My 10th grade sex-ed class started with a question: Why do people have sex?
The awkward, protracted silence that followed was predictable—but how my teacher answered her own question was not.
“Because sex is fun!”
I have never forgotten how she said it, so full of enthusiasm and simple authenticity. Looking back, I realize that I didn’t hear what she said as an endorsement or a recommendation but rather as an honest, real and uniquely positive assessment of the reality of sex. I heard something I rarely hear now in sex education, which is that it is often amazing, beautiful, tender, connecting and wonderful—sometimes it’s even mind-blowing.
My children are now teenagers themselves. At some point they will be entering the world of sexuality but even after our many talks on the subject I’m not sure how prepared they are.
I heard a radio call-in show recently in which a 17-year-old girl wanted support to stay over at her boyfriend’s house even though her parents forbade it. The almost unanimous response sounded like this: “When you are financially independent then you can sleep wherever you want. Until then you are under you parents’ roof and your parents’ rules.”
I understood the logic and I support parents to act in alignment with their values. As a psychotherapist, Parenting Coach and mother of two teen daughters, however, I had a very different response.
We give our children—and especially our daughters—a double message. We tell them that their bodies are their own and that they get to say “no” when it doesn’t feel right, but we don’t tell them that they also gets to say “yes” when it does feel right.
When our kids have a love interest, crush or sexual feelings we may want to protect them from their natural impulses and desires—and especially from the perils and complications they might cause. What if we just supported them instead?
For example, here is the statement I want my daughter to hear, loud and clear: Your body belongs to you, and you can do anything with it that you want. You get to say “no” when you don’t want to do something, and you get to say “yes” when you do.
I won’t ask prying questions or make insinuating remarks. I want you to know that your boyfriend is always welcome here, even and especially overnight. He can stay in your room if you like, and I will cook breakfast for both of you in the morning. What does he like to eat?
As I listened to the radio call-in show I slowly realized that my opinion was not the position that most people take. We are conditioned to see sexual behavior as dangerous and maybe even bad, especially for girls. I am not saying that there isn’t danger to having sex, especially when we are younger—but then again there is danger to driving, rock climbing, football, gymnastics, and even being exposed to literature.
Part of empowering girls is not getting in the way of their becoming sexual beings when it is right for them. Supporting girls in their adolescence is about allowing them to develop and explore, just as we would want them to develop and explore any other aspect of themselves. In particular, if we want to empower girls, we need to not overly scare or protect them from their own sexuality.
As my high school sex-ed teacher said, we have sex because it is fun—and she was right. Most of us have sex because we like it, it’s fun, it’s bonding and when done safely, intimately and well, it feels fantastic.
This is the letter I would write to my own daughter as she navigates ever more deeply into her teenage years:
Everyone is going to tell you about the dangers of sexuality: disease, rape, pregnancy and heartbreak. Those are all vitally important. Everyone is going to tell you how to protect yourself, but what I want to talk to you about is something different. I want to tell you how sweet, intimate, and wonderful sex can be.
Sex is amazing and sex is powerful. As you probably know, people primarily have sex because it is bonding and intensely pleasurable, but I have found that sex isn’t just one thing. Forgive the graphic image, but sex isn’t just penetration. The word “sex” can conjure up images of a man putting a penis in a vagina—and yes, that is often a wonderful part of sex—but seeing it in this way is like referring to a gourmet meal as “masticating” which misses almost everything important about it.
Sexuality lives in the mind, in the emotions, in our inter-relating. It’s also in our fingertips, our heart, and everywhere in the body, including the genitals.
I remember my friend touching the back of my hand when I was about 15 years old while we sat next to each other at a football game. He stroked my hand softly and very slowly with his fingers and I had a rush of emotion and feeling that I had never felt before, even though I wasn’t particularly attracted to him. Although I had been mentally and emotionally interested in boys for some time—having had crushes on several—this was the first time I had been physically aroused.
I personally see sexuality as intrinsically connected to our own life force. It is important to me that you feel totally free in your sexuality, both to say “yes,” and to say “no” to every aspect of it. Your body is your own and in my book that means you get to do with it what you want, and not do with it what you don’t want.
For most of us, part of becoming an adult is exploring our sexuality. My hope is that you will enjoy it as much as you have enjoyed exploring the rest of your physical experiences since birth; nursing, walking, climbing, dancing, swimming, running, everything.
Obviously I want you to be able to do this at your own pace, just as you always have. For me, exploring sexuality was slow and considered, and I often preferred to do it privately, on my own, before trying it out with someone else.
I remember my first boyfriend when I was 16 wanting to touch my breasts, and I wasn’t ready. I said, “no” and honestly I think it was hard for him. I imagine that he felt both rejected as well as sexually frustrated because he was very turned on in that moment. Although I cared for him a lot, my “no” was clear, gentle and categorical. Later that night, though, on my own, I explored my own breasts the way I imagined he might and I started to get used to it. It was just so new to me and I needed to go at my own pace.
I have almost always dated people who were already my friends, and I highly recommend it. When you kiss and touch someone you know, like and trust there is a sense of camaraderie and safety already present and that makes doing new things feel more natural, trustworthy and wonderful.
You will know what feels right to try out and what doesn’t, so I hope you will trust yourself. That said, my experience is that throughout life we keep pushing our own edges around sexuality, like we do with everything, and that is part of what makes it interesting and exciting. I suggest that you take the next step when it feels right and I encourage you to try new things out—don’t hold back too much.
Again, playing with sexuality is a joy when you are engaged with someone you trust to respect you regardless of whether you say “yes,” or “no,” or “slow down.”
I also want you to know that sex brings up powerful feelings for most of us, and it bonds us in a way that nothing else can. Casual sex is fine if that is what you want and if you take appropriate precautions around pregnancy and disease, but we can’t avoid the fact that intercourse is how life is created. There seems to be a deep tie that is forged when we have sex with someone, regardless of what our feelings or intentions are. Sometimes women seem to be more sensitive to this bond than men in my experience, so I hope you will include your heart and intuition when you choose to share your body with someone.
At the same time that sex is a big deal, it’s also not a big deal. I recall a friend of mine telling me about having sex in the shower with his girlfriend while living in Denmark. Apparently her mother overheard them and rapped loudly on the door.
“Good practice!” she called, encouragingly.
The first time I had sex I was 17 and I was dating one of my best friends. In the midst of making love for the first time, I was struck by how natural it was. Although it was obviously new to me, my mammalian body already partially knew what to do, and I loved it. After that, making love together became something that was easy and normal for us in our relationship.
It’s like everything else—at first holding hands or kissing your sweetheart is a big deal, and then once you have done it, it becomes the norm. It’s just nice and good.
It is something special that you do with the person you love.
I want you to know that whomever you love, I am likely to love also. Please know that he is always welcome at our house and you two can have as much privacy as you would like. Although sexuality—everything from kissing to sex—can be very private, I don’t ever want you to feel you must hide or be ashamed of it. It can be hard as an adolescent to find a quiet place to commune with your sweetheart, and I want you to know that your home is a place where you can do that anytime. He can be here, he can stay over, and he can sleep in your room when you want that. He is welcome at breakfast in the morning, just like any sleepover you have had in the past.
I trust you and I am here for you. I’ll talk about anything you want to talk about and refrain from talking about anything, as you wish.
I will follow your lead.
Lastly, and I don’t mean to embarrass you, but I also feel so proud of you like I did when you first learned to ride a bike, or read, or when you performed in your school play. Every time you do something new I am amazed by you all over again.
Welcome to being a young woman in yet another way.
I love you.