“As a father of daughters” is now a well-worn phrase, trod out every time men feel the need to distance themselves from misogynistic comments or behavior.
Of course it’s been particularly pervasive in the last few weeks, as Republicans have denounced Donald Trump for saying he “grabs” women’s genitals in a leaked video from 2005. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, for example, said that “My wife and I, we have a 15-year-old daughter, and if I can’t look her in the eye and tell her these things, I can’t endorse this person.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky issued a statement explaining that “as the father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere.”
The “as a father of daughters” refrain has even become part of Hillary Clinton’s offensive. An ad released by her campaign features a lifelong Republican who announces that he won’t vote for Trump because “I’m the father of three girls.”
Fathers of daughters may well feel a personal sense of outrage — but it’s the fathers of sons who could, ultimately, do something to mitigate or end the misogyny that still taints our culture.
Left up to their own devices, we know what boys will grow up to do. According to a 2014 study, 65 percent of women have experienced street harassment, 20 percent have been followed, and 9 percent subsequently forced to do something sexual. But the street isn’t the only danger zone: 1 in 3 women has been harassed at work, according to a Cosmopolitan Magazine study last year. Sexual assault is widespread on college campuses.
As a father of sons, it’s my responsibility to help fix these problems. Just as I speak with my children about other issues of civil rights and discrimination, I speak with them about the difficulties women have historically faced at the hands of men. Of course I have to speak in an age-appropriate fashion when it comes to sexual activity and predation, but the basic concept of consent is something every child can understand.
My kids were taught not to grab others’ toys when they were still in diapers; surely, over time, that instruction can be applied to other discussions of what else they may not grab.
If we don’t have that discussion with our boys, if we don’t speak frankly and specifically about what consent and respect for women mean, we’re leaving them at the mercy of our broader society. Our boys’ morality is too precious to leave up to television and locker room buddies as their main sources of instruction.
But it’s not enough to simply avoid offense. We need to raise our boys to be conscious and critical of the culture they enter. Confronting misogyny around them will make our boys not just individuals who do no harm, but agents of change. When they hear someone make a sexist joke, our boys should be the kind to say, “That’s not funny.” When they hear an unfortunate generalization about women, they should be the ones to interrupt and say, “That’s not true.” Our boys should report abuse and harassment they see to the authorities and avoid ever engaging in a “bro code” of silence.
Of course there are others reasons to chafe at the “fathers of daughters” line. As nice as it is to have fathers on the side of equality, there is the obvious question of “where did you stand before?” If men wait until they have girls to join the cause, they’ll have spent decades perpetuating the culture of male privilege. Shouldn’t every person, whether or not they have daughters — or sisters or wives — find talk of sexual assault abhorrent?
Steven I. Weiss is news anchor and managing editor at the Jewish Channel. You can find him on Twitter @steveniweiss. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.