Saturday, March 8, 2008

Regrets Only?

So I'm still reading The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta. The protagonist I mentioned a few days ago – Ruth, the sex ed teacher – gets sent to a remedial class on abstinence because she's failed to toe the district's hard line on demonizing sex. She and her three fellow miscreants are given the assignment of writing a short in-class essay entitled "A Sexual Encounter I Regret."

At first I was afraid Perrotta was going to let Ruth subject herself to slut-shaming:
It wasn't that she was stumped for something to write about. Like anyone else her age, Ruth had committed her share of youthful and not-so-youthful indiscretions. There were a couple of tipsy one-nighters in college she would have taken back if she could, as well as an ill-considered fling with a married, much older grad-school professor that had fizzled after a lackluster session on his office couch.
While Ruth is still trying to decide what to say, her classmates begin reading their essays aloud. The lesbian names heterosexual sex on her prom night as truly regrettable because she said yes only in hopes of proving herself "normal." Another woman describes seducing her best friend's fiancé. The only man in the group, a gym teacher slouching toward retirement, starts to rhapsodize about "fourteen-year-olds who look like they're twenty" but is cut off by their teacher, a thirtyish professional virgin who favors a seductive Barbie-doll look.

When it's finally Ruth's turn, she doesn't recount any of her ancient "mistakes," nor does she divulge that her biggest regret is the sex she had with her ex-husband. Instead she calls out the instructor for trying to shame her students:
"It would be all too easy to pick one of these errors and tell you what I should have done differently, and how much better my life would be if I'd been mature and responsible enough not to have made it. But I'm not sure I believe that. I think it would be more accurate to say that we are our mistakes, or at least that they're an essential part of our identities. When we disavow our mistakes, aren't we also disavowing ourselves, saying that we wish we were someone else?

"I'm halfway through my life, and as far as I can tell, the real lesson of the past isn't that I made some mistakes, it's that I didn't make nearly enough of them."
This resonated with me because I've never felt any real regrets about my occasionally checkered past. (Then again, I never slept with any of my grad school professors.) I've sometimes thought I might be a little bit shallow on this count. It's not as if I never hurt anyone, or never got hurt myself. But it always seemed like my misadventures in mating made me slightly wiser each time; at least I didn't repeat the same mistakes over and over and over. I've tried to reflect on them and learn from them. I didn't set out to deliberately hurt my partners. Like Ruth, I think all of my experiences have made me who I am today. And also like her, the few real regrets I have about past love affairs are all about words unspoken, chances not taken.

Ruth set me wondering, though, what would I consider my biggest sexual mistake, even if I'd stop short of calling it regrettable. (TMI alert! Stop reading now if you don't want to hear a PG-13 story about me that includes one unsavory medical detail. Hmm, I bet I just ensured that you'll read this post in its entirety. Well, you've been warned.)

I'd have to say it was a guy I briefly dated my senior year of college while my boyfriend was studying abroad and we'd agreed to see other people. I met this man while we were both playing French horn in an orchestra for a formal ball. We were mostly performing Strauss waltzes, so musically it was pretty dull for the horn players, leaving plenty of time for minds and bodies to wander off topic. In between sets, he asked me to dance to the jazz band that was switching off with the orchestra. He wasn't a bad dancer, and what with the heady music, a couple glasses of wine, and the elegant atmosphere, I gladly said yes when he offered to walk me home.

I tend to think that a man who can dance will have some satisfying moves in other realms, as well. (The reverse is by no means true – a great mercy, considering how many men are lousy or reluctant dancers.) This guy turned out to be the exception that proved the rule. The sex was just plain awful. Awkward, clumsy, no chemistry. This in itself was not the mistake. Young though I was, I knew better than to expect instant ecstasy with a new partner. Which may be one reason that I said yes to the next date, and to the one after, hoping we might click after all. Also, I was mildly dazzled by the fact that he was several years older than I and very, very smart, a Ph.D. student in particle physics. (I'd just gotten my one and only C – in first-quarter college physics – so this impressed me unduly.)

No, the mistake came when I saw him a couple more times even after I'd visited the student health center with some painful blisters. I didn't have an STI, which was just dumb luck because like most young heterosexuals in the mid-1980s, I was in full denial of the new risks that were emerging. What I had, the doctor said, was friction blisters. This gives you some idea exactly how clueless this guy was in bed. But I bore some responsibility, too, because I let it happen without speaking up, even though in the heat of the moment it was evident to me that there wasn't, well, quite enough heat. Despite all the friction. Or maybe because of it.

Soon thereafter, I slammed on the brakes when he called me on the phone and accused me of snubbing him. He claimed he'd said hi to me while I was playing Frisbee near the student union, but I'd ignored him. I retorted that I didn't play Frisbee, which is true to this very day; I'm way too much of a klutz. Besides, I'd been in class. He insisted loudly that it had to have been me, that this mythical woman even walked like me. I concluded he was just as clueless outside of bed, not to mention borderline mentally unbalanced, and so I bade him adieu.

But that wasn't quite the end. Three years later I left for grad school on the other coast – and guess who I promptly run into, now working on a post-doc. I guess I should've screened out history grad programs at colleges with particle accelerators. Anyway, I was floored when he called to ask me out. What part of "no" had he not understood? He was starting to strike me as slightly stalker-ish, or at least what my students fondly call a creeper. I was uncharacteristically blunt in turning him down. He didn't call more than twice, but I had an uneasy feeling for weeks.

In retrospect, I don't think he posed any danger to me. I think he was just deeply self-absorbed. It's not just that he was utterly insensitive in bed; worse, he seemed to have an idealized image of me that only tangentially and coincidentally overlapped with the actual me. So if I hurt him – and I know I did – it was inevitable. I could never have been everything that he projected onto me. Stringing him along would've been cowardly and cruel.

Why no regrets? Well, at a minimum I learned to speak up for myself, to be as assertive in sex as I already was in the rest of my life. I learned to protect my boundaries and not stay in a situation that felt unsafe. And I'm happy to say that the only blisters I've had since 1985 were on my hands – the result of digging in the garden.

What about you? How would you respond to the assignment Ruth was given? And do you think people are ethically impaired if they reach mid-life and still sing "je ne regret rien"?

Photo by Flickr user jeco, used under a Creative Commons agreement.


Anonymous said...

I've always been more concerned with regretting NOT doing something, than regretting something that I DID do. I would hate to reach the end of my life, and regret not trying something, when this may be the only chance I get at it.

SunflowerP said...

A fine opportunity to say, hi, I've recently taken to reading you regularly (having found you via Figleaf's, as you most likely could guess).

I think I agree about not feeling regret per se - all my experiences are part of shaping who I am, and I don't regret who I am. I can think of instances in which I regret how I did something sexual, and instances that turned out to be hardly worth the bother of taking my clothes off (but I can't know that until I try!), but none in which I actually regret the doing.

OTOH (related to Clevergirl's point), there are things I regret not doing.


Sugarmag said...

Hey Sungold, I definitely have some regrets but I also tend to view mistakes as learning experiences. I regret the first time I had sex at 14, it was pretty horrible. The guy was a lot older than me (20?) and I am not sure if it was rape or not. Weird that I'm not sure, don't really want to talk about it, don't know why I brought it up. Then I had sex with a couple of other guys (not at the same time) around that age. Oh and around that age, I had sex with my best friend's boyfriend, that was a pretty shitty thing to do and I definitely regret that. I was way too young to be having sex and I think that is really different from being in college and making a sexual mistake.

Would better sex ed have helped? I don't know maybe. I like Scarleteen's checklist for readiness to have sex, but I don't know if I would have listened or taken it seriously if I had a resource like that. I wish that I had waited until I was older but there are some hard lessons in life that a person has to learn for herself. You know, there are so many ways that I want to spare my children pain, want to teach them what I know from my own experience, but some things a person has to learn on her own.

Funny how sex and drugs are taught at around the same time in health class. I guess they are "things you might think are fun but can kill you." I remember thinking as a teenager how misleading and ineffective drug education is when I was in high school. For one thing, they treat all drug use as the same, as something terribly bad that can cause disastrous results, and so if for example a person smokes a little pot and finds that it was fun and now they are fine, suddenly everything they have heard about other drugs seems meaningless. Pot was fun and nothing happened? I think I'll snort some coke next. It is hard to sort out what the real dangers are when the dangers are so exaggerated, you know? I think that the DARE program shares similar statistics with abstinence only programs. DARE stands for Drugs Are Really Excellent.

Back to sex at 14, I wish someone had told me that having sex doesn't really mean anything. I wish someone had said that just because a guy wants to have sex with you does not mean he loves you (or even likes you) and if you have sex, it does not mean the guy is your boyfriend., stuff like that. It took me a while to learn that. I don;t know if I would have listened, though. I think that education about healthy relationships is needed as part of comprehensive sex education.

Sungold said...

Clevergirl, I agree. I wonder how much religious belief enters into this? Are people who are sure of an afterlife less likely to worry about regretting things undone? My own notion of an afterlife (if one exists at all; I'm skeptical) is that it wouldn't necessarily hold the same sorts of pleasures as the present one.

Sunflower, I'm glad you're here. I checked out your blog a few days ago and am eager to see where your series of posts on feminism will lead. You always have interesting things to say at figleaf's. And you're so right - we can't know what'll be worth our while, in sex or in life generally, unless we try.

Sugar Mag, your story is just too common. And at the same time, it's your story, so only you get to decide what it means. If the guy was 20 and you were only 14, he broke the law. It was statutory rape even if it wasn't rape by other standards (and it may have been that, too). Plus it's just deeply creepy for a nominal adult (20) to get involved with a child (14).

Sex ed can't do everything. But if it helped girls not just learn to manage the risks of sex but also to clarify what they really want, more girls might be willing to wait until they're slightly older. Even a year's additional maturity makes such a difference. I was a few days short of 19 when I first had sex, and that was just about right. I was still pretty clueless, but I knew I was doing it because I wanted to, not to please someone else or to be cool or whatever.

Sugarmag said...

I like the way you said that sex ed can't do everything, but "if it helped girls not just learn to manage the risks of sex but also to clarify what they really want, more girls might be willing to wait until they're slightly older." I think so, yes, and for boys, too. Also, I sure hope my kids are older than I was. 19 is a good age. Now that it has been 20 years, it's hard to relate to myself at that age and I would rather just forget about it but since I have kids, I do need to sort it out on some level. Makes me tired just thinking about it.

Sungold said...

Luckily, you've got time to figure this out, Sugar Mag. Your kids are a bit younger than mine, I think. (Mine are 8 and 4. The Tiger did ask the other day about where babies come from, though.)