The Problem With Puppy Love

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Teaching kids that they are not entitled to anyone else’s affections may start sooner than you think.

This falls into the category of “it’s never too early…”

When one of my daughters was 8 a boy in her class developed a crush on her. He followed her around the playground, talked about his love for her (in those terms), drew her pictures, and wrote her songs. One day, she came home and ran into the house, tightly gripping a torn up note in her fist. It was a love note. She was not interested in love notes. It was upsetting and made her uncomfortable.

At school, she was embarrassed by the boy’s attention and by other children talking about them being in love and teasing her. She avoided him when possible and went out of her way to ignore his attempts to cajole her into liking him and being his girlfriend. In third grade.

I called the teacher and explained the situation, essentially saying, it’s gone too far—she is unable to freely and comfortably attend school and should not be subject to his overwhelming 8-year-old desire. I was heartened because the teacher was aware of the situation, did not think it was “cute” or “harmless” “puppy love” and said she would speak to the boy and his parents.

She did, but his attentions continued unabated. So, I called his parents and asked them to please make sure that he stop.

Their response took me aback:

“Could your daughter please write him a letter?”

No, I said. She does not want to write him a letter.

“But, can’t you get her to do it? He’s gone to the trouble of writing her, not once, but several times.”

No. I explained. She was not obligated to respond simply because he wanted and expected her to. She had an equal and apparently competing right to not communicate. She neither sought out nor consented to his advances. 

But, he meant no harm and this would be a good lesson.

The lesson, I pointed out politely, was that when a girl avoids you, does not respond to your attentions, and makes no effort to engage in communication, she is not interested. That is the lesson.

But, it would be a nice thing to do—for him to get a response.

My daughter, I explained, while a kind person, was not obligated to be nice in order to make this boy feel better about himself.

But, he would be crushed.

In other words, “Because of this, he will be sad and hurt.” So really, “It’s her fault.”

Remember, these were 8-year-olds. 

I said that, in my opinion, it was their job—not my daughter’s—to teach their son these lessons. He stopped.

Here is what concerned me so much about this exchange. One, their son was “nice.” Two, he “meant well” and had made such a huge investment in expressing his feelings. Three, she should do what he wanted because of these things. Four, that would make her “nice.” And five, his behavior and expectations weren’t just tolerated; they were encouraged (he was a “ladies man,”) and considered cute. This is not difficult to understand if you consider that the entire Disney princess canon alone constitutes a virtual how-to book of entertaining stalking and rapeyness set to catchy songs sung by small woodland animals, crustaceans, or large, predatory cats.

In 1988, Day One (formerly the Sexual Assault & Trauma Resource Center of Rhode Island and Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center) conducted a study of adolescent dating attitudes. The same study was again conducted in 1998. In 1988, 1,700 students in 6th through 9th grade participated. In 1999, 2,467 in the same age group. 

The study asked the following question: “Does a girl/boy on a date have the right to kiss against the date’s consent if she/he spent a lot of money on the date? Yes, No, or I Don’t Know?” In 1988, 51% of boys and 41% of girls answered Yes. In 1998, those numbers were 53% of boys and 48% of girls.

They asked another, related question: “Does a man/woman on a date have the right to sexual intercourse against their date’s consent if he/she spent a lot of money on the date? Yes, No, or I Don’t Know?” In 1988, 24% of boys and 16% of girls said Yes. In 1998, 23% of boys and 20% of girls say Yes. 

There were several other related questions, notably, this one: “Does a man on a date have the right to sexual intercourse without the woman’s consent if she is drunk?” In 1988, 28% of the students in 7th through 9th grade said yes. In 1998, 24% of the 9th graders did (no information on the other two grades). The researchers explained, “a significant number of our young people believe that, under certain conditions, it is acceptable to take advantage of a date,” that children were not being taught that incapacitation is not a legal defense, that intercourse without consent is rape, that victims weren’t responsible for what happened to them, that victims of sexual assault may be less likely to report their assaults if they feel they are “responsible” or “deserving” of their treatment. In 1998, a question was added: Have your parents ever talked to you about sexual abuse prevention? Half of the boys and 36% of the girls said no.

Why am I talking about studies conducted almost 20 years ago? Because these kids are how having children. More than half of teens surveyed today say they know someone who has been sexually abused or experienced dating violence. Fifty-three percent of them say they would not know how to intervene. Conservative estimates say that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 19 men are stalking victims—essentially a crime where the stalker refuses to take “no” or “I’m not interested,” for an answer. Nearly 46% of stalking victims experience a minimum of one encounter of unwanted contact with their stalker per week.

Attitudes like the ones revealed in the studies, like the ones expressed by this boy’s parents, people I knew and liked, are a huge education problem. It requires teaching kids lessons far in advance of their being teenagers with interests in dating and sex. 

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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