Saturday, September 19, 2009

More than a mouthful

My body was developing, changing with the onset of puberty. I thought my breasts were too small – I wanted bigger breasts, and complained to my mother. She looked me in the eye and said “Anything more than a mouthful is a waste.” I stared at her, wide-eyed, and then burst into laughter. It was shocking (and delightful) to me, on many levels. In part, the surprise came from her reversal of the usual “bigger is better”; my mother, also a small-breasted woman, framed big breasts as excessive, “a waste.” A sentiment unfair to large-breasted women, to be sure, but I was comforted by the notion that smaller breasts might actually be superior. But the main reason this was shocking was that my mother was acknowledging my sexuality, in a specific and concrete way. The “mouthful” could have referred to breast-feeding an infant, but my mother’s delivery made it very clear that this was a sexual reference. While I had a sense that breasts could be attractive (or unattractive, as I saw my own), my mother’s statement placed them squarely in the context of partnered sexual activity. Not merely passive objects to stir men’s interest, these breasts were pleasuring and/or being pleasured, a novel idea for me at the time.

My mother was comfortable about sex. She had an earthy, raunchy sense of humor; she loved to wear t-shirts with double entendres, like the one from an oyster house that had “I Eat ‘Em Raw” on the front. I kept some of those t-shirts after she died and wore them with a sense of wicked enjoyment; I was sad when they finally fell apart. I can’t remember any specific conversations she had with me about puberty or sexuality, but I know that she encouraged me to come to her with any questions I had about sex, and she was generally frank and honest in her answers. This was certainly a step up from the sex education (and I use the term loosely here) I received in school. My fifth grade teacher refused to answer my questions about homosexuality. We were frightened by vague films about venereal disease in seventh grade, with pictures of syphilitic chancres but little real information. My ninth grade biology teacher was forbidden by law to discuss contraception. My mother had no such limits or rules, as far as I recall – I really could ask her anything, and there was no need for shame or embarrassment. The only problem was, I didn’t always know what to ask! I knew, though, when it came time for me to need birth control, I wouldn’t feel awkward about approaching my mother for help. When that time did finally arrive, though, my mother had already passed away and there was no one I felt comfortable approaching about the issue, leaving me to muddle through on my own.

To my mother, sex wasn’t shameful or something to be feared. I never got the sense from her that being sexual or having sexual desires was wrong or bad or dangerous. I remember kissing my boyfriend in the back of the car while my mother was driving him home, with no sense of embarrassment that she could see us in the rearview mirror. In fact, after we dropped him off, she and I talked about it; I remember my eager enthusiasm and her indulgent smile and gentle encouragement. Given this openness about sexuality at home, I never really understood the complex sexual taboos among my peers, and my directness on the topic earned me teasing and social isolation in middle school. But it’s this comfort with sexuality that makes me so good at teaching human sexuality to legions of college students. It’s just sex – no need to titter behind our hands or mumble while looking at the floor as we talk about it.

Where did my mother come by such a positive attitude about sex? She did come of age during the early 1960s, the so-called “sexual revolution.” With the publication of the Kinsey reports and the availability of the Pill (among other factors), public attitudes toward sex became increasingly liberal. My mother would undoubtably have been affected by these social changes. In addition, her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse, so they would have had greater knowledge about sexuality than the average person. My maternal grandparents tend to be rather pragmatic about matters of the body, and they probably conveyed this matter-of-fact attitude about puberty and sexuality to my mother. But even with the liberalization of sexual attitudes and her own family environment, my mother’s sex-positive stance strikes me as unusual. Americans continue to have complex, ambivalent attitudes about sex, particularly with regard to women’s sexuality. Many women continue to struggle with fears of being too sexual and lack the clear sense of sexual agency that my mother embodied so fully.

It is one thing to come to terms with your own sexuality; it is quite another to feel comfortable with your own daughter’s emergent sexuality. Even the most liberal-minded parents can have difficulty accepting the idea of their teenage child becoming sexually active. It is all-too-common for parents to convey this discomfort to adolescent girls, subtly (or not so subtly) signaling that she should not feel or be sexual. Her sexuality is to be deferred until adulthood, and then exists largely for her partner’s pleasure, not her own. Perhaps my mother did have moments of doubt or worry, but these were never evident to me. Her message to me was clear: Sex is normal and enjoyable, for both women and men. In other words, what my mother told me about sex was really more than a mouthful. Through education and example, she gave me the right to be sexual on my own terms. True, I struggled for some years to define what that meant to me as I waded through the contradictory messages about women’s sexuality from my peers and the media. But without the foundation she laid out for me, I don’t know if I would have ever found my way to my authentic sexuality.

In a culture that stigmatizes women’s sexuality and silences real sex education, I recognize how fortunate I was to be raised by a woman who refused to accept these ideologies. For my mother to truly embrace her own sexuality and see herself as entitled to sexual pleasure without shame or guilt is a rather remarkable achievement. That she was able to extend that same gift to her own daughter is even more astounding.

Nancy Driessel Stearns (date and location unknown)


Wendy said...

Another great one!

Deborah Stearns said...

Thanks, Wendy, for stopping by and for the compliment!

Anonymous said...

It’s just sex – no need to ... mumble while looking at the floor as we talk about it.

NOW you tell me! (kidding) It is interesting to ME to think about our different paths here and how differently we were parented.

Trying to teach no shame while also teaching a child to respect his own and other's boundaries is no small thing. It's lovely that your mother's approach worked so well for you. I hope my sons feel as positively about what I manage to teach them...

Deborah Stearns said...

Momsomniac, as I was writing this post, I thought you and what you wrote in your guest post about the messages you got about sexuality from your parents. That contrast was part of what made me realize how unusual it was to have a mother who was so comfortable and unconflicted about sexuality. I agree that it can be a challenge to convey positive messages about sexuality that also recognize the importance of privacy and boundaries. But I have no doubt that your sons will grow up to thank you for your openness and support. Thanks for your comment!