The other day I found myself exclaiming to my two daughters, sixteen and fourteen respectively, don’t have sex until you’re in your twenties, but here are some condoms.
I’m not sure if there is a better example of sending a mixed message.
I should explain. The other night I discovered my oldest daughter had spent the night with her boyfriend.
Now, I have consistently brought up sex with them and with their older brother who now lives on his own with a gaggle of twenty something young men in West Oakland. And I have consistently been rebuffed, scoffed at, silenced by their stares, punctuated with a rolling of the eyes or a sigh of exhaustion.
But I don’t let it stop me. I know I’m not someone they want to confide in, and I actually cringe thinking about it if they did. But I want to approach the discussion of their bodies, their rights, sex in general differently than the terse warning I received from my father to keep my dick in my pants or the silence around the subject from my mother.
There is nothing wrong with sex; it’s powerful and beautiful and a profound ritual of entering adulthood.
Clearly, it’s also something they see all around them so to pretend they aren’t aware of it, even that they don’t have opportunities to engage in it, would be blatant denial.
And parenting by denial is never a good approach to raising children.
However, even though I broach the subject any chance I get, we don’t actually talk as directly as I’d like. And that’s why I know I need help, from other adults in our lives to examples of people or movements reclaiming the body, offering other ways to view sex, that might empower young women.
Sadly, there’s not a lot out there for them; besides a few adult women in their lives that they can turn to in need, there is almost nothing in mainstream society that speaks to young women about their growth and desires in sex positive, yet realistic and honest ways.
So I find myself saying things like, I don’t think you should have sex until you’re older; however, here are condoms
But now I also add every chance I get, and remember…
…you can always stop, you can always say no, even after you’re in the car, in the room, out of your clothes, in the bed.
No means no.
Stop means stop.
In an attempt to provide those positive examples of body ownership and empowerment, I searched out zines about self--defense, about sexual abuse, about sex positive experiences, things written by other young women.
And then, I rediscovered Riot Grrrl. The ferocity, the anger, the arrogance. There is one image of a group of young women holding hands, one without clothes, across her chest and belly black marker declares: Every Girl is a Riot Grrrl.
I played as often as they’d let me Bikini Kill and other female bands as we would make dinner or do our chores.
Maybe the mantra: ‘who needs a boyfriend, when you gotta band,’ will seep in.
Let me back up.
I was not a part of the Riot Grrrl movement as it was born, but I was a parent who was inspired by the relentless attention to power, to consent, to self-empowerment.
In fact, fathering made me a feminist.
As a young father with a newborn, I was served papers by the county of Santa Barbara to officially notify me that I must “provide” for my child. I was served those papers, of course, while I was rocking him in my arms, cleaning up the house I shared with my girlfriend. The cop stood there, scolding me that I should be out getting a job. At twenty-one, I said nothing back to him, afraid of his power and authority.
Okay, I said and shut the door.
But I was fucking angry. I was a full time student. So was my girlfriend. We both had part time jobs. We took turns doing what needed to get done; we switched it up when one of us got tired of, say, balancing the checkbook (or more likely made too many mistakes). We argued and fought, but loved and spent a lot of time focusing on what was important, our son. We sacrificed our autonomy or ability to participate in things other 20 year olds were doing.
We were a tight, angry fist of domesticity.
We struggled with the decision to send our six week-old child to an illegal childcare center that clearly had way too many children for one woman.
But we had no other choice; she’s what we could afford.
Ironically, even then, when I would walk up to drop him off the sitter would tell me I was carrying him wrong. Time went on, but the attitudes towards men as parents never seemed to change.
On the weekends, I would bike around Santa Barbara with my son letting his mother sleep because she was out till two in the morning selling roses to drinking partiers at the bars along State Street.
Of course, I will admit that balancing him, a year old baby, on the handle bars sans helmet may not have been the smartest move a father could make. But the number of times I was told I couldn’t parent was infuriating. I was told I hadn’t dressed him properly, leaving home socks and shoes, or that I knew nothing about his well being, despite being the one to take him to many doctor’s appointments, or that I would hurt him or drop him, which I sometimes did, but not because I was a man.
I was determined to show them all wrong.
I took him a few times to various classes during my first year at UCSB not because I had some point to prove about young parents, but because I had no childcare and a number of my teachers made no exceptions about attendance.
I remember having to change him on one teacher’s desk after class, her face full of disdain, her body recoiling; it was one of the most awkward yet proud moments of my life. I didn’t then see the irony in being so unwelcome with a child in that space.
Instead, at the time, I apologized, backpedaled, afraid I was being disrespectful. I thought of my mother, doing the same thing ten years earlier, telling me, a twelve year old, to stay in the car and watch my brothers while she ran in to take her final test to pass some class she was taking at the community college.
I realized then, the strength she must have needed, a single mom, to continue her studies, to persist despite the intense judgment society throws at parents, especially poor, single moms on welfare like she was at the time.
Shit needed to change. Even then, I wanted role models. People unwilling to bend, brazen, arrogant, relentless.
I was becoming more radical in my politics trying to figure out my place in the world, my mixed race heritage, my sense of class, and perhaps most profoundly my definitions of manhood, of fatherhood, of gender.
How to relearn gender?
After all I was parenting a boy who would grow to be a man.
What kinda man would he be? What kinda man was I?
The irony was I began reading feminist theory in my classrooms and with my schoolmates, but I lived it daily in my house with my girlfriend and my child.
My girlfriend was a powerful, hardworking, woman from a poor background. She had that poverty mentality: work yourself to the bone and never ask for handouts. But what was more stunning was that she had 100 percent trust in me as a parent, as capable of soothing, calming, protecting, loving our son.
She never doubted even when I made mistakes.
No one else had that kind of trust.
After two years in Santa Barbara, we were leaving, heading for the Bay Area. For my last semester in the spring of 1992, I signed up for a Feminist Studies class; one of my last assignments was to share with the class how the ideas we addressed might impact our daily lives. It was a good assignment.
For it, I walked in with my son, a diaper bag, filled with bottles and food.
This is how, I said.
I got a B.
But another student walked in with a bunch of zines, some 7 inches, and one bad attitude.
Riot Grrrl found me.
It has stayed with me all these years as I meandered through graduate school, as I reexamined gender relations in my own relationships with women, as I became a father to two girls, and as my children have grown up.
I was never a riot grrrl but because of them I was forced to think closely about what I let my son do at ten and what I let my daughters do at the same age. Because of Riot Grrrl, I challenged myself to address sex in positive, open ways; I encouraged my son and my daughters to speak with other adults in their lives if they couldn’t speak to their mother or me.
Things can be hard to discuss, but I want the courage to do it.
As I have rediscovered Riot Grrrl while looking for things that might help my daughters navigate their world today, I was reminded about their courage, their arrogance, their fearlessness.
Because I know that remaining silent, like Audre Lorde said, is dangerous; it’ll come back and punch you in the mouth from the inside.
I know now what she means by that; she means that what matters is communication, is taking those risks to share the stories of who we are and what we believe.
So I work hard to see my daughters both as young women and as individual people, not limited to their gender, but not disconnected from it, to respect my children’s autonomy and privacy as young people.
I am learning to let go of my kids and trust their power.
I am learning to keep on talking despite feeling uncomfortable.
I am learning to listen to them.
I am still learning about myself through fathering.
Perhaps none of this is about sex education or being a man in society today or about Riot Grrrl specifically; maybe it’s just the story of one person simply learning to see himself and those around him as the complex people they are: full of contradictions, fickle to a fault, sometimes brave, sometimes inspired.
Trying to live a life worth living.
And of course, trying to hand my daughters condoms.