Photo: Vicent Laforet
You want your daughter to have a happy, healthy sex life (someday), with no unintended consequences (please, God)—you don't want to gross her out, turn her off, or leave her in the dark. Novelist and therapist Amy Bloom helps you find the balance between embarrassed silence and Too Much Information.
If you summarize the hundreds of studies done on girls in the Western world, the gist is this: Our confident, assertive, self-approving 8- and 9-year-old girls become depressed, self-loathing teenagers, prone to sex with abusive boyfriends, performing oral sex on near strangers and/or becoming pregnant in order to produce a baby who will love them. Ladies, we need to talk. But carefully. My mom found the morning-after-pill package in my trash can. I'm old enough to make my own decisions. When my mom first talked to me about sex, I was like, "I know all this, Mom."

Please remember how you felt when your mother brought up sex or boys' savage desires or why buy the cow when you get the milk for free or "the loving and mature act of a man and woman" (depending on the kind of mother you had). Remember how you felt when you caught a glimpse of your parents in the bedroom, in their underwear. Remember how you felt when your uncle Archie made those gross, leering remarks about your "development." The operative word here is eew. Your daughters feel the same way. I don't want to be a grandmother! When I first met her boyfriend, I wanted to strangle him.

They don't want to hear about how cool you were. They don't want to know the details of what you did or how you felt. (Let me be clear: They do not want to hear about your unusual anatomical details, they do not want to know your favorite sexual position, they do not want to know about the first time you masturbated, and they do not want to know what kind of orgasms you have.) They do not want to hear about you. They're teenagers; it's all about them all the time, and every time you bring up your own feelings and your own experience of sexuality, it's like a thick curtain falls in front of their eyes and ears. It says: ancient history.

But—you can talk about the wider world of sex in lots of detail without ever claiming those details as your own. You want to study up. If you slept during certain parts of biology and you have no idea where your cervix is or what it's for or you've never had contact with a clitoris (and aren't sure which syllable to emphasize), now's the time for some homework. You should be able to use the right words for the things you're going to be talking about, and if you're given to blushing, own it. You can say, Grandma never really talked to me about this stuff, so I'm a little awkward. Then you plow ahead. (Secretly, she may appreciate your perseverance, even as she's saying, Sheesh, Ma, you're beet red!) Make sure she really knows the facts (not just the health class lectures), and do your best to explode all those middle school myths, which are, believe it or not, just as prevalent as ever: You can't get pregnant if you don't come. You can't get pregnant if he doesn't ejaculate. You can't get pregnant if you have your period. And there are more, and more pernicious, myths that still rule: Boys won't like you if you don't. Boys will think you're cool if you don't make too big a deal out of sex. Getting drunk is sexy. I would just list all the stuff that girls tell each other, and boys tell girls, and I would talk it through, the same way—sensibly, good-naturedly, and with complete certainty—you explained to her that those diet pills advertised at 1 a.m. don't actually work and the miraculous breast enlargement cream doesn't either.

I think you'll want to cover everything you can think of (get in the car and drive, or order in pizza) and three items you might have been inclined not to mention. If your daughter is 13 or 14 and moves in what you think is a pretty active boy-girl crowd (you hear whispers of dating, hooking up, "she's such a slut"), you need to talk about oral sex and anal sex as well as intercourse. On the one hand, I am all in favor of mutual sexual pleasure that does not have anything to do with procreating. Making out, petting, everything but—whatever the kids call it, I encourage it if everyone's having a good time. And this, I think, is the heart of talking to young women about sex. I want my daughters to know that the best sex comes with love. (Most of the time; I don't plan to talk to teenage girls about the real, if awkward, pleasures of a one-night stand. That has to wait for college.) The worst sex, the kind that can leave lifelong scars, comes with coercion, shame, and fear. The third thing you might not have thought of mentioning is gayness. It's possible that you are absolutely positive your daughter's straight; it's possible you don't even want to mention gayness to your sporty, short-haired dateless daughter; it's possible you're pretty sure your daughter's gay, but you don't know how to broach it. No matter! If you're not gay yourself, read up a bit. Tell her that positive self-regard and consensuality are still at the top of the list. Tell her that being gay is part of the way someone's made, and it says no more about them than the color of their eyes. Tell them that some people find themselves attracted to both sexes, and that's fine, too (after all, some people do have one brown eye and one blue). But please, speak. 

This is, of course, a harder subject than "What's that?" and "Here's how." But it's worth the effort and even the eye-rolling. There have always been, and always will be, young women who give a man a blow job while thinking, "I wish I was dead." There are young women who find themselves pregnant because they couldn't face what was actually happening or couldn't bring themselves to "interrupt the moment" when facing a reluctant or annoyed partner. There are, as we all know, young women who like a boy well enough and are prompted to have sex because of his constant complaints and threats to go elsewhere. Young women who are just this side of rape by virtue of their reluctant, exhausted "okay." Young women who think that the boy's status (athlete, BMOC, wunderkind) will become hers, through the transfer of sex. Please, talk to your daughters about self-deception, about recognizing their feelings and acting on them. Teach them to take a moment (even in the bathroom at a bar) and ask themselves: "If I was my best self right now, what would I choose?" Teach them that despite our other girl-messages of putting other people's feelings first and being nice, when it comes to sex they come first, in every way.

Some of this is hard to do with conviction. Like mothers who try to conceal their fat phobias and make an effort to eat normally so as to spare their daughters an eating disorder, some of us have to fake it till we make it when it comes to talking about sex. It's always best to lead by example, but it's not always possible. Not all of us are lucky enough to like our bodies, like sex, and know that what we do in bed is a good and healthy choice. Even if that's not the case for you—for your daughter's sake, talk as if it is. And if it's not the case for you, you might give yourself a good talking to.

Get more direction on having The Talk from sex therapist Laura Berman


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