Imagine you're talking with your 14-year-old daughter when, without warning, she asks about sex toys. "Why do people have them?" she wants to know. "Who uses them?" Despite being taken off-guard, you manage to keep yourself collected, explaining that sex is natural between consenting adults, but that a partner is not a requirement for experiencing pleasure, and that sexual aids can even help partners have a more enjoyable sexual experience together. Then, your daughter drops a bomb on you: "I found your box of 'sexual aids.'"
This happened to a mom and blogger at Why Are You Stalking Me?
I remember saying something about sexual aids being healthy and fine, again, between consenting adults… Then I told her a story about my aunt, who was around 35ish before she had her first orgasm. I remember it like it was yesterday as we watched her floating down the street, heading toward our house. My mom and I were sitting on the front porch. We both thought she might be just a little tipsy as she headed up the sidewalk. She explained that she’d just had her first orgasm and couldn’t believe it. She started having sex in 9th grade and here she was, in her mid-thirties and only just experienced the Big Oh.
I remember that visit. I was 17. I hadn’t had sex yet but I certainly had ideas about how sex was not going to be for me. Of course, I didn’t know shit at that time. It wasn’t until two years after losing my V-card did I experience my first Big Oh.
I then had the most important sex talk with 14 that I’ve ever had. I told her how women across the world may never experience an orgasm and how sad that is, really. We talked about other stuff too. I answered her questions, skipping gory personal details. We finally fell asleep much to my relief.
It's a lot easier to prepare for this kind of conversation when you can initiate it on your terms, but we can't control everything. Whether it's a box we thought would never be discovered, or a joke in a movie, or part of an overheard conversation, things like toys, sex and self-pleasure could come up at any moment. Toys, particularly, inhabit an uncomfortable place in the national consciousness, as many of us know sex education as discourse that is mainly focused on health and safety, and are not so comfortable with discussing the pleasurable aspects of sexuality with our children.
In 2009, O magazine teamed up with Seventeen to conduct a sex study surveying moms and girls ages 15 to 22, which found that only 35 percent of mothers teach their kids about pleasure when they talk about sex.
"We need to teach them about pregnancy prevention and STD prevention, but we also have to teach them about the gift that sexuality is," says Dr. Laura Berman, a sex educator who created a handbook outlining how to talk about sex with kids of different ages for the talk show Oprah.
Easy for sex educators like Berman and myself to believe, but what are moms out in the parenting trenches actually doing? I hit up four girlfriends to find out.
"I'd start out by explaining that sex toys are personal, private things like a toothbrush or a tampon, but nothing to be ashamed of," my friend Sara, 34 and mother of two, told me when I asked her what she would do if her daughter found her sex toys. "My daughter is six and she's already asked about masturbation -- she told me when she used the bidet that she liked how it felt and wanted to keep doing it. I freaked out at the time because I wasn't ready for that talk, but I just told her that people touched themselves because it felt good and that it was OK, but a private thing. I didn't say anything explicit or beyond her understanding, but I think it's important to be truthful when talking to kids about sex."
Erin, 36, and mom of two, echoed Sara's approach.
"If my kids found my toys I would explain exactly what they were, what they were for, and ask if they had any questions," Erin told me. "I actually had a conversation about erections with my eight-year-old today. It was in very simple, clinical terms, but I told him that it was natural for him to touch himself -- after he asked why his penis got hard -- as long as he did so in private. He already understands that certain body parts must be covered, and are 'privates' for a reason. He also knows mom and dad need their privacy to kiss and be 'intimate' and what he does with his penis falls into that same category."
Another friend, Laurie, told me that her baby had discovered her dildo that same day. Since she's only 11 months old, Laurie hadn't had a discussion with her, but she told me she would have if her daughter had been older.
"I would gauge her interest and comfort level with the conversation before talking to her about masturbating," she told me. "I want her to feel OK about it and know that there are parts on her body she can touch that will make her feel good, that mommy does it too and she can always ask me questions. Depending on her age, I might go into how you can use toys to pleasure yourself and I might even go as far as suggest that she pleasure herself instead of having sex if she feels urges."
I told her how the blogosphere had caught fire in 2009 following an episode of Oprah in which Dr. Laura Berman had suggested that parents give their teen daughters a clitoral vibrator. Teaching your daughter about the fulfillment of self-pleasure, argues Dr. Berman, helps a young woman feel in control of her body and prevents her from jumping into bed with the first boy who makes her feel like she's walking on clouds.
"I probably would buy her a toy," Laurie told me. "It's important to educate children on sex. My parents never talked to me about it and I ended up pregnant at 21, which is still older than many girls but it was still not something I wanted. My parents never talked to me about sex or birth control. I want my daughter to be comfortable talking to me if she wants to and that starts with me talking to her. I would also offer her condoms, like my best friend's mom did when she was 16. And I wouldn't approach sex as something 'a man and a woman do when they love each other and want to make a baby,' I would want to be more honest about the reasons people have sex, plus I don't want her to view gay relationships badly or differently.”
Another friend of mine, Katerina, told me that she wasn't sure she would buy her daughter a sex toy.
"At 14 or 15, I think she would die of embarrassment if I got her a toy," Katerina said. "But I would encourage her to use toys for pleasure over sleeping with men, for the sake of her health. While I don't think buying girls sex toys would prevent them from engaging in risky sex, I do think the more educated, confident and comfortable a girl is about herself, her body and her desires, the better choices she can make when she encounters sexual situations. I wouldn't introduce sex, for example, as something a man and woman do 'when they're very much in love,' I'd tell her people have sex for all sorts of different reasons: pleasure, love, lust, to make a baby, or all of the above. The key thing is that she learns to do things because she wants them, not because anyone else wants them of her."
Only two of the mothers I'd spoken with were familiar with Dr. Berman's views on parenting and sexual education, but they all agreed on the importance of remaining calm no matter how off-guard their kids' questions caught them, and being honest when responding.
"You're teaching them about their own body and pleasuring themselves and taking the reins of their own sexuality so that they don't ever have to depend on any teenage boy to do it for them," Dr. Berman said in the now famous 2009 episode of Oprah. "You are the best ones to teach them. You are the one who can incorporate your values. I know it's controversial, but I can tell you giving them this kind of information makes them safer in the long run."
The following is a clip from the show in which a mother and her 10-year-old daughter discuss sexuality, including pleasure (please note you will be redirected to Oprah.com):
Have you talked to your kids about sex? Did you bring it up, or did it come out of left field, as it did for some of the moms in this article? Have you told them about pleasure, or focused on safety and the privacy that genitals require?MORE RESOURCES
About “That Talk” with Your Parents by Karen Rayne, details how teens can help their parents begin the sex discussion:
That you want to open this conversation with your parents shows a great deal of maturity on your part. Adults can have a lot of good, useful information and perspective about a lot of things, including sex and reaching out for that is great. Part of having healthy sexual relationships involves honesty about it in many of your close relationships, and not having the fact that you have a sexuality or a sex life be a dirty secret. As well, having the support of your parents in your sexuality can be a huge help to you, and not having sex be a big secret can be a serious relief.
That said, not all parents are able to come to a conversation about sex with their kids and teenagers with an open heart or an open mind. I’ll talk more about how to deal with these parents specifically further on down. If you are concerned that your parent might get very angry or even violent (physically or emotionally), skip on down to the end of this article. Otherwise, have a read and get ready to handle these talks like a pro.
More resources for parents from Scarleteen can be found here.
How to Talk To Kids about Sex by Dr. Laura Berman (PDF):
Not sure how to start "the talk" with your children? In this kit prepared for Oprah.com, Dr. Laura Berman details how to have the talk for children of every age. It also includes diagrams of the male and female body to help illustrate the discussion and addresses concerns regarding sexting as well.
Dr. Berman on Masturbation on Oprah.com:
Vista’s four-year-old masturbates with some frequency – should she be concerned as a mother? Dr. Berman explains what’s normal at that age, and what parents should tell their kids about self-pleasure and their "privates."
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.
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