The survey offers a few clues to improving the way we connect with our daughters. Clearly, delivering The Talk like a State of the Union address isn't the best way to go. "Working from a prepared speech can make a girl cut out," Apter says. So can speaking in a lecturing tone, which we often don't realize we're doing. "And they'll often talk a lot more if you don't look them in the face," says Hazle Cain-Johnson, a special-education teacher at Osceola High School in Wisconsin. "When you're riding in the car, playing video games, or cooking together—these are all good times to kind of chat about sex." Also, what you talk about is as crucial as how you talk. The survey showed that 73 percent of moms who have The Talk pass along the message "A guy will tell you anything to get you into bed; it doesn't mean he likes you or will be faithful to you." But only 17 percent of girls who got that warning consider it important to their beliefs about sex: They considered positive advice like "You should be in a serious relationship before having sex" (36 percent) and "Sex is better if you're in love" (32 percent) more valuable.
In the survey, 17 percent of girls admitted they'd had sex—or wanted to have it—"just to get it over with."
Peer pressure is definitely a force to be reckoned with. "I've interviewed young people who spoke of 'getting rid' of their virginity so that they wouldn't be known that way—the implication being that virginity is rare in high school, which it's not," says Kathleen A. Bogle, PhD, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University in Philadelphia, and author of Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. Kids, Bogle argues, have distorted assumptions about what is sexually normal, thanks to the media and gossip. The truth, according to 2007 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that 54 percent of female high school students have not had intercourse. In our survey, only 27 percent of the 15- to 18-year-olds said they'd had sex. Either way, "most girls" are not doing it. "I'd try to give my daughter the real data," Bogle says. "And if she tells you, 'Yeah, but it's different in my school,' you can see if her particular school collects data. Some do. Or check if there are local statistics for your city or state. Kids are very interested."
Forty-eight percent of mothers who have shared their own sexual experiences with their daughters say they did so hoping that the girls would learn from their mistakes.
"I want to get a tattoo, Mommy—my Pisces symbol."
"You don't need a Pisces symbol."
"You don't want a tattoo on your skin, I'm telling you."
"I'll put it where it won't be a problem."
"Don't come here with a tattoo. I'm going to be very, very furious—I'm serious."
Sukanya Wilmot's impossibly willowy body is a big topic of conversation in her one-story Brooklyn home—how she's going to model with it, where she can and can't poke it, pierce it, or ink it, whom she can share it with. At 19, Sukanya is young enough to stash pink teddy bears by her pillow but old enough to keep secrets with her boyfriend. The gauzy canopy on her four-poster bed is a halfhearted bid for privacy, not only from her 13-year-old brother, whose unmade sleeping rig is inches away, but from the eyes in the back of her mother's head. "If I'm on the computer," says Sukanya, "she'll come behind me and watch me. And I'm like, 'Come on, you're always on me. Back up.' And then she'll be like, 'Okay, I see I'm not wanted here.' And she'll take her little sad self to her bedroom—but that's after she's already scoped out everything."
Nadine Beckford, 37, the offending mother, is on a mission. How many times she's told Sukanya, "I've already made the mistakes for you," she doesn't know. But the 52 cosmetologist, whose personality roars up like a Harley, will not stand by to see her daughter trip up. She has her reasons, and when she explains them, her voice suddenly goes quiet, as if she'd just cut the motor on that bike.
Raised in Jamaica by her grandmother while her mother lived on the other side of town with a new family, Nadine grew up without any guidance on boys or birth control. "I was a great girl, doing really well in school, so when I got pregnant at 18, I felt like everyone was a little disappointed," she says. "My grandmother left for England. She couldn't take it. There was nobody to ask me what I was up to, or to be vigilant with me. My mom didn't care."
So, ever since Sukanya was 11, Nadine has been parceling out information like a political campaign strategist—"Here's what menstruation is".... "This is what happens when boys like girls".... "I'll let you know when you're ready for a boyfriend." "I come around in little ways," she says. "And it's easy."
"Easy for her. Weird for me," Sukanya says, rolling her eyes.
Nadine doesn't care if she frustrates her daughter. She openly patrols her life like a forensic scientist, clicking through the photos on her digital camera to see where she's been, nosing around her MySpace page, watching her body language for any signs of hormonally driven trouble. "I remember telling her," says Nadine, "'Whenever you're ready, let me know. I want to be the one to protect you.'"
Sukanya, however, wasn't so sure about that: This past year, when she started having sex with her boyfriend and her mother became suspicious—"something was itching at me," Nadine says; "I sensed it"— Sukanya denied it. "I wanted to say yes," she says. "But I was scared."