Ariel Clark and Denise Majka
Denise Majka and Ariel Clark
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Time out. Let's stop right here and give ourselves some credit: Most of us grew up with mothers who avoided the topic of sex like the plague, and yet we're bravely forging ahead without a script. Even the late feminist leader Betty Friedan, never at a loss for words on women's reproductive freedom, fumbled when it came to having The Talk. As her daughter, Emily, remembers, "I was in high school when she tried to find out if I was having sex by awkwardly saying something like 'I know I've fought long and hard for a woman's right to have an abortion. But, um, I wouldn't want you to be in a position to need one.' I just told her, 'Don't worry, I'm not having sex' (I wasn't...yet) 'and I know everything I need to' (I didn't). And she said, 'Okay, good.' Conversation over."

Many mothers never even got that much of a speech. Janet Dzubow, 56, a former pharmaceutical researcher in Villanova, Pennsylvania, simply found sanitary napkins and a bra in her drawer one day. "I had to go ask my friends, 'What is this stuff?'" she says. "But I figured it out." Assuming her children would, too ("I'm not warm and fuzzy—I'm a scientist"), she hasn't once brought up the subject with her daughter Lynne, 19. "It would never even enter my mind," Janet says. "I trust her to go the right course and if she has problems or questions, to ask them." And Lynne, a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, agrees that she would ask her mom. Lynne hasn't had sex yet—"I'm a little bit stunted in that area," she says with endearing candor—but when it happens, it will be with someone she's serious about, she says. "I was taught to be a strong, independent woman who doesn't need a boyfriend to define herself. And so I feel confident about what I want, and that includes what I want sexually."

If only all girls had such confidence and clearheadedness. But according to our survey, the Dzubows aren't typical. It's the girls who talk to their moms before their first time who are less likely to have regrets and risky sex. Also, girls who have The Talk are half as likely to get pregnant as those who don't. The communication factor seems to play out across the generations: Mothers who lost their virginity before ever having the sex conversation with their own moms were more likely to report their daughters having intercourse.

"Sometimes I feel a little awkward talking about sex with my patients—and I've certainly felt that way with my two daughters," says Emily Friedan, who is a pediatrician in Buffalo, New York, and a mother of three. "But I bulldoze my way through. And that's what I tell my patients' mothers to do. Pushing the discussion—which really should be a dialogue but usually isn't—shows daughters that they can come to you. And even an awkward discussion is, at the very least, an opening."

In hindsight, Denise Majka would have to agree with Friedan's advice. Her nightmare—the tensions, the screaming, the spells of incommunicado—started in September 2006, when Ariel entered high school. Just a few weeks into her freshman semester, Ariel says, she was painting scenery for a choir performance when a senior named Ray* wandered over and struck up a conversation. So what if he was three years older? He thought she was cute, and they became friends. Soon they started dating, and not long after that he said he loved her. It was a rush going out with an upperclassman—he even had a car. At first Ray took things slowly, but then he moved faster. And Ariel, a girl who, until then, had paid more attention to her studies and her quarter horse than to boys, now saw her grades slip; she started skipping school.

Denise was not born yesterday. "Do you have a boyfriend?" she'd ask.

"No."

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