How to Talk to our Girls about Sex and Pleasure
By Amy MacLachlan
“Pleasure is not synonymous with sex,” says Melissa Pintor Carnagey, author of Sex Positive Talks to Have with Kids. “Pleasure is with us our entire lives. It’s a birthright. And it’s through pleasure that we come to know ourselves and the world around us.”
Carnagey is the founder of Sex Positive Families, an organization devoted to teaching parents and young people how to talk about sex. Having raised three children, including a daughter who is now 21, she is seeing the positive effects of openly and intentionally teaching her kids to be proud of their bodies, to trust their intuition and that sex is a good and pleasurable thing.
“When we talk about pleasure, we’re actually talking about how girls can keep themselves safe,” says Carnagey, who is also a social worker, having spent 15 years in the area of HIV and sexual health. “Teaching children about consent from a very young age and talking about how pleasure is a force in all aspects of our lives, actually prepares them for when they do have sex.”
There are all too many alarming stats and stories about things like girls and body image; pressures around giving oral sex and texting naked photos; and consent and safety issues.
According to Carnagey, talking openly about pleasure teaches girls to get to know their bodies and to be comfortable with what they can do. It also empowers them to voice their needs and desires — something girls often aren’t allowed to acknowledge. On the flip side, it teaches girls about personal boundaries, and to know when things don’t feel good.
“By erasing pleasure from sex ed, we’re failing to prepare our young people for safer, more satisfying experiences,” she says.
Teaching girls about pleasure isn’t just about sex, then. It’s about laying the groundwork for healthy relationships, with others and with themselves.
But where do we start? Isn’t it awkward? What should parents say? First, relax. Second, be encouraged that honest conversations about this sort of stuff are a great opportunity to connect and build a trusting relationship with your daughter. Third, keep reading. There are ideas and tips (and lots of reasons why!) to talk to your tweens and teens about pleasure and sex.
Start with self-reflection
Sara Dimerman is a psychologist working with children and teens and believes that when parents struggle with talking about sex, some self-reflection might be in order. “We can begin by unlearning some of what we were taught growing up,” she says. “Then, we can examine how we feel about self-pleasure, and how embarrassed we might be at the thought of our daughter knowing that we have a vibrator and what it does.”
She suggests reading books about healthy and appropriate touching from a young age (she recommends A Very Touching Book by Jan Hindman), letting kids know they can ask anything, work on becoming more comfortable talking about things like masturbation, “and helping our daughters become more familiar with their genitals and how they might derive pleasure.”
Stefanie Peachey, a social worker and therapist in Burlington, Ont., often sees the result of a sexually secretive upbringing. Many of her adult female clients struggle with things like body acceptance and how that relates to shame and feeling sexual, and with navigating the perceived gap between being sexual and being a mom.
“Most 30-plus female clients will say that sex was not a conversation that was had at home because it felt shameful and taboo,” says Peachey. “Their education came from friends and society, and what do we see on TV and in movies typically? That men need sex and women withhold it.”
Boys are taught early that their sexual desires are normal, she continues. “They can joke and be crude about sex from a young age and we talk about how ‘boys will be boys.’ Somehow along the way, girls became whores and sluts for participating in sexual exploration and activity.”
The focus then is often on how a woman can please her male partner, with her own satisfaction taking a backseat.
“Consent and desire are important,” says Peachey, “not simply being compliant.”
So how do we talk about pleasure?
- Acknowledge the gap between what you could have been teaching your child, and what you haven’t been. Say, “I realize we haven’t talked about…”
- Be honest and vulnerable about where you are in your own journey. “I want to do better. You deserve to be equipped.” Know that you’re creating safety for your kids.
- Be clear that sex and pleasure aren’t wrong or dirty or shameful, but natural and normal for everyone.
- Be frank about the fact that sex isn’t only for reproduction.
- Talk about masturbation, letting kids know that both girls and boys self-pleasure, that it’s totally normal, and is an excellent way to feel good and to learn more about our bodies.
- Be prepared for responses like, “ew!” if you haven’t discussed sex very much before.
- Talk about feelings often — ask them how various pleasures (eating their favourite food, walking along the beach, taking a warm shower, etc.) make them feel, both physically and emotionally.
- Pay attention to body language and personal space during your conversations. Take cues from your child/teen.
- Let them know they have the right to refuse things like hugs, kisses, tickling, etc. Carnagey says that when our “no’s” aren’t respected as children, it sets the expectation for compliance later on.
- Listen to their questions.
- Challenge what kids may see as “normal” when it comes to sex, due to pornography and expectations around sexual text messaging.
- Know that kids will have sought out information on their own. Google doesn’t judge! Strive to be as available and non-judgmental as Google.
- For conversation-starters, try listening to podcasts — “Six Minute Sex Ed” is made for families to listen to together.
- Find sex-positive books to help you along if you’re feeling hesitant. Visit sexpositivefamilies.com for a huge list of resources to help further the conversation.
It’s about empowerment
Carnagey says we’re often afraid that talking to girls about pleasure will “make them become sluts. Or that they will become uncontrollable or face harm.” Instead, it actually helps them understand their own power, autonomy and capabilities.
“We approach boys with the inherent belief that … they are in control of their bodies and in control of their partner’s body. And we raise boys who feel entitled to take. But our girls, we say they need to be saved and protected; that they have to be careful; to watch out. Their bodies and sexuality and future are up to others.”
Shifting the conversation to exploring and appreciating the pleasure our bodies can give us and learning what feels good helps give girls love and awareness of her body, a sense of agency and autonomy, and sets her up for healthy, rewarding relationships down the road. According to Carnagey, “it’s a game-changer.”
“My daughter can enjoy her sexual self. There’s no internalized shame. She makes decisions that she came to on her own, with my support, knowing that her body is hers. Always hers.”
Amy MacLachlan is a freelance storyteller and content writer. She has two daughters and recently began a social account called @the_sensual_self, where she talks openly about sex and helps women let go of the shame and fear often associated with sexuality.