When I was ten, my parents decided it was time to tell me the "facts of life." The briefing came in the form of a light-blue pamphlet called "A Doctor Speaks to 9 to 12-Year-Olds," and it was presented to me with solemnity. I went off to read it with great expectations, feeling a little anxiety. Was I ready for the responsibility of knowing about sex?
I should have spared myself the angst, because the book was not about sex. It was about pregnancy, childbirth, and cross-sections of a woman’s belly showing a curled-up fetus inside. Worse, it was boring to read. The text instructed children to be especially helpful to women "in the family way" – but it said little about how they got that way.
One tiny paragraph explained sexual intercourse, and I pored over it dozens of times trying to decode its true meaning. It has been preserved in my memory this way: "When a man and a woman love each other very much, they lie very, very close together." After that anti-climax, it was all sperms and eggs dancing their biological dance. The good doctor might as well have been describing earthworms.
Granted, biology was a giant step forward from the bizarre mythologies of the playground, with their tales of bloody piggy-back rides, or fathers secretly dropping "seeds" into our mothers’ drinking water. But it wasn’t the real story. I only got that story – officially – three years later. On another solemn occasion, my father presented me with Dr. David Rubin’s book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. "It’s time you should know about these things," I remember him saying with embarrassment, "and this book will tell you better than I can."
And it did. Of course, I had already read the book surreptitiously several times over, and even graduated into macabre medical texts, trying to learn more about the forbidden topic of sex. I would read under the covers of my bed with a flashlight, in mortal fear of discovery, determined to understand not only the how of it, but the why.
Even today the "why" remains a mystery to me, but at least I understand how sex works. For many people in the world, however, such is not the case. Millions live in a fog of ignorance about sexuality, and they are prohibited from breaking out of it by chains of taboo.
The sense of taboo is reflected in the mainstream population literature – and population itself is already taboo in many circles. In book after book, article after article on the "population issue," one reads of growth curves, fertility rates, contraceptive use, women’s reproductive health. These abstract terms refer to decisions and conditions in the complicated lives of individuals, especially women, and they are clearly of the utmost importance.
Yet in all this analysis of human reproduction and its consequences, the "procreative act" itself is nowhere to be seen. Even the popular literature on population is often as dry – and boring – as "A Doctor Speaks to 9 to 12-Year-Olds." We talk about population, but not copulation. We talk about "teen pregnancy," but never teen orgasm. It is as though we were trying to make sense of agriculture while politely avoiding any mention of food.
It’s not that we’re all Victorians. Modern advertising is eroticized to ridiculous extremes, as illustrated by photos of orgies "caused" by Calvin Klein’s cologne. And pop music now skips the foreplay – we’ve evolved from the Beatles’ "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to George Michael’s "I Want Your Sex." Nonetheless, in the context of population and family planning, some of us – sometimes whole cultures of us – seem to get offended by any discussion of our sexual (not just our "reproductive") behavior. And for that reason, everyone keeps quiet.
Such global delicacy – a fancy word for denial – is no longer defensible. While we must continue to be sensitive to cultural conditioning, it is time to broaden the discussion about population and family planning to include sex. What we do to populate the planet happens to be one of the most astonishing pleasures we know, and almost every new baby was preceded some nine months before by an intimate touch, a rhythmic coupling, and at least one orgasm – the attraction of which had something to do with that baby’s eventual appearance.
We maintain the taboo around sexual pleasure to our peril. "Population control" isn’t just about making contraception available. It’s about making love, in all senses of the term. It’s about bringing consciousness into our sex lives – when we do it, with whom, in what way, with what protection. It’s about making sure people have choices, and know enough to make good ones. We mustn’t kid ourselves any longer: if we do not want to reproduce ourselves to death, we must be willing to expose – with joy, as well as sensitivity – the sex at the heart of life.