Shock and awe

Somewhere along 16th Street, a block or so south of Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee, WI, in September, 1958, I took one of my early steps in becoming a sex educator. I do not remember exactly with whom I was walking home from school, but I do know two of three of us were boys. Today I wonder if I was with a boy I liked as in I-want-to-hold-your-hand-and-lay-in-the-grass-and-look-up-at-the-sky-after-we-roll-down-a-hill-clutching-each-other-close-which-would-explain-the-giddy-and-sweaty-feeling-I-have “like.”

When I left the northwest corner of 16th and Oklahoma, I knew next to zero about sex and human reproduction. By the time I reached 16th and Morgan – a mere four blocks – I pretty much knew as much as a ten-year old boy would know in 1958. I recall being silent in what at times was a heated debate between the other two, especially after my first question was met with disbelief. The next day no one on the playground pointed at me or shouted “Idiot!”

Three years later, in seventh grade, Sister Muriel gave all of the parents of boys a book that was the first volume of a two-book set about sex. We were never given the second book, the one that actually discussed human sexuality and reproduction. This first volume was so oblique in its exposition on the sacredness of our bodies and the holiness of their functions, I had no idea at first what it was about. Because the book was distributed to parents one-on-one, it was not even clear if the other boys had gotten the book.

Confirmation PhotoIt seemed both delightful and odd to me that I was given a book vaguely about sex and generously illustrated with grainy photos of very muscular men wearing abbreviated swim suits or posing straps. I remember reading the introduction to the book at least three times to be sure that this homoerotic treasure was actually okay for me to look at, even sanctioned by the church. While the incomplete effort at communicating about sex with only one of the two-volume set was a flop, the book I got became a favorite of mine well into high school.

Also in seventh grade, the boys and girls were awkwardly separated one morning. It took a couple of days to determine that the girls got to watch a 16mm film about menstruation and the use of sanitary napkins produced by Kimberly Clark. This oddity was not lost on many of the boys in my class. In the days before automobiles were not universally available to many working people, many of the guys were accustomed to making last minute trips to the local store for a last minute ingredient for dinner, for toilet paper, or for sanitary napkins. Even those of us who might not know the right brand were given a piece of paper by our moms or sisters to be sure we didn’t come home empty handed.

What did the boys get to see then when the girls were viewing a film that came a year or two late? Our treat was a post-WWII 16mm film produced by Proctor and Gamble about why boys smell, explaining we needed to use more soap and wash more regularly starting at about age 12. That’s it then: girls bleed and boys stink. End of story.

While a great deal has changed in public education in the past five decades, there appear to be several constants. It remains a crap shoot about whether children and teens will get sufficient accurate information to enjoy sex in the context of healthy and fun relationships, free of coercion, fear of pregnancy, or threat of an infection.

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