What Did I Tell My Daughters About Sex?

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There was no such term as “safe sex” when I was becoming sexually active. The slogan “Make love, not war” was as much pro-free love as it was anti-war and both sentiments were wildly popular among the under-30 crowd. The Pill was emancipating women from all walks of life and social mores against unmarried sex were loosening. Abortion became legal nationwide in 1973, giving women even more control over their bodies. Sex was a wide-open territory.

I had my first child in 1973. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but my daughter was going to inherit the legacy of the ’60s. Sex free from unwanted pregnancy and access to abortion were going to make her life better than even mine had been. But not long after the youngest of my four daughters was born in 1980, the first mentions of AIDS were appearing nationally. My daughters’ sex lives were not going to be so free and easy after all.

I had never been entirely comfortable with the idea of casual sex–thanks to a rather puritanical upbringing, I suppose–but now it became imperative to teach my daughters that all sex, but especially casual sex, could be dangerous. How do you teach your daughters that and at the same time lay the foundation for an enjoyable sex life? It seemed that we were returning to the mores of earlier generations: sex was a necessary evil, necessary because men wanted it and it was required to make babies, and evil because it could debauch a woman’s reputation and even kill her. (In ages past, when so many women died in childbirth or from too-frequent pregnancies, sex certainly could kill; we didn’t need AIDS for that.)

My first step was to encourage my children to ask whatever questions they wanted from a very early age. I made no distinction between questions like “Why is the sky blue?” to “Where do babies come from?” I didn’t preach. I did choke occasionally, like when one of my daughters, then aged six, asked me “Why do they say that AIDS is a homosexual disease?” I wasn’t expecting that one.

When asked, I told them my views on abortion. I told them that I had had one when I was 19, but that it wasn’t something to be taken lightly and that it was far better to not put yourself in the position where you would have to make that decision. So far my oldest daughter has opted for having and keeping her baby even though she wasn’t married; she says she would never have an abortion. One of my other daughters, however, recently made the painful decision to have an abortion; it was the only one she could live with when she took into consideration her financial and emotional resources. I ache for her, but respect her decision. She was the only one who could make it, but she did have both advice and support as she went through it.

I am a bit of a prude when it comes to talking about sex. My daughters are the total opposite, and they will talk about anything and everything to, or in front of, me. I swallow my embarrassment and keep my mouth shut. I do not show shock or disapproval. They all have reported to me that they like sex, which is more than I can say for myself sometimes. At least two of them have taken it upon themselves to be tested for AIDS. Thankfully, they tested negative. So far so good.

Did I do enough? More importantly, is my job over? My answer is no, to both those questions. I probably didn’t encourage enough openness, because of my own hang-ups about sex. But I have never felt comfortable quizzing them about their sex lives. I feel that my job is to be here if they have questions or problems, but not to preach to them.

I do think that I fell down on the job when it came to talking about sexual molestation and rape. When they were children, I told them about not letting anyone touch them inappropriately and to tell me if anything like that ever happened. When they were older I told them that they always had the right to say no, but that a man might not always accept that, so they should be careful what kind of sexual situations that they got themselves into. I was more careful to tell them about sexual harassment and that they had the legal and moral right to stand up against it. But I didn’t ask enough questions in order to gauge how they were doing in these areas. I should have done more to draw them out.

And yet, like all young women, they have managed to navigate the rocky waters of sex and intimacy. I did the best I could for them at the time. It was more than my mother did for me. Hopefully, they will be wiser and even more open with their own children. For now, it is enough for me that they are safe.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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