One of the most interesting characters in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones is Esch. Esch is a teenager and is sexually active. What is probably alarming to most readers is the fact that Esch started having sex when she was 12 years old. Esch often focuses on helping her brothers and and her father and winning the admiration of one of her brother’s friends so much that she rarely takes time to reflect and think about herself. In one of the surprising parts of her narrative, she talks about what comes naturally to her-what she knows she can do well:
The only thing that’s ever been easy for me to do, like swimming through water, was sex when I started having it. I was twelve.
It’s interesting that she compares sex to swimming, a skill that seems to be so essential to human life. At the same time, it’s a skill that humans have to learn and develop. Not everyone has the ability to swim. Not everyone has the opportunity to swim. Surprisingly, she starts having sex at the beginning of puberty for girls. For a girl, a period notoriously characterized as awkward and confusing. It is a time when girls begin learning about their body and how it will function and change over the years. But, Esch handles her first time well. She realizes that sex does not alter your body:
In the bathroom, I looked at myself in the mirror. Undressed and rinsed. Dressed again. My clothes fit the same. My stomach, my hips, my arms all fell in the same straight lines; there was nothing fine or curvy about me. I was still short and skinny, my hair big and curly and black, my lips thin. I didn’t look any different.
Most parents in the US refrain from talking to their children about sex until they are teenagers (preferably in high school). Esch does not have this support. So, it seems that she must learn for herself what sex is and isn’t. She can form her own opinion about her sexuality. However, there are still key factors related to sex that she has not learned about. When she has sex for the first time, it is not because she wants to. She reflects:
“[it] was easier to let him keep on touching me than ask him to stop, easier to let him inside than push him away, easier than hearing him ask me, Why not? It was easier to keep quiet and take it than to give him an answer
Esch does not understand consent. She does not understand that sex should be mutually wanted by whoever is involved in the activity. One could use this example to argue that it is inappropriate for young children or teenagers to start having sex.
Ward helps us bring up an important question. Does the appropriateness of a person’s sexual activity/life depend on the person’s age or their understanding of sex?