I wish I could protect my daughters forever, but I know I can’t.
As recently as three years ago, my 10-year-old daughter had no concept of the word “sexy.”
“I got so mad at Hunter today,” she reported to me, full of second grade indignation. “He kept singing that stupid song: ‘I’m 16, and I know it!’ And I yelled at him. I said, ‘Hunter, you’re not 16! You’re not even close to 16!’”
I smiled and didn’t correct her. She’d know soon enough.
And now, fifth grade: “Mom, for Halloween, can I be a sexy vampire? Can I be a sexy clown? Can I be a sexy toaster?”
And now, fifth grade: “Mom, why did you tell Robert to stop doing his Bill Cosby impression? Why did you say, ‘No more Cosby; it’s not funny anymore’? I still think it’s funny.”
“Well, Bill Cosby used to be, like, everyone’s dad. But then it turned out that a lot of women said he gave them drugs and then … did bad things to them while they were passed out.”
“Oh,” she said, cocking her head. “So you mean he raped them, right? Just call it what it is.”
And now, fifth grade: She slides her sunglasses down on her face and rolls down her window at a red light. And then, shocked, she turns to me. “Mom. That guy over there just blew me a kiss. He made a face at me. It made me feel … I felt like he was, ugh, you know, checking me out. I feel gross. Why did he do that?”
If awareness could protect them, I’d feel safe.
Of course, NOT ALL MEN. I know that. I know plenty of good men. My husband is a good man. There are lots of wonderful men out there. This isn’t about them.
If the abundance of good men could protect them, I’d feel safe.
It’s not the cat-callers, even, who especially worry me. I’ve learned to tune them out unless they’re particularly threatening; my daughters will do the same. You roll your eyes, you walk faster, you ignore it, you try to get somewhere safe as quickly as possible. You learn to wear headphones. Maybe you carry pepper spray. But by and large, you just go numb to it.
If tuning out creeps could protect them, I’d feel safe.
What worries me the most is the insidious predators because they take away so much. They take away the self-worth that takes a lifetime to build and can be destroyed in a careless second.
I’m less concerned with the guy laying on his horn and screaming, “Hey, baby, can I get a smile?” than I am with some Harvey Weinstein-type scenario. And of course, it doesn’t have to be at such a high level. It doesn’t have to be some kind of Hollywood mogul. It can be any number of scenarios that are much more mundane but still traumatic:
•Your middle school French teacher tells you you have the best pronunciation of anyone in the class. He says he’s so proud of you and asks you to stay after class, where he leads you behind the chalkboard, gives you a bar of white chocolate, and rubs your shoulders in a way that isn’t entirely inappropriate but definitely leaves you feeling extraordinarily confused and weirded out and other feelings that you can’t quite put a name to at age 12.
•You’re a senior in high school and have won a writing award that your best friend and your boyfriend both thought they should have rightfully won because they are co-editors of the literary magazine and you’re the editor of the school paper and this is a creative writing award, not a journalism award. You shouldn’t have even entered the contest. You tried to withdraw your entry after it won, but they wouldn’t let you, and now you’re here, at the awards ceremony, and your best friend and your boyfriend have run off somewhere, probably to make out, and you’re sitting all alone on a bench in Jackson Square at twilight, hating yourself and hating your life and crying and half-drunk on a purloined mint julep you managed to sneak from the bar even though you’re 16 and look much younger. And he comes up, this man you’ve known most of your life, and he knows in a second what is going on, and he sits next to you on the bench and puts his arm around you and pulls you close and whispers, “Ah, sweetheart, great genius is always going to be lonely.” And your chest feels huge with pleasure and pride and relief and the incredible comfort of being understood by a beloved and deeply respected person. But then later he tries to pull you away from the crowd, hisses in your ear that he’s “wanted you since the day we met.” You were 10 when you met.
•You’re a junior in high school, and you’ve never been any good at sports. You cringe when the volleyball comes toward you. You run the wrong way in basketball. You consistently whiff in softball. You accidentally hit another player with your racquet while attempting to play badminton, and later that same day, the birdie hit you in the eye and you had to go to the nurse. But then it’s time for running, and you actually like running, and there’s a new PE coach who doesn’t know how unathletic you are. And he pulls you aside while you’re jogging and tells you you have spectacular form and could be a track star. He asks you to run for him. After you’ve done a couple of laps, he smirks at you and says, “Man, I love watching you jiggle.” You report him to the office, but you can’t shake how absolutely foolish you were for falling for it for even a second, for even thinking there was a chance you could do anything right in PE.
•Your college professor says he is truly impressed by your insights, that very few students he’s ever taught are as well-informed and passionate about the subject as you are. He asks you for a drink at a bar near campus, just to discuss your paper further. Two drinks in, you realize he doesn’t actually give a shit about your paper.
These situations leave you wondering: Am I any good at French? Am I a gifted writer? Do I actually have decent form as a runner? Was my paper really worth that A? It all gets tangled up with how much you want to believe these things about yourself.
You feel arrogant for having bought into any of these compliments initially and ashamed and embarrassed that it took you so long to figure it out. You also don’t want to tell your friends because A. you feel stupid and B. you’re not sure if it’s more conceited to have thought these men were interested in your mind and your talents or now to think they were interested in your body only. When the typical, studied response to, “Oh, my God, you look so pretty!” is “Oh, my God, no, I am so ugly and gross! Look at this pimple!”, it can be hard to come right out and say that you suspect a guy had ulterior motives, to say that you even think you’re hot enough to merit that.
And this is what I can’t protect my daughters from. I can’t make them suspicious of any man who takes any interest in them. That would be damaging, too. This is something they will have to learn on their own, something that I hope they never do but unfortunately deeply suspect that they will.
If my past experiences and those of all of the other women I know could protect them, I’d feel safe.
If my ability to set boundaries, to be vigilant, to try to keep them from impure glances and unwanted overtures, to shield them with the sheer power of my love could protect them, then I’d feel safe.
All of this is good, but none of it is quite enough. Although I don’t spend my days in a panic about any of this, I know it’s out there. I have two daughters, and this is all out there. And I don’t feel safe.
Guns last week. Pervasive and destructive rape culture this week.
I seem to have a taste for writing about intractable problems.
I have no easy answers.
Except for the answer to, “Can I be a sexy toaster for Halloween?”
The answer to that is clearly no.