On taking my 4-year-old daughter to Take Back the Night

I know women in my social circles who feel obligated to endure sexual harassment because they are positive that employers within their industries won’t hire women who take action. Between this truth, realities about unfair, uneven compensation, and the fact that there is an uncomfortably strong chance that a young woman will be sexually molested by her eighteenth birthday, I was eager to bring my step daughter to participate in the Take Back the Night last week.

Take Back the Night is an annual march and event intended to empower victims of sexual violence by welcoming them to come forward, seek help and to share stories, and for allies within community to come together with them and stand up against this horrifying aggression. In Portland, it is organized by Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine and it is co-sponsored by the Portland Police Department
Strides have been made on the fronts of gender equality to be sure, but the aforementioned hardships and more remain. Despite this, anyone who is not a gendered male is still encouraged to be pleasant, to smile and deal with it. Those who do not will be written off as bitches, as frigid, as humorless. We know if we tell a man to put a smile on his face while enduring an everyday cold we risk getting barked at. And yet women—and people who do not identify with rigid gender assignment—are faced with the grotesque hurdles touched upon above and most will continue to suggest going on and smiling because not doing so would be unbecoming. I took my daughter to Take Back the Night as a means of getting her acquainted with a community of people who see through the insanity of this expectation.

Of course she is not yet in Kindergarten, and a lot of the context for the event was lost on her. I sold her on participation with promises of marching and chanting, two things she loved engaging it. She was enamored with the process of walking through the streets and belting out slogans along with the crowd. She loved seeing the police officers, who are partners in the event’s production, and she was excited to dance to the music. We left before victims of sexual violence shared their experiences—she is still too young to wrap her head around some of the content and language—but on the way out she asked, “Why were those people marching?” I explained that “Some of the people there have been hurt, and everyone was getting together to show that we are stronger when we stand together.”

“Oh,” she responded, before asking if we could march again soon.

Beyond this being my first full year as a father, participation in the march felt important due to the tenor of the past 12 months. Until rape and sexual violence are eradicated, and until consent is the de facto law of the land, participation in Take Back the Night is appropriate every year, but this one felt even more overbearing than usual. Between the crass, intolerable comments made by politicians and the defense of rapists by cable news networks, it has felt as though any practical progress has been overshadowed by an ever-loudening rape culture. This is not the world I want to raise my daughter in, and if this is what it looks like for now, I want her to become familiar communities that stand up to it, that fight it, that demand it change.

This said, while I was heartened to see men here and there throughout the occasion, and while Brandon Baldwin gave a hell of a speech, I was disappointed to be one of relatively few men at the event. Sexual violence, manipulation, exploitation, harassment—these things happen to our mothers, our sisters, and daughters. It threatens them daily, tempers the way that they engage in this world, and this should enrage every man to the point of action. I ran into a 9-year-old who I interviewed last month for an unrelated story and he told me, “I think rape is one of the worst crimes there is. It is almost like murder. It is as much robbery as it is an assault. You take from that person their sense of security.” I wish I could have encountered more men like him there expressing their outrage and demonstrating their solidarity.

I kept looking at my daughter and thinking, “If this were a problem that directly afflicted men as it did everybody else, this street would be flooded. I thought of the Eve Ensler quotation: “I am over the passivity of good men. Where the hell are you? You live with us, make love with us, father us, befriend us, brother us, get nurtured and mothered and eternally supported by us, so why aren’t you standing with us? Why aren’t you driven to the point of madness and action by the rape and humiliation of us?”

I wonder if this is because what ultimately helps to reduce sexual violence is changing the culture that fosters it, and that sort of abstraction is still lost on most men. Nearly any argument about gun rights I have ever engaged in has seen the expression of the following hypothetical: “Let’s say you’re about to get raped…” Or “Let’s say your daughter is about to get raped…” and then a number of Dirty Harry style scenarios come to the fore to illustrate valiant gun ownership really is. In fact, in the past I have been one to employ said hypothetical. And when the right to have the gun that could stop the rape is up for debate, millions of men flood streets throughout this country to make sure their voices are heard, that their right is defended. When we rally to address the social conditions, to change a culture of slut-shaming and double standards regarding gender, to fix the machine, few men are to be found. We can shoot rapists here and there, yes, but it does little to stop the creation of them. If men flocked to teach their sons about consent with the same vigor they employ in their vigilante fantasies, I would feel less frustrated, confused, and disappointed.

And so until that happens, I will be bringing our daughter to Take Back the Night because there is a mountain of work that needs to be done, and everyone needs to be brought to the table. She needs to march for herself, and claim her space, and demand a safe environment, and she needs to work double-time because the amount of good men who are coming to the table is less than desirable. I hope that this past year was a fluke, and that the next won’t be dominated by aloof politicians, and sympathizers for rapists, but I am not holding my breath. The reality of the world my daughter is growing up in is one that is hostile toward her no matter how well Hillary does in 2016, or how many glass ceilings are shattered. In the face of that reality, I want to make sure she familiarizes herself with a genuine feeling of involvement with a community that comes together in the face of this, and insists upon staking a claim to the security and stability they rightfully deserve.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.