A girl’s emerging sexuality can prove difficult for many dads and stepdads. We’re likely to worry—or dare we admit it, obsess—about her losing her virginity or being taken advantage of in a sexual way. Meanwhile, most people (including most dads) think that sexuality education is, and ought to be, the exclusive realm of Mom. And more than a few people think that including words like “Dads, Daughters, Sexuality” in the same sentence is inappropriate.
However, we are just as responsible as mothers and stepmothers for meaningful conversations about sexuality with our daughters. Indeed, our male perspective as former adolescents is especially useful to a daughter trying to understand the emerging sexuality of boys. And having these important talks isn’t so hard (my book Dads and Daughters includes many stories of dads doing it successfully).
As we initiate these critical conversations about sexuality, an important first step is examining how our heartfelt wish to ensure her sexual safety and security can inhibit healthy and helpful communication with her. Our fatherly longing for assurance is buffeted by all the confusion and contradiction regarding sexuality, intimacy, and relationships in today’s world:
- Is oral sex really sex?
- How should schools teach sex education, if at all?
- How relevant does marriage seem?
- Is it OK for her to be attracted to other girls?
Many of us try to settle our own worries by focusing overmuch on whether she’s gone beyond second base, is still a virgin, or will avoid cohabiting before or instead of getting married.
Here’s where we can ask questions that may be much more helpful:
- How can I help her develop the self-esteem that will keep her from risky situations and predatory people?
- How can I better help her negotiate her transformation into a woman?
- How can I help her develop the skills to choose a caring romantic partner?
Within honest and frequent family conversations, we can and must encourage her to be as aware as she can be of how sexual intimacy will impact her development as an adolescent and as an adult. We must encourage her to always expect, receive, and reciprocate respect and caring in her relationships, whether with intimates or with friends.
We dads (and moms) can help her be assertive in ensuring her own health and safety—from protecting herself from sexually transmitted disease to confronting the prejudice that she is (unfortunately) likely to encounter as a sexually healthy female in the larger world.
Instead of seeking impossible-to-achieve certainty about her sexual desires and activities, focus on listening and talking with her about healthy choices that leave her feeling emotionally secure. Her security is well worth living with a little awkwardness and uncertainty in our own lives.
Joe Kelly is co-founder of New Moon Girls and author of Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter. He also coaches fathers and stepfathers on challenges like a daughter’s emerging sexuality.