What I Vow To Teach My Daughter About Sex

What I Vow To Teach My Daughter About Sex

By Lela Casey


I will do everything I can to keep my daughter from feeling like being attractive to men is her most valuable trait and that having (or not having) sex defines her as a woman.


I was raised to believe that sex was a juicy cherry that girls carried around to entice boys. They could look, drool even, but never touch.

My mom led by example. Her plunging necklines reached almost all the way down to her knee-high boots. She had a steady stream of admirers, young men, old men, even a few women. (At almost 70 years old, she still does).

Men buzzed around her, hoping to earn one of her big booming laughs or electric smiles. Her purring foreign accent only added to her allure.

Her sexuality embarrassed me as a teenager. It was too garish, too intense. I was sure that she was having affairs, probably more than one. I’d hover nearby every time she was talking to a man, trying to catch little snippets of the conversation.

The thing is, at the same time that she was dressing seductively and being flirtatious (and encouraging me to do the same), she was constantly, CONSTANTLY warning me about boys. Boys might look nice and say interesting things, she’d say, but when it came right down to it, they were the enemy and sexuality was a woman’s only weapon against them.

“Guys are only after one thing,” she’d also say. “Don’t be the girl they experiment on.” “Let them look, but NEVER touch,” she’d repeat over and over until it became something of a mantra.

I didn’t let them touch. In fact, I didn’t give them much to look at either. I dressed conservatively and spent most of my adolescence with my nose in a book.

Looking back, I suppose it was a rebellion of sorts. If my mom was attractive, if she wanted me to be attractive, well then, dammit I wouldn’t be.

Until I moved to college and away from her (very voluptuous) shadow. I started small at first. A little lipstick, a tiny bit of cleavage. It wasn’t long before I began to understand what my mom had been talking about. Sexuality was power and I was drunk with it.

I started going out to dance clubs dressed in tiny shirts and tight skirts. I grew out my bangs and wore my waist length hair loose around my shoulders. Boys who’d walked right passed me for years were stopping and staring with open mouths and eager eyes. And I’d let them look. In fact, I’d bask in their looks.

But, I wouldn’t let them touch. Because, no matter how sweet they talked and how nice they smiled, I knew that they were only after one thing… and once I gave it to them, I’d be just another conquest.

The attention was the important part—the hungry glances, the dedicated suitors. Sex, I thought, was nothing more than the carousel ring that I held just out of reach, the sparkly prize that kept them spinning around and around me with eager smiles and straining hands.

I can’t say that I was never curious about sex. Certainly there were boys that lit my insides on fire. But, there would always come a point where I knew that if I let him kiss me one more time or take off one more layer of clothes, I’d lose control and become one of “those” girls that my mother warned me about.

I made it all the way to the ripe old age of 22 as a virgin. The first time I had sex (with the guy I would eventually marry) I sobbed myself to sleep.

I’d given up my cherry, succumbed to the enemy, let him touch… Oh did I let him touch!

My mother was (is) a brilliant woman. Raising us in an area that was fraught with teenage pregnancies and high school dropouts wasn’t easy. Despite our surroundings, she was able to raise my sister and me to be responsible women with high self-esteem and promising futures. We both graduated with honors from prestigious universities, found satisfying careers, and married smart, kind men.

For years I was positive that I wanted to raise my daughter like she raised us.

But now I’m not so sure.

As I’ve grown older I’ve realized that, while I avoided a lot of trouble, I also missed out on a great deal of experiences. It took me years to discover that sex isn’t a gift I give to my husband, but something that I enjoy… that I crave.

I want my daughter to respect her body and herself. I want her to make careful, thoughtful choices about sex. But, I don’t want her to grow up thinking she needs to hold men captive with her sexuality.

Because, even though my mom’s warnings kept me away from promiscuity, her emphasis on sexuality gave me the impression that my appearance was the most essential part of me. Despite feeling that I was in charge, I was STILL giving the power to men, still allowing their opinion of my looks to control my world. And, perhaps even worse, I was missing out on all the joys that come with exploring my own sexuality.

I am almost 40 now and I still dress sexy to get male attention, I still post a ridiculous amount of selfies, I still think about plastic surgery to put things back in order. I still worry that I carry all of my magic in my slender figure and long dark hair.

I am fortunate to have married a wonderful man. He, like me, is adventurous, free-spirited, and open-minded. Still, I wonder about the relationships I have missed out on. Not only about the sexual experiences, but the deep intimacy that comes with being close to someone, an emotional connection I’m not sure comes without sex. I wonder how having multiple relationships might have changed me, made me stronger, exposed me to different perspectives.

My daughter is six now. She is smart and funny and big hearted. And, yes, she is beautiful. So beautiful that people often stop us when we’re out to compliment her waist-length auburn hair or her big brown eyes.

She smiles and thanks them, and then quickly goes back to chasing after her brothers or making elaborate mud pies.

While most of the girls in her class are captivated by princesses and dress-up, beauty seems to hold little meaning for her now. Her brother’s cast-off T-shirts suit her just as well as the flowery dress from her Grandma.

How much of that is innate and how much is due to my constant emphasis on her internal strength vs. her appearance, I’ll probably never know.

What I do know is that I will do everything I can to keep her from feeling like being attractive to men is her most valuable trait and that having (or not having) sex defines her as a woman.

Lela Casey was raised by a fiery Israeli mother and an all American father on a farm which often doubled as a resting place for foreign travelers and families in need. Her unconventional childhood has had a great impact on her parenting and her writing. She is a regular contributing writer at kveller.com. She has also written for themid.com, femininecollective,com, and jkidphilly.com.

Photo: Leigh Kendell

Should You Let Your Teen Have Sex In Your Home?


By Patricia Stacey

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 9.29.06 AMShe was balm wounds, soul of sweet comfort foods, backrubber, and confessor. Yet, one day in fourth grade, as my class marched into the auditorium to see our first sex-ed film, everything in my being shrieked: “No No No! It can’t be!” What was my mother doing there?

I wonder why as a kid I was so excruciatingly embarrassed to expose my own sexuality to my parents. The answer, I think, lies in the mysteries of nature and instinct itself: Sex and parents simply don’t mix well. They aren’t meant to.

When we talk about teens having sex in the family house, we’re talking about two distinct messages. The first is that sex, adult sex, full blown going-all-the-way-with-a-cigarette-and-a-shower kind of sex is a healthy choice for a teen. I disagree. The second message is pushing it even further—that it’s okay to have it around your parents. Double disagree. For one thing, we are not supposed to be hotelier to our kid’s sexual fantasies. To do so is to overstep the boundaries of the parent/child relationship.

Yes, it is our job to educate our kids about sex, to both arm and grace them with truths about sexuality, to discuss the joy of loving, committed communion and the importance of birth control, but beyond that I believe it’s important to provide our children with a boundary around their sexuality that we don’t often cross. The sexual boundary between children and their parents is a sacred one; crossing it, we intrude in a place we have no business being.

One day when I was about six years old, during a visit to my cousin’s house, I overheard my aunt and mother talking in my aunt’s bedroom. “I’m bored by sex,” said my aunt. “It was so much more fun when we did it secretly in our folks’ basement.” And she swept her hand around her room in a dismissive way to indicate that her queen-sized bed was a total downer.

My aunt’s confession reveals an important fact about sex, identity, and individuality. Sex is about privacy. If you offer your kids a place to do it you are co-opting their sexuality, taming it, and implicating yourself into it. That is a huge disservice to your teen. Let’s face it: Sex is our first exploration of who we are as a budding individual separate from our family. Sexuality, if it’s really going to be good, isn’t something your mother offers you as a mid-day snack: It’s strange and beautiful, mysterious and deeply personal. Whatever else it is, it is something that you steal for yourself, you take for yourself, and you do by yourself. We need to give our kids direction, a strong sense of self, a thorough knowledge of the emotional and physical dangers of sex, but then we need to stay away. By staying away from our kid’s sex life (and not unwittingly pushing them into anything), we protect their privacy.

Sex in the home blurs boundaries. Psychologists say that it’s important to let our teens argue with us; they want and need to dispute. Teens are unwittingly longing for something to push against. It’s the parents’ job to stay firm—not rigid, not inflexible, not unwilling to negotiate—but standing strong as, say, an old tree. As teens push to get away from us, they hone their personalities, their egos, their sense of independence. But teens also live in emotional flood zones; they need a solid, standing structure to swim to when things get too turbulent. In offering a boundary we paradoxically offer a safe haven. The home should be a place where teens can retreat from the world, including the world of boyfriends or girlfriends. By normalizing sex, we are not providing the boundary that teens need. Instead, we could be pushing them into high water by effectively telling them that they are ready to handle more than they may be able to.

If adults let teens have sex in their homes, they are ignoring perhaps the most dangerous aspect of sex: its potential to do emotional damage. Sex can be fire. Given the proper amount of oxygen, it can and will consume everything in its path. Most young couples—even if they think they want that—are not ready for it. I would argue that most teens are way too immature to handle a full sexual relationship and all the emotional hazards implied.

When I was in high school, my good friend Anne’s mom was a rebel. She had a messy apartment with a poster hanging near the kitchen that said “Fuck Housework.” She took Anne to the OB/GYN, procured her the pill, and encouraged Anne’s boyfriend Jake to come over any time he wanted, whether she was at work or home. For weeks, every day after school, Jake and Anne walked the block from school to Anne’s apartment, and had intercourse. So why weren’t they ecstatically happy? They had everything that we all wanted. Still, they walked around the quad together at lunchtime and seemed to me to be diminished, haunted, miserable. I had the sense that their sex had reached a bored complacency even only after a few weeks. It was almost as if suddenly sex wasn’t theirs anymore, as if Anne’s mother had somehow taken sexuality away from them rather than offering a safe place for it.

But worse, I also saw how tortured Jake was when Anne went to India for a year with her father on his sabbatical. Endocrinologists explain that orgasm creates vast amounts of oxytocin, a hormone that, like a mythical love potion, can fiercely bond us to the individuals we are with when we experience them. In fact Jake was so devastated by Anne’s leaving—and her distancing herself in other ways—that he still talks about his hurt every time I see him. And he and Anne broke up thirty-five years ago.

Do we want our teens to bond so completely? Should this part of our lives be about lightness, experimentation, getting our feet wet? Or about jumping into the deep end?

I can well imagine parents deciding that letting a teen have sex at home will keep their teen’s sex safe. Doing so might be necessary for a small handful of wild kids, but not for the garden-variety teen. We need to arm them with important information about pregnancy and STDs, meaningful dialogues about the ways that they can be hurt emotionally, and then stand back and give a decently wide berth.

I would go so far as to argue that the American spirit requires a frontier—that for teens that frontier may be sex. But I mean small sex, slowly building—kissing and petting in a car—not hot and heaving sex on a luxury Posturepedic. That’s adult sexuality, with all its delicious gifts and thorny penalties. There’s plenty of time for that in coming years.

Patricia Stacey is the author of The Boy Who Loved Windows.



By C.J. Snow

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 9.29.06 AMMy daughter Kate is sixteen, a high school junior. She’s active on the school newspaper, a member of the band, an avid skier and mountain biker. She makes good grades, she’s nice to her parents and her little brother, and she wants to become a professional photographer one day.

She also has a boyfriend, Nate, who she’s been going out with for more than two years. Nate is seventeen, a senior at a prep school in a neighboring state, about three and a half hours from our home. Though he grew up in our town, his parents moved away two years ago, so this fall, my husband and I have started to invite him to stay with us when he comes to visit. When he’s here, he sleeps in Kate’s room. With Kate.

And we’re okay with that.

It helps that we thoroughly like Nate, who is smart and funny and sweet, the kind of kid who talks earnestly about politics at the dinner table, and then gets up to wash the dishes as a matter of habit. It helps that my husband and I don’t have any religious or moral objection to premarital sex. It helps that we’ve seen Kate and Nate interact for so long now that we’re confident they respect each other and that they are thoroughly in love. We know it’s way too early to consider it, but we’d be delighted if they got married one day.

I have friends who think it’s wrong to let Nate and Kate sleep together under our roof. (Not that we advertise it, of course, but our closest friends know the score.) They talk a lot about how it seems wrong for parents to “condone” their teen’s sex life. Many of my friends talk this way, even the one who has very carefully provided her daughter with birth control, as if providing the Pill weren’t also a pretty explicit sanction of the sex that’s going on.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that there’s a fairly hefty “ick factor” here. About the only thing more uncomfortable than imagining your own parents’ sex lives has to be imagining your children’s. I get that. And believe me, my husband and I are not trying to co-opt Kate’s blossoming sexuality or insert ourselves in her relationship in some creepy, voyeuristic way. We don’t ask for details about what transpires between them (though it’s true that Kate offers a lot more to me than I ever would have to my own mother). For the most part, the two of them are very discreet. There’s not a whole lot of PDA when they’re around us. Maybe it’s because we’ve made it possible for them to have a time and place for the more intimate parts of their relationship, so they don’t have to let it spill over when they’re not alone.

I sometimes want to ask those of my friends who know their kids are having sex but who don’t want it to happen in their house what kind of message they believe they’re sending their teen. That sex is okay—but only in parked cars? Or in someone else’s den, at whoever’s house has no adult at the moment? That it’s okay, but only if you do it on the sly, in stolen moments padded by lies? Do they really think it’s wise or helpful to add the burden of furtiveness and guilt to something that might be emotionally complex enough as it is?

If you know your kids are having sex but you’re ignoring the reality that they must be having it somewhere, in my mind that’s akin to knowing they’re having sex but not making sure they have the means to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Both involve a level of negligence, a stick-your-head-in-the-sand attitude, that strikes me as pretty irresponsible.

In our town, there are a number of parents who host parties for their high school-aged kids where alcohol is served. “They’re going to drink anyway, so I’d rather they did it safely at our house where we can keep an eye on them,” is their thinking. Is letting kids have sex in your home an analogous situation? I think it isn’t. In our state, for one thing, it’s illegal to serve alcohol to anyone under twenty-one. The age of sexual consent, on the other hand, is sixteen. Letting your own child drink alcohol in your house is one thing, but letting someone else’s kid break a law on your watch and on your premises is another.

Of course, there is one way in which the drinking and sex scenarios are similar: Both involve other people’s kids taking part in activities that are pretty controversial for adolescents. My husband and I know Nate’s parents only a little. We’ve spoken to them once or twice about Nate’s weekend trips to our home, but we’ve never talked directly about the sleeping arrangements. We’ve left Nate to broach that subject with them.

When your children embark on mature activities, I think you have to treat them in a mature way. Part of growing to a healthy adulthood is learning how to negotiate other people’s boundaries and comfort zones. Sometimes those other people are your parents. We want Kate to know that we support and respect the good choices she makes—and to learn how to offer us the same respect. So if, say, she were to bring home a guy she just met at a party to spend the night with her, we wouldn’t hesitate to tell her that that wasn’t okay, and why: because it wouldn’t be respectful to us (not to mention to herself).

What we want, ultimately, is to raise a child who knows that love and respect go hand in hand—and that sneaking and lying aren’t part of any good relation- ship. Where better to learn that than at home?

C.J. Snow is the pseudonym for a writer living in Michigan.

Brain, Child (Winter 2010)

The Ugly Side of Pretty

The Ugly Side of Pretty

WO Ugly Side of PRetty ARTBy Amanda Rose Adams

My daughter doesn’t know she’s beautiful. I think she knows she’s “pretty” because people have been telling her that since she can first remember.  Despite my best feminist intentions, I’ve told her she’s pretty, but for reasons she cannot understand. She thinks everyone is pretty, that it’s just part of being human. She’s right, every human is beautiful, but not every human turns heads.

My ten-year-old daughter is traditionally beautiful. Her face is symmetrical, her eyes are big but not buggy, and strangers have been commenting on her uncommonly common beauty since she was a newborn. I’m not bragging about her beauty; in fact I’m troubled by it. It was fun having a baby that everyone noticed, but she’s ten now. Puberty is advancing on her body like a creeping vine, and I’m not the only one who notices.  On our way to the park the other night, a grown man, a teenage boy, and a gaggle of middle school boys all looked at my child in a way that made me uncomfortable, but she did not notice. She was too busy racing to the tire swing, unaware of anything between her and her goal of spinning until she was dizzy.

She has always been interested in math and architecture. She loves Minecraft enough to save her allowance to buy her own account and has her own set of Pokémon cards. She is creative, kind, smart, and, yes, beautiful. None of her attributes seem like problems until I notice a man my own age staring at my child. This is when I worry she might be too kind, the wrong kind of smart, and too pretty for her own good.

Some mothers may not notice when men or older boys stare too long at their daughters, but I do. I notice it now because I didn’t notice it when I was ten. I was like my daughter in many ways, oblivious to things beyond my own attention span and enmeshed in my private creative space. I also hit puberty early, even earlier than her: My period began seven weeks before I turned ten. By the time I was eleven, when most of my classmates were getting training bras, I was in a C-cup.

Before my body betrayed me, I was indifferent to it. Unlike my daughter, I was not strong and didn’t swing across the monkey bars. I wasn’t boldly climbing trees; instead, I climbed up to my top bunk and played with my Barbies and read my books. I didn’t really notice my body changing. My classmates pointed it out in third grade. Soon after, the older boys and girls at my Lutheran school saw fit to comment on my chest and ask me if I stuffed my bra . . . I didn’t even own a bra. My twenty-eight-year-old mother was in denial that her oldest daughter’s body was unfurling so quickly. My puberty didn’t begin well, and it got worse before it got better.

I didn’t notice the boys looking at me, but my dad did, and it made him angry. He couldn’t direct his anger at strangers, so he directed it at me. He used his Bowie knife to cut up a pair of my shorts because they were suddenly too short. All my shorts had been just as short the summer before, but something had changed. When the thirteen-year-old boy across the street asked me to go with him to the Boys and Girls Club to play PacMan—it was O.K. because he had enough quarters for both of us—my dad yelled and sent me to my room. It wasn’t OK. I was grounded just for being asked.

While I was still ten, my babysitter took me with her to the local high school football practice. Sophomore and junior boys shook their heads when she told them how old I was. She and her friend laughed, but I was even more confused than the boys. My dad was not amused, and I was no longer allowed near the high school.

The summer I was eleven, a twelve-year-old boy I adored and his fourteen-year-old friend took turns holding my arms behind my back in the swimming pool and tugging my swimsuit up and down, reaching in where they could. When I complained to my mom that the boys wouldn’t leave me alone (without explaining exactly what they were doing), she told me that I must have liked it or else I would have gotten out of the pool. As overbearing as my dad had become, my young mother was indifferent. For years I didn’t realize these boys were molesting me because I had liked one of them, though I didn’t like him after that summer. I was so confused by the entire situation that I just tried to forget  and pretend it never happened.

Soon after, my sisters and I were left with the husband of a family friend while my mom went shopping with a friend. The husband promptly sent my two younger sisters to the basement to watch his infant daughter while he and I “made cookies.” My idea of making cookies was making sure they didn’t burn and carefully navigating the spatula against the hot cookie sheet like I’d learned after I burned my finger in 4H.

His idea of making cookies was pressing me up against his kitchen cabinets and rubbing his erect penis against the small of my back while holding himself up with one arm against the upper cabinet and grasping my right breast with the other. I ducked under his left arm and raced to the bathroom, where I waited until my mom came back. Then I got in trouble for not helping clean up the mess in the kitchen. I never ate any of those cookies. That’s around the time when I started eating and couldn’t stop.

I was an anxious child. The way I explained these painful invasions to my young self was that I must be ugly. Why else would people want to hurt me? Why else would I keep getting in trouble? Besides, vanity was discouraged in my conservative religious upbringing. When I was younger, one of my Sunday school teachers told me how much I looked like my mother. I did not take it as a compliment. I never thought my short, broad mother or grandmother were beautiful. I thought beautiful women looked like Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman, and I knew when I stopped growing at 5′ 2″ that I was not a beautiful woman.

Convinced I must be ugly if men and boys were staring at me, I kept my head down. In high school, I hid my body under layers of clothing two or three sizes too big until I started sneaking so much food that my body began to fit the clothes. Now I was not only ugly but fat, too. I began harming myself with tweezers and straight pins, trying to dig something out of me like a splinter. While this was highly destructive, it was the only thing that soothed my increasingly suicidal mind.

By the fall of tenth grade, my home life was volatile, my school life isolating, and I was at a breaking point where I had to decide if I was going to live or die. Volunteering at a nursing home gave me the shot of self-esteem I needed to choose life, but I still believed I was ugly. One day during one of our many fights, my mom asked what my problem was. “I’m ugly and I hate myself!” I screamed. “Are you happy now?” It was one of the rare moments that I left her speechless. When she finally found her voice, she said, “You’re very pretty,” and I said, “You have to say that, you don’t mean it,” and I hid away in my bedroom like a troll. I hid for a very long time.

When I was twenty-seven, my maternal grandmother died. At her funeral, my great-aunt told me that she always thought my grandmother was a beautiful woman. Even then, my image of what was beautiful was skewed by the conviction that anyone who looked like me was ugly. Aunt Mary’s comment drove me to look at pictures of my grandmother and not see my myself. I did the same with photographs of my mother, seeking their beauty and trying to absolve them of my ugliness. I didn’t even feel beautiful on my wedding day, maybe almost passably pretty, but not beautiful.


In 2003, I had a beautiful baby boy with half a heart who was promptly and precisely butchered to save his life. As I dragged my breast pump across three hospitals and thousands of miles, I didn’t think about what I looked like. I was done with outside ugliness and instead battled the ugly thought of losing my child. After his second open-heart surgery, I was surprised to find I was pregnant again.

Then, there she was, my beautiful, perfect little girl, whom I would have to leave behind more times than I could count to take her brother to doctor’s visits and for two long weeks during a hospitalization. It took me longer to learn her face than his, and it kept changing, pudgy as a baby, thinning out in elementary school. When people would say that she looked like me, I would dismiss that as an insult to my child. I knew my daughter was beautiful as surely as I knew I was not.

A couple of years ago, we had family photos taken and there she was, my mini-me. My daughter and I looked so much alike, I was stupefied by the resemblance. Another time I was brushing her hair and looked up to see our hair the same cut and color, parted the same direction, our faces eerily similar. I was startled as if a stranger was looking back at me, challenging me to call her ugly.

That was the moment, after surviving so much fire, that the smoke cleared and I realized that being ugly had been my greatest comfort. Being ugly meant that I could still be a good person. Being ugly meant that the things that had happened to me when I was eleven weren’t my fault. Being ugly meant that everyone else was judging me for my looks so I could ignore that I was socially awkward and deeply wounded. Being ugly and fat meant that maybe, someday I could be pretty and thin. Being ugly meant I could keep eating and cutting myself because I didn’t deserve to actually feel good. Being ugly was the barrier I put between my skin and my soul to hold back all the pain rotting on the inside.

But that day, I couldn’t deny that I was pretty and had always been. I had to admit that my daughter looks like the girls I always envied growing up, and she also looks like me. As my daughter approaches the age where I became ugly, I have to own that I never really was. Ugly things were done to me at an age and left wounds that never healed quite right, but I wasn’t ugly.

My compulsion to protect my daughter from the unwanted attention of men and boys is only partially driven by my maternal love for her. That is part of it, but I am also motivated by the ache in my heart that I was not protected from the actions of others. Being ugly kept me from facing how fragile I felt, but it also kept me from seeing how fragile I was. Now the ugly mask is broken, the sooty mirror is clear. When I realized my daughter couldn’t be beautiful if I was ugly, it was like tearing off a blister to reveal a raw and tender space. Seeing my face in hers means owning that I am beautiful, too.

Amanda Rose Adams is the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her nonfiction writing has been featured in The New York Times Motherlode blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Bioethics Newsletter, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Squalorly Literary Journal, Evening Street Review, and Scrubs Nursing Magazine. She blogs at amandaroseadams.com and you can follow her @amandaroseadams on Twitter.