What I Want to Tell My Daughters About Autonomy and Sex in the Midst of a War on Women
Wrapped packages of condoms and other safe-sex items are seen at a free clinic offering HIV testing in New York City, in 2010. High-risk sexual behaviors and drug habits that can increase a person's likelihood of getting HIV/AIDS are on the decline in the United States, according to a government survey released Thursday.
The other day I found myself telling my two daughters, 16 and 14, “Don’t have sex until you’re in your 20s—but here are some condoms!”
I’m not sure if there is a better example of sending mixed messages.
I don’t let it stop me. I know they don’t want to confide in me, and I actually cringe at the thought of what they might say if they did. But I want to approach the discussion of their bodies, their rights, differently than the terse warnings I received from my own father on the subject of sex. (“Just keep your dick in your pants,” he said.) Let me explain. I had just discovered that my eldest daughter spent the night with her boyfriend. And though I believe that sex is powerful and beautiful and a profound ritual for entering adulthood, I am still a dad, worried about her well-being. I worry if I’ve provided her with enough information, worry about social pressures she may be under, worry about shame, STDs, pregnancy. But I am also hopeful, happy to be there for her as she becomes an adult, someone she knows she can depend on. For these reasons, I have consistently brought up sex with my girls, and I have consistently been rebuffed, their stares punctuated with rolling eyes or sighs of exhaustion. “Dad, please.”
However, although I broach the subject with my daughters any chance I get, we don’t actually talk as directly as I’d like. So I find myself offering platitudes like: “Remember, please remember, you can always stop. You can always say no, even after you’re in the car, in the room, out of your clothes, in the bed. No means no. Stop means stop.” And I believe it is important for me to voice these truths about a woman’s right to be in control of her actions, but I wish there was more I could do as a male ally and, perhaps more importantly, as a father.
But I was incredibly angry. My girlfriend and I were both full-time students. We both had part-time jobs. We took turns doing what needed to get done. We switched it up when one of us got tired of, say, balancing the checkbook (or more likely made too many mistakes). We argued and fought, but loved and spent a lot of time focusing on what was important: our son. We sacrificed our autonomy and our freedom to participate in things other 20-year-olds were doing. We were a tight fist of domesticity.I like to think that fathering made me a feminist. There was a war on women back when, as a college student, I welcomed my son into the world in 1990. At that time the war was aimed at “welfare mothers,” the media-created monster blamed for all of society’s ills. When my newborn son’s mom applied for welfare, I was served papers by Santa Barbara County, officially notifying me that I must “provide” for my child. I suppose they assumed I was just another part of the problem, a drain on the economy, young, unmarried, breeding. The irony of course was that I was rocking my son in my arms and cleaning up the house when the cop knocked. He stood there, scolding me that I should be out getting a job. I said nothing in response. At 21, I was afraid of his power and authority. “Okay,” I said, shutting the door.
We were also, I see now, a case study, a living example of the difficulties that society stacks against poor families.
We struggled with the decision to send our 6-week-old child to an unlicensed childcare center. The woman who ran it clearly had too many children to handle on her own. But we had no other choice—she was all we could afford. Ironically, as I walked up to her doorstep to drop off my boy, she’d tell me I was carrying him wrong. Time went on, but the attitudes toward men as parents never changed.
On weekends, I would bike around Santa Barbara with my son, letting his mother sleep because she was out till 2 a.m. selling roses to partiers at the bars along State Street. Of course, I admit that balancing a year-old baby on my handlebars, sans helmet, was not the smartest move a father could make. But the number of times I was told that I couldn’t parent were infuriating. I was told that I hadn’t dressed my son properly, or that I knew nothing about his well being, or that I would hurt him or drop him, which I sometimes did, but not because I was a man.
I remember having to change my child on one teacher’s desk after class, her body recoiling, her face full of disdain; it was one of the proudest moments of my life. I didn’t then see the irony of being so unwelcome with a child in that space.I took him to classes with me during my first year of studying American Literature at UC-Santa Barbara, not to prove a point about young parents, but because I had no other child care and many of my teachers made no exceptions for spotty attendance.
Instead, I apologized, afraid I was being disrespectful. I thought of my mother ten years earlier, telling me, a 12-year-old, to stay in the car and watch my brothers while she ran in to take her final exam and complete the program she was enrolled in at the community college.
I realized then the strength she must have needed to continue her studies and persist despite the intense judgment society throws at parents, particularly single moms on welfare, which she was at that time.
She was a fighter too, I realize, and this war never seems to end.
Now, in an attempt to provide positive examples of responsibility and body image to my younger kids, I’ve looked around to see what’s out there for them. Other than a few notable exceptions (young feminists like zinester Cristy C. Road and the writers on websites like Feminist Frequency) I’ve discovered a surprising effort to disempower women from owning and controlling their own bodies.
Jezebel goes on to address inequalities in pay, health care expenses, and domestic violence. It also shows how it is even worse for women of color.I read on Jezebel.com that there were 1,100 reproductive-rights-related laws introduced by state lawmakers in 2011. Another 604 had been introduced at the state level as of June 1 of this year. Most of them aimed at controlling women’s choices, their bodies, and/or access to information. Many of them written by men.
I fear for my daughters.
As I watch my eldest and her boyfriend lounging on the couch, cuddling, learning to love each other, I wonder what things will be like when they become parents, what the front lines of this war will be then. I wonder how I can help them prepare.
I am committed to seeing my daughters as individual people, not limited to their gender, but not disconnected from it either. This is tough. I seek to respect my children’s autonomy and privacy, to trust their power and to keep talking with them, even when it makes all of us uncomfortable.