What should we tell our daughters about sex?

Below the first of a number of short extracts, that I will be publishing on this blog, from ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’ – now out in paperback, and available from all good bookshops and, of course, from Amazon.

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What about sex? Even young children realise, if only subliminally, that they owe their very existence to the act of sex; they are born from their mother’s all-too-human body. Eeeew. Disgusting. Etc. It does not prohibit discussion of ‘the facts of life’ but it certainly throws up a barrier between mothers and daughters (and even more so between fathers and daughters).Talking recently about coming out to her mother, the actress and comedian Sue Perkins said that the really difficult thing about it was the introduction of the idea that she was actually having sex, regardless of who with. That is the mortifying, if utterly obvious, fact in play. Despite these embarrassments, it is vital to get across the simple message to our daughters that only they can decide what to do, and with whom, and that a young woman who values herself is more likely to be valued by others.

I asked four friends, all of whom are involved in ‘communications’ in some way, how they dealt with this delicate issue:

Friend number 1: I answered any questions directly put to me about sex but didn’t talk about the act itself, or its effect on me, or sexual pleasure etc., and recently, a newspaper asked me to write a piece about my first sexual experience and I turned it down specifically because of my daughter. If I hadn’t got her, I would probably have written the piece. I told her about the commission and she said she’d be fine about me doing it, but I felt inhibited. I don’t think it’s part of the parent–child relationship, to talk about intimate experiences, UNLESS they come to you and ask. In which case, I would feel duty bound and indeed willing to discuss it. Something about boundaries here, I think.

Friend number 2: Despite having what I’d describe as a very open relationship with my children they were always very guarded about their private lives. And so as my two daughters were growing up I found myself wary of saying anything; since I grew up in a pretty sheltered environment and they didn’t. There was an unspoken understanding that in a way they knew MORE than me. Also they were both always ‘sensible’, late-ish developers, so no boyfriends till twenty-odd. They also read a lot, debated things like safe sex at school, and so I felt I had permission to have a very hands-off approach. I never felt I was ducking out. Instinctively I knew if I raised the subject of sex with them they would either shrug, laugh or scream. Oddly, I feel I can be more open with my teenage son on all these matters. He’s not as embarrassed as they were.

Friend number 3: When they were little, I gave them the basic facts of life – and tried to be quite honest about it. By the time they got to the early teen years, I was passing them basic material – booklets and things – on ‘what happens to your body in puberty’ but in a slightly shifty manner. I would sometimes sit with them when certain programmes were on late at night – those entertaining but ghastly shows about sex and bodies. I found them almost shockingly frank. There was this one TV journalist called Anna who took a sex education show around schools – and she would put naked men and women, of different ages, up on a stage – and get the children to talk about it. It was great actually. My daughters and I sniggered a bit but it was very instructive and I felt a weight taken off my shoulders. Once my elder daughter got involved in a relationship, at seventeen, it was harder. More books, I’m afraid. So I ordered a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves, the American bible of self-help feminism of the second wave (one of the very few available from Amazon) and said, ‘OK so I think this has important information which you need to know about.’ More laughter – but I noticed that they would flick through it and I heard them talking to each other. ‘Look at this chapter heading “What if I can’t come?” ’ and ‘Oh my god, there’s a chapter on masturbation’. And Iwould say – ‘Yes, very important theme’, and then run out the room. That was the best I could do – I mean, what parent is going to show their child how to masturbate? Or even say those few magic words, ‘Find your clitoris and make it work for you.’ I guess, if I’m honest, that’s the one message I would really like to get over.

Friend number 4: Looking back, I probably should have talked more about sex when they were younger. To tell them they have a right to sexual pleasure, a right to say no, that you’re not a slut if you sleep with a boy. They should learn how their bodies work. They should not be ashamed to ‘get to know their bodies’. I suppose one of the most important lessons is that there are different kinds of sex. And while I would say, ‘learn to masturbate’, because then you will know how to show others how to give you pleasure, it’s also OK to have sex, and not to come. Maybe you can only come fairly intermittently. The point is, there are different kinds of sex. I feel it is my duty as a parent, if I want to promote real happiness for my daughters, to be more honest about this stuff.