Fathers and Differentiated Sexual Interaction
In the research described so far, the nature of the gender differentiation that fathers seem to foster is not always clear. Generally, fathers seem to reinforce passivity, dependence, and attractiveness in girls. They do this with their more permissive and nurturant attitude toward girls and their more demanding stance toward boys. The lenience and nurturance toward daughters found to be characteristic of middle-class fathers may not be true, however, of working-class fathers. Several studies in the United States have found working-class fathers to be strict and punitive toward their daughters. This contradiction may be more apparent than real, however.
If we take a sufficiently general perspective, class variations are not contradictory but reflect in different ways the father's awareness of the daughter's sexuality. Fathers may respond directly to their daughters' sexuality or they may suppress this response and focus on protecting the daughter from outsiders. Both responses, of course, can and do occur at once. The father may reward and reinforce the heterosexual aspects of his daughters femininity both directly by interacting with her as an "interested" male and indirectly by protecting her from outside males.
Anne Parsons's description of the position of the daughter in a Southern Italian family reflects both these aspects. "The most fully institutionalized masculine role in Southern Italy, one that is defined positively and not by rebellion, is that of the protection of the honor of the women who are tabooed" (p. 386). "Thus, the South Italian girl does not appear as inhibited or naive for precisely the reason that even though carefully kept away from outside men, she has in a great many indirect ways been treated as a sexual object by her father (and brothers or other male relatives) both at puberty and during the oedipal crisis" (p. 387).
The lack of symmetry between mother and son in these matters is so obvious that it is seldom pointed out. Mothers do not protect sons from outside women nor do they treat their sons as sexual objects—certainly not so clearly and not in the same way that men protect and sexualize their daughters. The insight that feminism brings to these findings is that they are very much related to male
dominance and the sexual control of women by men. Thus paternal concern with gender differentiation, however benevolent it may seem, tends to reproduce and maintain the system in which men treat women as sex objects for themselves and protect them from outside men.
Data from the United States indicate that fathers are more likely than mothers to support a double standard of sexual behavior for their male and female children; fathers are more tolerant of premarital sexual activity for boys (sometimes positively enjoining it on them) than for girls. A large-scale study on a probability sample of parents in the Cleveland, Ohio, area, showed that fathers are more likely than mothers to want the son to receive one message about sexuality and the daughter another. Although many fathers were more liberal than mothers about what erotic practices, such as oral sex, might be considered desirable, they were more concerned about controlling or curtailing their daughter's sexual activity in general than mothers were. In a study of occupational choices of high school students, a considerable number of girls answered the question, what would your father not want you to be, by saying their fathers would not want them to be a prostitute; few girls mentioned prostitution as an undesirable job their mother might think of. The father's disapproval of his daughter being a prostitute reflects his control over her sexuality and his view that she should not make herself accessible to "outside" men.
In her book Like Father, Like Daughter, Suzanne Fields frequently speaks of fathers as being their daughter's "protectors." What these fathers largely seem to be protecting their daughters from is other men. They worry about their adolescent daughters and want to protect them because they know what their own male peers were like in adolescence. As fathers and husbands, men protect their domestic domain and their women from other men. They "understand" the male-peer-group mentality that makes women need protection from men. These facts are well known, but few seem to notice that "the problem" does not lie with the behavior of women but with the behavior of men.
Most fathers also protect themselves from any potential sexual temptation that their daughters might present. Fathers' withdrawal from girls, which I described at the beginning of this discussion, may well be a way of avoiding their sexuality. It is significant that
the father's marked withdrawal, which Lamb and Lamb observed during the girl's second year of life, coincides with girls often beginning to show awareness of their genitalia and to masturbate in the second year. The father's avoidance of his daughter at older ages may also be related to his awareness of her sexuality. There is much evidence that males' overall style of caretaking consistently differs from females'. This difference exists even if the male is a primary caretaker. Generally, fathers "play" with children, and mothers "nurture" them. The context of play itself might act as a deterrent to sexualizing the relationship. Clearly there is much we do not know about the relationship between eroticism and child care and how or why it might differ between female and male caretakers. Patterns of sexual avoidance within the family is an important area for future research.
In this culture at least, outside the family nudity among males is a symbol of locker-room or peer group camaraderie, and nudity between males and females is seen by many (perhaps especially males) as being related to sexual contact, specifically intercourse. Kissing between males has generally been associated in this culture with homosexuality. Thus one may suppose that fathers' avoidance of kissing boys staves off homosexual threat with sons, and that fathers' avoidance of nudity with daughters defends against heterosexual threat with them. These findings fit with earlier research on touch that showed that men and women touch and are touched by their mothers and their friends of the other gender in equivalent degree but differ in their touching relationship to their fathers. A study on physical affection between parents and children finds that fathers display considerably more physical affection toward daughters than they do toward sons, while mothers express physical affection equally toward both boys and girls. Here fathers differentiate by denying physical affection to boys. This denial may contribute to males' tendency to distance themselves from nonsexual physical closeness. It may also contribute to the general tendency for males to be "distanced."
In general, daughter-father sexual discomfort appears to be stronger than son-mother sexual discomfort. David Finkelhor found only one significant difference between boys and girls at the age of twelve with regard to what would cause them embarrassment with their mothers but several differences in what would cause embar-
rassment with their fathers. Girls report more often than boys that they would have been embarrassed to be seen naked or in their underwear by their father, to tell him a dirty joke, or to tell him about a sexual experience. Boys and girls did not differ from each other, however, with regard to the mother except that boys would have been more embarrassed than girls to be in the bathroom with her.
In line with this, another study found that fathers are more likely to knock before entering their daughter's bedroom than their son's. Mothers knock less often than fathers and make little distinction between sons and daughters in whether or not they knock.
With regard to "sex education," in the sense of explaining such things as intercourse and masturbation, middle-class fathers do not ordinarily give information to their children. The heart-to-heart talk a boy and his father are supposed to have about sex is indeed a myth. Certainly one major reason for a father's difficulties in talking to his son about sex may stem from the cross-pressures of his wanting his son to be a "real man" in terms of the standards of the male peer group and his wanting his son to be a "good person" in terms of more general humanistic and maternal standards. Does he tell his son to "get all he can" or that "women are human beings too"? He may say a little bit of both. Kanin, in his comparison of potential rapists with nonrapists, found that rapists' peers had encouraged sexual aggression more than their fathers, although rapists' fathers had discouraged it less than the fathers of the control group.
All this suggests that fathers, more than mothers, see their daughters as potential sex objects for themselves or for other men. As fathers, they generally do not make their daughters into sex objects directly, but there are elements of flirtation and mock courtship in the relationship. One of the clearest expressions of this comes from an early study of upper-status parents of nursery school children. Fathers reacted with pleasure to their daughters being "little flirts" and knowing how to flatter them.
The tendency in men to fall into a romantic relationship with their daughters gains specific support from a recent study by Diane Ehrensaft of five families in which the father was actively involved in child care along with the mother. Ehrensaft tells us that the fathers seem to be "in love with" their child and the mothers merely to "love" their child. Moreover, these heavily involved fathers pre-
fer girls. Ehrensaft is careful to point out that these fathers do not sexualize the relationship, but clearly they do romanticize it. For example, she quotes one father as saying about his daughter, "I'm absolutely in love with her. Just passionately in love with her. On occasion that's almost frightening."
Ehrensaft reports that one father admitted to using the child as a wife substitute in saying "I still have a lot of passion in me that I enjoy having Renee (daughter) available to share with me. And who Joan (mother) is, at times that's not available to me. That kind of romance. Renee and I have the metaphor of what it means to have a cozy place" (p. 330). Their outings seem like dates. "I go out with Renee. Go dancing together. Renee and I get all dressed up and go out for dinner" (p. 333). Ehrensaft does not find that mothers feel the same about their sons as fathers feel about their daughters. She reports that a mother "would talk about her attachment, her endearing feelings, her sense of closeness to her child, but never in the discourse of a love affair" (pp. 326–27). The mothers tend to think of parenting in terms of responsibility and display a certain ambivalent distaste for having too much responsibility. These women deliberately sought a man who would share the responsibility of child care, but the men did not turn out to be second mothers; instead, they became their children's lovers, albeit without overt sexual activity. The fathers, Ehrensaft found, took less responsibility than the mothers. For example, the fathers were more willing to take the child out to be cared for when sick than to stay home from work to take care of the child themselves. They were less concerned about diapers that were long overdue for a change or making sure the child was dressed appropriately for the occasion or the weather.
Ehrensaft's findings graphically support exactly what I mean when I say that the father-daughter relationship is more nearly a paradigm for adult heterosexual relationships than the mother-son relationship. A mother could not take her son out dancing without somehow threatening his masculinity, but a father finds it pleasurable and not at all anomalous to go out dancing with his daughter. From the father's standpoint, the father-daughter relationship offers a nice resolution to whatever fears he may have of being taken over by women as mothers. He is clearly in the superior position in this intimate relationship, and all threats of being overpowered by
a dominant female are removed. Father-daughter intimacy does not pose the same threat to male power that mother-son intimacy does. In the father-daughter relationship, the father is in control; in the mother-son relationship, the mother is in control.
In line with Ehrensaft's observations, Dorothy Burlingham reported earlier that when fantasizing about a daughter, expectant fathers focused on her romantic love life. with the objects of her love clearly representing themselves. The fathers wanted their daughters to respond to their loving feelings. Burlingham noted that fathers' fantasies about sons, however, focused on the boy learning from the father and being strong, capable, and competent like the father's self-ideal.
The fathers whom Ehrensaft studied had been nontraditional males when they were growing up, not tied in closely with a male peer group. Being nontraditional perhaps made it possible for them to take on the role of mothering in the first place, but the kinds of gratification they obtained were not those of mothers but of lovers. Having a lover instead of a mother as a young child could be a threat to the daughter's development as an adult woman and gives one pause about the "equal parenting" solution to male dominance. Mothers simply do not seem to see children as lovers in the way these fathers did. Mothers love their children without the romance.