Sunday, September 18, 2011

Birds, bees and babies

When I look into your big brown eyes
It's so very plain to see
That it's time you learned about the facts of life

Starting from A to Z.

Let me tell you 'bout the birds and the bees

And the flowers and the trees

And the moon up above

And a thing called love.

Dean Martin
(Herb Newman, 1964)
The Birds and the Bees

The facts about the birds and the bees is a discovery we probably all remember making for the first time at some stage. For me, I can distinctly recall my parents hauling out the old Where Do I Come From?, presumably prompted by one too many curious questions, to enlighten me to those previously unimagined facts of life. It was an eye-opener for a nine-year-old, for sure.

I have no idea how I'll tackle that particular conversation with my own kids when the time comes, but at the same time, I'm kind of hoping I get the chance before they catch the answers on YouTube or in the schoolyard. In these days of Google knowledge and 50-Cent music videos, it hardly seems quite as secret anymore.

The times, they are a-changing- but they've already changed so incredibly much in the last century that it's sometimes hard to fathom.

My story is set in 1914, and the major plot point revolves around young love, sexual discovery, and the birth of the next generation. Figuring out who knows what about love and sex, how they found it out, what it means to them in the bigger social context of the time, is pretty critical to creating realistic situations and realistic responses.

A couple of months ago, I somehow stumbled into discussing this topic with my grandmother, who was born in 1919, and what she had to say about her understanding of the ways of the world was fascinating.

Growing up through the 1920s, she learned about the birds and the bees through- well, the birds and the bees, and by growing up on a farm where the facts of animal husbandry were well known. But as to human relationships, they just weren't discussed, physical affection was not demonstrated openly in public, and she admitted to being desperately curious about where babies came from. Whenever a cousin or female friend of the family was expecting, she would "disappear" from view for a while, and would eventually reappear with- ta da!- a baby.

How did these things keep turning up? All the kids wanted to know, and went as far as attempting to eavesdrop from behind bushes or under windows, with limited success.

We didn't talk about how she eventually discovered the answers to her burning questions, but it definitely impressed on me that back in the day, whispers and rumours formed the bulk of education; glimpses of scandalous novels most likely providing some further details- far more direct if there was an older and more experienced sibling to advise, or for boys, a whole crew of mentors out in the shearing sheds. Beyond that, I'm sure stolen kisses behind the hayshed and moments of intense connection and sworn devotion at (and after) the local dance were natural steps up the ladder toward full enlightenment.

After the fact, I know my own family's genealogy has a fair few babies born within a couple of months of a wedding date, so the shotguns were out and at the ready where needed. And the Home for Unwed Mothers and the adopting out of fatherless babies was another resort for those for whom full commitment was unobtainable, and single parenthood not an option.

Though not openly discussed in the historical records of the time, this stuff isn't hard to imagine. It's even more interesting to consider the more deeply hidden aspects of sexuality and relationships through these times. Though not the same time period, a friend has just blogged her review of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, which give a fascinating insight into lesbian relationships in the Regency Era- worth reading for an example of the ways in which people did, and even more significantly did not hide their relationships from those around them.

And back in my own era of interest, I was completely flummoxed to find a full pictorial advertisement for the marvellous Dr. Johansen's Auto-Vibrator Massage Appliance on the front page of the country newspaper (click image to enlarge, and check out those optional extras!).

At first, I thought I must be applying my modern sensibilities to understand just what this thing was for. But then I happened across this fascinating article that explains the medical approach to treating "hysteria" in women in that era, and I was hit with the somewhat startling realisation that perhaps the obvious was not so obvious when it comes to what some of my characters might have known about their own budding sexuality.

Either way, it entirely depends on the individual and what they might do with the knowledge available to them- but it's fascinating to ponder all the same.

If you haven't explored this in your own characters yet but you'd like to, the September Exercise at the CompuServe Forum may be useful to you- the main exercise is all about exploring your characters in more detail, but the Erotic Writing folder has a subset of questions about attitudes and history (note- it's a closed section; you have to request access to see it, so if you want to and don't know how, let me know and I'll explain).

Being ever-curious, and with questions yet unanswered, do share- in what era is your story set, and how did your characters find out about the birds and the bees, assuming they have already? Do they have secrets they hide from society, or do they go proudly against the grain?


  1. I read once long ago that the reason Victorian women swooned other than for their stays being too tight was sexual frustration. Many a medical professional provided release procedures.

    As for your own children, they are young still. Start now with open dialogues about anything and everything. Answer honestly appropriate for their age levels. My children are now in their thirties and we still have discussions where nothing is taboo.

    As far as my stories go, they are fairly modern post 1960's so the birds and the bees are not an issue.

  2. I remember when you posted that ad on the Forum. Hysteria, indeed! My wip is set from 2005 to 2008. Unfortunately, my teen character learned all this too early from her mom's live-in boyfriend.

    As for my 50 year old MC, I imagine she learned a lot like I did. I overheard the boys discussing a certain item that men use to stop those unwanted babies with a slang term. I knew it wasn't a proper item for discussion and asked Momma what it was. Her face was a flame, but she calmly told me the whole thing then got me a little pamphlet to read--What Every Girl Should Know. Needless to say, it said, don't do it. ; )

    Thanks for the memories. I can see Laura Grace sort of being grateful for not having to explain it to Samantha.

  3. That Y shaped attachment looks...interesting.

    Have you seen this?

    Ack! Must see that movie.

  4. LOL at that advertisement, Claire! And Kristen, gah, gotta see that movie, indeed!

    It's so very interesting to discover how open, or otherwise, past generations were when it came to sex. One of the books I read when researching my WIP was all about quack doctors, the most jaw-dropping of whom (from our modern perspective, at least) was one Dr James Graham. From the mid to late 1700s, he was London's premier "sexologist", patronised by members of the upper class and royalty who were having troubles conceiving. He treated them in his opulent "Temple of Health", where he offered couples the use of his Celestial Bed - a massive 12 x 9 foot tilting bed with a canopied dome and devices that would play music and release oriental fragrances and gases as the couples activities got going. Ahem. None of this was done discreetly or secretively - the chap was, in fact, the talk of London. There's more about him here
    ... truly fascinating!

  5. This stuff HAS to go in one of our books! :)

  6. LOL, Kristen, absolutely! Hmm, methinks your genre might be the most amenable to it ... but you never know! ;-P

  7. You say that because of the sex, right?


  8. Great post, Claire. Good food-for-thought. Those first/early sexual experiences usually define how a person interacts with the opposite sex throughout their life. (Either for good or for ill.) If you know how your character discovered his/her sexuality it rounds out a character in many ways - both obvious and unseen - because you can be true to their life experiences.

    As for Nathan Rivers, I have a good idea how he discovered sex but haven't thoroughly fleshed *cough, cough* it out. :) I DO know how Carrie learned about the birds and the bees.

  9. Grr, that hysteria thing still gets my goat. Darn men thinking they know what's good for women and pretending they were 'curing' their so-called condition when they were just using them for...
    I *do* find it interesting to consider how these things were known/learned/discussed back in the day. Sometimes I wonder if I'm being anachronistic in my description of, say, Baha and Rosa's wedding night. On the one hand, modern readers don't want to read about completely ignorant naive girls. On the other hand, historical reality decrees that Rosa would likely have been totally clueless on her wedding night.
    On the other hand, being a girl myself, I can understand how she'd act. And how free she feels to express yourself when emotions/hormones take over and she's in the arms of the man she loves and trusts...