When I saw the picture of the Wisconsin father holding his daughter's date with the caption, "What You Do To My Daughter, I Will Do To You," I cringed. I was once a teenage girl and behavior like that would have mortified me.
But wait, there's more.
The family in question has explained that this photo was all done in good humor and was meant to show the "protective nature" of their relationship . But it does seem to send a very particular message about teenage sexuality. Essentially that boys "do" things to girls. It also implies that boys always want to do things to girls and that girls, in general, don't (or shouldn't) want those things done to them.
Would we find this picture as funny if it was a mother doing this to a young woman dating her son?
My father had a very traditional Mexican upbringing. In fact, my grandfather was so conservative, he once yelled at me because he thought wearing shorts in public was inappropriate.
For our boys, the message gets framed around the assumption they have uncontrollable sexual urges towards girls.
My father always wanted to protect me, but he was progressive enough to understand that I had agency over my own body. I know this, because he once told me that he knew young women had sexual impulses, too. He explained that was normal but that I needed to be careful about how I chose to act on those impulses. Frankly, I was mortified when he said those things because, up until then, he had mostly deferred to my mother on those conversations. Now that I am an adult I appreciate his effort.
And now that I have my own son, I know that sex and sexuality are topics I always want to address with honesty and candor, and I don't want to wait till he's a teenager to discuss them.
Girls are almost always at the center of discussions about teenage sex, but our sons deserve to be mentioned, too and not just as predators who are waiting to be left alone with a girl to carry out their desires. The complexities of male teenage sexuality are too often ignored in this narrative.
These antiquated ideas about sex perpetuate the myth that young women have no desires of their own and that sex is something that is "done" to them, not something they ever choose to do themselves. It is no wonder young girls who do choose to become sexually active can harbor so many feelings of shame. They are essentially being told that having desires and acting out on them makes them "bad girls."
For our boys, the message gets framed around the assumption they have uncontrollable sexual urges towards girls. As the mother of a son, I also think we assume that parents don't need to talk young men about sex in the way we talk to girls. Frankly, I also feel protective over my son. I worry about my son contracting an STD or having an unplanned pregnancy. But I understand that he will make his own decisions, once he is a young man and that my role as a parent is to give him the tools to make safe and informed choices about sex.
Please do not feel the need to threaten my son if he ever dates your daughter.
We talk about "raising our daughters right," as if that implies men will always disrespect them and their boundaries. Indeed, I want my son to grow up to be a respectful young man, and I also want him to know he shouldn't feel the need to be sexual before he is ready just to prove his masculinity. In fact, I will tell you a secret: I don't even make heteronormative assumptions about my son's sexuality.
While this picture was meant to capture a funny moment in their family, the popularity of the photo tells us a lot about how we view male and female sexuality. This "boys will be boys" mentality hurts girls for sure, as it assumes that it is their job to protect themselves from boys. But this mentality also hurts boys. It diminishes them and insults their parents in the process.