I stood in a room of my friends’ home looking at the walls, which were entirely covered with wedding pictures. Obviously, weddings mean a great deal to them. I didn’t know how important until I asked the host, who was standing beside me at the bar, “Is this a special occasion or just a gathering of friends?”
“Oh, since so many of you are asking, I better own up and admit that it’s a party to celebrate our wedding anniversary,” he replied.
This was something the invitation had not noted.
“Is it a special one?” I naturally persisted.
“Yes,” he said, “it is our sixtieth.”
Sixty years of marriage!
“I’ve never been to a sixtieth wedding anniversary party, or known a couple celebrating such a milestone,” I said. “I doubt many here have ever been to such an auspicious occasion, and you weren’t going to tell us?”
“Well,” he said, somewhat sheepishly, “We had decided not to broadcast the event, but then we realized that our four kids are planning to reveal it in a few minutes, so I decided I might as well face up and start answering questions like yours.”
The celebration gave me an interesting glimpse into the wonderful role sexuality has played in the lives of this couple, who have four children, ten grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. The two youngest of the newest generation crawled happily across the rug during the toasts.
The eldest daughter read an original poem, scoring approving nods with lines like, “What stands out the most about this amazing couple/Is their unconditional and undying love for each other/They are confidantes and best friends through thick and thin/Nothing has ever come between either her or him.”
Their son shared reminiscences he thought were at the heart of their long marriage: “Dad always plays 280 rounds of golf a year, but Mom never seems to mind,” and “Dad never takes out the trash, never mows the lawn, and never does the dishes, but neither does Mom.”
Their youngest daughter, her husband, and two children created a DVD. As pictures of some of the great lovers of history flashed across the screen, they sang, “You’re Still the One,” by the rock band Orleans.
The third daughter’s toast is one I want to share in its entirety. Using the letters of “SIXTY,” she described the basic ingredients of her parents’ long and happy marriage:
S . . . is for sexy, sensual, spectacular, significant, sensible, special, safe, satisfying, successful, and secure;
I . . . is for intriguing, intimate, insightful, intellectual, interesting, idyllic, impelling, impermeable;
X . . . of course, could only be for kisses, lots and lots of kisses;
T . . . is for terrific, together, tasteful, tremendous, tender, talkative, teamwork, tenacity, thankful, and thoughtful;
Y . . . is for years and years, yuks (as in the laughs), yams (as in “you are my sweetheart”), yearning, and most importantly, Y is for “it all happened because they said ‘Yes!'”
When I called this daughter to seek permission to include her toast, I mentioned how great it was to hear her start off using “sexy,” since it’s a word usually associated with younger couples. She said “sexy” is a very appropriate word for her parents, “because they have always been so open with us about sex and sexuality.”
“They have always told us that they have sex regularly and enjoy it,” she said, “but in a very natural, open way. They have never made us feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when they speak about it. Not many of my friends could ever envision their parents having sex, but I could with ease.”
“I remember one friend who said the very thought of her parents having sex made her sick to her stomach,” she added.
Our host picked right up on “the S word” when he stepped forward to thank his children. Known around town for his clever wit, he began by saying that although he and his were “getting on,” he thought we’d like to know that they were still “getting it on.” (There was a round of applause.)
He said he was sure that everyone standing there really wanted to know the answer to a very important question: Did he and his wife have sex before they were married, since it was the dominant issue for couples of his era? No one responded. Smiling comfortably, he assured us that they had not had sex before their wedding night.
Suddenly abstinence until marriage – an issue that often ties sex education programs up in knots – was front and center at a cocktail party populated by 70- and 80-year olds.
But I then remembered that our hostess was a great supporter of our local Planned Parenthood, so while she and her husband had practiced abstinence until marriage, she was realistic enough to know that most young people today don’t-and they need sex education and contraception.
(Her longtime support – along with that of millions of other Americans-may have made a difference. The first national research about sex education since 1992 published last week showed that “condom use is becoming the norm for sexually active teenagers.” And teens outpace adults when it comes to practicing safer sex: 80 percent of 14- to 17-year olds had used condoms the last time they had had sex compared to only 25 percent of adults over 50 who are “involved in casual liaisons.”)
When our host finished, his wife came forward. She made no reference to her husband’s comment about abstinence or sex on their wedding night. She just planted a huge kiss on his mouth. Everyone applauded once again.
I left the party thinking that as a nation, we have spent $1.5 billion dollars of taxpayers’ money on wasteful and mostly ineffective, ideologically-based sex education programs trying to persuade a whole generation of young people to act like their grandparents and not “get it on” until their wedding night.
Abstinence-only folks may have missed the boat in their campaign to capture the hearts and minds of American youth. Instead of spending billions on school programs that came up empty, they should have created ads using real people, like our friends, talking about why they abstained, and, more importantly, how to really create a happy, long-lasting marriage.
Susie Wilson, former executive coordinator of the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University’s Center for Applied and Professional Psychology (now renamed Answer), is a national leader in the fight for effective sexuality and HIV/AIDS education and for prevention of adolescent pregnancy. She can be reached at Susie.firstname.lastname@example.org