“We’ve Never Discussed It Before.” When A Family Finally Talks About Sex

Asking three generations of women to talk love and sex was always going to be interesting. Ina (89), her daughter Marion (62) and granddaughter Sam (33) are very close, yet the chat revealed far more than any of them expected.

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we-ve-never-discussed-it-before.' When Family Finally Talk About Sex
Left to right: Sam Steel, Ina Sommerville and Marion Strassberg.

Ina was with her late husband Jim for 70 years and married to him for 63 of those years. Their relationship was a love match which Marion and Sam both witnessed and envy, though neither of them quite expected Ina’s candour.

“No-one ever discussed sex with me,” says Ina.

“I met Jim at a church group and we started going out when I was 17 and he was 15. Sex never crossed my mind but there was plenty of kissing. We went on bike rides, out walking and to each other’s houses but there was no hanky panky.”

Neither Marion and Sam are quite ready for the revelations about Jim and Ina’s sex life.

“We got married when I was 24 and I was nervous about the ceremony but not the wedding night –  I was looking forward to and it was lovely. I didn’t talk to any of my friends about sex and we were driven by fear not to do it, so I was thrilled at how much I enjoyed it.”

‘My friends and I didn’t really talk about sex much as teenagers, mainly because we weren’t having any!’

When she recovers from her mum being so open about sex, divorcee Marion admits that she wishes her own experience had been as good.

“There’s not that much difference between my mum’s experiences growing up and mine,” she says.

“We didn’t talk about sex and I was also very much influenced by the idea that sex was a bad thing and associated it with getting pregnant, maybe being thrown out of the house and certainly surrounded by disapproval. My friends and I didn’t really talk about sex much as teenagers, mainly because we weren’t having any!”

She didn’t enjoy her first sexual experiences.

“I met my first boyfriend at school and first had sex at 17 ½ but I didn’t understand my own body and couldn’t relax into it,” she says.

“I got engaged at 20, married at 21, had Sam at 28 and her brother when I was 30. My husband was unfaithful and I ended the marriage, which knocked my confidence, but I realised it wasn’t my fault as he was a serial cheater.”

She didn’t date for a long time as she was immersed in her children and work.

“I was in my forties before I fully started appreciating sex and I think that was due to confidence,” she says.

“When I remarried we had a still-born son which was utterly heart breaking and then went on to adopt two boys. Sam was a wild child by her own admission and not prepared to listen to any advice about sex and relationships. I’m a real mother hen, always worrying about my children and hoping they make the right choices but Sam was unwilling to talk about sex then. We had some tricky moments to put it mildly, but we’re still really close.”

Both Marion and Sam laugh ruefully over the memory of the scene when Marion discovered Sam naked under a blanket with a boy when she was just 14.

“My stepdad threw him naked into the street and my mum was saying ‘Shouldn’t you give him his clothes?’ and eventually they were thrown out after him,” says Sam.

‘My crowd had no risk awareness or sense of danger and we didn’t have boyfriends, but we did have sex with boys’

“I had my first real boyfriend at 15 but I made some bad choices– always older, predatory men who were into drink or drugs or both.”

She found her teenage years a challenge. “I was a hard-core partier from the age of 14. We’d moved from England to New Jersey in the United States and I seemed exotic to the other kids my age, so I got a lot of attention. My crowd had no risk awareness or sense of danger and we didn’t have boyfriends, but we did have sex with boys – it was just what we did. My mum knew so little of what was really going on in my life, and I didn’t want her to find out. I don’t know how many boys I slept with, because I didn’t count and I didn’t care.”

Now they’ve reached a stage where they can clearly tell each other anything and Ina remains the inspiration for both Marion and Sam.

They’re torn between laughter and tears when she briskly tells them that she and Jim had a great sex life until he died, but that she’s never stopped mourning him.

“You could have put me in the ground with him when he died and I still feel the same two years later,” she says “It was my birthday the day after he died and we found the card he’d written saying ‘I never dreamed I could ever be so happy.’ Those were his last words to me and they still comfort me. We were very lucky.”

“I’m sad my marriages didn’t work out and monogamy is the highest goal for me, having gone through the anguish of infidelity” says Marion.

“For me, sex and love go hand in hand and it’s interesting that so many divorced people carry on looking for the right one. My parents’ relationship set a really high standard for me and I think proves that relationship success is pure chance. They were each other’s first love and that love lasted, so I know what a happy marriage is and it also showed me that I couldn’t settle for someone treating me badly, or not respecting me.”

“In some ways things are better for Sam’s generation than mine or Mum’s because they are so much more open and talk about sex and relationships in a way we never did, not just with their friends but with us. I would love Sam to meet the right man, to have a relationship like my parents’ and have a family. And while I’ll always be cautious, I’ve never lost faith in a happy ending for myself as well, which would delight my mum.”

‘I’ve experienced being groped, forced into sex when I didn’t want to and been dominated by men’

Sam has a similar approach to what she wants in a relationship. “The relationships I had in my 20s were short and intense and in my 30s I’m looking forward to an entirely different way of life when I start dating again. I’m done with partying and I’m an adult with a totally different view of life. I want something more meaningful, closer to my gran’s belief that love and respect is what makes sex special.”

She is as open as her grandmother in discussing her feelings about sex, yet despite growing up with so much more freedom she has never really enjoyed sex.

“I’ve experienced being groped, forced into sex when I didn’t want to and dominated by men who didn’t respect me or care for my feelings, so it’s probably not surprising that I’ve never truly enjoyed sex. I haven’t given up on it yet though, because I’m still young and I’ve learned from Gran and Mum that you can have great relationships when love and sex come together. “

The last word comes from Ina. “It’s amazing that Jim and I had such a wonderful relationship – we didn’t have the same freedom or choices yet it couldn’t have worked out better. I’d love Marion and Sam to have that sort of relationship.”

Joan McFadden
Joan has over 25 years' experience in journalism, writing regularly for the Guardian, Telegraph and Daily Mail as well as editing Family Focus Scotland magazine. She's married with four children and a huge, extended and very close family and specialises in family and human-interest features, which often reassure others that they are not alone in their experiences.