I grew up thinking that once you got your period you had it every day, that sex always happens standing up, and that condoms were as thick as shoe leather. I don’t know where I got these stupid ideas from, but I know that no one I trusted ever disabused me of them. Certainly not my mother, for which I never forgave her. The only person who tried was Mrs. Whittaker, my sixth grade sex-ed teacher, although all I can remember her saying is that you shouldn’t drink before sex because you’ll fall asleep. I relied mostly on a copy of The Joy of Sex I found in the bedside table drawer of one of my friends’ moms. But this was the early ’80s when the people in it were still very hairy and thus somewhat repulsive to the pre-teen eye. I vowed that when I became a mother, I would do better.
For a while, when my children were younger, I did. On the advice of my sister-in-law, I began to talk to them about sex early and bluntly. One day, when I was pregnant with my third child, I was in the pool with a bunch of kids when one of my friends’ kids asked me how the baby got in there. This is my chance, I thought, and plunged in. There was no “daddy planted a seed” talk. I explained with precise anatomical detail how the baby got in there, and then opened the floor for questions: Do you have to be in love? But the penis is floppy. How does it stay in? Each one I addressed with brisk honesty. I modeled myself on the volunteers at the National Zoo, who explained to legions of schoolchildren for over a decade the different ways that Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing have tried to mate. The children were rapt, and then sated. I was smug. And then a few years later, the children grew up.
Now my daughter is about to go into high school, and it’s time to revisit The Talk. I have been telling myself that since September. At first I thought I would time it around her bat mitzvah, what with her becoming a woman and all. But the bat mitzvah has come and gone and the talk has not yet happened. Sometimes I tell myself this is because I need to perfect it, read more advice books, try different versions out on my friends. But this is only partly true. I procrastinate for the same reason one might procrastinate signing up for a marathon when one has not gone for a run in 10 years: I am nearly 100 percent sure that the talk will not go well.
My aborted attempts so far have not been promising. Recently I reread Jill Lepore’s 2010 review of the new generation of sex-ed books for girls. Although Lepore does not mention free-flowing heart-to-hearts resulting from such books, I nonetheless drew hope from her overall tone. According to her piece, the updated version of teaching kids about sex is straightforward, thorough, and open about every possible topic. The books are products not of the groovy ’70s but of the practical aughts. I settled on The Care and Keeping of You and put it on my daughter’s bed one day, and then peeked in her room to catch a glimpse of the private awakening. She had already kicked it under the bed and was reading Divergent.
I asked my two close friends, whose daughters have grown up with mine, what they do. One of them told me that in her house full of girls, conversations come up naturally. For example, one time she and her daughter were discussing how middle school girls talk, and whether they really know what they are talking about or are just practicing adult mimicry. This led to her daughter’s asking her when she first had sex, and how many sexual partners she’d had. While some parents might hate being asked that question, I was envious that my friend got the coveted opening. My daughter would no more ask me such questions than she would wear a bunny suit to school.
Another friend regularly watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer with her daughter, where transcendental sexual matters arise frequently. For example, in a famous episode Angel has sex with Buffy and then Angel loses his soul, and gleeful killing ensues. “Mom, that’s what happens when you make bad choices,” her daughter said. She was being ironic, of course—“bad choices” being the choice phrase of the after-school special. In fact, she probably said that in order to ward off her mother’s lesson about bad choices. But still, a hole opened, the connection was made, the language between them became a tiny bit richer, my friend said. I asked if we could come and watch Buffy with them. But she said it would ruin the mood.
“Hey, do you want to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer with me one night?” I asked my daughter.
“No thanks. It looks really stupid,” she said, and put her headphones back in and returned to her viewing of Parks and Rec.
In my desperation, I have taken to watching that scene in Friday Night Lights where Tami Taylor gives Julie what is widely considered the best mother-daughter sex talk ever. Julie’s father has just caught her in bed with her longtime boyfriend, Matt. Julie should be in big trouble but instead Tami decides to take the noble route. She projects the perfect blend of vulnerability and total authority.
Tami: You know, just ’cause you’re having sex this one time doesn’t mean that you have to all the time, and you know if it ever feels like he’s taking you for granted, or you’re not enjoying it you can stop anytime … and if you ever break up with Matt it’s not like you have sex with the next boy necessarily.
Here she tears up, and usually so do I.
Julie: Why are you crying?
Tami: Because I wanted you to wait … but that’s just because I want to protect you because I love you, and I want to make sure nothing bad ever happens to you. And I want you to always be able to talk to me even if it’s about something so hard like this.
Maybe that’s the problem. Always be able to talk to me. Is that the standard we’re after these days? Recently I ran into a friend at a party who said that she was OK with her daughter’s having sex as long as she told her about it. This assumption of chatty closeness is the opposite of my mother’s approach but also struck me as all wrong. Why convey to your children that it is bad for them to keep a moment of intimacy to themselves? Anyway, isn’t part of the thrill of teenage sex that it happens while your parents aren’t looking? It always amazes me that parents completely forget what it’s like to be 16 and in love, that we assume that what made us so happy at that age is going to ruin our children. And that we can’t summon up how we would have felt if our mom had said, Tell me everything.
I don’t want my daughter to think she has to talk to me every time, but there are things I do want to convey. I am pretty sure that my version of The Talk is very different than what my mother would have said, since in her set no one had sex before marriage, or at least didn’t admit to it. Mine would be something about how the point of sex is to have fun. (My husband would probably disagree here. Fathers tend to turn Tony Soprano when it comes to their daughters. But I’ll let him handle the boys—some sex-talk traditions are worth preserving.) I want to say that if you are in love, that fun may be more likely to happen, but it’s not the only way. That it’s somewhat different for boys and girls, at least at first. That there are ways you have to protect yourself because, back to Point A, if you don’t, it won’t be fun. That there is a lot of easy access to porn these days, and she might learn something from it but will more likely learn all the wrong things. It’s just that when I say these words out loud, they feel like birds that have escaped from my mouth and are flying madly around the room.
Recently I got the courage to take the first step. My daughter was sitting on the floor looking at BuzzFeed on her laptop and I announced that soon I was going to talk to her about sex.
“No you’re not,” she said, and walked out of the room.
For all I know, my daughter has mastered vast anatomical details. Apparently that’s what happens these days. Kids learn about smegma and epididymis before they know what love is. Maybe she and her friends look up anything they’re curious about on the Web at any time. And they know all about the existence of Internet porn, if they haven’t seen it. If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s better I keep my mouth shut, because preserving a little mystery isn’t a bad thing.
If nothing else, my failure to deliver the best mother-daughter sex talk ever, or any sex talk at all, has made me more generous toward my own mother. I bet she tried, and I just kept walking out of the room.