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Something to Talk About

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

Thomas Keith


One of the features of being young, or more broadly being inexperienced, is that you don’t know what you don’t know. And for children I believe this is mostly a blessing. The ability to believe in Santa Claus for example is wonderful and sacred—a fleeting gift. As childhood gives way to adolescence and then puberty, these unknown things become like invisible walls in a Wiley Coyote cartoon. Flat, impenetrable, perfectly camouflaged surfaces just waiting to be crashed into at full speed. It can be as simple as not knowing that you’re wearing a Nickleback t-shirt the day after they became the most embarrassing band to genuinely care for in the English speaking world (which I haven’t done). Or as nuanced as being on a public school bus describing getting a hand job as being fingered because you don’t understand the lingo and being loudly and mercilessly ridiculed for what feels 10,000 years (which I have).

As with many mistakes I’ve made in my life, I have replicated the error of exposing my sexual naiveté at the worst moments possible. Most often and most excruciatingly painfully revealing it to the people with whom I was intimate. More on that later.

I found out the definition of sex because I was a curious nine year old who kept seeing ads telling me to avoid something. I demanded my mother explain to me exactly what the hell was so desirable that I had to be told to stay away before I was old enough to know what it was. And this in a nutshell is the problem. We do this in reverse. We don’t learn to drive by going 60 miles per hour on the highway in live traffic. We hire people to walk us through it procedurally and situationally. And yet when it comes to the very practice that sustains human life we are left to play it by ear.

Sexual Education

There is an especially detectable scent of sexuality in so many things in life. Particularly in pop culture, advertising, television, music and movies—those mediums that are especially influential to children and adolescents. Long before the public school system decided I was ready to learn the definition of intercourse, I watched thousands of hours of content that danced around sex. TV husbands sleeping on the couch because they screwed up, Lucy and Ricky on Nick at Nite sleeping in separate twin beds, teen dramas where the bad boy tries to pressure the girl into doing...something, and is rebuffed or she is rescued. There is, I imagine, a formula to this. An allowable amount of suggestion meant to be perceived by parents and go over the heads of kids. And I assure you that this formula has never worked.

What message are all these allusions to sex sending impressionable young viewers? How many times do you have to see Tim Allen sleeping on the couch because he does something that upsets his wife before kids start to think sex is a reward for men that women withhold when they’re bad? If I may be so blunt, that is one toxic ass message. I remember an episode of Full House where DJ falls asleep at her boyfriend’s apartment and a rescue mission ensues that would make you think she was kidnapped by the Taliban. How many scenes like that before young kids start to think sex is a terrifying thing that they should be afraid of? And these shows are specifically designed to be PG rated family entertainment. I don’t have enough time to list the teen movies that send destructive sexual messages. Go check out 90’s classic Whatever it Takes which ends with the mean, hot, popular girl being, how do I say this...raped by a guy who walks into her dark hotel room—and you’re absolutely supposed to think that’s funny. The other villain of the movie, James Franco, is tied to a bed naked and left there for the whole world to see in an early instance of live action revenge porn that again you are supposed to think is justified and humorous. Actually, I take it back—don’t watch that movie.

If it seems like I’m being harsh on entertainment sources whose job isn’t to teach me about sex, let me pivot to my actual public school provided sexual education and thank them for absolutely fucking nothing. If you’re teaching kids what sex is and the words clitoral stimulation are never said in class by you, you’ve failed. And there are a million other words; ongoing consent, power dynamics, orgasm, that were distinctly and detrimentally absent. We got to watch great movies like the timeless, Am I Normal? One of the many memorable scenes in that film features our protagonist, an average white 14 year old, asking the librarian if she could direct him to the books on the male penis. How do the adults who put this movie on in their classrooms not see this as an incredible indictment of what they are not doing? This poor pubescent bastard is left so alone to learn about his own burgeoning sexuality he has to ask the fucking librarian for books on the male penis. And you have left us so alone that we are watching a video of this poor dumb fuck asking this question. The only useful things I learned in health class was how to put a condom on a banana (which troubled me for other reasons) and that herpes was bad. The rest of sex remained a hopeless unsolvable mystery.

The One That Got Away

Charlie Martell—God even her name still stirs something in me. That isn’t her real name of course, but I get the feeling all the same. We met on Tinder several years ago and dated for about two months from Thanksgiving until the middle of January. She was dark and deep. Totally composed with a little southern twang that came out when she drank one Shiner Bock too many. Her hair was almost black and her eyes were brown, but bright with flecks of hazel. She had a very cool job in the DC media and was incredibly bright, sharp, and ambitious.

For our first date we agreed to meet at a pizza place on 18th street in the heart of Adams Morgan which is a very vibrant, loud, boozy neighborhood. I can still remember the chill that was in the air, the murals on the buildings, everything felt alive that night. We probably spent two hours at dinner, which was encouraging. When we were done and found ourselves on the street I didn’t want the night to end. I asked if she wanted to get a nightcap, there was a bar across the street called Madam’s Organ which was a legendary DC music spot. Any other night of the week I would’ve assumed it was too loud and crowded, but on a Monday it seemed sedate enough that we could have one last drink and keep talking. We went upstairs to the smaller bar and much to my chagrin found it was Karaoke night. I have a sense she and I had exactly mirror image thoughts upon realizing what we were walking into. My thought being oh God why did I have to brag about being a musician and a singer, there’s no way I’m doing this on the first date. And her eyes lit up right away, and with a childish, mischievous look of joy she said something like “So…what are you gonna sing for me?”

After some half assed resistance, I signed up to sing Twist and Shout, maybe hoping I could have a Ferris Bueller moment where pure confidence would carry me through—also it was the shortest song in the book. After singing a version that was much more enthusiastic than actually good I came off the stage and walked back to the table. I told Charlie I wanted to step outside and get some air for a second after that monumental performance. Once I got to the fire escape I realized she was behind me and we had that moment lucky people sometimes get to have. I looked at her. She looked at me. Nothing was said, we didn’t break eye contact and although the look may have lasted a second or two longer than it should have, I understood what was happening and I kissed her. As light rain fell on a cool night, with the city humming a story beneath our feet. It was a magical moment, like we were suspended in time, levitating six inches above the wrought iron platform where we stood. It still evokes a sense of bittersweet euphoria in me even now just thinking about it all these years later.

Once that happened, I was all in. I thought this was the charmed relationship I’d been dying for. We had incredible personal chemistry. I found everything about her appealing including the fact that sex meant something to her a way that might seem old fashioned to average millennials dating on Tinder. It felt old fashioned in the moment even to me, but in an irresistible way. I’d walk her home to her place near Capitol Hill and we’d make out on the front steps of her building and I’d make half-hearted pleas to come upstairs which I knew was almost certainly not happening yet. It was intoxicating, the cat and mouse game, the anticipation. She went home for Christmas and one Saturday night I get a text from her late, she’d been out with some buddies from high school and I imagine they had quite a few drinks based on the uncharacteristic spelling and grammar lapses. The messages were cute and flirty and lead me to a realization.--This woman is in a place that has nothing to do with me, nothing there should remind her of me; we haven’t been dating that long and she’s drunk texting me. She’s lying in bed a thousand miles away thinking about me. And as someone who has often struggled with confidence and self-esteem, I’m not embarrassed to say how incredible that made me feel at the time.

One night we were on a DC Metro bus going from having dinner to a block near her apartment where there were a couple of really good bars. We were talking about movies we loved and the conversation came to her favorite movie Dazed and Confused which I had never seen. The look of utter disgust that came over her face upon learning this was amazing. She took me to task hilariously for having not seen this movie. Did you grow up Amish? Did you not have a single friend or relative with a shred of taste? When we got off the bus she started walking toward her place and not the bars and I said wait a minute what’s the deal? And she said we’re going back to my place and you’re watching this movie. I can’t be walking around with some guy who hasn’t seen Dazed and Confused. It’s bad for my image.

I still don’t feel like I’ve ever seen Dazed and Confused. The whole time the movie played as we lounged together in her bed I could only think about one thing. When the movie ended, we talked about it for a few minutes, and then after a pause in the conversation she kissed me. We looked at each other for a second, and I remember this vividly, she said, “What are you thinking about now?” I said, “I gotta be honest I’m thinking about the two of us having sex.” And she smiled and looked me dead in the eye and I swear to God she said, “Why don’t you do something about it then?” It was another magical, time standing still type of moment for me. Followed immediately by utter panic. I was very sexually inexperienced or at least I assumed I was, having had sex less than ten times total probably at this point in my early/mid 20’s. I didn’t like the way I looked naked. And I really, really liked her.

The sex that occurred was about as satisfying as you’d imagine based on that precursor. All of our interpersonal chemistry did not translate to physical chemistry and I didn’t know a lot of what I know now about the actual process of stimulating your partner. Stuff you only get from experience. I finished more quickly than I wanted to and was really embarrassed. She was very sweet about it in the moment, but you can’t redo that;you can’t un-flip that switch. I assumed she was more experienced than me because I thought everyone was, but who knows maybe she didn’t know what she was doing either. We never talked about it. Because people don’t talk about it. Even people who trust each other enough to be naked and vulnerable together almost never have that conversation. She broke if off the next day with the most well written ‘let’s be friends’ text I have ever read in my life and we haven’t said a word to each other since. But, sometimes I still indulge myself wondering what might have been…


There are a lot of things I wish somebody had taught me about sex, incredibly basic things. And there are a lot of things I learned by osmosis through the culture that I wish I hadn’t. I asked a lot of different people --who told you these things that I hadn’t learned? Who told you that the goal of sex was to satisfy your partner, not just yourself? Who taught you how to do that if traditional means weren’t effective and they all, to a person, had the same answer—Nobody.

I’ve thought a lot about sex trying to write this piece. The spectrum of things it entails and the range of meanings it can have. To some people it’s like playing singles tennis or ball room dancing, if you and your partner have comparable skills and agree on the terms it can be purely recreational and that’s fine. To some people it’s a sacred act, engagement in which comes with entire sets of standards and expectations both emotional and practical. And to a lot of people it can be both those definitions depending on the situation. It’s a defining human act and we are sabotaging our young people by not being more honest with them or at least providing them information necessary to have a chance at a healthy relationship with their own sexuality. We are crippling generations by allowing them to fall into the same traps that we did and our parents did since the dawn of time. How hard is it to say your job as someone’s partner is to get them off? You need to be respectful and intuitive. You need to be able to express what you want in a healthy way. Be considerate of your partner’s insecurity. And above all talk to and listen to each other. Make your partner feel safe enough to tell you what they really want, if they know.

I’m no expert on this. And even if Charlie Martell and I had the best sex of our lives its possible, even likely, we still break up somewhere along the line. I’ll never know. But in my mind the narrative will always be, I met this incredible woman, we had a magical courtship, and then she broke up with me because I didn’t know what I was doing in bed. Even worse,I didn’t know what I was doing and she knew I didn’t know and didn’t have the heart to tell me. And that still stings, even after all these years, wondering if it all could’ve been different.

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