Insist on the Butterflies
Ever wonder why romance is dead? Why men and women don’t court each other and make themselves wait for intimacy anymore?
Sex is just everywhere. People are talking about it all around me, in every direction I look, and somebody always seems to be doing it on way too many of the 200 channels we have in our cable catalog. Fifty Shades of Grey opened to mass audiences this Valentine’s Day weekend and The Bachelor scandals have been blowing up my Twitter feed for the last week. We can’t seem to get away from all of these people getting it on.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like watching other people engage with each other intimately, and I certainly don’t enjoy hearing folks replay their exploits in conversations on national television.
Who’s with me?!?
When did we become so reckless with our private intimacies? Is this a new thing since the onslaught of the World Wide Web, or am I just now noticing something that has been around for generations, just in different forms? I can recall accidentally stumbling upon a Playboy magazine once or twice during my childhood, but I don’t remember ever being exposed to so much, that early.
I’ll never forget the day a few years ago when I asked my students to get out a book to read quietly for the first few minutes of class, and a perky little teenaged girl whipped out her first installment of the Christian Grey series. I knew what was in it. I was astonished that she was so cavalier about her tastes in literature, and I was perplexed as to why her parents would allow it, if they even knew. I was pretty sure this young lady was still a virgin.
I suppose I’m being old-fashioned. I understand enough about how kids have (and haven’t) changed over the years to know that there is absolutely nothing new under the sun. Terrible lives and doomed relationships do not await any of the kids in this generation just because they are reading about bondage or perhaps even participating in it. But it makes me sad because they are learning to think about adult intimacy in a very distorted and unrealistic way. I wish, instead, they were learning about it the way people did back before we were constantly slammed in the face by it as it’s splattered all over televisions and the Internet.
I hear myself, okay? And I know I sound like my mother.
Even when I was married, I didn’t have the courage to engage in some of the things we are witnessing at the movie theaters these days, sitting alongside strangers. I’d never seen porn until I was an adult, and I didn’t grow up scrolling through endless nakedness on my phone. So when I was a teenager, making out in cars and in movie theaters, the rites of passage we all traverse, my brand-new experiences were literally unfolding in front of me in real time. I had no preconceived ideas about what sex was like beyond the “Take My Breath Away” scene in Top Gun. The only real tasteless sexuality I was exposed to as a teenager was watching Porky’s or eavesdropping on other people’s conversations at lunch, and it was many years before I really even understood most of what I saw and heard back then. Until I was already in high school, I had no idea how those interactions played out once the clothes came off. I knew what happened, but I wasn’t preprogrammed to imagine how those experiences might actually feel for myself because I had not been a witness to it with my own eyes. Like most, I grew up without all the mature visuals we have now. (I still vividly remember finding a Playgirl magazine at a friend’s house, in her parent’s closet. Those were the only naked men I’d ever seen in my life, and I wouldn’t see another one until well over a decade later when I was seeing one in person for the first time.) There were no jpgs or gifs of how it was supposed to go down (pardon the pun). I had nothing to go on beyond what I had created in my own imagination. I learned firsthand how kids fumble through those brand-new, intimate encounters, and the way those experiences branded themselves on my mind came from my own feelings and emotions as I learned them for myself with the one other person that was there too.
I am not so much disgusted about the brazen use of sex in technology and media as much as I am disappointed. Remember butterflies? Do kids get those anymore? It’s hard to imagine a first kiss garnering the response it used to once we realize how much pornography our kids have already seen. It’s dejecting to think that by the time they learn to drive they are already desensitized to intimacy because they’ve seen it portrayed in all the absolutely wrong ways a countless number of times
Seeing other people have sex robs us of our own unique experiences. This is especially true for young kids who have never had sex. For teenagers to think that some of these kinky encounters are normal, par for the course for casual dating and not reserved for the deepest of bonds in the longest of marriages, disturbs me. I know they will all be just fine; they won’t end up in therapy if they jump right into the hardcore, but I feel sorry for them that they will never know what the touch of someone’s fingertips can do, how a man tucking a loose strand of hair behind your ear can unhinge you. And that you don’t need blindfolds to get goose bumps.
I have two very different opinions on the Fifty Shades book. On the one hand, within the context of my age and experience, I enjoyed the newness of the scary, unfamiliar ideas within its pages. I loved experimenting with edgy notions and trying things that unnerved me but only with someone I already had a very deep and lasting bond with, someone I trusted implicitly, someone I loved intensely and had been in a mature relationship with for a very long time. Fifty Shades brought the fun back into sex for lots of older people, me included, because we often felt like we’d already run the gamut of our sexuality. Because we’ve already done it several. thousand. times. I can attest to the “vanilla” references repeatedly made in the book (and movie) because that’s what married sex often turns into after a couple of decades — a series of obligatory encounters, sometimes reserved only for Sundays and birthdays, in couples that are too young to already be that bored with it. It’s like having chicken for dinner. Husband says to wife, “Want to have chicken tonight?” Wife says, “No, we’ve had chicken this week already.” It’s just not supposed to be that way with making love, yet it usually is for couples who are too busy raising their kids and paying their mortgages to feel like altering the momentum of their bedroom.
Fifty Shades of Grey sold over 100 million copies worldwide, largely to an audience of mothers, professionals, and wives, women my age. There’s a reason for that. Before this book, women were bored, and the husbands have stopped trying to drive them absolutely crazy in the bedroom. Admittedly, for me, most of what Christian and Ana did to each other was icky, just a smidgen too much for my tastes. But what drew me to the book, and I think I speak for many, was the bond that couple shared, the emotional connection that enabled them to be totally free and trusting of one another in terrifying but exciting situations. That experience could have been accomplished in other ways, skydiving or base jumping together, for example, but most women would admit to yearning for a man to be manly in the bedroom, and Christian Grey accomplished nothing if not that.
On the other hand, this book has no place in the hands of young people and I am disappointed every time I learn that a young girl has read it already, before she’s had a chance to fall in love and be married for several years. Sex won’t be the same for her once she has seen or read those things. The interactions in Fifty Shades can be compared to graduate school…you shouldn’t be allowed to get there until you’ve taken all your prerequisites first.
My plea to the teenagers in my life is to reject the urge to learn about what sex is like in these ways. Don’t open that link on Twitter, don’t see that movie, and for goodness sake, stay off of Tumblr. Give yourself the gift of sexual innocence until the time comes when you can learn it properly, gently, and with someone you love and who loves you as well. Don’t distort your own unique experiences by imprinting someone else’s on your mind. Let yourself live through those moments with newness, writing on the blank slate of your own imagination yourself. Cordon off that one part of your youth and protect it from the pollution of social media. Insist on the butterflies; demand them; wait for them.