I can’t tell you how many people tried to teach me sexual abstinence when I was a teenager.
They wasted serious breath on it, but plugged away even as us girls raised our heels, hems and aspirations. From the time we were about 15, almost every male looked good to us (as we did to them, I suspect): guys at school, older brothers of friends, friends of our fathers, teachers, men on trains, men waiting for buses, men queuing in traffic, guys waiting for wives and girlfriends outside changing rooms in department stores…I tried them all on in my mind and a growing number for real as we went harvesting in earnest.
I can’t imagine why anyone thought they could halt this juggernaut by whining at it, but plenty took a turn – teachers, aunts and friends of parents, all tendering favourites like “you’ll get a reputation like (insert name of neighbourhood goodtime girl – not your own, obviously),” and “boys will think you’re easy,” and the career-orientated “you need to be above it if you want to be taken seriously when you go to work.”
Even women of strong feminist bent took the Less is More view of female enthusiasm for fornication when it came down to it – which is not a criticism of feminism, or feminists, because I am one, and proudly, but an indication that in my experience, old habits die hard, if they die at all. (I think here of Joan Didion wandering round a Haight-Ashbury squat, watching supposedly-liberated hippie women busy themselves in the kitchen. “Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven,” Didion wryly observed. Indeed. The men weren’t cooking. They were busying themselves screwing liberated chicks).
I still remember my apparently liberal mother’s reflex horror when, aged 17, I returned from a holiday and reported – with pride and a glow – that I’d slept with a guy I’d found during it.
My mother had been a model of enlightenment until that point – she schooled me well in contraception, encouraged me to go out on dates and, often, to join her and her friends in amusing chats about male sexual performance. That was why I felt perfectly comfortable telling her I’d converted theory to practice on my summer vacation – I thought she’d applaud and ask for more detail. I never dreamed that she’d reel back and clutch the kitchen bench and her throat in alarm.
“What would your father think?” she shot at me as my tongue dried around the half of the anecdote that I thought she’d most enjoy. The guy in question had been young and excited, and most of the evening’s action had put me in mind of chasing and throwing my body on a wayward firehose. I thought mother would find that part of the yarn amusing. She didn’t.
It is, of course, easy to get at your mother for crashing off-message when you wanted her on it. There were four of us, too, all teenagers at once, so my mother’s days were long and not specially restful: round the clock, we four were dreaming and/or chasing tail round shrubs and over carseats like red-assed lemurs.
Still, the messages my (otherwise much appreciated) female liberators sent me about sex were confused. My teachers and role models believed in the pill (they took us to Family Planning to get prescriptions), free and legal abortion (I remember them campaigning for it), and choosing career over progeny if you had half a chance (“you should think seriously about not having children,” a female sixth-form teacher told a group of us one lunchtime when we got onto the topic of life post-school. “You’re smart.”).
These people did not, however, believe in female promiscuity. They could cope with accidental pregnancy, but not with the knowledge that you’d ridden half the borough en route to it. Loose local girls were a joke, but no laughing matter. Class had a lot to do with the way you were assessed. “Debbie” down the road was the product of a single-parent family, which meant everyone revealed they’d been waiting for it when she got pregnant aged 17. “Natalie”, on the other hand, was from a stable, two-parent, middle-class outfit with a large house. She was described as unlucky when she was knocked up. The neighbourhood rallied round when her parents decided to raise the baby as their own. A number of people seemed to be under the impression that she’d had sex just once.
These are only anecdotes, to be sure, but they’ve been on my mind since Nadine introduced abstinence. It is my experience that even people who should know better think that women should be chaste. Certainly, there aren’t many politicians out there who are actively encouraging girls to spread it around and enjoy it. A pity, that. The truth is that at 15 or 16 or whatever it was, I couldn’t wait to join the ranks of the initiated. My mistake was thinking I’d been told that lots of fun, lighthearted sex was synonymous with liberation. In fact, I’d been told nothing of the kind. I had to learn that from experience. I’ve had some interesting experiences, too.