How I Learned What Sex Was

Thyra Heder

I remember going to my friend Alexis’s house—I must have been seven—and she demonstrated how to give a blow job on a teddy bear. I had no idea what the hell she was talking about or doing. She also told me that every time someone said “do it” they were, in fact, talking about sex, so we thought it was hilarious to giggle every time our teacher said “it.” —Doree Shafrir

When I was seven, after I’d just read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, I decided I wanted a bra even though I didn’t need one, and wouldn’t for another, say, 12 years. I shyly asked my mom if I could get one, or a training bra, and she politely declined, then sat me down at the kitchen table to explain with illustrations what boobs were and how I didn’t yet qualify for something to hold them. She made a drawing that showed what boobs looked like when you got pregnant. (“The ducts become enlarged.”) What did it mean to get pregnant? Heck if I knew.

About a year later, my troublemaker British friend C.E., who got kicked out of every school she ever went to, informed me that women “have a hole in them” that men “stick their fingers in.” I didn’t ask her to elaborate (or fact-check).

Three years later, I was over at my friend Dana’s house for a sleepover. She had a million cable channels. We camped in front of the TV and there, on some porn channel, around one in the morning, I learned exactly what sex was, once and for all. It was very unexpected, and I was horrified, I think by the repetitiveness and pleasure-seeking of it all, because pleasure to me at that point was getting in fights with boyfriends I’d gone out with for two or three weeks and barely, if ever, kissed. —Liz Colville

In sex ed, as I’m sure you know, there is always an anonymous question time, where students get the chance to write the questions they are too embarrassed to ask out loud—they write them on bits of paper and the instructor reads them aloud and answers them. I forget what the question was that precipitated this whole thing, but someone anonymously asked about ejaculation—how it worked, or how long it took, or something like that.

The teacher told us all about about ejaculation, and then I raised my hand. I had a question, but it wasn’t anything so embarrassing that I couldn’t just ask it aloud—on the contrary, it showed what a great knowledge of sex I had, and surely the instructor and everyone in the class would be glad I had brought this up. “But, what about the woman’s ejaculation? You didn’t talk about when the woman ejaculates into the man’s penis!!” The instructor straight up laughed at me; other kids straight up laughed; I was just straight up laughed at. And that is how I learned that there isn’t a simultaneous exchange of ejaculate during sex. —Lucy L.

I may be one of the only people in history who actually learned about sex from sex ed. Coming from a single-parent household, I had no opportunities to walk in on parental sex. I had a fairly uncommunicative mother who pretty much ignored—ignores! she does it to this day—things that are unpleasant to her. It was also in sex ed that I learned about periods, which was right around the time I got mine: terribly early. It was traumatizing, actually. Looking back, it’s adorable how teeny those little pantyliners were. Bringing them to school was like show and tell. All the other girls asked if they could have one, and I imagined them all taking them home and carefully unfolding the little pink wrappers to inspect them, figure out how they work, so that they’d know how to use them when it was their time.

My best friend, however, had an older sister who taught her EVERYTHING. She became my sexual liberator. She got me my first vibrator, as well as my first set of matching underwear, accompanied by the sage advice: “Calvin Klein underwear makes you feel so sexy!”

I was a late bloomer. I had to pretend to have crushes on guys when girls would corner me during recess to ask which boy I liked, which would then lead them to grabbing me, running me over to, and throwing me into said guy. It probably would have been mortifying had I actually had a crush on any of the boys, but I never did. I didn’t have a single boyfriend in high school and didn’t get my first kiss until I was a junior in high school (and had to kiss someone in a play, so it was a fake stage kiss at that). Wow, I sound weird and broken, but I’m not. I SWEAR. —Jasmine Moy

My mom was into being eloquent and subtle—which, now that I’m older, I can see where she was going, but at the time it was like, what? So yeah, she was big on things like “They lay like spoons” (WTF?) and when she explained that the penis goes inside the vagina, I was like (inwardly) how does a penis even get inside a vagina? Because she hadn’t explained erections, so I figured he put his penis in, and they slept head to toe, all night long, “having sex,” asleep. Does that make sense? Basically, imagine your two hands are scissoring. But so gross. —Edith Zimmerman

For years I understood sex to involve a vague rubbing together of bodies, which meant I was completely unequipped when I happened across a hardcore male porn magazine when I was nine. My parents and I were on a trip to Italy and while we were walking through this square I lagged behind and noticed a magazine on the ground, which I picked up and leafed through, quickly determining it demanded further study. So I put it in my backpack.

Back at the hotel I sequestered myself in the bedroom and gave the magazine a closer look. It was interesting, but it was also perplexing—without any real understanding of sex, hardcore homosexual sex was a little hard to grasp. It felt important that I try, though, so I took the advice my parents were always giving me and overlooked some of the more complex activities (bondage, orgies, role-playing, etc.) and tried to break down the things I could at least recognize into more manageable pieces. Which in this case took the form of my getting a pair of scissors and cutting out all the penises in the magazine (which were, as you might imagine, numerous). Then I got some glue and paper and made a beautiful collage in which I ordered all the penises across the page by size, smallest to largest.

Luckily I did mange to hide this collage away somewhere my parents wouldn’t find it — in the trash — which now seems a shame. But while the experience left me somewhat versed in homosexual pornography, I remained confused about how heterosexual sex worked until a few years later, when an older and racier friend explained the basic mechanics. The problem was she finished by adding, “And when that happens, your cherry will burst!” and it wasn’t for a while after that before I understood that I didn’t need to take that literally. —Molly Langmuir

One huge sex education memory for me was being in sixth grade and on a trip to the Cleveland Zoo’s Rainforest exhibit. My friends and I were sitting at a table outside waiting for lunch and for the monkey stench to leave our clothes. My friend Courtney told us how she had read in her brother’s Rolling Stone that Marilyn Manson had gotten a rib removed so he could give himself a blow job. I had never even heard of a blow job before that moment, and so my first image of it was Marilyn Manson bent over at the waist, forever. I literally could not go to sleep that night because I kept mulling it over. I… never really got over it. —Halle Kiefer

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