Moms and teenage daughters
Photo: Vincent Laforet
In the end, Denise Majka had to pickpocket her daughter's cell phone to get a straight answer. And it wasn't the one she wanted. The series of text messages couldn't have been more brazen:

R: What do you want / A: I want you / R: What do you need / A: F***d

"A"—Ariel, Denise's angel only child, barely 15—was having sex, and she'd probably started at 14. The mother and daughter had been alternately yelling at and avoiding each other for almost a year, ever since Ariel had started hanging out with the 17-year-old Denise called "he who shall not be named." Ariel kept saying, "We're just friends." But now she was busted.

"The knot in your stomach actually drops to your feet, and it's a combination of rage, disappointment, and fear all at once," says Denise, 37, of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, who has waited tables, worked retail, clerked at a bank, and driven a forklift for a greenhouse, often pulling two jobs at once, to support her daughter. "It was a shock. I literally—I didn't—I just didn't know what to do."

Who does anymore, when kids are weaned on music-video porn and Miley Cyrus sirens, and going to high school means entering a hook-up, get-down world where the sex is "whatever" and the pleasure is usually his? Most of us bringing up daughters in these overheated times are left to muddle and misstep and—with luck—occasionally triumph by the seat of our wits. Which is why O teamed up with Seventeen for our first-ever Mother-Daughter Sex Talk survey. Together with the research firm Harris Interactive, we asked more than 1,000 15- to 22-year-olds and 1,000 mothers of girls those ages everything from how comfortable they've felt having "the conversation" to how risky teen sex really is. 

The big news from the survey is the huge disconnect between what mothers are saying and what daughters are hearing. The data shows not only that there's a glaring discrepancy between the two sides' perceptions of how often they've had The Talk (by which we mean talking about having sex or making the decision to have sex)but that the moms may be overestimating how well these chats are going. Only 22 percent of mothers think their daughters are uncomfortable talking to them about sex, while 61 percent of girls say that, in fact, they are. This awkwardness may explain why the actual number of 15- to 18-year-olds in our survey having oral sex (30 percent) is double the number mothers know about, or even suspect—and why 46 percent of girls that age who've had intercourse didn't tell their moms. More disturbing is the prevalence of risky behavior that girls are trying to hide: Seventy-eight percent of surveyed girls who are no longer virgins say they've had sex without using a condom, and 65 percent of them admit they lied about or hid it from their mothers. Most troubling, a sobering 56 percent of girls who are no longer virgins have had sex without any form of birth control: Sixty-six percent of these girls have kept that a secret from Mom. Even among the few girls who had an abortion, many didn't tell.

"This is a difficult conversation, and our daughters don't make it easy for us," says Terri Apter, PhD, a University of Cambridge researcher and leading authority on mothers and teen girls, whose books on the subject include Altered Loves and You Don't Really Know Me. When we asked Apter to lend her expertise to our survey, she said, "Sex is complicated; it's a very powerful issue, and it's a very private one. But we have real reason to try to improve the conversation, because we do have strong evidence that some messages make a significant difference in how well daughters navigate sex." (Take Dr. Apter's test to find out how you're doing with The Talk.)