Why You Need To Have A Comprehensive Sex Talk With Your Daughter: A Conversation With Joyce McFadden

By  | 

Parents dread initiating the sex talk with their children for a multitude of reasons. Timidity, embarrassment, or the sheer fear of being too suggestive leaves many parents scrambling for a comprehensive book or relegating the conversation to schools. But when it comes to raising daughters, Joyce McFadden, psychoanalyst and author of Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights For Raising Confident Women, argues that mothers are in a particularly influential position. McFadden interviewed hundreds of women ranging in age from 18 to 105 years old about their sexuality and more specifically how their relationships with their mothers molded their understanding of their sexuality as women. Her findings reveal a thread a shame that follows many of her subjects from childhood on through adulthood, most commonly rooted in their mother’s inability to address the topic as anything other than negative. Even in cases where mothers chose to remain quiet on the subject of sexuality, many of McFadden’s subjects later confessed that sexuality will remain the space in which they felt themselves drifting away from their mothers — unable to ask for the guidance that they wished she had provided.

You begin in the introduction by observing that a mother’s sense of self does not exist in a vacuum. Can you please say a little more about that?

Sure. Our sense of self spills into our intimate relationships whether we want it to or not.  When it’s a quality we’re fine with, like emotional generosity, for example, we don’t mind its impact on our daughters.  When it’s a feature we’re uncomfortable with or ashamed of, we like to believe we can contain it and keep it hidden.  But given the long-standing, intimate nature of the mother-daughter bond, our vulnerabilities inevitably leak through, and we consciously or unconsciously put some form of them out there.

Since authentic female sexuality as girls and women really experience it still isn’t supported in our culture, our feelings about our sexuality often fall under the heading of stuff we’re unsettled about.  Our daughters may not know the details of the sexual shame or guilt we might carry, but the fallout of those feelings will affect them.  A mother who feels shame around sexuality will likely raise a daughter who, through her internalization of her mother’s direct or indirect communication of it, will perpetuate that shame another generation.

You write that mothers “have to stop participating in sustaining the lore that females need to be quarantined in sexual and nonsexual zones.” Do you find that even well-meaning mothers do this unintentionally?

Yes I do. It’s not our fault — we’re all products of the same sexist culture, so we can’t help but absorb the sexism all around us.  We’re so used to it, sometimes we can’t see it.  But that’s what’s exciting about what the women in my book have to teach us.  They show us how the subtleties of sexism still trip us up.  They confess that even when they intellectually embrace the understanding they have just as much right to be sexual as males, they still experience doubt, anxiety, shame, guilt and ignorance on an emotional level.  Our lack of explicit and implicit support of our daughters’ sexuality, and our difficulty in modeling for them our valuing of our own sexuality are just two of the ways sexism subtly creeps in to handicap them.  We mothers often aren’t aware we’re contributing to these emotional responses because we’ve been handicapped by the very same dynamic.

In Your Daughter’s Bedroom, you include a very powerful story about a mother who punishes her daughter for sexual acts that she hasn’t committed but rather that she herself has done. Like you, I find that a lot of times mothers behave this way with good intentions but ultimately end up shaming their daughter for potentially having a sexuality. Why is respect and freedom to fail something mother’s should maintain when it comes to their daughter’s sexuality?

Respecting our daughters’ sexuality is incredibly important because that’s one of the few things that has the power to protect her from ever feeling shame or guilt over it.  As for allowing our daughters freedom, because the development of our sexuality is something that unfolds over time, experience by experience, relationship by relationship, it’s only in the living out of our sexuality that we can understand its highly personal meaning to us at any particular point in our lives. This holds true whether we’re 15 or 65.  Sexuality is no different from any other part of life.  We learn by trial and error.  Our daughters can’t develop the self-knowledge they’ll need to read their hearts and minds if we undermine their opportunities to engage in their own life experiences.  That would be like expecting them to do quantum physics without ever having learned to add and subtract.

I really liked your point in your book about how by shutting down communication about sex, you’re denying your daughter the model that she needs to secure a healthy partnership. You cite specifically honest communication, ability to weigh consequences, and a right to an erotic life. What other risks are mothers taking by not discussing sexuality with daughters?

Women in my study disclosed that their mothers’ inability to discuss this huge facet of the human experience with them as they were growing up actually harmed them, and weakened their relationships with their mothers.  It denied them the closeness with their mothers that they craved, as well as the self-knowledge they needed to develop true confidence (as opposed to the mere appearance of confidence). Even though we live in a hypersexualized world, their mothers taught them that their sexuality is still taboo, which contaminated their relationship to themselves and led them to disavow the value of their own bodies.  It kept them from thoroughly engaging in their lives because it made it difficult for them to listen to and trust their instincts—and they felt this in areas far beyond sexuality.  The woman [whose story you mentioned earlier], Anne, for instance, was raised to feel so uneasy with any kind of attention on her body that as a girl she never even raised her hand in class.

Women spoke of living with sexual tragedies they never told their mothers about.  When we teach our daughters we can’t even handle talking about healthy sexuality, if our daughters encounter a sexual crisis, such as rape, they may keep it from us and go through the trauma alone.  They do this because we’ve inadvertently trained them not to expect from us respect and emotional connection around anything related to their sexuality.  We love our daughters, and this, of course, is never what we would intend, but it can be a consequence of how we convey our sexual attitudes.

Women also wrote poignantly about how not engaging around matters of sexuality with their mothers created distance between them throughout the life cycle.  They gradually lost faith in our ability to be there for them in the ways they needed us to be, and they retreated to protect themselves from further disappointment.

All that being said, even though this news is discouraging, it puts us in a position to want to do better by our daughters and ourselves.  In fact I find it exciting because we can’t fix what we don’t know is broken.  Hearing what our daughters need from us is all that’s required to give us the courage to expand our definition of mothering to include our blessing of our daughters’ sexuality, and by extension, our blessing of our own.

You observe that parents are teaching their daughters about sexuality whether they have the sex talk or not. You write, “It’s disheartening that in our postfeminist society, where a women’s education can lead her to a fulfill a dream of flying into space, many of us aren’t educating our daughters on the things that are useful for them to know about life right here on the planet. We continue to celebrate women as sexual objects and still struggle with letting women be subjects of their own sexuality.” Are you suggesting that by not addressing female sexuality in a feminist context, your daughter could in turn come to understand sex as simply being objectified?

I’m saying that unless we help our daughters feel pride and ownership over their authentic sexuality, they’ll be susceptible to the ways society projects its sense of sexuality onto them, which even in 2011 is through objectification.  Studies show that pre-adolescent girls are preoccupied with dieting and being skinny.  Adult women are spending money on vaginaplasty and anal bleaching.  Women are pole dancing as a form of exercise.  None of these things has remotely to do with the realities of how a woman experiences her sexuality from the inside out.  Whether or not a mother conceptualizes these issues as feminist, they’re unhealthy for our daughters because they’re all about living up to someone else’s unrealistic standards of “beauty” and sexuality.

What advice do you have for mothers who want to begin having this conversation about sexuality and safe sex practices but who are afraid or wary of being too suggestive?

Our daughters want to be able to look up to us as adults who care about, and act on behalf of their happiness and well-being.  When we won’t push through our own fears to be there for our girls in the ways they need us to be, we’re making our fears, not our daughters, our priority.  And they resent this.  Women in my book wish that their mothers had been “stronger,” “more courageous,” “more comfortable,” “more communicative” and more sensitive to how important it is for a daughter to bond with her mother around sharing the same gender.  But it’s understandable why mothers are so nervous walking this ground.  How do we do something no one has ever taught us to do?  Throughout the book there are simple, practical suggestions for how we can become more comfortable having a meaningful, emotionally connected, life-long dialogue on sexuality with our daughters, one that runs from toddlerhood straight through to adulthood.  Our understanding of how this dialogue honors our relationships with our daughters will reduce our need to be so fearful.

I covered an event in which Peggy Orenstein made a statement about being a pro-sex mother who was anti-sexualization. You’re a mother to, I believe, a 15-year-old girl. Do you identify as a pro-sex mother? And do you think it’s important for mothers aiming for a healthy sexuality to align themselves as pro-sex?

I’m pro-humanity!  Yes, I’m pro-sex and anti-sexualization, but what I’m really on a mission to promote, through our parental love and respect for our children, is the integration of all aspects of being alive—in their minds, their hearts and their bodies.   Girls, just like boys, are sexual creatures from birth.  To consciously or unconsciously deny or undermine half of the human race’s right to be whole, and to kill their spirit with shame and guilt is to me inhumane.  I want my daughter to value her sexuality because I want her to feel whole.  It’s her birthright, and it’s my privilege as her mother to protect and celebrate that.