The Things I Know about Sex
A prose poem for my daughter by Tina Francis
My daughter, lithe and teenage with her finger on the pulse, has begun trying to fathom what I know about sex. Her expectations are low. But I jump into the waters of advice where they seem most clear: it’s better if you like the person, I say. Which is good advice, unquestionably, in a general way. Just not in Wuthering Heights, which is lying on her bed right now, or in any of those songs that creep out under her door, or any film I’ve recently suggested. Or even, if I’m put on the spot, as advice I’ve followed in remembering special body parts and moves out of no attachment to their owners. What of the mousey man I detested from the start while staggered by his afternoon proficiency, or the girl with the pierced tongue to whom I had nothing more to say? The lovely Buddhist who prod and twisted so hard that liking him counted in the end for nothing? There must be a portable lesson here somewhere; perhaps one about bodies liking what bodies like. But what kind of lesson is that? Certainly no news to a thirteen year-old Instagram queen, sexuality declared in advance as her version of preference pure. If this must be raised to a lesson, listening to one’s body has perhaps less to do with sex than with the importance of hinging the mind generously to its alternates. Whereas in other lexicons we struggle—to say, for instance, I like soft white bread, bad poetry and sleeping late—speaking of sex allows the utterance: oh that, that was good, that was good, even when the claim makes no larger sense whatsoever. Here is the body as a thing to be reckoned with, the recalcitrance and non-complicity of the flesh gift-wrapped by a long history, so finely that we might even take it along to a gathering of the politically incorrect. Or choose to leave it behind. Lesson two falls just as quickly into pieces; sex should be, I say, among equals. I am thinking, though: you will hardly need this advice because every institution you enter will explain how not to coerce, to overpower, to use one’s privilege or sobriety to press, say, a body very much younger or drunker than yours against a desk. Especially: how not to be that body. Yes and yet and yet. Almost every spark of courage that has carried me into political gatherings, foreign lands, ancient universities and modern conference halls has come from feeling their natives unexpectedly exposed to me. A basket of things ripe and abundant spread at my feet could not have been more generous than lovers’ minds feeding me a fullness fuller than mine; made more vulnerable to me in the lying down. You will be told: do not sleep with your teachers, or your boss. But how lovely it was, aged seventeen, to switch from the badly tattooed arms of my fumbling peer, into those of my employer, so much my senior than he died before I’d finished loving him. Or to find myself with someone whose books I’d read in awe; to run in my sleep adrift among the pages of her mind. You will be told that being a woman is a thing that allows you to say no, but not how lovely is the coming of the quiet yes with which the most unequal deals are sealed. If there is equality, it comes out of turn; distributed within the circle where one finds oneself with different things to give. I do not say one can live like this: it was sex you asked about. Which leaves honesty. Also good advice: not to lie to those with whom one has sex. And yet, where have I learnt more about dishonesty than from being amongst the coupled ones? Consider the creakiness of the promise, the one described by Hardy as having a strangeness towards which crowds turn a blind eye while friends undertake to love forever as they love now. Hard to deny that sex sets its own expiration date and cannot be promised or easily made anew, and yet we celebrate. And so we have lied: used false names on hotel registers; been caught and said it wasn’t that. Said we wouldn’t and continued, or said we would and found we couldn’t. Could one have done it otherwise? Not if it’s sex you want to know about. It’s somewhere in all that lying it lives, sometimes threatening to give the hue of dishonesty to other things perfectly true in their own lights. The man with whom I drink wine in foreign cities who would gladly leave me with a bottle half full if he was called home: I know and am glad of that truth in which sex can hardly interfere. To your father, I have vowed to tell the truth and found out over time how truth-telling can become just telling; just words after all, barely touching what is true, too much when all is said and done.
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