Kerry Cohen discusses how her father’s issues with women affected her childhood, her adult life, and her relationships.
My sister and I grew up as teenagers in our father’s home. We lived in a three-bedroom apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey, right across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, and I often gazed out my bedroom window to the lights of that bridge, which made me believe that the world contained excitement, though what kind of excitement I didn’t yet know.
When my friends came over, my father’s eyes scanned their bodies—these strange, beautiful creatures. Later, he would tell me he thought a friend was cute, that if he were in high school with us, he’d have a little crush. When he said things like this, my stomach hollowed out. I’d back away, eager to get back to the safety of my room.
He had a girlfriend, and sometimes he grabbed her ass in front of me, or she rubbed his ear with her thumb in the car and he’d lean toward her, making a sexual noise I didn’t want to hear. He commented on females wherever we were. He’d check them out, eyeing their tight asses. He joked that he liked women who looked cheap, and though I rolled my eyes and laughed with him, I didn’t find it funny at all. Because what did it mean for me, a girl just past puberty, hoping to be wanted by the world? What would I have to do to get love and attention? Who would I have to be?
My sister’s and my bedrooms were at the end of a long hall, while my father’s room was right off the living room. He would often rush by the hallway, afraid, it seemed, to look our way. He had grown up with two brothers, and now here were two girls, as alien to him as boys were to me. I like to think now that he didn’t know the harm he did when he commented on those other women, on my friends. I like to think that just as he avoided that hallway, he avoided thinking too much about the things he said. And, meanwhile, the beliefs he had about women negatively affected his life. After my parents’ divorce he dated a string of women, mostly for the wrong reasons, (i.e., their looks). He looked past women who might have made better matches for him, and he held onto women with whom he had little connection. Other than being sexist in this way, my father was highly intelligent, deeply convicted in his liberal beliefs, creative, and terribly funny. His issues with women were the bane of most of his life.
While I was growing up, the culture was exploding with sexual images. Commercials showed half-naked women reeling in men. Clothing for young women was more suggestive than ever. Everywhere I looked, girls were taking off their clothes and grinding against men. Even the cheerleading team in my high school, which my father wanted me to join, performed risqué routines. Everywhere around me was sex. There was no escaping it, not at home, not on TV, not anywhere. And, let’s face it, my father didn’t escape it either. He’d grown up in the 1950s when men were seemingly afforded every last privilege, and then he divorced in the 1970s, during the sexual revolution.
Like most every woman I know, I grew up sexualized, which the American Psychological Association partially defines as believing one’s value is tied to her sex appeal and sex behavior, and allowing oneself to be sexually objectified and/or used. When I look back at my adolescence, I’m not sure I had a fighting chance against this. No one helped me build interests in anything other than being sexy and interesting to boys. And the wave of sexual images, the message that my entire sense of self depended on my sex appeal, was overwhelming.
By the time I went to college, I had decided that the excitement I’d been looking for came from men and boys. If a boy wanted me, I believed that could make me worthwhile in the world—certainly every media outlet suggested that was true. And so did my father. When he commented on my friends’ bodies, I worried about my own body—was it attractive? Was I sexy like my friends? When he ogled other women on the street, he turned his eyes from me. He stopped attending to what might have also been lovable about me, such as my intelligence and sense of humor, in order to prioritize a woman’s bodily appeal. My father taught me that men care most about female’s sex appeal. He taught me that girls mattered when they served a purpose for boys.
For most of my adolescence and all of my 20’s, I used my sex appeal to try to get love and attention. I slept with lots of boys and men, many whose names I couldn’t recall if asked, many more who I thought would love me because they wanted to have sex with me. It seems naïve now, but it took me that long to understand that just because a guy wanted to have sex with me, it didn’t mean he wanted to have a relationship beyond that. It took even longer for me to understand that I could choose to have sex with a man and it didn’t mean I had to have a relationship with him.
I don’t like to blame women’s sexual and relationship issues on their fathers. It’s an outdated notion that grew from the Freudian Electra Complex. There are many other influences on a girls’ sense of sexual self, with our societal obsession with objectifying women for their bodies being the biggest. We live with many more sexual images today, more than when I was growing up. Back then there was no Internet. MTV was new, and solely showed music videos. There were all of 23 channels to surf on TV. Now that we are so inundated, though, we know more about how those images affect girls. Numerous studies have been done, books written, articles published, all informing us of the potentially negative effects.
But fathers have a responsibility to their daughters much like mothers have the responsibility to model self-love, to not put down their own or others’ bodies, and to make good choices in their relationships. Fathers can give their daughters attention for non-sexual qualities, like bravery, strength, intelligence, and humor.
Not long ago, my father told me on the telephone that he had started walking for health. I was about to let him know how pleased I was he was taking care of himself in this way when he noted that he takes the route that goes past the high school near his home so he can see the cheerleaders.
“Dad,” I said, enraged. “Those are children.”
“I’m just looking.”
“That’s disgusting,” I said.
“For God’s sake,” he said, exasperated. “You’re always so sensitive about these things.”
I am. He’s right. Because for all the times I’ve tried to explain how his behavior has affected me, he doesn’t quite get it. His enjoyment of watching young, nubile bodies dance around in short skirts is just as culturally cued as my belief that I’m made worthwhile through my sex appeal. But, I still wish he would not share such thoughts with his daughter. Perhaps had he worked to be more conscious of his own indoctrination, I could have done that work on myself too.
Kerry Cohen is the author of six books, including the acclaimed Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity. She’s been featured on Dr. Phil, Good Morning America, and the BBC, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, and many others. Learn more at www.kerry-cohen.com.