A letter about sexual harassment to my 11-year old daughter

Dear Fern,

Pretty soon men are going to start saying things they have no business saying. They will imply that you owe them something, that you are inferior to them and should therefore give in to their requests.

I don’t exactly know why men do this. But we do, or at least a lot of us—enough that you’re almost sure to face it someday. Maybe someday soon, even though you’re only 11 years old. It’s nearly universal, and it can be dangerous if left unchecked.

The worst part of this toxic male gaze is that the men think they’re in the right. They will say things like “I didn’t mean anything” or “You should be flattered.” Or maybe “I thought you were sending me a signal.” These are lies, and the men know it. Men know they are lying when they say “It was the way you dressed.” They’ll say anything to make their depravity seem like your fault.

Sometimes, these men will threaten to couple their words with physical violence. Sometimes these threats won’t be obvious: maybe a man will stand just a little too close to you, or right behind you, or stand while you are sitting. But they are threats, made by men who feel powerless and want to express their power.

You’ll spend much energy strategizing for your own safety. You’ll plot safe routes to your car. Some places you’ll avoid unless you’re in a group. White men occasionally do this, too, but not very much—not nearly as much as you’ll have to, and your LGBT and non-white friends have to do it even more. Things shouldn’t be this way, but they are.

When men whistle, insult, or bully, don’t give them the power to hurt your soul. Such men have shriveled hearts, and you shouldn’t believe for one second anything they say. They want to bring you down to make themselves feel better, and you can’t let them do that or they’ll never stop. Eleanor Roosevelt said this: “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” Don’t give them that permission.

Also, never forget that many men are required to live by a higher standard. Coaches, fellow students, teachers, coworkers when you get a job someday, or pretty much anyone with authority over you—these people have agreed to a strict code of conduct. If anyone in this group ever harasses or assaults you, tell a trusted adult, report it, and demand an investigation.

And now, another warning. If you ever do report someone who harrasses you, the investigation might wind up the worst part. You will be questioned and denigrated by those you thought were allies. In the end, the abuser might not face any punishment. Our biased systems are designed to protect men, and white men in particular.

Report the scumbag anyway, if you can possibly stomach it. You will have driven one stake into the heart of abuse, put one loser on notice that his deplorable actions can have consequences. Maybe you’ll save someone from the same situation. At the least, you will have spoken your truth out loud, and you can ask nothing more of yourself.

Some people will advise you just to steer clear of harassers and predators, but for most women — yes, most — that’s just impossible. Besides, that advice implies that it’s your responsibility to defuse these horrible situations. It’s not.

I’ll just say this: please know that this evil is a small part of our otherwise miraculous existence. Do your best to keep safe, and when a man inevitably makes an asshole of himself, or worse, know that you are no less incredible, no less miraculous for having suffered through it.