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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Human Sexuality 101

Frank talk about sex has always come easily to me. Having already read The Joy of Sex (Alex Comfort, 1972 ) and Fear of Flying (Erica Jong, 1973) by the time I was fifteen, I was on a quest for more information about human sexuality. I felt prepared for extensive knowledge on a topic that had captured my attention and imagination. In retrospect, I believe that I perceived the tremendous power that sex held over men and women, and I was afraid of it. My lifelong response to facing my fears has to been to educate myself as fully as possible on the topic. Whether it was physics, acrophobia or sexuality, I have been one to face the dragon head on and stare it down. That is how I came to check out The Kama-Sutra from the Providence Public Library when I was seventeen.  Knowledge is Power.  I needed knowledge.  

A small aside: May I just pause for a moment to reflect that, in 1974, borrowing such a book was considered very gutsy? First, I had to pass for eighteen. The library did not allow minors to borrow “pornography.”  I had to show a library card and an id. Mine was borrowed, and fake. Today, forty years later, anyone can buy The Kama Sutra online at www.Amazon.com  What’s more, it is free!  

In any event, as one of the few remaining virgins in my high school senior class, I was the most versed in all aspects of human sexuality and reproduction. I was often viewed as something of an oddity...a thin,nerdy, bookworm of a girl - partial to head scarves and bobby socks with my school uniform - who loved to laugh.  Adding a vast knowledge of sex to my curriculum vitae did not hurt my popularity. My high school made practice of giving each student a book of their own choosing upon graduation.  I chose, Our Bodies, Our Selves (Women’s Education Collaborative).  It was customary to choose dictionaries.  

As a natural progression to my study of human sexuality, I took two semesters on the topic in college.  Both of them were taught within the Five Colleges in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts; the Five Colleges is a consortium consisting of U. Mass - Amherst, Hampshire College, Smith College, Amherst College and Mount Holyoke College. The Five Colleges allows students to take coursework at any of the schools in the network.  It was not a surprise that conservative Mount Holyoke did not offer classes in sexuality back in the mid-seventies. To get the education I desired, I had to farm myself out to Amherst and Hampshire Colleges.  The Amherst College course, entitled Human Sexuality, was affectionately called Holes and Poles by students. The Hampshire College course had a long, unwieldy name -- something like Embracing Our Sexuality in Today’s Society. The courses could not have been more different.  Amherst College supplied a large, dark, lecture hall, one hundred-twenty horny men, six women, lots of adult films, an occasional lecturer, and multiple choice tests.  Hampshire College provided “Professorial Discussion Leaders,” twenty-five ethnically and sexually diverse students, guest speakers, round-table discussions and blue books (commonly used in colleges for essay question responses). I learned from both approaches. Bolstered by courses in Anatomy and Physiology, Human Reproduction and Psychology, I had carved a unique path for myself.
With my newly-minted wealth of knowledge, I felt prepared to volunteer as a Peer Counselor on Sexuality on the Mount Holyoke campus. I can’t imagine this job still exists.  After all, the internet brings answers to any question that one could possibly seek.  Before the ready-accessibility of computers, that was my job.  I worked out of the Health Center. There was a brief indoctrination period, but my knowledge surpassed that of my examiner’s.  If a Mount Holyoke woman had a question pertaining to the functionality or use of her reproductive system or that of her partner’s, I was the go-to gal. I has the resources of the Health Center nurses and physician’s if I felt out of my league or needed to make a referral.  The job brought with it many interesting conversations -- most of which have faded in the fog of time.  What I most loved about the work was being engaged with a topic about which I was passionate and well-informed. When a Mount Holyoke woman left our discussions, I hoped that she was equally passionate and informed.  Moreover, I hoped she was reassured about her specific concerns and that she better-appreciated her own body.

What’s next with a knowledge that included where to snip the vas deferens to perform a vasectomy and the average response time of women to orgasm by oral stimulation? I practically had a Masters in Masters and Johnson and nowhere to go with it. It is in hindsight that I can discern what happened to that sexually versed woman.  I interwove my studies of human sexuality into the fabric of my life.  There are three ways in which I see how I applied this knowledge.
First, I was hired to write, and edit, a high-school text-book.  My particular chapter was on the topic of human sexuality.  I kept my day-job working in a bank, but nights and weekends were dedicated to this other assignment.  I was uniquely suited to the job because I was a scientist, a writer and I liked to teach.
Second, I brought my understanding and curiosity to my own marriage. In a field such as this, who wouldn’t enjoy the experimentation?  There is an infinite amount to learn about human sexuality.  The mechanics are no longer as interesting to me as the emotional aspects of sexual expression.
Finally, I hope that my background allowed me to foster an understanding, respect and appreciation for sexuality in my own children. I imagine myself a bit like the character played by Barbra Streisand in Meet the Parents.  Her frank and open acknowledgement of sex was often viewed as aberrant and a bit jarring by her family, but she was generally spot-on with her observations and recommendations. That I should be so apt! I marvel that I am the same person who borrowed a fake id at the Providence Public Library simply for the sake of attaining access to purloined literature. Times have changed, and so have I.

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