On August 19th, 1998, I became a father for the first time.
Oddly enough it was also my birthday and my wife told me, “This is the best gift I could ever give you.” She was right. I consider my daughter Livvy, and any time we can spend together, a precious gift.
That’s why, over her recent school break, I seized the opportunity to spend some Dad/Daughter time with her by taking a trip to the city together. She, seeing it as an opportunity to go shopping, jumped at the chance.
We did get some window shopping in, but my real purpose for the outing was to take her to see The Hunting Ground. It’s a stomach-churning documentary (from directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering) that highlights the epidemic of sexual assault on modern college campuses.
Not a light-hearted film to take your daughter to see, I know.
But I needed a good way to talk with her about this sensitive and awkward topic; a way to help her understand the mindset of a predator (who looks like a peer) … before she heads off to college herself.
You see, my daughter attends an all-girls high school, so she’s not exposed to the everyday barrage of constant sexualized (and potentially harassing) attention other girls receive from young men. By taking her to this film, I hoped to give her important insight on what to expect as soon as she steps foot on a college campus.
Am I also hoping that giving her this awareness will help ME sleep better at night once she’s gone?
As a parent there is a natural anxiety when you drop off your child, male or female, at college. You realize your role immediately changes from parent to advisor, so you want to give your kid as much armor as possible so they can continue living the safe and carefree life they’re accustomed to.
I’m sure that the parents of Andrea Pino and Annie Clark felt the same on the day they dropped their daughters off at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But within the first two weeks of school, both girls had their armor forcefully stripped away by a young man—an athlete or a stupid frat-boy—some parent’s son—a rapist—who felt his “entitlement” to sex from any female he targets overrides that young woman’s physical agency; to him … her dreams, her goals, her basic rights are unimportant.
This thought sickens me. What that boy did to those girls sickens me.
It’s cliché, perhaps, to say that no dad likes to think of some boy touching his daughter. That’s not my biggest worry.
What keeps me up at night is the idea of some boy touching my daughter … without her consent.
And worse, knowing I may never find out about it!
After the movie, deeply disturbed by the notion that my daughter might conceal her pain and suffering if she experienced rape or assault on campus, I asked if she would tell my wife and me if this ever happened to her.
She reluctantly said, “Yes!” and then added, “Dad, it’s embarrassing to tell your parents that some boy (who was my friend) took it upon himself to pull down my panties, fondle my breasts, and/or put his fingers inside my vagina and violate me. It’s an episode I’d have to live with the rest of my life. Honestly, I don’t know how I would feel if you ever asked me some of the questions those parents in that film asked their kids.”
Her words hit me like a ton of bricks.
Young ladies should never have to go through such an ordeal.
And, we—as fathers, uncles, cousins, and brothers—shouldn’t have to stand idly by and watch our future wives, aunts, sisters, and daughters see their dreams destroyed through no choice (or fault) of their own.
I strongly believe that it’s up to men to change how we raise this generation of boys into manhood. Today, society is challenging what “manhood” really means more and more, and our sons are getting mixed messages. THIS is being a “real man.” No, now THIS is being a “real man.”
Progress is good, but, honestly …
When it comes to domestic violence and sexual abuse, we haven’t had enough men stand up and state outright that violent behavior to women is WRONG and damaging.
In The Hunting Ground, there were plenty of women in authority who spoke out on this topic, but I could only count on one hand the number of men who stood up against the perpetrators of sexual crime on campuses. Even worse, zero from so-called male leadership of our college institutions made any remarks on the record.
Jackson Katz, an expert at the forefront of this issue, pointed out in a TEDTalk how crucial male voices speaking up are if we want to make any true shift away from violence against women in our society.
So, how do we begin to reshape our young men? How do we change the way they behave when interacting with young women sexually?
We must first, as men, examine how we feel about life inside the “man box.” My wife often says to me, “You are the sensitive one.” Sometimes I try to deny it because in “man culture” sensitive means soft or weak.
As a parent, I have to fight myself every day to keep from projecting those same toxic labels onto my sons. I have to refrain from saying some of the same things leader Tony Porter illustrates so poignantly in his powerful TEDTalk discussion.
But, from this point forward … I’m going to embrace my sensitivity.
The truth is—I cry when I’m upset sometimes. And I don’t view women as objects, valued only for what they can provide for me. I care about people, especially women.
And, fellow men—as dads, we need to teach our sons to feel that same way because, ultimately, we’re denying our boys an opportunity for healthy relationships, full expression, and true freedom if we don’t.
It’s also time to let our boys know that their lives aren’t always about competition.
This alone is crucial since “man culture” is currently built around sports and competition. Being a star athlete or head of the fraternity is more about validating accomplishments, rather than building or celebrating true character.
Even though some young men are turning to social media and their phones to anonymously expose sexual abuse they witness, we, as men, need more practice at standing up and speaking out in order to affect real change. Programs like MVP, designed by Jackson Katz, uses “The Bystander Approach” to help young men to speak out against domestic violence.
And men, we can no longer “reward” our sons for behaviors that are characteristic of men who abuse. (You know what I mean; saying, “That’s my boy,” when you know he got laid.) We do not want to raise our boys to feel entitled, act selfish, and believe they’re superior.
Changing this part of the problem will likely prove the hardest, because let’s be real—your son is modeling behaviors he learned from YOU, Dad!
You’re the one who gawks at women like they’re objects and toys, right in front of your son. You’re the one that gives him high-fives for posturing that male bravado, acting entitled, and saying whatever he wants.
You’re the one who challenged the administration and threatened to pull your lofty donation to halt your son being kicked off the football team or his fraternity being sanctioned, even though his behavior was truly reprehensible.
And young men, if you don’t have a dad willing to stand up and model healthy manhood, then look to examples like Chaz Smith, who connected with the organization One Student, a non-profit aimed at ending college sexual assault. Or, this group of Kenyan school boys who helped increase sexual assault intervention by 185 percent in their community!
In the end, I’m still scared to send my daughter off to college.
I want my daughter (and countless young women like her) to feel that I have her back, at all times. And I want young men to know sexual assault isn’t funny. Raping a drunk girl at a frat party isn’t cool or a joke.
Our girls suffer horrific and lasting physical and psychological trauma from sexual assault. Some never recover. Many commit suicide. And for those who do overcome the trauma, it’s a long, harrowing road back.
At the same time, we have to set our sons free from “the man box” and empower them to claim all sides of themselves (including the compassionate side). In their moment of truth, “being a man” is respecting women … and respecting themselves.
There is no honor in being a rapist. And there is no honor in being so disconnected from yourself, as a man and as a human being, that you’re capable of so cruelly (and worse, nonchalantly) harming someone else.
It’s time to change the climate for women on college campuses once and for all.
Fellow parents, our daughters—and our sons—deserve better!