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The Age Of Innocence: When I Didn't Know What I Didn't Know About Sex

Barbara Beckwith: "Necking in high school gave me clues, like that boys break into a sweat and squirm mightily after a few minutes of kissing." (Vlasta Juricek/flickr)
Barbara Beckwith: "Necking in high school gave me clues, like that boys break into a sweat and squirm mightily after a few minutes of kissing." (Vlasta Juricek/flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

My family moved a lot during my teenage years. Switching schools caused me to miss not only my friends, but also a guided tour of “the human body.” New York kids got to study it in the second semester of ninth grade biology, after I’d left the state. Pennsylvania’s teens started the year with it, so by the time I arrived, they’d moved on to other topics. Once settled in New Jersey, I should have been “in the know” about the basics of bodies, both his and hers, but I was not.

At home, we were a family of females – my mother and three girls – plus my dad, who kept his clothes on. Well, I once walked in on him in the bathroom but speedily backed out and blocked out -- the equivalent of the Victorian faint...

My new friends told me that the teacher had brought out a plastic model of a female body, sliced in half, and showed the girls-only class how to insert a tampon “up there” — the phrase we teens used in the ‘50s. Unfortunately, the girls did not get to look at a male dummy, whole or sliced. Neither was an explanation of how male and female bodies interact with each other included.

So all of us girls remained uninformed, especially about male private parts. At home, we were a family of females – my mother and three girls – plus my dad, who kept his clothes on. Well, I once walked in on him in the bathroom but speedily backed out and blocked out — the equivalent of the Victorian faint — so I knew no more about the male body after that moment than I had before.

Necking in high school gave me clues, like that boys break into a sweat and squirm mightily after a few minutes of kissing. In my diary, I wrote about my own responses with generalized vagueness. “I got emotional,” I told Diary Dear, and, “I melted when he kissed me,” avoiding via metaphor any understanding of my own capacity for arousal, let alone orgasm.

My mother tried to help. Once, I came home red-faced from necking with my boyfriend. The next day she proffered this advice: “If a boy ever tries to do anything to you that you don’t want him to do, tell him to take a cold shower.” I had no idea what she was talking about.

At college, I studied art history. From the darkened lecture hall, we looked at slides of Italian Renaissance paintings and sculptures, including Michelangelo’s David. I admired his magnificent hands but somehow missed observing his other equally impressive parts. In my junior year, when I finally saw a man up close and in the flesh, I was startled. I knew about the penis by then, but I was unprepared for the rest.

Not that I understood the female body any better. I may have been one of the few young women of my era who did not explore my body. That is, to be post-50s frank, I did not masturbate. I would have been shocked at the idea that, 20 years later, in the feminist ‘70s, women would gather with specula and mirrors to examine and celebrate “our bodies, ourselves.” I altogether sidestepped the opportunity that tampons and a diaphragm gave me to examine, if not celebrate, my own parts.

I would have been shocked at the idea that... in the feminist ‘70s, women would gather with specula and mirrors to examine and celebrate 'our bodies, ourselves.'

Which is why, two children later, I decided I had cancer “down there.” That year, we were living in Paris and considered ourselves cosmopolitan. One day, my hand somehow – I suspect by accident – came into contact with the inside of my – by now I can say it – vagina. I panicked. I called my husband at work and told him I’d discovered a tumor. He, too, panicked, sped home, left the kids at the neighbor’s, and drove me through several Parisian arrondissements, seeking a doctor willing to operate immediately. We tried three medical centers before we found one willing to treat the American tout de suite.

The doctor, being French, was dignified in speech and demeanor. He examined what I was convinced were my tumor-ridden insides. He told me to get dressed. He asked me to sit down across from him. No expression crossed his face. He spoke to me in a calm voice. “What you have is not cancer," he said. “What you felt, madame, is your cervix. It belongs there!"


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Barbara Beckwith Cognoscenti contributor
Barbara Beckwith writes articles and essays on topics ranging from white privilege and prejudice, to body basics, bliss and blues.

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