Once, When We Were Innocent – My Pre-Internet Pursuit of the Forbidden

by |April 29, 2010

Back when I was growing up, in the dark days before the Internet, there were very few ways to learn about sex.

There were, on occasion, a few glimpses of nudie pictures –  usually someone’s older brother’s Playboy. But these pictures were inert and added to the mystery surrounding sex, instead of offering illumination.

As a child of the eighties, I looked to TV for entertainment, for knowledge, for guidance. I shunned all books. In fact, I never noticed any books in my house, though I now know there must have been books, my father being a reader. Who needed books when they had TV? But TV never spoke of sex. At least not directly. Obliquely maybe, cleverly, but I was a boy who had no finer senses. Even as a grown man subtlety is still somewhat baffling.

It was my best friend who first drew my attention to the strange rectangular objects grown ups and dorks read. He was the first to show me that there was a link between books, reading and sex.

His father liked to read big, fat, trashy novels, which he left about the house when they had revealed their secrets and were useless to him. My best friend would have to move these spent entertainments from chairs before sitting, tables before eating and in the bathroom he would have to kick aside an overfull basket of novels to do his business.

It was in the bathroom that he made his discovery.

At twelve my best friend was my confidante, there was very little he did not know about me and little I didn’t know about him. By thirteen, however, there were secrets. One of which was knowledge of what was contained in these books. My best friend did not share his forbidden fruit with me.

Overnight, my best friend became a reader. This felt like a betrayal. Wasn’t TV good enough for him?

Every time I saw him he was reading a new book. I only lived two doors from him so I saw him at least five times a day. Five fat books a day? Boy! that kid could read...

Then I began to notice him using a patronising tone whenever our discussions turned to the subject of girls and sex. We were thirteen, all of our discussions turned to girls and sex. This tone was annoying and would have lead to a complete rupture had not his secret been revealed.

“I know because I read about it!” he said, in the midst of a heated of a dispute about the mechanics of sex.

“You read about it? There is sex in books!?”

To prove his point he had to find the book and the particular passage. We went into his house and wandered from place to place picking up this book and that. Each time he would do the same thing. He’d hold the book in his palm and let the book flop open by itself. He’d scan the open pages and then say, “No, that’s not it.”

Finally, he discovered the passage and showed me. Mamma Mia! My eyes almost popped out of my head. Here, in print were all the words we were told were forbidden. Here, in words, were all of the acts we were told were forbidden. The rudest, filthiest practices known to mankind were between the covers of these seemingly innocuous objects.

And my best friend’s father left them around the house for the whole world to see!

There was a book called The Godfather, another called Shogun, and books by James A. Michener, Wilbur Smith, Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robbins and on and on and on. Some opened easily on the pertinent passages, some hid their lessons deep within pages of boring clap-trap, and some made you feel like a prospector panning for gold, sifting through the mud and the slime for a few lines of smut.

And then suddenly you’d discover a copy of Clan of the Cave Bears and a cry would ring out of the mountains – Eureka! (Just imagine if our parents were more imaginative and owned copies of Story of ‘O’, Henry Miller’s Sexus or the Marquis de Sade?)

I certainly looked at adults differently after the discovery. Is that why they were always trying to get us to read?

And apparently, we were both slow on the uptake. We soon learnt that his sisters and my sisters had known all along that there was sex in books. Their books had sex in them. Virginia Andrews, Jackie Collins, Jacqueline Susan.

Even Judy Blume!

Years later, some of these books and their detailed accounts of sex lead to problems. One girl I knew had read in a Harold Robbin‘s novel that a girl will know she has lost her virginity because her lover will bite hard on her earlobe at the crucial moment. Another friend had almost ended up in traction trying to re-enact a favourite scene from an Eric Van Lustbader novel.

My best friend’s discovery lead to me reading. True, this was an inauspicious beginning to my reading life. In fact, it was years before I read an adult novel in its entirety, from cover to cover. And when I did, the choice, Jaws, did not encourage further attempts.

But by then I didn’t need books in the same way. So, after reading Jaws, I gave up reading for a time.

The beginnings of my other reading life, which began a few years later, had nothing to do with sex… well, not as much to do with sex. So I’ll leave that story for another time.

It all must seem a little quaint to modern kids who gain a thorough knowledge of the ins and outs of sex the first time they search for images of the Wiggles on Google or look up Enid Blyton‘s series of novels – The Adventurous Four, or watch music clips on Rage on a Sunday morning. But in the eighties if you wanted to know stuff, you had two options – TV and Books.

If you wanted to know forbidden stuff, however, there was only one option, the trash your parents read.

7 Comments Share:

About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

Follow John: Twitter Website


  • April 30, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Boy, but this post brings back memories….. It’s almost as if you were a teenage girl. For quite a while there as another child of the eighties, all I knew about sex had been gleaned from the pages of The Cave of the Clan Bear, Flowers in the Attic, Valley of the Dolls and yes, Judy Blume’s Forever (though am pleased to say I have never, ever had a partner ask me to refer to his manhood as “Ralph”). The big one you left off though- at least as far as girls go- was Judith Krantz. Princess Daisy, Mistral’s Daughter, Lace and Scruples- those tomes didn’t just open my eyes, they rendered me unable to blink (or indeed look away). Whether it was the pool boy in the cabana, or the older woman in the Swiss chalet, or the pilot trying to fly while his sole passenger got busy in his lap… all fine fodder for fourteen year old females. Thank you, Judith.
    The weird thing though, looking back, is that so much of the sex in the books you mention was twisted- Chris and Cathy in the attic (he was her brother!!), that Jackie Collins one where the mother seduces her (13yo) son, the horrible coercion of a minor in The Godfather, pretty much everything in Scruples… but it didn’t seem to matter. We read on, and we grew up OK. Well, I did anyway.

  • April 30, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    PS. Eric Van Lustbader- that can’t be his real name.

  • April 30, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Sad to say, my mum & dad didn’t read much literature after they got their respective degrees (even in English, shame!), so my stolen lascivious moments were taken from my mum’s Cosmopolitan mags (they always had those steamy novelettes in the back…well, back when I was young enough to find them titillating). And, of course, dad’s Playboy mags which sat unceremoniously behind the Nat Geo’s in the loo magazine rack. Judy Blume was a rite of passage…too bad I only have2 little boys.

  • April 30, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    I wonder if there is a woman of an exuberant age who has not read Judy Blume’s Forever? I also wonder whether if a fellow, having read the book (I haven’t), would be able to detect its influence?

  • Jane Logan

    April 30, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    Never thought I would be laughing so hard at a Booktopia Blog post! Classic! Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

  • February 24, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Yep, I agree with Kylie, most of the sex on those 80’s novels was twisted. I had an obsession with Jacqueline Briskin’s “Everything and More” – I must have read it a dozen times. The protaganists boyfriend dies (or she THINKs he dies) and she winds up marrying his dad. As you do.
    I also read Flowers In The Attic series and some of the Heaven series. You have to love an author who keeps producing endless numbers of new books even though she’s been dead 25 years.
    Then there was Shirley Conran’s “Lace”. Although it wasn’t mine it was Dayna Skinner’s copy and certain pages had their corners folded over for easy reference. A pair of teacher’s once confiscated and read these sections to aloud to each other whilst laughing hysterical. At 14 we were too young to appreciate the completely unrealistic sex scenes.
    Great post!

    • February 24, 2011 at 11:13 am

      Thanks! I wish I had more time to post more personal blogs, like this one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *