My Precious Girl, Not My Frail One: On Daughters and Hook-Up Culture

I’m reposting this piece from February 2009 in response to my dialogue with Neely Steinberg at Good Men Project, and to her friend Susan Walsh. I wrote it when Heloise was two weeks old.

I’m on a fairly steep learning curve as a first-time father. Having changed fewer than five diapers in my life before a fortnight ago, I’m an increasingly efficient middle-of-the-night cleaner and re-coverer of baby behinds. I consider myself nearly an expert on working with teenagers, but this infant business is new stuff to me. Our beautiful daughter is teaching me a great many things.

Last week, I was changing her “onesie”, and was quite tentative about it, not wanting to bend or pull her little arms too briskly. My mother-in-law, who has been immensely helpful, came to my aid: “She won’t break, Hugo”, she said; “babies are less fragile than you think.” It was a reassuring thing to hear, though I’m still a bit frightened to pull too fiercely on any part of my daughter’s frame.

But my mother-in-law’s words reminded me of an essential feminist point: women don’t break as easily as we imagine. On Friday, I posted a rebuke to the sorry Zoe Lewis op-ed in the London Times which suggested that feminism led women astray with promises of independence, fulfillment, and satisfying relationships all at once. Part of the discourse anti-feminists like Lewis push isn’t just about feminism, however; they also peddle the notion that the bewombed are particularly easy to break. At 36, less than halfway through an normal lifespan for a woman in the Western world, Lewis is convinced that feminism has “ruined her life.” She’s wrong about feminism, of course, but she’s also wrong about something more fundamental: that women are easily ruined “for life” by either their own poor choices or their early capitulation to certain cultural messages.

In a post about how my students responded to Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism (a piece that played a small part in one of the many internecine wars to which the feminist blogosphere is lamentably prone), I noted that some of the most enthusiastic responses I received were to the author’s brief but memorable defense of making mistakes. Jessica wrote:

I’ve had more than a couple of embarrassing moments in my life and sexual history, but isn’t that what makes us who we are? Do we really have to be on point and thinking politics all the time? Sometimes doing silly, disempowering, sexually vapid things when you’re young is just part of getting to the good stuff.

I’ve had several excellent class discussions about this section of FFF since.

Thinking about Jessica Valenti’s book and about changing my daughter’s onesies reminds me of an essential truth: we tell a great lie to young women when we issue dire warnings to them about sex, men and other choices if we accompany our warning with the phrase “you might ruin your life.” I often ask the young women whom I teach and with whom I work how often they’ve heard “Don’t do x, or you’ll ruin your life.” Most raise their hands. Far fewer of the young men to whom I pose the same question respond affirmatively. Even now, with almost a decade of the 21st century under our belts, our culture still clings to destructive myths of female fragility. Girls born as recently as the Clinton Administration are taught that adolescence and young adulthood consists of a series of pitfalls to be avoided, and that one false step could mean a lifetime of heartbreak and regret. Do the wrong thing, this discourse suggests, and you’ll end up (for the literary minded) like Dickens’ Miss Havisham (possibly with the same fiery demise.)

Feminists are rightly concerned with protecting women and girls from abuse. We do as much as we can to draw awareness to the near-ubiquity of sexual and commercial exploitation of women around the world. We point out the ongoing reality of sexual harassment in our fields, our offices, and our schools. We also are eager, in general to (oh, over-used word a’ comin’) empower young women to make the best possible choices for their own lives and to pursue their own happiness as they see fit. Most feminists recognize that not every woman wants the same thing; rather than prescribe specific choices (go to this school, wait until this age to get married, have this number of sexual partners of each sex, prioritize this cause) we encourage self-awareness and self-love as a predicate to good decision-making. Whether to embrace a cultural norm or not (like, say, the wearing of a headscarf) is less important a decision than the process by which that decision is made. At least for those of us who are in the liberal (as opposed, say, to the radical) tradition, empowering individual girls to make autonomous choices without regard to external pressures is a very high priority.

I’ve written before, several times, about the Martha Complex: the perfectionism so common in a certain subset of young American women. “Marthas” have a hard time relaxing, because when they do stop their own whirlwind of activity, the anxiety about what they aren’t doing (and what will happen to them if they don’t start doing) begins to overwhelm them.

Last week I realized, while changing my daughter’s darned onesie, how much the discourse of “ruining your life by making one bad decision” contributes to the Martha Complex. I was worried, like many first-time parents, that my infant daughter was more fragile than she in fact is. I was terrified of “breaking her” with one slip of my hand. I needed to see that even tiny babies are remarkably hardy. (This doesn’t mean we should test the limits of that hardiness — they will do so on their own. And it doesn’t mean I’m going to hold back on the hugs, kisses, and loving affection.) In much the same way, we need to recognize that our older daughters are far more resilient than we imagine. Broken hearts heal. Loss and colorful experience do not automatically embitter or alienate. Skinned knees might leave interesting scars, but they do not break the spirit — and neither do passionate love affairs that come to an end. Of course, if we set our daughters up with the expectation that early sexual experience or an unplanned pregnancy will “ruin their lives”, then we can expect that in some cases, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just as the myth of male weakness is perpetuated by the culture, so too a myth of female frailty seems to become real for those who are unwilling to consider an alternate possibility.

The peddlers of “purity” and the advocates of abstinence make the case that experience tarnishes, that “mistakes” will “ruin lives” forever. They make this case with far more urgency to young women than to young men, knowing that a great many young women are already programmed to believe that they are so emotionally fragile that they will indeed shatter as the consequence of a single error. Many well-meaning parents buy into this myth, just as I bought into the notion that my little baby girl would break if I wiggled her into her onesie too forcefully. While we ought not to encourage reckless or self-destructive behavior, or buy into the silly myth about the need to “sow oats”, we can send our children, especially our daughters, a message that they are resilient. They have the capacity not only to survive their missteps, but to learn from them and thrive as a consequence.

We humans, male and female alike, are hardy people, both in body and in soul. We do well to treat all living things with care, of course. But a reverence for all that lives and breathes should not turn into a hyper-vigilant anxiety to protect our loved ones from every possible source of discomfort and subsequent growth. I want to protect little Heloise Cerys Raquel from harm, of course; she means the world to me. But I want her to grow up knowing that she has a colossal capacity to survive, to thrive, to grow. And making mistakes is invariably the only reliable way to discover that capacity. She is my precious baby girl, but not my frail one. There is a difference.

5 thoughts on “My Precious Girl, Not My Frail One: On Daughters and Hook-Up Culture

  1. There is a HUGE difference between having one or two casual sex experiences, and spending years hopping from bed to bed. I don’t believe that a few early encounters will “break” or “ruin” a woman (or a man) for life, but I do believe that continued exposure to this mindset does indeed permanently change a person, for better or worse. Being adverse to risk as I am, my belief is that the safer option (between telling young women to sex it up, or telling them to keep their numbers low) is to encourage a conservative strategy in regards to sex. If the studies that indicate promiscuous people are more likely to divorce later in life, doesn’t it make sense to make sure young people know that their behavior now may very likely “ruin” or “break” their ability to have a happy marriage later in life?

    • I know men and women how have all four bedposts notched from base to tip and then some (at that point, I suppose, you start carving up the headboard), but still managed to find loving, stable, lasting relationships — some through marriage, others through living together. And I know men and women that did everything right and everything in their power to find a partner, but remain alone.

      I know married couples that are married in name only and lead separate lives. There’s no tenderness or flirting or playfulness between the partners. Even when they hold hands everyone feels the cold wall between them.

      And I know married couples where one partner cheats brazenly. A friend of mine discovered that he has a 15 year old daughter, conceived only a month or two after his honeymoon. “I was having a hard time adjusting to being married,” he told me, without a drop of irony. His wife, who has been a stay at home mother to their four children for the past 15 years, is “upset” (his words). My heart breaks for her.

      This is anecdotal, I know, but when Neely Steinberg says that at some point you need to “get serious” about finding a life partner, I don’t understand what “get serious” means.

      I don’t think there’s a script or a list of steps, and regardless of what Lori Gottlieb says, I think “checklists” are more fun cocktail chatter than reality.

      I mean, it’s fun to brainstorm with your friends over lunch about “what you want” in a partner, but in the end, the person you partner with– in a *good* partnership, as in the first paragraph — is not the one you “settled” for or that matched your needs (versus your wants) or that hit 80% of the items on your “list” or that was a 7 to your 7 in the looks category. It’s the person you clicked with.

      That said, Neely’s point about the dating pool drying up for women when they hit their mid thirties — supposedly — has legs. There are exceptions, of course, but the majority of men appear to prefer significantly younger women.

      Debating the reason is pointless and only serves to stoke a woman’s anxiety, because the debate itself and the discussion that always follows in the comments section drives the point home like a nail hammered into a shin bone (sorry Hugo. I’m a fan, but when you raise the topic, no matter how well written the article, I feel emotionally drained after reading it).

      It would be wonderful to know that there is a “right way” to conduct oneself to avoid this, but there’s not. I think this is where the anxiety is. This is where the second guessing is. This is where the Martha Complex feeds itself — this uncertainty in the face of an (apparently) certain deadline.

      • There have been studies, in fact, that show that the number of sexual partners you have had in your life correlates negatively with the length of your future relationships (and increases likelihood of divorce). The rationale that I have heard for this is that you are more likely to leave if you think that you have options.

        I want to draw attention to the fact that I said “people” and not “women”. This holds true for both genders.

        This is not to say that we should be convincing people that hey have no options. We almost all have had experience with situations where we got overconfident and tried for something out of reach. Human beings are imperfect and long term relationships are rarely easy.

        There is no real “easy” or correct recommendation that I can see to make to young women.

  2. I have just discovered your site and you. I’m a bit leary of this whole focus on feminism. What is it, really? Why don’t we study masculinism?

    Ok… I’m the first to stand up and say women often get a bum rap. I’ve had my share of ‘bum raps’…but the first and worst bum rap came at home, with my mother. Took me 30 years to recover…and during that time, I had no choice but to learn about myself, about other women, about men, and about how life works – during which time I figured out that life is whatever YOU make of it.

    Your gender is secondary to your “self”. I tried to teach that to my children but I believe I failed. My daughters are strong and self-confident on the surface but I sense many of the same insecurities beneath their bright eyes and steady gaze. Why? I never treated them as I had been treated and their lives were vastly nicer. My son – that’s a whole other story. Not for this comment.

    I have little patience with PEOPLE who treat other people badly. Or people who treat animals badly. Gender makes no differences in abuse or neglect. Consequently, I often observe stories like this from the sidelines. I enjoy the conversation and back and forth, but I seldom join the chatter because in the end, each person is responsible for his or her own thoughts and actions, male or female. And yes, many things are harder for women – at least, some men make them harder for women. But, women who are hellbent on achieving, rarely allow those ‘things’ to get in their way.

  3. Hugo–I always, always, always love your writing, and I’m glad to know you exist.

    In response to something said earlier, about how “studies show” that having multiple relationships leads to making it more difficult, essentially, for a person to settle down and stay in one long term relationship because, in theory, they know there are “more options” out there.

    I ask…what’s the problem with that?

    I think it would be far, far more sad for someone to stay in a relationship where they weren’t happy because they were convinced there is nothing better out there for them. That they need to just stay put and make due.


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