In New York City recently, a father showed up at his daughter’s school swinging, I kid you not, a chain and padlock, demanding to know who was having sexual intercourse with his daughter1. His daughter, fortunately, lives with her mother, and thus hopefully isn’t subjected to this sort of thing on a regular basis. Authorities were called, he was slapped with a raft of charges, and the story made the news for being such an outrageous example of “overprotective” parenting.
But the story has me thinking about an issue I’ve been turning over in my head for a while. As Jessica Wakeman at the Frisky put it, “Perhaps in jail someone will explain to him that he is not in charge of his daughter’s vagina.”
BEING A DAD DOESN'T COME WITH THE TITLE TO YOUR DAUGHTER'S BODY
The issue here is larger than that, though, because the model of the overprotective father stepping in to defend his daughter from the evils of the world isn’t just about control of her sexuality, but about control of her whole body and identity. There’s a long social history of a parental sense of ownership over children, particularly when it comes to fathers and daughters; it wasn’t that long ago that fathers really did have total legal control over their daughters in many cultures.
That legacy still rings loud and true today even if fathers in the US don’t legally “own” their daughters; there’s very much an assumption that fathers, less so than mothers, can exert control over their daughters in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable.
One of the few true fights I’ve ever had with my father occurred back when I was a girl, and we were discussing tattoos. I’d always known my father wasn’t very comfortable with them, but I was shocked by how viciously he spoke about them, and how ferocious he was about me never getting them. He insisted that if I ever got tattoos, he’d disown me and never speak to me again; it was a very jarring experience for me to have him exert this sudden sense of ownership over my very flesh when our relationship had previously been one of equality.
Naturally, that fight didn’t stop me from getting tattooed, and while I was discreet about my tattoos initially, eventually I started being more open about them. His initial reaction was one of disgust, but he got over it; love conquers all, as they say, and while he still doesn’t like my tattoos, they don’t interfere with our relationship.
For me, though, my early tattoos also marked small acts of defiance against my father, which was a strange experience. I’d never been in a position of having to defy a parent who basically let me do what I wanted, within reason, and supported my choices. Suddenly, though, I was having to prove that no, this was my body, and I got to control what happened with it. It was an illustration for me of how tangled we all become in the culture we live in, that even in a very progressive and unconventional household, the idea of a parent owning a child’s body was still there, lurking, waiting for an excuse to surface.
YOUR DAUGHTER'S SEXUALITY IS NOT YOUR PROPERTY
The idea that fathers own their daughters’ genitalia, and particularly their virginity, is especially widespread and revolting; look at the father-daughter “purity balls” popular among some members of the evangelical Christian community:
One of the most memorable highlights of the ball is when the fathers stand in the middle of the ballroom and form a circle around their daughters standing all aglow in their lovely ball gowns. The fathers place their hands on their daughters, and together we pray for purity of mind, body, and soul for generations to come.
This is an event about men and their relationship to their daughters. Not an independent commitment by young women who want to choose to remain virgins for a while (for whatever reason), or an event that celebrates mothers and daughters, but specifically both men and their daughters. This is a distinctly proprietary relationship here; it is expected that men should “protect” their daughters, but from what? The very real dangers of the world, or the perceived erosion of the value of their property?
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PROTECTIVE AND CREEPY PARENTING
One of the only times in my life when I’ve ever seen my father roused to physical violence occurred when I was very young and one of our neighbors was berating me for something. I can’t remember what it was, all these years later, but I think it was something along the lines of what children usually do -- existing while being noisy, perhaps, or playing in our yard.
My father, who is not a very large or intimidating man, came storming out of the house, and in that moment, he seemed to grow by a factor of 1,000. He grabbed the neighbor’s shoulder and whirled him around so that their faces were only inches apart.
“If I ever,” my father said, “see you talking to my daughter again, I’ll kill you.”
Our neighbor was a rather tall, well-muscled man, one who could have easily taken my father in a fight, but he crumpled up like a used tissue and slunk out of our yard. For years afterward, he’d slink to the other side of the street to avoid me whenever he spotted me in public. Remembering the incident years later, my father remarked that he’d seen our neighbor be abusive to other children in the neighborhood, and he wanted to make it crystal clear that he wasn’t going to tolerate that sort of behavior directed at me.
That’s the kind of protecting parents should be doing for children of all genders; insisting that they own the bodies, sexualities, and genders of their children, though, not so much. Especially when it’s directed primarily at girls and young women.
Telling daughters that their fathers own them and have the rights to their bodies is creepy. And it sets up for the eventual transfer of bigger, even scarier ideas. Like that men in general own them and are entitled to their bodies. Like that husbands have the right to do whatever they want, whenever they want, because the wife's father has transferred ownership.
And that’s why stories like this frighten and disturb me; this incident made the news because it was so blatant, but it’s one among millions of small acts of ownership and control exerted over the bodies of young women across the US every day.
1. He used a less polite term for “sexual intercourse.” Return