Author Archives: Stephanie

About Stephanie

By writing about parenting a daughter whose dream is to help the world become more "sex-positive," Dr. Stephanie Harkin (not her real name) hopes to rally a community around her daughter's vision. Though details of this journal are changed to disguise her daughter's identity, Dr. Stephanie's stories are fact-based. In real life, Dr. Stephanie is a doctor.

Sick as Secrets

Lena told me that a fellow student at our affluent and well-regarded district high school raped her friend Shelley (not her real name). I am hoping that Shelley’s parents will somehow find this post, recognize their daughter in it, and reach out to her without judgment.  In Shelley’s view confiding in anyone about this trauma is a step down the slippery slope of having her parents find out, which feels to her like the worst thing in the world. But as I write this I am betting that her parents love her more than she understands and will find a way to help her heal.

I have to admit that I don’t know exactly why Shelley is so afraid to confide in her parents. I have never met Shelley but I do understand that we keep secrets for all kinds of reasons–for example:

  • because we are afraid of being rejected by others.
  • because telling the truth will make us appear sick, weak, or inadequate.
  • to protect ourselves.
  • to protect others that we love.
  • to keep from getting into trouble with others or with the law.
  • to avoid feeling painful feelings such as rage, terror, grief, guilt or shame.
  • because of loyalty.
  • because we have been threatened with some punishment if we tell.
  • We keep secrets from ourselves when the secret is out of character for the person we want to be. (Source:

I’ve known Lena to keep secrets from me, and for that reason (alongside many others!) I understand that I am not in a position to judge other parents.

What Happened

I think you will gather from what I write that Shelley was soaking in pain before the apparent rape. Smoking weed (quite possibly laced with something else) until limbs turn to rubber and speech slurs almost beyond intelligibility—needless to say, when kids feel a need to alter their normal consciousness to this extent, they are finding something hard to face. But imagine the fresh stab of pain, shame, and abandonment after this incident with Brian (not his real name), how much more toxic her secrets have become for her, how much less likely it must feel to her that anyone can help.

Here is what Lena says happened, as told her by Shelley. Shelley got together with a few trusted friends and they got really stoned. In their debilitated haze, the kids decided to walk over to Brian’s house. In spite of considering Brian kind of unsavory (she had told Lena this on several occasions) Shelley followed along.

While lying on a sofa at Brian’s, Shelley’s body began to feel rubbery and her speech became slurred. She was much more stoned than she thought. Brian commanded her to get off the sofa. With her phone, she filmed him standing over her telling her to get up. In the film she told him to get lost. He didn’t get lost. He picked her up, allowing the phone to drop to the floor. He brought her upstairs. He put her on the bed and took her clothes off. He took his own clothes off. She tried without success to tell him to stop but he did not listen. He raped her. Her body was not obeying her and, though he is not a large person, she was unable to fend him off.

Shelley did not confide this to any of the kids with whom she got high that night. She told only Lena, who was horrified. Lena already couldn’t stand Brian. She has known him since middle school and she thinks he is a sexist bastard, quick to demean feminism and women’s rights, ever prepared to “mansplain” gender roles. He has hit on Lena whilst fixating on the size of her breasts. He has followed her around when she was in the company of queer friends, hoping (they assumed) to catch them in some kind of act. While still in middle school he humiliated Lena by spreading rumors that she was hitting on him, which she denies.

I hopefully inquire whether Shelley might be willing to talk to me about what happened, but not surprisingly the answer is no. Apparently, Shelley is generally low on trust for adults. She certainly doesn’t want to have to explain the weed  to anyone.

Brian, on the other hand, is not keeping this a secret. He spreads around that he has slept with Shelley five times, the first time well before Shelley and her friends ended up at his house that night.  Shelley denies this and Lena is convinced that Brian is the one who is lying.

Lena is distraught but she feels that her hands are tied.  She confides the story in her history teacher, Ms. Deutch, who in turn tells Dr. Y.

I love Dr. Y. I don’t know that many other high school principals but I am convinced that a cooler one, one more interested in the welfare of students and dedicated to creating an environment to serve their wellbeing, couldn’t possibly exist. Dr. Y calls Shelley into her office. She apprises Shelley that Shelley could press charges against Brian, that the violation was that serious.  But Shelley doesn’t recognize Dr. Y’s concern for her. Shelley is furious with Lena for exposing her to adult scrutiny.  In an added layer to her dilemma, Shelley also feels responsible to protect Brian from getting into trouble for raping her.

Lena herself is pretty beat up by this situation. I assure her that she showed her care and love by confiding in Ms. Deutch, and that the message that this could rightfully end up a police matter might at the very least combat Shelley’s own trivialization of a terrible wrong.

Shelley is, unfortunately, one of many teens who feels too alienated from her parents to request desperately needed help. How far can the consequences of hiding our eyes from such pain go? So, if you know any parents who might recognize their own daughter in Shelley, please send them the link to this post. Thanks.


Easter Dinner

Most of the family is out of town. Only Lena and I, my mother, and a man who has always been like an uncle to me, Mr. H_, are sitting together at the Easter holiday table this particular year. I am entertaining a delightful reverie over which delicacy to sample first from among the titillating mounds on my plate, gloriously different in color, texture, sheen. “So, Baba” (grandma), I hear, and my reverie begins to shatter. “Do you know what transgender means?” The moment I have been dreading has arrived—and, to further my horror, a big smile keeps welling from some depth in spite of my strained efforts. Does it well from relief? Bemused horror? Glee? Pride? I don’t exactly know, but for now I find refuge in remaining riveted to those delicacies.

My mother is very hard of hearing (the quinine used to treat her malaria when she was a kid did this). When she doesn’t hear something clearly, she habitually tries to imagine what is being said rather than asking a person to repeat herself. Trasden-her?  Trangen-? “No, Baba, TRANS  GENDER.” Lena says it slowly, very loudly, with diction unmistakable even for someone 90% deaf. She doesn’t always speak up with her baba but she does now and the word is unmistakably clear. As for me, I remain under the mesmerizing sway of my plate.

My sixteen-year-old next tells her baba that she is dating a transgender boy (born female, identifies as male) and that she herself is bisexual. There is a pause, mercifully brief. My mother and Mr. H_ , it seems to me, remain much calmer than if a child, not a grandchild, had just told them this. I feel relief from the civil tones in which they now recite their litany of predictable objections.

They are concerned that “such a relationship” can never be serious. (Lena replies by referring to qualities her boyfriend possesses that are admirable in any human being: his kindness, civic mindedness, intelligence, drive as evidenced by his admission to Brown.) They wonder what would become of the world if everyone were allowed to engage in alternative sexual practices. (Lena calmly assures them that the vast majority of people will never be sexually interested in prospective partners, including sheep, with whom creating a new life would not be a possible outcome.) They promise Lena that in God’s view, to be homosexual or transsexual is simply wrong.

That last assertion jolts me from my willful reverie over the piles of food. I am awed by what I have just watched my daughter do with such patient and unswerving determination, and deeply touched by her insistence on drawing her line in the sand. She will not live a life of apologizing for being who she is, or hiding it. She doesn’t care that today’s truth might end up changing by tomorrow. She lets it be known that this day she wishes to be seen by the people who are supposed to love her, as she is right now. Overwhelmed with pride, I make a final shift to the side that has always pulled my spirit. I am relieved by the words that finally pour out of me to say exactly what I mean.

I assure my elders that, like the vast majority of parents (and following their particular example), I had always been most anxious for my kid to fit in. I had thought it my job to point her toward a life where good things, including unqualified acceptance from others, came to her with ease. I point out what is now eminently clear but had remained largely unacknowledged by the family–that my kid is not the kind that the vast majority of parents hope for and even bend their children into being. Actually, and in spite of many wonderful qualities, she is the kind that makes parents afraid, and not just her own. But I wonder aloud if that fear, and everything it protects, is simply something to obey? And, if I decide that my job as a parent is to love my child whatever version of her sexuality she now represents as authentic, fear be damned—haven’t I received a blessing from the One Who Cultivates Unconditional Love In Us?

Aren’t she and the kids of YAYA a blessing to all of us in that respect?

It was after this answer (Lena’s brief lecture about the politics of vaginas by now having mercifully receded into the slightly more distant past) that we enthusiastically resume our celebration of Easter through the sacrament of culinary enjoyment. On this holiday of rebirth, miraculous healing, and reunion with the Divine I am exuberant at the civility with which the dreaded conversation has taken place, and in that blessed state completely novel ideas begin to gaily effervesce. I note that a fissure has formed in the wall that separates me from my mother, and I see and acknowledge within her a source of love that I have spent my life denying.

I ask myself: Is protecting someone from their capacity to love ever a choice made from anything but fear?

The Grandmother

During this time of casting about for identity, Lena declared her wish to come out as queer (a blanket term that encompasses most of the others on the list) to my octogenarian Eastern European immigrant mother. This created quite the quandary for me. This is why: As a child, I was unwittingly appointed the emotional protectress of my mother, who had in her own childhood survived genocide under Stalin, slave labor in Germany, watching her mother die under literally unspeakable (for her) circumstances. My mother did not have the opportunities childhood is supposed to present for developing emotional compass and strength. I learned very early to shield her from disappointment, fright, and danger, perhaps especially any that I might cause myself simply by liking what I liked and wanting what I wanted.

Among the many results of this, my mother has no idea who I really am, no more now than when I was a child.  I have felt myself to be a walking grenade, pin released and ready to blow up that fragile fortress built up around her should she ever be given access to my emotional life, my true desires, all the putative dangers of my wild imagination. It didn’t matter how small or large, how vital or life giving these seemed to me. And now, not only was Lena refusing to be enlisted to shore up that ever-crumbling fortress with the psychic equivalents of scotch tape and chewing gum—I imagined all the repercussions of her knocking it down with a sledgehammer in a single go and felt very afraid.

Would it really be a bad thing for Lena to show some empathy for my mother’s hopeless inflexibility toward unfamiliar ideas? Not that I was seeing her view of herself as truth, particularly. Truth was a destination, I tartly reasoned, and Lena had not arrived at that yet. I really didn’t understand how close to her heart Lena’s search for her very own sexual identity was, or her wish for closeness with a blood relative whom I had always judged as being incapable of that.

Lena and I had more than a few heated discussions about this topic over the course of several years. Though I presented my position as wise and unassailable, Lena’s determination was like water against rock, molding me over time to see the beauty of her wish. Through the grace of that determination I saw that, by shielding my mother from everything I imagined would be uncomfortable to her, I nourished a place within myself that harbored her darkened view of life. That view strained against the influence of my own hard-earned and joyous truths:  for example, that everyone is entitled to the sexual orientation of their choice (so long as no one is harmed); and that children are entitled to the unconditional love of their parents, and to be spared the violence of being squeezed into an unsympathetic mold while they are so pliable.

Yet Lena, trying courageously to find her own path of joy, had been hearing from me that supporting the sick thing I had going with my mother was more important! Two and a half years after our first discussion, I issued Lena a mea culpa and assured her of my blessing to have whatever conversation with my mother she wanted.

We Learn that Lena Isn’t Straight

When I first started hearing from Lena that she thought she might be gay, I was simply confused. She had been forming mad crushes on boys since she was in preschool!—a sure sign, I was confident, that at least her sexual orientation wouldn’t pose problems for her in life. Besides, I had always known Lena to cleave to the continuum between divergent-thinking and oppositional-defiant (the latter not clinically diagnosed–just a matter of how she struck her parents). A perpetual outlier in terms of how she handled art, music, dance, exercise, schoolwork, fashion, friendship, she was nothing if not consistent. So, I figured that this latest wrinkle came from Lena’s deep impulse to situate herself on the outskirts of every established norm, whatever the cost.

In spite of our skepticism about her newest insights, Lena’s dad and I determined not to act as if we knew her better than she knew herself (however we may have secretly thought so). So, every Friday evening starting in eighth grade–when she had her first full-blown crush on a girl–we have driven her to a neighboring town for an LGBT youth group meeting.

Many of the kids at the Yardley-Avonsdale Youth Alliance aren’t exactly sure, just yet, what to call themselves sexually, and they don’t seem to mind if the designations they come up with change from one week to the next. (They are good models for living in the present.) One thing that unites them is that they either feel sexually marginal themselves, or have a sympathy or curiosity for kids who are; a second is their determination to remain impervious to the allure of social norms. At YAYA they enlist the support of other outsiders in resisting the current of sexual normalcy, sometimes in the face of breathtaking parental resistance. (I have made calls to Child Protective Services in several cases where Lena told me kids were contemplating suicide.)

When the YAYA-ans congregate, they also celebrate that each of them is unique, and the exhilarating range of choices available at the margins if spirit should so beckon.The terms they prefer in their discussions allow them to reach beyond the normative codes of the “sex-binary,” with their implications that outside subjectivities can be reasonably denied. Here is a partial list of those terms that Lena put together for me.


  • gynosexual: likes women
  • androsexual: likes men
  • pansexual: likes people
  • bisexual: likes two different genders
  • skoliosexual: likes gender non-binary people
  • cisgender: sense of gender agrees with birth sex
  • asexual: doesn’t feel sexual attraction towards anybody
  • demisexual: has to get to know somebody before they fancy them sexually
  • homosexual: (gay, lesbian) likes the same gender
  • homo/ heteroflexible: Likes the same or opposite gender but might once in a while fancy somebody out of that set
  • bicurious: straight but up for messing around a little with people of the same sex
  • gender flux: gender varies over time
  • gyno/ andro/ pan/ bi/ skolio/ a/ demi/ homo/ heteroromantic: same as all that, but with romantic attraction
  • heterosexual: likes the opposite gender

Breached Boundary

photo by Carol via Flickr

photo by Carol via Flickr

I have experienced some internal squirming when Lena has brought up the topic of bondage. Like many kids, she’s really sensitive to her mother’s body language–so, I’m sure she’s noticed, in spite of my best efforts to conceal my discomposure.

The only way I could have hidden that from her, I’m convinced, would have been to keep that “inappropriate discussion” off-limits. I know myself well enough to know that.

All parents are adept at drawing those kinds of boundaries under the hale banner of propriety. We set them consciously and unconsciously, sometimes wisely and sometimes out of shame. Once we do, though, the boundaries take on a life of their own, rife with messages that penetrate slyly, deeply. Boundaries drawn out of shame are insidious that way.

Would I have felt like squirming (so to speak) if my own daughter’s sexuality hadn’t been involved? Whatever the answer to that may be, I doubt that she understands the subtle distinctions that might be possible. I resolve not to cordon off that topic and let her speak her mind. In so doing I expose a part of myself–something unresolved and awkward, that I now have to deal with.

Lena sees only the surface ripples of my discomfort, not what is fomenting them. Not that I’m entirely sure what foments them myself. So, here we are: Lena changes the world by starting with me.

I’ve been on the receiving end of several concise homilies about bondage from Lena, cut short by my own awkwardness rather than by a lack of passion on her part. I’ve heard about how one shouldn’t be taken in by stereotypes and conventional judgments. About what bondage really could or even ought to be for it to provide sustenance, as Lena believes sexual acts should.

Lena just feels driven to be educating everyone about every angle of sex. She just wants to alter the world’s sexual pH in the direction of optimal health, much as others are driven to find a cure for seemingly intractable diseases. But I also think Lena lectures me because she just wants to make sure that whatever she decides to do in her life, her mother will be okay with it, and will still love and approve of her.

This is so much like all the other areas of our relationship, but it’s so easy to forget that.

The Final Frontier

photo by Kmitu. Courtesy of

photo by Kmitu. Courtesy of

For the final frontier at Velvet, Lena and I spread the sumptuous aubergine curtain. We are in the bondage section.

The conservative faction of my mother instinct is reeling!—yet Lena is the very girl who just moments earlier identified the sleeve and the harness for her mother. In this section we note the variety of ropes, cuffs, chains, floggers, crops, spreaders, clamps.  There are simply framed 8 ½ by 11 printouts indicating the store’s philosophy of bondage: that it must be safe and consensual in spite of its veneer of roughness and intimidation.

Lena is inspired to repeat to me a trope I have heard from her before—that there has to be tender mutual regard and respect at the basis of healthy bondage play. I gather that she has formed opinions about BDSM in discussions with her core group of curious, internet-savvy kids. These kids have hammered out a consensus about this matter at the lunch table. They are confident in their opinions as a result, and less lonely for their interests. I’m glad that the lunch lady didn’t tell them to knock it off, though I can’t imagine that she would have heard them over the lunchroom din.

I am reminded that Lena criticized Fifty Shades of Grey to me once or twice. She was incensed that it represented the lunatic fringe of BDSM as the mainstream, the veneer as substance. Lena obviously sympathizes with the mainstream, and I note happily that she’s on the side of the angels once more. Lena, on the other hand, just feels happy because Velvet does not carry Fifty Shades of Grey in the book or film version.

Chat with the Sex Store Clerk

Crew Dragon Artist Depiction

Crew Dragon Artist Depiction

At the top of the stair, facing forward, are the items that the majority of shoppers come for. There are the usual suspects: vibrators, condoms, cock rings, more lotions and lubricants. There are a few things I don’t recognize. “That’s a sleeve, mom”; and “that’s a harness.” Lena is so polite, so devoid of condescension in how she tells me these things, and I am so glad not to feel trivialized. (At least, I had heard of that last thing….)

Lena busies herself examining the label on a tube of lotion. She is vegan and doesn’t want to buy something that violates her commitment to not use animal products. I leave her to her task and walk on to the next part of the store, the one not immediately apparent from the top of the stair. A Velvet employee communicates with her facial expression that she is attentive to any wish for assistance.

The clerk is a young woman, ostensibly in her mid twenties. I, the ever-friendly mom type and a teacher, am once more on the lookout for ways to engage and encourage the young! I am also not without sociological curiosity. So, even though I am shy and reserved and would probably prefer shopping with a bag over my head in this place, I strike up a conversation with her.

I don’t ask her about products that have piqued my curiosity. Rather, I ask her if she ever has parents coming into the store with under-age teens. The whole time I speak with her I feel she is sizing me up. She is large enough to be imposing. Her face is at once sensitive and brusque. I feel I detect an old sadness, a roughed-up quality, about her eyes, however smooth the skin that surrounds them.

She smiles respectfully in the face of my mother-ness, and I realize that she is dealing with a new kind. She doesn’t exactly answer my question, but diplomatically offers that the store is very open and appreciative of parents bringing their teenagers in. She says that the store offers classes and that, though she doesn’t know it for a fact, minors are probably allowed with parental consent, and that events calendars were available at the check-out.

My daughter has in the meantime traced my footsteps toward the velvet curtains that conceal the last remaining part of the store to explore. She stops on her way to chat with me and the store clerk. I think Lena is curious about what it must be like to work at a store like this, and thinks of the young woman as a fellow traveler in a great journey toward a sex-positive world. I see that she would like to bond with her, peer to peer.

She praises the woman for the row of silver earrings protruding from multiple piercings of her helix, and fesses up with an awkward grin to belonging with me, and to perhaps not belonging in the store without her consenting adult mother. Lena and I chuckle, aware that we are breaking new ground at least for ourselves. The store woman joins us.



photo by Elisa Clayon

photo by Elisa Clayon

Before very long I sense a lull in her browsing and notice her fumbling in her clutch for her little pink fabric teenager purse. I glide on over with all the apologetic subtlety that my clunky wooden heels will allow. She’s my precious little one and I don’t want to overwhelm! Naturally, though, she is aware of my approach and freezes slightly.

I smile sympathetically before launching into a super embarrassing talk! I say “Lena, I promised you a gift because of what you accomplished, and I’m so proud of you! “—Oh GREAT! Here? And she’s going to give me money in front of everyone? Can I just evaporate on the spot? I take a moment to guess lamely at the content of her teenagerly mind, from my no-doubt quaint mother’s vantage point, and I feel a little sorry. But I’m all pumped up with righteous maternal adrenaline and nothing will stop me from issuing important life lessons now!

I pull out my wallet and hand over several bills. Her eyes dance furiously, furtively, then become excruciatingly fixated on the bottom edge of my wallet. “And when you work at things that are important, there are rewards for that.” Her pursed lips are anxiously bemused, and she shifts nervously. I continue with my job. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you by giving you this money.” She nods, quickly, eyes darting again. I hand the money over. She says a thank you almost like a question and our transaction is completed.

On to the second floor, where I know they keep the toys, ropes, and books.