Real Talk With My Mother About Sex
My mother was the third person I called after my first sexual experience.
Friends are often surprised by this fact, but I felt obligated. I don't think I've gone more than 30 hours without speaking to her since birth, and it was too huge of an event for me not to tell her. When she picked up, I said, "Mommy, I have to tell you something." There was no response from the other end of the line. Then, in a low voice, she said, "You had sex?"
I was amazed. To this day, when I ask her how she knew what I was calling about, she just says, "Because I'm your mother."
Rebecca, now 66 years old, has always had this freaky, sentient way about her. My respect for these abilities has made our relationship a pretty open and honest one. So when I asked her to sit down with me to talk about sex, pleasure and her experience developing her sense of sexual self as a West African woman born in the '50s, I knew we were both in for a ride.
Rachel Godfrey: So, Mommy, how would you define sex and pleasure?
Rebecca: Sex is an activity you enjoy with yourself or with someone else, someone you care about. And pleasure consists of things that make you feel satisfied, or just make you feel good.
Do you feel like it always has to be with someone you care about?
Yes. [Laughs] For me, it can't just be with anybody.
How old were you the first time you had sex?
I was 16 1/2, almost 17 years old.
So you remember remember?
Oh yeah, I remember. When I was growing up, if someone liked you, they had to write a letter to your parents saying they liked you. Boys would wait until your boobs started growing in, and then they would start writing their letters. So [the guy] wrote one around the time I was 14, and we started dating. It wasn't until more than two years later that we had sex.
When we started talking, I always wanted to walk him halfway [to his house]. My grandfather would be walking right behind us with his hands crossed behind his back. He didn't play about his girls. I told you about the time he chased that one man with a cutlass.
Two years?! Was your grandfather on watch for that long?
Yep. It wasn't until my grandfather died that we had sex. That boy couldn't wait for us to bury my grandfather. [Laughs] He started talking about having sex the day after the funeral. But I kept on saying no. I don't know if I knew anything about real love or anything like that, but he was good and kind, very respectful, and everyone in my family liked him. I was always looking for their approval.
So did you ever talk about sex with your grandparents?
Absolutely not. We did not do that. You would get a slap across the face.
Even if you just had a question?
Yep. You could not ask those kinds of questions, or else everyone would start calling you "loose." "Foolish girl," that's what African people would call you. I don't even blame them—they did what they knew. I remember when I went for my first mammogram and the [nurse and doctor] started asking me all of these questions like, "When did your mother see her first period?" I was shocked. We discussed nothing like that. All they did tell us was not to have sex or else we would get pregnant.
Those were the only options? Presented to you from both of them?
My grandmother didn't do too much talking, but our grandfather was the tough one.
So who did you talk to when you had questions?
We never even thought to talk to anyone. I didn't talk to my friends, or siblings, because I was so afraid of being put into a category. The only person you would talk to about it would be the person you were seeing or having sex with.
Did that stay the same as you got older?
Yeah. When I started having kids, that's when I felt I could talk about sex more. Because no matter how old I got, or how gray my hair got, everyone still thought I was a child. All that adult adult adult business here [in America]? They didn't see it that way.
I still wasn't really talking about it with just anyone. You know, [your eldest brother's dad], he was experienced. He knew a lot. And he always made me feel comfortable, and never tried to do anything I didn't want him to do. Your dad, too.
Did you ever look to the internet for questions you had, once you were older?
Not until I got to America. And it would only be if I was experiencing a weird pain or something. But I really did get all of my knowledge from [your eldest brother's dad], and your dad added in his own info. [Laughs] They were my search machines.
So you learned primarily through experience and conversation. Would you feel comfortable sharing what you learned you like, and things you learned you didn't like?
Rachel, what?! You're too much.
Just one example, please. [Laughs]
I knew I didn't like anyone rushing on me. You gotta take it slow. [Laughs] We're not fighting a war. And in terms of what I did like…oh my god, Rachel…I really like foreplay.
Mommy, I didn't even know you knew the word "foreplay." I did not think it was in your vocabulary.
It absolutely is.
So you were always comfortable voicing the things you did and didn't like? Or did you have to work up the confidence?
I was comfortable speaking up for myself from the beginning. I think it was easy for me because [my partners] were always determined to please me.
I imagine you don't want to discuss this stuff.
Absolutely not. All you need to know is I was happy to learn.
Were there any differences in how you talked to Redmond and Rene (my brothers) about sex, versus how you talked about it with me?
Absolutely. You know Rene. I can't even discuss men talking to me in front of him, or else it's, "Mommy, that's enough, that's enough." And with Redmond, he'd come to ask me questions, because your dad was your dad. And I told your dad that his sons should feel more comfortable coming to him to talk about these kinds of things and he would say, "You think he would ask you these kinds of questions if we were back home [in Liberia]?"
With me, I remember you randomly being like, "When you wanna have sex, tell me so we can talk about birth control." And the time I told you I wasn't going to date until I was 28 and you told me I would need to buy sex toys in the meantime. [Laughs]
There was also the time I told you, "Don't let anyone fool you and [say] if you get on top, you won't get pregnant." And you asked me if I was speaking from experience. [Laughs] And I was.
I feel like I've been semi-open with you about my experiences with casual sex and my weird journey stepping into my sexuality. I know you were initially uncomfortable with it—how did you come to accept our differing views on sex? Like, sex before "love."
Well, when I realized you loved yourself enough to make the right decisions about your sexual life, it was easy. You've always been responsible. And I know I can only support you, not dictate what you do.
You've been a single woman for some years now, with a lot of (kinda creepy) horny suitors! And (to my knowledge) you've turned them all down. Is sex something you're officially over, or are you waiting for a more suitable partner to come around?
I'm waiting for someone suitable and respectful. Someone who's trying to get to know me for me [and] who isn't looking to be rewarded for doing so. I don't like that. I know I'm in my 60s, but I still think about sex.
Have you ever thought about sex toys?
I had an old one from your daddy's days.
What….Which…Okay! Well, we should get you a new one.
[Laughs] Rachel, you are too much.
Okay, last question. What advice would you give to younger people who are still developing their relationships to sex and pleasure?
Don't be afraid to explore different things. You're all so lucky now, you can just get on the computer and find anything. Use that. Last, sit down and really think about what you want before you head into anything. Don't rush. Take your time with learning.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.