Well, I don't usually get into regular ol' feminist not-having-to-do-with-female-orgasm things on this blog, but I am making an exception today in order to write about the fantastic article Stop Cheering for the ol' "Hands Off My Daughter!" Shtick by Mary Elizabeth Williams. The reason is two-fold.
One, I think this mindset that the article speaks about is a mindset that we need to eradicate if we are going to achieve Orgasm Equality.
Two, I think that this author was incredibly kind in her criticism, and I think it's important to highlight that kind of activism because I think Orgasm Equality activism will not succeed without it.
So let me go into a bit more detail.
Why this mindset is harmful to our lady-gasms
I would argue that the "hands off my daughter!" protective dad schtick is an early contributor to lady-gasm inhibition, and the Orgasm Equality Movement, as you might expect, is against lady-gasm inhibition. And, I'm not talking about lady-gasm inhibition during the date tonight kind of thing (as in the inhibition of things touching one's daughter's naughty bits on her date - which some may not see as a problem). I'm talking about life-long inhibition of a female's ability to feel sexual desire so she can become aroused and orgasm, like even as a future, happily married mother of 3, and I assume even a protective daddy bear would hope his little girl was orgasming uninhibitedly by that point.
You see, this whole protective dad thing is a reinforcing part of a pretty poisonous situation for girls. In a culture where it is clear that parents DO NOT want teens being sexual with each other, but acknowledges that boys' desire is somewhat uncontrollable and in need of reigning-in, there leaves very little room for girls' desire (well, at least a good girls' desire). It must be this way because if, as a culture, we accepted that girls have as much desire and sex drive as we (and all those protective daddies) believe boys do, then there would be no hope of stopping kids from getting it on. So girls must figure out how they fit into adult (and again, those protective daddies') expectations that they are more sensible and less full of desire than the boys they may encounter sexually. If they comply (or pretend to comply) to the expectation, then they become the gatekeepers. They are the ones to say no if there is to be any 'no' at all. They get burdened with the full weight of sexual decisions in a hetero relationship. If they don't comply, then well, we know what is thought about girls like them.
The repercussion of girls' desire seems incredibly scary in a way it doesn't for boys. Yes, since intercourse is so important to and equated with sexual interaction for the vast majority of people, everyone worries about STDs and babies (although, that hits so much closer to home for girls). However, for girls, being sexual can let their family down and embarrass them in a way boys never fully feel (how deeply sad and disappointed would daddy bear be if he knew his daughter was initiating sex stuff?). Girls also still feel the slut stigma so, so strongly in their social lives. Girls' desire exists, but the repercussions of that desire can feel as though it might ruin their future, their reputation, their personal relationships, and their parents' love and respect. We put girls between a rock and a hard place and tell ourselves it's just the way things are.
Clearly this is a very general view of how differently boys and girls are pressured in this regard. There are complexities and exceptions, and different girls feel and experience this predicament of their desire uniquely. But, here's the thing, there really is a predicament, and even the least affected of girls out there are still affected more than we care to acknowledge, and they all must find ways to navigate through it.
In a 2005 book called Dilemmas of Desire (that I HIGHLY recommend), the author, Deborah Tolman conducts a study in which she speaks with 31 different urban and suburban high school girls about their desire. What she found is that each one struggles with their own desire in varying degrees, but they all do struggle more than one would think. They seem to have few safe places in which to express it. Some only feel comfortable expressing their sexual desire in terms of a romantic hetero relationship, and some of the girls are so cut off from their desire that they describe their first time as an almost out of body experience, as if it just happened and they were not an active part. The one girl who seems pretty connected to her desire struggles with the perception that she is a slut (p.s. this girl has never had intercourse). Only 3 of these 31 girls masturbated, and only 1 without significant feelings of guilt (that one struggling with being a slut, actually). Unsurprisingly, although most of these girls were sexually active, almost none have had orgasms.
Now, you might not see a teen girl disassociating with her desire as a bad thing, being that a lot of people feel teen desire is scary as hell, but you'd be wrong. Without acknowledging one's own desire, all kinds of room is left for other people and substances to lead the way. Desire helps us say yes, sure, but it also helps us say no. Without a clear understanding about what we want (some kissing and some over-the-undies clit rubbing? sounds good!), we sure as hell can't be sure about what we don't want (unprotected PinV? No thanks, I'll just go home and rub one out instead!).
It creates situations in which sex things happen to girls instead of girls making choices about what they want to happen. It makes girls scared of their desire and unwilling to actively account for it in their decisions. It makes it seem easier to give over control. For instance, one girl in the book told a story in which she intentionally got drunk at a party so she could hook-up with a guy, blaming it on the alcohol instead of because she just wanted to hook up. Surprise, surprise - it was unprotected, even though she knew better. I don't think any daddy bear in his right mind would want to think that his daughter is putting herself in vulnerable situations just because she feels uncomfortable and conflicted about how to interpret and express her very natural feelings of sexual desire.
The other thing is that disconnecting with our desire is not just a thing that can be turned on and off when our parents think it's appropriate. If it gets stifled in adolescents, it's not going to magically appear again as a fully developed, experimented with, and comfortable entity in our mid 20's when we want to start creating a loving and full sexual relationship with someone. No, it won't be that easy, and it might be a long-term source of frustration and sadness in her (and probably her partner's) life. The worst part is we don't even realize we do this to girls. Parents and authority figures (including all those protective daddies) treat girls this way, often with the best of intentions and out of love and a need to protect. But sadly, all that love and interest in protecting girls just leaves them with little to no room to safely explore their very real, very new, and very important feelings of desire when they are young.
That's why I love hearing women like this author call out the bullshit. We need to start talking more about this and pointing out how these things we do to girls, even with the best of intentions, can hurt the sexuality of the women they will become. I actually think those sweet ol' protective daddy bears would take notice and adjust their protective techniques if they really saw that the "hands off my daughter" shtick was truly harmful.
Why I love the tone of this article
Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote an incredibly perceptive, thoughtful piece about why exactly that ol' 'hand off my daughter' routine is bad news without being shitty about it. Seriously, you should go read it - it's good. Her article was in response to a family's picture that went viral. The picture symbolized that ol' shtick, and news outlets all over were praising it. William's beef here was with the media, not the family. That is so important.
Activism is about getting people to hear you, and when you are mean or thoughtless or refuse to see nuance, the people you need to hear you, stop listening. She was none of those things, She took pains to make it clear that her criticism in the article is not a criticism of that family. She made sure people understood that this family was loving and in no way mean-spirited. In fact the father in that family is battling brain tumors, which makes her criticism extra tricky. I think she manged it well though; to separate the people that instigated her discussion of the issue from the issue itself.
"I hope that the whole family has as much fun and laughter in their lives as possible right now, and that they have many more happy memories to come. I also get that not every moment of joshing around is an act of oppression by the patriarchy."
"What one family does in the spirit of kidding around is, in context, no big deal. But a media endorsement — especially media aimed at teenage girls — of the notion that adolescent female sexuality is something to be guarded by daddy from outside invaders is actually creepy and gross."Activism around female sexuality and female orgasm is a special kind of hot mess because these are kinda embarrassing, often under-discussed topics that are so intertwined with very important personal relationships like husband and wife, parent and child. We often fiercely love and protect the other in those couples, and hearing what sounds like people criticizing how you maneuver within those relationships can really get a person's back up. Saying that sex in our culture is unequally tilted towards male sexual pleasure can sound as if an asshole with no idea about your relationship is saying to you that 'your husband is a bad person and doesn't get you off enough.' or 'you are an idiot and your wife thinks you're bad in bed." Similarly, saying that dads being overly protective of their daughters' sexuality hurts girls and deteriorates their agency and bodily autonomy, can sound like people are saying, 'Your dad's trying to damage you" or "Everything you are doing to protect your daughter is wrong and stupid." The topic is so emotional, and this kind of miscommunication happens all the time. People talk past each other and hear things that are not being said. The personal and individual gets confused with the cultural and general.
Like I said, it's a hot mess, and I think it needs even more tenderness and more understanding and more explanation than most activism. Yet, so often and with the best of intentions, activists overlook the importance of being extra thoughtful and of taking pains to separate the larger picture from an individual one. Mary Elizabeth Williams did not overlook this, and man, I give hella respect to her for it. Hers is a great example of gentler (and I'd say much more effective) ways to talk about these types of issues. She's helping us enter the new sexual revolution, by golly!
I now pronounce you, Mary Elizabeth, an Orgasm Equality Hero...which means you are on the ever-growing Orgasm Equality Allies master list.. Keep on doing your thing.