A feminist father recalls raising a baby while in college, and how the Riot Grrl movement changed him.
The other day I found myself exclaiming to my two daughters, sixteen and fourteen, “Don’t have sex until you’re in your twenties, but here are some condoms!” I’m not sure if there is a better example of sending a mixed message.
Let me explain. The other night I discovered my oldest daughter had spent the night with her boyfriend. I have consistently brought up sex with them and their older brother who now lives on his own with a gaggle of twenty-something young men in West Oakland. I have consistently been rebuffed, scoffed at, silenced by their stares, and punctuated with a rolling of the eyes or a sigh of exhaustion. ‘Dad, please … .’
I don’t let it stop me. I know I’m not someone they want to confide in, and I actually cringe, imagining if I was. I want to approach the discussion of their bodies, their rights, and sex in general differently than the terse warning I received from my father to keep my dick in my pants, or the silence around the subject from my mother.
There is nothing wrong with sex; it’s powerful and beautiful and a profound ritual of entering adulthood. Clearly, it’s also something they see all around them, so to pretend they aren’t aware of it and don’t have opportunities to engage in it, would be blatant denial. Parenting by denial is never a good approach to raising children.
However, although I broach the subject any chance I get, we don’t actually talk as directly as I’d like. That’s why I know I need help from other adults in our lives, as well as examples of people or movements reclaiming the body, offering other ways to view sex that empowers young women.
Sadly, there’s not a lot out there for them. Besides a few adult women in their lives that they can turn to, there is almost nothing in mainstream society that speaks to young women about their growth and sexual desires in positive, realistic and honest ways.
So I find myself saying things like, “I don’t think you should have sex until you’re older, however, here are condoms.” But now I also add every chance I get, “and remember … please remember … you can always stop, you can always say no, even after you’re in the car, in the room, out of your clothes, in the bed. No means no. Stop means stop.”
In an attempt to provide those positive examples of body ownership and empowerment, I searched out zines about self-defense, sexual abuse, and positive sexual experiences written by other young women. While doing so, I rediscovered the 90s Riot Grrrl movement with its ferocity, anger, and arrogance.
Fathering made me a feminist. As a young father with a newborn, I was served papers by the county of Santa Barbara to officially notify me that I must “provide” for my child. I was served those papers, while I was rocking him in my arms and cleaning up the house I shared with my girlfriend. The cop stood there, scolding me that I should be out getting a job. At twenty-one, I said nothing back to him, afraid of his power and authority. “Okay,” I said as I shut the door.
But I was fucking angry. My girlfriend and I were both full-time students. We both had part-time jobs. We took turns doing what needed to get done. We switched it up when one of us got tired of, say, balancing the checkbook (or more likely made too many mistakes). We argued and fought, but loved and spent a lot of time focusing on what was important: our son. We sacrificed our autonomy or ability to participate in things other 20 year olds were doing. We were a tight, angry fist of domesticity.
The number of times I was told I couldn’t parent because I was a man was infuriating. I was told I hadn’t dressed him properly, leaving home socks and shoes, or that I knew nothing about his well-being, despite being the one to take him to many doctor’s appointments, or that I would hurt him or drop him, which I sometimes did, but not because I was a man. I was determined to show them all wrong.
I took him a few times to various classes during my first year at University of California- Santa Barbara. I didn’t do this to prove a point about young parents, but because I had no childcare and a number of my teachers made no exceptions about attendance.
I remember having to change him on one teacher’s desk after class, her face full of disdain, her body recoiling. It was one of the most awkward yet proud moments of my life. I didn’t then see the irony in being so unwelcome with a child in that space.
I was becoming more radical in my politics trying to figure out my place in the world, my mixed race heritage, my sense of class, and perhaps most profoundly my definitions of manhood, of fatherhood, of gender. I was parenting a boy who would grow to be a man. What kind of man would he be? What kind of man was I?
After two years in Santa Barbara, we left and headed for the Bay Area. For my last semester in the spring of 1992, I signed up for a feminist studies class. One of my last assignments was to share with the class how the ideas we had addressed might impact our daily lives. For the assignment, I walked in with my son and a diaper bag filled with bottles and food. “This is how,” I said. I got a B.
Another student walked in with a bunch of zines, some 7 inches, and one bad attitude. Riot Grrrl found me and has stayed with me all these years as I meandered through graduate school, as I reexamined gender relations in my own relationships with women, as I became a father to two girls, and as my children have grown up.
I was never a riot grrrl but because of them I was forced to compare closely what I let my son do at ten and what I let my daughters do at the same age. Because of Riot Grrrl, I challenged myself to address sex in positive, open ways; I encouraged my son and my daughters to speak with other adults in their lives if they couldn’t speak to me or their mother. These subjects can be hard to discuss, but I want the courage to do it.
As I have rediscovered Riot Grrrl while looking for things that might help my daughters navigate their world today, I was reminded about their courage to speak up, to risk saying what needed to be said. I know that remaining silent, like Audre Lorde said, is dangerous; it’ll come back and punch you in the mouth from the inside. I now know what she means by that. She means that what matters is communication and taking those risks to share the stories of who we are and what we believe.
I work hard to see my daughters both as young women and as individual people, not limited to their gender, but not disconnected from it. I seek to respect my children’s autonomy and privacy as young people. I am learning to let go of my kids, trust their power and to keep on talking despite feeling uncomfortable. As I do these things, I am learning to listen to them and learning about myself through fathering.
Perhaps none of this is about sex education or being a man in society today or about the 90s. It’s about one person simply learning to see himself and those around him as the complex people they are: full of contradictions, fickle to a fault, sometimes brave, sometimes inspired and trying to live a life worth living. And of course, it’s about trying to hand my daughters condoms.