When my now 18-year-old stepdaughter was four years old, I realized she was extremely mature for her age. Example: once, while we were watching a movie together, a couple retired to the bedroom with a look of come-and-get-it on their faces. It was subtle enough that I didn’t think a four-year-old would think anything of it. But then:
“What do you think they’re going to do in the bedroom?” Lauren asked me.
“Um. Go to sleep, I guess,” I said.
“I think they’re going in there to have sex,” said Lauren.
Did I mention she was four years old?
My husband decided it was time to tell Lauren about the birds and the bees. And he pulled no punches. No storks. No pretend names for the important body parts. He sat her down and talked about fallopian tubes, ovaries, labia, sexual intercourse, sperm-meet-egg miracles and childbirth. I watched. Lauren nodded throughout, with a serious look on her face, taking it all in. When he was done, she had a few questions. (What is this labia and vulva you speak of? And what do you mean I don’t urinate out of my vagina?)
Since then, we’ve talked frankly and openly with Lauren about sex, in a way that many parents probably don’t. When Lauren began to approach sexual maturity, I told her she could come to me at any time with any questions. And I sought her out occasionally to check in. Leaning in and stage-whispering didja have sex yet? became my humorous way of checking in, starting when she was 13. She would blush and shake her head vigorously and say NO. (By the time she was 15, I started getting an eye-roll with a sly smile when I asked. But she would still say NO.) I wanted to try and normalize the conversation so that when it was time to get serious, it wouldn’t be weird.
As for me, I had nothing to compare any of this to. I honestly don’t think my mother ever talked to me about sex—not even the awkward version I grew up seeing on Who’s The Boss and Growing Pains. I vaguely remember a talk about tampons and pads and hygiene when I got my period. (And my dad inexplicably presenting me with a pint of my favorite ice cream as a congrats for the whole becoming-a-woman-thing.)
But there was no talk about the S-word. My parents instilled a HUGE amount of fear in me by the time I was in high school. Boys were Not Allowed.
When I was in ninth grade, a kid walked past my house on his way to school and decided to ring our bell and see if I’d like to walk to school with him. (I lived on the same street as the school, so it was a throughway for lots of kids). My dad told him no and to keep it moving.
And then, I was called into my parents’ room and grilled on WHY that young man would think it was okay to walk me to school. Had I had some kind of relations with him? Had I been talking to him on the phone? They grilled me until I was sobbing, trying to explain that I barely knew him, I had one class with him and we lived on the same damn street as the school so it’s not like he went out of his way to freaking ring the bell.
From then on I was petrified. No way would I ever let my parents hear about me and a boy.
But alas, I was a normal, healthy teenaged girl. And surprise! I had a normal, healthy teenaged libido. Eventually, I snuck a boy up to my room for some making out and such. One of our fully clothed sessions led to my first orgasm. I was like—holy shit! I wanted to do THAT, whatever THAT was, every day for the rest of my life. And yet, THAT was done when my parents weren’t home and THAT was something I didn’t even have a name for because it had never been discussed.
I started doing THAT as often as I could, sneaking my boyfriend into my bedroom after school; before my parents came home from work. But of course my dad caught us one day. My mom was summonsed home early from work and I remember distinctly that she screamed at me: Are you having sex?! I said no! I swear! (And it was true. We hadn’t gotten past the dry humping phase). She said: I’m taking you to the doctor. You know they’ll be able to tell me if you’ve been having sex, right?
(Cue my fear of going to the OB-GYN as an adult).
My mom didn’t follow through on her threat to put me in stirrups to confirm my hymen was still intact. But she didn’t have to. Her stance was made loud and clear. Relations with the opposite sex were just like the opposite sex: Not Allowed. It led to some serious issues in my sexual development—some I’m still trying to deal with.
I’ve tried to do the opposite with Lauren, making sure she’s informed, educated and has a healthy understanding of what it means to be sexually intimate with someone.
I’m 42. Lauren is 18. I’ve tried my best not to pass on the sexual hangups I’d carried into adulthood. Now that she’s away at school and I know that she’s sexually active, I’m curious about how Lauren navigates her sexual decisions and how they may differ from the choices I made. I rang her up at school to find out.
Do you remember your dad having the birds and the bees talk with you? You were only four.
Yes, I do. I don’t remember the actual conversation. I remember mom was mad because I was telling other kids and getting in trouble.
Yes, we got phone calls from your teachers… you were telling kids about fallopian tubes and ovulation. And this was kindergarten.
Yeah, man. I had lots of information. I’m like, whoa. I need to share this.
When did you first realize, I know more about sex than other kids?
People would ask me about why I lived with my mom and dad separately. And I would explain that they weren’t together. And kids would say, oh they got divorced. And I would say, no they did not get divorced. They were never married. And kids would say, that’s impossible, you can’t have a baby unless you’re married!
Exactly! So I’m super annoyed. I’m like YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE MARRIED TO HAVE A BABY. IT IS BIOLOGICAL. And kids are giving me blank stares like, she’s crazy. I told this one girl, look, YOU are going to be able to have a baby in a few years, long before you get married. She’s like, Lauren you’re LYING.
Do you remember me always telling you that you could tell me when you were ready to have sex?
I vaguely remember that but I was probably too young. I was so nowhere near it.
Dang, so in my hopes of being sex-positive and giving you a healthy outlook…
Yeah, you were WAY early.
What about your mom? She told me she wanted to make sure you felt like you could be open with her.
Mom definitely made that clear.
Was she believable?
[Laughing]: NO. Not at all. She told me when I was ready to get on the pill to let her know. So, a week later I’m like, hey can we make an appointment? She said, “Why? Are you having sex? And I said no. And she said, well we don’t need to go until you’re having sex so let me know. “ I’m like, mom. Are you serious? I’m never going to tell you so this won’t work.
It’s been a few years. All three of your parents now know you’re sexually active. Are you comfortable talking about it with us?
It’s interesting. I’m fine talking to you and mom about it. But I find myself actually wanting to talk to Dad about stuff. And now, after being super cool when I was younger, he’s totally uncomfortable when I bring up guys and sex and stuff.
This is tough to ask. Do you have any sexual hang-ups that we could have prevented?
Actually, I think you guys did a really good job. Dad did a good job of normalizing sex. He said things jokingly sometimes or would make comments about scenes in movies and he’d just talk about sex like it was a normal thing. Not like, DON’T YOU EVER. My hang-ups I have are all external—not really things you guys could have prevented.
Well, that’s good. I think.
You did a good job of normalizing sex as well. You were open to me about your past experiences. And you told me straight up: it’s not about how many people you have sex with or when you first have sex, it’s about your motives. You told me to ask myself: WHY are you having sex? Are you doing this to fill something you’re missing inside? Are you doing this because you want him to like you? Are you doing this because you’re sad? That stuck with me.
I mean, I still have had sex for all those reasons. But I’ve always known it. I’ve always been able to say, be honest with yourself, Lauren. You’re having sex because XYZ. So be aware of that.
But Lauren, I was telling you all that stuff so that you wouldn’t have sex for the wrong reasons!
Yeah, it still happens. But it’s really good to be able to have that inner dialogue. It’s okay.
Devin Anderson is a writer and author from New Jersey. She’s written professionally since 1998 and currently works as a full-time freelance writer for various outlets. She’s also written five books, three non-fiction and two novels. The name Devin Anderson is a pseudonym. The writer is changing her name to protect the innocent, the guilty—and her mom.
Illustration by Jim Cooke