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Who’s Your Daddy: The Problem of Paternalism

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November 21, 2013

Paternalism is officially defined as “the policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates’ supposed best interest.” In theory paternalism is benevolent in the extreme and treated as a respectable moral necessity. But in practice the idea of paternalism is extremely dangerous to autonomy and the reproductive justice movement.

When I had sex for the first time one of my best friends, a man, reacted quite contrary to what I’d expected from him.This friend and I were very much alike in our support of sex positivity and feminist ideals in general. But when he found out that I’d slept with someone without protection (which I would never recommend to anyone ever!) he was beside himself with anger and disappointment. I could definitely understand why, we hadn’t been the most sober of people when it happened (which I would also never recommend to anyone ever!), but I was shocked by how intensely protective he became. I found myself being lectured by a man hardly older than myself on the dos and don’ts of safe sex, as if I were in a twelve year old in middle school health class rather than an adult with a firm grasp on the ins and outs contraception. It was massively irritating and exceedingly confusing to me for my best friend, who had always been an outspoken feminist, to treat me like a child because I had sex.

In the midst of an argument about it he said to me “I can’t help it, you’re like my little sister”. And that was when it clicked. My friend had unconsciously placed a small piece of ownership over me. I was his sister in his eyes. He was my protector, my teacher, my disciplinarian. He hadn’t meant to, hadn’t even realized he’d done so, but he watered my body down to a piece of property.

This is the problem of paternalism. Not only does it automatically assume inferiority of women but it easily weasels its way into the minds of men and women. It’s a kind of passive misogyny that’s so much harder to see than the more obvious, bolder, reddit-esque forms of sexism.

In our history paternalism, while distinctly separate from patriarchy, has played key roles in excusing the malicious behavior of patriarchal social mechanisms. In the 20th century as the first wave of feminists marched in the streets for their suffrage rights they were met with opposition from those who claimed that protecting women from the “burden of politics” was their duty. During the 1960s as the Sexual Revolution went into full swing we saw lawmakers and many religious groups working to quell the growing promiscuity of women so they might still have a chance to become someone’s wife and mother. Today even, while women are being attacked and sexually abused we hear men and women both attempting to humanize victims by saying “she’s someone’s daughter, sister, mother”.

Do we see the problem here?

Paternalism tells women that we are here to serve as characters in the life of men. We are daughters and wives and mothers. We are only worth something in relation to men and if we do not fill these roles we are lectured and looked down upon. It plays into the idea of the innocent, unknowing, uneducated, and naïve woman, and serves to raise men onto the pedestal of the wise, brave knight in shining armor.

As the reproductive justice movement surges forward we have to be aware of this growing issue, especially in application to our brothers in the movement with us. We, as women, need to be aware. We need to begin to break down these archaic practices and concepts about gender roles and gender stigmas in order to keep progressing forward.

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