Twenty-four years ago, a friend of mine gave birth to a beautiful brown baby girl; a brown baby with cheeks not dissimilar in appearance to sweet cinnamon rolls and a pair of eyes that shone like polished pearls. I first met this summer child – Londyn* – when she was six. I had no children of my own at the time, and as a single 23-year-old woman, I had the privilege of observing and admiring motherhood in the abstract while not having to contend with its rigors. (That would change just four short years later.)
Londyn’s mom carried with her all of the baggage that many of us take into our own parenting experiences. And like so many taciturn women, she too had known the horror of abuse, the double lament of encountering it unprepared and the skepticism when she found the courage to voice her agony. She vowed that this would not be her daughter’s experience.
One day, we were having tea.
“Londyn!” she called. “Come to the kitchen.”
The summer child came bounding in, all cornrows and legs.
“What do you do when someone tries to touch your poopoo?”
Londyn stood ramrod straight, legs planted into the floor, inhaled mightily and warbled at the top of her lungs:
I SCREAM ‘NOOOOOOO!!!!’
Londyn’s mom nodded with approval. “That’s right. You scream ‘no’.” She cupped her daughter’s face and told her she could go play.
I never had these kinds of conversations with my parents, primarily because I believe that like a lot of African parents, their raised us from a philosophy of avoidance. As if, if they refused to acknowledge the possibility for calamity, it would never come. If only the universe was so simple. The episode with Londyn and her mom and I in the kitchen also reminded me of the toilsome relationship that many Black women have with our bodies. We are reared to avoid sexual contact of any sort – consensual or otherwise – as the circumstances of that contact often do nothing to lessen the feelings of shame, guilt or discomfort the often accompany it. The messaging about sex is that it is dirty, sinful and if indulged in at all, done in secret. Remember: anyone trying to touch your is to be repelled…until marriage, naturally. Marriage will erase decades of conditioning and solve everything.
That’s nonsense, of course.
The prevailing narrative in Abrahamic religious tradition is that men and women of whatever faith are feverish in their desire for ‘legal’ sexual contact that sex affords them. And I’m sure that this is true for large swathes of people. Whole doctrines have been developed around the theme of waiting for marriage before sex. However, there is a smaller but equally important sub-group of married people that the imagination of this doctrine all but ignores: those who wait for sex (long) after they’re married.
I recently had the occasion to sit in a gathering with other couples when the topic came up. In one instance, the wife revealed that it took six months before she was able to submit herself to penetrative sex with her husband. In another, it was the husband who said it took him weeks before he could touch his wife in that way. Each revelation defied conventional thinking on the subject, but it was the man’s admission that I found most fascinating, as it was an important reminder than men also must overcome messaging about their personal space and who is allowed access. Any Alpha male (or any myriad of pretenders) is supposed to invite female sexual attention and contact…meant to revel in it. For a man to find unsolicited touching by women uncomfortable renders his masculinity (possibly his virility) questionable by his peers. Men are socialized to invite and crave erotic touch as a demonstration of their social capital and authority, whereas women are brought up to repudiate it as proof of theirs.
Let’s all go by the person responsible for making up these rules a drink and throw it in their face.
On a cerebral level, I understand why the idea of rushing into sex after marriage is such a huge concern. In many cultures a marriage that has not been consummated is considered provisional. However in our modern context, pushing this narrative leaves little breathing room for the growth of the institution, as there are numerous ways to find and experience intimacy with one’s partner while practicing abstinence.
While exploring the complex relationship between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, Maria Popova writes:
This false notion of the body as the testing ground for intimacy has long warped our understanding of what constitutes a romantic relationship. The measure of intimacy is not the quotient of friction between skin and skin, but something else entirely — something of the love and trust, the joy and ease that flow between two people as they inhabit that private world walled off from everything and everyone else.
None of this is to say that we must all dispense with the pursuit of libidos play with our other halves (because I would never), but rather to consider that the action form important strings in the web of intimacy, but do not constitute the web itself. As foreign as the idea of waiting for sex to happen after marriage may be to me, I see that there is a serene beauty in it and in the waiting, an opportunity to discover one’s partner in that “private world walled off from everything and everyone else.”