Rites of Passage: Talking Sex With Dad (in the Ford Taurus)

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RITES OF PASSAGE

You know that scene in “Lady Bird” when Saoirse Ronan throws herself out of a moving vehicle to avoid talking to her mother for another second? That was me, at 14, in the car with my father.

CreditIllustration by Michael DeForge

Before his fingers had reached the volume knob to turn off Steely Dan, I already knew: My bookish and tightly wound father was about to tell me something I did not want to hear.

I was only 14 but could recognize the signs: the ambiguous errand that required us to drive into Chicago from our suburb; the unusually tight grip on the steering wheel; the uncomfortable sigh as he turned off the tape deck (Talking Heads if I was lucky, Bob Seger if I was not); and — more than anything else — the acute sensation that I was going to vomit.

“You know,” he said, his eyes mercifully fixed on the road. “When I was your age, the nuns told us that mas-tur-ba-tion” — his was so uncomfortable with the word, he almost added an extra syllable — “was a mortal sin.”

My face flushed, my head turned toward the billboard careering past us and I rolled my eyes so hard that the gesture was nearly audible.

“Do you know what that means?” he asked.

“Yes, Dad!” I snapped, hoping that one of us would have an aneurysm.

“I don’t mean mas-tur-ba-tion. I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now,” he continued, as I prayed for the ability to time-travel, like I’d seen in “A Wrinkle in Time.” “I mean ‘mortal sin.’ The nuns were saying that mas-tur-bat-ing was on the same level of sinning as murder.”

“Well, trust me,” my father said, “it didn’t take any of us long to figure out that that wasn’t true.”

You know that scene at the beginning of “Lady Bird” when Saoirse Ronan throws herself out of a moving vehicle to avoid talking to her mother for one second longer? That was me in my teens, convinced that grave bodily injury or death would be preferable to what I was hearing from the passenger seat of the family Ford Taurus station wagon, doled throughout my adolescence.

On puberty: “God gives young men the equipment for sex way before he gives them the knowledge of how to have sex responsibly.”

On pornography: “Hell, Shane, I’m not going to tell you that I never peeked at a Playboy in my day. But if you look at stuff like that, you have to remember that that woman isn’t a thing, she’s a person.”

On sex and media: “If an alien came down to earth and watched TV for 24 hours straight, they would think that all we did is have sex all day and that it was the most important thing in our lives. Well, let me tell you: It’s not.”

On “It’s Raining Men,” when it came on the radio and I changed the station to avoid seeming gay (which I very much was): “What are you doing? That song’s a classic! Paul Shaffer wrote this!”

I was a fat, closeted teenager who loved musical theater and hated my body, so hearing my father say any of this felt like a violation of the Geneva Conventions. My father — a Catholic baby boomer from Cleveland whose own father wouldn’t let him listen to the Rolling Stones because the music was too risqué — couldn’t have enjoyed these chats any more than I did.

And yet these exercises in mutually assured embarrassment continued for my entire youth. The only thing that stopped them was me moving out of the house.

But it turned out even that couldn’t end them. You can take the teenager out of the Ford Taurus, but you can’t take the unendurable sex talk out of the teenager. Sure, being an ersatz adult meant that I could do all the things my teenage id yearned to do — drink alcohol, take drugs and (try to) have sex — but it didn’t mean that I could forget the ordeals my father put me through on the highways of Chicagoland.

And worst of all: I’m grateful for it.

Twenty years after ye old masturbation lecture, I marvel at how relevant — straight up zeitgeisty! — my father’s advice has proved.

Long before our current understanding of consent and all that it entails, he imparted to me that we need to differentiate between what our libidos signal and what’s right for ourselves and our partners.

My father couldn’t have predicted how pornography would become more widely available and exponentially more explicit than the Playboys he mentioned, but he helped prepare me to consume pornography with a critical eye.

Today I’m one of those queers who can find a narrative about sexuality in anything. But my father’s warning that sex was “not as important as the sitcoms would have us believe” has often reminded me that sex in America is as much marketing as it is a means of pleasure or self-expression.

I begrudgingly thank my father for these excruciating exchanges we shared in the 1990s. Today, when some men seem to confuse physical abuse with consensual role play, when teenagers are consuming pornography at a younger age, and when abstinence-only sex education is getting a renewed push, I look back and realize what a blessing it was to have a father who made me want to crawl out of my own skin every now and then. (Also, I spent pretty much my entire 20s embarrassing him back.)

And you know what? “It’s Raining Men” is a classic and Paul Shaffer did write it.

But I will still never forgive my father for making me listen to Bob Seger.


Shane O’Neill is a video editor for The New York Times.

Rites of Passage is a project of Styles and The Times Gender Initiative. Want to submit an essay? Click here.

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