From as early as I can recall, I had no clear lessons on sex or sexuality. It has been, right from the beginning, a journey of self-exploration, trial and error. Lots of error. First, I suppose a bit of background is in order. I was born in 1961 into an Italian-American, Catholic, lower middle to middle class family in Philadelphia. Having laid all of that out there, I would say that while these factors are pertinent, stories seldom follow the anticipated script.
I went on to attend twelve years of Catholic Parochial School. This would be a predictor of one developing a very formulaic, strict and traditional view of sexuality. In reality however, I think it would be safe to say that my Roman Catholic education mostly avoided any direct dealings with matters sexual. So much so that theologically, it was not much of an influencer at all. There was however a huge cultural spillover from the church that influenced the life decisions of those in my circle. For instance, when members of my family became pregnant outside of a marriage “doing the right thing” (or getting married) would generally follow. This was the pattern, until perhaps the mid 1990s at least, as subsequent generations fell further away from Catholicism.
My first sexual lessons commenced around the age of nine. There was a crowd of kids across the street that ranged in age from 11-13 and they collectively became my earliest mentors. Perhaps the fact that most were the children of Cuban or Croatian immigrants made them all the more exotically Buddha-like in my mind. Early experiences included furtively perusing the garage-kept Playboy magazine collection of a friend’s father, and playing spin-the-bottle with Ingrid and Vaysna at sweaty pre-teen parties. While these experiences elicited a reaction in me that I initially and erroneously attributed to dishonesty (sort of like a phallic Pinocchio), it was 13-year-old Miguel who informed me exactly what the causes and practical uses of that reaction were. In hindsight, and not surprisingly for blue-collar 1970 Philadelphia, Miguel’s training was very much in the gendered, traditionally binary model of sexuality. It was not, however, so closed off as to not leave room for change and growth in understanding.
Plans for a master’s degree directly after undergraduate study were curtailed by an unplanned pregnancy. I personally don’t recall any discussion (pro or con) of abortion until Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, when the debate finally entered the realm of my attention, but in 1983, abortion was not something on my radar. Plans were changed and a “shotgun” wedding was arranged. As is often the case, this was probably not the best course of action. Despite a second, and this time planned for, child, in due time it all unraveled. More marriages and divorces followed, along with children, and custody battles; military deployments and stitched together “step” families of his, hers, and ours. Counseling and therapy, priests and ministers; hurt feelings, alienation, and infidelities. The overarching lesson learned was that life; love and sex are never, simple, never black and white; always complex and enigmatic.
Emerging out of the other end of this tumultuous tunnel, whole and finally happy I might add, I arrive at my present location in life having learned that I don’t ever really know anything, and for that reason should never dismiss the ideas, assertions or essence of others. Although my personal sexual practice has been ultra-hetero, and ultra-traditionally gendered (albeit alarmingly more partner rich than research would indicate is the norm), I try to keep in mind that like most people, I can’t help but view the world through the patriarchal, gender binary world lens that I have been handed. That realization has been a start to empathizing with and keeping an open mind about, other less privileged views of gender and sexuality.
Over the years my contact with diverse sexualities and genders has grown from a few maiden aunts clad in men’s work clothes to a varied network of close friends, family members, co-workers, clients and acquaintances who openly identify themselves, practice sexuality, and view gender in a myriad of ways, colors, shapes and degrees. I have progressed from a very predictable, black and white world (or so it seemed?) to a nuanced world where very little is certain, and indeed very little should be certain.
A particularly sobering realization came with the “me too” movement of recent years. The reality that the vast majority of women in my life, including family members, have been subject to sexual assault or worse at the hands of a blindly sexist culture had somehow eluded me. For decades! Although I found this epiphany shocking, I am afraid that I was complicit. It is the responsibility of all to know these things. To prevent these things. We live in a world where our president encourages violence against the marginalized, and this extends to those marginalized due to sexual and or gender identity. He did not spring up out of a vacuum; rather he reflects an unfortunately significant portion of our culture. The Internet has further blurred the lines between experts and charlatans, and has allowed a hideous underbelly of hate to thrive and connect.
Perhaps the current political climate is the dying gasp of an old way that refuses to go quietly, but is none-the-less doomed. Change seldom occurs without cataclysm. Culture and sexuality are inexorably linked and the forces of acceptance and dignity for all must certainly continue to progress in the long term.