men, masculinities and gender politics

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Guys, we need to be talking to our daughters about sex. (But what the heck do we say?)

I can think of few things that I dread more than a trip to the dentist. When I was a child, my family butcher – er, I mean dentist – didn’t much believe in Novocain. His drill + lack of painkiller = agony. Even to this day the idea of a trip to the dentist fills me with dread.

But I have just encountered something that makes even a trip to the dentist look not so bad!

I just read a 2011 research study that showed that the vast majority of young adult women feel that their lives would have been a whole lot easier if only their fathers had put forward the effort to talk to them overtly about sex as they were growing up. The study urged men to actively engage their daughters in developmentally-appropriate conversations about sexuality on an ongoing basis.

Reading the article almost got me to schedule that long-overdue dentist appointment! Anything to avoid dealing with the future conversations I will no doubt be having!

But then I reconsidered. I do like to think of myself as a pretty thoughtful guy, and as someone who is not (overly) prone to kneejerk reactions. I like to think of myself as someone who does not uphold social conventions when they contravene what we actually should be doing. So, I decided, I will talk with my daughter when the time comes. I will talk with her about sex.

I can deal with the “ick” factor. I can even deal with the notion that my little girl will at some point be making the transition from an essentially nonsexual child tearing around the playground to a young woman who is sometimes more interested in tearing off her clothes. Who will become very sexually interested in the opposite sex. Or in the same sex. Or both…

Gosh, am I really ready for this?

Yes, I convinced myself, when the time comes, I will be ready.

But then I wondered… just how will I do it when the time comes?

Why we gotta do this. The study I read, by Hutchinson and Cederbaum, is called Talking to Daddy's Little Girl About Sex: Daughters' Reports of Sexual Communication and Support From Fathers. Hutchinson and Cederbaum asked young women ages 19 to 21 about how large a role their fathers played in their sexual education and development. And the answer was not much of a role at all. The great majority of the women wished they had gotten far more support and information from their dads in this area.

The authors of the study cite some of the important reasons why we men need to be involved in our daughters’ lives:

Girls whose fathers are actively involved in their lives engage in sexual intercourse at an older age and have fewer sexual partners.

Girls whose fathers are actively involved in their lives are less likely to get pregnant.

Girls whose fathers are actively involved in their lives are less likely to do drugs.

But very few of us men are fulfilling this very important role when it comes to our daughters’ sexuality. When it comes to sex, fewer than 10% of the women interviewed said that their fathers had given them the information and support they needed in order to be well prepared for dating and for sexuality.

(There were some dads who did in fact step forward and act as supportive advocates for their daughters. One young woman reported that it was her father who helped her get on birth control pills.)

But most men did not do their part. Over 80% of the women stated that they wished that their fathers had done or said more when it came to educating them about sexuality. The young women felt that more information from their fathers could have provided insights into male sexual behavior. They wanted to know about their father’s own experiences around sexuality, and how men feel about sex. The young women also wanted to see their fathers expressing a greater level of comfort around issues of sexuality and sexual communication.

“If he was more comfortable,” one woman said, “I think I would have been more comfortable.” Another said: “I would have liked to have known more about his past, but I really don’t know anything at all about who he was or who he was with before he and my mother got together.” And they wanted information about specific sexual topics, and about what their fathers’ expectations and values were around sexuality. They wanted a lot more than just silence. “He could have told me to wait,” one respondent said. “He could have told me it was o.k. not to have sex.” Another said: “He could have given me his perspective as a male. Tell me that a man who loves a woman will wait. Tell me how to resist pressure from men by not having sex.”

When we fail to talk with our daughters about sex, we leave them without good information about males. We leave them out there on their own to fend for themselves in this brave (and scary) new world of sexual interaction. And that’s not a good thing.

What gets in the way of talking to our daughters: The researchers identified three main barriers that stopped men from playing a healthy paternal role in the development of their daughters’ sexuality.

Lack of parental relationship. A lot of the young women interviewed felt like they did not have much of a relationship with their fathers. They did not really feel like their fathers cared all that much about what they were going through. And if they weren’t talking much with their fathers about other things, they sure weren’t about to start talking to them about sex.

Failure to acknowledge their daughters’ burgeoning sexuality. A second barrier to fathers playing an appropriate and helpful role in helping their daughters to negotiate sexuality was the refusal on the part of the men to accept that “Daddy’s Little Girl” was growing up and becoming a sexual being. The vast majority of children will grow up to be sexual beings. They do not stay young forever. It is our duty as parents to recognize and accept these developments. To accept the great likelihood that our daughters will not be virgins forever. And nor should we want them to be. Most human females will develop an active sex life. Our job is to help them to negotiate that process and to have them emerge on the other side happy and healthy – as sexually self-possessed, assertive women who can celebrate their sensuality as the true gift that it is.

Discomfort crossing the gender divide. A final barrier was fathers’ discomfort with talking to their female children about sex. A number of the research participants reported that their fathers were able to discuss sexual topics with sons but not with daughters. One said: “He did a really good job with my brother. If he had been more open-minded about his daughters being sexually active, he could have been a better support.” Another said: “No, he wasn’t someone to talk to about sex. His role was to care for my brother.”

I can’t help but wonder if the information that these men were giving their boys was somehow different from what they would want their daughters to hear. Were they saying to their sons: “Go out there and get laid, son. Just remember to wear a condom”? And, if so, would they have said the same thing to a daughter? “Go out there and get laid, honey. Just remember to have him wear a condom”? Probably not. But why not? Why, when it comes to issues of sexuality, do we treat our sons and daughters so differently?

But what to say? It is clear that our daughters need us. But just what should we say? Honestly, a lot of the advice that is out there kind of stinks.

Bad idea #1: Trying to keep the boys at bay. Do we go the old, tired route of the country song called “Cleaning this Gun” that contains the words: “Well now that I’m a father/I’m scared to death one day my daughter/Is gonna find/That teenage boy I used to be/That seems to have just one thing on his mind.”

The crooner goes on to sing about how he will be sitting there cleaning the gun as he waits for his daughter to come home from a date.

“Y’all go out and have some fun/I'll see you when you get back/Probably be up all night/Still cleanin' this gun.”

This route is just stupid in so many ways. On an immediately practical level, trying to control your daughter’s sexuality simply does not work. Chances are she will still be sexually active… you just won’t find out about it, and she won’t have the critical information from you that she needs. And, secondly, this stance denies her the opportunity to safely and slowly explore her emerging sexuality – and to ask questions as that process unfolds. This model of “father-as-protector-from-every-boy” is neither helpful nor healthy.

Bad idea #2: Overly involving ourselves in her status as a virgin. Then there is the whole “purity” movement where daughters pledge their virginity to their fathers. These folks even have “purity balls.” During those events a young woman actually gives her father a ring that promises that she will remain “pure.” On her wedding day, the fantasy goes, her father then will give this ring to her new husband – “proof” that he is delivering unto the groom a bride who is still a virgin. I find this uber-patriarchal model to be incredibly creepy. And – although the premise is that these fathers are preventing their daughters from becoming sexual beings – I believe that these rituals that fixate on virginity actually insert a father into the intimate details of his daughter’s sex life far more deeply than overt, developmentally-appropriate discussions of sexuality ever would.

 
(And the research clearly shows that purity pledges don’t work. They just make young people feel bad about the sex they do wind up having. These young people have intercourse almost as early as do their “impure” peers. But when they do have sex, they are less likely to use condoms or other forms of birth control. Because, after all, it is a rather difficult thing psychologically to plan to be “bad.”)

Bad idea #3: Acting as a sexual inhibitor. Some of the (slightly) more useful information that is out there suggests that we fathers do need to talk to our daughters about sex. But it tends to suggest that our primary role as fathers is to inhibit our daughters’ sexual behavior. (It does turn out that daughters whose fathers are more involved in educating them about sexuality do tend to delay sexual intercourse. That fathers who communicate all of the dire risks of sexuality -- STIs, unwanted pregnancy, unintended emotional consequences, the possibility of being used, of getting an unwanted reputation, etc -- can effectively delay their daughters’ experience of first intercourse, and can reduce the number of partners their daughters have.)

But is this enough? Acting as a speed bump on the road to our kids’ sexual development? I was at a conference recently where one of the keynote speakers kept saying “If you want to stop young people from doing drugs, committing crimes, and having sex, you need to do this…” And after awhile I found myself thinking: Young people committing crime? Bad. Young people doing drugs? Mostly bad. A little alcohol and possibly marijuana use is probably inevitable, but young people should avoid hard drugs. (We probably all should.) But sex? Being sexual is one of the joys of life. Where is the room here for communicating not only the risks but also the joys of sexuality? Most young people will wind up having some form of rather intense sexual contact with another young person. As young people embark on this journey, shouldn’t we provide them with some direction about the route, rather than just a bunch of travel warnings?

I’d much rather my daughter learn about sexuality from her parents than from the porn-drenched internet. And I don’t want the only male who is informing her about issues of sex to be the guy in the car with her who may have his own agenda!

Just what is the goal here? If the goal is that our teenage daughters “wait” to have sex -- wait until just when? Is there some magical cutoff age? You can drive at 16. Vote at 18. Drink at 18. Or 19. Or 21. (It depends where you live.) My preference would be for young people to wait until they have enough good information and are prepared mentally and psychologically to make good decisions about sex. And as dads, it is part of our role to ensure that both our sons and our daughters get the information they need.

From us.

And do we really want our primary message to our daughters about sexuality to be that it is a treacherous thing fraught with peril? That’s a pretty big downer of a message! And it’s not really true! And it’s probably not how most of us guys really feel about sex! So, I think that a far healthier -- and far more honest -- message is that with the proper precautions, and at the right time and with the right person, fully consensual sex is one of life’s great joys.

What women want. But enough about what I think – let’s get back to the research! The young women interviewed said what they could have used from their fathers was information on how to set boundaries, how to communicate with boys about sex, what sex is like for males, and information about their dads’ own sexual experiences growing up.

Some of these are pretty easy to deliver. Others are trickier.

How to set boundaries: I think this is actually one of the easier ones. We simply need to give our daughters the information that their bodies are their own, that their sexuality is their own, and that their pleasure is their own. All of these things are theirs to share with others if they wish. And only if they wish. They should not feel that they should have to be sexual only to please someone else. They do not have to do anything with their bodies (or with someone else’s body) that they do not want to do. And they have every right to insist that their sex partners practice safer sex. They have every right to assert a stance of “no glove, no love.” 

 
We also need to give them the message that “safe sex” is sex that is also emotionally safe. It is respectful of boundaries. And anyone who disregards another’s boundaries is not a good sexual partner.

We have a large role to play in supporting our daughters in taking care of themselves as they negotiate this exciting new territory. But to be able to support them, we need to not be in denial that adolescence is for most people a time of sexual exploration. And that is just as it should be.

How they can communicate with boys about sex. This is one is slightly trickier. I think we need to encourage our daughters to develop their own value systems around sex. (And they need our help to do this.) We need to tell them that they need to decide their own limits as to what they are comfortable with. And that they are allowed to enforce those limits, and that they should expect to have those limits honored by their sexual partners. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where most boys get the message that they are supposed to work to override girls’ sexual boundaries, and that males themselves should not have any boundaries when it comes to sex. These are rather disastrous messages to be giving to our boys. They are harmful for our sons, and they are dangerous for our daughters. So our daughters will likely not always have an easy time asserting and maintaining their boundaries. This is why they need to be clear as to where their boundaries are… before they get in the backseat of that car. Because going beyond one’s sexual boundaries either on impulse or because you were pressured to do so tends to lead to a lot of pain and regret.

And our girls also need to be able assert their sexual boundaries with other girls as well. It is possible that it may not be just boys who become their sexual partners. Sometimes this may be adolescent experimentation. Or it may be that having same-sex partners may become a life-long way of being. But sexual limits are sexual limits, regardless of who one’s partner is, and our daughters need to be as clear as possible about what those are.

And we need to give them the message that they are never to blame when someone else violates their boundaries. In an ideal world, one’s sexual partners would always be invested in helping to create mutually pleasurable, fully consensual experiences. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Some people just take what they want, and don’t much care about the effect that has on the other person. Our daughters need to know that some people – male and female – are just like that. They need to know that they are always allowed to assert their sexual boundaries. And that they are not to blame for the sexual aggression that they may encounter.

What sex is like for males. The young women wanted to know what sex is like for males. This one is tougher to answer. After all, what is sex like for males? Do we really know? Especially when it comes to hetero guys, our sexuality remains a remarkably unexplored area. It is generally an area of great social silence. As individual men, we rarely take the opportunity to discuss and explore what we truly want sexually. Instead, we are buffeted by a torrent of hugely homogenized, utterly commercialized, artificially constructed images of hetero male sexuality that streams throughout the internet and across our t.v. screens. Most of it follows exactly the same model: erection, stimulation of the penis, ejaculation. Erection, stimulation of the penis, ejaculation. Erection, stimulation of the penis, ejaculation. Erection, stimulation of the penis, ejaculation…. Ad nauseum. The images are utterly genitally-focused, totally lacking any psychological component, and devoid of any sensuality whatsoever.

Our social and psychological examination of what heterosexual men want and desire sexually has not really evolved beyond presenting a totally regressive image that our most primitive humanoid ancestors would readily recognize and be able to articulate:

What. Men. Want?

Men. Want. Fuck.

Of course we men are far more sophisticated, complex, and interesting than just “Men. Want. Fuck.” But most of us leave that area of our lives utterly unexamined and unexplored, content instead to live solely in the world of erection/stimulation of the penis/ejaculation.

So, one answer to these young women’s questions about what sex is like for men is this: It’s unimaginative. It’s boring. And it’s about as complex as their next ejaculation.

And that’s a shame. Because we men are so much more interesting than that… If only we allowed ourselves to be.

Our own sexual past. These daughters wanted to know what their own father’s sexual past was like. They wanted to know how he negotiated the advent of his sex life. What was that process like for him? For a lot of men, this is also going to be a tough one to answer. Because if they followed the dominant model of “male as sexual aggressor” who tries to erode the limits of any girl he is with physically, some of that story is going to be pretty grim. Did he always respect girls’ limits? Did he put the pressure on? Did he go “too far”? Did he manipulate her into doing things that she did not want to do? Did he dump her because she would not “put out”? Did he hide his own insecurities and fears by treating girls badly? Did he have sex with a girl and then call her a whore? Did he rape someone? This model of male as sexual aggressor working to overcome females’ sexual limits is a recipe for disaster. And some men’s sexual pasts are indeed rather disastrous.

One fundamental question that men need to ask themselves is whether in their sexual past they did things were not okay. That were not respectful of women. And then they need to think about how to talk about these issues to their daughters so that these young women might have a different experience of teenage sexuality. One that is respectful, unhurried, and (in a heterosexual context) fun for the girl as well as for the boy!

Avoiding “the talk.” One issue the researchers talk about is not limiting discussions of sex and sexuality to “the talk” – typically a one time (and extremely uncomfortable) discussion about sex that provides a whole lot of information all at one time, and typically ends with: “Is there anything else you would like to know?”

Curiosity and interest in sexuality is an ongoing (and for many, a life-long) exploration. So is there anything else our daughters would like to know? Undoubtedly. And those questions will probably emerge at different times. So the key here is to maintain a context that welcomes discussions of sexuality as the questions emerge. There is no one-time discussion about sex that can possibly even begin to answer all the questions that can emerge. Sometimes we don’t even know what those questions are before they arise!

So rather than having the awkward, dreaded, one-time “talk,” we need to cultivate relationships with our daughters that can include discussions about sexuality, just as they can include discussions about school, about friends, about politics, and about life decisions. We need to treat sexuality as if it were an integral part of human existence.

Because it is.

Be appropriate. And a final word about being appropriate. It should go without saying that our discussions with our daughters about sexuality need to be appropriate. It should go without saying, but we live in sexually confused society. A society that has difficulty seeing sexuality as an inherent part of human life. As just one facet of our existence. It is a wonderful part of human existence, but it is just one part. And we have great difficulty understanding that fact when it comes to girls and women. A woman’s sexuality is a part of who she is – not to be denied, but also not to be seen as overwhelming all other aspects of her humanity, either.

And we also live in a world patriarchal context where men feel entitled to lay claim over women’s sexuality – whether this be our partners, our sisters, or our daughters. But the reality is that women’s sexuality exists apart from us men. It is not ours to lay claim to nor to insert ourselves into. There are appropriate people with whom to have sexual interests and interactions. And there are people with whom this is not appropriate.

And our daughters are out of bounds. Totally. And if you can’t manage to have a discussion with your daughter about sex without it igniting some inappropriate interest in you, then you are not someone who should be talking about these issues with her. If you can’t be appropriate, then she is far, far better off not getting any information from you. Because the last thing that these conversations between fathers and daughters about sexuality need to be is creepy!

Eyes on the prize. If you are a man who is raising a daughter/stepdaughter, know that you have an immense influence upon her. And you will have a great influence on how she is able to negotiate sexuality. Either through your actions or through your inaction. As our daughters grow into amazing young women, we want the best for them. We want them to have wonderful lives. Lives that are full of options. Lives that are full of meaning. We want them to be healthy.

We want them to experience great joy.

All of this is just as true when it comes to sexuality as well. And The research shows that we clearly need to help them get there.

Now, time to start thinking about scheduling that dentist appointment…