An Open Letter to My Young Cousins
My dear cousins,
You’re only 5 and 8, but I worry about the lessons you are learning.
Little 5 year old, you are so active and you have such a wonderful imagination. But you are a girl. I fear what our family, let alone the school you go to, will teach you about your worth. I heard your cousin, my brother, tell 8 year old to “stop acting like a girl” while you were watching. What lesson did you learn from that? What lesson did you learn when your oldest brother told me in front of you that you would never have a boyfriend because you have two older brothers? Right now you don’t care. You just want to play. But I care, because I was once where you are. I was the girl surrounded by the boys. I heard my brother being told to quite “acting like a girl.” I was told that boys just wanted to have sex, so I couldn’t trust them. I didn’t know it then, but I eventually learned how much of that I internalized. I learned that I shouldn’t be like the other girls, because girls are weak and stupid. If I wanted to have any value, I couldn’t be like them. I learned that my value was related to my purity and my obedience. I had to be a good girl. I had to be the girl that didn’t flirt with the boys, didn’t have an interest in the boys, because the girls that did were dirty and slutty. I learned that the boys were better to play with, because girls just gossiped and flirted, but boys got to play football. But I learned that I couldn’t trust the boys because they would hurt me and want to have sex with me. I learned so much that I wish I didn’t learn, because it will always affect me, and I hope, though I doubt, that you don’t learn the same. I hope you learn that you are intelligent, not despite being a girl, or because you’re not like the other girls, but because you are a critical thinker who does have that wonderful imagination. I hope that you learn that you can be strong, because sex doesn’t determine strength. I hope that you learn that having sex doesn’t make you dirty, and that it is your choice to have sex when you’re ready. It’s not up to your brothers, and it’s not up to your partner. You can have sex when you are ready, no matter how early or late your sexuality forms. Your value isn’t determined by your sex life. And I sincerely hope that you don’t learn to internalize sexism towards other girls. I hope you don’t view the boys as better, because we are all human and we all deserve to be treated as equals. I love you little 5 year old, and I hope you grow into the best person you can be.
Little 8 year old, you are so much like my brother. You are trouble, but who can blame you? Your sister has so much pressure on her to be a perfect angel, but you have so much pressure put on you too. What must it be like to be told you’re acting like a girl? You don’t actually think there is anything wrong with being a girl, at least not consciously, but you’ve been told so many times that it’s the worst thing you can be. I wonder how much of an impact that language has had on you. How much of your behaviour is an attempt to be seen as a man? How much of it is an attempt to be seen as strong? How much of it is because you’ve been told that you can’t play with something because it’s “for girls”? What kind of person will you be when you grow up? Will you be like our brothers? Will you view women as sex objects? Will you consider dating weak, and constantly be looking for hook-ups? Will you consider the women you sleep with sluts? Will you only hang out with them because they sleep with you? Will you view yourself as less of a man if you don’t do those things? Will you view yourself as less of a man if you desire an education? Your view of masculinity is very much that of the blue-collar worker. Will you feel pressure to avoid getting a post-secondary education? Will you feel pressure to devalue education? Will you be just another man in our family who goes from job to job, pay check to paycheck, partying every weekend, and never bother to strive for anything better? Because I want so much more for you than that. I want you to learn that women are your equals. I want you to learn that your sister’s sex life is none of your business, but yours is none of hers either. I want you to understand that sex has very little to do with who you are as a person, and gender is just a construct. I want you to learn that your manhood isn’t defined by your job, so you can be a gymnast, or a nurse, or a teacher, or an engineer, or whatever else you want to be. I want you to realize that your strength and your activities don’t define your manhood either. But your activities do matter. So long as you aren’t hurting anything, you can enjoy whatever activities you want, but please be a morally responsible agent. Women are your equals, they aren’t your toys. Hurting others is wrong, but there is a lot of good that you can do in the world. I love you little eight year old, and I hope you grow into the best person you can be.
I love you both so much. I know how much you both face as you grow older. I hope you don’t internalize too much of the most negative stuff you could learn about men and women. I hope you both realize how much value you have as human beings, regardless of your sex. I hope you both learn to love yourselves, even as you fail to fit into the impossible stereotypes. And I hope you both become the wonderful people that I know you have the potential to be.
Your loving cousin,