Sex

Should Parents Talk to Their Girls About Sex?

Parents say they do but their daughters disagree. Where do girls go?

Posted Apr 11, 2020

Gentry George, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Source: Gentry George, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This is the second of a three-part post. Today, I’ll address parent-daughter communication about her puberty-infused sexuality and compare this communication with what parents tell their son. As you will see, the issues remain the same, though daughters receive more negative counsel than sons. 

What Parents Say They Say

Surveying nearly a thousand parents of teenagers, Reina Evans and colleagues collected questionnaires asking parents about their sexual education efforts with their children. Ninety-seven percent reported they have talked to their child about sexuality To repeat: Only 3 percent said they had not communicated with their child about sex. What did they talk about? The rank below indicates whether the parents (nearly identical for both parents) ever talked to their daughter about the sex topic listed—from most to least frequent.

  1. Dating/romantic relationships
  2. Pregnancy
  3. Abstinence/delaying sex
  4. STDs, HIV, AIDS
  5. Safe sex
  6. Condoms/contraception
  7. Abortion
  8. Choice of sex partner
  9. Sexual desire/turned on by sex
  10. Different types of sex (e.g., oral sex)
  11. Sexual satisfaction/orgasm
  12. Masturbation
  13. Talking about sexual wants with partner

Both mothers and fathers conversed considerably more frequently with their daughter about sexual risks than about sex as a positive aspect of life. About 95 percent of parents reported they talked to her about dating/relationships but less than 40 percent talked to her about different types of sex, sexual satisfaction, masturbation, and communication about sexual needs.

The Parents

Overall, mothers were more likely, on the order of 10 to 20 percent, than fathers to talk with their daughter about both the risks and the positive aspects of sex. Clearly, mothers were erecting colossal red flags to her regarding the risks of engaging in sexual activities; it was fine to date—just say “no” to sex, wait, or, at least, be careful and protect yourself regarding pregnancy, safe sex, sexual diseases, contraceptives, and, ultimately, abortion.

Neither parent appeared likely (or willing) to discuss the positive aspects of sexuality. This was particularly notable among fathers as barely 20 percent talked to their daughter about masturbation, sexual desire/satisfaction, the variety of sex practices she has available to her, and her sexual needs with her partner

The researchers noted their results were consistent with the preoccupation many parents have with “long-term negative effects sexual activity can have on their children’s lives and thus, express overall disapproval of their adolescents becoming sexually active.”

Daughters Versus Sons

When parents did talk about sex, mothers emphasized the negative, risky aspects of sex over positive sex topics—especially with their daughter, though fathers were also delivering negative messages to their daughter. The most notable differences were the following:

Risks of Sex

  • Mothers higher to daughters than sons
  • Fathers equal to both daughters and sons
  • Mothers higher than fathers to both daughters (especially) and sons

Positive Aspects of Sex

  • Mothers equal to both daughters and sons
  • Father considerably higher to sons than daughters

What Daughters Report

Given that over 95 percent of parents say they talked to their child about sex, do daughters agree? Susan Sprecher, a sociologist, and colleagues surveyed more than 6,000 college students who “completed questions on the sources of their sex education and the degree to which they have communicated about sex with various types of individuals.”

The young women reported their primary sources of sex education were their same-sex friends, dating partners, and opposite-sex friends. Mothers came in sixth, after the media and reading. Their net scores with mothers were just higher than “provided a little information.” Fathers came in eleventh, just after physicians and before religious leaders with net scores between “provided no information” and “provided a little information.”

Is Sex Education Between Parents and Youths Improving?

Sprecher then divided her sample into three recent cohorts to assess changes during the last decade. Across both sexes, younger (2000-2006) cohorts of students reported they are now receiving more sex education from media, peers, and professionals compared to older (1990-1994) cohorts of students. Over time, reading as a source has decreased and parents have remained the same. 

The communication question asked how often the student had “discussed sex (e.g., experiences, desires, jokes & stories, facts)” with the sources. From the perspective of the youths, communications with parents about sex have diminished even as a dramatic increase has occurred in terms of media and peer sources of sex communication. 

Conclusion

Daughters fare no better than sons regarding receiving information and communicating about sexual topics with their parents. They still receive the “sex is bad” message and, unlike boys, receive no message from either parent about the possible joys and pleasures about sex. What either daughters or sons learn about sex from parents remains a mystery.

References

Evans, R., Widman, L., Kamke, K., & Stewart, J. L. (2020). Gender differences in parents’ communication with their adolescent children about sexual risk and sex-positive topics. Journal of Sex Research, 57, 177-188. doi:10.1080/00224499.2019.1661345

Sprecher, S., Harris, G., & Meyers, A. (2008). Perceptions of sources of sex education and targets of sex communication: Sociodemographic and cohort effects. Journal of Sex Research, 45, 17–26. doi:10.1080/00224490701629522