When I had my daughter, I was told to fear the days when she started dating. However, I don’t own her, and the ‘protective father’ schtick is a poor example to set.
My first child was a beautiful baby girl. I was a young father, and shocked to find that a large percentage of people – regardless of gender – would ask with a wink and a nudge what I was going to do when my daughter eventually started dating.
My answer was, has been, still is, and always will be, the same: I’ll be happy that she found someone in whom she is interested, and I’ll wish her success in her relationship(s).
What young women really need is for us to genuinely and completely embrace and support the idea that the rights to a person’s body belong solely to that individual.
That seems pretty obvious and elementary, or it should, but that’s not the response those asking me expected. It’s also not the response I heard from so many of my peer fathers.
Too often we romanticise the idea of the overly-protective father who cannot stomach the thought of “his little girl” dating. We’re amused by, and thus we perpetuate, the stereotype that he should be driven to temporary insanity and threaten violence at even the notion that his daughter may choose to engage in consensual sex.
This is a dangerous and disempowering message.
By wearing and applauding “Rules for Dating My Daughter”-type t-shirts (including those with threatening messages involving guns, ass-kickings, etc), we’re complicit in portraying the parent as a dictatorial authority over the young woman’s body.
This isn’t, of course, restricted to t-shirts. The same theme shows up in sitcoms, personal jokes, country music songs, etc.
If we want young women to feel comfortable, confident and in control of themselves and their bodies in social and sexual situations, we need to abandon the “possessive parent” rhetoric, instead projecting, with unwavering consistency, the belief that young women should unilaterally determine the details and parameters of their own sexuality.
We don’t want women to feel reliant on their fathers to make decisions regarding their social and sexual comfort; we want them to feel comfortable and confident relying on themselves.
This is not to say that we should not be protective of our children. No reasonable person begrudges a loving parent the desire to see their child safe from harm. We do, however, need to explicitly and implicitly differentiate “harm” from “healthy, consensual sex”.
By failing to differentiate between these two things, and by insinuating that young women of an appropriate age are not able to differentiate between these things themselves – and must have it done for them – we rob young women of their rightful authority over their own bodies. We condition them to ignore their own power and agency.
We don’t want women to feel reliant on their fathers – or other family members, or friends – to make decisions regarding their social and sexual comfort; we want them to feel comfortable and confident relying on themselves.
We also don’t want to give anyone in society – men, especially – the false impression that they are somehow entitled to monitoring and dictating a woman’s consensual romantic and sexual activity. From lawmakers to standup comedians, this entitlement fuels an unhealthy male view of women as uninformed and helpless.
It is not our duty to physically protect and defend women against consensual romantic interests, or even to implicitly place ourselves in such a position. If our real goal, as we so often claim, is to do what’s truly best for the young women we know and love, then it is our duty to support them. It is our duty to defend the belief that they have complete autonomy. And, for the fathers among us, it is our duty to share our ideas and values – and then give our daughters the space and freedom to form their own.