Sex Lessons from Mom and Dad

Even when girls and boys get the same negative message about sex, girls seem to come out worse.

Many young people only get silence from their parents on the subject. But silence communicates: Sex is unmentionable, shameful.

Parents often worry that raising the subject will lead kids to have sex. Actually, when parents talk, their children are less likely to become sexually active, and more likely to behave responsibly.

“Don’t touch yourself there.” Another message linking sex and filthiness.

The advice doesn’t always work as hoped. Sex therapist Lonnie Barbach tells of one little girl who, “put that extraordinarily dirty place directly under the faucet of the tub in order to wash it more thoroughly and was pleasantly surprised to find that the water created a most intense sensation which culminated in orgasm.”

Other little girls aren’t so lucky.

Here’s the downside to the parental rebuke. Touching yourself is exactly what sex therapists advise when women have trouble achieving orgasm. Because they often don’t understand how their bodies work.

In fact, while parents may scold both boys and girls, the reproach seems to have a more negative impact on girls. Boys who don’t touch themselves, and who don’t have sex, will have wet dreams because their bodies need regular ejaculations to create fresh sperm. This clues boys in to how their bodies work.

Girls don’t always figure out how the clitoris works. It’s an organ that’s small and hidden, and girls’ bodies don’t force orgasms. Women can go their entire lives, having many babies, without ever experiencing one.

Nearly all men masturbate, but only half of women do. Perhaps this is why.

But parents give boys more positive messages about sex, too. “Never waste a boner,” a male student volunteered when I asked what sorts of parental advice they’d heard.

Girls probably won’t hear anything remotely similar.

We’ve all heard how boys are told to sew their wild oats before marriage, while girls are encouraged to abstain. Some dads have even taken their daughters to “purity balls” and vowed “before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity.” A little extreme. And the notion of “covering” a daughter seems a little creepy. But it reflects the larger society’s concern with girls’ “sexual cleanliness.”

Girls and boys get different messages on sexuality from parents. And even when they don’t, girls’ sexuality can be more damaged.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on October 4, 2010, in feminism, gender, men, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. I think culture plays a large part in whether or not parents address the “sex talk.” While it wasn’t necessarily considered “taboo” in my family, my mother’s parents never had the talk with her and then she never had the talk with me. In her case, her parents were very religious and strict about not having sex before marriage. So I guess they opted to completely not address it all all with my mom and her siblings.

    Conversely, not talking about it at all could send indirect messages. Not talking about it sort of leaves things in the gray area. I think it’s an important to talk about it at the very minimum so kids can make informed decisions about their sexy lives.

    I like that you bring up the double standard where men get more of a pat on the back sex talk and women often deal with the shame of it. In high school, my boyfriend’s mom allowed me to sleep over their house. My mom absolutely was not okay with it. It’s an interesting perspective being that both of our mothers had conflicting ideas on the matter. My mom would say, “Well, it’s because he’s a boy. And you’re a girl.” But what was never communicated to me was what that actually meant. It’s important that parents not only address the matter, but to also provide insightful reasoning to establish a healthy, informed channel of communication.

  2. My parents never mentioned anything to me about sex because in their culture, it is never brought up or taught. Also, my parents that it is “dirty” if a female were to talk about sex. They think the older I get, that is how I will learn about sex because I am at the “mature” age. Whenever I wanted to take a sex ed class in middle school(they offered it 7th and 8th grade), my mom would be shocked and surprised that my school offered such class. She did not want me to take it, but I ended up convincing her to let me because I told her that it is important for me to learn about sex since I was never educated about it by them. It shows how much sex is a taboo in my parents culture that they become awkward and silent whenever the subject is brought up. I would have to say it was damaging for me because since I am a girl, my parents wanted to block me away from anything that involved sex.

  3. Sabrina Gill

    Growing up in a North Indian culture, can’t say yes if asked, “have your parents ever talked about sex with you?”
    I came to a conclusion that every society needs to criticize about something and since back in north India, they aren’t different races, society is sexist. Not even lying, one is shamed upon if one is seeing holding hands with a partner as long as they aren’t married.
    Society (Indian parents) has this idea of sex that it is plausible if done once married before that time if your parents get to know you are sleeping with someone, they’d probably shame the girl a lot.

    My parents never encouraged me to even date. They said, “the longer you stay out of it, the better.”

    But parents don’t understand how biologically and psychologically it’s proven that every human being has sexual desires that need to be fulfilled.

    • And in back of all this is patriarchy (Male domination). Patriarchal societies tend to reduce women to sex and shame them both. We need to move out of patriarchy.

      And patriarchy is not the same thing as men. Most men actually want gender equality. But since all of us have unconsciously internalized patriarchy it will take time to overcome.

  4. First and foremost, great article Ms. Platts! After reading this article, it made me realize how bad my situation was in a sense that my parents never talked to me about sex growing up even at the age of eighteen! As much as I want to say how the “Asian-American” culture may be a huge factor/influence to this reason, I think it may be the fact that my parents have a centralized idea that “I will eventually discover and learn about sex when the time comes”. Therefore, the idea of sex was never talked about whether I was four, eight, twelve, or even eighteen years old. Through this article, I also learned a plethora of facts that I may have heard before, but never got a direct answer to. For instance, it is as fact that pretty much all men masturbate (required in order to replace “old” sperm with fresh sperm) but for women, not ALL masturbate because of how our society behaves. The boys would get more encouragement when it comes to sex yet girls seem to go through ludicrous treatments in the hopes of preserving a girl’s virginity. Although parents are usually the forefront of introducing the idea of “sex” to their children, it seems that regardless of what they do, the children will find out one way or another with me being a testament to this. I absolutely agree with this article in all the facts that were addressed and it really filled in the blank spaces I had growing up. Overall, not only does this article bring light into an important subject matter, but it also gave me an excellent perspective to what women go through.

  5. I think parents should teach or discuss with their kids about these subject before their kids get worse. Nothing is shame at all if parents talk to their kids about sex lesson. In some asian countries. Sex seems dirty and people can’t talk about it in public, but the problem is that kids don’t know how to protect themselves from sex. For example it’s always a big number of abortion in Asian countries. Also more and more people have sexual disease because they don’t want to use condoms when they’re having sex. Well. Parents should think about these issue. They might think that it’s not good to discuss with the kids about sex lesson since they don’t want the kids have sex early, but that’s not a good idea because they can’t abandon their kids from having sex.

  6. Focusing more on the parental silence than the gender differences, I feel like parents are being less talkative about sex than they were years ago. Sexual Education in the classroom is now very commonplace, and parents seem to think that this deals with the subject thoroughly enough – when in fact all it covers is the physical process of having sex and the potential harmful outcomes. Then they hand out condoms. It’s as if they expect us to already have a positive view of sex, and are simply trying to make sure that we’re aware of the risks. If one hasn’t had a conversation with parents about sex, Sex Ed really makes it seem more irresponsible and dangerous than it’s worth. When I had my first classroom lesson about sex in middle school, it also seemed that the idea wasn’t exactly liked be the teachers. I vividly remember someone submitting to the anonymous question box, a slip of paper reading ‘Can you have sex when you’re 12?’. Our teacher answered in a matter of fact voice ‘No, your bodies won’t be ready until you’re adults at 12, so you cannot have sex when you’re 12.’

  7. I really don’t understand why the majority of parents make sex a huge deal to their kids, mostly their daughters. In my own experience, my parents never talked to me about having sex and because of that I assumed it wasn’t condoned and wasn’t something I should be taking part in. Not only did my parents not talk to me about sex but growing up I attended church where the message to not have sex before marriage because it was a sin was taught. Because the people in my life who were telling me not to have sex didn’t also tell me what to do if I did decide to have sex, when I did start having sex I wasn’t being smart about it. I knew that it was smart to use protection but I didn’t understand the seriousness of it at the time which could potentially be very dangerous. I think what adults need to really focus on when talking to their children about sex is how to protect themselves when they do have sex instead of just ignoring the subject all together or telling them not to do it. Parents need to realize that it’s a natural thing, it’s not a bad thing, and their kids should be prepared just in case it does happen rather than not being educated on all the consequences, good and bad, that can occur while having sex.

  8. I find it very strange that most girls I know grew up thinking we weren’t supposed to masturbate. Male masturbation was talked and joked about since I can remember, but people rarely mentioned female masturbation. When I was young, I began to realize that touching my vagina felt good. I asked my friends about it to see if they had had a similar experience, but they looked at me like I was crazy and as if they did not know what I was talking about. From that moment on, I felt like there was something wrong with me for pleasuring myself. I continued to do it in secret, but I felt as if no one could know about it. I also felt like I couldn’t talk about it, which was fairly easy because it is brought up so rarely. Eventually I came to terms with my sexuality, and when I got to high school and got my first boyfriend, I was glad that I had not let the shame deter me from being in touch with my body. In high school, female masturbation becomes something that is talked about freely and considered sexy. Also, knowing how your body works is extremely important when becoming sexually active. Unfortunately, many young women cannot get over the guilt and shame that has been associated with masturbating by the time they get to high school. Hopefully, by being more open with our kids about sex and sexuality, we can reduce some of these negative effects on women.

  9. Growing up in a hispanic home, sex and bodily functions were taboo. I grew up incredibly embarrassed about having my period especially having as many brothers as I did. I was incredibly curious about sex and whatever information I got was from my friends at school.

    Now, as a mother, I have made it a point to be transparent with information because I would hate for my kids to have to get their information as I did. I still have many hangups about my sexuality, even after being married for so long, and yet still try to convey a positive attitude about sex to my kids. I have both sons and daughters and my goal is for the girls to feel empowered, proud and free of any stigmas put on them just for being females. for my boys, they must respect and admire women and see them as their equal.

    I realize that this is an extremely difficult goal to achieve with the inundation of negative media messages bombarding them at every turn. For every one positive message I give them, they get 25 from the world.

  10. In our culture it’s so shameful to hold your significiant others hand in public. I could remember a white american man came to talk to our parents about sexuality and the feeling that was in that room becuase we were all of the same culture just by there posture individuals were so uncomfertabel since the subject was about sex. Personally I grew up with seven sisters we lost our mother when I was two and my little sister was 11months we were the youngest so my father raised us all. My father tried taking in a wife but she didnt love us as much as she loved him so my father rased us on his own, but sex was not one of the main subjects that were one of the main subjects that were talked about.

  11. We really do learn a lot from our parents about sexuality and I think the phrase “silence communicates” is so astonishingly true. Girls are taught to wait to have sex until after marriage because the will be more pure. And double standards about sex are extremely common too. However, I found an interesting phenomena in my girl friends. A lot of them still held onto the belief that sex before marriage is unpure and sinful, yet they seem to want guys to have experience. As one of my friends put it,”I don’t want to have sex before marriage but I want him to have experience so that I can feel good.” I think this is one of the most ridiculous things I have heard. Girls tend to believe that in order for good sex they have to just lie there while the man does everything. They believe that a man has sex while a woman simply finds herself in that position. I think it’s really dumb actually to say that you don’t want to be experienced but you want your partner to be. It’s dumb for so many reasons. The first thing is that they don’t realize that they are actually disempowering themselves by not having any experience. This will actually change the power dynamic. The second reason it’s dumb is that it puts an unfair pressure on men as well because they are expected to know how to have sex. If all men have had sex before marriage, and none of the women have, who has the man had sex with?? At the same time, I feel like women are starting to think of their own sexual pleasure, but it’s still at a cost. Men are allowed to be free and sexual while women have to wait. We have to wait to have good sex. We have to wait till the man knows better. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to wait for marriage to have sex, but I think it’s stupid to expect something else for someone else.

  12. The way sex is taught and thought of makes you feel ashamed to show your body and to be shy when you are naked. This way of thinking starts with parents and is reinforced by their children to eventually become a gender norm. I know from personal experience because even when my girlfriend and I are alone she will not change her clothes in front of me, she has to go into the closet to change. I think it is really foolish that it has become normal to shun your own body while at the same time to be sexually attractive in today’s world it seem that you have to show more and more skin. Unfortunately for many girls being attractive and showing off your body has an adverse effect on how they think about themselves and along with the parental ideas of sex it creates the idea that they can never be good enough.

  13. I realize this is an older blog posting, but I had to respond to this topic, because it is so important for so many people today and it does not get discussed enough.

    Many young girls and boys do not learn about sex from their parents at an early enough age to satisfy their natural curiosity. The less it is discussed, the more missed opportunities to bring up the subject of sex in a natural, normal conversational format.

    When my son was in first grade and first asked me what a vagina was, I went to the bookshelf, grabbed a 300 page book on anatomy, and showed him the chapters on both male and female parts and what the main functions of each of the major body parts were for. He had a variety of age appropriate questions that I answered to the best of my ability.

    In fourth grade, his school asked for parental consent forms to be signed for a Sex Ed talk being given by a nurse. After school that day, I asked him what he learned, and he said he already knew everything. I asked if she discussed STD’s and he said she did. I also asked if she discussed condoms or contraception and he said “No.” Needless to say, I was surprised. I asked if he got to hear her entire presentation, or if he stepped out for a part of it. He said he listened to everything she had said, but that she did not talk about “protection.” This obviously opened the door to a whole new conversation, and I showed him medical websites discussing different STD’s and how to prevent contracting them as well as forms of protection and available treatments if someone contracts a sexually transmitted disease.

    Fortunately, I am not a parent who has any “hang-ups” talking about sex related topics. This is unfortunately not the case for all parents in today’s supposedly more “aware and evolved” society. If parents don’t take the initiative to answer such important questions thoroughly when they first come up, kids will ask other kids or go online and perhaps end up getting the wrong information, which can obviously carry life-changing implications.

    We all basically came into being pretty much the same way, so don’t be shy, talk about sex and take advantage of the chance to spread awareness and information!

  14. A good friend of mine from high school, Jannie, got married 7 months ago and is now 2 months pregnant. She is only 21 years old. Although she has been dating her recent husband for nearly 4 years before they wed, they had never been sexually intimate. They both were raised strong Christians and grew up with the belief and the teachings to remain sexually abstinent until marriage- so that is just what they did. She wore a ‘promise’ ring on her left ring finger that was given to her by her parents, a ‘promise’ to remain sexually pure until that ring was replaced with one given to her by her husband. Not only is she married at 21, an extremely young age, she is now pregnant just 5 months after the wedding! Although the idea of being a mom is joyful, it is also sad to me to see her, still so young, skipping such huge milestones in life and rushing into positions she is nowhere near ready for. Jannie’s parents rarely discussed sex with her and her sisters, and when they did, they were always told it was only an act between a husband and wife and if done otherwise would be dirty, sinful, and shameful. To me, in so many ways, I feel (and know) this is the reason why Jannie and her husband rushed into marriage and parenthood. To them (and their parents) this was the only true and just way to go about being sexually intimate with one another. Seeing this situation first hand, I vow when I am a parent to be open to my children about sex, the possible risk, and the ways to prevent those risk. I wish to be open with them and them with me, being there to help, talk, or listen if ever in need. In conclusion, I do wish the best for Jannie and her husband Jeremy. May they continue to love one another and grow as individuals, in partnership, and as a family.

  15. Being Asian, the subject of sex NEVERS comes up, the idea of holding a boy hand is bad. Personally, I believe that having the sex talk is important because you can get your children to open up to you as well as educating them. I wished my mom had talked to me about the birth control and the idea of safe sex. To engage in sexual acts is a choice, being better informed will prevent unwanted pregnancy. I have many friends who are either pregnant or have children, all are unexpected. I think some parents themselves aren’t fully equipped or are extremely uncomfortable about the subject. Its an unspoken boundaries.

  16. Parental silence (or in my case, extreme awkwardness and discomfort) surrounding the issue of sexuality has led to an epidemic of shame in the culture. The argument here is that boys are immune due to popular aphorisms like “never waste a boner”, but I am skeptical that boys and girls receive clear, opposite messages about sex. In my case, I feel I was socialized to both be proud of sexual conquests while simultaneously feeling shameful about my creatureliness and animal drives.

    Indeed, girls are placed in a double bind as well. Exploring sexuality leads to a shameful renunciation of purity, while abstaining leads to repression as well as the wretched notion that the world is a dangerous place where people cannot be trusted.

    Since parents, as a collective, seem to be mere conduits of the cultural attitude towards sexuality, it may be that taking a macro approach to sexual education is the only solution. Individuals with more enlightened, comfortable and educated parents have advantages in developing healthy sex lives, I’m sure. However, since courtship and sexuality are social phenomena, what really needs to happen is to collectively raise our tolerance for truth. We do have biological programming and real education (not abstinence only or a scare tactic syllabus) may not solve all sexual problems, but certainly cannot hurt. When was learning EVER a bad thing?

    As Alan Watts says, “if we cannot trust our nature, how can we trust our mistrust?” In the case of sexuality, if we do not trust we can live harmoniously with our sexual nature, how can we trust our instinct to repress it? Ultimately, we have no choice but to face all it, in all its naked truth.

    • Thanks, Mike.

      Re: “The argument here is that boys are immune due to popular aphorisms like “never waste a boner”, but I am skeptical that boys and girls receive clear, opposite messages about sex.”

      I wouldn’t go so far as to say that boys are immune, or that there aren’t nuances to the postive messages boys receive, or that boys don’t receive negative messages, too. But boys do get MORE positive messages about sex than girls do. I suspect this helps them out so that on average, men say they enjoy sex more than women report they do, and men report more easily coming to orgasm.

      A new, updated study was released yesterday. I’ll be comapring some data from that study to past surveys, and consider how our society might be changing to a bit more sex-positive environnmet for women — showing some progress.

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