I just read the fantastic book “Girls & Sex” by Peggy Orenstein. What I love is that while it paints a somewhat dire picture of the landscape for teen (and even pre-teen girls), not to mention young adults, it’s not just about diagnosing the problem; there’s a prescription.
You can help your daughters navigate that landscape, but it involves talking to them differently than you might have considered before. It means that instead of just talking about the risks of sex, we have to talk honestly about rewards, which is probably far more uncomfortable but incredibly valuable.
So here are some ideas for how to have those talks. And remember, even if you’ve been approaching it differently, it’s never too late to try something new. 1) Remember WHY you’re having these hard conversations.
It’s because the less information they get from you, the more they get from the world at large. And that can be a terrible climate–a culture where boys are expected to be the sexual aggressor, where drinking alcohol means indiscriminate hook-ups, and as long as it’s not a no, it’s a yes (and even if it is a no, they might rationalize a yes.)
One of the most enlightening things for me in Peggy Orenstein’s book is just how little enjoyment girls get from the sex they have and how much of it is about fulfilling other people’s expectations. Research suggests that by actually knowing what makes them happy and being able to assert that leads not only to less regretful sex and less coerced sex and rapes, but it also leads to better sex.
And while abstinence is still generally our favorite scenario for our daughters, isn’t the next best thing for them to have sex that’s safe, consensual, and enjoyable? Talking to your daughters honestly improves the odds of that sex being within the confines of a respectful, loving relationship.
2) Talk to them with respect.
That’s the first way to model the kinds of relationships we want them to have with other people. It means we don’t lead with all the risk factors and try to ward them off. For one thing, they see through that. It makes you an unreliable source, even if everything you’re telling them is factually correct. They can smell an agenda a mile away.
So talk to them about what their thoughts are about sex. Who’s having it, whether it’s pleasurable, WHY they’re having it.
The WHY is in all caps because that’s the most important thing. Help your child really examine that question. So often, girls have sex because they feel pressured–sometimes because they want to be cool, sometimes because they don’t want to called a prude (though they also don’t want to be called a slut–it’s a rough line to walk), sometimes because they don’t really know how to tell a boy no.
Help them respect their body. Don’t tell them that respecting their body always means saying no, because that’s not accurate. But respecting your body means you can always say no, at any point in an interaction. They need to know that they do not exist to serve the sexual needs of boys, no matter what messages they’ve been receiving from the larger culture.
You want to also dispense information, of course: about how drinking makes them more vulnerable to assault (though that never makes an assault their fault); about personal safety; about pregnancy and STDs. But don’t make this a lecture. Ask them what they already know and correct any misinformation. Also find out who they know who has experienced any of the perils you’re discussing.
3) Work on their assertiveness skills.
This is critical. They need to be able to look within themselves first and know what they really feel about something–whether it’s the initial drinking, or the sex that often follows–and then have the wherewithal and the words to stand up for themselves.
You can role-play situations with your kids. The more practice they have, the better they’ll do when they face the real thing.
4) Don’t think of this as one conversation; it’s an ongoing dialogue that will span years.
Often, parents want to just get the sex talk over with. That’s not a productive attitude because your daughters will feel it. They’ll feel that you don’t want to go there with them, and that means they’ll go elsewhere.
Remember that you don’t have to do it perfectly. Your child will feel your good intentions. And over time, you’ll get better and more comfortable with it. You’ll also get closer to your daughter and strengthen your emotional bond. What could be better than that?