Where I lived in the early 1970s, sixth grade was when boys got to see the movie – or maybe it was a narrated film strip with line drawings – about erections, nocturnal emissions, menstrual periods and such (girls got to see it in fifth grade).[1. I have moved this post over from my other blog. (Click for Part One.) This way, when I finally get around to writing Parts 3 and 4, they will all be in the same place. I see each post in this series as one section of a single piece of writing, not as a discrete essay unto itself. As a result, while each section may contain its own argument, it is not really possible to know whether an issue that you feel is important will or will not be left out of the argument made by the entire piece if you’ve only read a part of the series. I certainly do not mean this caveat to be, in any way, an inoculation against critique, but given the modular nature of posting to blogs and of how blogs are read, it is a caveat I’d like you to keep in mind if you find yourself wondering, and commenting on, why I have not addressed something you feel needs to be addressed. Thanks. Also, to protect the privacy of the individuals involved, some names have been changed and some identifying details have been fictionalized.] Seventh grade, if I remember correctly, was when they started teaching about sex itself, which I assume would have included a discussion of birth control, though I am not sure, since a paperwork mix-up placed me in the health class that did not include sex education. So I know I did not learn about birth control there; nor, I am equally sure, did I learn about it in the yeshiva I started attending when I was in eighth grade, where the only classroom-based “sex education” I remember receiving was in Rabbi W’s all-boy gemara class. He would preach at us week after week about the evils of co-ed dancing – it was the season of sweet 16 parties for the girls – and explain how it inevitably lead to unwanted teenage pregnancy. (The boys and girls watch each other dancing, you see, and then they want to slow dance, and so they are touching each other, and then one thing leads to another and, sooner or later they find someplace dark, and before you know it, her belly is big and both their lives are ruined.) My classmates and I talked about sex, of course, but since none of us were even thinking about actually having it, what we talked about tended to be theoretical and had little do with practicalities like preventing an unwanted pregnancy. Three incidents of such talking stand out in my memory, from 8th, 9th and 10th grades respectively.
I first learned about the baseball-diamond-as-metaphor-for-sex in 8th grade, because the big question was whether or not, at someone’s bar mitzvah to which I had not been invited, Robert “got to second” with Sharon over or under the shirt. “Over or under,” of course, was a huge question, one that my classmates pondered at great length, wondering why she would let him get that far, how cool it was that he could get her to let him get that far; or maybe he didn’t have to do all that much persuading, maybe underneath the “good girl” image that Sharon so carefully cultivated was a whole other person that those of us who knew her only in school had never met; and did this make her a “slut,” and how, precisely, did getting that far, did her letting him get that far, obligate him to her in terms of commitment; and what the hell – some people were smart enough to ask – did commitment mean in ninth grade anyway?
I could not imagine why what Robert and Sharon did or did not do with each other was anyone else’s business, nor did I think that the question of when a girl stepped over the line and became a “slut” was anything other than stupid, but I was new to the school, though, which meant no one thought my opinion mattered very much, and so I was almost never included in these conversations. Still, I do remember one time that I spoke up, asking – in response to I don’t remember what – some far-less-articulate version of the following questions: The whole point of touching a girl’s breasts is to bring her pleasure, right? What is wrong with Sharon wanting that pleasure or with Robert wanting to give it to her? And why are we talking about it like Robert was running bases and Sharon was playing (ineffective) defense? You make it sound like sex is a competition that the girl has to pretend to lose, just a little bit at a time, in order for both people to get what they want.
I was not naïve. I knew that boys did in fact put “notches on their bedposts” depending on how far they got with any particular girl, and I understood that girls who went too far put that hard-to-pin-down thing called their reputation at great risk. I knew these things, however, as facts, and while I accepted them as information I needed to know about how the world worked, I did not really understand them, and, more to the point, I did not like them. Anyway, no one said anything when I was finished talking. All I have is a picture of my classmates’ faces turned towards me in a momentary, non-comprehending stare, and then they turned back towards each other and continued talking in the terms that were relevant to them.
The second talking-about-sex moment that I remember from yeshiva happened when I was in 9th. The boys in my class were scheduled to take a trip to the very famous Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey. I don’t remember why I didn’t go, but I was the only boy in my grade in school that day, and so, since our religious classes were all canceled – it would not have occurred to the administration to send me to class with the girls – I spent the morning shooting hoops in the gym. (The day was split: religious classes in the morning, secular classes in the afternoon.) After lunch, the girls and I decided we would cut classes for the rest of the day. After all, how much teaching would go on with more than half the class missing? So we went out to the back of the school, where one of the girls pulled out a copy of the Ann Landers sex test that had recently been published in one of the local newspapers. (What looks like the version of the test that the girls and I were talking about, can, if you’re willing to wade through some religious self-righteousness, be found here.)
We cut our first period class, which might have been math, talking and laughing about what was, for most of us at the time, the entirely theoretical nature of the items on the test; and we were doing absolutely nothing that would have been considered inappropriate anywhere other than an orthodox yeshiva, where the simple fact of our being alone together was cause for concern. Because of what could happen – remember Rabbi W’s worries over co-ed dancing – if we lost control of ourselves. Because of how, even though we were doing nothing but talking, it would look to an outsider that we are alone together in the first place. Then, just as second period English was about to begin, one of the girls who had gone inside to use the bathroom came running out to tell us that the boys were had returned. Apparently, they had stopped to get a blessing from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the most important rabbis of the 20th century. He gave them the blessing, they got back in their bus to go to Lakewood, and the bus broke down, forcing them to return to school. We ran into the building, rushed upstairs and, remarkably, made it to second period English on time, though it was only a few minutes into Mrs. Lynch’s lesson before Rabbi S burst into the classroom, pointed one by one to each of the girls and said, “You! Out!”
When he did not point to me, I thought perhaps I had escaped detection, but he came back a few minutes later, flung the door open with the same law-enforcement air about him, pointed to me and said, “You too!”
We were suspended, the girls and I, not only for cutting class, and not only because the idea of one boy and twelve girls hanging out alone in the back of the school was unseemly, but also, and to some administrators most importantly, because we had been talking about sex. When we were told that, before we’d be allowed back into class, our parents would have to come in to speak personally with Rabbi S, who was only available in the afternoons, I had to ask if my mother, since she worked, could come in the morning to speak with Rabbi F, the dean of the school. You would have thought that speaking to the Dean would be more serious than speaking to the principal of secular studies, but when my mother came in, all Rabbi F said was, “Mrs. Louras [her name from her second marriage], Richard is a real mensch, a wonderful boy. He made a terrible mistake, but we’re sure he’ll never do it again.” That was it. He and my mother exchanged some pleasantries, told me to go back to my class, and wished her a good rest of the day. My mother, who couldn’t imagine why they were making such a big deal out of the whole situation, collapsed laughing against the wall just outside the school entrance. “Remind me,” she said, “Why were you suspended again?” (To be fair, it’s not that my mother did not think I should be punished for cutting class, but she could not imagine that I was being suspended for a first offense or that the “real” problem, as it had been explained to her, was that I’d been alone with the girls and that we were talking about sex.)
I find it hard to believe that Rabbi F did not say more because he did not know why I had been suspended; nor do I think he did not consider my “offense” a very serious one. Most likely, he was just uncomfortable talking about such things with a woman, especially a woman like my mother, who in her jeans and one-button-too-many-undone button down shirt, her long denim frock coat and her afro, did not at all fit the image of the nice, middle-class Jewish mother with whom he was used to dealing. He never said anything else about the incident to me, either, but an incident that sticks in my head as somehow connected this episode took place later that year. Rabbi F pulled me aside one day while my class was in the library and, speaking very softly, indicated with this chin a new girl in the class whose boyfriend everyone knew was not Jewish. (Indeed, it had been the boyfriend who encouraged her to go to yeshiva so she could learn about her heritage.) He said something about her being a very nice girl, and attractive, and how it was a shame that she was dating a non-Jewish boy. Maybe – and I wish I could remember the exact words he used, because I remember thinking even at the time how absolutely precious his phrasing was – I could get friendly with her, not too friendly, mind you, but friendly enough that she would see just how much Jewish boys had to offer her. I refused, of course, and I think this may be the first time I am telling this story to anyone.
Years after I left the yeshiva, I found out that I had had, among my classmates, a mostly undeserved reputation for having a great deal more experience with sex and drugs than I actually did. Partly this reputation came from the fact that I did indeed know more about sex and drugs than my classmates, and people just assumed that if I knew about it, I must have done it. The truth is, though, that I just happened at the time to have a group of friends at home – the kind my classmates’ parents would probably keep their kids away from – who spoke openly about the drugs they did and the sex they had. By the time I was in eleventh grade, however, when the next conversation about sex that I want to tell you about happened, this reputation of mine was at least a little more deserved. I’d had sex for the first time and been foolish enough to tell one of my classmates, and I had come to school on the day that we took club pictures for our yearbook with a clearly visible hickey on my neck. I don’t remember, frankly, if I knew the hickey was there when I got dressed, but I do remember being a little embarrassed when someone pointed out to me that I might have thought to wear a turtle neck shirt or asked my mother to cover it up with makeup. Anyway, in 11th grade a group of girls cornered me in the hall one day during lunch, or maybe it was recess, and asked, without irony, “Richard, what’s a clitoris?” I knew the answer, though I’d never seen a clitoris at that point in anything but a photograph. (I’d had sex but had not actually looked much at my girlfriend’s vagina.) Still, I didn’t like being put on the spot. So I told them to go look it up. They did, and for some reason I have never understood felt it necessary the next day to report back to me what they’d learned: “It’s what your husband chews on when you do sixty-nine.”
I remember thinking, “Chews on?”
I had no real experience at that point in my life with giving oral sex, but I did know from my reading, and I had done some very extensive and eclectic reading, that her clitoris was not something a woman was likely to want a sexual partner literally to chew on. I don’t remember if I said anything in response, or if they tried to push the conversation further, though now that I am thinking about it, there was one other moment of informal sex education that I received in the yeshiva. For about two weeks, in 8th grade, I “went out” with one of the girls in my class. Not that we did much actual “going” anywhere. We lived too far apart for that. Rather, “going out” was a status; we were a couple; and when I told one of my friends at home that I had a girlfriend, his first question was, “Does she have big tits?”
In truth, I had no idea how big a girl’s breasts had to be to qualify as “big tits,” and I have no memory of whether this girl’s breasts were particularly large or not; but I knew that I liked the way her body looked – though I had only seen it clothed – and I knew that saying yes would score me points in the value system of the friend who asked, even though I did not quite understand why the size of my girlfriend’s breasts mattered so much to him (the same way I did not quite understand the whole system of sex-as-baseball) but I wanted to score those points, and so I said yes, she did have “big tits.”
That night, when I was on the phone with my girlfriend, I told her what I had said. The anger with which she responded shocked me, and when I think back now to how naïve I was – it really never occurred to me that she would think I had done anything other than say something nice about her to one of my friends – I cringe. She broke up with me a week later, saying that she’d only said yes when I asked her out so as not to hurt my feelings.
I am trying to remember what else I knew and did not know about sex at that time in my life. I think I knew what condoms were, and birth control pills, but I truly do not know when, or how, or by whom that knowledge was given to me; and I know I did not learn about diaphragms or IUDs at least until I was in college. Not that the eclectic reading I mentioned above was intended to educate me about such things or that I really understood the need for that kind of sex education in the first place. Most of what I read came from my mother’s collection of literary pornography (lots of Victorian erotica, the Marquis de Sade, the purported diary of one of Catherine the Great’s maids), where little if any concern was given to whether or not the female characters got pregnant; and, if they did, the pregnancy was so clearly part of the pornography that the question of how one might have prevented in never even entered into the picture.
The sexual “reading” that I really valued, however, were hardcore magazines like Puritan and Prude. The pictures in Penthouse, Playboy, Oui and other magazines that focused pretty much exclusively on the bodies of women quite frankly bored me. I wanted to see men and women actually putting tongues and fingers and penises and whatever else they chose to use in and on each other. More specifically, I wanted to understand in detail both what the men in those pictures did with their erections when they had sex with women and what the women did when they had sex with men. It would be years before I understood how profoundly limited, and limiting, the repertoire of behaviors contained in those photographs was, and it would be even longer before I understood that no matter how much I wanted to see a mutuality of desire and purpose in the people they depicted, those images – even when they contained that mutuality of desire and purpose – were part of a social system that degraded women sexually and relegated them to the status of fuckable objects.
There’s no mystery to why the hardcore porn of the time did not depict condom-use, just as there’s no mystery to why so much mainstream hardcore porn does not depict it now. I’d like to focus on one possible reason, though: introduce a condom into a scene and it makes visible a sexual boundary the man cannot cross; it breaks, in other words, the illusion of unfettered sex and of men’s unrestricted sexual access to women that mainstream hardcore heterosexual porn is supposed to depict. Ironically, however, what I learned about contraception – and remember I learned it when safe sex was primarily about birth control – relegated women to the status of fuckable objects no differently than pornography, though it did so in a far more subtle way, since it seemed to have at its core precisely the opposite belief. Indeed, the version of male heterosexual responsibility that I grew up with appeared to be focused entirely on respecting the integrity of a woman’s sexual boundaries. That focus was contained in two imperatives: make sure you do not commit rape and make sure that she does not get pregnant. Each of these imperatives, of course, is one that men need to internalize, and there is a value in their bottom-line logic that I want neither to denigrate nor deny. The fact is that too many men continue to commit rape that they think is not rape because they think they are entitled to the women they fuck; and too many men continue to abandon the women with whom they conceive children, as well as those children, because the corresponding responsibilities interfere with that sense of entitlement. Nonetheless, “do not rape her” and “do not get her pregnant,” at least in the bottom-line versions I am talking about here, place the boundaries of male heterosexuality not within men but at the outer edge of women’s skin, and so they don’t essentially change the men-fuck-women-get-fucked equation that is at the core of male dominant heterosexual thinking.
Interestingly enough, especially given that I started out by talking about my days in yeshiva, the idea that women’s sexuality is what establishes the boundaries of men’s sexuality is expressed, among other places, in Jewish law. As Rachel Biale writes in Women and Jewish Law: The Essential Texts, Their History, and Their Relevance for Today, “The ‘quiet,’ introverted sexuality of the woman circumscribes the active, extroverted sexuality of the man. It becomes the center and regulating mechanism” of heterosexual relationships (146). “The active, extroverted sexuality of the man,” of course, is on the one hand nothing more than the male half of the traditional view of sexuality that portrays men as active and women as passive; but it is also a euphemistic way of referring to what Adrienne Rich meant when she talked about the idea of the penis-with-a-life-of-its-own in her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience,” the belief that male sexual desire is somehow beyond the control of the man experiencing it, especially, but not only, if he has an erection. In the context of Jewish law, that penis gets “tamed” – or perhaps “domesticated” is a better term – through guidelines and requirements that direct a husband’s sexuality towards his wife – because in a religious context, of course, marital sex is the only legitimate sex – requiring him to be attentive to her needs and desires, while at the same time ensuring that there is enough sex for him to be satisfied. The religious obligation, however, is for him to satisfy her; she bears no corresponding onus – except that she not refuse him unreasonably. The assumption here seems to be that a husband will satisfy his own sexual desires and needs, by definition, in the process of satisfying his wife’s. His desires and needs, in other words, are so simple and straightforward that they do not require any special attention. Since he is the one who is going to seek sex out – and, implicitly, since his physical satisfaction is so easy to accomplish and confirm – as long as he gets the sex he seeks, he will be happy.
In general, the bottom line version of “do not rape her” that I mentioned above shares this assumption, using a focus on the needs and desires of women – this time, the very basic question of whether a woman wants to have sex in the first place – to rein in men’s more “active” and “extroverted” sexuality. Things may be different now, but the “do not rape her” education that I received when I was younger, and I am thinking here specifically of the anti-rape education I received in college, asked me nothing about my own desires and needs. No one, for example, wanted to know if there were circumstances under which I might not want to have sex or if I had ever thought more deeply about my desire for sex than she-turns-me-0n-it-feels-good-so-I-want-it. Granted, these questions can all too easily become ways of not talking about not raping women; they open the door to the kinds of tit-for-tat accusations that not only derail meaningful discussion about rape–See! Men also have sex when we don’t want to, but we don’t go around crying rape every time it happens–but not to ask them is ultimately to impoverish any conversation we might have about men’s relationship to our own bodies, about the connection between our sexuality and our fertility (because not wanting to conceive a child should be as unproblematic a reason for a man not to fuck as it is for a woman) and about our own sexual pleasure. Because not asking those questions, and the many questions like them that could be asked, leaves in place both the centrality of genital fucking as an expression of heterosexual manhood and the notion that ejaculating inside a woman is the ultimate and only truly meaningful expression and experience available to us of male heterosexuality.