A mother's most likely reactions to learning that her daughter has had sex are "disappointed" and "sad"; 15 percent feel "I didn't do a good enough job raising her." Twelve percent feel angry, and 12 percent feel old. Seven percent are happy. One percent are proud.

As Apter points out, a girl's loss of virginity often comes too soon, from her mother's point of view. "And the mother is usually right that the daughter doesn't realize what the emotional risks are," she says. "But when a mother is displeased at hearing the news, she shouldn't start closing off the relationship. A daughter's first sexual experience isn't her last. There's still a lot to talk about."

Nadine ended up cornering Sukanya and her boyfriend. She didn't beat around the bush, and they readily confessed. "I wasn't ready for her to be ready," says Nadine. "I thought she would hang on a little bit more, and I withdrew a little. But I got over it." Sukanya gives Nadine credit for being a "strict, but cool" mom, clearly sharing a fierce bond with her. "I do see where she's coming from," Sukanya says. "She'll warn me about something and, even though I may not pay attention at the time, then it happens and I think, 'Oh, okay. I learned from that.'"

Now between the two of them, no private part is off-limits. They talk about the Pill (Nadine votes yes because condoms break, but Sukanya is worried about gaining weight—and what that would do to her modeling career). About oral sex. About Nadine's own romantic life, which generally provokes a "Come on, you're my mother!"—a sentiment shared by many girls in our survey. (When those who'd had The Talk were asked if they'd be more comfortable if their mother shared information about her first time, 26 percent said yes, 55 percent said no, and 16 percent said they'd already discussed it.)

Earlier this year, sitting side by side on the couch, both in tight jeans and bare feet, Nadine turned toward Sukanya and asked, "Do you enjoy it? Because I remember when I first did it, I'm like, 'What the hell? Is this what everybody's going crazy about?'"

"Oh my God," Sukanya said, as in, You're really pushing it, Mommy.

"Do you?"

Embarrassed pause, and then in a very small voice: "The first time, of course not, but yeah, it's cool."

"Do you look forward to it?"

"Well," Sukanya said, suddenly coy, regaining her footing, "if I get in the mood."

In discussing sex, 75 percent of mothers have talked about abstinence with their daughters. Only 35 percent have brought up pleasure. 

As natural as it is to focus on the "don'ts" and the dangers of becoming sexually active, one of the most powerful messages a mother can give her daughter is that she should enjoy herself. Research published in The Journal of Sex Research has, like Apter's findings, shown that girls who understand the importance of their own pleasure are more likely to plan ahead and use birth control; those who don't, often lose their virginity on someone else's terms, seeing sexual activity as initiated by a partner's desire. Also, in our survey, girls whose mothers talked with them about the pleasure factor were more likely than those whose moms didn't to have positive attitudes about sex, feeling that it's normal, natural, and fun.

Annie Selke, 46, is one of those mothers. Last year she told her 16-year-old daughter, Charlotte, that she would help her get birth control if, and only if, she'd had an orgasm first: Sex, she'd insisted many times, should be about Charlotte's enjoyment. And Charlotte (who is still a virgin but hardly in the dark) read her loud and clear. "That's definitely what I got from her," she says. "My mom keeps telling me, 'All I care about is that you make sure you're happy about it.' And I am."

The conversation didn't happen easily for Annie, a New Englander who lives in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts and runs two home furnishing companies. Her own mother had studiously avoided the topic of sex, except for one note of caution: "The girls I knew who got knocked up were drunk." So about a year ago, when Charlotte—who goes to boarding school and who has always told her mom everything—started including stories of kids she knew sexting their BFs (sending sexual text messages, often photos, to their boyfriends, Annie learned) and giving blow jobs at parties, Annie says, "I would feel like, 'Uh oh, okay. Not quite equipped to deal with this.'"

But deal she did.

Photo: Vincent Laforet


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