As parents go, my Mom and Dad excelled at the art of the mixed message, the best example being that of raising my sister and I as good, proper Catholic school girls complete with knee highs, parochial school and daily mass with nuns while cloistering us on a small Midwestern farm fraught with dozens of animals engaged in wanton sex. That Sister Mary sent my eight-year-old sister home from school in the third grade for wearing a sleeveless dress – her bare shoulders were deemed too sexy by 1972 Catholic school standards – to sit on her swing, brushing her naked toes through the grass while watching the family bull do the wild thing with one of our many compliant cows was an irony completely lost on me at the time. Had Sister Mary only known, she probably would have kept Renee in detention for weeks and pumped her for details.
It remains one of the great ironies of farm life that these large expanses of landlocked Midwestern islands so many farm kids call home can protect us from playing doctor with the neighbor kid who lives too far away to be bothered, but meanwhile shoves the realities of animal sex in all its primitiveness right in our faces. And in full three-D Technicolor, XXX Bob Crane porn style with surround sound to boot. We’re talking orgies, people.
As a child, I knew that sex was a dirty word not to be discussed. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know that in some instances it led to babies or worse – embarrassing morning-after explanations – but I knew it was something that adults talked about in whispered tones when I was around and that it was sometimes hinted at on late night TV. Sometimes, on Friday nights when Mom and Dad would tire and lose their vigilance, I would sneak peaks at “Love, American Style” which seemed to deal with sex a lot though without quite giving away the secret. I would sit there close to the screen, trying with all my might to figure out what was up, all the while secretly excited in a subtle, but naïve Catholic-school-girl sort of way, but the implications of the jokes and little innuendos never penetrated the thick shield hammered upon me by years of good Catholic upbringing. Of course the very next day would find me sitting on a hay bale watching our large boar pork one sow after the other, but the only thing I got out of that was that we would have cute little piglets to play with in the spring. It never occurred to me that THAT was sex.
In short, I was an idiot. To quote a favorite radio character of mine, “Huh. I never made the connection.”
As so often goes, the connection wasn’t made for me by those corny public health videos forced upon us in fifth grade or even the fumbled mumblings of one of my parents who weren’t exactly great communicators. Perhaps they thought that all of the grunting and panting on the farm had clued me in, but, if so, they definitely underestimated the depth of my nun-induced sexual ignorance. So in the end, I found out about sex the way every red-blooded American kid is suppose to find out about sex – on the bus from an older kid who, you guessed it, lived in the suburbs.
What they do in the suburbs and how they learn it all without pigs and horses and goats to illustrate the finer points, I’ll never know, having never lived in a suburb. Looking back, it seems that suburban kids start out living in the land of theory – they know the language, the pros, the cons, the techniques, how to do it, when to do it, even why to do it, but the actual application often remains just out of their grasp – at least until the teen years. With farm kids, it starts out as all application, albeit second hand, with little theory to impose a sense of order or purpose on the whole thing. Whereas suburban kids can talk it out amongst themselves, bouncing ideas and stories and examples off of each other, with farm kids, animals don’t talk. There’s no graphic explanation, no adjectives or adverbs to convey the want and the need. It’s all just a matter of in and out. There’s grunting, there’s squealing, and there’s even a great deal of kicking, but do they bother to expound upon what just happened? No. Not in the least. Thus, as farm kids, we were left to mull these things over with little input from a crowd of our homo sapien peers.
At one point in my childhood no less than five different species of animals proceeded to use our barn and the surrounding pastures as a Midwestern version of Club Med – a veritable animal house of wanton lust complete with one-night stands and an occasional bout of incestuality if we weren’t careful. If Caesar, our Hereford bull, wasn’t harassing Sally or Sis (no relation – not that that matters to a bull), you can bet our pigs would be wallowing around and not just in mud either. Rose Pierre, our prize Duroc boar, lorded over his harem of sows like a suicide bomber finally unleashed with his 72 virgins. At 715 pounds, the big lug could barely walk, and was content to lie prostrate in the mud while his beloved sows groomed him and massaged him on a daily basis with their firm, rubbery snouts. But if the urge to reproduce came a calling – and, trust me, it came a calling often – the usually immobile Rose Pierre would manage to lumber to his feet, shuffle to the nearest expectant sow and suddenly become the twinkle-hooved Baryshnikov of wild piggy sex. The guy was a regular animal.
That these early introductions to reproduction would color my own approaches to dating and sex was, to say the least, inevitable. After years of watching animals proceed to copulate in only a matter of minutes, my expectations for sex of the human kind were some what lowered to say the least. Foreplay? What’s that?
My father once pulled me away from an after school special to hold the halter of our mare, Princess, while our stallion got lucky. It lasted all of two minutes and involved a great deal of kicking on the part of Princess – who was neither willing nor impressed – and a lot of panting on the part of Piper – who was neither a gentleman or choosy. When he made his first approach, Princess kicked him square in the chest. It stopped him in his tracks for only a moment, but the denial was lost on him and he made another go of it. It was a “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” coupling in every sense of the word and the implications were not lost on me. That I once kicked my then boyfriend, now husband in the chest when I wasn’t in the mood and he was remains a thorn between us to this day. You can only apologize so much, you know.
With my own children I’ve decided to avoid the whole school bus issue altogether, thus I spend mile after mile driving them to and from school where their interactions with the clever suburban kids can be limited to recesses and feeble interactions over Twinkies and Ding Dongs at lunch. No, with my kids, my plan was to let the health ed videos lay the ground work while I followed up with a thought provoking, meaningful discussion afterwards to make sure the implications of the applications of sex all sank in. It was to be a marriage of thought and action, theory and application. Thus one warm fall evening after my Catholic-school educated daughter, Jackie, had watched “The Video,” we sat down on the back porch for “The Talk.” It went something like this:
“So, you saw the video today. What did you think?”
“It was ok. The music was really corny. Oh, and we heard Adam got sick and passed out.”
Poor suburban kid, I thought. Stick with the theory, Adam. Stick with the theory. “Forget about the music. That’s not the important part. What did you think about the video?”
“It was a little cheesy.”
“Ok, let’s cut to the chase here, kiddo. Do you know where babies come from now?”
“Yes, Mom,” she replies in an exasperated sort of way. “The sperm meets the egg, they join, fertilization takes place, the egg implants itself in the womb and nine months later, out pops a baby.”
“Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. But, just to be specific, do you actually know now HOW the sperm gets there? You know – in the neighborhood with the egg?”
Eye rolling. Definite eye rolling.
“Ohhhhhh yeahhhhhh!” replied my virginal Catholic school girl in a very un-virginal and non-Catholic sort of way. “I know. Trust me, I know.”
“So the video explained it all. Good. I’m glad we got that all worked out.”
“Well, yeah, the video explained it,” she added as she rolled down her white cabled-knee socks and twirled her little gold plated crucifix with a shiny naked Jesus on it, “but I already knew about that stuff. I figured it out last year.”
“What? You figured it out? How did you know? It was the cats, wasn’t it? I told your father not to plant that cat nip!”
“Gees, Mom, no, it wasn’t the cats,” said my car-driven, private school-attending, well protected daughter in a gee-my-Mom’s-so-slow sort of way. “Adam explained it to me when we went on our field trip to the museum last year. You know, on the bus. He told me on the bus.”
So much for theory.