The Shotgun Mentality: How Fathers Are Still Controlling Their Daughter's Sexuality

A girl in charge of her dating life? Inconceivable!

A girl in charge of her dating life? Inconceivable!

...I wasn’t aware enough to put my humiliation and outrage into words, about my father having a say in my sexuality, protecting my virginity as if it were some kind of commodity, property, or jewel that was anyone’s but mine.

This cringe-inducing story about a dad who forced his daughter’s prom date to pose in humiliating pictures made its Internet rounds last week, and then I found this gem: The daughter who presented her pastor father with a certificate that her hymen was “intact.”

Hey, kudos to her for keeping the panties on (if that's what she wanted), but why on earth did she need to “prove” to her dad she was a virgin? On TV, the couple described their virginity as “value” and she wanted to share her accomplishment with her father.

No, sorry, a virgin is not more valuable than a non-virgin. Having boundaries and taking charge of your own body is the value proposition here.

They seem lovely — truly, the kind of couple you’d invite to brunch. But I don’t care one way or the other if they held out until their wedding day. That’s their business. But it changes the meaning when you involve your dad in such a public way, beaming with accomplishment about your intact hymen (which, medically, means nothing. They can grow back. And also, they disappear in other ways. And what about the other kinds of sex in various other holes?).

Sexual weirdness between fathers and daughters goes way back — we have the Greeks to thank for giving us the story of Electra, and her father, King Agamemnon, who ended up together after some brutal offings of the mother and the mother’s lover. Still, the “dad with a shotgun” is standing by at front doors everywhere, waiting to pick off anyone who dares touch his daughter in a way he deems inappropriate — unless Dad’s the date at a purity ball. Even my dad — for all his goodness and progressive, liberal thinking — created his own version of the shotgun incident.

I loved Matt, a 15-year-old ringer for Pierce Brosnan, in the way only a hormone-addled 14-year-old girl can. I was the townie living in a remote speck of a place on the pristine waters of Washington State’s Puget Sound; Matt and his family had come from the very exotic-sounding Santa Barbara to escape the Southern California heat and lounge by the resort pool and play tennis. When we met, I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep. I imagined our lives together against the backdrop of an REO Speedwagon soundtrack.

For two summers, we splashed each other in the pool. We saw Porky’s. We kissed, a lot. Maybe a hand on my bra, maybe my fingers grazed the band of underwear. But that was about as far as it went, physically. Upon Matt’s departure that first summer, I wrote in my diary, “This is the first time in my life I have been in love...Love isn’t a bed of roses.” And then I wrote out my first name and his last name, as if we were married, and surrounded it with a heart. We both cried when he left.

By the end of our second summer, we’d still not “done the deed,” as I was saving my virginity. I was in the house alone when Matt came to say goodbye. There were teary kisses and promises to keep in touch. And then my dad came home.

Dad roared. It was the culmination of a years-long, circular “I’ll begin to trust you when you’re trustworthy” go-round. He was a single father who had his way with the ladies — lots of them — trying to keep me away from boys like him, I suppose. He’d assumed the worst, every time, and I wasn’t allowed to have company when I was home alone. Dad unceremoniously kicked Matt out. I screamed, over and over, “We were just saying goodbye!” It didn’t matter. The moment would be etched into my psyche forever. And Matt’s too. We’ve seen each other once in the past 30 years, but we’re Facebook friends. I asked him if he recalls that day. “I remember it well. Such a tender moment blown out of proportion,” he said.

Back then, I wasn’t aware enough to put my humiliation and outrage into words, about my father having a say in my sexuality, protecting my virginity as if it were some kind of commodity, property, or jewel that was anyone’s but mine.

I thought about the scene in my dad’s living room the other day, after I commented on friend’s picture of her daughter (I’ll call her Abby) before a school dance. I said she looked lovely. The guy after me, Tom, commented: “Buy a shotgun,” implying that the girl was so pretty that her parents would need to shoot any boy who got near her.

Hold my earrings, I’m going in

I’m not the type to engage in a social media controversy. I’d rather delete a gun nut or Woody Allen defender from my friend list than try to debate (even though I mourn the days gone when I could just love Allen’s movies). Still, I bit, because there were too many times in my life when I was quietly outraged, when I didn’t call people on their words, whether they meant them in jest or not. If I don’t notice disempowerment, it becomes further ingrained into my personal cultural consciousness. It becomes white noise. It becomes sanctioned by default.

“I’m sure Abby is a strong young woman who can make her own decisions. That shotgun stuff? Please.” I wrote.

And then my friend, Abby’s mom, said, “Ah Vanessa, it’s all in good fun.” Tom told me to “Take a pill. It was meant in jest and a compliment to Abby, who is gorgeous.” And then he added, “As a father of a girl I believe in empowerment... 12 gauge.”

Here’s the problem. It’s not a compliment in a deeper sense, and it’s not fun. For anyone involved. I’m probably the last person you’d call a sanctimonious prick, what with my uncertain personal boundaries and potty mouth, and I personally hate any sort of word policing.

However. The “shotgun” reference felt like a demeaning thing to say to Abby, because it nullifies her say in how she chooses to share her body, or not. As if she is helpless livestock that needs a protection from a wolf, and the only way to get that is to have a parent step in with a gun.

It’s an offensive thing to say to a boy, because, yes, I know teenage boys think about sex something like 17,000 times per second, but you’re also reinforcing the message that they can’t control their own actions, and that sex is not a negotiation between the boy and the girl. If all boys are presumed guilty until proven innocent, then maybe that’s how they’ll behave. It’s shrugging off bad male behavior we’ve seen as “boys will be boys.” The father stepping in with a shotgun, phallic on its own, is a showdown of sexual dominance, my friend Amy pointed out.

Finally, it’s implying a parenting failure. It is an admission that you have lost control of your child, and the situation, because you didn’t prepare her or him to negotiate sexual contact. 

I understand that young women aren’t always self-possessed enough to understand their own impulses, never mind communicate them. I know they get themselves into ridiculous, compromising situations all the time (seriously, it’s amazing anyone lives past 17) with inappropriate companions. I know they are assaulted. But standing by the door with a metaphor shotgun won’t change any single part of that.

“It’s just a joke, take it easy”

I know the shotgun is "just a joke." I’m not even going to go why we’re still tossing around a rifle metaphor so casually, because at this precise moment, our nation is in wracking pain because of guns. I’d say I fall on the higher side of the funny scale, in terms of giving and receiving hilarity, and I did a root-cause on why the “shotgun” comments strike me so hard. It was also just a joke when, in seventh grade, a kid on the bus of my rural, all-white junior high school held up a can of black spray paint and asked “Does anybody want to turn n*****?” It was a joke when John Mello leaned over to me in eighth grade after learning the word “gnarled” and applied it to my 28AAs that already mortified me without anyone’s help — I wore baggy shirts all through high school because of that. It was just a joke when some guys razzed my friend Todd, who was gay, about his clothes, and a fight broke out at a metro station, and, according to Todd, they were all hauled off to the police station, where he was raped with a billy club. Todd overdosed shortly after that.

There are funny jokes. There are mean jokes. And there are some “jokes” that have become such a common part of our cultural parlance that we’ve stopped thinking about them. ”Gypped,” “red-headed stepchild,” “Irish twins.”

I’m the mom of a 4-year-old girl. She’ll have her own challenges, I’m sure, when it comes to love and sex when it’s time. We all did. I can only give her so much preparation, the rest she’ll have to figure out on her own.

Getting a second opinion

I spent so much time being mad about the shotgun comment and frustrated at not being understood when I spoke up that I brought the idea to my Jungian psychotherapist, who helps decode the world for me when I can’t. She completely disagreed with my theory that the “shotgun” comment is demeaning.

“The father with the shotgun is more afraid than sexually territorial. He has the right protective instinct about rushing into sexual relationships and he’s expressing it in a symbolic way,” she said. “A young man needs an older man’s advice about boundaries in teenage love relationships and the shotgun symbolism gives it. It’s the un-nuanced way to say ‘she’s too young for this’ and I want to protect her until she’s more mature.”

I agree that men need to teach each other the way of the world. But your date’s dad is probably the most inappropriate man of all the men in the world to help you with this issue.

I get it. Fear and love and rage, all in the same stew. You don’t take a bite without getting a taste of all three. But if anyone in this house will be carrying that metaphoric shotgun, I want it to be my daughter.

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