In the second half of the seventh chapter of Lifeboats, I fight over s’mores, and Kit has an awkward but necessary moment with Nita. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Young Wizards.
Trigger Warning: For extensive and detailed talk of sex, sexual assault and rape, and homophobia. This is probably going to be more intense to read than usual, so be wary of that as you read this.
So, since I feel like I’ve said everything there is to be said about s’mores (JUST KIDDING, I COULD YELL ABOUT THEM FOR A WHILE), I wanted to focus this review on one element, rather than everything that happened here. Granted, I do this unannounced all the time; that’s nothing new in the Mark Reads world. But I’m struck by how frank Kit and Nita’s conversation about sexual desire and erections was because… well, I grew up in an age where we weren’t supposed to talk about it.
It’s something I’ve addressed in the past and especially in the recent past. (Hello, The Science of Discworld!) The reality isn’t surprising to those of who grew up in abstinence-only education. (Or, for that matter, those of you who still have to go through that. It has certainly not been eradicated from the United States.) I’ve met so many people over the years who have similar stories: we weren’t really taught about sex. We were told to wait until marriage, that all sex outside of that relationship was either sinful or would lead to disease/death. (Or both, if your town’s conservatism was coupled with religion, as mine was.) There was no mention of any sex acts other than the most basic penis-in-vagina sex. Any sort of relationship outside of cis man and cis woman flat out did not exist.
In my school’s health textbooks, all images of condom use had been cut out with razorblades. Our teachers were not allowed to teach us how to use them. Any sections that addressed sex outside of marriage were also cut out, too. In elementary school and junior high, these classes were separated by gender, too, and it wasn’t until high school that guys were allowed to learn about sex around women, and even then? If we asked any questions outside of the district’s allowable lesson plans or rubrics, our teachers were required to tell us that they could not answer the questions.
And oh, friends, we were starving for answers. We wanted them so badly. Where did we turn for that education? Each other. Music. Movies. Pornography. Books. We all knew which books in the library looked like normal health science books, but actually contained actual photos of naked genitalia. We may have checked them out and laughed at them, but we also lingered. We pointed. We asked questions couched in jokes because we were desperate for people to tell us the truth about something “everyone” apparently did, but no one would talk to us about. We knew sex led to pregnancy, and plenty of our teachers had children, so why couldn’t they talk to us about it?
I imagine that it’s not hard for you to realize the conundrum I was in. I was in the closet, fully aware that I was gay, and I had questions I didn’t dare ask, not even as a joke. What do I do, Mrs. Hall, about the flutter of butterflies I get deep in my stomach whenever I see Manny running the track outside? How do I control the urges I have? Are they truly as unnatural and sinful as my parents tell me they are? None of these textbooks or pamphlets talk about me. How am I supposed to have sex? What is that supposed to be like? Why am I only limited to furtive glances and stares? What am I supposed to do when all my teammates make gay jokes—either denigrating gay men like myself, or pretending to be gay with one another—and I risk exposing myself every time I respond to them?
When I finally do have sex and he holds me down and tells me this is how I like it, but I don’t like it and I try to escape and it hurts, what am I supposed to do? What happens when I tell someone that I was just raped and they respond with a laugh and a dismissive wave? It doesn’t count if it doesn’t hurt, they say to me, and they don’t comfort me at all, and they just suggest that I’m not a bottom, so what do I do then? How the hell am I supposed to be prepared for that?
I finally learned years ago not to blame myself for being raped, but when I did, there was an angle to it that still stings: I thought it was my fault because I was ignorant. If I’d known how sex between men wasn’t supposed to be traumatic and painful, maybe I wouldn’t have stopped fighting the man on top of me. It is the one detail that fills me with the greatest sense of shame and terror, the one thing that triggers my PTSD more than anything: I gave up. I thought maybe, just maybe, that this is how it was supposed to be.
And that’s bullshit. When we don’t talk about sex in our communities, ignorance does spread. It’s infectious. We believe the wrong things about the wrong people, and we make decisions based on that. We should be talking about all manner of things related to sex! What does consent look like? Can you revoke consent after you’ve already given it? (YES YES YES YES.) What is sexuality? What sexual identity fits each of us? Can that identity fluctuate over time? (ALSO YES.) How do you act on sexual urges, and what is considered a “healthy” sex life?
And what happens when you have a penis and get an erection in a situation where you’d rather not reveal it?
That’s why the final half of this chapter is so important. Talking about this kind of shit IS SO INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. When I was Kit age, I was not even remotely prepared or capable of having a conversation about an erection. I simply wasn’t! And that’s a sad thing, obviously, because I grew up associating anything sexual with shame and guilt. And look, there’s guilt working here once Kit realizes he’s been aroused, but I wouldn’t say it’s the same shit that many of us had to deal with in terms of shame. That’s an entirely different animal. But Kit feels a negative emotion in the moment, and what does Duane do?
Well, Nita assures Kit, both that she knows exactly what he’s trying to do and that it’s… well, it’s natural! She doesn’t have to say it outright, but she doesn’t treat Kit like he’s a weirdo or an anomaly. AND THAT IS SO IMPORTANT IN THIS INITIAL STAGE. She doesn’t shame him. She doesn’t make him feel terrible. And when they can’t have a full conversation, they agree to have a longer one at a later point. THIS IS SUCH FANTASTIC BEHAVIOR.
Yeah, this is the basic standard for this, but guess what? I didn’t get the basic standard education, so this stuff matters.
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