Bill Cosby. Harvey Weinstein. And now Louis CK. Recent sexual assault allegations may have shined a light on harassment in Hollywood and empowered a generation of women to speak up, but the movement seems to have left fathers of daughters behind. At the height of the #MeToo campaign, my feed was full of references to unwanted gropes (and worse), and it was often punctuated by comments from well-meaning dads. The best way to avoid assault, fathers mansplained to their daughters, is to dress conservatively. Stay away from secluded spaces. Just “be smart”.
Obviously, that’s ridiculous. Besides the problem of victim-blaming, the data suggests most assaults occur with a known acquaintance, not a guy in the bushes. As Elise Lopez, a sexual violence researcher at the University of Arizona, said: “Staying out of a ‘dangerous situation’ would actually mean disallowing women to participate in activities of daily life.”
But it’s probably not my dad’s fault that he’s clueless. It’s my own fault. Although my father raised me to be strong, self-aware, and hypervigilant, I know that even his best advice can’t protect me from sexual assault. So as a daughter who loves her father, I’ve taken steps to protect him from the truth about my safety (or lack thereof). When I moved to New York, I didn’t tell my dad about that time the cops knocked down my neighbor’s door accusing him of rape. I haven’t told him that I’m regularly followed, or that I have been harassed and physically harmed by men. Because neither of us can do anything about it. I shield him because I love him. If he really knew that it is a liability for me to merely exist as a woman, it would break his heart.
I shield him because I love him. If he discovered that it is a liability for me to merely exist as a woman, it would break his heart.
I’m wrong for doing this, but I’m certainly not alone. Thousands of women shield their fathers from knowing the truth about sexual assault. Whether by nature or necessity, we’ve become very good at regulating the emotions of other people. Our flawed impulse to keep our dads in the dark about the state of the world makes us complicit in the fact that a lot of good men still don’t get it.
There are a lot of reasons why we don’t tell our dads the truth. I don’t want to deal with the discomfort of telling my dad that every 98 seconds, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. I don’t want to tell him that 91 percent of these victims are women, or that 1 in 5 of us will be raped at some point in our lives. Or that 1 in 3 of us will be victims of sexual harassment or domestic violence. I don’t want to tell him that there’s little I can do to protect myself — that although there’s some evidence that self-defense training would increase my confidence, there’s scant evidence that I would be able to use it to ward off attackers. I certainly don’t want to tell my dad that, even if I did stay inside after dark, get married, and lock myself away, that I’d still be at relatively high risk of being assaulted, raped, or murdered by his son-in-law.
Beyond that, there are psychological reasons why women are loathe to tell their fathers what it’s really like out there. Dan Wolfson, a psychologist who specializes in trauma, explained that my avoidance likely speaks to the strength of my relationship with my father. “It’s a protective mechanism, whether it’s to protect yourself or the parent in the relationship,” he says. And yet Wolfson agrees that this “protection is really working against you.” He says that it’s crucial for parents to encourage their kids to confide in them and not shield them from their trauma. Although I didn’t ask, he would probably tell me that it’s high time I confide in my father, too.
Whether by nature or necessity, we’ve become very good at regulating the emotions of other people.
I know this. I know that in an attempt to protect my dad (and, in ways, myself) I’ve robbed him of opportunities to support me and the ability to sympathize with women who have been assaulted. I’ve shortchanged his growth by not engaging in a discourse about victim-blaming, and I’ve prevented him from setting an example for other men. Like many daughters, I’ve white-knuckled my way through traumatic experiences, to both my own detriment and to the detriment of the men in my life who need to hear about it. In truth, I’ve protected no one but the perpetrators.
And yet, I’m not ready to take the plunge and talk to my dad about sexual assault. Maybe it’s easier for me to deal with the guilt of not doing the right thing than the guilt of hurting him. Perhaps realizing this is the first step towards changing. Until I make that leap, I will shoulder a tiny bit of responsibility for why the good guys don’t grasp what women are up against.