June 26, 1997
A Woman's Voice
Where does a parent -- a Jewish mother -- begin a frank consideration of her daughter's sexuality? As the Zen master says, you have to start from where you are, and then let it flow.
I am a single mom, and as a single mom, my sex life is pretty much on display. There's nothing I can do about it. I've known single mothers who crawl out of the window at midnight to visit their lovers, but I'm not good at taking off the screens. I have secrets from my daughter, but they happen during the daylight.
Because I'm a single mom, in some ways it is easier for me to discuss the facts of life with my daughter. My mother left this particular job to my father, and, finally, just the other day, he got around to asking if there's anything I'd like to know about men.
Avoidance just doesn't work with Samantha and me. We're not obsessed with the mechanics of sexuality (she gets too much of this from reality-based TV, see further on) but, rather, with its operational flow. Samantha looks at my life, a virtual relationship laboratory right in her own home. She sees me dating, making my own mistakes, frisky in perfume one minute, wearing my heart on my sleeve the next. She notices when a guy comes by, bringing flowers, and she's right there when the flowers stop. Recently, when I was on the phone with a guy for a full hour, she came in to give me a hug. The lesson my mother could never teach me -- that the heart is a sexual organ -- my daughter already knows.
Sometimes, I feel I'm a failure in this department, but it's as much history's fault as my own. Sadly, the "sexual liberation" that I'd hoped to bequeath to my daughter doesn't mean much in today's terms. For my generation, the "Fear of Flying" crowd, liberation means the freedom to participate in one's own sex life, to enjoy passion and fantasy, to understand lust as a natural hunger, as related to but distinct from love. See, it still casts a romantic glow.
I was hardly a libertine; I wanted then what I want now: a stable partner with a great imagination. I'm a '60s Gal, electrified by the right to be alive during lovemaking, to choose my partners (rather than to be commanded by them), to own a wakeful body, and to never fake satisfaction just to be polite. The other side of the equation, the part I try to stress to Samantha, is that I believe in self-protection, taking responsibility for bad choices and learning from my mistakes. No matter what has happened since -- no matter how naïve we were about the fragility of males, no matter that even great sex sometimes pales next to good companionship -- I still regard the women's movement as the purest time of my life, when the battle was waged for a full definition of female adulthood, a battle only yet partially won.
In my fantasies, I'd hoped my daughter's generation would take up the fight. But woman plans, and God laughs.
One day, when she was in fourth grade, Samantha came home from school with the report that Magic Johnson got AIDS from unprotected sex. All her life, we had been talking about sexuality, body parts, where babies come from and the rest. But nothing like this. Looking at my little girl, my heart sank, and I still think of that moment as the true "fall from grace." Her news (she said it just this way, "Magic Johnson got AIDS from unprotected sex") meant that Samantha, along with every little girl and boy in America, was learning about sex not as joyful, loving, free and natural (if strained with emotional complications), but as a health crisis, tainted, diseased, stained. I flew the flag for sexual freedom at half-staff.
Even today, so many years after accommodating to our new, darker era, I still well up in a protective rage on behalf of our young girls. The bad news broke too soon. Samantha didn't yet know what love means, what physical ecstasy evokes. Before she could develop her own unique metaphor -- a fantasy of bliss or a vision of herself locked in a "From Here to Eternity" love embrace on a pristine beach --she was already thinking mechanically, clinically, of sex as "safe" or "unsafe."
She knows too much about the wrong things, and not only about AIDS. She has been warned against child abusers, sexual disease and sexual harassment in a wide variety of forms. A macabre sideshow of twisted sexual images come to her from "Jerry Springer," MTV, Angelyne, Michael Jackson's androgyny. She'll never be allowed a moment's purity, naivete or nonchalance. I grieve for her imagination's prematurely lost virginity.
I'd be less than forthright if I said that being a Jewish parent provides security, or spiritual advantage, in this regard. Like every parent, I worry about my child's friends and her values, and I seek to insulate her from the dangers of the cruel world. Where Jewish tradition helps is: 1) in providing a long list of women who survived their own child's teen-age years, and 2) in offering stories that encourage independent thinking, even in the midst of chaotic times.
Increasingly these days, I use both parts of that heritage: I think of my own mother, scared to death throughout my adolescence, while I felt certain I could take care of myself. And I