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Joyce McFadden empowers girls
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Joyce McFadden empowers girls
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"If menstruation is taboo, then a woman giving pleasure to herself is like the most terrible thing that could happen to a civilisation, right?"
6 March 2015

Joyce McFadden empowers girls

Interview by Liz Evans
Photography by Tawni Bannister

Liz Evans on Joyce McFadden

As a New York-based psychoanalyst, Joyce McFadden has treated countless women whose lives have been shaped by fear and shame. Stories of isolation, disempowerment and uncertainty have been a mainstay of her work.

In 2006 she launched the Women’s Realities Study in an attempt to document some of the innermost experiences of contemporary American women. Her original aim was to publish the results as an emotional and psychological companion to Our Bodies, Ourselves—a comprehensive sexual health manual which has been in print for 45 years and is now available in 29 languages.

Joyce’s study was comprised of 63 questionnaires covering a range of topics from masturbation and sexual health to miscarriage, marriage and family relationships. The questionnaires were issued far and wide, and delivered responses from 450 women aged 18 to 105 from diverse backgrounds: gay, straight, bisexual, childless, partnered, professional, Hispanic American, Chinese American, African American and many more.

An increase in online resources meant Joyce was unlikely to find a publisher for her collated research, so book editors advised her to narrow the scope of her results. She did this by analysing the three most popular questionnaires, thereby letting her respondents lead the focus of the book. Masturbation, menstruation and mother-daughter relationships came up trumps.

Centring on these core issues, and drawing on related material from the other 60 questionnaires, as well as stories gathered from her 25 years as a psychoanalyst, Joyce weaved together a powerful narrative about how mothers impart a sense of female sexuality to their daughters. Titled, Your Daughter’s Bedroom (which, incidentally, she detests), the book is now taught in women’s studies courses across America, and has received critical acclaim and endorsements from respected psychoanalysts, paediatricians and feminists.

Joyce now speaks regularly on mother-daughter relationships at girls’ schools across New York. She has opened an important dialogue about the perceived discomfort and longstanding secrecy shrouding female sexuality, and has shown how this secrecy has been passed on from mothers to daughters across generations. As we speak, Joyce is lively, engaging and impassioned. She breathes life and light into the darkest corners of female experience, normalising the taboos, demystifying the unmentionables and diffusing the tensions that so often accompany what is still regarded as the “awkward subject of sex.”

LIZ EVANS: One of the things I love about your book is the psychoanalytic perspective. I also work as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and I don’t think this approach is integrated nearly enough into Australian culture. What do you think psychoanalysis has to offer?

JOYCE MCFADDEN: Psychoanalysis values the idea that what you learn when you’re young, and what happens to you in infancy and early childhood, informs who you become, and I think it’s as simple as that.  It works on the principle that babies are not just blobs. Children are highly aware, they’re little sponges and they’re taking things in all the time, and that’s not how we’ve seen children historically.

For example, my dad died in a car accident when he was 33 and I’d just turned 11 and nobody paid attention to me. My mum got attention, but it didn’t occur to people that I was grieving. I can remember people walking past me on the day my dad died, asking me directions to my mother, and I was outside sitting on the steps of my house alone for hours. But people thought I was too young to know what was going on. I felt really alone and incredibly sad but now I can look back with a psychoanalytic lens and understand it as a gateway into my relationship with my mum, and why I was a parentified child, yadda yadda yadda. Basically psychoanalysis validates human experience, and we like to split off sexuality from human experience—more so for women than men.

This story originally ran in issue #45 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #45 of Dumbo Feather

What sexuality needs is gravitas, it needs to be seen as a respected component of humanity, rather than a naughty or a perverted one, and psychoanalysis validates that over and over again.

Also, psychoanalysis addresses childhood sexuality. A lot of adults do not like to think of children as sexual. And they’re not sexual in the same way as adults are of course, but we have a fear that we’re going to make them sexual and inappropriate and even perverted if we teach them about sexuality. I don’t think it’s even so much about what happens to our children, we’re more worried that we’re going to be seen as perverted. Like, what if I teach my daughter about masturbation when she’s five, and she starts masturbating at school? It’s not so much that the parents are worried that other children will tease their child, it’s more that they’re worried that other parents are going to call them, or child protection services are going to get involved, so it’s much more about the fear and the shame. They see it as an indictment on their identity as parents, which is really frightening.

Which brings us very nicely to your book. Given the oddly estranged nature of female sexuality, how many feathers did you ruffle with its publication? I noticed you had to cancel a talk at your daughter’s high school.

Well, I’ve encountered the very sexism I was trying to address in the book, so on the one hand it’s been very disheartening, and on the other hand I guess it was expected. But I think everyone is craving information—especially with regard to the three topics that came back as being top of the list from my 63 questionnaires: menstruation, masturbation and relationship with your mother. So obviously people are hungry for it, but whether women own up to it or not, within their larger communities rather than in the privacy of their own heads, I don’t know. Maybe only women who are willing to actively seek out sexual information have wanted to get the book.

I was invited to speak at my daughter’s school by the principal, and it was announced in the local paper, so the school superintendent got some calls from parents thinking the information would be inappropriate for the children—even though the talk was for parents. My daughter was a sophomore at the time I think, and I didn’t want her to be teased in the school hall or anything so I held the talk at the library instead. And a lot of mothers came and their questions were very explicit and very unafraid. They were very into it, and there was a real buzz in the room.

I also do consulting at a private girls’ school in the city, and another private school called me to speak, and said, “We want you to come and talk about sexuality, but you really can’t talk about sexuality because the parents will get upset.” So I said: “No, I can’t do that, it’s so confusing for girls.”

My dream is that one day I will regularly be talking to mothers of really young kids, so I can have the effect that I hope to have, and the effect that the women in the study in my book want to have on other women in the next generation. But no one wants to talk about it in kindergartens. Even if the schools are keen they worry that the parents won’t come on board. So most parents wait until their girls are 12, or maybe 15, by which time it’s already over, the girls already have their periods. So these things have made me wonder that maybe some people weren’t ready for my book.

Having said that, I got great reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and it was published by Palgrave McMillan, which my agent calls the “smarty pants” publishing house, as it’s a reputable house known to publish experts in their field. But I was hoping to get more radio interviews. I think it’s a tough time for publishing so I don’t think it was just my topic. But I think my topic didn’t help. Actually the worst hurdle I encountered was over the title and the cover of the book. I cannot stand either, and I had no control over any of it. My agent was going to sue, but there was a fear it wasn’t going to get published if we went ahead. The proposed title was “The Modern Mother: Insights for Raising Confident Women” or “Insights for Raising Girls with Sexual Integrity,” or something like that—not Your Daughter’s Bedroom, which I think is just creepy. Because the book is about how sexuality doesn’t just exist in the bedroom, it exists in our bodies every second of the day. Just like our minds don’t exist merely in the classroom, they’re with us all the time. And it’s totally against sexual objectification, so there it is being sold with a frilly pink bra on the cover!

It makes you wonder when sexism is ever going to end—indeed, if it is ever going to end?

I think social media has a lot of potential for women. Of course it brings its own problems, with trolls destroying the lives of women who are online, and Facebook, right, that’s frightening. It started as a means of identifying the hot girls at Zuckerberg’s college.

But there’s been a huge social media campaign here in the US to stop college rape, and congress people and even President Obama have been involved. Now the legal system is starting to change and some of the schools are being sued, and that’s all come about through social media. So I’m wondering about how much can change when women don’t have to go through a third party to get the message out, when they can take it to the street themselves, maybe that’s helpful in some way. One of the things that makes people afraid is if they feel they are the only ones. I think the thing that holds women back is fear. So if everyone’s talking about something on social media you don’t need to be fearful because you have an instant sense of belonging and community and the normalisation that comes from that.

That kind of community empowerment reminds me of the grassroots activism that characterised cities like London in the 1980s, when sexism and racism were so aggressively addressed through popular culture. It was hugely exciting, but it all died down again. Susan Faludi was so accurate with her feminist polemic, Backlash. Sexism really ebbs and flows. And this stuff continues to shape our lives as women, as your book shows, in such a deeply moving way.

That’s my favourite comment, when women contact me and say they didn’t anticipate being so moved. With the exception of maybe one or two occasions, women and girls always cry at my talks, and you see the transformation happening. The girls’ tears are coming from the sadness of knowing how much they’ve already missed in their sexual education.

And the mothers cry because of what they missed from their mothers, and how their whole sense of self has had this vacuum in the middle of it.

That explains so many things to them: how they feel in their marriage or committed relationship, and what shapes their dreams of what a relationship could feel like. So I’m glad to hear it moved you because it is moving. And it’s tragic. But it’s also empowering because the solutions are so incredibly simple. It’s so much harder to  go to a spin class!

In a way that’s what’s so perplexing—that if the solutions are so simple, why do we still have the problems? But your book really shows how, with sexuality, women come up against themselves and their own discomfort.

I think topics like politics and religion can get heated, but in terms of this fundamental fear of humiliation or guilt or whatever it is, I think sexuality takes the prize. I was recently asked to write a follow-up piece to an article I wrote for The Washington Post about what happens when we don’t talk to our girls about sex. The second piece was about how we talk to them, and I wrote that we worry about how they’ll be overwhelmed by the information, that we think it’s too complex for them to take in. But millions of families teach their children about religion. They take them to church and they teach them to pray. They say: “Mr Goldfish went to heaven.” They don’t think, Oh my god, my child doesn’t understand theology! and What if she thinks the Jewish family down the street is different from the Christian family round the corner? or how they’re going to tease out the facts of evolution. They don’t think about any of that. They give children the concept of heaven and assume they’re gradually going to attach meaning to that. And that happens in all areas, just not sex.

You know, if I could have my way, I would reach the mothers of two-year-olds, because that would have the best effects on girls. In this country, girls start talking about dieting before they get to kindergarten, so they’ve already learned all these things about what it means to be female, and it’s hard to unlearn them once they’re already embedded. Some parents never even talk to their kids, and by the time a girl is 13 or 15, those things are so embedded. And we teach them everything else early, you know, like the alphabet. And they’re not picking up Anna Karenina once we teach them the alphabet. And we’re not worried that they’re going to pick up Anna Karenina once we teach them the ABCs, right? But that’s how we view sex.

As I say in the book, if you are a single woman and you’re bringing home a different man every night and your bedroom is adjacent to your daughter’s and you’re really noisy and there are no boundaries, then that’s too much information, and that’s damaging. But I’ve never heard a child say that their parent gave them too much of any other kinds of sexual information. I usually hear the opposite, that they were given too little too late, or nothing at all. So start with your child’s questions—that’s all you need to know. And with sex we always feel like we have to have the right answer, and we have to do it perfectly, but there will always be things we can’t answer.

Again, I think this is where your psychoanalytic experience is so valuable. Working within the intimacy and trust of a therapeutic relationship, you get to realise the significance of not talking, as well as how things are talked about, and how profoundly that can affect a person.

Exactly. We wonder why girls are distanced from themselves, and end up having sex that they don’t even enjoy, because they’re just performing for their partner. And we wonder why boys are learning about sex through porn on the internet, which is not going to please 99 percent of women, because it’s not catering to any kind of female pleasure at all, but how do we help our children get to that? It’s almost like a depersonalisation or dissociation, and we help them start it. We don’t mean to, but we do.

Earlier this year I heard a story about a four-year-old who got into her mother’s purse and found a maxipad and said, “What’s this?” And the mother said, “What are you doing in my purse, put that down!” Now the mother doesn’t know she’s giving her child a message about sexuality, about who her daughter’s going to be as a female—that there’s something not good and even toxic about this, and that it should be shut down immediately. She just doesn’t know how to handle it, so she changes the subject. But if the daughter had picked up a chequebook and asked what it is, the mother would have said: “That’s a chequebook, I write cheques with it.” So everything exists on this private planet of sexuality. We’re so afraid of these conversations, but they’re so delicious and they build so much intimacy.

You can learn so much about your child when you follow her curiosity, and find out what interests her and what’s in her heart.

To think that so many mums just close this all off, this whole area of discovery, makes me sad.

My daughter is a donor-egg baby, and she has always known about that on some level. I wrote her a fairy story about it and read it as often as Goodnight Moon. So of course she didn’t understand about the gamete and the zygote, but as she’s grown up it’s been a natural assimilation, since before she was even really aware of it. She has always known that she can ask more complicated questions as she gets older. I also think if you don’t tell your kids about all the other possibilities, it can breed homophobia or discrimination.

As mothers, women have a lot of responsibility, and I wonder if that can feel like too much of a burden for some of us? Maybe it’s time to remind parents what the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said about the need for good-enough, rather than perfect, mothers.

We’re supposed to model imperfection for our children too, and repair gets done through making mistakes. It’s hard to apologise, and being imperfect can be really hard. We get spooked by it. But apologising improves relationships and we could do a better job of teaching our kids about that too, because it plays into all of that stuff around body image.

I have to be very quiet about the tapes I run in my own head, because we’ve all  been dyed in the same bath as women. I’m 53, and I’m getting doughier. And it’s weird to look in the mirror and see flashes of what you remember in your own mum.  You see what you think is probably a temporary change but it keeps sticking around so then you think, Oh this is a new me, and it’s hard not to be critical about it and complain about it out loud. So there’s a vigilance that’s required. Yes, I am doughy, but I’m buttery and it’s warm and soft and female and it’s me. And it’s me now at 53 and that’s different to how I was in my twenties. And you couldn’t pay me to go back there. But it’s like a tightrope walk and you can’t be perfect about it and there’s no woman who’s going to say: “I am fine the way I am and you should be fine the way you are and that’s that!”

But yes, I also have to say that mothers have no idea how powerful they can be. Just in this one area. You think you’re just one mother-daughter dyad, but we’re raising sons as well, so if a community of women got large enough, cultural change would occur and how amazing would that be? We are undermining ourselves by not talking about it. So generation after generation the quietness just gets passed on, not the helpful content. I wish my book sold a jillion copies, and a jillion women talked to a jillion sons and daughters, and all was right!

That would be great! Body image is such a big part of this. And as you say so eloquently in the book, “Why can’t we teach our daughters about the singularity of their bodies, their specialness and uniqueness?”

If you’re taught that there’s something so disdainful and disgusting about organs that you have in your body that boys do not have, that sense of self-disgust drives you away from living in your body in a very significant way.

Girls live outside their bodies.

The term self-objectification is really for women, but it starts in girlhood. It means that you are unconsciously anticipating the scrutiny of another, so you scrutinise yourself first and you brace yourself so that you can be as well-armed as possible. What this looks like in a teenage girl is how she prepares for a party on a Friday night. On Monday she starts thinking about what she’s going to wear, and how she doesn’t have anything she likes. Then on the night of the party maybe she tries on three different outfits and spends hours in front of the mirror, but she’s not thinking, Well this is what I want to wear because I like this. She’s thinking, What are other people going to be wearing, what will they say about me in this, will so-and-so be wearing the same thing as me and will she look better in it, will someone comment that I wore this to the last party? And all of this anticipation is focused on how she’s going to be scorned in some way, and that internal scorn invades every aspect of her—of our—being. It affects how we feel about ourselves when we’re going for a job interview, how we dress every day, because sexuality and body image gets played out in these really small things.

At one of my school talks, I was wearing a button-down shirt, and I was telling the girls how that morning I’d had to determine which button I would unbutton down to. Last time I wore the shirt I’d unbuttoned it a little lower because I was out to dinner with a bunch of adults, but for my school talk I’d buttoned it up one button. That was a decision I made. So it’s a small decision but it’s still charged. Will I be too sexy and seen as inappropriate in school if I unbutton too low? The same thing could happen at dinner. If I unbutton too low maybe I’ll be seen as showing off, or if I’m too buttoned up at dinner I’ll be seen as prudish. It’s hard to escape whatever negative thing you’re afraid is going to come at you, and it affects girls in terms of their perception of their own desirability. In our society, we have this antiseptic super-thin image. Or you can be like Beyoncé: curvy but not too curvy. But what makes us fall in love with someone? It’s not the sameness. We could find that look physically appealing, because we’ve been trained to see it that way, but it doesn’t make us fall in love with someone. The questions that determine whether we fall in love with someone include things like how kind is someone? What’s their sense of humour like? What does their voice sound like? But we so easily avoid all of those topics and reduce everything to this container we’re in, and it makes me very sad for girls.

I’m curious about the link between mothers and daughters talking openly about sexuality and the seemingly unavoidable rupture that happens between teenage daughters and mothers. If mothers impart trust and intimacy around sexuality, can this rupture happen more softly, or be avoided altogether?

A long time ago I read the results of a study that said a lot of cultures don’t have what we call the “terrible twos,” and that they just breeze through that stage. So how much of that are we imposing and creating, and how much of it is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

In adolescence, I think distance has to occur because the girl’s task is to find her people, so she can separate from her family and go off and be autonomous.

But how the two of you navigate that makes all the difference. My daughter and I have never had a problem. She wants more privacy now she’s older, but that’s a different thing. It hasn’t meant that she’s stopped coming to me for things. She once said to me: “Well, you know about 98 percent of me and what I do, and there’s a two percent part of me that’s private.” And I can respect that she’s going to need to be able to negotiate her privacy, and as I say in the book, privacy is one of the things that makes sex transcendent. You’re not having sex with the butcher and the baker and the mailman—well it is possible! But it’s usually something that has a little more sanctity around it. Even when you have what we call “a hook-up,” it’s more of a rarefied space than just bumping into someone on the street. So when my daughter is learning to protect her business if she wants to, she’s learning that it’s her right to protect her privacy. It’s her business to decide who she confides in and who she doesn’t, and it’s a way for her to protect something that feels special to her. All of those ways of looking at privacy are different to assuming someone is keeping something private because they’re ashamed or they’re bad, and privacy is different from not wanting to tell your mother because she wouldn’t understand.

I gave my daughter the information she needed from when she was little, and as she got closer to puberty she became more reluctant to hear it, because that’s when it all becomes a little too real and too scary. And then it became more about helping her process it, and so then it would be more like I’d ask her a question and see how she answered it. I ended up seeing her pattern. For example, we talked about menstruation years in advance in bite-size pieces, and when she got her period she kept it to herself for several hours. I thought she was being sullen. She was very quiet. I asked her if she was okay, and she said she was fine, and then a few hours later she came and told me and then we processed it again. So this is her pattern, she has the information upfront from me, and then when she’s actually going through it she likes to make it her own, and then she brings it to me and we share it. So this is how she can have her privacy without losing me as a soft place to land, or a resource or an advisor or a fellow female. And she’s 19 now.

But I always say to people, “You don’t want your daughter to be your girlfriend, because there’s always a power dynamic in the mother-daughter dyad, right?” The mother has more power until she’s in the nursing home, and there are privileges that come with that power so you have to be kind and gentle with it. But it’s not about being friends, it’s about being an intimate role model or an intimate advisor. So no, I don’t think you have to have a rupture. But of course, some kids are wired differently, and they have different constitutions. And it can be a minefield for sure!

So it’s really about being open, and trusting that you can navigate their space, even if they ask you questions you would never have anticipated?

Right. There are no pat answers for many things, including highly individualised, complex questions from daughters. We need to be comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing, and ultimately we just need to be better listeners.

There are many common mysteries of living, yet we take the mysteries of sexuality and make them the darkest mysteries of all time.

And teaching the mechanics of sex is so much easier than teaching how desire works. Parents, particularly heterosexual parents, get all panicked about how to tell their kids about putting the penis into the vagina, but the more complex questions are things like: “Why doesn’t Johnny like me, how can he not love me, why did he ask Janet out and not me?” And there’s no easy answer for that kind of question. But that’s where the meaning of the relationship, the holding environment of whatever your kid is going to go through, becomes important.

It’s normal. If your kid feels feverish, they know to come to you because you will take care of them. Likewise, if your kid has a question they should know to come to you, because you will take care of them.

What about fathers, brothers, sons, boyfriends, husbands? How do they figure in all this? You said something once about girls feeling abandoned during puberty when their fathers begin to feel uncomfortable around their daughters and back off.

Abandoning and pathologising! I haven’t done any research on boys and men but I can speak from what I hear in my practice, and what I hear from my daughter and what I hear in my private life. For men sexuality is about their behaviour and for women sexuality is about who they are in the world. So your entire identity is indicted as a woman if you make a mistake, or if someone judges you negatively. I guess my hope would be that mothers and fathers teach their sons alongside their daughters. There’s a whole role modelling that goes with that. Mothers say, “Oh so-and-so gained so much weight!” And fathers will say, “Oh so-and-so looks so hot!” All those things trickle down.  Boys should be taught to feel free to be compassionate and to right the wrongs that they see being done to girls, because that will affect their peer culture. That can set a higher bar. Boys should be taught about menstruation too. Menstruation shouldn’t be hidden in the house. Boys shouldn’t be saying: “Oh, she’s on the rag,” or “She’s such a bitch!” Maybe they could say, “She’s a little moody today” instead. And if we educate boys they are going to be less likely to go to porn for misinformation about sex.

But what makes us fall in love with someone? It’s not the sameness. We could find that look physically appealing, because we’ve been trained to see it that way, but it doesn’t make us fall in love with someone.
Joyce McFadden

You can’t stop porn—boys and girls are both going to go there to be miseducated about sexuality. But we can have an impact on their drive to go there because they think it’s the only place. And fathers can have the same level of intimacy with sons that mothers can have with daughters.

Where to from here for you? Any future research projects?

I have all this research I haven’t used yet. There were 63 questionnaire topics for the book. I worry that the 60 topics I didn’t use wouldn’t feel as special as the three I did. This research became so special to me, because of what the women were willing to share with me and how they wanted to share with each other.

I love it when women are forthright with the contents of their minds and hearts.

And publishing is really hard, and I’m not great at promoting myself, but my belief in the work makes me take the risk, and I like talking to groups of mothers and to the girls at schools.

Were your surprised by the results of your research?

I wasn’t surprised about the relationship with mothers, but I was surprised about menstruation because it seems so ordinary and I thought women knew themselves and other women in that way, and I would have thought that mothers were teaching their daughters about menstruation. So that blew my mind, to learn that they weren’t. And I thought I’d only get a couple of responses to the masturbation questionnaire. I’m not sure why, maybe because it would have been seen as taboo or private—more so than menstruation. It is more taboo. But if menstruation is taboo, then a woman giving pleasure to herself is like the most terrible thing that could happen to a civilisation, right? Even the women who were comfortable answering the questions about masturbation were still not comfortable about teaching their daughters about it. That was interesting to me. So we haven’t come as far as we thought we had. But that’s why it’s so empowering because as I said earlier, if we’re part of the problem, we can switch over to being part of the solution, and that’s amazing.

Liz Evans

Liz Evans is a Jungian psychotherapist and writer based in Hobart.

Photography by Tawni Bannister

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