This originally appeared on Alternet.org. Republished here with permission.
These are a few bits of hard-won wisdom I wouldn’t mind shouting out to my past self.
“Strange things are afoot at the Circle K…”
Points if you recognize that line from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which gave the world many things including a young Keanu Reeves. It also had something I find myself wishing I had more and more now that I’m older (besides Keanu Reeves): Bill and Ted could take their time-traveling phone booth back to the past to give themselves advice for the future.
I’d certainly go back and teach myself about money (“You know your impeccable credit? It’s peccable,”) and work (“Take this ‘Harry Potter’ book, retype it and send it to some agents. See ya on the yacht!”). But I’d probably have a lot more advice to give my younger self about sex…and a few dozen TED talks about love.
Here are a few bits of hard-won wisdom I wouldn’t mind shouting out to my past self.
1. Find out what “happy” looks like.
You know that scene in Fantasia where prehistoric climate change causes the dinosaurs to get horribly stuck in glue-like mud that used to be water? That’s pretty much the impression I had of marriage when I was younger. By the time I got to high school I was perfectly prepared to believe it when I read the Sartre quote “Hell is other people.”
What I didn’t know then was: so is heaven.
If I had Bill and Ted’s phone booth I’d have taken myself on field trips to see happy long-haul couples and listen to what they had to say until I got it, kind of like an immersion in the language of healthy relationships. It would have at least given me another vantage point from which to see the world. It wouldn’t have guaranteed anything: Not everyone moves to the country they study in. But at least they get to see there’s a world beyond their own block.
2. Tell them what you want…what you really, really want.
When sexual chemistry is great it can seem like your partner is a mindreader.
Too often, rather than piping up about something I wanted (more or less commitment, open or closed relationship, never to see his mother again), I didn’t say anything. I didn’t trust the men I loved—even the ones who loved me—to listen with an open mind and still be there tomorrow. That had more to do with me than with them.
These days I’m quick to pipe up and if my interests go over as well as New Coke, at least I tried. It’s still mysterious to me why we find it difficult to share thoughts with the people we share our bodies with.
3. Sex is awkward.
What I knew about sex in my youth came from porn, Hollywood, and Our Bodies, Ourselves, so I was wise in the ways of mechanics, safety, and advanced face-making. But these outlets all offered such staged, serious, choreographed encounters I didn’t know that sex had lots of potential for comedy gold. No one in movies ever kicks their partner in the face trying to master a certain position, slips off a satin sheet, makes embarrassing sounds, scrambles to figure out how to act the next day (do you stay? go? tip?), or mistakes the back door for the front.
Had I known sex had its share of goofy moments it might have had less of a mystique and been just a regular part of life…which it is, or should be. I knew it was fun. I didn’t know it could be funny.
4. Sex makes things sticky.
I’m not talking about the sheets or your body, though if you’re really exuberant you can find yourself wondering how you’re going to get the champagne off the ceiling.
Nope, sex can make things sticky emotionally and you can’t always know that in advance. You might go into it casually and come out attached, which is generally not a good thing and which led to the damaging result of not trusting my own judgement.
What I wish I’d known was that the culprit is chemical. Sex releases oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” which attaches us to the person we had sex with. According to author Susan Kuchinskas, estrogen increases the effects of oxytocin and testosterone blunts it, hence women often becoming more attached to men after sex.
So you just have to be wary of that oxytocin. Also, it’s good to know that bad people can be gotten out of your system. Like tape worms.
5. Two-drink maximum.
Yes, alcohol is helpful with relaxing one’s inhibitions, but sometimes those inhibitions might be trying to tell you something and should be left intact. If I could go back, I’d keep myself to a two-drink maximum if I wasn’t sure of a person.
6. Get a broader sexual education.
When I was a kid in the 1970s, the word “orgasm” was suddenly hot in the media. I asked my mother what it meant. She said “I don’t know.” She might have been trying to dodge an awkward question, but for all I know she was telling the truth. My mother never talked about sex with me voluntarily.
It would have been nice to have a trusted human source of information, not just about the mechanics but exactly what about it is so great that it makes everyone nuts. If I could have brought someone back in my time-traveling phone booth it would have been someone like Al Vernacchio, who teaches the elective Sexuality and Society course at a private Quaker high school in Philadelphia. Vernacchio’s teaching style, profiled in the New York Times by Laurie Abraham, is a far cry from the usual focus on all potential negatives, like STDs. It covers the good things, too, like intimacy and pleasure.
Even as an adult I could use a sexual concierge like this. There should be one available at a kiosk everywhere lingerie, condoms, and liquor are sold.
7. Brains don’t make you immune to hormones.
I was pretty smart and strong when I was young, but sometimes I acted tougher and more worldly than I was. People can sometimes mistake strength and brains for a certain type of invulnerability, and sometimes it’s easy to try to keep up that persona.
No one is so worldly they don’t need to feel loved, or so smart they don’t make bonehead moves in pursuit of that need. Smart people don’t pretend they know everything and the bravest thing you can do sometimes is admit to being vulnerable.
8. Safety first.
One of the most important things I’ve found out over the years is that if someone is worth having sex with, he will not mind talking about safety. If it feels uncomfortable, let me tell you what’s infinitely more uncomfortable: sitting in some dumpy clinic bargaining with whatever god is handy that you don’t have what you think you have.
You’ll never find “Just be lucky!” on any sexual safety tip sheet unless it comes from The Onion. Be smart instead. You’ll sleep better.
9. Sex and money go together.
No, this isn’t the “I shoulda been a gold digger,” chapter, but having money goes a long way to help with every aspect of life and that includes love and sex. Money buys options: If you have financial wiggle room you can have better healthcare, more ways to relax, and the means to get out of bad situations more easily. I once read that “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy happier,” and I believe it. I’ll never forget being dreadfully sick (with what turned out to be stress) and having to borrow money from my BFF to go to my ob-gyn.
As Scarlett O’Hara almost said, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be itchy again.”
10. What I did right.
In writing this list it occurs to me that I might be making my entire love life sound like a confused, overheated, X-rated Three Stooges episode, potholed with broken hearts, bladder infections, and slapstick. Not entirely true.
I did a lot of things right, and if I could go back in time I’d definitely do a “Keep up the good work!” back-slapping, positive reinforcement routine in order to help myself keep doing the right things I was doing, which might have lessened some of the dumb moves. I was often patient, open-minded, a good self-educator, and a doting GF.
Most of all, no matter how far the tornado of love ever threw me, I stuck to my guns about my decision not to have children. I‘d want my younger self to know that years later I’m happy with and proud of that decision. Liz: 1. Hormones: 0.
Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.