Let’s talk about sex.
When I was a bookish homeschooler, I was an odd combination of well-read and ignorant. I read the unabridged Les Miserables at twelve and had to ask what a “woman of the town” was; I didn’t have the courage to ask why it turned your hair gray. I devoured Charles Dickens but didn’t know that Oliver Twist’s Nancy was of that same profession until I was in college. I pored over the un-annotated Complete Works of William Shakespeare and wondered what a virgin-knot was. I read through my father’s old art history textbook, and surmised that I was a freak for having blue veins on my skin, and that men had no pubic hair and had very small members.
My mother was the one who taught me about sex. She stressed that I ought never to talk about sex with anyone else but bring all my questions to her. She told me the most basic mechanics of intercourse and how to practice NFP– but she omitted quite a bit of extremely valuable information. The books on chastity I was allowed to read stressed the same dichotomy over and over again: sex is sacred and pleasurable, as long as you’re married. Married sex is not gross. Married sex is not silly. Married sex is a wonderful, fun and fantastic thing that you will like. You can look forward to married sex. If you remain a virgin until marriage, your wedding night will be a delightful experience and your sex life will be second to none. If you have sex before marriage, however, God will curse you with a bastard, you will get an STD and your ability to bond with the opposite sex will be permanently ruined. Married sex is wonderful, unmarried sex is awful. Unmarried sex is terrible and married sex is perfect.
When I asked for details the books did not provide on how, exactly, one had wonderful married sex, my mother said “It’s pretty self-explanatory” and left it at that.
The youth groups I attended reinforced the married-sex-is-pure-awesome-and-self-explanatory message; indeed, it was nearly all we ever talked about. Looking back I think a lot of youth groups function like junior fertility cults, fetishizing chaste married sex as the ultimate mysterious and pleasurable reward for good behavior in teenage years, and demonizing unplanned pregnancy as the ultimate punishment. When I went for my masters’ degree at a famous Catholic university, everyone there had been raised in the married-sex-is-pure-awesome youth group fertility cult. We were all convinced that, after our Catholic weddings, the sex would be out of this world. We joked about ripping our wedding dresses off in the car on the way to the hotel, wasting no time to enjoy the wonders of chaste married sex. When I got engaged, all my friends squealed and made extremely vanilla sex jokes, teasing me about all the chaste and innocent fun I was going to have after our engagement was finally over.
In all that time, there was one thing no one bothered to mention.
They never mentioned it would hurt.
It did hurt. More than a little, more than just the first time. Nobody warned me about that. And let me tell you, firsthand experience is a humiliating way to find out. Worse, it was not, in any way, self-explanatory. I didn’t know what I was doing– I didn’t realize I had to do something, because no one had told me. It was the most awkward and embarrassing night of my life.
It took a week and quite a bit of squinting at Wikipedia articles before chaste married sex became anything like fun, and after that I had to face the fact that even well-practiced married sex is not 100% wonderful all of the time. Some nights were fantastic, but not all. As I compared notes with other young wives raised in the same culture, I realized that I wasn’t alone. The one who had been told that it would hurt thought it would only hurt once, for a moment, like a shot, and was a bit ashamed to admit that she wasn’t always ecstatic for sex even after the pain stopped. It turns out that married sex is not Heaven, it’s a part of life on earth. We’d been lied to.
I think that the people who push the married-sex-is-pure-awesome-and-self-explanatory business are doing so with good intention. I think that they think they’re promoting chastity by talking up its benefits. I think they think that if they downplay anything unpleasant about virginity and chaste married sex, while constantly reminding young people of the dangers of unchastity, then teenagers will remain chaste and the sacrament of holy matrimony will be honored. The problem is that being dishonest in order to promote a good thing is still dishonest. It’s still lying, and it does nobody good. Most teenagers aren’t as naive as I was, and they’ll know they’re being lied to and ignore adult cautions just like they did in the 80s, when they were expected to believe that all drugs fry the brain like an egg. Naive dorky teens like me will idolize married sex, only to find the idol has feet of clay and a virgin-knot.
I’d like to propose a different way of talking about sex: let’s tell the truth. The whole truth. Don’t give teenagers a brilliant heavenly cowsy-wowsy Thomas Kinkaide painting of what sex will be like after marriage, because it’s a lie. Don’t downplay the dangers associated with sex before marriage either, because that’s a lie too, but don’t exaggerate them or act like healing is impossible. Tell the truth. The whole thing, even the parts that you don’t feel back up your message. If your message is really truthful, then it won’t be diminished by telling the whole truth.
If there are any bookish but naive homeschooled teenagers reading this: the truth is that there are many very important reasons why you ought to save sex for marriage– starting with the fact that God asks you to, but there are good social and biological reasons as well. But the truth is also that the night you lose your virginity will probably be the most awkward night of your life, even if it’s on your honeymoon after a chaste engagement. The truth is that men don’t look like ancient Greek statues. The truth is that women’s bodies are funny-looking too, in many ways. A virgin-knot is a body part called a hymen, and it hurts a lot when it breaks. Sex is not self-explanatory. You need lots of communication and lots of embarrassing mistakes before you get it right. Sex can be extremely fun, but it can also be very awkward and gross and silly and even frightening or boring, and none of those feelings are wrong because they’re all truthful. Sex is not just heavenly, it’s also human, and human bodies are beautiful– but they’re also awkward and gross and silly and frightening and boring. You are not a freak. Let me say that again: you are not a freak. And your blue veins are normal.