03 January 2016

A number

My number is low for a man of my age. Men tend to round their number up, counting any sexual activity. Women round down. Studies suggest reasons for this, that men are not necessarily reporting in bad faith, we just count differently when asked. I'm emotionally a woman, but terrified of being caught in a lie, so I report my number as getting close to 2. Maybe one and eight-tenths, just to be safe. I'm 33 now (the year that Jesus was killed) and married, so this number is of little importance to anyone. I sleep with my wife until further notice.

I grew up terrified of sex in the way you are terrified of something that is hidden from you. I bought a cassette in the late-nineties, DC Talk's 'Nu Thang', that first introduced me to the idea of sex as something to avoid. DC Talk was the Evangelical response to NWA, so they rapped about sexual purity instead of fucking the police. One song I remember well was all about not wanting sex — the band sang 'I don't want it/ I don't want it, want it/ I don't want/ your sex for now.' I remember my parents hearing this for the first time and hurriedly asking for the lyric sheet before resigning themselves to the fact that the word 'sex' was going to enter our lexicon at one point: it might as well be at the hands of some cool Christian rappers who were warning us off it, like it was a drug.

The ethos of the culture which produced 'Don't Want it' affected me deeply. More than sex, I wanted to not want sex. I dreamt of being above it in some way, free from it. The best Christians not only avoided sex, but they also avoided sexual desire entirely. Like monks: I once thought I should be a Franciscan, and called a Catholic retreat in Wisconsin asking if I could come up for a visit over Spring Break. The person I talked to on the phone told me it was essential that I be Catholic before I considered the monastic life. I can't see how my commitment to Calvinism would allow that, I thought as I hung up the phone.

The Evangelicals around me rejected the notion that children should be taught about sex by the State. Instead, they argued, it was the responsibility of the church and the family. Having won the right to keep the State out this part of their lives, nothing was subsequently taught to me about sex. I construct that sentence passively because I'm not sure who to point fingers at. The church or my parents or my mentors or any of the adults. It was no one and everyone. 

Instead of sex, we were taught exhaustively about avoiding sex and about marriage and the roles of men and women. We had books like Every Young Man's Battle that saw sexual desire as something to struggle against, a kind of medieval fight with swords and armour. We learned about how to be good husbands, Promise Keepers. Men were to be the heads of their wives. Men were to lead the family. Women were to serve. Marriage was the goal for all of us suffering from chronic erections: in five years or so we would be led to a woman, and god would open that door for us. He would bless us. Until then, we were to suffer, to avoid sex completely, to never masturbate, and to sit quietly through church services, fighting. Struggling.

Purity was described in different metaphorical packages: imagine a piece of gum that has been chewed by several people — would you want to chew that piece of gum? Sex is like pouring two cups of water into a vase. Sex is giving up part of your soul that you can never give back. We all imagined our wives and husbands sobbing with the revelation we had masturbated once when we were 15, that part of our soul thrown away in some bathroom tissue and now, unrecoverable. We believed this.

I remember a bachelor party where we thought it would be funny to take the groom to Walgreens to buy condoms and lube before his wedding day and then to have the person at the register, a tired-looking 18-year-old woman, call in a price check on the condoms. How embarrassing, we thought, to be stood there as they price checked the condoms. This guy was going to have sex: look at him.

Now, some 15 years later, I wonder about the mindset that thinks a man the night before his wedding needs to be taken out to buy condoms and lube of all things, by a crowd of horny, confused Christian boys. Of course, karma paid me back: there was me, standing in a convenience store in Japan six weeks after I had been married trying to buy condoms. It wasn't funny anymore: I didn't know what I was doing. I called a friend on my phone, one of my friends who might have known about this stuff I needed help, I didn't know what I was doing.

If the wages of sin is death, the wages of faith is guilt. The Evangelicals will tell you that at least the terror about sex protected you. It protected you from unwanted pregnancy and STIs. While all your peers were lined up at abortion clinics, you were not, were you. You did well on the SAT and went to a good college where you told others about Jesus and had many good friends that were girls, but whom you never slept with. And then you married when you were supposed to and had sex like you were supposed to. What do you have to complain about. Look at the others, the sinners, who fell into debauchery and unwanted pregnancy. Into alcoholism and drugs. You did well, didn't you: with the eight-tenths exception, which (if we're honest) we can knock down to zero based on your record of good behaviour. Who among us hasn't gotten to third base in the front seat of a car. We're only human. 

At 33, the year Jesus died, I am still one and eight-tenths. This number is unlikely to change. Instead, I am now responsible to my children. I need to tell them all the things I needed to hear, but didn't. I need to tell them the number matters less than how they respect themselves and the people they make love to through the years. That the number matters less than consent and love. That the number doesn't speak to their character. That they should pee before and after they have sex: someone should tell them that. That they have to be responsible, but you will often be irresponsible. That it's okay: whatever it is, it is okay. No one will be angry or surprised. Perhaps this can assuage my own guilt for being naked when I wasn't supposed to be, and the fear that someone might come down the stairs suddenly and find us entwined and confused and searching. There are some things that can't be avoided.