(An open letter.)
Remember that intimate conversation you had with your daughter? The one where you said, “I love you and I need you to know that no matter how a man dresses or acts, it is not an invitation to cat call, taunt, stalk, harass, assault, or lie about him”?
Or when you told your daughter, “A man’s social or financial status isn’t a prize, and sleeping with a rich, popular, or hot guy doesn’t earn you a point”? Or when you told her “A man isn’t your personal dumping ground for the consequences of your bad decisions, so don’t use false accusations to cover for cheating, being out late, feeling promiscuous, or anything else you decided to do”? Remember when you told her that men are actual human beings, not just walking wallets for women to use and discard when they’re drained?
How about the heart-to-heart where you lovingly conferred the legal knowledge that “a man doesn’t have to be fighting you and you don’t have to be pinning him down for it to be RAPE. Incapacitation via drugs or alcohol means he can’t legally consent, NOT that it’s okay to rape him and then accuse him because you were drinking too”? Or when you told her “Erection isn’t an automatic sign of consent. Being able to make a guy experience one doesn’t entitle you to sex with him. If he says no, it means you should stop”?
And then there was the ever-important conversation about honesty in a relationship. Remember making sure your daughter understood that using pregnancy, real or false, to trap a guy in an unwanted relationship is abusive? Remember telling her that lying to him will only lead to problems later on? And that she can’t create a functional, happy relationship by manipulating an unwilling guy into staying with her?
Remember explaining to your daughter that she’s not entitled to anyone’s attention, interest, love, or regard? That being female doesn’t put her above the imperative to earn other people’s respect? When you explained that men and boys are human beings, with their own experiences that are separate and distinct from hers?
You know that time you told her it’s not okay to gay shame or slander a guy for turning her down? That it’s not okay to gay shame at all, period? That just because she tries to get a response from a guy doesn’t mean he owes it to her? That attempting to manipulate him with social pressure is abusive? How about when you explained that faking interest to milk a guy’s one-sided attraction to her for personal gain is abusive?
Or maybe you recall sharing this important tidbit: “Your feelings don’t define your partner’s actions or intent.” You know, when you explained that communication is key to a functional relationship, then went on to explain that communication includes her actions? That being forced or coerced into sex is rape, but not getting everything she imagined out of the experience doesn’t make it so? That false accusation of sexual assault is a sexual assault?
Do you remember calling your daughter out when you discovered she was buying into outrageous double standards? When you heard her call her ex-boyfriend a player after complaining about being treated like a slut? Or when you overheard her talking about some boy from school as if he were more of a conquest than a person, just because of his popularity or his job? How about when explained that it’s abusive to shame guys for not appealing to her? When you heard her verbally attacking boys she found unattractive for the ‘crime’ of daring to glance in her direction? When you had to explain that “hello” doesn’t automatically become “nice tits, bitch” because she’s not interested in the guy who is greeting her?
When you responded to “Where have all the good men gone” with “be a good woman, and you’ll find out”? To “I want my boyfriend to be a gentleman” with “are you prepared to be a lady”?
Last but not least, do you remember explaining to your daughter about personal agency, and how the choices she makes are her own choices? That equality means she should expect to take the same responsibility for herself as men are expected to take for themselves? That this responsibility includes the responsibility to assert herself and not behave as if being female is an incapacitating handicap?
I want you to consider these conversations and then ask yourself why you don’t remember them. The likely reason is because you didn’t have them. In fact, most parents haven’t had them.
By contrast, here are some conversations you might have a better recollection of. I’ll give you a telling hint: they probably weren’t with your daughter.
“Treat all women with respect – you don’t want to be that guy.”
“Don’t talk that way in front of a lady.”
“Have her home by (curfew.)”
“If you want respect, you have to earn it.”
“Be a man who deserves a good partner.”
“A real man…” followed by any advice you wanted taken seriously.
“That’s just the way girls are – don’t take it so personally.”
“Well, you must have done something. She was pretty mad.”
“Be responsible. Don’t get your girlfriend into a bad situation, and then let her down.”
“How do you plan to support your future wife and family?”
“What (work because work makes you respectable) are you going to do with your life?”
and if you’re in the U.S., you’ve probably had to discuss with your son the importance of timely registration with selective service.
Maybe you’re also familiar with the following phrases:
These are conversations often had by loving parents like you. They come from a place of care, they come from a place of concern but most notably they come from a place of upside-down, cultural indoctrination that is hurting, stifling and punishing young men.
The cultural indoctrination that I’m speaking of goes something like this: It is a young man’s responsibility to safeguard himself from rape, assault, harassment, stalking and abuse because girls will be girls and some of them just can’t help themselves.
As a writer on gender issues, I’ve talked to a fair share of parents who are more than aware of this screwed-up reality but don’t really know what to do about it.
“It’s unfair and it’s horrifying,” one father admitted to me, “but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. I can’t change the fact that there are creepy women out there behaving badly. I have to help my son protect himself.”
So let’s take a quick look at these “creepy women.” Who are they, really? Who are the creepy women that are making it unsafe for your son to go solo to a party on campus? Who are the creepy women that are catcalling him or gay-shaming him or intimidating him with threats of false accusation? Who are the creepy women that are stalking him? Harassing him? Attacking him?
Who are these “creepy women” and where did they come from AND who in the hell raised them?
The answer, unfortunately, is YOU.
We have too much information to continue blaming the anonymous woman lurking in the shadows. We have more than enough data to conclude that the majority of perpetrators aren’t “others,” they are peers and classmates and ex-girlfriends and friends.
They are young women your son probably knows and interacts with. You cannot build a wall up around your son to keep these women from entering his world — they are already inside it.
I don’t expect you to welcome this news. I doubt many will even accept it. I want you to know that I’m not saying all young women are rapists, or false accusers, or hateful of men — and I’m certainly not saying that all young women are just hardwired that way.
What I am saying is this: we live in a culture that puts victims on trial with questions like, “well, what were you wearing?” and “how much did you drink?” and “don’t stick your dick in crazy.” We live in a culture where a mother, concerned about raising daughters who “act honorably,” holds young men accountable for the way young women objectify them. We live in a culture that blames men and boys for being falsely accused, asking them why they didn’t do a better job of protecting themselves… when we’ve never taught them how. We live in a culture where a judge orders a teenage (or younger) victim of rape to “man up” and pay his child support. We live in a culture that relegates not being victimized to men and boys instead of expecting and demanding girls and women to be responsible for not lying, not trapping, not exploiting, not raping.
Your daughter is coming of age in that culture with those messages swirling around her. You might have raised her in a home that perpetuated that culture without ever intending to or perhaps you raised her in a home that taught values in complete contrast to that culture. The more important question is: did you ever directly tell her to never buy into that culture? Did you ever tell her that culture is unacceptable and WRONG? Did you ever have any of the aforementioned conversations?
When you have the “avoid getting raped” conversation with your son, it is difficult, as you don’t want to imagine him as a victim. The idea of having the “don’t rape” conversation with your daughter is more difficult as you don’t ever want to imagine her as a perpetrator.
Do it anyway.
Do it because so many parents have thought they didn’t need to and so many people have suffered because of it.
Do it because you love your daughter and want her to have a bright future.
Do it because not doing it is irresponsible.
Do it for your son or for your nephews or for young men in general because while this particular conversation might be terrifying, the much more terrifying reality is young men continuing to be taught to live in fear of women.
That is really what you’re doing when you have the “man up” conversation with your son. You are telling him to always be suspicious, you are telling him to spend his life looking over his shoulder, you are telling him that any woman is a potential predator.
“BUT IT’S TRUE,” you might think. “All of these things are true.”
And you’re not wrong. Sexual assault is pervasive today — 1 in 4 to 5 male college students will be sexually assaulted by the time they graduate.
But sexual assault is pervasive despite the conversations many parents have had with their sons. It seems that the “don’t get raped” angle is not a successful strategy for curbing this pandemic. In fact, it is counter-productive as it perpetuates a culture where women don’t feel the need to take responsibility.
Fortunately, you do have the tools to curb these crimes. You CAN help to protect your son and other young men like him.
And you can do it from your living room.
All you have to do is talk to your daughter.