Psychotherapist and author Joyce McFadden found some surprising results when she asked women to reflect on sexuality and raising daughters.
By Joyce McFadden
May 3, 2011
Women can’t fix what we don’t know is broken, so it’s empowering anytime we’re given the opportunity to look at ourselves from a new perspective. Especially when it concerns how we raise our daughters. One of the most effective motivators for change comes from our most valuable resource—our own stories.
In my psychoanalytic practice women routinely reveal concerns that they’re alone in their experiences, which results in feelings of shame. When I let my clients know there’s actually a huge community of women silently going through similar things, they’re relieved because their feelings have been normalized through a sense of belonging.
In an effort to create a broad forum through which women could share and learn about the realities of each other’s lives without risking judgment, I launched my anonymous Women’s Realities Study. It contained 63 open-ended questionnaires. Women could respond to as many as they liked, and write whatever they wanted to—they could also answer any questions that weren’t included. The study was unprecedented in that all of the content was self-selected by each respondent. I had hoped to compile their narratives into a reference book, but editors suggested I scale down the project since with the Internet, there was no longer a market for reference books.
I let the women from the study do the scaling down. They are the ones who chose the topic of the resultant book, Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women, because it’s based on the three most popular questionnaire topics: menstruation, relationship with your mother, and quite surprisingly, masturbation.
These three were the topics most wanted to talk about and learn more about from each other. And here is what the 450 women, age 18-105, who participated in the study have to teach us about ourselves: we mothers still aren’t educating our daughters about sexuality, in large part due to the unconscious sexism we feel and unintentionally pass down to our girls in the mother-daughter relationship. Even in 2011.
Almost half of the women under age 30 who completed the menstruation questionnaire weren’t taught about menses by their mothers—mothers who obviously gave birth to them after the second wave of feminism. Three quarters of the women who completed the masturbation questionnaire were never taught about it, and 70 percent reported guilt around self-stimulation, with 80 percent of them being women under the age of 35. Not only that, while 90 percent of the women from the masturbation questionnaire wanted to learn more about it from other women, a quarter of them confessed they wouldn’t know how to go about teaching their daughters about it.
Commenting on menstruation and masturbation, women said, for example: “The day I received my period, my mother gave me a pad and told me never to let boys play with me ‘down there’”; and “my mom would get upset when I’d [masturbate] and for a long time I had to sneak it, and through that developed a negative connotation.” Young women seem to be suffering from the same taboos that plagued their mothers, revealing that, just as was the case for older women, their sexual education was outsourced to the school nurse and Judy Blume.