In Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, Dr. Reuben thoughtfully included an entire chapter on venereal diseases—they were the kind of thing one caught, after all, when indulging in prostitution, homosexuality, and S&M. After they'd given me ample time to read and absorb the information within, my parents quizzed me so thoroughly, and so often, that it got to the point I could identify a corkscrew-shaped bacterium from twenty paces.
“With sexual freedom comes sexual responsibility. Your penis is not a toy,” my father intoned while I turned red and tried to pretend I wasn’t in the room, but somewhere else, a quiet, safe place lacking well-intentioned parents who wouldn’t mention the P-word so casually. “Now. Tell me again the symptoms of gonorrhea.”
One of my mother's contributions to my sex manual stash was a late-1950s volume for women. It was called, if I remember correctly, What the Modern Bride To Be Needs to Know About the Facts of Marriage. The preface burbled on about the joy of eternal wedlock and of everlasting love and the beauty of babies in their cradles in spring. It was a bit sick-making. In the introduction's last paragraph, though, the prose took a turn: But do you, the modern bride-to-be, really know how babies come about? You mother might have hinted at it. Your grandmother might have blushed to tell. The authors of this book will guide you through the process, its pleasures and its dangers, so that on your wedding night there will be NO SURPRISES!At last we were getting to the good stuff.
Or so you’d think. The well-meaning, crew-cutted and bespectacled physicians on the back cover were so circumspect about the entire act that they never referred to it in any but the most vague of terms. Ladies, do not fear penetration by the male member. Under many circumstances, the sex act can bring pleasure to both parties! was about as explicit as it got, before launching into a scientific discussion of fertilization and zygotes that could be fished out of any biology textbook.
But again, there was a chapter devoted to venereal diseases, as I remember—or rather, ‘social diseases.’ If your husband has served in any branch of the military, read the text, be sure to inspect his member on the wedding night for sores, abrasions, or other curious features, and refrain from sexual congress until a physician has appraised his manhood as well. He may have contracted a social disease during ‘shore leave.’
Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask might have had the definite advantage in clinical explicitness, but What the Modern Bride To Be Needs to Know About the Facts of Marriage, with its half-told tales of lustful sailors on shore leave and of newlywed husbands importuning their new wives to stop assessing their members’ curious features and come the hell to bed already, certainly knew how to capture the imagination.
When I was in eighth grade, my middle school suddenly decided that it was vital to inform thirteen and fourteen year olds about venereal disease. We’d never had any kind of sex education classes before, though we boys were used to being dismissed for an extra-long recess while the girls being taken into the auditorium once a year for a mysterious movie. I still have no definite confirmation of what the cinematic mystery actually might have been, but I think the playground consensus among the boys was that it had to do with tampons ‘n’ girl stuff.
On the day of our venereal disease seminar, our home room was separated by gender and funneled into conference rooms. The room with the boys was crowded. I remember the chicken-soup smell of our testosterone. I was sitting against the wall in the corner, on a stool, utterly bored. Although the educator had arrived from a local VD clinic with all kinds of visual aids, including a three-dimensional cross section of the male anatomy, his entire talk used the coy phraseology of my mother’s twenty year old Modern Bride book. VD was something that would affect ‘our parts,’ if we used ‘our parts’ with ‘woman parts’ to have ‘relations.’ ‘Our parts’ shouldn’t be used until marriage, of course, but if we used ‘our parts’ for ‘relations’ before then, we ran dire risks of contracting VD.
If there was any doubt about what he meant by ‘our parts,’ it was dispelled when he detached the half-penis from the cutaway model and brandished it like a dog’s chew toy.
The man proceeded to launch into a description of the two venereal diseases we could get, in phrases that never actually used any biological terms for body parts. What I mostly remember about the session is the heat of the conference room and the dullness of the man's droning, and of thinking, My mother is going to shit a gut when she hears about how bad this lecture was.
“You!” said the man, singling me out with a stubby, pointing finger. “You’re not paying attention.”
He was absolutely right, but I wasn’t going to let him know that. I flushed red and denied the charge.
“Okay then, smart guy,” he sneered, glad to have someone to pick on. “What are the symptoms of syphilis?”
I hated anyone condescending to me like that, when I was a kid. (I still do.) I especially hated the phrase smart guy. “Syphilis is caused by corkscrew-shaped bacteria that produce visible sores on the penis, vagina, lips, mouth, or rectum,” I droned. This was easy stuff. I’d been tested by my dad, a tougher inquisitor than this guy. “The sore or sores are at the point of sexual contact and may disappear shortly after they appear. Secondary symptoms, which may surface months after the primary sore has healed, include a rash on the palms or soles of the feet, a fever. . . .”
“All right, all right,” he snapped. "Don't be such a show-off." His face was redder than mine, from being outsmarted. “What about gonorrhea?”
With unnerving accuracy and more than a little anger, I rattled off the symptoms, making sure to emphasize certain words as I said that it began with a burning discharge from the penis or vagina and that while symptoms were more common for men’s penises it could often go undetected in the vagina. All the other boys were giggling uncontrollably at the words we’d been avoiding for over an hour. The instructor whipped his head at them, disgusted that he couldn’t find anything wrong with my answers. “This is a serious matter. It could be life or death! You should all be paying attention to what I say!” he said, making it plain with his glance that meant me, specifically.
I had the embers of righteous suffering burning in my eyes throughout the rest of the lecture, but it did me no good. At the end we were given slips of paper and directed to write down questions that might be easier to ask anonymously than aloud. I didn’t have any questions, but just for the sake of form and because it hadn’t been covered by the man’s talk, I wrote down, How long does it take for symptoms of VD to occur after infection?
The man started pulling out the slips of paper once we’d deposited them into a jelly jar. “How do you catch VD?” he read. “Jesus Christ, guys, we went over that already.” He reached in again. “How do you catch VD?” More dips into the jar, more of the same question. The man was getting more and more frustrated when finally he found a different slip of paper. “What is VD?” he read. “Okay. Who the h . . . who put in that one? Was it you?”
He was accusing me again. Several of the other boys were laughing, saying yeah, it was Rob, he hadn’t been paying attention, remember? I just shook my head, knowing that the slip of paper had been written by Orlando, the kid in our class with spina bifida. Seriously, did he think my handwriting could have been that bad?
“Well, I don’t like smart-asses,” he growled, glaring at me.
I don’t even remember the rest of the session, save that eventually we were let out into the cool air and allowed to go back to our classes.
All I remember is that I spent the rest of the day with my jaw tight, glowering at my classmates, wishing oozing sores and dripping urethras on them all.