When my grandmother died last summer at 97, my family asked me to write the eulogy. The only challenge was which stories to highlight from her long life: her stint during World War II as a Navy Wave, driving ambulances and delivering ship plans? The time she chased down a pickpocket on the subway, or befriended a biker gang during a solo trip to Las Vegas? Her piercing intellect, how her idea of a fun read was Thus Spake Zarathustra?
Though I managed to patch together a tribute that communicated the sheer abundance of her 97 years, and hinted at her progressiveness, I was struck by what I couldn’t include, perhaps one of her greatest gifts: her sex positivity.
Born in 1917, my grandmother came of age in an era not exactly known for giving women’s sexuality much consideration. And yet, mysteriously, she had somehow learned that she, as much as any man, deserved to experience pleasure.
And did she ever. My mother and her siblings were, rather squeamishly, privy to the sounds of their parents’ lovemaking every night of their childhoods. When her boyfriend visited, my mother was forced to turn the volume of The Johnny Carson Show higher and higher to mask the racket. “They’re putting us to shame,” he told her.
The night she lost her virginity, my mom crept into her parents’ room and woke her mother to tell her. My grandmother’s first question was, “Was it good?” My mom acknowledged that it had not been all that great—hardly surprising she was disappointed, after a lifetime of overhearing amazing sex. “Don’t worry,” she was advised. “It gets better.” (Years later, my mother and I would have a nearly identical conversation.)
My grandmother taught by example that sex was not only fun and fulfilling, but one of the engines that powers healthy relationships. “How’s the chemistry?” she’d ask me, each time I started seeing someone new. Her marriage to my grandfather was a great romance; my mother recalls that well into their 60s, he’d often give my grandma a playful pat on the rear as she walked by. After decades of partnership, they were still excited to be near each other. Every night, over the many long years after his death, she sprayed his cologne on her pillow before going to sleep.
Thankfully, my parents kept their own sex life private—but they didn’t withhold any information. My mother provided me a frank and shame-free education about sexuality, and answered honestly when I had questions.
As a kindergartner, I rode a school bus with children of all ages, which sometimes meant overhearing things that made me curious. When I came home one day and asked my mother, “How do you do sex?” she told me in euphemism-free language.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked.
“It would hurt you, because you’re small,” she said. “But between two grown-ups who love each other, it doesn’t,” thus including a neat little lesson about consent.
A few years later, when I wanted to know how gay men made love, she was candid again.
“That’s gross,” I said.
“No, it isn’t,” she replied, immediately, firmly.
I was embarrassed about my mistake, but my mother never made me feel uncomfortable for wanting information. I asked about masturbation, pubic hair, oral sex. When I started dating my first high school boyfriend, at a time when my classmates and I were still talking about “third base,” she told me to make sure a person’s hands were clean before I allowed them to touch my vagina. And I passed these wisdoms onto my friends, who gasped and cringed that I had such conversations with my mom—but were glad, I think, that one of us did.
Opponents of comprehensive sexuality education argue that talking to kids openly about sex will entice them to have more of it, with more partners, but statistics suggest otherwise. Prior to 2011, for example, Mississippi did not require its schools to provide sex ed instruction—and if they did, they were mandated to teach only abstinence until marriage. Until a bill was passed calling for more inclusive programming, the state was the second-highest in the nation for teen pregnancy, gonorrhea, and chlamydia infections.
Withholding information about sex doesn’t keep kids from having it, and because there are no federally-mandated guidelines for sex ed instruction, it can vary significantly from one region to the next. This means it falls to parents to fill in the gaps. Though it’s certainly not the easiest conversation to have with children—and they may react with horror upon your broaching the subject—they are listening. I was: Since my mother established a precedent early on that she would answer my questions specifically and honestly, I was receptive when she volunteered information. Most importantly, it was accurate information—unlike what I might have received from my peers, had I had to turn to them for answers.
And in my case, coming of age in a sex positive environment made me take sex more seriously than I otherwise might have. I had learned it should be pleasurable and fun, but also a way for two people who appreciated and respected one another to connect—which meant I didn’t want to have it with just anyone. That would have struck me as wasteful.
Even my first kiss became a kind of holy idea: when it was clear it was going to happen one summer evening, during a backyard game of Spin the Bottle, I pulled my friend Erikk aside and told him I wanted it to be with someone I cared about, rather than subject to random chance. He obliged, and we kissed in the narrow space between the house and a row of hedges. I was elated that I’d experienced this rite of passage on my own terms.
In retrospect, what I was doing on a small scale was advocating for myself. This isn’t a skill that’s innate: I had to be taught.
Years later, as a college student, I agreed on a whim one night to unprotected sex with a friend. The next morning, I felt so guilty, given all I knew about the risks of not taking precautions, that I convinced myself I’d contracted an STD. In a panic, I told my mom.
She immediately scheduled an appointment with the gynecologist, and after I was given a clean bill of health, took me out to a celebratory lunch. This, too, was a lesson: I didn’t have to be so hard on myself. I didn’t have to constantly maintain a standard of transcendent—and perfectly correct—sex. But I did deserve to stay safe, and to speak up when something didn’t feel right.
Over our meal, my mom observed with a laugh, “Most mothers probably don’t take their daughters out for ‘Congratulations on not having an STD’ lunches.”
“I doubt it,” I told her. It was a bit strange, admittedly. But I knew how lucky I was that she had.
Alanna Schubach is a freelance writer living in Queens, NY. She has contributed to The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Jezebel, Dame, the Village Voice, and more. Follow her @AlannaSchu.
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