Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about or passing on kids, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.
Be honest: How did you learn about masturbation? Was it while you were horseback riding at summer camp? The first time you watched porn? Or was it during your best friend Lindsay’s sleepover party, when she taught you how to get that special feeling by rubbing against your sleeping bag after you watched Paul Rudd in Clueless on VHS?
However you first learned about the art of self-pleasure, there’s probably one person you never discussed masturbation with: your mom. That wasn’t the case, however, for Alanis Vargas, a 19-year-old who learned about masturbation (before she learned about partnered sex) from her mom, Susan, 38.
A senior art director at an advertising agency, Susan has always been open with Alanis about all matters related to sex, from teaching her about solo self-pleasure to buying her very first couples’ sex toy. And while many moms and daughters might find that level of mutual disclosure uncomfortable, at the very least, the Vargases say it’s only made their relationship stronger. So we caught up with Susan and Alanis to discuss how they’ve talked about porn, masturbation, and queer sex — and whether other moms and daughters should take a page from their book.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Have you always been open with your daughter about sex?
SUSAN: “Pretty much, yeah.”
Starting from when?
ALANIS: [To Susan] “I don’t know, you’ve always been very open about your sexual life. Like, ‘Mommy needs alone time.’ ‘You should go to sleep early, maybe turn on some music —’” [Susan laughs]
Alanis, have you always been open with your mom about sex?
ALANIS: “For the most part, I have, because my mom started having conversations with me about sexuality in general before I even had the urge to engage sexually, like kissing or holding hands. I grew up thinking that sexuality was mine, but also something I could verbally communicate with my mom, if that makes sense. Iin terms of us having a conversation about our sexuality, as in my sexuality, I was maybe 10 or 11?”
Why 10 or 11?
SUSAN: “Well, around the 10 to 11 age range, that’s when boys start to masturbate. They start doing it way before, but at that age it’s a thing that they do with some regularity. That’s what started the conversation. I did not have an orgasm until I was 20-something, because I never truly tried to masturbate. And once I did, I thought to myself, ‘How have I been missing out on this? I should have been figuring out my body when all the boys did, when I was 10 or 11 years old.’ I thought that was crucial for her to know, that when she was ready for the idea of sex, or the questions start coming up in her brain, that should be the first step. Because before you think of doing it with anybody, it should be a solo thing… Plus, there were girls having sex that she knew at 12, 13, 14, 15, so before she got into that, I wanted her to have enough time to really see her environment and apply anything I would say to her.”
So how did that initial masturbation talk go down?
SUSAN: “I said, ‘Look, sex at the beginning stages is more of a selfish act, which isn’t a negative thing. It’s a way of learning about yourself and your body. The more you understand yourself and what makes you tick, you are more prepared to be able to have sex with somebody and know what to ask from them and what you need from them. It’s not just about an emotional connection. It’s really a physical thing, and you want to make sure that you’re satisfied.’ I thought it was important she put herself first and figured herself out first before she slept with anybody.”
How did you demonstrate masturbation? Was there any sort of anatomical lesson plan? Were there diagrams or anything like that?
ALANIS: “I don’t think there were any diagrams or anything like that. [to Susan] I think you were just like, ‘It’s okay to touch yourself in your private area. It’s private, but it’s not private to you. That’s your body. Feel free to touch yourself during the nighttime and understand what your body is capable of.’ I think we did have a conversation about how the hole where the baby comes out, where the penis goes into, isn’t the hole where you pee out of it, so maybe there was a diagram about that. ‘You go up this way with your hand, there’s something else there that feels good,’ kind of a thing.
“Since this happened when I was 11, and I started becoming sexually active when I was 15, that was four years of me touching myself in the night, trying to figure out what was going on.”
What was your reaction, Alanis, when your mom came to you at age 11 with, “We’re going to talk about masturbation today”?
ALANIS: “It was very much like, ‘Ah, I can’t believe we’re having this conversation, I’m too young, I’m not even thinking about that.’ But she was very much like, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’m still gonna finish saying what I have to say to you.’ It was kind of weird to think ‘Oh, my mom is in the other room and she’s potentially thinking about me doing this right now,’ but at the same time, I grew up hearing my mom having sex. So many of my friends are uncomfortable with thinking about their parents having sex, or waking up and hearing their parents having sex, but that’s happened to me so many times that it wasn’t uncomfortable.”
SUSAN: “I didn’t realize I was that loud.” (Laughs)
For me, having taught her about sex and sexuality and putting herself first, I wanted her to be empowered in her decisions and everything she does.
Susan, you said you had your first orgasm in your 20s. What was your own level of sex education like? Did you have these conversations with your mother?
SUSAN: “Like, zero. Nothing. I blame my mom for that, as we tend to do that as adults. I wish she had been more open and told me the reality of how normal sex is as a whole. The only attempt I ever made at having a conversation with her about sex was me asking her about oral sex when I was 15, and she got super pissed off, so I never made another attempt to ask her about it again. It became my mission to not do the same with Alanis.”
Is there anything you think you wouldn’t have discussed at the age of 10 or 11?
ALANIS: “I think you probably would’ve objected if I had been sexually active at 12, 13.”
SUSAN: “I probably would’ve.”
ALANIS: “Yeah, just because I was in a sex-positive household, that doesn’t mean my mom wanted to be in the same place as her, having a kid in my teens, which I think is part of the reason why we were such a sex-positive household.”
Was that a conversation that you guys had, Susan, about the fact that you got pregnant as a teen?
ALANIS: “Yeah, and I’ve never felt like my mom regrets having me, because my mom wouldn’t be in the place she is now if it weren’t for me. But she was in a different situation than I am now. She had me to be able to leave the situation she was in. So she was very much like, ‘You’re not in that position, you don’t have to do that, and you should finish school and don’t prioritize your relationships over focusing on school.’”
SUSAN: “I’ve always had a very difficult relationship with my parents. There was a lot of very, bad negative history. My parents were too busy to pay attention because they were involved with illicit relationships, and I got molested at, like, 5. There were all these things that happened throughout my childhood until my teenage years. They were very difficult to deal with, so I said, ‘You know what? I want out. I don’t want to deal with this. I want to start a family of my own.’”
Has that openness about sexuality continued to this day?
ALANIS: “Yeah, when I started dating people and having sex with them, I went to my mom for advice.”
SUSAN: “There’s an element of all this that should be open territory for every person to discover on their own. Like, she’s been out for quite a while now, and there’s a lot of things I don’t know about her sex life, because I’m heterosexual. But I think there’s a need to let them discover on their own. For example, she’s had a girlfriend for almost a year and a half now, and we went to go run an errand that’s super close to a sex shop. And I was like, ‘Okay, girls, come on in, let’s do some quick shopping.’ And I didn’t want to tell them what to buy, so I went to the sales associate and said, ‘These two ladies have never bought a sex toy. Can you tell them what their options are?’ And I just walked away and let them do their thing.”
Alanis, when did you come out to your mom?
ALANIS: “I told my mom I had a crush on a girl in sixth grade, and she was totally fine with it. When I started dating girls when I was a freshman in high school, I came out officially then... It was kinda weird to come out, but because coming out is such a weird thing in gay culture, it felt like I should just say it, even though I didn’t feel like I needed to.”
Susan, what was going through your mind when Alanis told you she was queer?
SUSAN: “For me, having taught her about sex and sexuality and putting herself first, I wanted her to be empowered in her decisions and everything she does. Life is about you first, so if that’s what she wants — in the business I work in, half of the people I know are gay, so to me it was very normal.”
You want to provide a Cliff’s notes, but not a user manual.
Did you guys ever talk about porn? Especially because Alanis, you came of age when it was so omnipresent on the internet.
ALANIS: “I don’t think so. I remember the first time I saw porn, me and my friend were in fourth grade, and looking for the Kim Kardashian sex tape. I didn’t even know who Kim Kardashian was.”
SUSAN: “I do remember during the masturbation talk. We were talking about options that she could use, and I do remember mentioning porn. ‘The Internet’s got it. Go look for it.’”
Do you recommend that other moms have these types of conversations with their daughters?
SUSAN: “Yes. And their sons.”
How do you recommend that they do it to make it more comfortable for both people involved?
SUSAN: “There’s an element of ‘this is for you to discover.’ You want to provide a Cliff’s notes, but not a user manual. If she ever, ever asks me anything about something specific, I will gladly go into as much detail as she’s comfortable with me talking about.”
ALANIS: “I feel like, in the long run, there’s so much that isn’t accessible that you have to experience for yourself to know. For instance, at some point, I got a UTI, and my mom was really upset about it, because we were being irresponsible in terms of — I didn’t know about this, because queer sex ed isn’t a thing, but you’re supposed to wash yourself off after you engage in sex, and we probably had oral sex and I didn’t shower afterward, and my mom was upset about that. That whole not cleansing myself through peeing and showering, that never came up in conversation until something happened where I needed to know about it.”
What’s the most important thing you guys learned from having these conversations over the years?
ALANIS: “Not a lot of people understand that sex at first is a selfish act, and that you need to understand your own body before someone else puts themselves in your body. That’s the important thing I learned.”
SUSAN: “For me, as a parent, it’s the importance of humanizing my daughter. Parents tend to dehumanize their kids. You see them as like an object, ‘ah, it’s so cute,’ almost like a doll. The sooner you come to the reality that this is a human being that will make their own decisions, make their own mistakes, and go down their own path from the moment they breathe for the first time, we have to be okay with losing some control. The typical Latino saying is that children are borrowed. We simply don’t own them. God lets us borrow them to do the best we can with them and let them go when the right time comes.
“When she was much younger, I remember when I let her ride a bike to school for the first time, and I needed that as much as she did. I needed to say to myself, ‘She knows what she’s doing. I gave her all the information I could. I need to back off.’ So, to me, having these conversations is about that and doing my job as a parent, which is to make her the most well-equipped potential adult possible for when she’s ready to be an adult.”