When I was 10 years old, I knew both very little about sex and also more than I should have. I hadn’t had “the talk” with my parents yet, and sex hadn’t been covered in school. But I knew that the general idea of sex meant a penis going inside a vagina—my world, as is true for the majority of kids in America, was very heterocentric—and that, when there was kissing on TV, I felt what my friends and I called “a tingle in my tingle.” The rest was up to my imagination, which went childishly wild.
Here’s what I pictured: I’d lay down in bed on top of the covers, facing a man who would somehow place his penis inside of me. I had no idea about erections or their necessity, so I thought the penis would just somehow wiggle its way in. I did know about ejaculation, vaguely. I knew that pregnancy happened after something came out of a man’s penis—what this was I didn’t exactly know, but I gathered that whatever came out signaled both pregnancy and the end of any given sexual encounter. Basically, I imagined that I would lay on my side facing my partner who would have magically penetrated me with a flaccid penis, and the two of us would have very pleasant conversation until sex was “over.” Sex, in my mind, was being really close and talking and laughing until I’d get pregnant and have a baby and then do it all over again.
Not too long ago, I told my now-ex-boyfriend what I’d thought about sex as a child: how I accounted for a certain amount of laughter, but no physical pleasure (it took me until eighth grade to clue into what that might be), and certainly no intense hip action of any kind. He found this charming. I asked him, then, how he had first imagined the whole situation. He said that he associated sex with sleep since he knew sex happened in bed, and up till adolescence, he imagined that sex meant he would fall asleep with his head between a woman’s legs.
I loved this image. It felt intimate, sensual, and endearing. And then we tried it, and it felt unbearably sweet. I felt so relaxed and so close to him. We didn’t even kiss; we didn’t have any specifically intimate contact. And still it was one of the sexiest encounters I’ve had.
I’ve always been fascinated by first ideas of sex: how different they are from person to person, how charming and strange and erotic they are no matter what. They indicate an impressive childhood sexual imagination, a sweet and hilarious one, that we forget about once we know what really goes on. I’ve heard stories that run from benign (two people getting naked and just rolling around) to sort of gross (a lot of men seemed to think that sex was a man peeing while they were inside a vagina) to purely funny: two people rubbing butts until they fall asleep.
One of my closest friends, a gay man in his mid-20s, told me he thought that sex was a certain special kind of kissing. He didn’t think it involved body parts beyond the mouth, but, being Catholic, he knew that this certain sort of adult kissing was “a very big deal.” One of my sisters told me that, before having had a brief, minimally informative version of “the talk” with our parents, she pictured sex as a “hot dog and bun” type situation—where a man essentially placed his penis on a woman’s vulva like he was putting a hot dog in a bun.
In general, it seems like there are a few different camps. There’s a group of people who, from the beginning, imagined sex as being something obliquely intimate and sensual (if not outright sexy or pleasurable). There’s another group who thought of sex as something awkward and goofy—something that didn’t necessarily imply closeness. There are also plenty of people whose first experiences with sex or sexual information were scary or inappropriate, and thus their first memories of thinking about sex are traumatic.
It’s in talking to people who belong to the latter category that I’ve realized what a gift it can be to have that blanket of mystery over sex, what kind of protection it implies for children to be able to form these strange ideas of sex on their own. It’s precisely innocence that makes these early ideas so wonderful—“sex” in a vacuum, with little real knowledge, and barely a sense of desire.
For myself, from the moment I heard about sex, I understood really quickly that it was somehow correlated with “liking” someone. It was primarily television that gave me this idea. If memory serves, I think it was an episode of Sweet Valley High that finally connected the dots for me. It’s directly because of this that my kid-mind always pictured sex partners in their late teens or early 20s. I remember drawing pseudo-pornographic pictures in my diary, blue-pen drawings of a woman with boobs and a long ponytail, who smiled and held hands with a guy wearing only underwear (no erection, because I didn’t know those existed yet). The caption for the photo read, “Sex is in the air.”
This was before I had any idea that sex felt good, that there was such a thing as orgasms, and that sex could be had in multiple different positions. And yet I was excited whenever I thought about it—maybe even, to some extent, aroused. What I could understand, I think, was the idea of being in my early 20s and having someone I really liked close to me while we talked. Emotional intimacy isn’t always my main priority for sex, but of course it feels like a bonus when I can have that connection with another person.
It was a pre-turn-on, you could say. And I wonder if our earliest ideas of sex are always like this: our instincts working before we know what they are. Maybe on some level the idea of getting pregnant gave people that “tingle,” or the humor and confusion surrounding an image of peeing inside another person felt forbidden and exciting. The ideas are specific and always strange, but the charge surrounding them is shared, mysteriously, in nearly everyone’s experience. We’d do well to remember some of this bizarre vulnerability. I don’t think we give it nearly enough space.