I have three girls—one who is grown, one who is just going through puberty, and one who is almost 3—and I am a firm believer in talking about sex. My husband and I both came from families where that didn’t happen well…OK, at all. And we were left to our own devices, which is NEVER a good thing when you are a kid. I never want my girls to feel as ignorant and underprepared as I was. Because whether we like it or not, our daughters turn into young women with sexual feelings, and if we love them, we want their experiences to be positive, love-filled ones. Ignorance makes it easier for young girls to be taken advantage of. And these days, unprepared sex can lead to all sorts of diseases and death, in addition to lifelong trauma. And while a vaccine like the HPV shot makes it seem like our girls are safe, not only are there risks associated with the vaccine, it only covers one small aspect of their sexual safety.
So here are my top 10 tips for talking with your daughter about sex:
1. Start early. Use real words for real body parts. You don’t have to use them all the time, but my 2½-year-old knows where her vagina is. Don’t shy away from describing the differences between boys and girls.
2. Show her you are comfortable with your own body (even if you’re not). If she walks in the room while you are changing, don’t hide. Be as open as you are comfortable being—and maybe even a little more. Watch your responses to sexual information or jokes (try not to be too disapproving). She will learn a lot more from watching how you are with your body and with your sexuality than by anything you say.
3. Start explaining at a fairly young age what is OK and not OK. If we want our kids to be safe, they have to know what is allowed and not allowed—among people they trust as well as strangers. Arm her with information to protect her from predators.
4. Make her aware of the world around her. If my 11-year-old lived in Afghanistan, she might be married by now—the third or fourth wife of an old man. If she lived in China 100 years ago, not only would she not be allowed to play soccer, but her feet would have been brutally mutilated so she could not walk. Listen to the news together. Let her know how lucky she is to be alive in this time and in this place.
5. Go to the museum. There’s nothing like beautiful paintings and sculpture from ancient to modern times showing the glory of nakedness, desire, love, and pleasure to express what sex is truly about. Use them as a tool to tell stories and explain the different aspects of love and desire.
6. Get her some books. For the gory details, it’s much better to let her read about it in a book (preferably with illustrations) than to have you be her only source. Just make sure you make yourself available for questions. I find Amazon.com has a good selection.
7. Take her to the doctor. I asked my gynecologist’s office when they like to start seeing girls. The receptionists said, “When they start becoming sexually active— around age 17 or 18.” Well, I think earlier. By then it’s too late. Don’t let her feel alone and unprepared.
8. Insist that she always use protection. Talking about protection is a good way to talk about sex, but also essential for protecting your girl. I always insist on them using condoms—because it’s not just about preventing unwanted birth, but about preventing unwanted and dangerous diseases. I have a brother who died from AIDS in 1985, so this is real for me. I also express my opinions about birth control. I think the pill not only messes with your hormones too much, but studies have shown that it interferes with choosing the right long-term partner. I think the forethought needed for the diaphragm, for instance, makes it harder to “just do it” with anyone at any time (therefore, I highly recommend it).
9. Encourage her to wait for true love. I was listening to a radio show where they were talking about the conundrum of what to tell your girls to wait for, whether abstinence while waiting for marriage seems too long and hard, what guidance can you give? TRUE LOVE! I wanted to shout into the radio (I was driving so I couldn’t call in.) Living with a lifetime of regrets over a bad first experience (or many) is nothing we would wish on any young woman—however, those regrets are too frequent. She deserves pleasure. She deserves to be treated well. She deserves to have her first experience be one that is a happy memory for the rest of her life.
10. Make her feel safe to come to you. No matter what mistakes she makes (and she will make them) you should hold back your judgment, control your reactions so she knows that no matter what, she can come to you for guidance, love, help, information, comfort, and safety. I got pregnant at 19 and kept my baby. It was the best decision I ever made. But I couldn’t have done it without the love and support of my family. And that’s the truest love of all.