TIME Family

How Not to Talk About Sex With Your Teenage Daughter

Why Is the Sex Talk Between Mothers and Daughters So Difficult
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The author reveals what worked for her—at least on the second try

The other day I was at the gym finishing my workout when a mom I know asked for my advice about “the sex talk.” She was struggling, she confided, to bring up the subject with her teenage daughter—afraid that discussing sex was somehow tantamount to giving her the green light to have it.

You would think that for a generation of parents who grew up during an era of “free love” and whose own kids are being raised at a time when the culture is awash in sexual imagery that this would be an easy conversation to have. But it is, in fact, the sex talk—the anticipation of exploring with their daughters issues of love, intimacy, relationships and the mechanics of sex—that seems to flummox otherwise smart, accomplished, open-minded, articulate women.

I was reminded of this again last week when a writer I admire, Hanna Rosin, penned a piece at Slate under the headline “Sex Talk Fail.” Rosin is a writer at The Atlantic; founder of DoubleX, Slate’s women’s section; and the author of The End of Men. And even she has been at a loss for words when trying to talk to her teen daughter about sex.

“I am nearly 100 percent sure that the talk will not go well,” she wrote in her piece. “My aborted attempts so far have not been promising.”

Though I am not unfamiliar with the trepidation associated with said talk, I approached my own first attempt with what turned out to be unwarranted confidence. When my daughter, Emma, now 21, was 13 years old and about to enter the yearlong Bar and Bat Mitzvah circuit, rumors abounded about the “Bar Mitzvah blowjob.

It turned out to be urban myth, but I lived in fear that some acned, brace-faced boy would approach my innocent daughter at a Bar Mitzvah party and demand that she service him. I imagined her caught unaware, uninformed and unprepared. And as much as I dreaded it, I was convinced that it was my maternal duty to clue her in.

I did some online research, read a handful of articles and consulted a few books. And when I finally steeled myself for this mother-daughter talk, I was sure that I was prepared. I planned an outing to a small café, ordered a latte, bought my daughter a hot chocolate and dove right in: “Emma, I’m sure you’ve heard about the Bar Mitzvah blowjob,” I said.

Without giving her a chance to speak, and before I lost my nerve, I told her that she should not—under any circumstances—engage in such an intimate act. I explained that this should only occur when she was older, more mature and in a committed relationship, and that it should be reciprocal, if she so desired. And, of course, I told her that you could get a sexually transmitted disease from oral sex.

When I was finally done, she stared at me, shrugged her shoulders and said: “What’s a blowjob?”

Totally taken aback, I suddenly found myself in a public place awkwardly trying to explain it, in detail. Her response: “Eww! Can we go home now?”

Well, one thing I was pretty certain of—if I ever tried this again, it couldn’t go worse. And lucky for me, it didn’t.

For one thing, I was unexpectedly given a big assist by Emma’s school, where “Human Development” is taught in seventh, eighth and tenth grades. The program covers a range of topics, including menstruation, STDs, setting boundaries and safe sex. This not only made my job easier because she learned the basics there, but also because talking about sex at school with her teachers and among her peers demystified the subject, making it less awkward to talk about with me.

What that meant over the years was rather than trying to have a single, all-important, have-to-get-it-perfect talk, we were able to discuss different subjects more casually, broaching them as they came up—first date, first kiss, first boyfriend. It also meant that when the sex talk really mattered, both of us were a little more ready, if not completely at ease.

In our case, this was when Emma was a junior in high school and had a steady boyfriend. I was certain that the topic of sex was going to come up between them, if it hadn’t already. And though I knew she had learned about sex at school, I had things that I wanted to tell her myself: about choice, about love, about commitment, about intimacy. I wanted to talk to her about the things that reflected our family’s values.

And so this time, remembering what an educator once told me about how the lack of eye contact helps teens to talk—or at least to listen—I slipped under Emma’s covers, right before she was about to go to sleep. I told her plainly that I wanted to talk to her about sex. Her immediate reaction was to say, “Oh, no you’re not.” She pulled the covers over her head.

I explained that she didn’t have to say a word, but that she did have to listen. I told her that I thought she was still too young to have sex, and that I hoped she would wait. I said that having sex complicated relationships and that the older she was, the better able she would be to handle it. I made clear that just because her boyfriend, a year and half older than she, might be ready, it didn’t mean she had to be. Having sex for the first time—and every time after that—was her choice. I told her that she should always feel comfortable and safe, and if she didn’t, she should listen to her gut and say no.

Finally, I told her that even though I thought she was too young, if she decided to have sex with her boyfriend, I would help her get birth control—no questions asked, and no judgment rendered. I wanted her to know that it was always okay to talk to me.

In retrospect, I have come to think that the sex talk is difficult for a host of reasons: As moms, we have no real role models in this regard. There is no standard message that fits all families. And the entire exercise signifies that our daughters are growing up and away from us, which can be emotionally difficult for everyone.

As for Emma’s teenage brother, well, I’ve happily left that to his dad. As Rosin points out, “Some sex-talk traditions are worth preserving.”

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