Walking down the beach path with my teenage daughter I see a man staring at her legs. With her blond hair blowing in the wind and with her long Scandinavian thighs sticking out of those tiny shorts she is quite a sight. But that stare is aimed at a woman, not a fourteen-year-old girl who is busy developing her identity and enduring her useless and embarrassing parents. I want to punch that fifty-something, self-assured guy with his gold necklace and dark sunglasses right in the stomach. How dare he? I know that look, that assessing gaze, sizing up the breasts, buttocks and the legs, not the face, or the person, for that matter.
I ask my daughter is she noticed the man staring at her. She continues kicking herself on with the Penny-board, shrugs and says she doesn’t notice or care, but that her father has told her that men sometimes stare at her. “So how do you feel about that”, I venture. “I dunno, I like wearing these shorts, they’re comfy”. And off she rides leaving me with a knot in my stomach: we really need to have The Talk soon.
But how do you talk to your beautiful teenage daughter about the risks she exposes herself to by merely being young and possessing a body that some men might want to exploit? How do I talk to her about not wearing too short pants or too deeply cut tank tops without automatically subscribing to every single rape myth. The official definition of rape myths is “false beliefs about rape that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women.” (Lonsway, 1994). Blaming the victim in rape is an extremely prevalent reaction: if the female rape victim engages in any kind of “incautious” behaviour, chances are that she is going to be judged as at least partly being at fault for what happened (Pollard, 1992).
A recent overview of rape myth endorsement patterns found that males are more likely to subscribe to these myths along with people who hold traditional gender role ideas and have racist or hetero-normative values (Suarez, 2010). What a surprise! Well, even if there are no surprises there, rape myth acceptance predicts victim blaming even among policemen specially trained for sexual violence investigations (Sleath, 2012). A gutsy, drunk or clueless woman should simply suit herself! So if I tell my daughter that those shorts are basically dangerous for her to wear, I identify her not only as a potential sexual object for a man, but also as a victim, who is to blame.
When we get home, I muster some courage and try a version of my mother’s suggestion:
“You know the thing is that you just need to be a bit aware of the reactions you might evoke by the way you dress”.
“I should bloody well be able to walk NAKED if I want without having to be afraid of anyone raping me!”
I choke on my water both because I can’t help but laugh, but also because I now panic that this Talk is not going quite so well. And how come she even knows I am alluding to rape? I do, however, feel both proud and relieved that my daughter has not subscribed to any rape myths, so far.
This is when my husband steps in. “Yes, Darling, that would be great, but fact is…”. I leave the room and go upstairs to shower. I chicken out from one of the most important Talks a mother has to have with her daughter and let her dad take care of it. Might as well, maybe he has more trustworthiness as a male.
I let the warm water stroke my face and a memory suddenly strikes me. I was exactly my daughter’s age when a man stained my white shorts. It was on a packed tram and my cousin and I just jumped off and ran. I didn’t quite understand what the sticky fluid on my shorts was, but I had seen it come out from that man’s penis and was scared and disgusted. The next thing I remember is standing in the hot shower at home, freezing despite the hot summer day and trying to wash the disgust off myself. I blamed the white shorts and felt it was somehow my fault. Blaming the victim, as it were. I have never worn shorts again.
My husband assures me that he has continued the Talk with our daughter, mentioning to her rape as a war crime among other things, just to show her that however surreal these things might seem, they do happen. I am not quite sure that’s relevant knowledge for a 14-year-old, but I keep quiet, because I just cannot make myself have the Talk so he has to. I feel caught in a catch 22 situation where if I warn her I subscribe to rape myths and if I don’t I expose her to possible danger. Fact of life, my husband says. And I should know.