Recently I watched a four-episode series on Netflix called Unorthodox. It told the story of a young woman who left (escaped might be a better word) her Hasidic family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to start a new life in Berlin. Aside from being a compelling story, I found one scene particularly poignant and it resonated with me. It wasn’t my experience, but I could certainly relate to an aspect of it.
In a flashback scene, in preparation for her wedding, Esty is counseled about marital relations. All of the information is totally new to her. The woman guiding her explains how intercourse works. Esty looks at the woman in disbelief, saying that she had only one hole. She was sent into the bathroom with a hand mirror to examine herself. I was not nearly so ignorant, between my mother, books and school, I knew the facts, but I didn’t really know my body. It never occurred to me to look.
I was eleven years old when I got my period for the first time; younger than most of my peers. It didn’t terrify me; I knew what to expect. My mother had informed me, and I had read about the changes that were coming to my body. Despite that preparation, I still wasn’t ready to deal with it.
I understood that by beginning to menstruate I could become pregnant and have a baby. That idea seemed so crazy. I wasn’t even a teenager myself yet. I knew the basic biology of how that could happen, but it still seemed inconceivable, not to mention unappealing. At that age I knew I was interested in boys but not in a sexual way. I knew based on the fact that all of my crushes on stars, for me more likely to be athletes than actors or musicians, were male. I hoped that eventually there would be a boy that was interested in me, but that was the subject of fantasy, not real life and had nothing to do with sex. It seemed incongruous to have a body physically ready for something so momentous but to be so emotionally and mentally immature. I wondered why we were designed that way.
The message I received about sex from my parents was straight forward: wait until you’re married. Sex wasn’t presented as something dirty or shameful, but it was understood to be part of an intimate, committed relationship – which to my mom and dad meant being married. Not much else was said about it. My mother, to this day, describes herself as a prude. I can’t say whether she is or was, I can say that it was not something treated lightly by Mom or Dad. Off-color jokes were not part of our humor. I remember being surprised years later when I sat at my fiancé’s family’s dining room table and his brother made a ‘dirty’ joke. His parents, even his mother, laughed heartily. I wondered if my mother would have gotten the punchline.
While I was receiving my parents’ message about the seriousness and responsibility of having sex, society at large was changing. The moral code my parents offered was challenged by what I was seeing – love-ins, Woodstock, the women’s movement suggested that there were other ways to look at sex. It was confusing.
I became good friends with a girl in high school who had a different perspective about sex. I remember us having a conversation when we were in college about whether it was more intimate to have sex with someone or to reveal your fears or insecurities to that person. We looked at it differently. I remember saying to her that sleeping with a guy was the ultimate act of intimacy to me. She didn’t feel that way. She could be more casual about sex than she could about being vulnerable about her feelings.
Though I didn’t believe that sex should only happen in the context of marriage or only for procreating, I also didn’t think it should be treated as lightly as our other urges, like eating or drinking. I did internalize the values that my parents communicated: that it should be part of a loving, committed relationship, it just didn’t need to be officially sanctioned by law or ceremony. I thought about my friend’s perspective, and the freer standards of the 1960s, but it didn’t feel right for me. I couldn’t be casual in that way.
I think my parents were good role models. Maybe I would have benefitted from more humor about it, a more relaxed attitude. But I can’t complain. I got a solid foundation. Dad showed respect for women. I never saw him ogle one when we were out and about. He never flirted with a waitress at a restaurant. I didn’t know men did that until I was an adult. To my knowledge he didn’t view porn, the idea of him doing that was preposterous to me. He didn’t subscribe to Playboy; I never saw him in possession of that kind of magazine. I knew those magazines existed – I knew of guys who were devoted ‘readers,’ but Dad was devoted to my mother, as far as I knew. I respected that about him and wanted that in my own relationship. I was fortunate to find someone who shared those values and we offered those values to our children.
I still think about the idea of ‘love the one you’re with.’ Not with any sense of regret at having chosen the path I did, but wondering what is the healthiest way to view sex? Likely there is not one answer for everyone. Is it the same for men and women, heterosexuals and LGBTQ? Should it be? Are we free and honest enough to talk about it? Maybe the difficulties arise when the individuals involved are on a different page but don’t communicate their feelings. And, maybe that happens more often than we want to admit. As usual, I have more questions than answers.