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What I Want to Tell My Daughters About Autonomy and Sex in the Midst of a War on Women

I believe it is important for me to voice 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.

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.

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