Welcome to the first installment of Late Bloomer.
Late Bloomer is a series of candid stories by author Audrey Em about becoming a sexual being a little later than expected but in the best way possible.
Sex was not a topic my family ever discussed when I was growing up.
When I was ten years old, I still secretly believed that babies did, in fact, emerge from women’s anuses. I couldn’t conceive of any other way, and based on the few birthing scenes I had seen in movies and sitcoms, I found this theory to be entirely plausible. When I let this slip to my best friend at the time, she was rightfully mortified. To rectify the situation, I was promptly dragged to the local library and sat down in a secluded corner of the reading room. She returned with two books; a decoy and a blue picture book called ‘It’s Perfectly Normal.’
I had The Talk on the carpeted floor of the library reading room, with a fellow ten-year-old.
My time for institutionalized sexual education came at the end of sixth grade. The class was divided - girls in one room, boys in the other - and a VHS tape was inserted into the television that had been wheeled in expressly for the occasion. All I remember from the film was the outdated images of teenagers doing “typical” things like hanging out at the mall and skateboarding while listening to their bright yellow Walkmans. At one point, there was a shot of a person’s pubic hair, followed by a close-up of a thick white secretion slinking its way through the thick, dark curls. On cue, every eleven-year-old in the room groaned and gagged. As the video ended and the lights came on, our teacher invited us to the front of the class to pick up some free feminine hygiene products. Each girl walked away with a maxi pad, a tampon and a little plastic calendar that could be used to track your menstrual cycle. We were asked to hide them immediately so that the boys could return to the classroom. That day, I learned that I had to keep my period a secret.
In high school, sex ed became an informational ambush and was given by whatever teacher was available at the time. I missed the class that dealt with contraception because I was sick, so I sadly never witnessed the iconic ‘condom on a banana’ scene in real life. Our school didn’t have a nurse, so the free condoms were kept in the gym teacher’s office, where nobody would think to look. When I asked my family doctor about contraception, she immediately prescribed me the pill. I wasn’t sexually active at the time, but she insisted that “I would be in no time, so might as well plan ahead.” I wasn’t necessarily interested in filling the prescription, but I wanted to tell someone about it. I gathered my courage and mentioned it to my mother.
My mother did her best to catch up on topics we had long avoided, but the precedent of silence had been so strongly established that it was difficult to have an open conversation about anything sex-related. She reminded me that having a period made me a woman and that it was important to take care of myself, including ‘guarding’ my body against predators. She warned me against the use of tampons (because toxic shock can kill you), told me to only wear cotton underwear (very useful information), and mentioned that if I did decide to have sex, “the pill will never be as effective as abstinence.” All good advice, delivered with the satisfactory efficiency of lukewarm instant coffee. With that, we never spoke of it again.
Before graduating high school, we had a sexual education class that touched briefly (oh, so very briefly) on the subject of masturbation. I remember the very palpable discomfort displayed by our social studies teacher, who would have probably otherwise passed on the difficult task of educating a class of twenty-seven teenagers about discovering how to pleasure their bodies. They opted to have us all write questions on pieces of paper, anonymously, which would be read and answered for the whole class.
As you can probably imagine, the result of this activity was a Yahoo! Answers-like disaster. Memorable questions included ‘What does sperm taste like?’ ‘Can sperm make you fat?’ and ‘Why do vaginas smell so bad?’ I learned nothing of value and was left with the impression that I was behind on exploring my sexuality. Was I supposed to be masturbating? Was everyone else doing it except me? Cue the anxiety that would carry me through until my twenties!
If there is one thing this late-bloomer wishes for my former self, it would be to find safety in the space surrounding my sexuality. If I had to repeat this introduction to sexual education, I would start fresh with a private, candid conversation with a parent or person I trust, to learn more about my body and what happens to all human bodies. I would speak about sex and sexuality at home before I would do so at school with perfect strangers. I would keep a reference in my bookcase, but I would know who to ask if I had any questions. I would be encouraged to get comfortable with myself first, before thinking of inviting others into the mix. Perhaps this safety would have made me feel better prepared for the changes that were inevitable, and feel more confident in expressing the changes I was not ready to experience.
Not so long ago, I embarked on a journey to unlearn the harmful lessons I had been taught about body and sexuality. I had to start over from scratch. Although this admission has for a long time made me feel tremendous shame, I have found countless rewarding reasons to continue moving past this feeling. This new path has led me to discover a whole new world of physical sensation that I had no idea existed. It allowed me to connect with myself as an adult, benefitting both my physical and mental health. Reigniting my curiosity about my body through sexual education has also helped me be more aware of my needs, allowing me to make more conscious choices about my relationships. Now that I’ve started learning, I don’t see myself ever finishing this particular chapter of personal education; sexuality is forever evolving and new conversations are emerging surrounding all kinds of formerly taboo topics.
Our bodies have so much to teach us, yet so few of us have been taught how to listen. Thankfully, it is truly never too late to learn something new.
Audrey Em is a writer, illustrator, and storyteller. When she’s not creating endearing content, she writes scripts for horror films. Her work explores themes of mental health, nature and the supernatural.