When I tell the parents of my 11 and 12-year old students that I'll be teaching their daughters about the clitoris, it's not uncommon for them to tense up and stop breathing.
“Okay...,” they say, slowly exhaling, “I've just never even spoken to my daughter about this stuff before.”
Although I hear from plenty of parents that they already have a pretty good rapport with their daughters talking about puberty and sexuality, I speak with many others who are still waiting for the right time to have THE TALK.
“Is 10 years old too early?” they ask.
“I'm hoping she'll open up in this class, because I'm too scared to even try bringing up anything in person,” they say.
You know that you want your daughter to feel at home in her body. You know that you want her to never feel pressured into sexting. You know that you want her to understand safe sex practices. You know that girls sometimes perform sex acts for guys without enjoying it. You know to talk to her about consent.
But how do you actually start conversations with your daughter about these things without slipping into fear, lecturing, or breaking into a sweat? How do you make these talks happen easily and naturally?
Here are some tips for how to get the ball rolling, as well as for how to create a positive supportive environment at home so that your daughter and the rest of your family can feel comfortable discussing these issues on a regular basis.
First of all, let's banish the idea right away that there is THE TALK.
There is no one Talk, there are MANY talks.
This is not a once-off, take-a-deep-breath, sit-down Talk. It is instead a strategy that ideally starts when your daughter is a small child; a combined approach of modeling body-positive values, comfort with speaking about body parts and functions, everyday small comments and remarks, asking questions, careful listening, tuning in, directness and subtlety, and constant critical thinking regarding the dizzying array of societal norms, judgments, and expectations around female sexuality.
It takes practice. It changes as your daughter grows. It requires loving care for yourself as you will likely confront whatever pieces of your own adolescence that are still longing for answers, for guidance, for reassurance.
Laying the foundation for a body-positive and sexuality-positive environment in your family from birth makes it so THE TALK does not happen out of the blue, but is something already established, ongoing, and familiar. Girls need to sense their families' values and to trust that there is comfort and openness to ask their questions and to share about their experience as a budding sexual being. If you're the rare parent that has implemented this environment from an early age, bravo; and if you still have yet to say “vagina” in front of your 11-year old daughter, take a breath – it's okay (I'm a seasoned Fertility Awareness Educator and I still trip over saying “penis” and “vagina” in front of both teenage and adult students. We just don't grow up in a world that normalizes talking about this sexuality stuff!)
How to start conversations about sexuality:
1. Start slow, ease in, and keep it up. One day, drop a comment about something you see in a magazine to your daughter: "Look at this ad for breast implants - this woman's boyfriend looks so happy, but I hope he would find her beautiful no matter what size her chest was." And that's all! Next week, try it again. Ask your daughter something simple like, "Did you hear that new song by so-and-so? What did you think of the lyrics about grabbing a woman's butt?" Voice your opinion about portrayals of sexuality on TV, in movies, books, song lyrics, music videos, and everything else. Let's say there's a scene in a movie where a couple goes from making out to having sex in 2 minutes flat, and only he seems to climax. You can remark out loud, without looking at your daughter directly, “Boy, THAT'S not realistic! I wonder if she even enjoyed it?” Or let's imagine that a music video comes on and the male singer is crooning about how he wants to treat his girl right, do nice things for her, and make her feel good, but in the video his girlfriend is shown prancing around for him in skimpy clothes and “performing” for him. You could say, “Huh, that's weird. He SAYS he wants to do all these sweet things for her but he sure isn't showing it!” And so on. These kinds of indirect passing comments encourage your daughter's critical thinking skills and will probably make her reflect, even if she doesn't say anything back.
2. Ask short, easy questions and follow your daughter's lead. If she gives a mumbling answer, consider that progress! If she shocks you by asking for your opinion or for information on a particular topic, don't go crazy and give her a long rant that's more than she bargained for (even though I'm sure you want to seize the opportunity to do so!). Give a succinct answer and see if she wants to know more. If not, let it be. Learning to ask, listen, and wait is a crucial practice. Short car rides are a good time to talk about body or sexuality stuff because you're not making direct eye contact, and if it gets awkward, you'll be out of the car in a few minutes anyway.
3. How's your bookcase looking? Specifically, how's your sex education collection? One sure way to let your daughter and any other kids you might have know that their home is a safe place to ask and learn about bodies and sexuality is to have books on hand that discuss these topics. When kids read, they want to talk about what they read. They want to know more. Getting to hole up with their nose in a book that talks about everything they wanted to know but were too shy to ask will take the edge off and let them take their time initiating a conversation with you. Simply get some books, put them on a shelf where your daughter can easily see them, and let her discover them (I've listed some of my students' favorites below). 4. Try passing notes or a journal back and forth. If you buy a book about body changes or sexuality for your daughter, you could leave it somewhere in her room with a quick note saying something like, "I would have loved this book when I was your age - I always felt so awkward talking about this stuff. Let me know if you want to discuss any of the topics in here. Happy reading! XO." You could make or buy a journal like this with prompts between you and your daughter, too. Passing the journal back and forth is a fantastic way to ease in to these kinds of conversations.
How to create a sexuality-positive home environment for your family:
1. Model sexuality positive values and own them. We have to walk the walk and talk the talk if girls are going to take our advice and feedback seriously. They need to follow our lead as adults and understand that being a sexual being is not only okay, it is a GOOD thing. Are you comfortable with your own sexuality? Notice how you frame conversations and comments about bodies, sex, menstruation, pleasure, dating, and everything else that ripples out from sexuality. If you've never done it before, I lovingly encourage you to sit down for even just twenty minutes and write about how you talk about your own body and sexuality, both in your head and out loud (see my suggestions below for some prompts).
2. Help your daughter figure out what she WANTS as she approaches the romantic world. Rarely is this time – of dating, of burgeoning sexuality – perceived as a natural and positive growth experience. We often speak of these topics from a place of risk and fear, rather than encouraging our girls to know what they actually want in dating, love, partnership, and sex. Encourage her to listen to her gut. See her emotions and reactions as authentic and as messengers of her inner compass that help alert her to people and situations that are healthy, and those that are not. Instead of jumping in with a “I think you're just being paranoid,” or “You're too emotional right now,” simply listen without offering advice and reflect back to her what you're hearing. If she has a big crush on someone but feels silly because all she wants to do is hold hands and hang out, not make out, you can uphold her intuition and say, “That's great! It sounds like you really want to enjoy a connection with this person, but it wouldn't feel right to go any further, and that's absolutely okay – there's no rule that says you have to do something.”
3. Make sure she knows how to express what she DOESN'T want; that it's always okay to say no, to change her mind, to speak up if something's not right, and to know that if someone pressures her or acts like a jerk, she doesn't owe them an apology or anything else. Be explicit in talking to your daughter about what's not okay, like if a guy asks her to send him nude pics. She might roll her eyes at you and say, “Mommmm I knowww!” but it's important to say it anyway. Your daughter needs to know where you stand, and that, more importantly, you have her back and will support her as she navigates the tricky web of love, sex, and dating.
So you see, it doesn't have to be hard. Stop sweating it about having THE TALK. There will be many little talks, passing comments, and small exchanges that are easy for both you and your daughter to engage in, and over time, they amount to a lot. Start slow, ease in, and keep it up.
I'd love to know - have you tried any of these approaches before? What works? What doesn't work? What is one conversation your own mother/father/grandma/etc could have had with you that would have been a game changer for your own adolescence?
Prompt: Exploring My Own Sexuality & Body Image
What body part brings me pleasure? Can I own this pleasure, or do I feel embarrassed?
What is a body part I am ashamed of? How do I talk about it, either in my head or out loud? How would I feel if I heard my daughter speak about her body in this way?
What body parts or functions are hard for me to talk about?
What was a specific time as a young girl where I remember feeling proud of my body? Do I still carry that feeling?
What was a specific time as a young girl where I remember feeling ashamed of my body? Do I still carry that feeling?
What is the most positive, impactful thing anyone could have told me in my youth about my body or sexuality? What would happen if I told my own daughter these very words? Booklist for Girls:
The Care and Keeping of You by American Girl Sex is a Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings, and You by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth It's Perfectly Normal and It's So Amazing by Robie H Harris Below Your Belt: How to Be Queen of Your Pelvic Region by Missy Lavender and Jeni Donatelli Ihm
S. E. X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corinna (for teens)
For parents, I especially recommend For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health by Al Vernacchio, as well as Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood by Lisa Damour (whose work inspired me to craft this blog post - Dr. Damour, you are a STAR!) .