Her Daddy didn’t tell her, so she learned the hard way. Men are people too, and most of them are good.
Do girls today still grow up wondering what men are really all about? What makes them different? What are we supposed to do with them? What can we expect from them? Do girls today still ponder the mystery that men seem to be, and look to the one man that they trust to help them solve the puzzle?
Maybe not. Maybe with television, movies, and the internet, girls already get it before Daddies get to talk about it.
But for me, most of the messages I got about men came from my father. If I could have a conversation with him, this is what I’d say.
Dad, I know that one reason you hoped, when you found out you were going to be a father again at almost 43, that I was going to be a boy, was because you doubted your ability to keep a daughter safe. And I know that, when I turned out to be curious, strong-willed, prone to midnight rambles, and friends with every animal and person I met, you were terrified that I’d be bitten by a stray dog or raped by a strange man. So I know that all the things you told me about men were meant to keep me safe, but Dad, fear can’t keep me safe. Fear only kept me… afraid.
So here is what I wish you had told me about men.
They’re nice to hug, and hugging doesn’t make you pregnant.
I must have been 11, maybe 12, when my friend went away. We’d known each other since infancy, because my mother babysat him. But as we got older, and went to different schools, I didn’t see him so much. So I know you didn’t know him, and you didn’t have any reason to trust him. But when he broke down that last time I saw him, and said he didn’t WANT to go to California to live with his mom and he wished his parents hadn’t split up and he was scared that it was his fault, and I awkwardly slipped my arm around his shoulders because it seemed like the thing a friend would do — hearing “If you keep acting like that we’re going to have a baby to raise,” as soon as I came in the house, wasn’t helpful.
Because hugs, when a friend is sad, aren’t dangerous or wrong just because the other person is a man (or will be a man if you give him a few years.) They aren’t sexual, they aren’t a come on, and they aren’t the “gateway” to getting pregnant. They’re what we do when words won’t do, they’re what we give when our hands are empty, but our hearts are full. They’re natural, and healing, and sometimes a bear hug from a man you’ve never had sex with, and don’t even want to have sex with, is the most validating, uplifting, and hopeful thing that can happen on any given day.
They like to help you out and make you smile, but not because you’ll owe them something.
I’m glad you drilled it into me that I needed to be self-sufficient. We lived out away from towns or houses, and cell phones were a fantasy only Robert Heinlein and his Navy-yard buddies could imagine. So knowing how to change a tire, set the points, jump start the battery, and clobber someone with a tire iron if I needed to, made me feel a little more confident when I did drive into town on my own.
And when I went away to college, knowing how to troubleshoot simple things around the apartment, or even drive a nail (although you never did admit I could drive it straight) made me feel pretty cocky. But I would have bought into the need to learn to fend for myself without being told that I shouldn’t depend on men to help me because they were only doing it for one reason.
The same for making sure I could pay my own way in the world. I’ve never depended on a man for my livelihood, except for those months before you left this world when I was caring for you, and the month or so after while I looked for work. I’m proud that I can earn my keep, but I’ve learned that men enjoy footing the bill sometimes. They like taking me to nice places, or buying me nice things, and seeing my face light up. And I no longer spoil it for them with my old suspicions of what they’re going to ask for in return. Men like to see me smile, maybe because they love my smile, maybe because they love me, but I’m learning to take that at face value instead of looking to see what’s behind the mask.
“Yes” is the most beautiful word in the world to them, and they won’t think less of you for saying it.
You were raised with “no means yes” and “only bad girls ever say yes to sex.” That had to really suck. For the men and the women. Because it’s confusing, and it’s wrong, and it hurts everyone. You told me if I “wanted it” I was a bad girl, well, you used a different word, but we both know that those are “bad girls.” And you told me that all men wanted it, and that if I teased, or showed too much skin, or made eye contact and smiled, or went out by myself late at night, that I could easily be mistaken for the kind of “bad girl” who really wanted it, who was asking for it, who meant “yes” even when she said “no.”
I wish you’d told me that men get as confused and as hurt over the whole “good girls don’t” baloney as women do. I wish you’d told me how much it means to a man to have a woman he wants and loves say “yes” and mean it.
I wish you’d told me that rape has nothing to do with sex, it has to do with yes and no. Rape is a violation of the right to give or withhold consent, it’s not exclusive to men, and it’s not the only violation of consent that matters. I wish you’d told me that a man’s sexual urges aren’t what causes them to commit rape, that the cause is in their insecurity, their fear, their need to dominate, to control, to hold another person powerless. Because if you’d told me that, we would both have known that isn’t about sex, and it isn’t about gender.
There are a few men you need to be afraid of, but not because they’re men.
Yes, there are men who have done me harm. There are women who have done some major damage too. And I’ve been thrown off a few horses (and a half grown buffalo once, but that was totally my fault.)
I’ve been raped, and I’ve been hit. I’ve been lied to and cheated on. I’ve been discarded and mocked and taken for a ride. But none of that had to do with the gender of the person abusing me, any more than getting thrown off of that dappled blond mare when I was 10 and ending up with a hole in my head and blood all over my collar and Mom almost fainted which Mom just didn’t usually do had to do with the fact that that mare had brown and blond dapples, or the fact that she was a mare.
Yes, there are a few men I need to be afraid of, because of their pain, their conditioning, their belief systems. Just like there are some dogs I don’t reach out to pet, and some puddles I go around because I suspect they might be bottomless wells in disguise.
Men are human.
Yeah. They aren’t angels or devils. They aren’t demons or wild beasts. They aren’t inferior, or superior.
They get scared, they get stupid. They get hurt, they strike out. They walk the same tricky path to trying to be a good person, and happy person, and a person of value whose life means something in the world, as I do.
They have needs and desires — and they have the same choice that I do, to control them or be controlled by them.
They have goals and impossible dreams — and they have the same opportunities as I do, to walk into them or walk away from them.
They have expectations and obligations — and whatever they believe society expects of them because of their gender, they have the same rights that I do, to buy into those beliefs that have been instilled through generations of programming, or to say “no thanks world, I’ll decide for myself how I live, what I do, and who I will become.”
I wish you’d told me these things about men. But you couldn’t. Because you could only tell me what was true for you.
This is my truth, hard learned, and sometimes forgotten, but one I’m so thankful to have discovered.
I only wish you’d lived long enough to share it with me.
Photo: Flickr/Dave Hosford