The Orwellian way we raise girls — the words we use, how we prepare, warn, and terrify them — upholds each and every component of toxic masculinity.
I say this as a single mother of a daughter, as a perpetrator, and as a recipient of such words, preparations, warnings, and terror. And even in mid conversation with my kid throughout the years, I fully understood how fucked up my words were, but I also fully understood how completely the world was on fire, and that my primary responsibility was to make sure my child wasn’t burned to a crisp the moment she leapt from the nest of my embrace and into the world, her eyes on the horizon, excited to fly solo.
Don’t get me wrong, my daughter and I had all kinds of conversations, and we talked about systemic sexism, the insidiousness of rape culture, and how women had an inherent right to bodily autonomy in all spheres of public and private life. But we still had so many of the other types of conversations — about not being out alone late at night, about not getting too drunk at parties, about not leaving her drink unattended at said parties, about showing up with her squad of girlfriends and leaving with every single one of them, about how I’d pick her up anywhere, no questions asked, if she was messed up (or not) and felt unsafe.
I’d start by saying something along the lines of: you are not responsible for some asshole taking advantage of you and then get into the nitty gritty of how she could avoid putting herself in situations that might increase the chances of rape. The delicate doublespeak of mothering girls. This isn’t your faultcoupled with but here’s how you can avoid the vulnerability in the first place.
I fucking hate the reality of what it means to be a woman in this country. Knowing that at any time, some guy could decide he wants to put something in my drink. Or physically overpower me. Or get me so wasted I can’t say no or fight him off. Or break into my house at night to stand over the sleeping shape of me before striking. These are the scenarios that were placed in my head as a young girl, not just by my mother, but by every adult woman, every movie, every TV show, every news program broadcasting sorry tales of unlucky females who didn’t better protect themselves.
Women are in perpetual danger everywhere we go, and the opposite sex is the culprit. Will the guy you decide to go out with on Friday night ultimately turn out to be as nice as he seems at school? Or, once he has you alone in his car, his house, his friend’s basement, will he refuse to take no for an answer? These are the calculations that go on inside a woman’s head from the moment she begins to see the world clearly for what it is: an involuntary guessing game that runs from cradle to grave, and the prize is never being raped. Or not getting raped again.
Not guessing correctly can be dangerous.
Not guessing correctly can be fatal.
Can I trust him?
Should I walk the few blocks home alone after dark?
Is another drink wise?
Am I safe alone with this guy? Where are the exits?
I like this dress, but is it too short? Does it send the wrong message?
These calculations, this guessing game none of us asked to play, is utter bullshit. I hate it. And yet, I made sure my daughter knew how to make split second educated guesses. I made sure she understood the rules. I passed down the toxicity that was passed down to me.
What other choice did I have?
I couldn’t very well pretend as though my kid, by virtue of being mine, would magically be exempt from the way things are. It doesn’t mean I’m accepting the status quo, but while I do my best to tear down the motherfucking patriarchy, I had to prepare her before she stepped foot out of my house. I had to keep up the doublespeak — you can do and be whatever the hell you want in this world together with keep a lookout in the parking lot and make a fist around your keys so you can strike once and run — because if I didn’t hammer the warnings into her skull, who would?
We mothers of daughters act in good faith, but the tools at our disposal — the careful, desperate, conspiratorial words — uphold toxic masculinity at the same time we busily work to dismantle it.
One step forward, three steps back.
I told my daughter I’d believe her, no matter what an assailant told her in the brutal minutes, hours, or days she was victimized. That she could come to me. That boys should be taught not to rape, not to take advantage of an intoxicated woman, that girls don’t owe them their time, their bodies, their attention.
But I buttressed every feminist affirmation with warnings, shoring up her safety, though the knot in my chest, in my stomach, never unraveled. I worry for her, walking around in this world. But I worry for myself too, of what could happen at anytime and in any place. I worry about friends who take what I was raised to believe are unnecessary risks — going home with someone she just met, traveling long distances alone, wanting to stay at a party when the group has decided to call it a night. Women are raised to worry, to assess potential risks in seconds, to take full responsibility for whatever happens to them if they fail at the guessing game.
How do you change a society built for men? How do you alter the rules for a game you’re playing against your will? How do you shift a narrative that forever places women in the wrong when tragedy befalls them? How do you balance fostering your daughter’s magnificently rebellious spirit with the all consuming need to keep her safe? Will there ever be a time when we can stop worrying for our basic safety? Stop checking the locks at night? Leave our keys in our purses on the walk to the car after dark instead of positioning them between our knuckles, our tense bodies anticipating an attack?
I repeat the words, the warnings, the secrets to staying safe as many times as my daughter will listen, and then again. The knot in my chest tightens, my heart breaking a little more with each word. Because there is no magic to staying safe. There is nothing that can be done to safeguard ourselves from sexual violence, not really. Until we alter the culture, the game, the narrative, the way we raise both boys and girls, nothing will change.
Motherhood is a sword that only cuts one way. You open your wrists, that vital warmth leaving you in a rush as you work to raise them in a manner that eventually eliminates their dependence on you. Worry is omnipresent, an heirloom that just keeps getting passed down from mothers to daughters. But we see it now. That makes a difference, right? Please tell me it makes a difference.