My childhood was pretty dysfunctional, even by my dysfunctional family’s standards. My early years were filled with constant fighting between my parents about everything from money to who smoked the last cigarette to whose turn it was to “watch” my brother and me.
It didn’t get any better after my parents finally split up when I was 4 and my brother was 2. Our lives became a custodial battleground that went on for years, a battle my mom eventually won. I dreaded Christmas because it meant the police would inevitably get called when my mom refused to let us out of the house for visitation with my dad. Badmouthing the other parent was common, something my brother and I quickly learned to ignore.
But for as much as my parents loathed each other, they had weirdly similar parenting styles. They both kept us on short leashes and rarely let us out of the house, pressured us to get good grades and wore our achievements as their own. They both also neglected to talk to either of us about sex.
I don’t know how old I was when I first learned about sex, but it was young. I grew up with kids about five years older than me who were often giggling about it. I’m sure my understanding of sex at the time was bare bones and probably inaccurate. I was filled with questions and had no one to ask for answers.
For example, despite my uncle being gay and living with his boyfriend, something I was always aware of, I didn’t know couples who weren’t a man and a woman could even have sex with each other. I grew up in the ’90s when there were very few same-sex couples and no gay sex scenes on mainstream television. I also didn’t know women could have relationships with each other, which is ironic because I grew up and later discovered I’m a lesbian.
We didn’t talk about sex at either of my households beyond being told to close our eyes if nudity or a sex scene happened to pop up in a movie.
Sex seemed too taboo to bring up, so I didn’t and sought information out elsewhere. A friend and I would watch the late-night soft-core porn movies on Cinemax after her parents went to bed, staying up late and talking about what people in the movies were doing. I also discovered sex scenes in the romance books my grandma had littered around her house and would sneak them home with me to read before bringing a book back and taking another, like a secret library.
Eventually, my life became more saturated with sex through the media and conversations with friends on the playground. Friends told me about their parents’ talks with them about their changing bodies and sex and how awkward it was. I waited and waited for my mom or dad, or possibly even both of them together given how big the topic was, to sit me down and tell me about the birds and the bees, but it never happened. Then one day, almost like a switch, sex began to come up casually in conversation with my parents without being prefaced by the talk.
By that point, I was in my mid-teens, and there was still so much I didn’t know. My school’s sex ed program didn’t really teach us much other than what STIs were and about reproductive systems — the bare minimum. Still, it was the most educational explanation about sex I ever got.
Thinking about this all as an adult, I wish my parents had talked to me about sex. Sure, I probably still would have been curious about it and sought out books with sex scenes and such, but I would have been much less confused about it. I would have grown up knowing it was OK not to be attracted to men instead of unintentionally repressing my sexuality and loathing myself.
It took me a long time to realize that consent went beyond simply having the option to say yes or no to sex and that there had been times when my consent hadn’t been freely and enthusiastically given, times when I’d been coerced or mislead. They could have taught me that consent wasn’t just saying yes or no to sex, but also to kissing or hugging or any sort of touch and that I could say no to it at any time.
I also wish they would have told me that sexual assault and rape could be, and often were, more than someone forcing themselves on you. I didn’t realize that sometimes assaults didn’t leave physical bruises.
There’s a lot I wish they had talked to me about. I might have made different choices if they had talked to me about sex growing up. I might have left toxic relationships sooner or perhaps wouldn’t have blamed myself when someone did violate me. At this point, it’s hard to know for sure. I’m finally in a good place in my life as I near 30, in a healthy and stable relationship with a woman who respects me and my boundaries. I just hope that becomes more and more common for parents to have open and frank conversations with their kids about sex in the future.