Do Tell: Letters, Texts and Sleepovers

09/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A recent headline of the New York Times Sunday Styles section caught my eye. "When the Cellphone Teaches Sex Education," it said. It may be a reflexive reaction for people of my generation, proudly claiming the '60s as our credentials, to scoff at yet another example of texting, twittering, and other subjects secretly beyond our everyday comprehension. But who wouldn't argue that the texting written about in the Times is a good thing? The Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina has launched the Birds and Bees Text Line directed at 14-19 year olds. Kids can text their questions, no holds barred, to one of the trained responders on duty, and answers are texted back quickly, just like the kids are used to. Texting, by definition, requires the answers to be short and direct. Impressed with the success of such a simple and effective idea, I read on approvingly but didn't get emotionally hooked until the end of the article when one of the responders told of receiving a text one evening with the question "If I was raped when I was little and just had sex was it technically my first time when I was raped or when I recently had sex?"

Not long ago I got together with a dear friend of mine from college theatre days. He was facing cancer surgery and we had a good talk about my own dramatic cancer experience as told in my book, Silver Platter Girl. As he spoke about how everyone in his life would be kept in the loop as to his progress by e-mail, it made me wonder how different my bone marrow transplant "transformation" would have been if I could have had a computer in my sterile room with access to e-mail and everyone in my address book. Instead, I wrote letters in longhand to those closest to me, asked the nurses to assist in finding a stamp and mailing the letters, and waited hopefully each day for the mail to be delivered. Such old-fashioned letters rarely bothered with the minutiae of a typical electronic transmission but instead were more focused on feelings and hopes and things that came straight from the heart. Those precious declarations, in my situation, were a lifeline to be treasured and held and touched, read and reread. Many of them are quoted in my book as the perfect reflection of those difficult and emotional times, now a stack of envelopes with faded postmarks, some so precious they are held in my small safe in a zip lock bag. Might I have been so busy e-mailing and texting my latest blood test results to everyone, and reading all the good wishes dashed off on work computers, that I would not have taken the time to contemplate the bigger issues that became the foundation of my healing?

Kids today have extensive electronic access to each other. When I was an adolescent, I lived abroad with my Air Force family in Turkey. We had no telephone, no television, no English radio, and often no electricity (I remember writing my report on Clara Barton by candlelight during a routine power outage). If I wanted to see my best friend, I walked to her house and hoped she would be there. Our sleepovers afforded the supreme luxury of unlimited access to each other as we spent hours in bed after lights out discussing anything and everything that mattered to 12-year-old girls while giving "turns" with a plastic back scratcher deep into the night. Our relationship was built face-to-face, sharing everything, knowing every expression and thought. Just as I wouldn't give up coming of age with the Beatles for anything, I wouldn't give up those late nights in Turkey with my friend, Judy, either. We were so tender and I can't help but believe that introducing electronic media to the coming of age process may toughen it up a little. Maybe that is a good thing in this day and age. But tender was a trust, an intimacy you shared with a friend, not a thought that may end up on the Internet someday.

I wonder how my family life may have changed if my sexually obsessed father would have had a computer to satisfy some of his hefty sexual needs. I do know that when my father was an old man, one of my sons reported that he saw pornography on his computer. But I saw pornography on my son's computer also. Seems it's pretty common. I also can't help but wonder how my life would have changed if I could have used the Birds and Bees Text Line to ask about the things that were going on in my home. Instead I asked my mom to help, but she didn't.

Let's not make the mistake our parents made and resist the social change that each generation calls their own. Communication technology is here to stay and fighting it, complaining about it, and refusing to acknowledge its social importance to our children is simply foolish. I text my kids every day and believe it or not, they text back. I promise you that this Silver Platter Girl will find her electronic place in the world. Anywhere a young girl wants to know whether her first time was when she was raped or when she chose to have consensual sex for the first time is where I'll be. Just in case she needs my story to help tell her own.

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