In 2006, Oprah Winfrey sent suburban mothers across the nation into frenzy with her exposé on the oral sex epidemic unique to America’s youth. Oprah — in her infinite wisdom and grace — broached the subject with a dramatic and weighted, “Parents, brace yourself.” I never saw the full episode, but can only assume Oprah proceeded to depict a scene in which sixteen-year-old girls, such as myself at the time, were gobbling penises by the dozen. Within a week of the program, my two best friends and I had all received the “you-aren’t-doing-this-are-you?” confrontation from our respective mothers.
I now realize conversations of this nature must have been as uncomfortable for my poor mother as they were for me. The moments before beginning this sort of conversation must be like standing at a precipice, filled with dread and butterflies. Finally, she would garner enough courage and dive right into the topic with what came off as little tact or consideration.
“So, tell me what you know about oral sex.” What? Shit. Where is this coming from? Blindsided! What is the right answer? Should I come clean? Shit. Shit.
“Well, I don’t know. What do you mean? I know what it is. It sounds gross to me,” I shot back both indignantly and cautiously.
At this point in time, I had been with the same boyfriend for three years. Yeah, we had been engaging in oral sex.
This wasn’t our first time around the block with the “birds and the bees” talk. My mom had played this card before, and conditions were always the same: Coerce me into running errands with her, wait until the car is moving and doors are locked and casually bring up the least casual discourse a mother and a teenager can engage in. Every time I was overcome with nausea and carefully assessed my options — open the car door and throw myself into oncoming traffic, and/or simply break into a fit of guilty tears. I have to admit, it’s a brilliant tactic — the in-car sex talk.
“Well, do you have any friends who do that sort of thing?” she pressed.
“I mean, I’ve heard of people doing it. I don’t know anyone really well, though. Mostly the more loose girls. None of my friends.”
Using terms she’s comfortable with was a strategy I had developed over the years. “Loose” to describe “slutty,” “rubbers” to describe “condoms,” “intimacy” to describe “boning.” It was important to make her feel comfortable and convinced so the conversation would end as quickly and painlessly as possible.
“Good, because I’ve heard that kids these days are shockingly nonchalant about oral sex. You know, that’s something extremely intimate — like post-marriage. I mean, my generation really never even considered that as something to do except with someone you’re extremely comfortable with, like your husband.”
Oh, Jesus-fucking-Christ. She’s talking about Dad.
Fast-forward a year. My high school boyfriend and I broke up after his departure to college, and my friends and I were asked to junior prom by the boys in the grade below us. At this point, I had thoughtfully considered my mother and Oprah’s concerns, and decide to just skip the oral sex.
The dance had ceased and the after-party had commenced. Before I knew it, Ryan* and I were in someone’s brother’s bed. I knew Ryan in the same way I know a lot of people in my hometown — our brothers grew up playing on the same sports team, and at some point in time we began to acknowledge our friendship, or at least acquaintanceship. Well, this night we got to know each other much better.
Having only ever slept with one other person, I was surprised by how agilely he navigated my body. He molded me into position after position with the ease of a porn star. Earlier that night, his fancily gelled hair and awkwardly large tux subconsciously told me he meant business, but I couldn’t help but be surprised and impressed with his bedroom cool.
Immediately after, as he hovered above me in push-up position, he reached toward his hipbone and feigned retrieval of something from his pocket. Granted, he was naked — there was no pocket. He proceeded to pull an imaginary card from his “pocket” and handed it to me.
“What is this?” I asked.
“My V-card. It’s all yours.”
Blindsided again. Should have just stuck with a BJ.
In hindsight, I realize how out of touch I was with my body and sexuality in high school. To be honest, I often still feel mystified by the incredible variance in sexual comfort levels, and often struggle to define my own comfort threshold. I have friends who have slept with triple the amount of people I have and other friends who are still virgins. For some reason the common denominator is that we’re all constantly quantifying our sexual experiences.
I myself have what I can only describe as a number fixation. Every so often I catch myself treating my sex life like a diet, and half-jokingly declaring, “I’m watching my numbers.” I’m also slightly notorious for demanding to know any new partner’s number well before the conversation is anywhere near appropriate.
Although difficult to completely define, I believe the pressure I feel to keep my number low is a product of both internal and external factors. I will never claim to be immune to the virgin-whore dichotomy so often projected onto women. Somewhere along the way, media, cultural tradition, family and religious standards have told me I am worth less as a woman if I am “damaged goods.” I’m reluctant to admit acquiescence to negative misogynistic constructs, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the effect they’ve had on my self-evaluation.
However, I’ll hand it to you, Mom. Sex is intimacy. Time spent having sex with a person belongs to only you two. Never are you more vulnerable than those moments in the bedroom. In my opinion, it’s important to acknowledge that sex is complicated and personal. Reflection on your own definition of sexuality is time well spent. Ignore Oprah, carry the V-card in your wallet with pride and own your number — be it zero, one or 100.