition 30 years later struck me, too. And while I was writing at 11:23, I certainly was mindful of all that has changed -- absolutely! (I *try* not to pontificate, much tho I love to.)

    If someone told me, ca. 1969, that the world would be legalizing gay unions and moving towards gay marriage in 30 years, I would have laughed at them even more than I did at Reuben. Times have exceeded my wildest dreams, all right.

  13. When I was in second grade a boy a year younger than me (brother of a friend) told me he knew how babies were made. I was dreadfully afraid that I knew less than a younger kid and asked him to tell me. His response: "The mommy has to kiss the tip of the daddy's penis and it puts the baby inside of her." My response: "How is the baby in the daddy's penis?" He was a little put out by my questioning.

    My family never pretended a stork brought kids. I was the only child in my generation so I was around a lot of adults. But how I finally learned was in the summer between 3rd and 4th grade I found my mom's copy of "Our Bodies, Our Lives" and read the sex chapter. Then, in fifth grade, we started sex education. By then I knew all the dirty words for the organs. I said "cunt" way too often back then. I thought I was cool. My mom gave me a book about puberty for boys and it filled in a lot of blanks. None of the books I read had that kind of mis-information, but they were all after the sexual revolution. I also found Joys of Sex and Joy of Gay Sex by the time I was in middle school (at the library of course).

    Needless to say, when I first saw two guys blowing each other in a locker room, I knew what was up. I had known for a long time. It was probably what made the transition to sex so easy for me.


  14. OK, the "Miracle Worker" reference made me snort Diet Coke out my nose. You funny guy.

  15. By the time I got my hands on EYWTKAS, I was 16 and had been sucking dick in the mall men's room for several years; my new driver's license just made it a lot easier. But I didn't know anything about bowling alleys 'til I read the book—I had never been to a bowling alley—and I made a beeline to Western Lanes on Hillsborough Street across from North Carolina State University. I even brought a pen because EYWTKAS said these deviant male homosexuals passed notes back and forth between stalls and I was ready! I don't recall how long I sat there with absolutely nothing going on before I gave up, but I can almost smell the pungent urinal cakes as I write this. All was not lost: I crossed the street to the NCSU campus and found the infamous Harrelson Hall restrooms that a mall tearoom trick told me were the best in town.

    What I remember most about EYWTKAS was the very brief section (maybe just a paragraph or two) on anal sex. The entire passage was based on one interview Dr. Reuben had with a male prostitute. The hustler (was pretty disgusted by anal sex but would do it—for an additional charge—when his clients demanded it. (He'd fuck them; they were gay, he was only gay-for-pay.) And he'd only do it at the end of the encounter, as it came across that somehow he thought it defiled his dick. There was even a term for it, which I "got" but found distasteful: browning.

    Later that year, I fucked for the first time (my former fifth grade teacher but I guess that's another story altogether) and really thought he'd be impressed that I knew the "correct" term for it. I don't remember exactly how I threw out the term (I'm sure I was trying to be all casual and cool—I was 16 and had just fucked a 32-year-old man) but it was met by a bemused laugh and a "What did you say?" I explained how the good doctor had said that gay men call fucking "browning" and he informed me that indeed they did not and to never use that disgusting word again. I never did, except (on a few occasions) to ask anybody else if they'd ever heard of it. No one ever had.

    (Brown you, Dr. David Reuben!)

  16. Ace,

    It was in the late seventies that some actual good sex ed books for kids started to come out. I used to babysit a couple of neighbors whose parents had bought them a fairly graphic (for an illustrated kid's book) sex manual that showed a chubby mommy and daddy wiggling around on top of each other, and everything. I felt so old-fashioned and deprived.

  17. John,

    I live to make other people snarf their Diet Coke. Score me!

  18. Throb,

    Oh my god, I'd completely forgotten about 'browning,' but your mention of it brought back memories. I couple help but think about it every time I read the word in a cooking direction for years.

    I remember that Reuben had a whole list of slang and its meanings in both the homosexuality and the prostitution chapters—almost none of which I've heard since.

    I think I'm going to bring 'browning' into vogue, though. Through sheer force of repetition.

  19. I grew up in the era of Heather has Two Mommies and another book about the father living with an "uncle" character. I remember the one where the father was gay was even more realistic because it had the mother being pissed at the father and not coming inside when the child visited.

    Oh, and then there was the What's Happening to me Body Book for Boys which had a chapter about how at night, before bed, a boy named Ralph or something liked to touch himself so he felt good and could fall asleep better. Which was just hilarious.

    I learned more from reading Boys Like Us when I was 11 than I did anywhere else. Besides having some hot erotic stories, there were some fun tidbits on gay life I could use later, like the fact that boys could get paid for sex.

    I also read one that was about a stripper who advocated safe sex while dancing in a jock strap...but I never could remember that book's title. Used to read it in the library and then go to the bathroom and jack off. Which then turned into going to the bathroom to suck off the men. How promiscuous!


  20. RE: that disgusting verb --

    Giving the devil his due, "to brown" may have been Californian slang that never quite caught on. (Reubenzebub is still alive and Californian.) Campus T-rooms were never for me; but we all have to answer nature's call, & I can still remember graffiti (far from CA) asking anyone who'd had "The Brown Gobbler" to add their experiences. Browngie could have been a superbottom, rimmer or scat pig -- not so long ago, a clerk in my neighborhood bookstore said of a DVD titled "Fart," "Well, it's not brown, anyway".

    Porn star Eric Rhodes mentions being "chili dogged" -- use your imagination. So I guess using "brown" in that sense is a little less . . . graphic. Please channel with care.

    1. In chapter 4 ('Words') of 'Who was that man?', Neil Bartlett's 'a present for Mr Oscar Wilde' (Serpent's Tale, 1988), p78, he quotes from 'My Secret Life', vol. 6, pp131-4, labelling it 'a pick up from the 1870s' as follows -

      I met them in Soho Square. He took his hat off respectfully. "Go ahead, and I'll follow," said I... (We) crossed Oxford Street, to a long street, out of which turning up a paved court, he opened with a latch key a door, and up we all went to a first floow over a shop, and into a well-furnished sitting room, and a bedroom.
      "Are you fond of a bit of brown" - he asked - I did not understand and he explained - "We always say a bit of brown among ourselves" - he questioned me - had I been up a man. - "No" - There was no like it - "Shall I suck it?" - "You?"- "Yes"... "Do let me sod you" said he all at once and quite affectionately; "I should so like to do it to you and take your virginity."

      Bartlett writes, "I recognise the voice because it is ours".

      So as a fragment of past gay language, it seems to exist...

      OK, English lit lesson over! Love reading your blog Rob, and thank god you write way better than the above of the 1870s.

  21. I love some of these stories. I remember around age 11, my sister who was 10 asked my mom why there was hair on her cunt. My mother without pause or shock decided it was time for the talk. She sat us down with a medical anatomy book and took us through the process puberty and pregancy. We giggled, but we learned. My mother also gave us EYWTKS to read. It was the first time I saw homosexuality in print and I actually felt relieved. It was in no way positive, but it was assuring to a small town boy that others existed. No computer in 1975, so had to start learning somewhere. If memory serves, 60 minutes did a whole episode on homos around the same time (I think it was around the time Cruising with Al Pacino came out) and my mom and I watched it together. I look back and wonder why I feared coming out so much at 22 when all the subtle acceptance hints were there for many years.
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane and for putting into perspective that as unique as we all are, we experience many of the same things and are far more relatable that different.

  22. Steve,

    I have to agree with you that seeing homosexuality in print was kind of a relief. Or for me, I read it, recognized myself at some level, and then decided that despite everything Dr. Reuben had to say about homosexual perverts, that if there were enough of them to write a chapter about, somehow I'd be okay.

    Cruising would've made me feel the opposite, if I'd seen it when it came out.

  23. I Rob,
    Sorry my friend, i never heard of that book maybe because i am French Canadian and that i could never go out of the house before all the chores were done and when i finish them, it was time for hameworks and bed time. Maybe i will check for it now and read it.. I put comments before the other one but i think you didn't saw them and i know that i didn't read it the same day now but i will do it starting this week my friend.


  24. "All kink and any fetish falls under sado-masochism"

    Sheesh they say that like it would be a bad thing... ;)