“If you had a question about sex, where would you go?” I ask my 12-year-old daughter, Orla. She doesn’t look up from her phone. “I’d ask online,” she deadpans. “then delete my browser history.”
“You wouldn’t come to me?” I venture, worried, hurt, amused and (a tiny part) relieved. “Mum, if I asked you about sex, I’d then have to imagine you having sex and that would be traumatic for me,” is the answer I get back.
So … on the face of it, perhaps I’ve failed in the “how to talk about sex to your daughters” section of parenting, especially if, compared to the likes of Emma Thompson, who not so long ago appeared on a podcast to discuss the “sex handbook” she wrote for her daughter when Gaia was only 10 (she’s now 18).
In it, Thompson called sex “shavoom” and pornography “the Kingdom of Ick”. (“If anyone does anything, says anything, implies anything, shows anything or suggests anything that makes you feel ick, move away, get away, say no thank you. Or even just no without the thank you,” reads part of Thompson’s mother-daughter guide.)
As parents, we all know that talking about sex to our children is part of the job. And, with the Government’s updated sex education curriculum delayed by another year – it will become compulsory in schools from September 2020 – we also know it’s more urgent than it’s ever been. Hardcore porn is ubiquitous.
Studies suggest that parents tend to underestimate the extent of their own child’s exposure, but it’s safe to assume that, years before they’ve reached “first base”, boys in particular will have seen images which could create a horribly warped picture of consent, pleasure, health and safety. Add into that the “superbug” STDs, online grooming, the fact that “safe sexting” is now a thing (that’s taking care to cut your face and home from your body shots), and we’ve got our work cut out for us.
All this I know – and yet, the longer I’m a parent, the harder it has become. My daughters are 19, 17 and 12 and the recent study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which found that parents talk about sex to their firstborns, then get progressively worse with the rest, rings horribly true. There’s the awkwardness, of course. (I have a friend who’ll happily tell strangers about her dress-up games and spontaneous encounters yet has never managed to talk about sex to her own kids. She thought it would be a breeze, but was shocked to find it mortifying.) But it isn’t just that. I’ve seen how quickly the “issue s” change, how easy it is to fall hopelessly behind. When my youngest pointed to an 11-year-old who was “pansexual”, I couldn’t recall what it even meant. Went home, Googled it, still don’t know.
On top of that, the older I get, the more uncertain I’ve become. I’m more aware than ever how much sex education is really personal opinion. While leading “sexperts” tend to offer reassuring, accepting messages about what’s normal, I feel loathe to repeat them. I vividly recall telling my oldest daughter, aged about 13 at the time, that certain acts commonly found in pornography, such as anal sex, were less common in real life and extremely unlikely to feel good for a girl.
Her 11-year-old sister hovered in the doorway soaking up the message, too. Now, the repeat phrase in the “anal sex” section of one lead sex education website, is “lube and patience”. Which message is more helpful? When it comes to guiding my daughters around the physical acts, probably I “could do better”. But I think, I hope, that where it matters most, I’ve done okay.
Alice Hoyle, relationships and sex advisor with Durex’s sex education arm Durex Do, believes in shifting the emphasis away from practical topics towards a more emotional open-ended approach. This should cover how young people feel about themselves, how society makes them feel, what they want from a relationship and how to communicate that.
“Understanding consent starts really early, age appropriately,” says Hoyle, who also has three daughters, the eldest now eight. “I was watching two-year-olds in a nursery recently, one girl patting the other on her face. The adult in charge was asking the girl to look at the other’s body language. Was she smiling? Did she look cross? Might she want her to stop?
At home, with party games, tickling, whatever, we have the standard family rule – unless everyone’s having fun, it stops. Sometimes, this can be a real challenge. I was doing nit treatment on my daughter’s hair the other day. She had the ‘No Means No’, the good strong body language, the hand up …”
Playground politics are another link to power dynamics, ethical behaviour, what you can and can’t accept. I’ve always encouraged my daughters to tell me everything when it comes to friends and frenemies (I’m fascinated anyway). After school, at bedtime, in the kitchen, in the car, we’ve always talked.
I’ve tried to help them listen to their gut instincts – what feels fun, what feels uncomfortable – and find their own strategies to deal with tricky situations. Sometimes I’ve suggested they walk away and find people who treat them better. This led one daughter to make an entirely new gang of mates, aged nine, and never look back.
If you’re in touch with their highs and lows and talk about your own experiences at their age, then you’ve laid the basics for building healthy relationships and made it easier for them to open up to you. Hoyle keeps lines open with mother-daughter diaries – notebooks where they write messages to one another. On their Jenga set, she has written sentences on each brick which you can complete when you put one in place. “I feel happy when …” or “I feel cross when …” She also recommends Sussed, a family conversation game her children love.
Porn is something you have to address. I’ve taken the “it’s make believe” line, like watching Superman jump from buildings – don’t expect similar results if you try it at home. It’s that tricky business of sounding a warning without appearing so out of date, they disregard you.
“In the past, sex education has been criticised for being too negative,” says Hoyle, “for not looking at pleasure. That has got better, but there’s a lot of talk among young women that sex positivity has been mis-sold to them. They’ve done things to please men and not themselves.
“You can’t avoid talking about porn, but it’s a tricky one. People use it for pleasure or even sex education, but the sex it portrays is often very male focused and you can’t know if the women in it were abused or trafficked.”
All of the above has been discussed in our household and pretty much anything can open the door: a selfie; a song lyric (Blurred Lines’ I know You Want It, Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass); the Cristiano Ronaldo rape allegations (one daughter has a poster of him above her bed); Love Island (the politics of hair removal and breast augmentation); Love Actually (porn, stalking, cheating … so many issues, where to start?)
Janey Downshire, counsellor and co-author of Teenagers Translated (and another mother of three daughters) believes all these conversations are more crucial than “what goes where”.
“When you’re a teenager, your identity, your sense of who you’d like to be and what’s possible, is a work in progress,” she says. “As parents, we need to help them see all the choices, to think as widely as they can. Most important is that you help your daughter put a high value on herself – to know she’s pretty special.”
Parent coach Judy Reith agrees. “A parent’s job is to help her daughter believe she deserves to have a fantastic relationship with someone,” she says. “Don’t just criticise when her behaviour worries you. Show her great qualities and always praise praise praise when she swims against the tide.”
Perhaps most important is the example you set. “The truth is girls growing up watch their mums like hawks,” says Reith. “If you’re insecure about the way you look, always on a diet, if you don’t expect to be treated well yourself, then that’s the message you send them. If you’re confident, and home is a safe zone where you’re happy to slob around, no makeup and greasy hair, that’s not a bad thing.” (In this department, I’ve excelled.)
So far my eldest girls look like they’re entering adulthood as wise, strong and sorted as any mother could wish them to be. When Orla quipped that taking her sex questions to me was too traumatic, I suggested she ask her oldest sister instead. She’s an adult now after all – and the more safe adults girls have in their lives the better. I have to admit, it felt good to delegate.
The headline on this article was amended after its initial publication to eradicate some clumsy phrasing.