In my 1950s teenage years, my family moved often, causing me to miss The Human Body. New York kids got to study it in the second semester of ninth grade biology – after I’d left the state. Pennsylvania’s teens started the year with it, so by the time I arrived, they’d moved on to other topics. By the time we settled in New Jersey, I should have been “in the know” about the basics of bodies, both his and hers, but did not.
\I may not have missed much. My new friends told me that the teacher had brought out a plastic model of a female body, sliced in half, and showed them how to insert a tampon “up there” – the word we girls used in the 50s. Unfortunately, not comparable male body was displayed, whole or sliced, nor did the instructor explain how male and female bodies interact with each other.
So I remained uninformed, especially about male private parts. At home, we were a family of females – my mother and three girls –plus my Dad, who kept his clothes on. Well, I once walked in on him in the bathroom but speedily backed out and blocked out – the equivalent of the Victorian faint – whatever I had seen, so that I knew no more about the male body after that moment than I had before.
Necking in high school gave me clues, like that boys break into a sweat and squirm mightily after a few minutes of kissing. In my diary, I wrote about my own responses with generalized vagueness. “I got emotional,” I told Diary Dear, and “I melted when he kissed me,” avoiding via metaphor any recognition of my own capacity for orgasm.
My mother tried to help. Once, I came home red-faced from necking with my boyfriend. The next day she proffered this advice: If a boy ever tried to do anything to you that you don’t want him to do, tell him to take a cold shower.” I had no idea what she was talking about.
At college, I studied Art History. From the darkened lecture hall, we watched slides of Italian Renaissance art, including Michelangelos’s David. I admired his magnificent hands but somehow missed observing his other equally impressive parts. In my Junior year, when I finally saw a man up close and in the flesh, I was startled. By then, knew about the penis, but I wasn’t prepared for what dangled beneath.
Not that I understood the female body any better. I could be one of the few young women of my era (who knows? – we avoided explicit sex talk back then) who did not explore my body: or, to be post-50s frank, masturbated. I would have been shocked at the idea that 20 years later, in the feminist 70s, women would gather with specula and mirrors to examine and celebrate “our bodies, ourselves.”
I even sidestepped the opportunity that tampons gave me, inserting the gadget so deftly that my interior anatomy remained unexplored. A few years later, when I married and bought a diaphragm, I squeezed it, pushed it in, and withdrew my fingers so quickly that I failed to even check exactly where the device had ensconced itself.
Which is why, two children later, I decided I had cancer “down there.” That year, we were living in Paris and considered ourselves cosmopolitan. One day, my hand somehow – I suspect by accident –came in contact with the inside of my – by now I can say it – vagina. I panicked. I called my husband at work and told him I’d discovered a tumor. He too panicked, sped home, left the kids at the neighbor’s, and drove me through several Parisian arrondisements, seeking a doctor willing to operate immediately. We tried three medical centers before we found one willing to treat the American toute suite.
The doctor, being French, was dignified in speech and demeanor. He examined what I knew to be my tumor-ridden insides. He told me to get dressed. He asked me to sit down across from him. No expression crossed his face. He spoke to me in a calm voice. “What you have is not cancer,’ he said. “What you felt, madame, is your cervix. It belongs there.”