A photo of a Wisconsin girl’s father and boyfriend with the caption “Whatever you do to my daughter, I will do to you” went viral last month, provoking Facebook comments like “Kudos to Dad for being protective,” “You can never be too protective of your little girls,” and “Good job dad. Set the rules and carry through with them.”
These praises reflect our culture’s misconception that overprotection helps daughters. But dads would be better off teaching girls how to have healthy relationships than scaring them away from romance altogether. I would know: my father helped me make smart sexual decisions and escape a dangerous situation through an approach many of these commenters would consider under-protective.
Since I was a shy, bookish teenager who didn’t date in high school, neither of my parents spoke to me about sex then, and due to her strict Midwestern Catholic upbringing, my mom never did. So at age 18, as I exited my first neuroscience lecture, I was surprised to receive a call from my dad divulging some lessons he thought I should learn about sex now that I’d started college. “I’m not saying ‘wait until you’re married,’” he said. “I’m not even saying ‘wait a month.’ I’m just saying ‘choose a nice person and use protection.’”
Then, he explained the downfalls of hookup culture with a food analogy: Hookups were like filling up on candy, while a committed relationship was like a nutritious meal that leaves you satisfied. He did not say that casual sex would make me less respectable or that it was a product of men exploiting women. In fact, as a warning, he shared that when he was around my age, someone who only wanted a casual connection broke his heart.
I was still a virgin at the time, but I was harboring one secret. During a family vacation that summer, I met a 33-year-old man on the beach, and we began developing a physical relationship. Since I’d started school, we’d spoken over the phone about meeting up again — at his apartment this time. I felt uneasy about being alone with him, but my friends encouraged it in the name of free-spiritedness and sex-positivity. I was in need of practical but sympathetic advice, and my dad’s call came just in time. After our conversation, I stayed up late writing him an email disclosing everything that had happened.
“There’s never a dull moment with you,” he joked over the phone the following morning before offering more no-nonsense advice: “Be glad you had fun and didn’t get hurt and got some experience under your belt — no pun intended — but close that chapter before it gets complicated.” So I did.
By speaking with understanding, not judgment, my dad led me to trust his advice. And by acknowledging that it was normal both for women to want sex and for men to want love, he helped me view men as allies, not adversaries. He was my biggest ally, after all.
I heeded his wisdom and sought out meaningful relationships even amid my campus’s hookup culture. When I finally started having sex, it was years later with a serious boyfriend I loved. When he visited my childhood home, my father told him, “You can stay in the guest room — and so can you, Suzy. You’re an adult, after all.” He may have never been an overprotective dad, but he definitely has a healthy dose of dad humor.
If my father had instead denied my sexuality, I would not have confided in him, and I may have ended up alone at an older stranger’s apartment. If he had warned me that men had bad intentions, I may have given up on finding men with good intentions.
Research has shown that daughters with present fathers wait longer to become sexually active, something many parents want for their kids. But overprotective fathers cross the border from present to controlling. For example, last year, retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell ranted on his Facebook page about his daughter: “Thinking about having a chastity belt made w/ a SEAL trident engraved on it and reads ‘Ask father for key.’” We’re even seeing pink onesies in stores that read “I’m not allowed to date ever.”
My dad doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone who steered his daughter away from premature sexual activity, but by helping me simultaneously accept my sexuality and be selective about who I shared it with, he did. That’s the kind of father who deserves applause.
Suzannah Weiss is a writer who lives in New York. You can find her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.