Content warning: Sexual violence and sexual harassment
“Women who sleep with too many men have daddy issues.”
This phrase has become so normalized in our language that #daddyissues is often the butt of any joke about a women’s sexuality. Popular culture suggests that women with unavailable fathers are freaks in bed who will do anything to please a man.
But it’s more than just a sexist joke — it diminishes the experiences of people like me who have faced trauma and violence at the hands of our fathers.
Until I unpacked my trauma, I constantly dated men who not only acted like my father but also had access to power through their social standing. I dated everyone from my high school’s quarterback to a fraternity president. I didn’t realize that I was only pursuing these relationships to get the validation my father never gave me and the boys I dated were abusive just like my father. I was continuously hurting myself by pursuing these relationships and unknowingly stuck in a cycle of trauma.
My first toxic relationship was with a very entitled rich boy. His access to money gave him unrestricted access to everything, so the word “no” meant nothing to him even when it came to my body.
One day, when we were making out, he climbed on top of me and attempted to pressure me into having sex with him — even though I had repeatedly told him I wasn’t ready. He forcefully took off my top and started giving me a hickey while trying to massage my vagina through my jeans. I was repulsed by his aggressiveness but did not resist. I thought that I had to be submissive to make this relationship work, in the same way my father had always expected me to be. The hickey he left branded me as his. I relished in the idea that he had control over me.
And then in my second year of high school, I moved on to the quarterback. He was the charming and self-absorbed stud that all the girls wanted. I would wear his football jersey to class as a reminder that he had chosen me. I felt validated by the attention I received.
To the outside world, our relationship looked ideal but in reality, he used his power to control and isolate me. His teammates would keep track of anyone I talked to and everywhere I went. I justified the abuse I faced and thought it was healthy because it’s how my dad treated me.
I grew up with my father constantly keeping an eye on where my mother and I went, what we did and who we talked to. This behavior seemed normal to me because I thought that it meant the person cared about me when it was only about exerting control.
My toxic dating rampage continued and worsened into my last year in high school.
As a senior, I dated another privileged boy who dropped out of high school because he had his family’s wealth to rely on. His unresolved daddy issues and brokenness appealed to me because I thought I could fix him. The abuse started with verbal manipulation that eventually became physical violence and I stayed because it felt so familiar. Our relationship was a proxy for the broken and abusive relationship I had with my father.
This pattern of pursuing relationships with boys who were abusive like my father followed me to college, even though I was away from him. I had a persistent need for affection and desire for validation because I hadn’t addressed the trauma of his abuse.
In my second year at UC Berkeley, I pursued a relationship with a power-hungry fraternity president. He asserted his dominance over me in every aspect of our relationship. When we had sex, he would try to violently dominate and control me. He loved to hold me down while he smothered my face into a pillow while saying, “You’ve never had a real man like me to put you in your place.”
When academics came up, he reminded me that my degree was meaningless because women were meant to be housewives. He thought he was smarter than any woman and should be viewed with respect.
His belittling remarks did not shock me because it reminded me of the dynamic at home. My father was intimidated by the fact that my mother made more money than him. He always reminded her that he would always be the superior figure in the household.
It wasn’t until I began journaling and unpacking my trauma that I realized I had unhealthy dating habits. After years of abuse, I dated men to feel loved. I felt validated every time a man chose me. It was as if I was receiving the stamp of male approval my father never gave me. I needed to feel like a man desired every part of me.
I accepted the various forms of physical and emotional abuse from my partners because they filled this void and reminded me of my father. I convinced myself that I could fix these men because it felt like I was mending the broken relationship with my father. But the more I pursued relationships with men who reminded me of my father, the more I allowed the aftermath of the trauma to perpetuate in my life.
I feel frustrated when people joke about #daddyissues because it hides the real trauma women face at the hands of their fathers. My “daddy issues” have made me unable to have a healthy and functioning relationship that isn’t tainted by my father’s abuse.
Elizabeth Arutyunyan writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].