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