“Hands Off My Daughter”

I was probably around thirteen the first time I heard an overprotective dad joke while watching standup comedy on TV. “I don’t mind going *back* to prison!” the comic laughed about scaring off a teen boy from his daughter with these words. I laughed too. I hadn’t started dating yet or heard the trope before, but I knew teen boys had to be “watched out” for and that they would “try things” if not stopped.

A few years later, I was a teen girl dating teen boys, but without a father to scare my dates. My parents divorced early in my childhood and my father wasn’t around. Somehow my mom managed to put the fear of god into teen boys all by her petite self, and the majority of boys I dated were scared to meet her a second time. But she never threatened them. She never talked about her gun collection or going “back” to prison. She just let them know she knew who I was out with. That was often enough (and at other times, no threat would have been enough.)

As I’ve grown older, I’ve heard more war stories from guy friends about meeting their date’s dad. Some of them got detailed descriptions of bodily harm and preemptive revenge strategies from jealous dads. And that horrifies me. For the teen girls, humiliated and controlled by their fathers’ insecurities, and for the teen boys, being threatened by grown men they are socially trapped from standing up to.

We have a tendency to dehumanize teen boys. They’re animals and monsters and beasts, lacking in control and needing threats to stay in line. We have a tendency to dehumanize teen girls. They’re ornaments and property and things, lacking in agency and needing a male protector to defend them. While I certainly understand any parents’ desire to keep their child, especially daughter, safe from harm and sexual violence, what I often see these dads protecting against is consensual sex.

Teen boys and teen girls often choose to have sex with each other, and that needs to be treated differently than rape is. Teenagers need to be protected from many, many things, but age-appropriate safe-sex between consenting people isn’t one of them. I’d rather see dads protect their daughters by telling them about safe sex and helping them obtain condoms and birth control if needed. I’d rather see dads protect their daughters by imbuing them with confidence, providing a support network, and teaching them how to make good choices. I’d much rather see dads teach their daughters what a loving, respectful relationship looks like by modeling good behavior. I want dads to treat their partners well, so that their children know how to behave.

We can do better by our teens than we currently do. We can focus on consent and respect in all things. We can teach girls they are entitled to their own choices, and we can teach boys how to respect the choices girls make. But threatening teen boys with paternal physical power has never helped girls growing up with single moms, and I don’t it’s helped the daughters of these men much either.

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