"This doesn't hurt a bit," she said out loud. "I think I love you, Johnny. I love, love, love you. I've been waiting all my life for you."
"Don't talk so much," he said. "It's better if you stop talking."
-- from "Music" by Ellen Gilchrist
In the place where I spent my junior high years, during the time my body changed from prickly hickory stick to verdant magnolia blossom, sex permeated the air but was never spoken aloud, at least among girls.
Seventh and eighth grade years in Jackson, Tenn. , I hung out with a gang of popular boys who congregated in my neighborhood, and I often overheard them grumbling about which girls made out with them and which ones refused even a goodnight kiss at the door.
Eventually I was pushed outside of their group by my emerging sexuality; I became something other than a buddy to the guys I had spent summers running with -- swimming in creeks, smoking cigarettes in the woods, running barefoot down scalding asphalt streets, and generally embracing life with carefree athleticism and zeal.
The entire social stratification of life in Jackson as a teenager depended so much on sex that it infused every encounter. Every glance, every brush in the hallway at school was loaded with erotic possibility, but sex remained a taboo subject of conversation -- at least among girls.
The vague, often misunderstood rules were these: You wanted boys to think you were sexy, in fact you wanted to be sexy, but you didn't want to "put out" too much. Going all the way was strictly forbidden, but many of us didn't even know what "going all the way" meant. Sex occurred up top or down there, and down there lurked a foreboding mixture of titillating sensations and potentially dangerous events that remained unspoken among people who were part of polite society -- and being part of polite society in Jackson, Tenn. in the late '60s defined your worth as a person.
In Jackson, teenagers paired up, went to dances, made out, went steady, broke up, paired up with someone else, then began the entire cycle over again. If you dropped out of this scene, you dropped out of society entirely. Back roads were lined with cars crowded with double-headed monsters, boys and girls wrapped in each other's arms making out. Our mothers were silent and timid; our fathers grew frustrated, angry and sullen as they helplessly stood on the sidelines, watching their daughters being consumed by hungry boys.
Bad boys were far more interesting than good boys when it came to sex, and many boys who lacked social pedigrees moved up in society by teaching the rich, good boys their mannerisms, their badness, to help them seduce girls and look tough. I became smitten with boys on the margins -- boys with dark personal lives, drunken, divorced mothers, dead baby brothers, absent fathers. These boys drove loud cars, drank hard liquor, let their hair go wild, were swathed in dark mystery, and when it came to making out -- unlike their fair-haired, well-bred cohorts -- they knew what they were doing.
The social ladder was precariously wobbly by ninth grade. An average girl who hung out with bad boys, I hung on their arms, smiled through parties, then tangled endlessly with them in back seats, on pine needle beds, in darkened parking lots.
Sex was the center of my waking and sleeping universe, and not once did I talk about it to anyone. Instead of calling it sex, we called it love. Instead of painting it red and coloring it with sweat and blood, we colored it pink and drew it in dainty heart shapes, spelling it l-u-v. High school wasn't much better, in spite of a societal sexual revolution and a notion of free love that existed somewhere far away from the towns of western Tennessee.
Last week, I sat with a friend, her two teenage sons and their two girlfriends, and we talked about sex in a downtown coffee shop. Sexual misadventure, the clitoris, horror stories -- nothing was forbidden.
These beautiful girls with their shiny hair and clear eyes, these boys with their shy smiles would enjoy, be fulfilled and be hurt by sex. But for them, sex didn't exist in the closet, shut tight. It was right here on the table, open for viewing with an unblemished eye. An improvement? Probably, but only if the adults do their part and don't stifle the conversation.
-- A version of this essay was first published in February 2000.