The Right to Have Standards
Father & Daughter

Image by Kumasi via Flickr/Creative Commons

“How Promiscuity Is a Form of Self-Mutilation,” the headline read.

Since I’m returning to writing a memoir largely about sexuality, anything related to the topic jumps out at me—even when it’s embedded in an email from Oprah’s Lifeclass, a mailing I receive only because I wanted one of the journals Oprah was giving away a long time ago. I never bothered to unsubscribe, and occasionally I get something in my inbox worth watching a clip of and writing about.

The description of the video read, “Iyanla and Dr. Steve Perry reveal how daddyless daughters keep hurting themselves.”

Iyanla and Dr. Steve Perry? O_o

I clicked on it prepared to be angry. When Dr. Perry was in Louisville last year, he started his talk by telling all the white people in the audience to “take the night off” because he wasn’t there to talk about racism. He then proceeded to skewer black mothers for trying to reconcile their daddy issues through their sons. They let their sons be the men of the house even though they’re boys, he said. They show the unconditional love they didn’t receive from their own fathers by overlooking or downplaying their sons’ inexcusable and self-destructive behavior, he said. “Now the great educator is going to scold women about their sexuality. Great. Can’t wait to hear this,” I thought.

When I clicked the link, I was dismayed to see Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children’s Zone education program I fell in love with the first time I heard about it, sitting next to Dr. Perry. But in spite of my prejudices, I agreed with some things the men said.

NOT that “promiscuity is a form of self-mutilation.” “Promiscuous” is a relative term, so only someone judging a woman’s sexual behavior can decide that she’s also hurting herself. I don’t agree with this and don’t think it’s healthy.

But I do agree that girls, and sometimes grown women, behave differently when they’ve had a father or father figure in their lives set the standard for her and for the boys or men she brings home.

Most of my classmates in VONA thought I was being snobby and judgmental and giving would-be suitors a hard time when I wrote that in high school, one of the reasons I missed out on dating was because I had standards different from those of my best friends. As I said in this post on the importance of fathers, my dad inspired some of those expectations:


“It’s sometimes mistaken for haughtiness, but a girl should be able to waive off advances from boys who don’t meet her standards for achievement, because her father has told her she’s capable of anything already. A girl should be able to reply, “I know, but thank you for reminding me,” instead of swooning over and jumping into bed with the first boy who tells her she’s a catch, because she has heard this from her father many times already.  (So if you think I’m a snob, it’s a compliment to my dad; he did his job.)”


It took about 20 years for me to believe the physical beauty part, but that didn’t stop me from believing my dad when he told me outright or through his actions that my intellect and artistic talent were valuable. I forget these lessons sometimes, and since I no longer want to be alone, I even have moments when I wish I hadn’t learned them at all. But I know that in the long run, the right to have great expectations in mate selection will pay off.

All this makes me wonder again about how my work was received. Yes, the character I’m writing needs work, and yes, I’m psychologizing again, but I wonder if my fellow workshoppers’ reactions also stem from internalizing the message that women of color don’t have the right to be selective. Women who are told they’re not as desirable as white women should take whatever they can get. They don’t deserve to have standards. How could women emerging from histories of slavery and rape and who were pushed to the sidelines in freedom movements ever have great expectations?

Our history and ongoing struggles make a father’s influence that much more important. We deserve to have and keep standards.

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