I came into puberty in the 50’s. At that time, no matter how tempted, nice girls kept a dime between their knees and their mouths closed if they ever kissed a boy. They didn’t think about sex– that was a sacred thing reserved far far down the line for marriage to a dentist, after we had graduated from college, where we had pledged Kappa Kappa Gamma.
Not only that, we were instructed by our blushing, whispering mothers to keep our hands off ourselves. We weren’t clued in whatsoever to the mechanisms of female pleasure. To be sure, there were those fifth grade sex ed classes, where a thin lipped spinster with a pointer would unroll a dilapidated and yellowed screen, turn on a slide projector and in the most dispassionate possible monotone point to the labia minora and the labia majora.
Confronted by the moonscape of female genitalia through the dust-filled light of the projector, the little boys would turn scarlet, and put their heads down. They nearly crawled under the table when our teacher Mrs. Higgens got out the slides showing the male anatomy and began to discuss, oh shame of shames, the penis.
The P word would roll off her tongue and rebound against the cafeteria walls. We would all put our heads down then, and our jaws clamped tight because we really wanted to shriek with laughter. If we hadn’t finished our little half pint of milk, always the last thing set on the rounded grey hard plastic trays where there had been some barely identifiable bit of macaroni and tuna fish cassarole merging with spinach boiled beyond recognition, we would spill it merely by trying to hold still and get through the lecture.
I think of this now trying to remember just how Mrs. Higgins precisely and directly explained, blow by blow, that the man’s penis swells and stiffens until, just like hooking up the hose on the first warm day in spring, spurting, sputtering, he would deposit “fluid” directly into the vagina of the woman.
More hysteria. I don’t think any of us then, at that age, had ever heard that word spoken aloud, much less any of its raunchy synonyms. The V word too! It was too much, it was delicious. Gone were the things that little girls were made of that very night.
These, for me, were replaced by dreams of the engorged penis, detached and bobbing on an uncharted sea. Would the boys dream of vaginas opening and swallowing them, those salty and sultry mouths and secret passageways between the legs of the decorous little girls?
In those days we came to school in crisp buttoned-up cotton blouses and belted full skirts over crinoline petticoats. We wore cotton underpants from JC Penny’s that covered us fully, with actual waistbands. I for one, somewhat obsessed with the thought that without warning, according to the lecture the girls had alone while the boys played basketball, blood could seep out of me, into my underwear and through my skirt so that I would be trapped in my desk and if I stood, have a red map of Africa across my small, rounded fanny at eye level with Allen Nayer, the dimpled blond boy I thought about all the time, prepared myself.
For a full two years before my period actually started, I carried a larger clasp purse than the other girls, so that hidden away, I could keep a little elastic belt in it through which, when the moment came, you were to thread the gauze ends of a saddle-blanket sized Kotex, approximately one foot long and three inches thick, fitting it snugly to you and pulling your panties up to your chin to keep it in place and somehow walk gracefully, in decorum, as if you were not in fact straddling a Shetland pony, back into the classroom in front of everyone and sit down at your desk.
I carried two of these, furtively digging around for the pencils that hid under them when we had a pop math quiz. Occasionally I would be distracted and the pads would erupt from the mouth of my purse like a head of cauliflower; in the nick of time I would stuff them back in, snap the purse shut, and look out the window.
During the momentous sex ed class, not once, throughout the whole thing, nor at any time, was there mention whatsoever of the dewy ridge positioned secretively between the labia minora, the sensitive little nub that would brush against my underwear and make me ache within. It wasn’t on the map projected on the screen. Absolutely no one spoke of it. Well before the lectures, I noticed mine, comprehending that pressure led to pleasure and more pressure, more pleasure. I had had the impulse to look down under my skirt, and view my anatomy through a strategically placed mirror, frustrated by the need for a bigger mirror or at least some sort of diagram in a book.
The third set of slides was utterly mystifying and not as interesting as the penis-vagina connection. The substance propelled from the penis during “ejaculation”, called “semen”, which all of us heard as “Sea Men” so that we chortled in unison when Mrs. Higgins pronounced it– would “travel” up the “passageway”– read cervix–this fluid, it was revealed, was comprised of many guppy hatchlings, infinitesimal fish called “spermatazoa”.
You all know how to say protozoa– yes, protozoa we would proclaim in unison and so, try it: Sperm-at-o-zoa–, that on the slide could be seen attempting to invade the egg that we the girls “ovulated”, somehow grew once a month, that would travel to meet the sperm head-on, it seemed; the sperm would push and push at and finally break into the egg.
At that juncture, we were asked to refer to our hand-outs which came with the lesson plan all the way from China and then ask questions.
“Approximately 5 million of sperms will swim through their final target- the egg that is hidden in the fallopian tube. These sperms have some tremendous forces and large in volumes, nevertheless, only one of them will achieve its mission by reaching the egg. After being fertilized for eight days, embryo completed its “landing” mission. It tries to embed itself into the endometrium (inner membrane of the uterus). This time, it starts to split into a few hundred of cells. “
Good lord. I attempted to fathom five million of these little visitors swimming upstream inside me. Next to this text was a photograph that looked like the pupil of an eye besieged by the torn petals of a sunflower, a cascade of sea men, evidently. It wasn’t reassuring either to hear that they had tremendous forces: were you standing up or lying down when this happened? Did you fall out of bed? And why did only one make it to home base?
In my curiosity, I had climbed up on a chair where my parents kept books they didn’t want me to read. One of these was titled Marital Happiness. Teetering on the chair, I paged through, looking for something explicit and titillating, finding, in a chapter titled “To the Husband”; “When you feel that she is ready, both of you together plunge from the top of the mountain, rolling to the bottom in rapture…” This had been useless. What did he mean by “ready”?
Then, I had found Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This was the other extreme: to my utter shock and disgust, the refined English woman twined wildflowers in the pubic hair of the illiterate gardener. I had wildflowers pressed between the pages of my Victorian novels. I would never in a million years mistreat wildflowers in that manner.
With five minutes remaining in the carefully orchestrated hour designed to equip us for intimacy for a lifetime, Mrs. Higgins popped in the last batch of slides. and then the talk was rushed into fetal development and images of tiny seahorses sucking their thumbs in bubbles of goo morphing into miniature babies. Now the most alarming thought: so the millions of sea men courting the egg, only one making it to home base, this whole thing would evolve into a human being. This was overwhelming in itself : would I one day, without warning, actually be with child?
Would I have some minute foreign presence within my body that I would eventually have to disgorge from myself without dying, ripped apart and then sewn back together? I had secretively learned of these things in my grandmother’s Victorian classic Dorothy Vernon of Hadden Hall, that I read and reread, giddy at the thought of being kissed by someone like her suitor, Sir John Manners. When he kissed her she would swoon; her “great eyes” would close and she would go limp in his arms. How I longed to know such rapture. She had abruptly, without any discussion, been with child, the child had appeared in her arms…. now I knew what happened between the lines.
It was all bewildering. We scattered like tumbleweeds when it was over, each going to opposite ends of the playgound, standing in our cliques with flushed faces, talking about algebra.
(copyright Jenne’ Andrews 2010)