Following the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, the mother of victim Shana Fisher presented a plausible motive for the attack. The shooter, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, Sadie Rodriguez explained, had asked out her daughter and been rejected on several occasions culminating in some sort of public incident a week prior to the murders. Given eyewitness accounts from survivors that Pagourtzis was not shooting randomly, the young man, she contended, must have been targeting her daughter. This narrative was quickly picked up by numerous outlets.
Rodriguez told the Los Angeles Times that her daughter Shana “had four months of problems from this boy” and that he “kept making advances on her and she repeatedly told him no.” Rodriguez also described an event — in the loosest terms — that might have embarrassed Pagourtzis. Though no one has corroborated Rodriguez’s story, it follows the contours of a familiar and plausible narrative: man pursues woman; woman turns man down; man kills woman.
For the parents of daughters, this calls into question what has become accepted wisdom: Girls should feel empowered to handle the advances of boys as they please. But “no means no” is an overly simplistic formulation in need of an update. The reality is more likely that “no means no,” but “no” might have consequences. Sad as it may be, it’s important for girls to hear. It is the truth.
Is it a parent’s duty to teach their daughters that truth? Because it appears that while some women (and girls, from a young age) are told that they should never apologize for saying no and that they need to stand up for themselves in order to protect their bodies, the reality is far less simple.
A 16-year-old Brooklyn girl was killed after rejecting a grown man who wanted her to be his girlfriend. A 34-year-old Pennsylvania man killed a teenager after she rejected his marriage proposal, strangling her to death. A Michigan woman was attacked and beaten unconscious by a group of men after rejecting a man who catcalled her who then gathered his friends to chase her down the street. There’s an entire Tumblr page called “When Women Refuse,” which is a mix of news stories of women being killed by their exes or strangers and of first-person confessionals about the violence the contributor endured for rejecting unwanted advances. It’s like Margaret Atwood said: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” After all, many of the more publicized acts of domestic violence, like the shooting in Plano, Texas last year in which a woman’s ex-husband stormed into his ex-wife’s new home, killing her and several members of her family, does instill fear, particularly in women. It tells women that there is a script they have to stick to if they want to survive.
Multiple studies show how many women are killed each year by men they know. The non-profit Violence Policy Center found that in 2015 some 1,500 women were killed by a man that they knew. A Justice Department database of 36 reporting states shows that in 2013, 322 men killed a woman they were intimate with: a wife, girlfriend, or ex-partner.
Given all this, it might make sense for parents to teach girls that though they shouldn’t have to be nice to boys or repeat the word “no” politely, but it might be a good idea — particularly if the boy or boys in question seem frightening. This is not a lesson anyone wants to or should have to teach, but this is the lesson generations of violence has driven home for women everywhere. Angering men has horrific consequences.
It’s not that “being nice” is a guarantee of safety. People, especially other women, know that. They know that sometimes, no matter how nicely they do it, women who say no get hurt. But — and this shouldn’t need to be said — women have to be able to say no. If women can’t say no, they lose control over their own bodies. And, paradoxically, when catering to the anger of men, it appears that women might not even have that control to begin with.
In a subtler sense, parents have been teaching their daughters these lessons for years. They tell their daughters to walk on well-lit streets; they beg them to keep an eye on their drinks; they worry about who they consort with. What’s implicit in these lessons is the warning that girls have to be nice to, and wary of, boys. Because boys are dangerous. Girls have been dealing with this for decades by self-regulating their behavior to be less vulnerable. The implicit narrative has always been the same: men have the final say over how, and if, women can survive in this world. So women better be as accommodating to men as they can.
Many men — teenage boys — still believe that they have the right to a woman’s attention. It’s hard to say that there’s been a concerted effort to shift that paradigm. Women shouldn’t expect, and shouldn’t be, killed just for turning someone down. But sometimes, women are. And parents need to tell their daughters that. They need to tell them the truth.