The convention in American culture for
talking to kids about sex is usually to give a "birds and bees" talk explaining intercourse and reproduction and leave it at that. But kids want — and deserve — to learn much more about sex. Girls especially can benefit from receiving positive messages in a culture filled with toxic ones.
Psychoanalyst Joyce McFadden's book
Modern Mothering is proof of this. McFadden surveyed 450 women on many aspects of their lives including their sexuality and their relationships with their mothers. She found that many women wished their moms had taught them more about sex.
“We should talk to our daughters about sex because when we don’t, they know there must be a reason," McFadden tells Bustle. "Even our littlest understand that the things we’re happy about or proud of are the things we talk about freely. It’s the bad things we don’t discuss. Over time, our silence around female sexuality combined with this vague sense of ‘badness’ gets absorbed into how our daughters see themselves, and it undermines not only their confidence but their desire to feel close to us. ... We actively help our daughters grow up in every other way — learning to walk, read, make friends, prepare for college and so on — but when it comes to sexuality, they often feel left all alone."
Here are some things that every girl deserves to learn about sex — and that every adult woman deserves to learn, too, if she didn't learn it as a girl.
Masturbation Is Normal — And Good For You
Even if you weren't taught that masturbation would make you blind, you may have been taught nothing about it at all, which can also cause shame about masturbation. Many of the women McFadden surveyed wished their moms had spoken to them about masturbation "as normal and as a way to explore their bodies."
Learning about masturbation can benefit young women by giving them a sexual outlet that doesn't involve anyone else and making the
health benefits of masturbation available to them. "This one act women rarely speak of beyond a quick reference is capable of serving many emotional and physical purposes," McFadden writes. "The business of masturbation is streamlined for productivity because all we require is our body, so our ability to masturbate goes anywhere we go. Just like a baby’s thumb, it’s right there whenever we need it."
There's Nothing Wrong With Periods
Getting your period can be unsettling if you've received
toxic messages about menstruation, like that you're less competent while you're menstruating, or learned nothing about it at all. That's why it's important for parents to talk to kids about periods in a positive way.
During their first periods, many of McFadden's respondents "experienced elements of fear and confusion while being denied the maternal warmth to tie it all together," she writes. "In describing it in my study, they use adjectives like
alarming, shameful, horrible, and dirtyWe need to make sure they know that their female bodies are something to be revered. If we do this, as teens they’ll feel they have our support through the transition into adulthood, and as adult women it will be easier for them to have a comfort with their bodies and erotic lives." .
All Bodies Are Beautiful
With the bodies we see in ad campaigns and magazines representing a very small array of actual people, girls need
body-positive messages to counter the negative body image the media promotes. Parents can help by teaching their kids that all bodies are beautiful, including theirs, and that their inner beauty is more important anyway.
"The more confident a girl is, the better able she’ll be to hold her own against social pressures," McFadden writes. "If a girl is supported in being whole, maybe she’ll grow into a woman who appreciates the
singularity of her body and the complexities of her mind and her heart."
You Have A Whole Vulva, Not Just A Vagina
The word that kids learn for female genitalia is usually "vagina." However, the vagina is just the internal part, and only teaching girls about this part of their genitals implies that the external portion is less important. For many people, though, what's on the outside is actually more important for sexual pleasure. Therefore, kids should learn about the whole vulva.
McFadden cites a
study in Gender and Psychoanalysis finding that girls were more likely to learn the word "penis" than any name at all for their own genitalia. "When we don’t teach our daughters the names of their genitals, not only does it make it that much harder for girls to have a growing understanding of them, it disavows our girls of any appreciation of them," she writes. "One might argue that that is because the penis is external and the vagina internal. However, the vulva is just as externally apparent as the penis, and because we were never taught the correct names for our anatomy, millions of grown women still mistakenly refer to our vulvas as vaginas."
The Clitoris Is Kind Of A Big Deal
Several respondents to McFadden's survey talked about not knowing
how to orgasm because nobody had ever taught them. Amid the myth promoted by porn that the vagina is the epicenter of female pleasure, young people need to be taught the importance of the clitoris.
"Make sure, sometime in late-middle school to early-high school, that you extend your anatomy lesson to include orgasm and the different levels of sensitivity in the clitoris and vagina," McFadden writes. "Let her know not all women climax from vaginal stimulation and that she should feel comfortable learning the unique responses of her own body."
It's Normal For Women To Be Sexual
Often, parents, especially moms, feel like they're not allowed to be sexual, particularly around their kids. However, according to McFadden, moms who present themselves as sexual beings can help daughters see it's OK for them to be sexual as well.
"It’s also helpful to let your daughter bear witness to you when you’re feeling sexy or sexual," she writes. "Comment on it, and celebrate it. You don’t even have to be in a sexual relationship to have such feelings. It could be as simple as saying, 'I always feel sexy when I wear this shirt,' or when relating a love story of yours being sure to include how you felt in your own body — and use any language you feel comfortable with. You can say you felt on fire, you can say you were given the vapors. It doesn’t matter. She just needs to know it’s there in you and that it makes you feel alive."
Puberty can be a lonely time, but families can help their kids by letting them know that they're not alone. McFadden suggests that parents share their own experiences with their kids, or at least let them know others are going through similar things.
"You can share stories of your first period with her at this age, or what it felt like to, seemingly overnight, have underarm and pubic hair," she writes. "Extend to her your memories to let her know she’s not alone, and that the changes she’s going through can be talked about. It’s the emotional piece of the sharing we need to celebrate because that’s where the sense of belonging will come from."
Due to the stigma around families talking about sex combined with the stigma around female sexuality, these conversations can be uncomfortable. By every time a family has these discussions, they're working toward a world where they're more comfortable for everyone.