You surely remember the first time you had sex. You probably remember your first kiss. But do you remember the first time you realised that not everyone had “downstairs bits” that looked like yours? Do you remember ever asking a friend if they wanted to “play doctor,” or exchange glances to divulge what was under the mysterious “swimsuit area?”
We want to think our sex life starts when we finally obtain that goal of losing our virginity, but a lot of people have their first sexual experience much, much earlier. Of course, for most of us, this doesn’t mean having penetrative sex. Instead, there was a series of small actions and curiosities where we learned about sex and our own sexuality, either by ourselves or with trusted friends.
These experiences help define our sexuality, our interests, our shame and our hang-ups about sex, but we rarely recognise, much less speak openly about them. Unfortunately, anything that even smells like the combination of ‘underage’ and ‘sex’ inevitably ends up spiralling down into a pit of taboo that no one will get close to.
Even if the experience is about us, back then.
These stories deserve to be told because they can be revealing gateways into our own sexuality, because they help eliminate the feeling of singularity (I always thought I was the only one to do that), but also because often, they are funny, endearing or interesting.
To give these stories a home, I have been interviewing people from all over the world about their earliest sexual memories and posting the stories on a site called Stumbling on Sexuality.
One of the first and most surprising things I learned from this project was that a lot of people feel weird, ashamed or even dirty about what they did as kids. We don’t talk about these early, experimental experiences and as adults, we look at children and assume they have no sexual thoughts or inclinations. The next obvious conclusion then for many people is that they must be the only person to ever have engaged in experimentation like this.
Spoiler: most of these experiences were not particularly unique and most of them were nowhere near as bad as people thought they were. After all, it’s much easier to build up our own embarrassments and shame and make it into something more devious or appalling than it really is.
Another thing is that, in many cases, these stories have never been told before to anyone, and often, the events themselves have not been re-examined with adult eyes.
It is common to go from "I don't think I have anything to say," to "well, now that I think about it…" to having recounted an hour or two worth of experiences.
Some of the stories are cute and innocent, like Jane’s: “At night my mom would tuck me into bed with my big blue teddy bear and I would pull down my pants and just lie there with the teddy bear in my crotch and the covers on top of me, hoping my mom wouldn’t come in.”
Some of these experiences are obvious childhood misinterpretations of the world, like Luciano who had a friend whose brother showed him porn. The friend then came back to school and “told us that something was coming out of the penis and we thought maybe they were peeing on each other. He also told us that sex was incredibly painful because of the faces that the people were making. No one could really grasp why you would want to do any of this, it all just seemed terrible. I didn’t want to pee on someone and I didn’t want it to hurt.“
Other stories remind us that children are in fact much more sexual than we would like to think, like Lenny, who at five years old: “had one of the neighbourhood boys over and we started playing Truth or Dare. It started normally enough but it moved into “I dare you to touch me here,” or “I dare you to do this with your mouth,” which eventually turned into, “I dare you to touch my penis with your mouth,” or “I dare you to touch my butt hole with your mouth.”
Some of these childhood experiences also show a lot about the kinds of people that we become as adults and the kinds of things we enjoy. Ashley, for example, “came up with the art of dildo making. I stuffed toilet paper in a finished toilet paper roll and then taped it. The amount of toilet paper in the middle of the roll would determine how soft or sturdy it was. If I wanted them thicker, I would alternate wrapping toilet paper, tape, toilet paper, tape and so on around the outside of the roll. I also made the base of it wider so I never lost one. It was very obvious to me that you wanted a base on it. It just makes so much sense. It’s literally a sculpting activity, it’s like arts and crafts for dildos.” With this level of creativity in practice, it’s no wonder she became an engineer.
The more that we share and talk about these stories, the more we can realise about our own sexuality and the more we can understand the important role of how we came to learn about sex. If you feel weird or are ashamed of some of the things that you did as a kid, try talking to some of your friends about their experiences or read some of the stories on the website. Hopefully they will help you realise that whatever you did, it’s normal and totally OK.
Did you rub or grind on the sofa or on a favourite stuffed animal?
Did you get some neighbourhood friends to do things like “play doctor,” or unlock the mystery of what in the world the other gender has going on under their pants?
As long as it was consensual exploration between two or more children (this means no power dynamics where one party was significantly older or in charge) and no one got hurt, emotionally or physically, that’s normal. (Actually, it is also normal to get somewhat hurt, but let's not go there).
Or, if you made it up to puberty without being interested at all in sex at all, that’s also normal.
We need to take the sex positive attitude we now cherish about how everything, as long as it’s safe, sane and consensual is OK and apply it to our younger selves and cut ourselves some slack, because our curiosity didn't start at a specific legal age.
Shauna is a sex nerd and writer in Berlin. When not grilling people about their childhood, she is either teaching circus arts or hiding in a blanket fort with a big cup of coffee.