The Talk

Weinstein. Trump. Cosby. How do parents of gender-bending kids talk about this

Posted Oct 12, 2017

I’ve been gripped by the sexual abuse scandal swirling around Harvey Weinstein and the women who’ve come forward: Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie. All gorgeous women. Then I cycled back to the Hollywood Access tape moment, and the women who came forward to accuse then-nominee Donald Trump of sexual abuse. They too included a lineup of blonde, statuesque, beauty queens. Even Bill Cosby’s accusers all look like they can, or at least once did, sashay down the runways.

My 15-year-old daughter is 4 foot 11 inches. She’s chunky and wears her dirty-blonde hair short. Nothing about her comportment suggests female sexuality. She also believes she’s transgender, though my husband and I remain skeptical about this (see earlier column).

So where does that leave us with needing to have “the talk?" How are we supposed to approach the idea of sexual exploitation in the workplace in exchange for advancement with a female child who is trying to alienate herself from everything that makes her female?

Admittedly I have not sat down to have the talk. But I know my child well enough to know that an attempt at this teachable moment would be met with a shutdown. She would avert her eyes. Fidget and squirm until it became clear (less than three minutes) that, as far as she’s concerned, we’re in an irrelevant territory.

Since J’s hit puberty, she has rejected anything that represents her femaleness. She’s deeply embarrassed about her menstrual cycle. She dresses like a boy. She flattens her chest with a binding “bra." She never wears makeup or jewelry. She rejects pink. She’s chosen to call herself by a non-female name. Still, she has female anatomy.  

Interestingly, however, if we approached “the talk” from the opposite side—i.e., the importance of never using male dominance or predatory sexual behavior toward women in exchange for any kind of reward—this too would not resonate.

Our child, a Russian adoptee with a history of attachment disorder, has not made it clear whether she prefers boys or girls. She never overtly talks about anything sexual—if she’s had her first kiss, we have no way of knowing. As far as we know, J has never had an intimate relationship. Our daughter rarely accompanies us to the movies. But on the occasion that she does and there is any kind of a romantic or sexual scene, she becomes deeply uncomfortable.

A parent feels responsible to impart age-appropriate advice to their child. You teach them how to cross the street. Not to talk to strangers. How to use the front key to the house.

Most parents of a 15-year-old teenager, of either sex, have probably talked about sex and birth control and pregnancy. Now, with the high-profile revelations of Trump, Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and others, sexual exploitation must be addressed.

Of course, it’s possible to discuss it at the dinner table as a “news Item,” and hope that our daughter absorbs the gravity of the issue. In the abstract, she can likely get her mind around the subject. But there’s no chance that she will see herself in the plight of these women, and that’s precisely the problem. She’ll view this as something that will never happen to her.

To circle back to the beginning of my comments, it’s notable that the flood of women emerging from high-profile sexual scandals are tall and striking and attractive. I assume all types of women are subject to sexual advancement in the workplace. But are they in the same extremes?

If a woman has made herself really androgynous, exuding a male vibe, is she equally vulnerable to sexual predation in work relationships? If there is not one iota of femininity about a woman, is that an insurance policy against sexual harassment?

I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know what studies show. But here’s what my gut tells me as the mother of a child who has suppressed everything that makes her a woman: She is not especially likely to be the recipient of a man’s advances. She would not be receptive to flirtatious behavior from a man. She certainly is not leaving any “scent” that she is a sexual animal or open to sex.

I’m the last one in the world to say women who are victims of sexual harassment have brought it upon themselves. I’ve had my own share of being pursued in the workplace when I was younger. I can recognize why men I worked with in the past would have wanted to pursue me, no matter how inappropriate or immoral it might have been. Back then, our mothers were not doling out advice on avoiding sexual predators. Maybe their implicit advice even hewed in the opposite direction.

Now we’ve turned a corner. It’s no longer a nebulous issue. Sexual abuse is a violent offense. But where do other mothers in circumstances like mine stand? What are you doing to have “the talk” with daughters/sons who defy typical gender associations?

About the Author

Tina Traster is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Post, Time Out New York, Audubon, among others. She is the author of the Rescuing Julia Twice.

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