Warning: this is going to be one of those rare posts where I talk mainly about one biological sex and use gendered pronouns. I’m not trying to be unfair, but it’s important in this context, and I won’t let anyone tell me it isn’t.
Recently, there was a thread on AskReddit (and when I say “recently”, I mean “before I deleted my Reddit account”) where a new father of a healthy baby girl was asking people to give him their best pieces of advice for raising a daughter. Most of the answers were things you’d pretty much expect (take an interest in her activities, don’t treat her like a pariah when she hits puberty, let her know when you’re proud of her), but one in particular grabbed me and would not let go. I wish I’d saved that answer, just so I could properly credit the author, but unfortunately I’ve been unable to find it since.
I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but the gist was this: always, always teach and respect her right to bodily autonomy.
As a child raised without this right – as so many other children are, especially female children – I cannot find enough ways to emphasize how entirely correct that person is. Female children are taught to be cuddly, and sweet, and physically affectionate. While a male child refusing physical contact (be it with a parent or a stranger) is considered part of the “boys will be boys/we don’t need to coddle him” mentality, a girl who refuses physical contact is labeled as a spoiled brat. So while a little boy can get by with a smile and a greeting, a little girl will get the constant barrage of “go sit on Grandma’s lap!” or “give Mr. X a hug before we leave!” or “go give Uncle Y a kiss and bat your eyelashes and ask really nicely if he’ll come to the movies with us tonight!”.
And, if your family is anything like mine, god help you if you refuse.
There will be apologies given to the person who the child was supposed to be showing physical affection to (“I’m so sorry, she isn’t usually like this!”), there will be scolding to the child (“Why are you being such a little shit?”/”You’re so rude!”/”Stop being shy!”), there will be blaming in and among the family, (“Why do you let her do that?”/”Who taught her to act like that?”). From the earliest parts of their childhood, girls are shamed and punished if they try to decline being touched or shown off. We are taught that they do not have the right to refuse to let others touch or look at us in ways that make us uncomfortable; goddamnit it doesn’t matter if you like that dress, you’re going to wear it. What we wear, how our hair is done, who we do and don’t touch. It all comes down to the same idea: if you try to assert too much control over your own body, you are a Spoiled Brat.
I’m not just talking about getting a hug from old Aunt Gladys. I’m talking about growing up with a grandmother who would regularly pinch my chest, crotch, and butt. I’m talking about being forced to sit on the lap of relatives I’ve never met before for pictures. I’m talking about being hit with a hairbrush because I cried and begged not to wear the sheer, itchy, lacy nightgown my mother bought for me.
So you’ve taught your daughter that she does not have the right to police her own body. You teach her that she is defective if she is not physically affectionate, and if she does not acquiesce to demands for said affection with a polite smile. You want her to be your goddamn sunshine, all sweet and cuddly and incapable of saying no – because you’ve taught her so well that a “no” from her means nothing, especially to people close to her.
Sure, maybe you tried to be fair and taught her all about Stranger Danger, and how if some big bad scary man in a balaclava runs up and grabs her she should scream and run and say no and tell mommy and daddy. And that’s all very well and good, except for the fact that if someone does decide to hurt your little girl in that way (and, statistically someone will), it will most likely not be that friendly scapegoat figure of a big scary brute in a ski mask with a white van. More likely, it will be that uncle who you allow to bathe her even though she at five years old knows she doesn’t like it, or the babysitter whose lap you insists she sit on, or the church friends’ son who you always insist is So Nice And Really Why Don’t You Spend More Time With Him Instead Of Those Friends You’re Always With.
In other words, it will more likely be one of those people who, you’ve taught her, is not a person you’re allowed to say no to.
You cannot teach your daughter that her body is not first and foremost her property, then expect her to be able to say no when the time comes – to say no, and mean it, and say it again, and scream it if need be when the pressure hits. I’m not just talking about rape. I’m talking about every boyfriend or girlfriend, every relationship, every time she meets someone at a party. I’m talking about every time someone will want something from her that is, ultimately, her choice to agree to or refuse. You cannot obliterate her sense that someone asking her to do things she’s uncomfortable with is wrong if you ever want her to be able to have a healthy sexual or romantic relationship, feel confident in her own decisions, or learn that it’s not her goddamn fault if someone does things to her against her wishes.
Stop with all this bullshit about telling kids that sex or sexuality is wrong, or disgusting, or “for older people”. You cannot fight shaming with shaming and punishment with punishment. You can’t raise a generation of women on the principles that a) being intimately involved is wrong, but b) refusing demands for physical affection is also wrong. Try teaching your young daughters that they are in control of their own bodies, that sex is a good thing when it’s consensual and you feel ready for it, that nobody – family, friend, stranger – has the right to touch them in any way that makes them uncomfortable or exploit them for their looks or encourage sexual precociousness as some sort of party trick.
I guarantee that’ll get you one hell of a lot farther.