5 Surprising Places I Learned About Sex

Illustrated by: Anna Sudit.
I was born in the early ‘80s, which means I came of age right around the time that the internet was going mainstream. As a kid, and even through a lot of my teenage years, the internet was still something of a fringe interest. Some people had it, but certainly not everyone; and since going online still required tying up the phone line, it was a lot harder to do in secret, away from the prying eyes of parents.

Which may explain why — unlike today’s youth or even people just a few years younger than me — I didn’t learn about sex from the internet. There were no late-night porn viewings or frantic Google searches for whatever confusing term I’d heard on TV; I didn’t grow up going into sexy chatrooms and exploring scenarios with strangers (I should probably note here that, for the bulk of my Wi-Fi-free teen years, using the internet required being in a room directly connected to my parents’ bedroom, or being at one of their offices; as a risk-averse kid, I decided the danger of searching for sex info under those circumstances held little appeal).

But just because I wasn’t watching porn clips or scrolling through sites like Scarleteen, that didn’t mean I was completely in the dark about sex. So how, exactly, did I learn about sex in those days before the internet? Well, a few different ways, which I’ve outlined ahead.

The gap between what we learned in sex ed and what we're learning through sexual experience is big — way too big. So we're helping to connect those dots by talking about the realities of sex, from how it's done to how to make sure it's consensual, safe, healthy, and pleasurable all at once. Check out more here.
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Illustrated by: Anna Sudit.
Books (For Kids)
My first formal introduction to the topic of sex came at the age of five, when my parents presented me with a copy of Peter Mayle’s Where Did I Come From?

If you’re not familiar with this sex education classic, here are a few important details. First and foremost, it was published in 1973, and a haze of 1970s-era sexual liberation shimmers over every aspect, from the tone to the content to all of the illustrations. The frank, straightforward (yet still child-appropriate) book is full of illustrations of chubby, naked people — decent stand-ins for your parents, provided your parents are vaguely Semitic-looking and white — who offer introductions to the various sexual body parts, and of course, the basics of copulation and reproduction.

Oh, and the book doesn’t shy away from the topic of orgasm, explaining that “all the rubbing up and down that’s been going on ends in a tremendous big lovely shiver” for everyone involved in the sex act.

While Where Did I Come From? was one of the most formative sex ed books of my youth, it wasn’t the only one: Other friends, with other parents, had other sex education tomes that we pored over together, learning words like "penis" and "vagina" and "semen."

Even books that weren’t explicitly about sex were often mined for whatever clues or information they could offer up: I remember one afternoon in second grade when a group of kids gathered together under the desks, ogling the anatomy diagrams as though they were something deeply indecent.

And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Judy Blume, whose books offered insight into all sorts of grown-up topics, like menstruation, masturbation, bras, wet dreams, and the conflicted pleasures of voyeurism. (Was I the only young girl more influenced by Then Again, Maybe I Won’t than Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret?)
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Illustrated by: Anna Sudit.
Magazines & Newspapers
I’m the youngest of three kids; the next-oldest is my sister, who’s four and a half years older than I am. Around the time my sister hit her tweens, she got subscriptions to Seventeen and Sassy; not surprisingly, I started reading them as well.

With their focus on guiding teens through the pain and confusion of adolescence, these magazines were often a fount of information about the less-romantic aspects of sex. In addition to indoctrinating me into the world of period horror stories, these magazines were also how I learned that a virgin was someone who’d never had sex (and not, as I had previously assumed, some foreign nationality), that penetration might hurt (and involve bleeding) the first time I did it, and that oral sex was a thing that people did.

As I got older, syndicated sex columns helped complete my education. As a teenager in Buffalo, I devoured Savage Love once it started appearing in Artvoice (the local alt weekly); when I moved to New York and started picking up The Village Voice, Tristan Taormino’s Pucker Up introduced me to a number of other aspects of human sexuality. Savage taught me the value of being good, giving, and game; Taormino introduced me to the wild world of anal pleasure. And both expanded my sexual vocabulary far beyond anything Seventeen had taught me.
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Illustrated by: Anna Sudit.
I didn’t see an actual porn movie until I was 17 and in college — but that didn’t mean I hadn’t been exposed to sex (and nudity!) on film before. At seven, my parents took me to the theater to see Parenthood, a film that takes on topics like vibrators, teens taking naked pictures of each other, hiding porn from your mom, and road head (just for starters). I didn’t fully understand many of the movie’s more risqué elements — when I rewatched it at 14, I was shocked by how mature some of it was — but I have to assume that being exposed to those topics in a supportive, positive manner must have had an impact on me.

Other films that (for better or for worse) offered up a vision of adult sexuality to an impressionable young me? Revenge of the Nerds (probably one of the most disturbing celebrations of rape culture 1980s cinema had to offer), Fame (also a bit creepy in some of its messaging), and Mermaids (which presents female sexuality as a mixed bag: Having sex will make you closer to your mother, but also put your little sister’s life at risk?).
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Illustrated by: Anna Sudit.
Books (For Adults)
Throughout my childhood, The Joy of Sex and Kama Sutra were openly displayed on our living room bookshelves, but that’s not really the kind of book I’m talking about here. Whatever mysterious thrill those books might have held, they also seemed deeply connected to the intimate lives of my parents — and if there’s one way to make a kid completely uninterested in something sexy, it’s by connecting it to whatever her parents are doing while naked.

The adult books that did hold my interest, on the other hand, were novels that offered up glimpses into what, exactly, was involved in sex. The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole was probably the first place I encountered the word “virgin” (and, as a result, came to the aforementioned erroneous conclusion that it had something to do with where in the world you happened to hail from). Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series introduced 11-year-old me to the sexually liberated world of 1970s/1980s San Francisco, with all the gay sex, infidelity, trans women, and birth control pills that that environment entailed. And as a young teenager, it was Nicholas Christopher’s Veronica that opened my eyes to the fact that sexual intercourse involved extensive thrusting back and forth (and not, as I guess I’d previously assumed, just two people putting their genitals together and lying there).

It’s worth noting that many of the books that opened my eyes to the world of adult sex lives came to me through my mother, either because — like The Joy of Sex — they were readily available in my home, or because — like Tales of the City and Adrian Albert Mole — my mother specifically recommended that I read them. Which brings me to the final, and most important, way that I learned about sex.
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Illustrated by: Anna Sudit.
Actual People
One night, when I was about 13 or so, I sat with my mom watching some gay awards show on TV (literally a gay awards show, not, like, the Oscars or Tonys). During the proceedings, I turned to her and asked a question that had been on my mind: “How do gay people have sex?”

“Anal or oral,” my mom swiftly replied, a canned response I offered up to some of my friends at a sleepover a few weeks later. Though my mom’s response wasn’t the most detailed or graphic, it was honest, straightforward, and — most importantly — let me know that there was nothing shameful about my question, my curiosity, or sex.

And that kind of attitude was an essential component to the way my family approached sex. Though having a mother who wasn’t afraid to talk about sex was, at times, embarrassing, it also meant that when I did have questions, I didn’t have to turn to some shady source or rely on questionable information from my peers.

Which may actually be the biggest reason I didn’t learn about sex from the internet (because let’s be real, if I’d truly felt motivated to, I could have overcome the various obstacles and found my way to the seedier corners of the web). Having access to open-minded adults committed to honest conversations and shame-free sex education, who encouraged me to learn about adult topics from good books and smart, sex-positive movies, was probably the most essential component of my sex education. And it’s one that’s just as important — maybe even more important — for kids growing up in a post-internet era.