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.
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.
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.