My daughter is getting to the age where men are starting to look at her on the street. The age when she’ll have to evade leers or comments as she walks to school on her own for the first time. The age when I need to thread a careful needle in teaching her how to protect herself without instilling too much fear.
She is 10.
When her babysitter asked how she should deal with people on the street who catcall, I thought she was talking about herself—but she meant Layla, who still sleeps with a family of teddy bears.
When she was eight or nine, we were on the subway and I felt certain that the man standing near us was angling his phone in a way to capture a picture of her. I couldn’t be sure, of course. But I was worried enough that I repositioned myself to stand in between him and Layla.
If I could, I’d stand there forever—putting my body in between her and what I know is coming.
My husband worries that I’m bringing too much of my work home with me; that after a decade of writing about the daily indignities and danger of being a woman, it’s difficult for me to see the world through any other lens. But I don’t think writing about feminism is driving my fear as much as having grown up female is.
That said, he’s right to be concerned—I don’t want to make our daughter overly-fearful, and I feel conflicted about giving her the impression that harassment or assault is inevitable. On one hand, believing that something bad happening to you is just a matter of time is a terrible way to live. On the other, not being prepared for it might be worse.
Because it’s not that I’m so afraid of the worst happening, the obvious violations—though those thoughts are there, too, rotting in the back of my brain. The fears that keep me up at night, literally, have to do with the everyday discomfort, the slow whittling away of your sense of safety and self. (An erosion that often starts at our most vulnerable age.)
I watched a TikTok last night of a young girl—a teenager I believe—who just happened to have her video camera on when a strange man approached her in a hotel courtyard. He asked if she was using the chair next to her and she said ‘no’, thinking he was going to take it. Instead he sat down.
You could see her breath quickening, the slow spread of red moving across her chest and cheeks as he asked seemingly innocuous questions that women know are anything but: What’s your name? Are you alone? You seem nervous, what are you worried about? It was only when the girl thought up a quick lie, saying she was on an Instagram live and motioned to her phone, that he left. Her hands were shaking.
It’s those interactions, the ones that leave you with a racing heart and heavy feet, that stuck with me most when I was a girl. You’re taught what to do if someone grabs or touches you, but not how to exit a conversation with a grown man whose smirk tells you he’s glad that you’re uncomfortable.
Those are the moments that put you in your place, reminding you that even in public you’re not really safe—that there is no such thing as just sitting and enjoying yourself. That some men will see your mere existence as an opportunity.
I’m open to the criticism that I’m overdoing it; that telling my daughter to expect moments like this is a mistake, a message that will unfairly color the way she sees the world. But here’s the thing: She’s already being taught how to interact with sexism, and I’m pretty sure my lessons are better.*
No matter what I tell Layla, she will learn how to deal with the strange man who sits next to her, or the classmate who makes a sexist jab. She’ll figure out what she wants to do in that moment, and what she’s capable of. There’s no alternative. There’s only so long I can reposition myself to stand between her and the world.
Still, I’m furious. Because I know that the cumulative effect of all of this, the daily bullshit, is weighty beyond measure.
I don’t want Layla to be afraid. I don’t want her to be untrusting. But I also never want her to have that churning pit of uncertainty in her stomach. I want her to trust herself. Most of all, I want her to know what trusting herself feels like—because for a lot of us, it took a lifetime to learn.
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The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker - is a book all about how fear is CRITICAL for our survival. (Our = human) HIGHLY ENCOURAGE everyone to read it (I realize I am wicked late to this thread).
The tl;dr of both de Becker and anything I will say is this: Fear is good. It is okay to make your daughter feel afraid. Fear motivates a response and gets us humans out of dangerous situations.
Anxiety - worrying about things that have not yet happened, may never happen - and feeling helpless while doing so? That one serves no purpose.
Fear, though: going through dangerous scenarios (even unlikely ones!) and thinking through them, finding 3 or 4 safe(r) ways to navigate the situation (ESPECIALLY in conversation with someone else)? That builds strong neural pathways that may help us get out of a similar dangerous situation later on.
If you read de Becker and like him, and want advanced reading on self defense, Rory Miller is amazing. Meditations on Violence is an excellent starting book. Miller also has a blog and teaches actively still, and my experience with the few times I've reached out to him is that he may take a little while, but if you have a question he hasn't answered in his book(s) / blog already, he'll actually write back (or call) himself to work through something with you. He's a good guy.
As the mother of three nearly-grown daughters, I have experienced either myself or with one of my daughters everything discussed here and worse. I second the recommendations for martial arts. Additionally, don't be afraid to restrict or entirely cut off social media. Your daughter will complain that everyone else is doing it but it's no different than with your other family rules around things like teen drinking or bedtimes. The answer is that other families have their own rules but you're in this family and these are our rules. Definitely monitor their social and other media and social communication generally! Also, teach them from an early age to be critical media consumers. Point out the way that advertisers are trying to manipulate them, discuss how this or that show or photo is objectifying women. If you talk about it until they cut you off with, "We know, Mom!" then you have said it enough and they will have internalized it. Also, definitely get fathers or other men in their lives involved to tell them the ugly truth about what many teenaged boys think and feel. Confront mothers of boys who want to excuse unacceptable behavior by their sons. This is needed so much more!! Mothers of sons and teachers of boys need to do so much better! Can't tell you how many mothers think "My son is a good kid, he would never do that." Teachers will even excuse boys on those grounds. They have to be made to witness the little things like bra snapping that will only escalate. It's all part of a spectrum of bullying that changes to harassment and assault as the bullies age. Also, if it's an option, all-girls schools can be empowering, although not all are created equal; some perpetuate the misogyny of the institutions that sponsor them. Also, never stop pushing back on the men who think it's on the girls and women to manage their emotions better in the face of unequal treatment/opportunity or harassment or worse. No, it's on the boys to do better and be anti-misogynistic, not on the girls to be less bothered. Teach your daughter to say "No" or even, "That's a hard pass" without guilt or worry about the other person's feelings. Model within your family that no means no even about little things. So often the family dynamic is where girls learn by watching their mother that they have to always be nice and defer to the other person's needs instead of honoring their own feelings, including their anger. Keep teaching your daughter and others the difference between a personal psychological problem and a sociological problem. Ask, "Is that a you problem or a they problem?" Keep helping women and girls to use their anger to get into good trouble. But also, sadly, the world will always contain bad people - monsters are real - and we need to know how to recognize them and be prepared to flee or fight instead of freezing. It's so hard raising girls but you can't doubt yourself or they will learn to doubt themselves. When schools say "you have to trust us" the answer is No. Bye. Trust your child and yourself. Schools will try to gaslight her and you can't side with the school against your kid. They have to know you are always on their side but also, even more, you are always on the side of truth. Keep fighting for your daughter and all women!