08.15.12 Sexuality

Sexuality: What Gets Downloaded from Mother to Daughter?

Sexuality: What Gets Downloaded from Mother to Daughter?

BY Joyce McFadden NCPsyA

In her article “Why 6-Year-Old Girls Want to be Sexy” Jennifer Abbasi writes, “Most girls as young as 6 are already beginning to think of themselves as sex objects, according to a new study of elementary school-age kids in the Midwest.”

The academic study she refers to, published in the behavioral science journal Sex Roles, examines the media’s emphasis on the sexualization of girls and women. It also finds that a mother’s instruction and perspective can either interrupt or exacerbate our daughters’ succumbing to it. The good news? Here again we see the power mothers have to raise grounded, self assured girls who can grow into grounded, self assured women.

The bad news? We’re not maximizing that power. According to what daughters have to say, we still don’t talk to them about sexuality in the ways they need. We’re not seizing the opportunity to replace all that objectified, performancy, airbrushed, competitive sexuality (that I like to refer to as Sex from a Can) with information on what sexuality is like in real life.

If we want to dilute social pressures on our girls to be sexy, we have to offer them an alternative: our validation of their true sexuality as they’ll grow into it and experience it over their lifetimes. And, we’ll get an amazing bonus out of it. Our daughters will not only learn to trust and respect themselves, daughters in my research say it will make them trust and respect us, which in turn will make them feel closer to us throughout their lives.

Young daughters want to look up to their mothers as role models for what it means to be female. And they want us to be confident enough to show them the ropes. This doesn’t mean they want to hear the specifics of our sex lives. It means they want us to teach them to respect the female body we share. When they’re little they want to know about their anatomy, then menstruation, and then ultimately about all of the complexities of desire’s influence over the quality of adult sexual relationships they’ll encounter. They want to be supported in being true to themselves, not to the misrepresentations of sexuality they see all around them.

If we’re skittish talking about sex with them, one of the easiest ways to be less afraid is to tap into our own experiences and use them to connect with what our daughters need. Here are some questions to get us thinking about how our sexual sense of self might have been shaped by our own mothers, how we the come to see our own sexuality, and finally, how we might consider our influence on our daughters.

If we want to be there for our daughters and teach them about their bodies, sexuality, and desire, we need to have an understanding of our own erotic life and its highly personal meaning to us. And we need to consider not just where we are now, but how we got there from girlhood, and what we hope for ourselves in the future.

WHEN WE THINK OF OUR MOTHERS: Questions a Mother Can Ask Herself as She Considers Her Mother’s Sexuality

Do I know what my mother’s sexual existence is/was like? How do I know this?

Do I want to have a sense of what my mother’s sexual sense of herself is/was? Why or why not? What would it meant to me?

Do I hope that at some point in my mother’s life she felt sexually swept away? Why or why not? What would it mean to me and what would it say about her?

What do I hope she experiences/experienced in her sexuality and desire throughout her life? Why is that what I would wish for her?

WHEN WE THINK OF OURSELVES: Questions a Mother Can Ask Herself as She Considers Her Own Sexuality

When I was a girl, did I ever feel confused, frightened, alone, naughty, or dirty with regard to my sexuality? Am I positioning my daughter to feel any of those things?

How did my mother come through for me in helping learn about my sexuality?

How did my mother disappoint me in not helping me learn about my sexuality?

Do I have memories of being disconnected from my body, or being unable to get turned on because I was focusing more on what my partner was feeling? If so, what worry caused the disconnection?

How often do I undermine my own arousal by getting preoccupied with what I see as my physical flaws? Have I ever let my focus on my flaws get in the way of hearing how my partner desires me?

WHEN WE THINK OF OUR DAUGHTERS: Questions a Mother Can Ask Herself as She Considers Her Daughter’s Sexuality

How might my daughter interpret my silence or reluctance to talk to her about her body and her sexuality? Will she think I believe it’s wrong? Abnormal? Perverted? Not worth my time?

If my young daughter has a question about her sexuality, do I want her to think I don’t want her to come to me? How do expect her to know otherwise?

Do I want her to feel she can come to me throughout her life with sexual questions if she has them? How have I conveyed this to her?

When she’s a woman, do I want her to be able to feel alive and connected not only to her lovers but to herself when she acts on her desire? How have I actively supported this grounding in herself?

Do I critique her body or my own in front of her? How do I imagine this will affect her confidence and how she expresses herself with her body in and out of bed?

Do I want her to be able to know and ask for what arouses her? How do I expect her to come by that confidence?

If we ground our daughters’ sexuality in a sense of home in the mother-daughter bond, they’ll be less inclined to need to look elsewhere.

Featured image by Ben Pollard on Flickr

Joyce McFadden, NCPsyA is a psychoanalyst and author of the groundbreaking book Your Daughter's Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women. Based on her unprecedented study of 450 women, in which women could talk about whatever was important to them, it was the women of her study who determined the book’s topic: how girls learn about sexuality from their mothers.   Currently being taught in university women’s studies programs, Your Daughter’s Bedroom is considered “an empowering resource for mothers and daughters everywhere" by Publishers Weekly, and "a fascinating and empowering text for women of all ages" by Kirkus Review.  McFadden has an MSW from Columbia University, and is a faculty member, training analyst and clinical supervisor at the Training and Research Institute for Self Psychology. She’s a featured writer for the Huffington Post, and her research has appeared in O The Oprah Magazine, The Detroit Free Press, Ms.Magazine.com, CNN.com, Alternet.com, Feminist.comIntent.com and the Women's Media Center. To learn more go to joycemcfadden.com and on Twitter @joyce_mcfadden

Comments

  • thethirtiesgrind

    Love this, Joyce!! Breaching the topic of sex with our daughters should be a joyous occasion and reason to bond and celebrate our womanhood! Perpetuating the stigma and fear that surrounds sex, by not talking about can’t amount to anything good.
    I wrote about something similar on my site:
    http://thethirtiesgrind.com/2012/06/04/lets-talk-about-sex-baby-but-youre-my-baby/

  • Nella Fitzgerald

    I have a 6 year old who recent asked me if she was sexy. When I told her that children were not described using that term she later (a few day later which told me she was thinking about it) told me she was disappoint that she was not sexy. I am a a bit of a loss about how to address this with a child so young. I realize that may have cycled some of the damage my mother has done to me by talking about my issues with my skin or a few extra pounds in front of her and chiding her for being so clumsy and constantly getting banged up and leaving permanent scars on her skin. I don’t do is often, but after reading this and reflecting on my experience with my own mother, I see clearly how damaging it can be to her psyche and her confidence levels. How do I reverse this aside from obviously being vigilant about not exposing her to self effacing comments? I’ve heard that the personality becomes fully formed by the age of six….

  • Yorkshire lass

    My mother had her children young. She was used to being the desirable, pretty one. The centre of male attention. She suppressed my teenage sexuality. I was not supposed to show any sexual desire or be aware of my body until I was married.
    She now tries to engage me in conversation about her grand daughters’ sexuality. I am a feminist but cannot shake the effect she had on me. If she could have talked to me as openly as she does now when I was a teenager then our relationship would be very different and so much closer.

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