I was having a conversation with someone earlier yesterday about the concept of sexual shame—whether it’s appropriate, when it’s a hindrance, and how it develops in our psyches from the very earliest age.
I was fortunate enough to have incredibly sexually-progressive parents who felt that what adults did in the bedroom was pretty much their own business. Nudity was pretty common in our household. I was educated not only in the proper words for the genitals and what came out of them, but in the concepts of foreplay and birth control, long before any of the other kids had gotten beyond the stork and cabbage patch concept. Even in my teen years, my mother’s advice about marriage tended to be, “For the love of god! Don’t get married until you’ve lived with someone for at least two years! Only after you’ve got the fucking out of your system will you know whether you’re good for each other!”
True dat. When you get right down to it, it’s about the most practical relationship advice you can give a young someone.
The conversation yesterday did bring to mind an incident from my youth, though, involving my grandmother—my mother’s mother. Now, my mother came from a deeply religious Southern family. Her grandfather and her father were Southern Baptist ministers. Her multiple brothers also went into the ministry, though they all broke away from it in one way or another later on in their lives. My mom was the first member of her Georgia clan who finished high school and got herself a college and then a graduate-level education; combined with her political activism, she had a reputation among both her own family and her in-laws as a firebrand radical.
My grandmother, however, couldn’t have been more opposite. Both women were equally stubborn, but where my mother was inquisitive and loved to laugh, my grandmother was sour and stern, and looked no farther for news than what she could hear over the bingo tables at the local Eastern Star lodge. My mother couldn’t stand cooking, and pressed me into kitchen labor when I hit the double-digits in years; my grandmother’s main talents had been birthing babies and baked goods. They fought like cats when they were in close proximity. More than once did my mom cut visits south short by tossing me and the suitcases in the back of the car and driving off (“For good!”, she’d yell, every time) in a huff with a squeal of brakes and a flurry of dust from the dirt road on which my grandparents lived.
I had to have been in first or second grade when the one incident of shame I remember from my very early years took place, because in my memory we’d just moved into the house where my dad is still living. I was in the basement with a boy from the neighborhood—I don’t remember anything about him except that he lived nearby and that I was trying to make friends with him, because I was new enough to the area that I didn’t have any. And my grandmother was visiting, which is the kind of thing she’d do immediately after a move, to maximize the chaos and discomfort.
My parents had bought (maybe for moving, maybe just for their offices) a Dymo label maker. Label makers in those days were heavy devices that look like the radar guns cops use on the sides of the highways, mated with the Starship Enterprise. One fed a narrow strip of plastic into these things, turned the wheel containing the alphabet and numerals and a few rudimentary punctuation marks until it reached the letter of one’s choice, squeezed the handle really, really hard, and distended the plastic tape with a die so that it embossed a character into it. When one had finally finished laboriously spelling out a word, one would advance the plastic tape, cut it, peel off the backing, and then stick the label on whatever it was that needed to be identified.
Back in the days before videos games and even electronic calculators, this device passed as nifty and high tech. Naturally, kids loved them. I’d taken my parents’ label maker and this other kid and I were down in the basement playroom messing around with it. One of us had come up with the brilliant idea of making a label that said KICK ME! on it, and we were taking turns sticking it on each other. I’d stick it on his forehead, and he’d giggle. He’d stick it on my shoulder, and we’d both laugh hysterically.
I know! You’re envying the sheer hilarity of it! And I don’t blame you! I stuck the label on his chest. Then he stuck it on my butt! Can you imagine? Walking around with KICK ME on my butt all day? What a laugh riot! We were laughing up a storm when I stuck it on his groin. Hilarious!
Then I looked up, and saw my grandmother standing on the basement stairs. She wore on her face the expression I always associate with my grandmother, pinched eyes, prim lips pressed into a grim line—the same expression she had almost twenty years ago when I drove overnight, all night, from Michigan to Virginia the day my mother died, and I stumbled out of the car and her first words of comfort to me were, “You sure have gotten fat.”
But that day, when I was no more than six or seven, I suddenly knew that I’d done something of which she hadn’t approved. I’d played around with another boy’s crotch. I knew that in her eyes, without so much as a word from her lips, that it was w-r-o-n-g wrong.
If it had been my mother, or my father, or any of their friends, such tomfoolery wouldn’t have gotten even a raised eyebrow. But my grandmother stopped there on the stairs, face pressed into that disapproving and disappointed expression, laundry in her hands, and stared. I stopped laughing, and backed away from the kid. Only when I was a good distance away, and she was certain she’d squelched any proto-homosexual orgies that might’ve arisen from the labeler incident, did she finally leave.
For the first time—maybe the only time—in my young years, I remember feeling flushed and shamed by the incident. She hadn’t said a word, but somehow she’d convinced me I was doing something wrong, something dirty. On a certain level I knew that my parents wouldn’t have cared about a kick-me label to the groin. They would’ve found it juvenile, but not worthy of condemnation. And in a lot of ways, it was the first time I was aware that my household was a little bit different in that respect than other households.
I sure as shootin’ never stuck another label on a man’s dick after that. I’ll tell you that.
For today’s Friday open forum, I’m curious about other people’s childhood experience in shame. I know mine is rather tame compared to some I’ve heard. But when was the first time you experienced sexual shame as a kid—and did it come from your parents? Your peers? From within? How did it change your behavior, after? Or did it? Do you feel shame is necessary, when it comes to sex? Or can it be a turn-on?
Let’s hear from you guys in the comments.