TWENTY-FIVE years ago, when I was a high school senior, I was sitting in my room and my mother walked in with a newspaper clipping from The New York Times about a new disease called GRID. This was, I read in our family’s newspaper of record, a disease that was impacting gay men. A few weeks later, she came in with a second article on the same subject. It was a while before the name was changed to AIDS, or that any heterosexuals figured out they might have a stake in the issue.
My mother, Camille, was the source of most of my sex education, at least the face-to-face part, covering the technical issues. This had started some years earlier.
Her theory was it was easier to talk about sex to little kids than to teenagers, so the discussions must have started when I was about 10 and when my brother was about 7. She was at the time an ESL teacher — English as a second language — teaching English to people from Haiti and Puerto Rico. At the time, during the supposedly wild and irresponsible 1970s, educational programs funded by New York City included basic information about birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
When she told me the stories of grown women in her class (i.e., even older than her) thinking a 7-Up douche after sex could prevent pregnancy (apparently a rumor in the times before Snopes), I got it on the spot that you just had to teach this stuff. My brother and I got a kick out of the story, too. We had 7-Up in the refrigerator. It now had an erotic connotation.
One night after dinner, she dumped the contents of an envelope onto the kitchen table, revealing all kinds of little gadgets: diaphragms and various IUDs, condoms and tubes full of spermicide and little pamphlets. After that night, I was probably the only kid except my brother for 75 miles around who could tell you the difference between a Copper 7 and a Lippes Loop. (Both are intra-uterine devices. The Copper 7 was later the subject of a serious medical scandal and subsequent lawsuit, because it sterilized a lot of women.)
To her credit, there was no moral message whatsoever: she assumed that her sons would be sexually active, and the obvious choice for her as a parent was to make sure we began that journey from the standpoint of awareness and not ignorance, making choices about family planning instead of playing in the casino of life. She did not want any unplanned grandchildren, either.
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