A man emailed recently in response to something I’d written about street harassment. He was so glad, he said, that his college-age daughter never experienced anything like that. Less than a day later, he wrote again. They had just talked. She told him she’d been harassed many, many times — including that week. She hadn’t ever shared this, because she wanted to protect him from her pain.
For all the stereotypes that linger about women being too fragile or emotional, these past weeks have revealed what many women already knew: A lot of effort goes into protecting men we love from bad things that happen to us. And a lot of fathers are closer to bad things than they’ll ever know.
“Two of my daughters have told me stories that I had never heard before about things that happened to them in high school,” Fox News anchor Chris Wallace mused on air last Thursday, as he urged skeptical viewers to carefully consider the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford.
If you are a father who hasn’t heard these stories, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They’ve been pouring into my inbox almost every day.
To the father of the young woman who was assaulted by the student athlete she was hired to tutor: She never told you because she didn’t want to break your heart. But she told me, in a long email, because the memory of it was breaking her own heart and she’d spent five years replaying it.
To the father of the junior high student who was pinned down and undressed at a gathering 30 years ago: She didn’t tell you because she didn’t want to see you cry. But she told me that she still remembers every detail.
To the father of the teenager who was raped at a party. You don’t know about this, because she was certain that if you knew, you would kill her attacker and go to prison, and it would be her fault.
To the father of the son who was assaulted by an older man: I wish I could tell you more about what happened to him, but he wouldn’t tell me, and he definitely won’t tell you, because manliness is important to you, he says.
To all the fathers of all the silent victims: Your children are quietly carrying these stories, not because they can’t handle their emotions but because they’re worried that you can’t. They are worried that your emotions will have too many consequences. Or they fear you won’t think of them the same way. Or that you’ll be distraught because you didn’t protect them.
“It meant I would have to talk about something sexual,” one woman wrote me, about why it took her decades to tell her father about an assault at a pool party when she was 10. “And that was a completely taboo subject.”
I have been thinking lately about taboos, and how many of them exist because women don’t want to make men uncomfortable with lady pain — a broad spectrum that includes cramps, breast-feeding, the viscera of childbirth, the achiness of menstruation.
Some grown men still react to tampons as if they’re grenades, and as a result, many grown women still furtively pass them between ourselves in shadowy corridors, so nobody else feels awkward.
It’s silly, and we must know this at some level. But if the mention of Tampax makes a man need a fainting couch, is it any wonder we decide he’s not ready to hear messier stories?
A dear friend shared this week that she was repeatedly molested as a kid. She’s fine now, she said. The only reason she hadn’t spoken up publicly was because her father still didn’t know; it would devastate him. She saw the irony in this — that even in her own recovery, she had been concerned with shielding a man from agony.
“But Lord, my dad’s done an awful lot for me,” she wrote. “And I can and will do this for him.”
This makes sense to me. All of us want to protect our loved ones from painful information. I don’t want this woman’s father to have to deal with it either.
But when I think of my friend’s valiant secrecy, I want to cry.
So, to the rest of you: If you can tell your father in a way that feels safe, and in a way that would bring you comfort, tell your father. Tell your brothers. Let them be uncomfortable; let them share some of your pain. Don’t let them be ignorant. If your fathers are going to form beliefs about how victims should act and what perpetrators look like, then force your father to deal with the complication of making those assumptions about someone he loves.
And if you yourself are a father, and you believe this would never happen to your daughter — how do you know?
She might not have told you. But she has told me.
A 50-something woman called me this week. She told me her father was the parent she always wanted to impress; disappointing him was the worst thing she could imagine. That’s what was in her mind 40 years ago when a group of neighborhood boys lured her into a house and assaulted her, one of them watching the door, two of them digitally penetrating her. She was thinking about how she didn’t want to disappoint her father.
Last week, this woman began feeling like her dad couldn’t really know who she was unless she told him about the attack. She called him, and the story came out in a tumble.
On the telephone that day, she says, he spoke to her in his “dad voice.” Not the adult tone he usually used when they talked now. But in the voice of her childhood, comforting and parental.
In his dad voice, he told her she didn’t have to share the whole story with him now. But when she was ready, he wanted to listen.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.