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.

Thanking My Lucky Stars

We part ways for a time. I station myself among the fishnets, not only because I can imagine wearing something like that, but because they are displayed in the area that adjoins the lubricants shelf. That is where Lena has busied herself reading labels.

Lena is an educated consumer. She knows brands and she knows, of course, which kinds you can use with condoms and which you can’t. Everyone in her peer group knows these things: they talk about it at the lunch table. They have all read customer reviews of the various products and know a heck of a lot more about them than I do, I’ve gathered.

It occurs to me that Lena probably doesn’t have enough money for what is likely a rather expensive purchase at this pricy store, and I remember my promise of a reward for her admirable report card. Lena has never been motivated by grades, per se, or by peer pressure. She does not live to please others. School, private or public, has simply not provided a motivating learning environment for this child; and I am always looking for ways to send the message that applying one’s self (in this case, in high school) carries rewards.

Should I be thanking the Creator of Us All to have found a reward that Lena actually cares about, a lot? As that Loving Presence is the Creator of Sex, perhaps more than He/She is the creator of formal education, with all of its strictly delineated disciplines, its carefully negotiated emphases–I do.

Corset Mania

photo by Brenda's Cakes, Ohio

photo by Brenda’s Cakes, Ohio

Lena and I spend a few moments flipping through a generously stocked rack of beautiful corsets (“best in the city!”—according to a reviewer at Yelp), a bit listlessly given Lena’s thing for corsets. I have been aware of this thing for some time: I’ve observed Lena shopping for corsets online with the same apparent absorption that other kids play video games, or Facebook.

Once, in an effort to remain open to my child’s unorthodox self-concept, I allowed her to purchase a rather pretty handmade corset with birthday money from grandparents. Last summer, Lena even won an obnoxiously shiny and pink PVC corset as a prize for answering some questions about sex correctly on a British alternative young women’s site, to her great pride and delight. (As long as she takes her obligations and responsibilities seriously, I tell her.) Perhaps because we are just warming up to the particular subversion of going to a sex store while being mother and daughter, we are now treating these corsets with such coolness. Not that I exactly see why there should be subversion in this.

Lena pulls out a black corset with an elegant brocade panel and suggests that I might enjoy trying it on. I assure her that, as pretty as this one is, I couldn’t be comfortable in one. And besides, hadn’t women worked so hard not to have to stuff their bodies into these things? And therefore, why on earth would I put one on now? For her, perhaps, putting one on is as subversive as taking it off was for the feminists before us. But I am grateful for my uncorsetted life, thank you.



callasOff the school bus, Lena hops into the station wagon beside me. We head for a territory that few mother-daughter teams have explored before us–of that I am quite certain.

As a reward for Lena’s vaunted straight-A report card, we are going for a visit to McLane Way, an inconspicuous foot-traffic alley in one of the city’s “B” neighborhoods. McLane Way happens to be home to two sex stores that I had visited on several prior occasions with my boyfriend: Velvet, and Please!. I steer in the direction of Velvet first because I like its elegantly sensuous environment (understated lighting, floor-to-ceiling aubergine velvet curtains gently dividing section from section, customer from customer), and I like the cordial, professional yet relaxed manner of the young staff.

The first time I had visited the store (actually the first time I had ever ventured into a store like that) I had marveled at these kids’ matter-of-fact ways of answering customers’ questions. A prior version of myself would have wished for a rock to crawl under at the excruciating immodesty of it all, but thankfully I am no longer troubled by such feelings. Having happily succumbed to the charms of this store on that first visit, It seemed like the nice choice for my daughter’s first sex store experience.

This is surely not an outing ever suggested by our Sunday paper’s “For the Family” section, and I’m hardly recommending it should be. But I have pondered this choice very carefully for my particular daughter, and so here we are. Are you crazy!—the conventional branch of my maternal instincts repeatedly declares its outrage. Yes, I am–out of my mind. I have been feeling my way through this, and I don’t feel my intuition is steering me wrong.

We go in.

The Report Card

reportcardLena has never been particularly motivated by school and school work, but she just brought home a straight-A report card and I am so happy! I want to do something nice for her, but I want her to understand from that not simply that I commend this particular behavior, totally awesome as it may be. I want my message to be: diligence proffers rewards. I feel good about that message: it seems unassailable, plus delivering it gives me the pleasure of doing something special for Lena. So, I start to wonder what she would most enjoy. Dinner at a favorite restaurant? A clothes-shopping junket? Some plain-old cash?

I had just visited a sex store with my boyfriend, which I partly did because Lena dreams of owning a store like that when she is older, and of running an educational program under its auspices. Lena is no stranger to the world of sexual paraphernalia—this I know because she periodically mentions sex toys that she has heard of.

She is not unhappy when I mention that I would like to take her out for dinner. She does not brush aside my offer to take her clothes shopping. But I know her to have an extreme level of curiosity about sex, and I want her to be happy in a way that leaves an impression. We had spoken a few times of the two sex stores on the same block of our nearest large metropolitan area and of her wish to visit them with a friend. I find myself cautiously asking her if she might enjoy going there with me. She cautiously replies that yes, she might like to do that. The next day, she confirms with a poorly suppressed grin that she would dare to go to a sex store with her mother. I enjoy returning a less-poorly-suppressed grin, and we set a date.

Just Innocent Talk

photo by GoBigPicture

photo by GoBigPicture

Lately, the talk is very specific and very graphic, indeed. Just the other day, Lena told me that her boyfriend “went down on her,” then delicately inquired as to whether I knew what that meant.

Now, I am 99% certain Lena is a virgin, at least in the arena of actual vaginal penetration. She has told me that her friends at school have nicknamed her the Virgin Sex Goddess, and I find this incredibly sweet. First of all, it is further evidence of what I am virtually, even smugly certain–that my daughter is still a virgin while a number of the kids who are kept so busy that their parents never get a chance to speak with them about sex are not. (There is a delicious irony not only to the situation but to the smugness that I feel: does it not show that I am still shedding my investment in this kind of thinking? And that I still have some growing up to do? I have to laugh at myself sometimes.) I also enjoy the moniker because I have enjoyed relationships with some of these kids since they were little, and I have been observing and appreciating their creative output for a long time now. I now find it easy to appreciate the innocent, creative, unjaded way they talk about sexual matters, both as Lena describes it and as I have heard from my figurative position of fly on the wall when they visit. (Though I might be nearby, they either forget this or don’t see any reason to care.)

So, willfully, I cast away another chunk of shame—the little sliver that this latest exchange has just exposed. I assure Lena that I know, as surprising as that may seem, what is meant by “going down on.” As I continue to pour a not inconsequential amount of energy into remaining unruffled, we actually have a talk about pleasure—nothing verbose or cloyingly heavy, just enough for now. I get to make the not-inconsequential point that she deserves to experience it. I work in a short sentence or two about how to foster it and about the importance of kind communication. To my delight, Lena shows every sign of listening!–and the part of me that thinks that parents can’t have any credibility with their kids when it comes to sex is so surprised.

At every turn, I question whether I am being a responsible mother when I acknowledge her sexuality without qualifying my statements with such patriarchal remnants as “but you should wait for a committed relationship” or “you want to be careful that people don’t see you as a slut” or even “don’t be a slut.” My healthy sexuality came at the price of a lot of questioning, and I now question these slogans of a mindset I perhaps shouldn’t assume.

Where Babies Come From

aaaaaaaaaaaaahFrom the time we started talking about where babies come from, I have tried to leave an open door for Lena to ask any questions she liked, on any angle of the topic. (Books her father and I put in her hands in her later ‘tweens helped pave the way.) I think I’ve successfully managed to leave inherited discomforts about acknowledging her sexuality (with everything they might imply, realistically or not) out of our talks. This has been a process, not without struggles and doubts; and though practice here does not necessarily make perfect, four or five years of warming to my daughter’s very significant sexual side has given me confidence in my judgment, in my ability to be a good resource for her.

In fact, the challenges do keep coming without my having been perfected by my practices, not just yet. It is still the case that every time Lena’s talk gets a little more graphic, a little more down and dirty, I face some internal conflict. Part of me would like to just push her questions aside, to let her know from my exalted position as her mother that her preoccupations have no place in her young life. Through the magical qualities of a mother’s silence, she would be benevolently released from the curse of uncomfortable and controversial interests—I’m sure of it!

Lena would definitely be happier for that boundary I drew in the sand for her. Then, she would be blithely free to focus on schoolwork, sports, musical instruments, and all the happy and wholesome things that contribute to a sunny disposition and healthy upbringing. Those would be the occupations that would make her thrive in the only larger community that any mother in her right mind would tolerate for her child (not to mention that she’d be aiding and abetting my own happiness, since I would be freed from worry about her).

That uncomfortable, fearful part of me does not give up without a struggle.

Am I Dense?

photo by Jenny Levine

photo by Jenny Levine

I am no denser than the next person. I have totally absorbed that, at the tender age of sixteen, Lena should really be focusing on other subjects besides human sexuality and (God forbid) the practicum so dreaded by us older people, sex; and that I, her mother, should be seeing to that. Maybe it’s my job to provide a modern chastity belt of deterrents: I could sign her up for lots and lots of baseball and set her up with scrapbooking supplies and tutoring and book club.

The idea, “anything but sex,” has such an aura of sense about it and I would not be arguing with its merits at all, except that I’ve been raising a kid who has some power of her own, and has been using that power without my knowledge and permission to make me grow up and individuate. I can now say, after this unexpected upbringing at the hands of my daughter, that maybe her focusing on other subjects would be “better for her”; but possibly that’s just another idea unconsciously frothed into an ether, as inevitably as foam from crashing ocean waves, through adult words spoken and unspoken, through their subtle and not-so-subtle approving and disapproving, through actions and failures to act.

Growing up with this ether as a fact, I think Lena is so brave to hold onto her own sense of what would be in her own best interests and even for the greater good. She is trying so valiantly to choose a path of joy and meaning, in spite of the world at large, wise and sensible as it represents itself, being rather short on these. Hers seems a reasonable matrix from which to make significant choices.

Would it be such a better thing, really, for her to be focused on the kinds of tasks that her elders have established as the important ones for her age group? As if kids were all meant to grow up and do the same seventy or eighty jobs delineated by the categories of the Myers Briggs? Given the state into which we elders have driven this world, and our forcing of kids into a state-sanctioned direction and at a state-sanctioned time, like so many hyacinth bulbs in the wintertime, I’m not quite sure.

Given my daughter’s profound interest in all matters sexual, I can either create an environment where she can get her core wisdom about a most important life dimension from me, or I can consign her to get it from someone or something else. I know which to choose. Brothers and sisters in the conservative faith community, please hold my back as I assert my right to exercise parental guidance and authority with my daughter’s sexual upbringing. Thank you.

Nothing on My Teenage Mind

photo by Colin Alworth

photo by Colin Alworth

My conversations with Lena make me remind myself that my parents’ insecurities, and shame about sex, are now mine to shed. Ideally, there should have been nothing on my teenage mind too salacious for them to hear, and certainly nothing to offend their parental dignity, because I was merely curious about an important part of my human self, one that was so abruptly and obviously there.

Just the same, I have had to wonder: Is there anything besides my inherited sense of shame to prevent Lena from speaking of any sexual topic that engages her mind, to me, at least in private? With the same level of insouciance between us as when we chat about an upcoming trip, or giggle about how much the various models in the latest Vogue look like they are about to throw up?

I am not done pondering this, perhaps because all the possibilities haven’t yet presented themselves and I lack the imagination to know what they will be. In the meantime–before I have arrived at the final answer—I prod myself not to judge Lena in terms of a bunch of assumptions I’m really not so sure I should be holding onto, and sometimes am not even aware of having. My objective in my sea of unknowns is to create an environment where Lena will feel free to speak with me, about whatever—and I am wrenchingly successful.