“Do parents have a say in when their teens start having sex?” asked a recent headline in the Lifestyle section of the Sydney Morning Herald.
No, answered Kasey Edwards, mother of two daughters aged 8 and 3: As anyone who has ever been a teenager could attest, if a teenager really wants to have sex then they will, regardless of their parents' policy.
After my blood pressure had come down I penned her this open letter:
Dear Ms Edwards,
Reading your piece on the question of when you’ll let your daughters have sex left me feeling, as a mother of a daughter, well… blah. Perhaps I’m missing something, but your approach to your daughters and sex can only be described as defeatist. Here’s why.
1. You suggest that removing any parental policy around sex is the solution. If your daughters have no way to defy you, then technically, they cannot undermine you. I admit, that is logical. With a disobedience rate of 0.00%, you could argue you have proof of a happy family home and a healthy mother-daughter relationship. I think a few parents would find your philosophy a little obtuse though.
2. ‘Who am I to stop them?’
If my daughters are making an authentic and informed decision, if they are having sex because they genuinely want to and feel ready, then who am I to stop them?
You are their mother. I think that does set you apart from everyone else in this world. Which means when they need guidance about sex (and they do), the responsibility to provide it falls primarily on their father and you. Instead, you forfeit this task, and consider that a virtue.
3. When did advising your children to delay sex become synonymous with being judgmental?
If my daughters know that their father and I will be non-judgmental and supportive of their decisions about sex, then I expect this will lead to more open conversations about contraception, STDs and consent. They will never have to sneak around, keep secrets, or use their sexuality as a source of rebellion.
If you can have open conversations about contraception and consent, you can also have open conversations about the safest path of all through adolescence: no sex, just good friendships, with love and marriage something to look forward to.
4. Spare us the feminist spin on fatherhood, please.
I do not own my daughters’ sexuality. The idea that parents, and most often fathers, do own it and then pass it on to another man he’s approved of, is to take us back to the dark ages.
You do not seem to give room for a father to be protecting and responsible. Instead, you take away his right to be concerned about who might be a suitable sexual partner, including whether they have your daughter’s best interests at heart.
5. Girls are in charge. Really?
The most important lesson I can teach my girls about sex is that they are in charge. It certainly doesn’t sound like that from all the reports we are hearing about girls being bullied and groomed and molested. In any case, shall I tell my son that as well? That he is in charge when it comes to sex? Perhaps that is what those “sexist” fathers are worried about.
It worries me that you ignore the potential for your daughters being deeply hurt–emotionally and psychologically– by sex. A cheating boyfriend, a secret videotape shared around “the boys”, an unwanted pregnancy, an STI…all of which will strike her harder the younger she is. (I’m not being condescending– she’s not a child, but neither is she an adult yet.)
And if that happens, whom do you think she will blame? Herself? Or her mother and father for not taking more trouble to guide, even curb, her sexual activity? She might feel “ready” as a fourteen-year-old, but how will you feel if her sexual partner (whom you say she is free to choose) is considerably older?
(Now you have published your opinions on national media, your daughters might even become more of a target to sexual predators who consider a teenage girl left to her own judgment easier to exploit than a girl under the guidance and protection of her parents.)
Setting boundaries around sex for your teenage daughters and sons is not the same as presuming to control their bodies. Instead, it equips them with the skills and the practice – the virtues, to use an old-fashioned term — to base their decisions and judgments on something more permanent than emotions and desires.
Explaining why we set boundaries shows we respect their intelligence too. That way, we don’t just “impose our worldview” on them but educate them in principles. You would teach your daughters, on the other hand, to be at the mercy of their feelings.
This frees you from difficult conversations and uncomfortable confrontations, but as for liberating them– that is wishful thinking at best.
Veronika Winkels is a freelance writer who lives in Melbourne and is married with two young children. She recently completed a thesis on the philosophy of science.