How To Model Healthy Sexuality for Our Daughters

As a toddler, my daughter started asking about body parts. Pretty soon it became apparent that she was the only 2-year-old at her daycare who knew and used the word vagina. Even her teachers changed the subject. Was I supposed to feel guilty about teaching her about her body? Joyce McFadden, psychoanalyst and author of Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women, says no.

After surveying more than 1,000 women on their sexuality, McFadden concludes that, even with the best intentions, generations of well-meaning mothers have ended up reinforcing sexist messaging. To counter this trend for a new generation, McFadden says, we need to nurture healthy sexuality from day one.

As a mother, I found this to be an insightful, courageous book full of practical advice. Let’s face it: Schools aren’t doing much sex education. So parents have to step up. And as a professor teaching courses on gender and sexuality, I believe McFadden’s interviews and survey data can also help to model candid conversation in the classroom.

I had a chance to talk with McFadden, below–and received a response from her 15-year-old daughter, as well!

What are some small things a mother can do for her daughter when it comes to nurturing a sense of confidence and bodily comfort?

Some of the things I’ve done to nurture healthy sexuality in our home have been:

  • teaching my daughter about her anatomy from the time she was little
  • answering honestly any question she’s ever asked me
  • explaining menstruation in the years before she would likely start
  • more recently, covering issues of safe sex and discussing the emotional components of sexuality–like mutual respect, an understanding that women’s pleasure is no less important than men’s, encouraging her to listen to her own instincts, and so on

I’ve also shared with her stories of my own mile markers—my first period, my first sexual encounter. In a lot of these conversations over the years I’ve explicitly conveyed to her that I want her to have a happy, healthy life that includes valuing her sexual vitality.

How do these conversations continue throughout a child’s life and development?

I think the most important thing, by far, is beginning to talk about sexuality simply and naturally when she’s a toddler, so that right off the bat, she knows it’s part of a dialogue the two of you can have. Keeping her ignorant about the fundamentals of her own body will set the stage for shame and guilt over her sexuality as she ages. If she’s old enough to know what her earlobe is, then she’s old enough to know what her vulva is, because it’s all pre-sexual in her understanding.

As she gets a little older, move from teaching her the correct names of body parts to explaining how they work (intercourse, how babies are made and delivered, masturbation, menstruation and so on). Later the learning should become more sophisticated and include concepts like intimacy, mutual respect, privacy, and ownership over her body and her sexual feelings and choices. It’s about always leaving the door open for these discussions so you can access each other as needed, not only when your daughter is young, but when you’re adult women together.

It’s also imperative that you don’t critique her body, your body, or those of other women in front of her. We have to model body confidence and the value of sexuality in the living of a life. I also make a point of making it clear how much I value her mind, her heart and her abilities so she’s less susceptible to buying into the idea all she’ll be valued for is her physicality.

How does having an open dialogue about sexuality at home shape a daughter’s sense of self?

It works exactly the same way the development of a personality works: She will incrementally take in what she sees, hears and feels—in effect, what she lives–and that will shape her understanding of who she is in the world. From the time she’s little, everything she takes in–whether it be a healthy message, a shaming message or a lack of information–will slowly accumulate into an understanding of her sexuality. A daughter’s open dialogue with her mother will stand her in good stead to develop trust and confidence in her mother and in herself.

Sometimes when mothers and daughters sit down and discuss sexuality, these moments can be quite awkward. How has this worked for you? Are there ways to cut the awkwardness? Or is that discomfort just part of growing up in the U.S. with a puritanical ethic?

I strongly believe that, through our reluctance to be open and truthful when our girls are little, and in our difficulty in answering their questions without looking like a deer in the headlights, we introduce the awkwardness. Our daughters don’t introduce it—they learn it from us when they’re very young, then come to expect it each time the subject arises.

That being said, I think much of the awkwardness between a teenage daughter and her mother is endemic to being a teen. It’s developmentally appropriate and necessary for her to separate from her mother. But it’s still my job to teach my daughter what I feel is important for her to know; in the service of supporting the development of skills she’ll need to listen to her own voice and make good decisions. She’s often really uncomfortable with what I want to teach her about sexuality. But she’s also really uncomfortable when I talk about alcohol, drugs, or curfews, and I can’t let her awkwardness keep me from having those discussions either.

What is your relationship with your daughter like?

We’re extremely close, but now that she’s a teenager she needs more space and independence, so I’m trying to shift accordingly. Sometimes in these moments when we’re navigating this new territory together, I feel like I just had a drink that was too stiff… a cocktail that’s one part excitement for her maturation and one part loss for all that’s past, and I get a little emotional hangover!

Are there moments when you have identified internalized sexism in yourself? Can you give an example and how you worked through this?

Absolutely. Whenever I wrestle with anything connected to negative body image or sexual self-consciousness, I consider internalized sexism to be the source of that thinking.

For example, I love being 49. You couldn’t pay me to be back in my twenties. I love the self-awareness, directness and the clarity of my priorities being 49 brings. But my body is undergoing its own little reapportionment program. The way districts of my body are represented is shifting according to the demands of the normal aging process. And there are times internalized sexism makes this feel sucky.

When I do find myself in these spots I tend to process the feelings on my own, because hate it when women critique themselves in front of each other, and have made a rule of trying never to do it in front of my daughter. Instead, whenever the opportunity arises, I’ll point out to her older women who catch my eye because they command my respect, or are distinctive, vibrant, compelling or gorgeous. And I also remind myself that the woman I most admired and modeled myself after was my grandmother, and I take great comfort in that.

Here’s what Joyce’s daughter had to say after reading this interview:

Joyce’s daughter (age 15): My mom and I disagree about stuff, but are very close. I know she loves me very much, and wishes us to always be the closest we can be. [An open dialogue at home] can help one to know the normality of sexuality, and help one to feel comfortable with it. Being able to talk about sexuality at home will help one to ask questions if curious, without feeling embarrassed to do so. I have always dreaded those discussions; there really is no way to cut the awkwardness in them.  However, I do know I can talk to her about anything and that means a lot to me.

You can purchase your copy of Joyce McFadden’s book here.

Photo from Reader Store


Meika Loe is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Colgate University in New York. She is the author of Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2011) and The Rise of Viagra: How The Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America (NYU Press, 2004). Her critical scholarship on culture, age, medicine, technology, and gender has appeared in a range of academic journals including Contexts, Gender & Society, Feminism and Psychology, Symbolic Interaction, Sexualities, and Sociological Inquiry. She has spoken with numerous media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR), BBC, Mother Jones magazine, The New York Times. Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and the London Sunday Times.