Raising girls in rape culture
My daughter should never hear, 'What did you do to make this happen?' Lauren Byrne writes
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My little girl turned 6 the other day. She is our first born, our surprise baby. Pregnancy snuck up on us a mere 11 weeks into our marriage and, at the tender age of 25, I gave birth to a pink and fire-breathing force to be reckoned with. We named her Avery. She is strong-willed and fierce and defiant. She questions everything and she answers back, and I love all those things about her the best.
A long while back, she and our youngest, who was 2 at the time, were squabbling over toys upstairs. My husband and I were busy making supper and so were letting them work it out. Suddenly, Avery's arguing turned to crying. Not the frustrated cry, the hurt cry. If you have kids, you know this cry. So, my husband and I dropped what we were doing and ran up stairs.
Liam had bitten her. Hard. She was already developing a bruise and had raised red marks where all his little teeth had sunk in. Brad scooped her up and started swaying her back and forth, smoothing her hair and wiping her tears, and then I heard him gently say, "Baby, what did you do to make Liam bite you?"
My husband is a gentle giant. He stands 6-foot-2, has a set of shoulders like a linebacker and two biceps as big as my thighs that are covered in tattoos. At first glance, intimidating, yet he is the most non-violent man I have ever encountered. He barely raises his voice when we argue. He cried for three days when our daughter was born, in complete disbelief that he could love someone so much. He despises any man who would ever lay a hand on or take advantage of a woman. Yet, with this one question, I felt the weight of rape culture crash down on me.
It doesn't matter what Avery did. It doesn't matter if she took Liam's toy or if she hit him, or even if she bit him first. The question is irrelevant. You don't bite.
Similarly, it doesn't matter if you have had sex with this man before, if you have been flirting with him for weeks, if you are completely intoxicated, or even in his bed, but then change your mind. The situation is irrelevant. You do not rape.
My husband's intent was to get to the root of the issue and not assign blame on our wounded daughter. The problem was his wording, but raising a girl in the current state our world is in, wording means more to me now than ever.
I am desperately trying to hold on to her childhood, her innocence, her fierceness. She frustrates me often, even makes me want to tear my hair out at times, but I can't let her lose who she is. I can't let her be tainted by this idea that women need to be soft and quiet and forgiving. I want her to scream when she has been wronged. I want her to know that we will scream with her.
In that moment, I couldn't help but see flashes of our daughter at 19. Drinking too much and wearing a dress that will probably barely cover her body. I know these days are ahead. But what if there is someone who she is flirting with and she is attracted to, but she's not quite ready to have sex with yet? The more she drinks, the less she can say "no." And before she knows it, she wakes up with foggy recollections and an understanding that something has happened that shouldn't have.
I want her to know that her outfit choice means nothing and that being too intoxicated to say "no" is also too intoxicated to consent. I want to raise her to understand that in any situation when she has been hurt or afraid or, God forbid, sexually assaulted, she will never hear her parents say "but what did you do to make this happen" again.
I want her to know that we will support her no matter the situation. That we will love her. Most importantly, that we will believe her.
For so long, my husband's gentle question seemed as if it wasn't worth worrying about. But as time goes on and I see more men being found "not guilty" of sexual assault on the news, even when woman after woman gathers up her courage and throws away her dignity to testify, it becomes more important. Because when you have children, one day you blink and they're 6. And then, you blink again and they are 19. And suddenly, those little things have become big things and your reaction to the little things will dictate whether they come to you about the big things.
Luckily, my ever-loving husband understood my frustration. As difficult as it is for him to wrap his head around, he is living in a society where women are regularly blamed for being victims. I'm so thankful that I married someone who believes that "when you know better, you do better" and so has been incredibly conscious of this ever since.
When I held my little girl, fresh from the oven, I was overwhelmed with love and excitement for what was to come. I remember thinking that once I could get her sleeping through the night and using the potty, motherhood would be smooth sailing. How naive I was. It's only now that we are entering the rough waters of parenthood. I just hope that we can keep the ship afloat and raise our daughter to one day fearlessly take the wheel and steer.
Lauren Byrne lives in Clarenville, Nfld.