Time and time again, studies prove that parents have more influence on young people's sexual behavior than anything else. It's not just about avoiding teenage pregnancy. How we talk to our kids about sex can really shape their attitudes toward relationships, intimacy and themselves. If I could wind the clock back, I really wish my parents had told me these things about sex.
I didn't know what masturbation was until I was 16. It was never discussed at home — in fact, the whole issue of sex was off the table. As far as I can remember, the only sex education we got at school was a particularly graphic (to my 14-year-old self) video of a woman giving birth. Basically, they wanted to scare/repulse the hell out of us so that we didn't have sex EVER. I fainted before the video finished, hit my head on the floor of the classroom, and still had no idea what sex really was. At that age, a heads-up about masturbation would have been most welcome. I actually didn't think women masturbated until one of my first boyfriends made a joke about it. I laughed along with him but spent the rest of the night wondering what the hell he was talking about. When I did finally discover the joys of pleasuring myself (Judy Blume, I shall be forever in your debt), I still felt as if I were doing something wrong. How could this be such a good thing when it was kept a secret from me my entire life?
The naive eldest child of a helicopter parent, I arrived at my first experience of sexual intercourse completely clueless. References to condoms in movies didn't equip me with the skills I needed when it came to actually using the thing. If my parents had given me the practical information every adolescent should have about contraception, it would have taken away a lot of the embarrassment and shame I felt about being sexually active.
Even after (successfully) using a condom, I still worried that I was pregnant. I worked myself into such a frenzy that I stopped having sex with my boyfriend, which he wasn't particularly pleased about. If I'd known there was a little pill I could take every day to help prevent pregnancy and allow me to relax and enjoy the experimentation that is such a natural part of growing up, my attitude toward sex would have been way different. When I moved away for college, I quickly got into a serious thing with a fellow student. My mom pestered me constantly about our relationship over the telephone until I finally admitted we were having sex. In an attempt to reassure her, I told her I was on birth control pills. Bizarrely, this actually made her worse, as if this independent, responsible step I had taken was further proof that her little girl was growing up. She hung up on me and we didn't speak for weeks.
With the right person (whether that's Mr./Ms. Right or simply Mr./Ms. Right Now), sex can be the most amazing, exciting, life-affirming experience. For me, for a long time, it was more of a chore. I couldn't do it without alcohol for many years — I was too self-conscious to relax without a few drinks beforehand. I saw it as something that people in relationships did, so I went through the motions. It took a long time before I was able to orgasm with anyone other than myself, and that's because sex was such a taboo when I was growing up.
The only person my mom has ever slept with was my dad: the love of her life. Although it was never said — we didn't talk about sex, remember — there was always unspoken desire on her part that her children would follow a similar path. By the age of 16, I'd already made this an impossibility, and I felt the weight of her disapproval for many years. It wasn't until I was in my early 20s that I realized sex without love was simply another option, and one that could be just as enjoyable.
I don't resent my parents for their approach to sex when I was young. I did, for a long time. But their refusal to acknowledge my adolescent urges and desires, their fear of discussing sex with me at a crucial point in my development, have actually had a hugely positive impact on my life. I've worked hard at it, but I've reached a point where I've embraced myself as a sexual being, and sex is a hugely important part of my intimate relationships.
Now that I'm a mom myself, I know without a doubt that I will kickstart that conversation with my own kids at an early age. No subject will be off limits, and I'll do my best to ensure they grow up with a healthy, positive attitude toward sex.
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