Note: This is another guest post by Emilia. Thanks, Emi! James is wholly responsible for the alliterative title; no blame should be placed on Emilia for such a travesty.
“Funny” images like this get linked on social media all the time. You have probably seen one of these and if you have not, you have probably heard fathers talk about their “rules for dating my daughter.” It is kind of a cultural tradition and even Hollywood keeps showing us ever new variations of this old trope: The “dad talking to the daughter’s new boyfriend,” taking them aside to give them the stern talk and look, sometimes even threatening them, often including some comic relief. It is a common trope that amuses people and it obviously plays on an emotion we can all relate to: The fear for your loved one’s safety.
All parents worry about their children’s safety and they never stop worrying even after the “kids” have grown up. Parents know that complete safety is impossible to achieve and I think it is safe to assume that, when it comes to dating-related fears, parents worry more about their daughters than they worry about their sons. This is easily explained by both realistic worries (Women are at a much higher risk of sexual assault than men) and unrealistic worries (“Women are the weaker sex”). And who would blame a father for trying to make sure that his beloved daughter is as safe as possible?
As you can probably imagine, I did not write this blog post to praise this picture, though. On the surface it is easy to criticize it for promoting violent behavior and threats. Violence should never be a means of conflict management so the implied threats in these “rules for dating my daughter” are very problematic. But let us be fair, here. Even most of those who enjoy the picture and share it on social media would not take it literally. It is meant as an over-the-top joke even though the mindset behind it is something many people can relate to. It is exaggerated for comedic effect, so let us not dwell too much on the fact that it promotes threatening “your” daughter’s new boyfriend with physical violence.
What is actually more problematic is the mindset behind the whole idea of setting “rules for dating your daughter.” Now, while the rest of this blog post is going to address “you,” the father of a girl who is making her first experiences in dating, it is also written for all those girls who are the object of this phenomenon.
First of all, let me ask you this: Who should be the one setting the rules for dating your daughter? Shouldn’t she be the one doing that?
Mindblowing idea, I know!
The idea that women (or girls) need a man to promote and protect their own interests is a very old, very tired, and very sexist one. It is indicative of a mindset that is based on the idea that women are weak and cannot stand up for themselves.
By giving “rules for dating your daughter” you are adopting that mindset. Do you really want that?
Another problem to consider is that by setting the rules you are implying that you, as a man, have some sort of influence over your daughter’s love life. Apparently, it is perfectly normal for fathers to assume that their daughter’s relationships are something they, as dads, need to exert some influence over. At the very least some kind of oversight is needed… right?
“Surprisingly” the idea that men control the relationships of their female family members is also a very old, very tired, and very sexist one.
So, that makes two. Are you reconsidering yet?
At this point, a loving father might be thinking: “Fine, it might be a little sexist but at least it is a protective kind of sexism. I want to protect my daughter from harm because I love her so much.”
Again, an understandable notion and one that I am not ready to blame you for just yet. Still: It is protective, but it is also possessive and patronizing. Many fathers believe that, for the sake of their daughter’s safety, they have the right to control their daughters (and prospective boyfriends) as well as basically rob them of their agency by deciding things for them.
Now, let us have a look at the actual effects of that behaviour. How is a dad setting the rules for dating his daughter affecting the people involved? What is it teaching them?
What is your daughter learning from this?
She is learning that she cannot independently make decisions that affect her own life. She learns that she doesn’t have agency because there is a man who sets the rules for her instead of letting her do it. She learns that she can never be safe without the protection of a man. Oh, I “wonder” what that might do to her self-confidence. She learns that her father does not trust her decisionmaking competence.
What is her new boyfriend (or any young male being exposed to this whole idea) learning from this?
He is learning that women cannot make independent decisions for themselves. Do you think it is a good idea to teach that to a man who is in a relationship with your daughter? He is also learning that women can never be safe without the protection of a man and that their decisionmaking cannot be trusted which means… they are also unlikely to allow their partners the freedom to express themselves and live their lives.
But worst of all: He learns that he doesn’t need to respect and treat his girlfriend well for her own sake but only because a man has threatened him with violence. The girl’s human dignity is not at the center of this; she is not the subject of this consideration. She is the object of a negotiation between men. The respect she deserves is not based on her being a human being but instead based on her connection to a man who cares for her.
If you look at the effects the “rules for dating my daughter” have on both the girl and the boy in question it is fair to assume that, instead of increasing the girl’s safety, is is actually reducing her safety by making her less self-confident, less able to stand up for herself and teaching men that it is okay to patronize women and decide for them. The ultimate result is that your daughter will be less safe and less free.
Let me ask again: Do you really want that?
If I am ever going to have a daughter there will be exactly one rule for dating her: She decides.
And if she really needs and wants my help or advice I will always be there for her.