Spark Notes is a recurring series about the lightbulb moments in sexual development.
American evangelicalism does not have a reputation for sex positivity, but somehow I lucked out and experienced it that way. Sex was a wonderful thing, I was told in church and in my evangelical grammar school. The one small catch was that it was to be exclusively experienced within the confines of a heterosexual marriage. The boundaries were clear: Sex between a husband and a wife was beautiful, sacred, rapturous. Sex between any other combination of persons was both sinful and permanently scarring.
Faced with these constraints, what’s a horny but godly teen to do? I did the only thing my imagination would allow: Channel all of my teen lust into writing erotica about my own wedding night.
I had learned about the mechanics of sex at school, when an elderly never-married teacher separated the fifth-grade boys from the fifth-grade girls and pointed at human-anatomy slides for the girls in a darkened classroom. It was definitely the first I had heard about sex, and this new piece of information exploded in my brain. I knew people who had done this? And in fact, were continuing to do it all the time?
The physical mechanics were briskly glossed over within a few days. But the moral minutiae was the subject of much more intense study over the next few years in school, Sunday school, and church youth groups. How far was too far? What would it do to my future husband if I gave my virginity to someone else? I can still see my beloved eighth-grade homeroom teacher—warm and pretty and funny—perched on a stool, telling the class that she regretted even kissing other men before meeting her future husband. They would later divorce.
I went through puberty late, which meant I was in high school several years before any of this really interested me beyond the academic sense. My encounters with sexual information had been so rare that most of them are still emblazoned in my brain: an illustrated kid’s book about sex smuggled into the library bathroom (two round naked people lying on top of each other in a bathtub); a dirty magazine found on a middle school ballfield; an eye-opening and decidedly age-inappropriate reading of Disclosure, a Michael Crichton novel about a sexy sexual harassment scenario (yikes). When my body finally awoke to its carnal potential, I still had no real idea how the act worked logistically. Given the chance to ask questions anonymously in health class at my public high school, I wrote, “What is a blow job?” on a slip of paper and dropped it in a bucket. When the teacher opened it up, he gave the class a stern look and scolded us for asking fake questions. I had honestly wanted to know.
My total cluelessness presented a challenge when, hormones finally activated, I hatched the idea of writing and illustrating my own first-person erotica. I had no access to pornography—this was the mid-1990s—and I would have been terrified by it anyway. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to talk to my parents about sex. I knew sex was a good thing, and I was excited about it, but I wanted to savor it in the context God had planned for me. My plan was to write myself something like a sexy Christian version of a Sweet Valley High book.
I can’t remember all the details, but the “story,” such as it was, revolved around my new husband, Jeff, and I returning to our hotel room after our wedding. We were both virgins, of course. Jeff was funny and cute, and also very emotive and articulate about his delirious love for me. We took off all our clothes and did things, and frankly I’m glad I can’t remember more. (Before I went to college, I ripped up the manuscript into tiny pieces and flushed it down the toilet.) I do remember reaching a narrative roadblock when it came to write about what happened the next morning: We would want to have sex again, probably, but also my breath would be bad. Would I have sex with bad breath? Or would I just walk across the room naked in broad daylight to brush my teeth? Both were unimaginable. I solved the problem by having Jeff gallantly bring me a bucket of water in bed so I could brush my teeth before we started kissing again. Normal hotel stuff.
What was all this for? I had only a dim idea of the existence of masturbation and even less of an idea of how to execute it. My only clue came from a Judy Blume book called Deenie, in which the main character touches her “special place” and feels good. I had no idea where on my body the special place might be. Amazingly, I can’t remember even trying to find it. But I used the story I had written to transport myself in another way: to a fantasy of what my adulthood would be like, filled with romance and fancy hotels and some kind of mysterious interaction with the inscrutable male body.