Loving Your Daughter Doesn’t Make You a Pedophile

Hugo Schwyzer wants fathers to stand up and show their daughters that they’re not afraid of our unhealthy culture of suspicion.

For Father’s Day, I wrote an essay called “Hug Your Daughters,” in which I implored dads to be courageous (and, of course, appropriate) in showing physical affection to their teen girls. So many fathers are bewildered and frightened by the physical and emotional changes their daughters go through in adolescence. Unsure how to engage, many dads simply withdraw.

As psychotherapist Kerry Cohen points out in Dirty Little Secrets, her important new study of teen girls and promiscuity, there is no direct correlation between a father’s level of affection and his daughter’s sexual choices. The old warning to Dads that if they aren’t there for their daughters, another guy will be simply isn’t supported by the evidence. But plenty of studies do show that fathers—and close father figures, like stepdads, uncles, even teachers and coaches—play an essential role in young women’s healthy emotional development.

When I wrote the original piece, I heard from many male readers complaining that they’d love to be more affectionate with their own daughters, but that the climate of suspicion in which we all live makes it impossible. A reader named “Lance”  wrote in an email: “Hug my daughter? Are you kidding me? If my ex saw that, she’d have me arrested for molestation. Smart men don’t touch girls under 18, including their own daughters. Ever. It’s the only way to be safe.”  Though Lance’s reaction was extreme, similar comments appeared below the original piece.

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It’s difficult to distinguish what’s legitimate fear of being labeled a “predator” and what’s just misogynistic hyperbole. Men’s Rights Activists like to paint a vivid picture of a feminist-influenced legal system run amok, one in which sweet and innocent fathers get clapped into handcuffs for hugging their own children. The data doesn’t support their colorful claims. But at the same time, there’s no question that we live in a culture in which fathers—and father figures, who are often so vitally important in the lives of young women who grow up without biological dads—are viewed with suspicion when it comes to their interest in teen girls. Some of that suspicion is justified by the sad reality that a great many men do molest young children, particularly girls. But because of the reality that so many men are indeed sexually predatory, the shadow of mistrust falls on all of us.

Our daughters and daughter figures can’t be allowed to become collateral damage in the fight against the universal taint of suspicion that rests on virtually all adult men. We have to be more courageous than the culture just as we must be safer than the suspicious suspect we are capable of being. Young women and men—but perhaps particularly young women—need adult males in their lives who will love them both fearlessly and non-sexually. A climate of unreasonable suspicion will only end when men have the guts to live out stories that counter the dominant narrative that says we’re untrustworthy, dangerous, creepy.

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This doesn’t mean foisting unwanted attention or affection on young people. An unwanted hug does at least as much damage as a hug that is craved but never given. Part of being a good father (or someone who works as a father figure, like a youth minister or coach) is learning to read cues, respect boundaries, and engage with young people on their own terms. Physical affection, after all, is a way of manifesting something that already exists on a mutual emotional level. It’s how we express what already is, not how we create what isn’t yet.

But this problem goes way beyond issues of physical affection.   As Kerry Cohen writes:

Many fathers also make the mistake of stepping away from their daughters because their daughters pull away from them first or because they don’t understand who this angry, easily hurt girl is.  For many fathers—my own included—girls are overwhelming creatures, so different from boys. Many fathers don’t know how to handle them.

Just as so many men (often deliberately) misread a young woman’s façade of sexual sophistication, many more are intimidated by the sullen displays of exasperation that are so common among girls in their early-to-mid teens. Teen girls can seem like such a different species—even to their fathers—that many dads find it easier to withdraw. “Everything I do annoys my daughter”, one guy told me recently, “it’s just easier to give her the space she seems to want.” But just as a miniskirt on a 15-year-old isn’t a sexual invitation, neither are her angry assertions of independence proof that she doesn’t need and want her father—or, perhaps, another safe and reliable older man—to be active in her life. Cohen:

Dads… must find ways to push past the discomfort and the awkwardness. Daughters need their fathers. They need every possible person who might love them—who might care about how they feel or might care what happens to them—to show them that they do.

One of the greatest fears with which we raise young women is that they are “too much” for the men in their lives. Over and over again, teen girls are told that they are too demanding, too idealistic, too sexual, too ambitious, too hungry, too loud. In countless ways, well-meaning adults push girls to lower their expectations, to disguise how deeply they feel and how badly they want. In particular, they’re told that too much candor and raw emotion will scare off men—all of whom are supposedly all too easily intimidated by strong female emotion.

Young women need fathers and father figures with the courage and the discernment to engage with them, to mentor them, to love them. Our daughters need men strong enough to stand up to what is often an unhealthy culture of suspicion, and they need safe adult men who aren’t intimidated by the intensity of their emotions and their wants. That’s neither too much to expect, nor too much for which to ask.

—Photo pasukaru76/Flickr

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. “Everything I do annoys my daughter”, one guy told me recently, “it’s just easier to give her the space she seems to want.” But just as a miniskirt on a 15-year-old isn’t a sexual invitation, neither are her angry assertions of independence proof that she doesn’t need and want her father—or, perhaps, another safe and reliable older man—to be active in her life.

    I’m not female, but I can assure you when I was a teenager and pushed my parents away, I geniunely felt suffocated and wanted my space and my privacy. I did not want my parents to disregard my agency and voice by insisting that they know better than I do in some kind of forced closeness.

    • A.Y., note that I say: “This doesn’t mean foisting unwanted attention or affection on young people. An unwanted hug does at least as much damage as a hug that is craved but never given.”

      But there’s a lot of interesting follow-up research with teens that suggests that while they do want their parents at a distance, they also want their parents to pursue them, to make an effort even if that effort is likely to be rebuffed. Such are the contradictions of teens.

  2. I know we had this discussion before, but I’m still wondering why this discussion is relegated to fathers and daughters. I’d argue that perhaps the only thing that garners more suspicion than a father being affectionate with his daughter, is a father being affectionate with his son!

    Also, I disagree about the forced hugs. My son is 3 and I give him a hug every single time I leave him. And that’s going to be the case when he’s 10, 18 and 35. My parents—even when I was a dickhead teenager who wanted nothing to do with them—gave me a hug and told me they loved me everyday. Embarrassing at times? Sure. Appreciated now that I’m older? Absolutely.

    • Brian @STRONGFathersME says:

      ” I’d argue that perhaps the only thing that garners more suspicion than a father being affectionate with his daughter, is a father being affectionate with his son!”
      Tru dat. But,I don’t think that this topic necesarily needs to be split down gender lines, but each of these is big enough for it’s own space. See ya on the twitter.

  3. I read that last paragraph twice. Amen.

  4. Would it be possible to change the title of this entry to something that is less sensationalistic? Pedophile is not even the proper term….

  5. Thank you soo much for this article. You just have to see a culture of young women and men who are raised without affection. Look at their behaviors. My philosophy as a parent is you can’t never love and hug your child enough and filling my childrens well of love. I have a 19year old daughter and yes I don’t embarrass her infront of her friends. So I do give passing hugs and tell her she is loved. Her father tells her he loves her everyday. No he doesn’t over do it.. he just does it. Her smile is worth it. Father is the most important man in a daughters life. She has a father who is affectionate with her. I believe girls who have fathers who are affectionate will attract affectionate men also.

    Yes we all would agree that molestation is prevalent. Though lets focus on all the good loving fathers out there. Hug your daughters! Love your daughters and kiss their foreheads!! Because if you don’t… there are plenty of men out there who love to prey on women who are searching for love and affection. Thank you again for tackling such a topic.

    • The Bad Man says:

      Let’s not misrepresent pedophila. There are also female pedophiles who love to prey on young men and women, but pedophiles are certainly not as widespread as the politicized moral panic would have us believe.

      • Actually pedophila has grown. With the internet came the good and the bad. Pedophilic porn is a several billion dollar business, It’s really insane.

        • Evidence?

        • This is a baseless claim. Come on.

          • I can post more evidence if you need it.

            It’s not pretty but along with regular porn, child porn has grown as well. The internet has become a breeding ground for some very ugly things.

            h ttp://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/NewsEventServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=2064

            h ttp://www.rogerdarlington.me.uk/sexonnet.html

  6. Brian @STRONGFathersME says:

    Hugo,
    Thought I’d share something I have learned working with dads for the last few years – This reluctance to be seen as a pervert, pedophile, skinner, etc impacts many dads well before their daughters enter the tween/teen years. I’ve worked with dads who have expressed discomfort changing their daughter’s diapers becasue “you have to make sure their . . . ya know. . . their. . . um”
    “Vagina”
    “Ya, their vagina is clean.”
    The messages that men are sexually dangerous have been so internalized in some men that they struggle to believe that even doing the right and parental thing is out of bounds. These guys are not sexually aroused by their kids, they are not looking for excuses, nor do they need to MAN up and do it, they need a space to unlearn the messages that men are so bad they can’t even trust themselves.

    I realize you were writing about a different part of a dad’s journey, but it made me think of these conversations that i have had. You are right on, thanks for writing this, we need to believe in the power of a father’s nurturing touch – for girls and boys of all ages, because somtimes you really do just need a hug, but if their friends are around a fist bump is good too.

  7. The premise of this article is wrong.  A lack of affection is not the problem.

    The problem is not that fathers aren’t affectionate with their kids; where that is true, that merely a symptom of a much larger problem.  

    The problem is that too many  families are in disrepair, with the patents divorced from each other, were never married, are estranged, or otherwise have a bad relationships.  It is this reality that sadly causes physical separation and relationship strain and problems between fathers (especially) and their sons and daughters.

    To state the obvious, when there is a warm and close relationship, as there should be, lack of affection is not an issue.

    Treat the problem, not the symptom.

  8. While I like the fact you are trying to talk about this I think you are a bit to quick to put responsiblity the lack of connection between fathers and daughters (but this goes for all children as well) all on the fathers as if there is no stigma of fathers only wanting to be close to their children for the sake of trying to hurt them. I mean it would be nice if it all really was the figment of MRAs imaginations as you like to try to minimize it the majority of the stigma to.

  9. Eric:

    You seem to blatantly discount the fact that divorce can often be a much better alternative than two people staying together who aren’t happy. There are many, many children of divorce out there who are well-adjusted, happy people. Staying together just because you share a child and nothing else is no solution at all.

    • Daddy Files, I have done no such thing. Nowhere did I say that all children of divorced parents aren’t happy. However, the thinking that kids are better or off after divorce is not supported by evidence.

      Regardless, my point is that people should do what they promised to do, have an intact family. Does that require work? Yes. Does that require that each spouse put the interests of the other ahead of their own? Yes. Does that require a determination to keep their marriage intact and not give up? Yes. Those are the basic things that you agree to do. All I’m saying is that if people do what they say, their marriages are far more likely to last, which is best for children.

  10. GirlGlad4theGMP says:

    I agree with showing love in physical and non-physical ways to your kids to keep them close. Two examples:

    1. My extended family. I was visiting with them recently and noticed that on my injured uncle, in his favourite seat, sat his son in his lap (his sone is nine), and his teen daughters in the seats flanking his. He makes a point of hugging them and gently inquring after them all the time. They are all happy, affectionate, well-adjusted children who seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong, are openly accepting of all family, and love their parents a whole lot.

    2. My dad. Around my 13th year, he underwent an emergency triple bypass and long, painful recovery, and was never the same. Having his ribcage being split open, and then having been plagued with multiple heart problems and surgeries for the next 17 years of his life until his passing, made physical contact (for worry of an errant hand or too-hard hug) difficult at best. But this was the man who pushed food off his plate after working 18 hour days if I was still hungry. This was the man who called me at 6:00 pm sharp every day when I went away to school and sent me a crate of tropical fruit when I stated in passing how expensive fruit was in that northern community. This was the man that left wacky messages on my phone in the middle of the workday to make me laugh when he knew I was stressed out. No matter how old I was, he was always there for me.
    But in his affection he allowed me to see him as more than a father. He let me in as a friend. He would consult on a range of issues and topics, showing me he respected my opinion. He dropped the guise of all-knowing protector and told me of his hopes and fears, of his greatest joys and heartaches, showing me he trusted me with his emotions. He told me things about his life which nobody else knew, our own little world where I saw how divinely human he was (I should point out that my father was a charismatic but principled, super-educated man from a large and very patriarchal family).

    And in both sets of actions, he showed me that, as his child and as a person, I was loved and certainly worthy of respect and affection. I’m a better person for his brand of love.

    So while I agree that men shouldn’t be afraid to be physically affectionate with their kids, know that it isn’t the only route for the development of healthy, secure and generally good children.

  11. The “unhealthy culture of suspicion” was established by feminists and men like yourself.

    It would be funny if your daughter falsely accused you of sexual abuse some day. Actually, it’s hard not to laugh at this thought. You would be able to taste your own medicine.

    • The unhealthy culture of suspicion was not established by feminists. It was established by patriarchy. Feminists courageously spoke truth to power on this issue.

      As a feminist, I was very happy with Hugo’s article and strongly doubt that his daughter will ever accuse him of sexual abuse.

      • They didn’t establish it, true, but show me where they “spoke truth to power.” You’re giving feminists too much credit here.

      • The Bad Man says:

        Actually, feminists don’t speak the truth when it comes to statistics and women’s abuse of children. Here is a critique of feminist researchers by Dr. Don Dutton:

        Journal of Child Custody 2006 , 3 (1)

        “Apart from IPV directed to a partner, feminist theory also ignores violence by women directed at children, probably because such violence falls outside the political view of being a response to an oppressor male”

        “Biological mothers (compared to biological fathers) are the more likely substantiated perpetrator of physical abuse (47 vs 42%), neglect (86 vs 33%), emotional maltreatment (61 vs 55%) and multiple categories (66 vs 36%). The biological father is the most likely perpetrator of sexual abuse (15 vs 5%). For physical abuse the substantiation rate was 6% higher for fathers, bringing the total perpetration rates to equality”

        “These data, based on a huge nationally representative sample, tell a very different picture than that presented by Jaffe et al, Bancroft et al, or Johnson, all of whom over rely on shelter samples to draw erroneous conclusions about risk to children.”

        “Subjective “engaging in discussion” with an evaluator, who is already primed to disbelieve the male respondent, is the very type of situation that forensic assessment has sought to eliminate.” “more extensive analyses of violence also dispute the claim that women are substantially more injured or that male violence is more severe or chronic.” “This pattern throughout the literature linking domestic violence and custody assessment is a misleading mindset to provide to evaluators who must enter into a custody evaluation from a neutral perspective and without preconceptions. The problem with both writers is their focus on males as batterers. This becomes problematic in a custody assessment where a mindset or paradigm drawn from working exclusively with battered women victims (Jaffe et al., 2003) or male perpetrators (Bancroft & Silverman, 2002) is now applied to a broader population where, despite Jaffe’s attempts to dismiss it, female abuse is a reality and either can be detrimental to the best interests of the child.”

      • The Bad Man says:

        Feminists also don’t advocate for male victims of sexual abuse, their solemn silence is a very serious problem.

        The Ultimate Taboo: Child Sexual abuse by women
        The Sexual Abuse by Women of Children and Teenagers
        UK TV – Panorama – BBC1 – 10 pm Monday, October 6th, 1997

        The biggest trauma for some victims is disbelief. A survey of 127 survivors by the children’s charity Kidscape showed 86% were not believed at first when they named a woman as their abuser.

  12. As a male former preschool assistant teacher, I can assure you that the “guilty-until-proven-innocent” mentality towards male teachers is alive and well. I am much more mindful of my behavior around children than I was before I taught.

  13. Hugo, this is a truly terrific piece. One of my most favorites of yours. I’m honored that you have real knowledge about women and their experiences. This is particularly expressed in the last two paragraphs you wrote. It’s articulated in ways that just show your crystal clear masculine understanding about women in ways that go unnoticed.

    Just a few points for me that were really stand out.

    Hugo: “But plenty of studies do show that fathers—and close father figures, like stepdads, uncles, even teachers and coaches—play an essential role in young women’s healthy emotional development.”

    Yes! Young women need men in their lives, not just father’s or even only family members, that treat them with interest and respect in a non-sexual way. This is so important and I think it’s something that is lacking for many young women. A man has a great influence over a young girls or woman’s life. He teaches her how to relate to men.

    Hugo: “Just as so many men (often deliberately) misread a young woman’s façade of sexual sophistication, many more are intimidated by the sullen displays of exasperation that are so common among girls in their early-to-mid teens. Teen girls can seem like such a different species—even to their fathers—that many dads find it easier to withdraw. “Everything I do annoys my daughter”, one guy told me recently, “it’s just easier to give her the space she seems to want.” But just as a miniskirt on a 15-year-old isn’t a sexual invitation, neither are her angry assertions of independence proof that she doesn’t need and want her father—or, perhaps, another safe and reliable older man—to be active in her life.”

    It is so very important for father’s to express physical affection to their daughters. In some stages of a daughter’s life, she might push you away, but when she grows up, she’ll appreciate knowing she was loved. My father wasn’t a very physically demonstrative guy. I knew he loved me but I didn’t know how to approach him when I wanted a hug from him. And I use to envy other girls that had easy affection with their fathers. Kids don’t always appreciate things they have when they are younger. But when they grow up, they are more easily able to see what their parents have done for them. It was true for me with both my parents. When they wouldn’t let me go to a party, sure I was mad at the time. But now that I am older, I love that my parents did that stuff for me.

  14. I have a very clear memory from high school: I was talking with my male teacher and I was upset about something – I don’t remember what, it wasn’t about the class – and I started to cry a little and he gave me a hug and I felt better. I wish I could go back and tell him how much I appreciate that, it was exactly what I needed and I know he was taking a risk; if someone had seen him, they probably could have gotten him in trouble.

    So thank you for this article!

  15. Brian @STRONGFathersME says:

    Erin & Gillian, thanks for pulling the conversation out of the weeds.

    I try to live in the present and not imagine my daughters grown up, but I hope that we can continue to hug, kiss and connect through healthy touch forever. One thing my dad did for me was to be pysically affectionate, I appreciate that, and am a stronger man for it. I hug the men who are important in my life, cause there really is nothing to let you know that you are metaphorically held than being actually held.

    • That’s awesome Brian. I’m glad you have such an easy relationship with healthy touching. My guess is that both men and women struggle with this because we’ve overly currupted ourselves a bit as a society. It’s like how you can’t take pictures of your children naked now without someone thinking it has an evil intention. There are lots of pictures of me and my brother butt naked!

      And you reminded me to give some props to my Poppop and Uncle PJ (who is a family friend). While my Dad struggled with displaying affection, my Poppop gives the best bear hugs. As does my Uncle PJ. They just wrap you all up in their arms and give you a hearty hug and it’s wonderful.

  16. Marcia Garcia says:

    When I got my first bra, my dad told me it looked nice, and I was totally weirded out. I come from a pretty not-huggy family (I am especially so, but I’m trying to learn), so that was about as far as dad and growing daughter awkwardness went.

  17. Wow. I’m just floored by all of this. I was raised in a family where hugging and kissing (yes, even a peck on the lips) was completely normal between all of us! Never did I once feel uncomfortable, neither did my siblings, and never was I molested. If some idiot tried to tell me different, saying that my father (I am a male) giving me a peck on the lips was wrong and I was molested, I would want to punch them in the nose lol.
    This whole pedo-paranoid culture is ridiculous. Personally, I think that any parent who feels uncomfortable doing completely normal things like hugging or kissing their Children, or changing their baby girls diaper, must be afraid of their own sexuality to some extent. Fu$&ing ridiculous.
    Anybody who feels like their is something wrong with sharing mutually enjoyed physical affection with their family members has a serious problem. I have 3 children, all of whom I will hug and kiss until they are old and grey, and if anybody feels that is wrong then they had better take some serious time to think about what exactly it is that makes them feel that way.
    The other day, I took my 9 year old daughter out shopping at Wal-Mart, and the amount of people who looked at me like I was some sick freak who must have kidnapped a little girl, rather than a father who was enjoying some quality time with his Child, was deeply disturbing to me. But, I did NOT let that stop me from showing her affection, even in public!
    We have the closest family in the world, we sing and dance together, we all tell each other everything! No secrets whatsoever, and we all know that we owe it to the fact that we are not afraid to show each other Love unconditionally.

    The Lot of you who find something ‘risky’ or wrong about that, need to give your heads a shake and grow the fu** up. YOU are a bigger part of the problem than you think…

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