Dads, Daughters, and Dating

I was in my local Stewart’s convenience store a few years ago when I heard a guy, in the hearing of his teenage daughter, telling someone else that his daughter “wasn’t allowed to date until she’s 30.” Memes go by from people I generally respect saying things like “Guns don’t kill people. Fathers with beautiful daughters kill people” or “Dads Against Daughters Dating. Shoot the first one and word will spread.”

I realize it’s a joke. I realize these people will not shoot their daughters’ boyfriends.

But this whole constant line of “humor,” and particularly the fact that it somehow is still acceptable among otherwise supposedly feminist and sex-positive parents, makes me want to stab myself in the eye with a chastity belt.

Let’s break down the problems with this delightful little cultural trope.

First, it’s only dads. Dads are presumed to have a special right to feel violently about their daughters’ sexuality. Moms might worry, but we all know it’s dad who will really go ballistic. When I once in conversation suggested that I couldn’t see any reason for this division outside of a very stubborn remnant of the idea that daughters are a father’s property until they are married off, I was met with predictable opposition from the fathers in the conversation. But they had no assertion of why else we should consider them to have this prerogative except that “we have special inside knowledge of how awful men can be.” I find this to be, ahem, a weak answer, and also likely a false one. I think most women have a pretty damn good idea, thank you very much.

(But if that’s really your reasoning, bring her to the pride parade and introduce her to some nice queer girls. And then examine yourself and your friends and maybe seek out some more ethical guys to hang out with.)

Second, it’s only daughters. The cultural meme is silent on what young men should or shouldn’t be doing, the classic double standard. It’s not like there aren’t dangers for young men in ill-considered sexual activity. And yes, I do realize that young men are initiating more sexual violence than young women, and that the consequences can be different. Some things need to change, and feeling more protective of girls is understandable. However, the whole set up of the dad fending off the potential suitors reinforces the idea that men take the initiative in dating and sex, and women sit around having to be talked into or protected from things.

Which leads us to, third and perhaps most infuriating, it’s always expressed as being about consensual dating. If you want to joke about shooting rapists, be my guest. (Not that I advocate vigilante justice or shooting anyone, but I understand the sentiment and think it’s not a wildly inappropriate gut reaction.) Trust me, as a parent, I have my violent fantasies about defending/avenging my kids against such violations.

There are all kinds of warnings and limits and safety practices I intend to do my best to install in my kids, and I will still fret, I’m sure. Unfortunately, “Mothers against unsupervised drunken teenage parties, sex ed that doesn’t teach about consent, and a culture that protects its supposed studs from accountability for their heinous acts” doesn’t make a catchy T-shirt or one-liner.

Nonetheless, I know that repressing my daughters’ sexuality and interest in dating whenever it shows up (or making it clear to them that I wished I could) wouldn’t protect them. It would just give them lower confidence in the face of inappropriate attention, less clarity about what they want (and don’t want) and how to say so, and shame at their own desire. A recipe for being a target.

Taking women who are actually interested and making them a prize at the end of an obstacle course, disapproving patriarchs included, reinforces rape culture because it confuses “No” with “I’m not really supposed to but…” If women can’t say yes (not to mention ask the question themselves!), then they can’t say no, because no might mean yes, or at least “keep trying.”

As Rachael Kay Albers wrote in her brilliant piece “Why I Never Play Hard to Get,” “When we send the message that resistance is a form of flirtation—a strategic move in the game of love—we romanticize the imposition of one human being’s will on another. . . . By looking at love and sex as a game, a chase, a fight, we give violence our social permission . . . Hard To Get and No Means No don’t—can’t—exist together.”

Clinging to this antiquated notion that fathers must necessarily see red when their daughters start to grow up and show interest in dating actually helps to perpetuate the very violence they claim to be worried about. It’s time for all parents, of kids of all genders, to do better by our kids.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on June 6, 2013.)

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