Girls’ Studies: Sex

Today’s assignment for my girls’ studies class seems a little tricky.  Here are the questions.

What did you know/not know about sex as a girl?

Who, if anyone, did you talk to about it?

What, if anything, do you wish you knew?

Imagine having your own girl one day—how will you talk to her about sex?

What do you want her to know?

I honestly didn’t know much about sex while growing up.  I can’t ever remember my parents talking to me about it.  I did know, from my church, that we were supposed to wait until marriage for sex, and that certain activities were considered sinful.  While those activities were named, I had no idea what they were in practice. They were just words.  I think this is definitely a problem in terms of sex education.  What I wish I had known stems from this.  I wish I had known what certain terms meant so that I could be empowered to either act or not act.

My earliest memory of being aware of sexual “things” is a slumber party (of course) at my cousin’s house.  She spent the evening telling us dirty jokes that were mostly pretty tame, but they opened my eyes to some of the ways that men viewed women’s bodies and how those bodies might do more than I suspected.

In sixth grade, we had maturation day.  Ah, what a dreaded and uncomfortable day.  I remember the boys and girls sitting on opposite sides of the room, it seemed, and all of us stock still and uncomfortable and unable to look anybody in the eye.  I came home realizing that my body would do something cool someday (menstruate) and that I wished that day would come really quickly (what on earth was I so excited about?).  I don’t remember talking to anybody about that day and what I learned.  I likely talked with my step-sister and sisters about this stuff, but I don’t have any particular memories of it.  I do remember my step-sister getting her period first and telling me that the maxi pad felt like having a banana between her legs.  We laughed at that one, and I envied her discomfort.

I do remember my mother-in-law giving me a sort of sex talk before I got married.  I remember being a little uncomfortable, but I played it cool.  Her advice was sound and I’m grateful for her bravery and openness.  She was right, and what she said was appropriate for my situation and my impending marriage.  I’m not sure that what I learned that day would have been any help in high school or younger.

I don’t have to imagine having a daughter.  I have one with whom we’ve talked about sex with.  I asked a bunch of my more experienced friends how they talked to their kids, and I read online about how to have “the talk.”  I ultimately got some children’s books about sex at the library and we sat down as a family and read them.  We stopped for questions and to clarify some of the ideas.  My daughter listened intently, said she understood, and then went on her merry way.  She wasn’t frightened or shocked by it.  She didn’t say anything funny, as some of my friends’ kids have.  She just accepted it and moved on.  We may need to keep talking about it.  I don’t think a birds and bees talk is one that can or should be had just once.  I think it needs to be repeated.

What I want my daughter to know is that sex is normal and natural, but that she should wait until she’s married to experience it.  I’m not a prude, but I do think that a lot of problems can be avoided by girls and boys waiting to have sex with the right person at the right time.  But I don’t want her to be ignorant or so innocent that she can’t protect herself.  I also don’t want her to feel that it is bad or wrong.  In terms of puberty in general, I wrote previously about it in connection with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  One of the books I have used to talk with my daughter about these changes is The Care and Keeping of You by the American Girl company.  I highlight this book in the Alice post.

care and keeping of you cover

In terms of sex crimes, I think all girls should have an understanding of what is healthy and what isn’t so that they don’t blame themselves for sexual violence.  That’s easier said than done, but I think we need to overcome rape culture and a rhetoric of victim-blaming (whether that includes dress or attitudes) that continues to place women as objects and as vulnerable.  Elizabeth Smart’s story is a vivid example of the harm that some of the rhetoric surrounding sex can have on girls’ psyches.  After her book was published, she gave many interviews.  In one, she talked about feeling dirty and like a licked cupcake or a chewed piece of gum (because of bad object lessons) after being raped.  Girls should not have to learn about sex in ways that makes them feel like less than a whole person if their first sexual experiences are out of their control, or even if they are in their control.  There is a double standard when it comes to sex, and it isn’t healthy for anybody.

I’ve said enough.  If you’d like to answer any of the questions for this assignment, feel free in the comments.  This can be both an enlightening and sensitive topic.

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53 thoughts on “Girls’ Studies: Sex

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  1. I am not a parent, but it sounds like you’re doing a great thing for your daughter, teaching her about sex even though you believe in abstinence until marriage. Abstinence shouldn’t have to mean ignorance, and your daughter will be much better off for having these conversations with you, even if it’s uncomfortable.
    I went to Catholic school and we had “family life,” which was our version of sex education, from fifth through eighth grade. My all-girls Catholic high school was also open and honest about contraception and STD prevention, well within the bounds of Catholic morality. I think that no matter the morality, it is important that girls are treated as agents, not passive receptors, and therefore they have to be given honest, accurate information about how their bodies work, how they’re growing, and why their churches maybe think of sexuality differently than popular music and culture do.

    1. This is so well put. I do advocate abstinence, but I also know that reality and historical trends don’t show that everybody will do this. Knowledge should be shared, and I agree that girls should be agents!

  2. Hah! My “talk” was after I fell down while walking across the ridge of a dog house. I was pretty sure I cut myself doing that. Ouch! But my mom decided it might be something else and time for the “talk.” I think I was 10. She started talking about sperm and eggs, without telling me what the heck they were. I had no idea what she was talking about, so I tuned out until she stopped talking.

  3. When I think about the differences between how my parents handled talking to us about sex, and what I am doing for my own children, I don’t feel angry or hurt that they didn’t say or do as much as I think they should have, I just feel bad for them that, for some reason, they couldn’t overcome the barriers that prevented them from fully educating us. I feel sure that they wanted us to be prepared, and that they might have even thought that they had done what they were required to do. I don’t think it’s as hard for us as it was for them. We have more resources and talking about sex is much more open and common now than it was then. Sex is everywhere, it’s unavoidable.

    I bought this same book for my daughters, and something that I found interesting is that it took my oldest daughter (who was 9 at the time) about a year to crack it open and read it. But my youngest (who is still only 8) has already devoured it. I think some children will respond better than others when it comes time to talk about sex and issues surrounding sex. I’m afraid that, even with the best intentions of having open lines of communication, some parents are going to have a hard time feeling like they’re getting through and being heard.

    1. That’s a great point. It didn’t feel like my daughter heard exactly what we were saying, and I even repeated it and she just nodded. And yes, we are more open about this now. It still felt strange and a little embarrassing in a high-schoolish way when we embarked on “the talk,” but it turned out okay. It is nice to have more resources and just to feel a little braver talking about the subject.

      1. I still feel a bit strange talking about it with my children as well, but I try to pretend I don’t. Even now, I wonder if there is anyone who feels completely at ease talking about sex with their children.

  4. O-M-G – Great Topic – one that was not well discussed in my house growing up! My dad actually gave me the talk, which was really weird to me at the time (9th grader I believe). I had that day in school too with the girls on one side and the boys on the other side in a church of all places in 5th grade – no one talked after that presentation at school that afternoon either – I think we were all mortified having a presentation about our bodies that way, especially with da boys in da house. Have a Great Day:)

    1. That’s kind of funny about your dad giving you the talk, but I’ve learned some of my greatest lessons from my dad and other male mentors. It is important for them to be involved too. Thanks for commenting!

  5. We have that book too, it is a good one. My girls (11 and 9) have been reading it on and off for a while, and asking me questions. I’ve had a “talk” with the older one, but not yet with the younger one. The key, though, is that it is an ongoing topic, always open for questions at any time without parental awkwardness.
    One time is not enough. Kids get messages from friends and culture on a daily basis. One parent talk does not counteract that onslaught. We as parents have to give repeated messages about what is right/healthy/valued/etc as far as sexuality goes, to counter the cultural messages they get that usually tell them the wrong things about their bodies and how to use them.
    Good post, Emily

    1. You are spot on! We do have to talk repeatedly to counter or address culture and all of the other messages out there. Thanks for the great comment. This was such a hard post for me to make public, but it seems like a lot of us are thinking about it and worried about it and just concerned about being good parents. Thanks, Jeanne.

  6. Emily, great post, although I am of the wrong gender. In my volunteer work, I see first hand that a contributor to poverty and homelessness is children born to teen mothers. My brother and sister in laws teach middle school and they have pregnant girls in their class, who feel it gives them esteem and value. We need to teach girls to value themselves and know that the “pressuring boys” do not have their best interests in mind. It is OK to say no and boys need to be taught what no means and respect women. But, we should also be realistic and teach young girls and boys about protection. Thanks again, BTG

  7. I bought this book at the recommendation of the elementary school nurse. It’s wonderful and I read it with both my daughters. I agree there shouldn’t be one talk. My husband and I tried to weave conversations about sex and health regularly with our daughters. Without lecturing, they got the messages and have grown into responsible young women who make their overall health a priority.

    1. That sounds exactly like the way I want things to be with my daughters. I like that you mentioned not lecturing. It should be more of a conversation than a set of prescriptions.

  8. As always, a thoughtful and incisive post! I respect and admire how you’re approaching sex ed with your daughters — I think ongoing dialogue is definitely the way to go, no matter where you fall on the abstinence-or-not spectrum.

    I plan to have the same dialogue with my son (and my husband will be involved too), and we’ll also be very open to talking about LGBT*Q issues (I don’t want to presume that my son is straight), and talk about preventing sexual violence. Of course we’ll talk to him about avoiding becoming a victim (no second location, etc.), but we also want to be sure that he’s fully informed about consent and never, ever taking advantage of another person.

    1. This sounds like a good plan. I like that you’ve already thought about this in so much detail although he’s still young. I don’t think I thought about this until it seemed to be upon us!

  9. It comforts me that you approached “the talk” this way. I’m 16 and I never really had the full conversation, I think I found it too awkward to talk about. But I think the main reason was, and it would probably sadden my parents to hear me say this, but I learnt everything through a brief presentation at school and talking to my friends. If I have a daughter I’d definitely have the conversation the way you did before she did something she would regret.

    1. It is interesting to hear how many of us didn’t have the talk and how we wish we did hear it from our parents. That is a big part of my parenting philosophy, that my daughters will hear stuff somewhere so it might as well be from me!

  10. Very well written. I hope one day I can teach my daughter as you have taught yours. Even now at her early age I try to be open because I always want her to talk to me. Her exposure is limited at this point obviously – but I know I experienced shame and guilt about things that I did at a similar age. For many years I held a secret that the neighbor boy and I mooned cars that drove past our apartment building. I felt awful about it. I felt dirty and sinful. Now I look back on it I can imagine the passersby having a good laugh. Anyway, I love what you say about educating our daughters so they are empowered. I want her to understand when she is curious and always have an open dialog. I hope I will not be awkward in these conversations so she will continue to talk to me. 🙂

    1. I’m sure they did have a good laugh! And it sounds like what you are aiming for with your daughter will happen because you are aware of it and beginning that communication now. I always say that I want my daughters to hear this stuff from me, so I have to be open about it now so that they’ll come to me later. This is the theory! I hope it works in practice.

    1. Ariel, this post is fantastic! Everybody should read it. I love your conclusions at the end. It sounds like we had similar upbringings. Thank you for sharing this with me.

  11. My memories are: in my tween years defending my babysitter who was pregnant prior to marriage because I believed it was immaculate conception; in 6th grade a crude joke was told and I did not understand its meaning.

    Unfortunately, my peer group were my confidantes.

    I wish I understood more fully the sacred nature behind the relationship. The beautiful gift it truly is when used properly in the bonds of marriage. It is sinful to misuse its heavenly powers but the act itself, is given as a gift from God that has been wholly distorted by Satan.

    I am the mother of six, four are daughters. We too have this book and I have used it with my two oldest daughters, eleven and fifteen. Our fifteen-year-old was very open during her sex-ed class in school. We discuss all that concerns her even to this day as a sophomore in high school. I homeschool are other children our eleven-year-old is too open. Our other girls are only four and three.

    I can always do better at helping my daughters more fully understand their bodies and the beauty they hold. I want them to know the beauty of the gift of intimacy and its sacred nature that needs to be guarded vs. its sinful nature that they should not do.

    Thank you for providing this wonderful discussion. I too appreciate your insights.

    1. Thanks for your comments. It sounds like you have some good discussions going on with your daughters. It really is our job to teach them as there are plenty of other sources willing to teach things that objectify women and demean the importance of this relationship, as you say.

  12. This must have been a hard post to write, but you did a beautiful job writing personally while also maintaining privacy about your experiences. There seems to be a lot of focus in the comments on parents talking to their daughters but I also want to mention the HUGE importance of parents talking to their sons. It’s probably implied, but I don’t want that idea to be under-represented here. 🙂

    In my own experience, everything about sex, especially as a female, was heaped with towering mountains of shame and silence and sin and secrecy and exploitation. Sex Ed in middle school was a true life saver, although, for me, it came too late. I had started menstruating before I ever knew what that was and I hid it from everyone for quite awhile. I was afraid and ashamed and uneducated. I never discussed it with my parents or trusted church adults because of the oppression of women in my religious setting at the time and because I was afraid. Learning about puberty and sex in school gave me the power of normalization outside of an oppressive religious experience and I was finally able to begin talking about it with my school girlfriends and to make educated decisions about sex and morality in my own life. I ultimately rejected my church’s morality for women, left my church, and created my own new values. Sex education was a catalyst for beginning that transition for which I’m immensely grateful. I am really encouraged that the topic has become more open even among very religious people.

    Thanks for talking about this, Emily. It’s really important.

    1. Denise, I always love your comments and I learn so much from you! Yes, it was a hard post and I wanted to keep specific things private. I hope that came through. Additionally, yes, we should be talking to sons too. Perhaps they need MORE of this because of the double standards and the way they are shaped by the media as much as girls are. Excellent point! Your experience growing up sounds tough, but tragically typical based on a book I read called The Body Project for this class. It is shocking how many girls don’t know what is happening to them. And I appreciate you bringing up the complicated feelings of guilt and shame associated with being female. Great addition to the discussion!

  13. Thank you, Emily for opening up this topic for discussion. Lots of excellent comments and interesting experiences!

    My own “first impressions:”

    In second or third grade, my mom gave me two little books to read at my leisure about a growing girl’s body. Always a curious soul, I devoured them, but have no recollection of any conversations with her about them. Later, in fourth grade, I was visiting with older male and female cousins who invited me to play “strip poker” with them. Ha! I think that was my first memory of feeling self-conscious about private body parts, even though the farthest this ever went was down to underwear – thank goodness (we were all “good” Catholic kids).

    When I was in fifth grade, I had a crush on my BFF’s brother. We were out riding bikes in my neighborhood overseas and we came across two dogs mating. It was a disturbing sight. Imprinted in my memory forever. Somehow, I associated it with humans and it just seemed so strange to me. It was so incredibly awkward to have this happen while I was with a boy that I liked.

    Getting my period for the first time was a horrible experience. I was not prepared and my mom was way too nervous about it to calm and reassure me. Those huge Kotex with the silly waistbands were so stone age and uncomfortable! Thankfully, I stumbled upon tampons while I was searching for something to use in the bathroom while on my period when I was alone babysitting one day.

    In seventh grade a school sex ed class was offered with a formal intro about boys’ and girls’ bodies and their functions. Although I aced the class, looking back, it seemed more anatomy-related than a discussion about what sex is, what it means and what the whole experience is about — something I think should be included when someone is teaching this topic. But then again, there’s the whole issue of who should be having that discussion, and I believe it is the primary responsibility of the parents because society has such different opinions that usually are confusing to children.

    I was grateful for the basic understanding of the human body from that junior high experience, but by the time I was supposedly ready for marriage (and yes, as a good convert LDS young woman I had abstained from sex), I had little to no understanding about sex in marriage and what to expect; no understanding of male or female sexual organs and their responses; no understanding of what a wonderful experience it could and should be. I knew most of the anatomy, but these other things were far more important! I hate to say it, but I will admit that my own naiveté contributed to my unhappiness (and my husband’s) in and with marriage.

    Emily, my hat is off to you for sharing your experience and widening the circle of understanding. We women should be more informed and should take advantage of the many tools that are available in this age to ensure that we, along with our sons and daughters are better equipped with the best information possible to empower each to have a happy and successful experience with our maturing bodies and entering marriage.

    1. I love hearing your experiences! I read about the Kotex belts in a book for this class, and that doesn’t sound comfortable at all! I’m impressed that you figured out tampons by yourself. I never had any luck with those until I was married… I love the point you make about how it can and should be a wonderful thing in a marriage and that sometimes that can be hard. Thanks for the great comments and insights!

  14. Thanks for sharing this. As girl who grew up in both the United States and Pakistan, I’ve been exposed to a wide range of ideas regarding sex, emotional knowledge and security and young women’s reactions to both. Reading your post helped me gain even more perspective and I found myself trying to answer some of the questions in my head. I found your answers insightful and interesting. Thanks again!

  15. Thanks for writing about this topic, Emily. I’ve just recently started thinking about this as well, as my son will soon be turning 10 and is asking very pointed questions about how a dad’s DNA can impact a child. He hears so many comments about how he looks just like his dad and it’s baffling him! I’m very open to talking to my son but somehow I stopped here. I think the reason is that he does still seem “little,” and I feel that getting any more detailed about sex would really just freak him out at this point. So I’m going to go with my instincts and just wait a little longer until I feel he can handle it. But we’ve started talking about puberty and how one grows into adulthood, which he finds embarrassing so we stay totally matter-of-fact about it, letting him know that it is just another grow spurt, both natural and necessary. I also like what Carolyn wrote above and as my son gets older I do want to be involved in talking about sexual responsibility; I think it will be very important for him to get a woman’s point of view and not just his dad’s.

    As for me, my mother tried talking to me about sex – probably a little too late, like when I was in my mid-20s, and I really didn’t want to have the conversation. I learned about sex through reading. That was the good thing about being a bookworm; I had Judy Blume and I otherwise borrowed a ton of books about puberty and sexuality from the library. I would have liked to have someone other than my parents to ask questions to but the books did save me.

    Thanks for sharing your personal stories and thoughts/beliefs here, which I respect and agree with. Your daughters are in good hands!

    1. Thank you! Isn’t Judy Blume awesome? I learned a lot from her books too, about more than just sex or my body but what it meant to be a girl and how to navigate tricky situations. It sounds like your son might be ready, and it is good you are answering his questions. I think answering the honestly and when they arise is a good way to ease into this sort of conversation.

  16. I loved your post! I too mentioned the object lesson that Elizabeth Smart talked about in my discussion question for this week. I think it is so important that knowledge concerning sex is made ready and available at all times so that everyone can learn to protect themselves and decide for themselves how they will conduct their bodies. It sounds like you are doing this in teaching your own daughter about sex. More parents should take this approach like you have! I know I intend to if I ever have a daughter of my own.

  17. I completely agree with you that “the talk” shouldn’t be just once and shouldn’t be overwhelming. Books have helped me, too. My little one is a bit young for The Care and Keeping of You but I had that one and I thought it was great. I’m no prude either but I do wish I had waited and will advise my daughter to do the same. That was one portion of sex ed I wish my female relatives had given me more direction in.

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