* Warning: Slightly salty language ahead.
My daughter, three years younger than my son, is a tough nut to crack when it comes to sensitive subjects, because she’s shy.
It’s hard to cue in to the “right time” to talk about sex since she doesn’t ask many questions. I used the tactic of answering my son’s explicit questions within earshot of her, hoping she’d get an education by proxy, but I never got much chance to be direct.
Years later, when my son was almost out of high school and my daughter was just entering, there was an incident: My daughter found a condom wrapper in our home and her brother was the only one who’d been in the house.
When she told me, my reply was,
“That must have been really awkward for you.”
“Thank you for being comfortable enough to share with me.”
To my son, I impressed upon him his responsibility to respect other’s privacy, which includes keeping remnants of his sex life out of our community spaces—usually expressed as, “Jeez, pick up after yourself.”
To my daughter, I expressed that my dismay with her brother was not that he had sex, but that he lacked consideration for our privacy from his sexual activity. I wanted her to know that:
1. I was pleased that he’d used a condom—something important and a must when she becomes sexually active; and
2. I would rather he (and eventually she) have sex in the safety and security of our home than in the back seat of a parked car or under the bleachers.
I reiterated that I don’t want any shame surrounding sexuality in our family. I didn’t know at the time how fortuitous that conversation was.
A few months later, my daughter started dating her first boyfriend. He was shy like her, but I could see they were physically affectionate. After spotting a text between them, I knew sexual activity of some kind was on his mind.
My first thought was, “She’s not ready,” and wished there was a way I could delay this step in her development. But parents saying, “you’re not allowed” to do something only makes teens want to do it more. I knew she’d heard all the talk before, but I was pretty certain her boyfriend had less real sex talk in his upbringing. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, but I knew what I wanted most wasn’t for them to talk to me about sex…it was for them to talk to each other.
So one night, while driving the boyfriend home, he asked for a favor from me which required him to trust me, so it was the perfect opportunity to ask if I could trust him in return.
“Have you ever heard of affirmative consent?”
“Well, you’re about to get a crash course…When it comes to sexuality, and that means anything from hand holding to intercourse—consent has to be enthusiastic for both people. ‘No means no’ isn’t enough. ‘Yes means yes’ isn’t enough. It has to be ‘fuck yes’ to be a real yes.”
He smiled a little.
“My daughter is a less verbal communicator than most. A shrug, an ‘okay’, a smile…are simply not enough to assume that she wants what you’re suggesting.”
I assured him that I was under no delusion that their desires would be affected by my wishes, but I would sure step in if I suspected any unwanted advances were being made.
“I will promise to trust and respect your relationship with my daughter, if you promise to trust and respect the boundaries of consent. If I find out that you’ve pressured my daughter or failed to get her enthusiastic consent for any activity at all, you will no longer see her.”
To his credit, he contributed to the conversation in a way that made me feel he understood and respected that.
The next day, my daughter and I talked about the car chat and she said that she’d already told him she wasn’t ready for sex. Of course, I was relieved that she’d made that choice, but more importantly, I was thrilled that they were talking.
Weeks later, I noticed they were in my daughter’s bedroom with the door…closed. Let me tell you, there’s no better way to test if you can walk your walk, than a moment like this. My initial reaction was fear and I wanted to insist the door stay open. But I stopped to think it through.
Sure, I could stop them from any canoodling, but what was I really afraid of? My daughter getting to explore her sexuality with a caring partner in a safe space, while her mom was a stone’s throw away? How was that a bad thing? What scenario was I hoping for? What safer way would she have to slowly explore touch, than in her own room, while a trusted adult is nearby? I imagined my early sexual experiences would have gone much differently if they weren’t at unsupervised high school parties.
I realized that as unorthodox as it felt, it was possibly the best situation for my teen. So I let go of my fear and leaned into trust.
Did I do it right? I don’t know. Did I just essentially give my kids permission to have sex as teenagers? Maybe.
All I know is that they’re talking to their partners, they’re comfortable as sexual beings, and they know I’m a safe, judgement-free adult to talk to. And that’s a good place to start.
See my other article on this topic: The Really-Real Sex Talk I had with my Son.