Rules for dating my daughter

Some time ago this t-shirt made the rounds of Facebook and Twitter, and met with general approval from the wild-eyed feminists I tend to hang out with:

feminist dad t-shirt















I certainly approved of it as an antidote to some other much more macho versions I’ve seen, like this one:

rules for dating my daughter -- macho version

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest


Talk about being hostile and possessive. (Though I totally agree with the doorbell thing.) It all seems to amount to this, really:

Rules for dating my daughter you can't

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest
















And that’s just about as patriarchal as it gets. Also, I’m the mother of a teenage son, and I don’t really appreciate these sentiments being directed at him. It’s as if these guys were all such sleazes in their own dating days that they expect the worst from every other young man.

Not that I’m going to suggest typical young men — and quite a few older men — are not highly, highly motivated to get some.

Which is, of course why there are risks out here for young women who are dating (or just trying to get a meeting with Bill Cosby). And my novel The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire demonstrates at least one of those risks fairly dramatically.

But how many people would really be willing to apply “She makes the rules. Her body, her rules” to their own teenage daughters?

The heroine’s arguably wacko feminist mother in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire DOES hold this philosophy and actually puts it into practice at a key moment …. and plenty of women I consider feminists react to that moment by saying “WHAT? She said WHAT?”

Not without reason. The 17-year-old may be legally of age (in Massachusetts) and unusually mature, but she’s recently survived a harrowing ordeal. And the fellow she wants to make her own rules with is a much older man who is messed up in his own way, though I don’t consider him a predator.

And perhaps it’s easy for me to try to support the idea that SHE makes the rules, because I don’t have a biological daughter, and my stepdaughter is now safely grown up (though we had plenty of nail-biting moments), and I myself avoided most of the dangers of immature sexual experimentation by being a total nerd for a long, long time.

But I was a daughter. And while my childhood was thankfully not much like Molly’s, I do remember how I felt about being protected from my own opportunities to grow up: I resented it.

My old Clearwater High School friend Gayle recently posted on Facebook about how I had a “purity of purpose” in high school, whereas she was obsessed with boys. The reality was that I just kept my obsessions quieter. Yes, I campaigned for Jimmy Carter at age sixteen. And yes, I was enthralled by him (a Southern liberal! It was such a refreshing concept!). But a lot of that effort had to do with the fact that I was canvassing with the lovely young Michael Billiris. (He never laid a finger on me, I’m sad to say, though I’m not sure I would have had the slightest idea what to do if he had.)

When Carter won, Michael and I were of course invited to the local campaign party to celebrate, and that was when my dad said no. My father was a local journalist and he knew what those parties were like — probably not at all a safe place for a naive 16-year-old. Even though I know this now, that “no” still rankles all these decades later. I worked on that campaign, damn it! And Michael Billiris was going to that party!

Maybe Dad saved me from some horrible trauma. But as far as I was concerned, when it came to all that stuff I was always waaaaay behind my peers.

The thing is, learning how to handle sex is part of growing up. For girls as well as boys. There’s fumbling around and figuring out what the deal is, especially since everybody has been trying so hard to keep you from learning it.

There’s learning how to cope with people who want it from you — perhaps especially if you don’t want it with them — or to cope with people who don’t want it with you when you desperately want it with them.

There’s crappy beginner sex, getting-better-with-practice sex, and, hopefully, some really great sex. Maybe you’re lucky and it’s all with the one great love of your life. Most of us aren’t that lucky. (And do people that lucky actually know how lucky they are?)

The thing is, you can’t ever just check sex off your bucket list as something you’ve done. All your life, you’ll be affected by your own and your partner’s (or partners’) libido. You are going to have to cope with the sometimes heartbreaking difference between sex and love, between sex and actual emotional intimacy, between sex and commitment. You may be faced with betrayal or boredom or disability. You may be one of those sad people who compulsively pursue sex even against your own best interest (see Bill Clinton, or Arthur in The Awful Mess).

As parents, we’d love to make sure this area of life always goes well for our kids, along with everything else. Hopefully, we teach our sons and daughters to respect themselves enough that they won’t do things they don’t really want to do just to be accepted. Hopefully, we teach them to respect others enough that they won’t wreak horror on someone just because they can.

And perhaps fortunately, there’s a sort of natural limit after which it becomes creepy to the rest of the world if we don’t let go and let our children make their own decisions about it.

Their bodies. Their rules.

But, oh Lord, please help them get them through it safely.

As I told a reader at the Sand Lake Town Library this weekend, if reading The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire keeps just one young woman (or young man, for that matter) from getting drunk at a party and paying the price for it, it will have been worth everything I put into it.

And if it prevents even one person from judging someone harshly for a youthful misstep in this area, that will make me happy, too.

What about you? When do you think “her body, her rules” kicks in?

12 thoughts on “Rules for dating my daughter

  1. I approve of your analysis. My very generally conservative parents did not interfere in any way with my dating, probably because I was the oldest and they hadn’t thought ahead about making rules about this issue (I think my younger sisters may have had cerfews and whatnot). My dad grumbled quietly to my mom, who stuck up for me doing my thing (I later learned). I appreciate all that. After my sons turned 18, but were still living at home, I was very shocked to open the door one day and find a girlfriend had slept over, in fact I screamed, but then life went on. My husband grumbled to me as if I was going to DO SOMETHING, and I told him I didn’t think there was anything we could do consistent with our own principles. Today all my sons have serious girlfriends and seem to be fine, as are the young women. OH! And another nice antidote about raising your sons with liberal principles (with the emphasis on “principles”), I was shocked once again (in a good way) when I stepped into my oldest son’s college apartment and found he had a poster on his wall about sex that said something like at each step ask, ‘Is this OK?’ “Is this what you want?” How will you know if you don’t ask?”

    • Ha! I haven’t been faced with the sudden-girlfriend-in-the-bedroom scenario yet, but I’m sure I will be. We’ll see how well I can stick to this philosophy. 🙂

  2. Resounding yesses to every single thing in here, except I guess the “don’t get drunk at parties” suggestion. I’m the sort of extreme feminist who favors extra and maybe even extreme punishment for rapists who rape drunk people at parties in place of telling people not to get drunk, lol.

    Sort of like, if you’re the sort of person who waits in bushes and dark alleys to rape someone then I almost feel a but sorry for you, I think you have a hard life, and so I might be willing to only give you a regular prison sentence for raping. But if you’re in college, or at a house “getty” as my nice informs me they are now known, and you rape a drunk friend/acquaintance? I’ll chop your privileged-ass balls off… for a start.

    • Oh, I’m not excusing the guys for taking advantage. But a girl who lets herself get sloshed is definitely putting herself at risk, and she needs to know that. Of course, nothing protects a girl from the drug slipped into her drink, which seems to be de rigeur for a lot of sociopaths these days. What depresses me the most is that so many of them seem to find willing partners in crime.

      • See, I don’t think she should be told not to put herself at risk even if she literally is.

        I grew up in India where riding the bus alone was putting myself at risk and you know what, I got felt up by creeps on buses MANY times. It was horrible. But if I’d ever told my parents this happened, I would be the one paying the price. I would have been told to stop riding the bus and stop putting myself at risk. End of independent commutes for me! That would have been a MORE horrible outcome. To this day when I visit my parents in India they beg me to take someone with me to ride in taxis with. The risk of rape is real, but ohmygod I will die before I let my life be curtailed like that in the name of risk. Especially this kind of asshole-imposed risk.

        Coming from this perspective, I just can’t bring myself to tell a college kid not to get drunk at parties because it’s risky. I’ll probably tell my daughter there is a risk, so she can take precautions or at least be informed, but I’d never cross over to saying “therefore, do not get drunk.” She needs to live, first and foremost, and getting drunk at parties is an integral part of living.

        ….. or so I believe at this moment in my life, safe in the knowledge that my daughter is three years old. Ask me again in 12-15 yrs, lol!

        • It’s terrible to be a young woman in a place where men feel you are fair game just by existing, or just by being out there alone or unveiled, or whatever. I got a tiny taste of it when I was traveling in Europe, and I can’t imagine having to go through my daily life under constant assault like that. I vividly remember how thrilled I was to get back “home” to England, where men kept a polite social distance or could be dissuaded with a hard stare. On the other hand, I also wouldn’t have wanted to lose the experience of traveling alone in Europe. So I understand what you mean. And yes, I’ll be waiting to see what you think when your daughter is 13! 🙂

    • Oh, my mom could be plenty protective, too. She was way ahead of her time in imagining potential kidnappings and other disasters, long before CNN made all of us paranoid.

  3. I think it can be more complicated. I have spoken with adult women who were abused as very young children who still insist that they knew what they wanted. They insist that a 5 or 6 year old could give consent when we know well a child that young does not have the emotional capacity to make that kind of choice. Sometimes people don’t know when boundaries are being crossed if they have never learned about boundaries or how to put them up when necessary.

    It may be a bit blurry with older teenagers and would probably depend on the individual and their capacity for self care and healthy boundaries. When does her body, her rules apply? I would think when she is emotionally healthy and mature enough to make that choice. That time may be different for each person and may depend on each situation.

    • You do have a point about children who’ve never been afforded boundaries, Beth. In fact, sexual acting out and promiscuity is one of the symptoms of a child who has been sexually abused.

      • Yes, it is and some adults cope this way too from the effects of past abuse. I have seen this as well. They have such little respect for themselves and their bodies, it becomes a form of self abuse. It is very sad.