No, My Daughter Doesn’t Owe Your Son A Dance

by Beth Swanson
Jose Luis Pelaez / Getty

My daughter is headed for her second middle school dance next week. Among the adults, conversation bounces between reminiscing about the 80s and kids’ outfits, to carpools and what happens when they get there. Does anybody actually dance?

“My son is so nervous. I wish the girls would say yes to anyone who asks. It’s just a dance.” I’ve heard this line a few times now. I’ve also been asked – more than once – to tell my daughter she should dance with anyone who asks, because “it’s just a dance.”

Oh. Hell. No.

Let me be clear: My daughter can say no all night. She doesn’t owe your son a dance because he’s nervous, or because he’s a good kid, or because he asked, or because it’s the nice thing to do, or because it’s just a dance.

You’re trying to protect your son from a bruised ego for one night. I’m trying to protect my daughter from sexual assault for the rest of her life.

Learning To Say No

No, I don’t think your son is a predator; that’s not what this is about. This is about my daughter learning to listen to her own instincts, learning to say no before she’s in a situation that makes her unsafe. This is about her saying no to a date she doesn’t want to go on, saying no to the drink she doesn’t want, saying no to the office creep who stands a little too close. If #metoo and Time’s Up and #yesallwomen have shown the entire nation anything, it’s that sexual harassment and assault are everywhere. Women already knew that.

Learning To Hear No

Look, I’m sure your son is a nice kid; mine is. And yes, it takes middle school courage to ask someone to dance. That’s not a good enough reason for my daughter to make herself uncomfortable. Learning about consent starts on the middle school dance floor, if not sooner. Every 12-year-old boy needs to learn that asking someone to dance doesn’t entitle them to a dance.

The dance question and answer are flip sides of the same cultural coin: teaching boys that a girl should always say yes to a dance teaches boys to expect yes. To misunderstand no. To be angry at no. Teaching girls to say yes, to dance when they’d prefer not to, attempts to strip girls of their ability to make their own choices. It asks girls to put a boy’s comfort above their own — a dangerous habit for young women while dating, or in their career. Say yes to keep the peace. Say yes to be nice. Say yes because that’s what she learned. Maybe it’s just a dance, but convincing my daughter to say yes, whether she wants to or not, teaches both kids that what he wants is more important than what she wants.

Teach Your Sons

My son is headed for his fourth middle school dance next week. He’ll hang out with his friends, girls and boys alike. He might dance. He already knows that the landscape in the school gym looks different for him than it does for a girl. He knows that if a girl turns him down for a dance, that’s OK. It might be personal, it might not, but it’s her decision to make. He’s learning to respect “no” and to understand consent, before consent ever becomes tied up in sex.

So yes, your son is a nice kid, and it’s “just a dance.” And yes, your son is going to grow up to be one of the good guys. That’s not enough. Just a dance is the foundation for just a drink, and just a date, and just another kiss, and just another girl who didn’t say no the right way. Understanding consent starts with understanding no on the middle school dance floor, and it’s time we taught all our children that.