Women’s Advocates’ Education and Outreach Coordinator Meggie Royer writes a monthly post on topics that are relevant to the work we do as an organization. While Women’s Advocates is supported by Grant No. A-CVS-2018-WOMADV-00013, awarded by the Office on Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs – the opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice.
The psychology of familial bonds and violence against women
In October 2017, the actor Matt Damon released a statement addressing his thoughts on Harvey Weinstein’s three-decades-long pattern of sexual harassment and assault. In his statement, Damon reminded the world of his role as a “father of four daughters,” and went on to say that “this [was] the kind of sexual predation that ke[pt] him up at night.”
Similar statements have been given from Andrew Cuomo, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and dozens of other powerful and well-known men on the topic of sexual violence against women. The insertion of fatherhood into conversations about violence against women may be well-intentioned, but it is not novel, nor is it particularly useful in its current state.
The role of fatherhood does help us imagine a world safer for our daughters, granddaughters, sisters, wives, and aunts, and helps us look to a future where the women we love no longer have to fear abuse, rape, or harassment. But it also minimizes the importance of women with whom men have no relationships at all, or casual acquaintanceships at best. Women have value not because we may know them personally, but because they exist.
This is not to say that using fatherhood as a prevention frame does not have its potential benefits – but we must recognize that for some young women and girls, fatherhood may not always be seen as an entirely positive bond. For instance, a fifteen-year peer-reviewed study of several hundred college-aged women published in 2007 found that the vast majority of the women viewed their relationships with their mothers as “more communicative, more emotionally intimate, and more comfortable.” This viewpoint remained remarkably steady across the fifteen-year timespan, demonstrating that for many women, the father-daughter bond may grow weaker across time or remain static, while the mother-daughter bond often strengthens.
This finding is further supported by a 2008 Journal of Marriage and Family study that examined several thousand adult children’s support of their elderly parents. The study found that for elderly men, their adult children, including daughters, were far less likely to provide emotional and/or financial support than they were for their elderly mothers. When the fathers were divorced, this disparity grew even larger.
The takeaway is that for these “fathers of daughters” such as Matt Damon, statements such as “I have x number of daughters” are not particularly useful if the warmth, protectiveness, and advocacy they feel towards their daughters are not felt by their daughters themselves, or if these positive feelings about their daughters are not expanded to all women. And indeed, the research suggests that in general, daughters reveal less personal information to their fathers than their mothers because they fear that their fathers will be more disapproving, possibly due to stereotypes of men as angry and dismissive, or due to fears of male anger and violence.
We cannot view “fathers of daughters” statements as positive or as fostering a culture of equality and a violence-free life for women if there continues to be a fundamental disconnect between fathers’ understandings of their daughters’ feelings, and between men’s understandings of women’s feelings. Being a father of a daughter does not matter in the realm of eliminating violence against women if daughters fear their fathers, or if fathers remain unaware of the real fears and misgivings their daughters and other women may have when it comes to their images of men. Could it be that if fathers are unaware that their daughters may fear arguing with them, that this same lack of awareness may translate into men’s general unawareness, or lack of care, that the possibility of male anger and control is a real fear for many women?
And we certainly cannot continue to view “fathers of daughters” statements as positive or helpful when they reinforce ideas that women have intrinsic value only in their relationships to others. Women are deserving of respect, equality, and basic dignity alone and by themselves, as human beings and individuals first and foremost. Women are deserving of respect not because they are daughters or mothers, but because they are people.
Harvey Weinstein has five children. Four of them are daughters. Their names are India Pearl, Emma, Ruth, and Lily. As the father of four daughters, Weinstein is still a serial sexual abuser and predator. His daughters are important because they are people.
And his victims, all women, are important because they are people as well.
Written by Meggie Royer, Education and Outreach Coordinator at Women’s Advocates.
If you have comments or questions, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.