(with apologies to W. Bruce Cameron, whom I adore)
It’s about an hour before prom, and a group has gathered at our house, the girls in jewel-toned evening gowns, the boys in suits and tuxes—and the parents in old jeans and sweatshirts. I go inside to grab some food from the platters we’ve put out, and my daughter sidles up to me, breathtakingly gorgeous in a form-fitting long blue dress. “He wants a glass of wine,” she says, gesturing toward her boyfriend. “Can he have one?”
I consider: The boy’s nineteen, he’s not going to be driving that evening, it’s a special occasion and we’re talking a few sips of chardonnay. “Sure,” I say and hand him a glass.
But to my surprise he hesitates, then fills his glass with water. My daughter laughs. “He’s too worried that Dad will see him drinking. He’s scared of Dad.” Her boyfriend cheerfully agrees that, yes, he’s scared of her father.
I should probably mention here that my husband is an extraordinarily sweet guy. Rob doesn’t ever raise his voice. He would never harm a child or an animal. He literally appeared on CNN a few weeks ago to talk about how much he loves our gay son. He treats me so well that some of my friends have forbidden me from ever complaining about him. And he has never said a cross word to our daughter’s boyfriend.
So I’m trying to figure out why this kid is scared of him. And also why he’s clearly not the slightest bit scared of me, when I’m pretty sure that our kids would say I’m the more difficult parent in general.
I’ve given it some thought and here’s my theory:
“You know who a teenage girl’s sexuality and chastity belong to? Her. Not her father, not her mother, not her boyfriends—her.”
Photo: “Fuck Patriarchy”- Claire LaZebnik family archives
“There’s something revoltingly archaic to me about the idea that a father’s job is to fend off male admirers in an attempt to keep his daughter “pure” as long as possible, like we’re still living in medieval times.”
There’s a pervasive and intractable assumption in our society that fathers and their daughters’ boyfriends are natural adversaries. Just check out Kevin Hart’s Super Bowl ad for Hyundai: A young man picks Hart’s daughter up for a date, which is then ruined by Hart, who stalks them, glaring threateningly at the poor guy every time he starts to put his arm around the girl.
Actually, you can watch virtually any teen movie or sit-com and there’s likely to be a scene with a dad grimly grilling his daughter’s date and issuing rules for what’s going to happen—and not happen—that evening.
Where’s the daughter during all this? Usually quietly seething, frustrated by her father’s interference, but accepting it as an inevitability.
The implication here is that a teenage girl isn’t capable of making her own choices about her romantic and sexual life, and—even worse—that her chastity “belongs” to her father, who has the right to protect it from any young man who dares to approach her.
Blech, I say.
You know who a teenage girl’s sexuality and chastity belong to? Her. Not her father, not her mother, not her boyfriends—her. She gets to decide what she wants to do, whom she wants to do it with, and when she wants to do it. If she wants to cuddle up with her date, then she should. If she wants to make out with him—or more—that’s also her choice. (And I do mean her choice—parents, for the love of humanity, teach your sons that no means no. And talk frankly and calmly to your kids about sex and birth control.)
There’s something revoltingly archaic to me about the idea that a father’s job is to fend off male admirers in an attempt to keep his daughter “pure” as long as possible, like we’re still living in medieval times, when a daughter’s virginity was bartered in marriages that advanced the family’s position. Guess what? We’re not. Science has allowed us to have sex without pregnancy and hallelujah for that, and a woman is no longer valued by how intact her hymen is and hallelujah for that, too. When a woman gets married, her legal rights no longer transfer from her father to her husband—they are and remain hers (and hallelujah for that). In other words, progress has been made, at least in this country.
But it’s frustratingly hard to shake entrenched beliefs. The idea that a teenage boy will try to score and that it’s the father’s role to prevent him (and that the girl’s wishes are irrelevant in this tug-of-war) is all around us, so it’s not surprising that young men remain uncomfortable in the presence of their girlfriends’ fathers.
My husband likes my daughter’s boyfriend and has no desire to alienate or exile him. Even so, when told that the kid was afraid of him, he laughed and said, “Good!” And in spite of everything I’ve written here, I get it. He feels protective of her, and so do I—after watching over a kid for eighteen years, you still want to make sure they’re not going to get hurt. It’s hard for all of us to accept the fact that our kids grow up and out of our control.
But that Kevin-Hart-type glowering, stalking thing, where you don’t give your daughter her privacy, independence, or agency over her own sexuality? That outdated shit needs to be kicked right to the curb.
Let’s dream of a better world, where the father and the boyfriend smile, shake hands, and agree that they both want what’s best for the girl they love. And then let her decide what that might be.