Today my daughter was leered at while at the park. Jane is twelve and like many twelve year old girls her proportions are as perfect as they ever will be. Like her friends Jane has reached an adult height but unlike an adult they are thin, slight even, and they have faces of children. There is no mistaking my twelve year old daughter, nor anyone else’s for that matter, for an adult.
I concede that it is entirely possible that my twelve year old could be mistaken for a fourteen year old. Believe it or not this is relevant information.
Many months ago I was walking on the beach at twilight with Jane and one of her friends. Two men were standing by the water, both were my age and as we neared them they tapped on their wrists as to indicate that we were late for a meeting. It was a playful flirtation and I had the opportunity to save them from total mortification as we got closer and they realized that two of the women were, in fact, children. These two men had the good sense to turn beet red and one almost cried. They immediately left while stammering something about sorry sorry thought you were someone else.
Although upsetting this was basically normal. Adult men saw silhouettes, acted in a flirtatious but mostly harmless manner and almost died from humiliation when they saw that the silhouettes were children. I talked to the girls about how boys will flirt with them and what an appropriate way to behave is. We talked about how powerful it is to be a woman and why you should be kind whenever possible but always firm. We also talked about how to be horribly rude when kind didn’t work so well.
Today, and a few other times, I’ve noticed men older than thirty checking my daughter out. They are lecherous and crude. It’s unlikely that they are attracted to these girls and more likely that they’re asserting their dominance. I mean, perhaps on the surface they are attracted, but I remember walking in New York City in the 80′s. Construction workers would whistle and catcall. These weren’t whistles meant to get my attention, these whistles and cat calls were meant to demean me, to make me feel afraid and inferior for being a girl. They wanted to make me feel terrible for having the gall to be a pretty girl.
I’ve never really written with my discomfort around the recent attention paid to Jane and her friends because I didn’t want to deal with being called an angry feminist. Since the best defense is so often a good offense I didn’t want to have to defend my daughter, her friends and her peers. Today though was just too much for me. My kid needs to be able to go to the park without a middle aged slob ogling her bare knees.
I posted on Google Plus the following: The first time a 40 year old man leered at my 12 year old daughter I became rabid feminist.
Friends of mine posted commiserations as they have teenage daughters, and one young man posted the following: How was your daughter dressed? When someone asked why it matters he followed up with: I think it does. I see little girls all the time dressed as skanks, and a guys reflex is to check her out
There is something very different happening when a teenage boy “checks out” a teenage girl. Sure, it’ll make us all squirm but it’s appropriate and a somewhat equal relationship. The boys will ogle and the girls will destroy them with words more cutting than a razor’s edge. Everyone will be angst ridden, and then they’ll have three scoops of ice cream, stay skinny and get over it.
The problem is when the relationships are unequal. An adult to child relationship is always unequal. One is a predator and the other is prey. There is no time when this is not the case, and every civilized nation has laws to protect children from adult predators.
There is danger in allowing our sons and daughters to believe that provocative dress always leads to a provocative action. Men wear cycling shorts around town. I assure you I’m not checking for penis size however there are entire sections of my beloved Reddit devoted to crotch shots of girls playing volleyball. Please don’t tell me that this is because men are visual. This is because men bond nicely while humiliating strangers, this is about power and we all know that power can be sexy.
Teenage girls know or are about to find out that their bodies are incredibly powerful. They don’t need to touch anyone or speak a word to get boys to do things for them. A smile, a glance, a nod or a shorter skirt will have boys scurrying to do their bidding. At some point most girls will roll their skirts up a little shorter and unbutton their blouse a little lower. Their mothers will scream a little, their fathers will stutter an uncomfortable talk about how they were “once a young man”. Everyone will retreat and there won’t be an issue for a little while. Until there is, because kids don’t listen to their parents and this is normal.
What will happen, what undoubtedly happens, is that a little girl is sexually assaulted. It happens. I don’t want it to, but in real life a huge number of young women are the victims sexual assault, some worse than others. The societal horror that I can control as a woman and as a blogger with a big loud voice is the answer to the inevitable question “What was she wearing”.
I don’t care if your four year old is dressed for Toddlers and Tiaras, no one has the right to leer at her (okay the judges make that confusing but work with me here). I do not care if your eight year old is wearing wildly inappropriate clothing, adult men do not have the right to ogle her. I do not care if your 13 year old looks “grown up” and might be mistaken for the ripe old age of 16. She is a child and should not be touched. “Skanky little girls” (and how I detest all that implies) deserve defending with the same vigor as a nun or an asexual old woman.
Our daughters need to hear over and over again that they are worth protecting. They don’t need to wear a burka to walk the streets comfortably and when they’re treated poorly and someone says, “What was she wearing?” our daughters need to be strong enough to look that person in the eye and say, “It doesn’t matter and it never will.”