ANON: When I was in grade school, so I think I was probably around 9, there was a rumor going around that sex was when two people rubbed their butts together. And so for a long time that's what I thought it was. And I couldn't figure it out, I was hearing that and then I was also hearing that sex was dangerous and that you could die and I didn't understand, like there was just a disconnect where I was like, “how can you die from rubbing your butt against someone else’s butt?”
From the Cut and Gimlet Media, this is the Cut on Tuesdays. I’m your host, Molly Fischer.
You know, it’s a GREAT question. How can you die from rubbing your butt against someone else’s butt? I feel like it really captures the flavor of bafflement that comes with the first stages of learning about sex. Try explaining sex to someone who’s never heard of it, and it all sounds highly unlikely.
On today’s show, we’re returning to the dawn of sexual knowledge. What is sex? For all of us, there was a time when we did not know… and we wanted very much to find out. So in this episode we put the question to our friends, our colleagues, our listeners. Looking back on your sexual educations and miseducations, what were some of the earliest answers you found?
VOICEMAIL: When I was in the first grade, my friend, an older and wiser woman in the third grade, told me with much certainty that sex is when a boy pees in your mouth and you swallow it.
VOICEMAIL: I thought sex was kissing and falling because that's what they did on TV. They would kiss and then they would fall out of frame and I had no idea what happened after that.
VOICEMAIL: I remember thinking sex was kind of like plugging something in. So I knew that you put like penis in vagina and I just thought you just sat there like that maybe had a conversation. I don't know. But I did not know there was any movement involved other than basically plugging in.
These are the kinds of answers you arrive at when you do not yet possess the impulse to… plug in. You’ve got a general sense that mouths and genitals are involved, but you’re still unclear on the motivations or agenda.
And then, eventually, you catch a glimpse--you see why someone might want to do something like rub butts, even if you’re not quite sure how to get there.
ANON: I remember the first time I felt a confusing feeling. I didn't know what it was when I saw we watched the never ending story in school. We watched it. I think when I was in like the second or third grade and they had this character named Atreyu you know he was probably like 12 and I think I was like 7 or 8 when I was watching this I just want to be near this person in this way that I don't think it feels new and also like not in a way that I want to be near anybody in my life. That makes sense. Maybe I'd like him to like make a joke about my glasses or like pull on my ponytail or like maybe he'd want to like read a book with me.
ANON: I had a lot of crushes and I would like fantasize about my crushes and what was going to happen with us. And I wanted to kiss people. But then my fantasies would like... hit a certain point where I'd be like, I don't know where else to take this. Like we would like kiss and then it would be like I feel like it needs to escalate it more but I don't know how I couldn't imagine what the next step would be.
This is the follow-up question that emerges after you start asking what is sex: What does sex have to do with me?
In seventh grade, I remember Jessica Liddy walking laps beside me in P.E. and telling me about slumber parties where boys touched girls’ boobs. She’d been to these parties, she said. She could take me, too. And at the time, I remember, this idea struck me as so self-evidently absurd that I assumed it was proof that Jessica was a liar. I could not imagine that such a thing might be happening to actual people I actually knew. Plus, I knew Jessica was a liar because she’d previously claimed to have once walked arm-in-arm across campus with two of the most popular girls in our grade. She had not done that. So vis a vis the boob-touching parties: I did not believe her.
Jessica was one of the friends I’d made the previous year in the computer lab. “See you in the computer lab,” she’d written in my yearbook at the end of sixth grade. The computer lab was a place to work on our presentations about Imperial China in history class, but it was also a place to look at the website Hamster Dance. Mostly, though, what we wanted to do in the computer lab was go in chat rooms, claim to be in our twenties, and get men to write us erotica.
We talked about this as a prank. How dumb these guys were! we’d crow to each other, shrieking at their inability to tell that we were kids. They were so dumb! The things they were writing were CRAZY! How could they write us things that were so crazy? Obviously crazy. Like, people wouldn’t do that stuff, probably. But, like--also, though--what if they did.
Needless to say, on a not-very-subterranean level--we were into it. And I was an asshole for thinking of Jessica Liddy as a liar, because clearly I was a liar too: going online every afternoon and inventing new answers to the question “A/S/L?”
I was reminded of this all recently, watching the show PEN15. It’s part of the reason we wanted to make this episode, actually. It’s about two girls who are 13 in the year 2000, just like I was. And because they’re middle schoolers at the dawn of the millennium, the internet is becoming available just as sex is coming into view. There’s a whole episode devoted to AOL Instant Messenger. And one of the characters, Maya--who’s played by PEN15’s co-creator Maya Erskine--discovers the sexual possibilities of telling lies online.
Maya and her best friend get their screen names, and quickly find themselves drawn to the chat room “Hot People of Franklin County.” That’s where Maya meets Flymiamibro22. She tells him she’s 26 and blonde. He tells her:
MAYA: Oh my god, he’s a freaking gym rat! That’s like… what IS that?
Not really knowing is part of the thrill. Intoxicated with her internet flirtation, Maya prints a photo of the guy who comes up when she does a Yahoo search for “gym rat + miami + computer.” As her chat with Flymiamibro intensifies, a man in a polo shirt and carpenter jeans materializes in her mind’s eye.
MAYA: You’re hot
MIAMI: You’re so frickin hot
MAYA: I’ve never felt this way before
MIAMI: Me either. My heart’s going to burst.
MIAMI: Am I dead?
MAYA: You can take it, bitch!
MIAMI: ‘Cause I’m in heaven with you right now
MAYA: Bury me!
MIAMI: When I think of other girls I want to barf my guts out.
MAYA: I want to eat that barf and guts up like a big old bowl of lentil soup, yum yum yum yum yum!
MIAMIBRO: Sometimes I feel like there’s so much beauty in the world I can’t take it!
MAYA: I love you more than I love my own DAD! (16:36-16:56)
Flymiamibro turns out not to be a 30-year-old gym rat any more than Maya is a 26-year-old blonde--a twist that any non-seventh grader can see coming from a mile away. But even if the two of them aren’t especially good liars, AIM gives them something important. It’s a chance to try out being someone else--someone who knows about sex. Speaking as themselves, they would never have been able to engage in surreal pseudo-dirty talk about lentil-barf and exploding hearts and dads.
When you’re at this age, sexual knowledge is like one of those medieval drawings of a lion done by a monk who had never seen a lion. Maybe someone had once described a lion to him, or to someone he knew, but this is no substitute for firsthand experience. Still, he’s doing the best he can with what he’s got.
ANON: My family has always been very into art. So I grew up going to museums with my father and my grandfather. And normally the statues are either larger than life or they're on a pedestal. So they're taller than you are. And I was small, I was short, I was a kid. So looking up at them you would really only see the end of the penis to start with. So it was foreshortened and then most of the penises on classical statues are very small. So there less than an inch. I would say long. So that's what I thought a penis was. It wasn't until I was 12 where I had a tumblr and I was scrolling through tumblr and there was a GIF of two people having sex that came out of nowhere. I wasn't following any sexual Tumblr anything and the penis was huge. I kept thinking oh my god it's it's long and it's straight and it's smooth and it freaked me out so much that's how I started watching porn was because I thought to myself I need to get used to the idea of what a penis looks like.
ANON: So when I was 11 or 12 I think my family had this girl from Northern Ireland come stay with us as part of this program that they used to do. I don't know if they still do this where it was sort of like to show Northern Irish kids that Catholics and Protestants could get along. You'd have a Protestant come stay with you if you were a Catholic family and vice versa and we were Catholic. So she was Protestant and I thought she very sophisticated because she had a boyfriend and just seemed to know things about sex that I didn't and I don't remember how this came up and it's mortifying to even think about it like I we must have been using extremely veiled language but at some point we started talking about masturbation techniques and she told me that what she did was put a nail polish bottle in her vagina. Like just the the cap the part you know, like, Essie, where it's like a thin white cap and she's like we sort of like explaining each other's techniques. I would go into a room, try her technique she'd I'd come back out she'd go and try my technique. And when I was in the room trying her technique I was sort of like this doesn't this doesn't work like my way this doesn't this is just something sitting there and she would just I was like What do you do. She would read a magazine just with a nail polish bottle just there. And I was like God if this is what sex is going to be like I do not have a lot to look forward to.
ANON: I have three older brothers and they are always watching MTV on television. My mom thought it would corrupt me so I got my own television with cable in my bedroom at age 8 which is so early. So red shoe diaries came on at like 11 o'clock on Cinemax and it's David Duchovny he is a man who just lost his fiance and finds her diaries and gets still reading them to get to know his late fiance. The diaries are just full of her or erotic longings and all the scenarios she wishes that she could be in sexually. And they're all sort of like soft core porn like 1990s silk lingerie satin sheets sex. And that was like my earliest introduction into oh this is what adults do. It always involved more than one woman has two women one men like ornate like curtains hanging down with a canopy bed and like satin sheets.Nobody had genitals but there are a lot of boobs saxophones and moaning boobs moaning no genitals. And when I started having sleep overs the thing to do if you like look guys we can watch like nudies stuff. I remember inviting one of my school friends over and she just started crying hysterically when I showed her red shoe diaries and then asked to go home asking my mom like why she was why she went home and my mom was like will you tell me what did you do. I was like I don't know I guess shoulder I showed her. I did admit to showing her read diaries. It's again a wonder they never took that television away and my mom said that some people are uncomfortable with sex and you can't you cannot do that. And so I for being like well how sad for her. Because the show rules we were not friends after that. You still like to come for sleepovers but I definitely was the porn house. But nobody ever you know that's the kind of thing that you imagine would make you sort of like the outcast kid you know. But I think it actually made me a little more popular.
ANON: One night in 8th grade. I was having a sleep over at my friend's house and three other girls were there too. It was before the age where we were drinking. It was you know the time when you would kind of like eat ice cream and watch movies and stay up late. That was like the bad behavior anyway. So it was at the end of summer and or the beginning of the school year. And my friend who had just come back from Camp said at camp you know this guy he went down on me and we were like What is that. What does that mean. We thought that was like so crazy and you know we were like I don't know 13 or 14 like and so we were all in this one girl's room and we were like talking about it. And she was just like well I'll show you and one of the other girls who was there was like OK and so one girl went down on another girl. And then that girl went down to another girl. And it sort of the four of us just like experimented with oral sex together without it being like like a porny experience. It was like we were thrilled by like this new experience like wanting to sort of figure it out and obviously have heard about like guys going down on girls without ever knowing anything about what it meant. And so anyway this thing happens over the course of I don't know not very long half an hour or something and we're all like laughing and giggling and it's very very funny. You know afterwards I think we were like I remember we went and she had like one of those cans of like frozen Minute Maid orange juice and we went and like made orange juice and like were drinking orange juice together afterwards like laughing about how funny it was that we had just done this. So that happened in 8th grade and it wasn’t until 11th grade when a guy went down on me and I remember when that happened and it was so much more awkward and so much more fumbling and I felt so much weirder about it and it was not fun and it was not really exciting in the way that when my friends and I did it it really was, you know?
There’s this short period in our lives when both anything and nothing seem possible, sex-wise. For many, it’s a time of extreme exploratory horniness—of blind, ecstatic enthusiasm.
VOICEMAIL: I wanted to dry hump constantly. That's all I wanted to do. I thought that it was the best thing in the world. I just wanted to get married or be in a long term relationship so badly because I thought it would happen all the time.
But what if, during that time, something comes along to squash all that enthusiasm down? What happens next?
That’s coming up, after the break.
Welcome back. This week, we are asking the question: What is sex? How did you find out about it? And we got a bunch of people to tell us about their first glimmers of sexual awareness.
VM: first time I ever masturbated I think I was 14 and I remember right before I had like I know that I was feeling that I was going to have an orgasm. And I stopped myself because I thought that I was going to lose my virginity.
For some of the people we talked to, when sex first appeared on the scene, it collided with another force in their lives.
VM: I think I viewed my vagina as property that I needed to keep intact for someone else.
That force was religion.
LINDA:The only thing I ever heard about Mary growing up was that she was a virgin. And Mary was the only woman that I ever heard presented as a role model for me in the
This is Linda Kay Klein; she’s a writer and a speaker who grew up evangelical. Like us, she’s spent time talking to women she knows about their earliest understandings of sex. And Linda used those conversations as the foundation for her book--it’s called Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free.
LINDA: So I joined the evangelical church when I was 13 it was in 1991. So for me to be a seventh grader in an early 1990s coming into this faith with an absolute fervor of a convert and to have had that moment coincide with the beginning of the purity movement which is when we took this idea that sexual purity was an important part of being a Christian. And it shifted into sexual purity being the most important way for you to express your Christianity.
That emphasis on sexual purity would eventually be called “purity culture.” And the years before the rise of purity culture were a time when Americans were thinking about sex in new ways.
LINDA: So you need to remember that we were in the midst of the AIDS crisis and that there was a tremendous amount of fear that people had about literally dying. So you have a lot of sexual anxiety that was already part of culture particularly after the sexual revolution when people are like whoa what's going on.
Now we're having sex right. Like what's happening.
Molly: We’re ok with this all of a sudden? OK. Yeah. And now.
LINDA: And now people are dying. So you take this sexual fear that was already present and
you layer on the question of life or death. Right. And now the intensity around what
is our sexual ethic becomes very strong indeed.
In the 1990s, that intensity translated into political shift: The rise of abstinence-only sex ed.
This was something the Christian right had been pushing for a long time. But by the nineties, they were gaining momentum. The organization True Love Waits had its first meetings in 1993, and by 1994, they were staging an event where they displayed more than 2 hundred thousand purity pledges on the National Mall.
But the real victory came in 1996: That’s when Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act into law.
Buried in the Welfare Reform Act was something called Title V, which created new federal grants that states could use if they agreed to teach only abstinence in schools. In other words, the sex education that this money paid for was, “don’t do it, unless you’re married.” Every state except for California has taken Title V funds at some point.
So, purity culture wasn’t just for evangelicals anymore--purity culture was the law of the land.
In the mid nineties, politicians were making sweeping changes to the way American kids learned about sex. Linda, meanwhile, was doing her best to be a good Christian teen.
LINDA: I had a boyfriend when I was 16 years old who I had only kissed and I was utterly and absolutely crazy about him. He made me aware of every part of my body that I had not been aware of before. Right. I was just absolutely on fire every time I was around him. So though we had only kissed I was terrified of losing my sexual purity and of threatening him you know because we were taught within the community that it is a girl or woman's responsibility to protect the community from sexual impurity because boys and men can't help themselves often. So you need to be responsible as a not very sexual person of course a woman or girl you need be responsible by dressing in just the right way walking and talking in just the right way doing everything just right to make sure that no one has any sexual thoughts or feelings or takes any sexual actions
MOLLY: which is an insane burden to place on a teenage girl
LINDA: whose toes are tingling. Yeah right. Absolutely. My toes are tingling in a way that is making me think I'm going to send us both to hell.
LINDA:I called up all my girlfriends in my church youth group and we had a concert of prayer. It was what the term was.
MOLLY: What does that mean.
LINDA: It's when you gather together for prayer on a specific targeted topic and that topic was that I thought God wanted me to break up with my boyfriend. And so we very seriously prayed about it and I felt sure that it was what I needed to do. And I called him up and I told him that I had heard from God and that I needed to break up with him. He was utterly devastated. Yeah. And I was utterly devastated. The difference was that I thought that I should be utterly devastated. I thought it was good for me.
Eventually Linda left the church. She went off to college. She found another boyfriend there, and it seemed like things were going well.
LINDA: I remember feeling like I was ready to start to explore the possibility of having sex with my long term boyfriend. On this point I was in my early 20s my boyfriend had been together for years and I felt like it was a legitimate time for me to
explore you know making making that choice. And ultimately what I found is that my
body started to break down every time I would actually attempt to get into a sexual sphere with him. I would break down into tears every time we would try to have sex or not even try to have sex you know get anywhere close to that to that realm and my eczema would come out and I would be scratching myself until I bled and I would be in a state of of absolute self hatred.
Back when Linda was an evangelical sixteen-year-old with tingling toes, the rules she lived by meant that she had to take everything she was feeling and block it out. Now she’d walked away from those rules, but she couldn’t get the feelings back.
LINDA: it was deeply inside of me though I was no longer part of a community no longer surrounded by people who were telling me these messages and didn't believe the messages myself they were still controlling my thoughts still controlling my feelings still controlling my behaviors. And I got really, really scared.
Part of the reason these messages had embedded so deeply was because purity culture was never just about church; it had been marketed to teens in all kinds of ways.
LINDA: You have concerts that are purity themed. You have cool products like t shirts and rings and all that stuff.
<<DC TALK RAP STUFF>>
LINDA: It started out you know being a very small community then saturated a subculture then really started to infiltrate society as a whole and pretty soon you know became part of the top most noticeable aspects of society and that is pop culture
Purity culture had blown up, way beyond evangelical churches and sex-ed. And if you were in middle school in 2000, you’ll remember this, too. Right around the same time Maya from PEN15 was discovering AIM, Britney Spears was staying a virgin while also dating Justin Timberlake. Jessica Simpson, whose manager-dad was a preacher, was saving herself for marriage. Purity rings had become a familiar accessory on famous hands.
The pop culture version of purity was sexy and happy. Linda, meanwhile, was miserable.
LINDA: I felt incredibly alone. I felt incredibly alone, the idea that I wasn’t able to have sex, though I had been trying for years?
So she decided to start talking to the women she’d grown up with.
LINDA: When I first started calling up my girlfriends from back home, I actually had no idea if they were also going to think I was crazy. And not only crazy but sinful. And if they would say that the reason you’re having sexual anxiety is because you’re sinful and shameful and bad. So it was really with shock that I remember hearing them share similar stories from their own lives, and it was a huge shift for me internally, and ultimately that’s what led me to begin the journey and say I actually need to figure this out for real, and move back to my hometown, and do deeper conversations with people in person. like what is going on, I’m only going to figure this out if I have a sense of what’s happening in other people’s lives, so I can figure out what’s happening in my own life.
Linda talked to single, unmarried women who’d tried to find loopholes to deal with their sexual feelings -- like they’d masturbate only once a month and tell themselves it was a clinical procedure, while trying to think of the laundry, a honeymoon night, or nothing at all. There was one woman who’d taught herself to slap her crotch whenever she felt something to make it go away. A whole generation of women like Linda were just coming into adulthood, and sexual pleasure for them had been shaped entirely by purity culture.
And we heard stories like that, too.
VM: I remember going to church and we had this lesson that was like All right you know sexual sin is a sin that's next to murder you know like you might as well you know if you're having premarital sex like you might as well be basically killing somebody and then like the next thing we talked about was like if you've been sexually assaulted or you've been raped that's not your fault. Don't worry about that. So in my head I was like OK so if I'm wanting to be raped like that I would be less sinful then wanting consensual sex. Right. And so for the longest time that's all I allowed myself to like fantasize like what I imagine that I desired. This is confusion between my body biologically wants this thing but it's it's so terrible and harmful and like hurts people. Once I got to college I did have a sexual partner. And initially I was just so confused because she had being so loving and I'm like why are you being so loving. Didn't really understand you know I didn't think that sex could be something that was like loving or intimate or enjoyable or even.
In 2007, the results of a decade long study became public. Researchers had been tracking what had happened with all that money that Bill Clinton had released back in the nineties to fund abstinence-only sex education. And the results were clear: Telling kids not to have sex didn’t stop them from having sex. It didn’t change the number of people they had sex with. It didn’t change the age when they first had sex. Since 1996, the federal government has spent more than 2.1 billion dollars on abstinence-only programs.
Then there were the results of Linda’s informal study--all the conversations she had with women who’d grown up in the purity movement.
LINDA: what we are starting to discover is that there have been other things that this teaching particularly the purity component of the abstinence only messaging has been very effective in doing and that is creating tremendous states of shame and fear and anxiety.
LINDA: I think a lot of people look at my book and think to themselves Oh that's about those evangelicals that's about them right. This weird person and these weird people these people who grew up in this community are experiencing these like really extreme hoping for that. How weird for them. Yes actually. So we need to remember that evangelicals are about 25 percent of this country. A massive population. Right. And that these teachings are by no means exclusive to that population. We Yeah we. As evangelicals who grew up within the purity movement offer a kind of mirror for the larger society.
The thing that was so clear from that study was that kids’ urge to figure out sex persists no matter how much you try to deny it or smash it down. And the raw materials of sexual discovery are everywhere. Even for kids growing up in the church. Even within the literal church building.
NICHOLE: I remember being very young in church reading Song of Solomon from the Bible and one being struck by the poetry of it and to realizing, oh, this is kind of a nasty.
Nichole Perkins is a writer, and co-host of the podcast Thirst Aid Kit. She was about 7 years old when she discovered Song of Solomon.
NICHOLE: Song of Solomon is a book in the Bible that is about King Solomon. And one of his wives or one of the women who eventually becomes one of his wives and she's like she's having these dreams about him, she's lusting after him. You know he's describing her breasts and her stomach and her thighs and her lips. This is two people like drinking from each other's navels and that's a very naughty thing. So I was very intrigued by that.
NICHOLE: People try to stress and make it seem like it's supposed to be a metaphor for the way that the church is supposed to love God. But it’s like, I don't know that were drinking from God's navel. I don't know that we’re like talking about God's bosoms like doves. So it's very it's very clear that someone sneaked some romance in the Bible.
NICHOLE: It got to the point where every time I was in church I was reading Song of Solomon and my mother like pulled my father to the side one day of like you know your daughter has been reading this church right. And she made it seem like it was such a bad thing in the the tone of her voice made it clear that it was a bad thing or that it was something that I should not be doing.
Song of Solomon was Nichole’s first answer to the question what is sex? And as she got older, she had a lot more questions. A lot of the time, they got shut down--other people were uncomfortable. But she kept asking. She made it her job, eventually--talking to people about sex. She thinks that Song of Solomon put her on the right track.
NICHOLE: I don’t know I guess because I have this foundation where sex was a beautiful tender thing between two people with feelings. That's how I went into so much of sex. And I'm you know it was there were a lot of uncomfortable moments when I was younger because of my curiosity. ButI'm really grateful for that foundation of tenderness and knowing that it could be beautiful.
Those early moments are formative--the ones spent fumbling, on the brink of sex. And there’s something irresistible about revisiting them, even if it’s not exactly nostalgia. Maybe it’s because, from time to time, sex makes 13-year-olds of us all. Confusion and shame don't stop when you get your braces off. And neither does the thrill of stumbling into something you don't quite understand... The times when you find yourself thinking: What is going ON here? What am I doing? What even IS sex?
We will continue to report back on what we learn.
That’s it for this week’s show… we’ll see you next Tuesday
The Cut on Tuesdays is produced by Sarah McVeigh and Olivia Natt.
Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler.
We’re edited by Stella Bugbee, Lynn Levy, and Nazanin Rafsanjani.
Mixing by Emma Munger and Andi Kristins, our music is by Emma Munger and Haley Shaw. Our theme song is PLAY IT RIGHT by Amelia Meath, Nick Sanborn, Molly Sarle, and Alexandra Sauser Monig.
Thanks to Anna Silman, Lisa Ryan, Katie Christiansen, Tamara Brummer, Anna Foley, Kathy Tu, Sara Moslener, Shida Karr, and Joshua Harris. Thanks also to the listeners who called into share their experiences, and to the women who spoke to us about purity culture. Also, I should note: I have used a pseudonym to protect my middle school computer lab friend.
The Cut on Tuesdays is a production of Gimlet Media and the Cut