As mothers, we want to do everything humanly possible to make sure our daughters live happy, healthy lives. I conducted research with 450 girls and women (between the ages of nine and 105) and found out there's one area in which we consistently fail to support our daughter's confidence and self-worth: talking to them about their sexuality.
What I learned became the subject of my book, Your Daughter's Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women. We're so freaked out about discussing sexuality with our daughters that we haven't considered the damage that can occur if we leave it out of our lifelong dialogue with them.
The harm in keeping quiet about sex
The women and girls in my study shared that the absence of a loving, emotional conversation with their mothers about sexuality had three harmful effects:
• It impaired their self-worth in areas other than sexuality.
• It created lasting distance in the mother-daughter bond.
• It made it hard for daughters to look up to their mothers as role models.
Of course we don't intend to impede our daughters' development, impair their body image, undermine their future sex lives and love relationships, or alienate ourselves from them. But that's exactly what the women in my study experienced because their mothers did not have an honest dialogue with them about sexuality.
Here's why: If we don't teach our daughters about sexuality from the time they're young, or if we only give them a crumb of information here and there, we inadvertently communicate that female sexuality is too shameful to discuss. We unintentionally teach them that their sexuality – and ours – is bad. Our girls then absorb this negativity and shame and incorporate it into their general sense of themselves.
It's not easy to talk about sex
Mothers come by their discomfort honestly. We don't talk about it with our daughters because our mothers didn't talk about it with us. And although we live in a hypersexualized society, allowing women to talk honestly about female sexuality is still considered taboo.
Pseudosexual images, like advertisements featuring women wearing stilettos with their bikinis, are out there for everyone to see, while topics of healthy sexuality, like teaching girls the accurate names for their body parts, remain hush-hush.
Case in point: Talk shows are reporting on the latest trend of women undergoing labiaplasty to make their genitalia resemble an airbrushed porn star's. And yet a friend of mine who's a public health advocate at Johns Hopkins University recently told me that one of her clients, an endocrinologist specializing in menopause, was not allowed to say "vaginal dryness" in her TV interviews.
It's no wonder mothers fear treading this ground. But we can be motivated to if we realize that we're doing so on behalf of our daughters' self-knowledge and self-confidence and influencing how they will experience love throughout their lives. When we start early, the conversations are normalized as nothing to be afraid of, and they become not only natural and easy, but they strengthen the mother-daughter bond.
Why we need to get over our fears about talking about sex
My research and the research of others finds that if we teach little girls that boys have a penis but girls have a "down there," these girls will likely grow into women who, even in the new millennium, will confuse their vulvas with their vaginas. Instead of feeling comfortable in their bodies, they will feel a sense of shame. And they'll be at risk of seeing their bodies as the property of boys because they haven't been supported in developing a sense of ownership over their own bodies.
That, in turn, leaves them at risk of having an unintended pregnancy and makes them more susceptible to putting themselves in (and not knowing how to get out of) dangerous situations. Ultimately, they're more likely to end up in long-term relationships or marriages in which they're sexually unhappy.
Finally, if we don't open the door to a more modern way of sharing what they have a human right to know, they may continue the cycle of ignorance and pass their shame down to yet another generation.
How we can do better
When our girls are toddlers they come to us with their questions, excited to learn about human bodies and how they work. But, as is often the case, we side-step the issue or shut them down when the questions turn to their sexuality and we continue that throughout their childhood. For example, I was disheartened to learn that 50 percent of the women in their twenties who completed my Women's Realities Study menstruation questionnaire weren't even taught about their periods by their mothers.
So our daughters gradually learn to stop coming to us for information because we've taught them we don't want them to have it. They also sense our fear of sexuality and our inability to move past it, and that inhibits us from developing the strong emotional connection they crave. These disappointments take a toll on our relationships with our daughters in ways no one is talking about.
Here are some poignant quotes from young women and girls in late adolescence in the menstruation chapter of my book:
"I think of it as yet another experience that perhaps my mother could have used to bond with me that she did not."
"I wish my mom had been more comfortable in her body and been able to instill that in me."
"I wish my mom had had the courage to tell me about my steps toward womanhood."
"I wish my mom had been stronger and more communicative."
"I wish it had been taught to me in a way that made me excited and proud rather than anxious."
"I do wish my mom had spoken to me about it. Not because I needed the information but because I craved to bond with her as a woman and as her daughter."
Many of the adult women I interviewed said that because their mothers weren't comfortable discussing sexual matters with them as adolescents, they didn't turn to their mothers for support when they had relationship struggles later in life. They didn't trust their mothers to be there for them if they did.
I always feel a sense of sadness when my clients tell me they won't confide in their mothers about sexual issues, such as unhappy marriages, in their adult lives because both mother and daughter are losing out on a closeness they could each benefit from.
It's understandable that it's hard for us to confront social sexual taboos to raise our daughters with more honesty. But we would be far less afraid if we reframed the issue as one of daughters wanting to understand, together with the mothers who love them, how their bodies work, how love works, and how generations of women can navigate the world together.
This article originally ran on the Huffington Post and is reprinted here with permission from the author.