Ten months ago my sister Jessica had her third child -- a soft, round, and precious baby girl. I fell in love immediately with little Julietta Marie. Much like her mother, she was a certified charmer, and I was thrilled to have another girl in the family. I had visions of introducing her to Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Having a book club! Dusting off my superior braiding skills! However, I wasn’t as excited about the trite sexism that came from friends and family.
“She isn’t dating until she’s 40!” “Isn’t that onesie a little revealing?” “You’ll need a shotgun now.” No one had said those things about my son, or my nephews. No one had wrung their hands over the boys’ wardrobe choices. No one had threatened to murder their future girlfriends. Apparently our collective panic about female sexuality is alive and well. I could visualize my spirited niece as a beautiful brown-eyed teenager being shamed for her clothing or for her natural urges to flirt with the opposite (or same!) sex. It was depressing.
That sexual double standard is motivated by a mix of beliefs. Some of these beliefs are plainly misogynistic. For example, if you think that sex damages a girl’s worth or purity, you are a misogynist. If your daughter has to pledge her virginity to you for safekeeping in some creepy ceremony, you are a misogynist AND you would make Oedipus blush. If you think young women don’t want sex, or are harmed by safe, enthusiastically chosen sex, then you are wrong and should probably educate yourself about basic biology.
However, most of my family members don’t fall into those categories. I suspect their double standards come from the best of intentions. They believe that predators are especially interested in girls, and that predators are everywhere. Therefore, extra vigilance must be practiced when raising a girl. She must dress modestly, wear minimal make-up, not flirt with boys, and she certainly cannot date.
As someone who was once a girl, I can confirm that the world can indeed be brutal for a girl coming of age. Women and girls are sexually harassed and sexual assaulted at much higher rates than boys and men. Girls begin to experience street harassment from adult men right after puberty at around ten or eleven years old. That is the reality.
But there are two problems to the double standard outlined above. The first problem is that the premise is flat out wrong, and the second is that these misguided tactics thoroughly fail at protecting girls.
The premise of policing a girl’s clothing is that the more attractive or revealing a girl’s outfit, the more likely she is to attract sexual assault. This is factually incorrect. There is no correlation between clothing and assault. Sexual assault is a crime of violence and control, not desire. Absolutely nothing she can do is capable of encouraging rape or sexual assault. Secondly, being excessively controlling of a child’s behavior never protected her from the world. Everyone inevitably must go out into public on their own.
So how do you protect your daughter? I know of some effective tactics. I do not have a daughter, but I was a daughter. More than that, I was a daughter who was molested, harassed, physically assaulted, and raped. And I know what would have helped me. And I know what I hope for Julietta.
The main fact to remember is that abuse rarely springs randomly from the outside. It is relatively predictable, and it starts at home. So you can minimize the probability that she will be abused. Consider these suggestions:
Treat her with respect and kindness.
This step seems to be the most difficult one for people to remember, yet it is the most important indicator of future harassment or abuse. Kids who are mistreated at home are far more likely to engage in risky sexual and criminal behavior. They are more likely to be in abusive relationships and become addicted to drugs. They project brokenness and vulnerability when they are out in the world. They unwittingly walk around with a giant bullseye on them for predators.
That is why your power as a parent is tremendous. Your behavior teaches her what love is. Your behavior sends a message about her worth. So how do you treat your daughter? Do you scream at her? Call her names? Belittle or insult her? Do you hit her? Someday some little punk will be treating your daughter in the exact same way. Let that sink in. It all starts with you.
It is the easiest thing in the world to rant about stranger danger. Pretty much everyone does it. But in reality it is estimated that in over 90% of sexual abuse occurrences, the perpetrator is known to the victim. If someone preys on your child, it will likely be someone in your circle. So you may be faced with believing your child when she tells you that your trusted partner, your friend, or your sibling abused her.
Even though it is estimated that children falsify only 1% of sexual abuse allegations it is infinitely easier to deny, deny, deny. I’m sure she is exaggerating. Imagining things. No one wants their families or marriages to be ripped apart by abuse. No one wants to go through the harrowing legal process of accusing someone of abuse. Therefore, countless parents fail this test, damaging their daughters profoundly. So if you really love your daughter, you will believe her. Because she is telling you the truth and she needs you.
Teach her that she is entitled to set boundaries.
What if she doesn’t want to hug her uncle? What if she is stressed out because she doesn’t want to seem ‘mean’ but a neighbor won’t stop asking her out? What if a boy at school is snapping her bra or some other seemingly innocuous thing but she doesn’t like it? Make sure she knows that it is her body and her choice. When she says no to unwanted touching or propositions, support her choice unfailingly, even if it causes a scene. Go to her school, talk to other parents, confront the neighbor, whatever it takes.
Teach her to trust her instincts.
At the age of 19, I read Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. It said that our subconscious mind is constantly active, picking up evidence at a speed we can’t consciously process. That evidence creates our instincts. In other words, our instincts are fact.
Yet women ignore them in favor of being inoffensive or nice, even when their instincts are screaming at them to get out of a room or to turn down a stranger’s offer of help. We are brainwashed from birth to believe that being feminine is the same thing as being polite and unobtrusive. The Gift of Fear said women could work past that and reconnect with their instincts. That felt revolutionary because I had bought into the idea that my worth as a woman suffered when I caused offense.
But you are not going to fall for that. If your daughter feels that someone is dangerous, she won’t care if she is called rude, uppity, or a bitch. She will trust her instincts first. Because that is what you taught her.
So what if you say, “I do all of that? But my neighborhood is a war zone.” Or, “My daughter has to fear the police because of the color of her skin.” Or, “My daughter is a transgender girl and I have to worry every time she leaves the house." There are no quick or easy answers, but there are a lot of people in the struggle and some are gaining ground. Join in. Fight for new laws. Advocate for funding. Jump up and down, get out and march. This country needs a revolution.
But don’t shame or blame your daughter for the challenges she faces in the world. When she is in your home, let her be young. She may want to experiment with fashion, flirt, and have a boyfriend or a girlfriend. None of those actions have ever caused the violence, racism, or sexism rampant in this country. So let her shine. Let her grab happiness in this life where she finds it. And don’t let anyone dampen her spirit on your watch.
And that is my commitment to Julietta. In addition to her devoted, loving parents, she will have Auntie in her corner. I will back her up as she stakes her claim in this world and shuts out (or sasses back at) the ignorance thrown at her. I will lend her books that will open her eyes to her heritage and to her foremothers. I will support her as she pursues her dreams. I’ve lived the ugly, scary side of female adolescence in America and I know that she will need all the support she can get. And as much as I would like to wring anyone’s neck who hurts her, I won’t make it about me and my anger or fear. It’s time we let our girls take flight.