How To Raise A Sexually Healthy Teen

My daughter is capable and caring — I bask in her virtuous light quite unfairly. She is her own doing.

But if I had to answer parenting questions, about how new parents might have a fighting chance to raise a sexually mature and wise young adult, here's what I'd say:

Don't hit them.
Don't lie to them.
Respect their privacy and your own.

Good food would also be nice — and birthday cakes, and warm coats and mittens, all of that — but I'd say those three actions are the most important.

Since I first started giving sexual counsel, I've been hearing people's confessions. What causes the most damage, the biggest problems in people's sex lives, is when they have been abused within their own family or church.

Following the heels of that crime is the sin of growing up with terrible lies about who you are, where you came from, what's happening right in front of your nose. Violence is always part of that original lie: "We're punishing you because you were bad. Everything is fine, but you better not tell anyone else because it's all your fault."

Finally, privacy: that pearl of quiet and self-awareness. That's the most nuanced rule to explain. Kids need time to be on their own, to read, to play, to talk to themselves and their stuffed animals, to masturbate, to write, to daydream, to kick a can.

And we, their parents, need the same. People who don't know how to have private moments of clarity are in a difficult spot to grow up.

When my daughter was fourteen, she came home from basketball practice with another girl, Lorraine, who was a year older than her. Lorraine looked so different from Aretha — physically mature, a head taller. But she followed behind my daughter like a younger sister.

Aretha took Lorraine's hand. "L's worried that she might be pregnant — and she can't tell her parents; they'll throw her out."

Lorraine pulled her hand back.

"I told her to come home with me, that you could help her." She turned back to Lorraine and took her arm again. "Really, it's going to be okay."

I looked at the two of them. I had not taken a girl to the free clinic for a pregnancy exam in nearly thirty years, since I was in my old underground high school women's collective.

I offered Lorraine a chair. "I'll help you; we both will," I said. "There's a Planned Parenthood clinic just down the street that will give you a checkup for free, totally private, and all the birth control or medical help you need. That's their main thing — helping teenagers and people who don't have their parents to turn to, or a lot of money."

Lorraine looked at me through her long blond hair. She had perfect eye makeup. I couldn't read her.

"Sweetie, we can do this right now, or tomorrow if you like." I wanted to bite my nails, but I didn't want to do that in front of her. "But I have to ask you... are you sure you can't tell your mom?" Because even if I wasn't getting along with Aretha, when it comes to something like this, I would want to be the first person on her side."

Lorraine shook her head vigorously.

"Your mom loves you? —" I started.

"I don't know," she said. "Yeah, but not this. She couldn't handle it."

I said, "You know, we'll do this, and you'll get whatever you need, and next time you'll know how to do it on your own or with your lover... But you will probably not get to know me — and I'll never get to know your parents — because I couldn't stand to get close to your mom and keep a secret like this.

"You might even be embarrassed to see me later on..." I traced a pattern on her chair with my finger. "But maybe if you ever tell your mommy, like when you're thirty, you can call and tell me it's over, so I can exhale."

She laughed for the first time. "I'll never tell her!" — As if, "And you and her would never be friends."

We took Lorraine to the PP clinic. She turned out not to be pregnant, but she had pelvic inflammatory disease and anemia — along with four or five other things. The doctors weren't surprised. I was.

Aretha and Lorraine giggled over an enormous bag of condoms they were given at the end of the appointment. I looked inside the bag: "God, who's going to live long enough to use all these?"

My activism was always maternal, and I never knew it before Aretha. I knew the fight in me was creative, erotic, intellectual, historic — but I never knew it had a nurturing engine.

Motherhood is not for all. I wanted to be parented, very much — and I thought I wouldn't be good at parenting anyone else. It turned out the opposite: I could mother someone, even more than one — and it was like the balm that makes the burn go away. I turned out to have a thing for wearing aprons, and kissing tears away, and holding on tight.

Excerpted from "Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir," by Susie Bright. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2011.

Susie Bright's Bright Spot columns, written with her daughter, can be found here. She also maintains a blog about her book.

Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir

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