By the time I entered my junior year of college, I was convinced that Binghamton University had only three kinds of guys. There were the players. There were the boys who were saving themselves for marriage. And there were the ones who learned about sex from my mother.
A biological anthropologist, my mom taught Intro to Sex and Evolution, which focused on everything from mating systems in the Animal Kingdom to why women go through menopause. Pretty much every student in the life sciences took it. Those who didn’t heard stories of the professor with the sign in her office that read: My biggest fear is that there is no PMS and this is my personality.
Thus, at the age of 19, I could flawlessly explain the mechanics of seahorse sex, but had only a vague notion of how it might work between two humans. I feared getting into an intimate situation only to have word of it get back to her, or worse, hearing her clinical scientific explanation of it in my head. And if a guy ever mentioned sex and my mother in the same sentence, forget about it.
The first time I came home with a hickey, it prompted her to launch a clinical study about the psychology behind casual hookups.
I was a freshman with a crush, and the guy in question was a senior looking for nothing serious. We made out a few times before he decided that I was too clingy, which in hindsight, I probably was. His rejection sent me into a deep funk that lasted for weeks and set my mother’s cognitive gears turning.
As the resident “sex professor,” she’d heard more and more students talking about “hooking up.” Neither she nor I have a problem with anything that happens between consenting adults, but as a scientist, she wondered why so many girls seemed to be giving that consent for casual flings when most women in her own generation had lived by the adage, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” The most obvious way to get answers was to launch a study of her own.
Every student taking an introductory-level psychology class had to log a certain number of hours participating in psychological studies – it was the department’s way of introducing us to research while ensuring that they had a steady supply of human guinea pigs. My mom launched a simple survey that asked students questions about their sexual experiences, expectations, and what they thought was “normal.” It was one of the easier studies to participate in, since you could take it from any computer instead of trekking across campus to have diodes hooked up to your head.
At the time I was majoring in psychology, and felt odd knowing that my mom’s graduate students, many of whom had adopted me like a younger sister, would be sifting through a description of my sexual experience (or relative lack thereof) albeit anonymous. Plus, who wants to think of their mother writing questions like “How comfortable are you with the idea of anal sex?”
If taking the survey changed my perspective on my mother, though, it was nothing compared to how the results changed my perspective on sex. I already knew that most of my peers were more experienced than I was. What I didn’t know, though, was just how uncomfortable most of them really were with hooking up, or that I was far from the only girl who secretly wished that a hookup would turn into a relationship. The real kicker was that, on top of being uncomfortable with hooking up, almost every participant thought that their peers were more comfortable with it than they were.
Like some biology-driven alternative to Judith Butler, my mother was proving to girls that the new social norm of being sexually “free” included the freedom to hold to the “old-fashioned” values that her study proved many of us preferred. She never set out to make us into prudes. What she did was far more effective – she armed us with the facts to disregard the peer pressure and make our own choices. (And if those facts sometimes included vividly accurate biological descriptions of all manner of potential pregnancy mishaps and STIs, well, she was still a mom.)
It took until my junior year to find a guy who I was in a comfortable relationship with, was willing to wait, and above all, didn’t know my mother. He didn’t turn out to be “the one,” but I was ready by the time we took that next step.
Lots of girls might be able to say that they waited to have sex because their mother pressured them with expectations or religion, but I’m the only person I know who waited to have sex because her mother empowered her with science. And though it sometimes made for an awkward college experience, when I look back now, I think that’s pretty cool.
[Rabbit photo from Shutterstock]