The Daughter Test

fathers and daughers at a Purity Ball
Government mandated Purity Balls for everyone! Photo via TIME.

For the past couple weeks some pundit dudes have been having a conversation in the pundit dude echo chamber about the “daughter test.” Andrew Sullivan has a good round up of the major entries.

It all started when Steven Levitt of Freakonomics admitted that he’s fine with restrictive government policy if it’s against something he wouldn’t want his daughter doing:

If the answer is that I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it, then I don’t mind the government passing a law against it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be a cocaine addict or a prostitute, so in spite of the fact that it would probably be more economically efficient to legalize drugs and prostitution subject to heavy regulation/taxation, I don’t mind those activities being illegal.


There was plenty of silliness in reply, including Kevin Drum’s assertion that people with class privilege have better impulse control than those non-thinking worker types. Which I think tons of recent news has proven very not true.

Leave it it Ross Douthat (who sucks a lot) to really take the daughter test seriously, not just as an explanation for acceptance of policies but a basis for political views:

[T]hinking “what if I my daughter did this/were in this position?” is a way to take an argument from the abstract to the viscerally real, and to bring moral and legal gray areas into a sharper focus. It isn’t a mathematical proof, or a system of inputs that spits out an automatic, universal answer… But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a useful way of thinking about public policy. The fact that I would want to be able to involve the police if my daughter became a streetwalker, but not if she became a Hari Krishna, tells me something important about what kind of legal regime I should support. (There’s a touch of Kantianism in it: One’s (legal) preferences for one’s daughter should become a universal law …).

There’s a word that exists exactly for this: paternalism.

Sadly this line of reasoning is so prevalent Mika Brzezinski managed to not think it was a derail while interviewing Jessica about SlutWalks on Morning Joe (hint: it was).

I suppose it’s a useful explanation for why I disagree so strongly with folks like Douthat on pretty much everything. He thinks he knows better, is better than other people, and that policies should be imposed to protect them from themselves. He’d like to see government as the benevolent father teaching its kids right and wrong (yeah you can see how religious ideology falls into political views so easily here). I’d like to see government provide for the welfare of its people – you know, make sure we don’t go hungry or homeless – not keep us from getting laid.

Of course it’s also plenty of sexism – we’re talking about the “daughter test” not the “son test” – because daughters are to be protected, sons raised to be strong and kill the dinner themselves. Sorry, hard not to fall into some old school “state of nature” hyperbole in such an absurd theory conversation. And of course we focus on shielding lady persons from the specters of sex work and drug use.

Look, I get it. I have super overprotective feelings about my baby sister (who is 22 so even the “baby sister” thing is problematic). But I know that doesn’t mean she needs to be protected by me just cause I feel that way. And more importantly, intense protective feelings about a close relative you care about enough to impact your rationality aren’t exactly the best basis for public policy.

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22 Comments

  1. Posted June 7, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    It’s really frustrating that the same old bullshit ideals that women, especially young women, need to be protected from the big bad world. I doubt the question “would I want my son to do this or that?” would be as effective in creating a paternalistic society and government.

  2. Posted June 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    …damn that picture is creepy.

    I heard Levitt say that on NPR, and I had that kind of thought regarding gender.

    It is interesting that there judgment of how a law affects someone in a particular relation to them instead of using (a) themselves or (b) some random/nameless/faceless person for their standard. The paternalism is a part of it (particularly with the choice of role: daughter), but it may show a certain weakness that so many people can’t (a) acknowledge their own weaknesses without the threat of law and/or (b) don’t consider/understand the diversity of the greater population.

    Another issue seems to be at play, and the mention of welfare comes into play here: the general attitude of the “daughter test,” particularly with Levitt, is that it functions as a threshold for punitive measures and restrictions, not supports and rights. If parent(s) are/is lose the ability to provide anything of substance for their/her/his daughter, does the government ensure she can achieve an acceptable standard of living on her own? If you don’t want people to enter prostitution, it is probably more effective to guarantee that realistic alternatives exist rather than to just make it illegal. “Getting tough” on illegal drugs has not done the US (or Mexico, or countries further south) a whole lot of good.

  3. Posted June 7, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    I don’t want my hypothetical daughter to be a Republican, does that mean we can outlaw the GOP?

    • Posted June 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      My finger pressed REPORT instead of reply by accident….
      I just wanted to say “that’s funny!”

    • Posted June 8, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      Love this! Haha

  4. Posted June 7, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    That photo is creepy as all get-out. I wouldn’t want my daughter to attend one of those events, so maybe purity balls should be illegal.

  5. Posted June 7, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    The Steven Levitt article has a ton of problems with it, too, and reveals internal biases about things he happens to like or dislike. The internet poker thing is particularly egregious.

    Consider: his examples for drugs and gambling are on opposite ends of the spectrum. He doesn’t want his daughter to be a cocaine addict, but he’d be cool with her being a poker champion. The problem is that those are fundamentally uneven comparisons. The valid comparison would be drug addict and gambling addict. I doubt that Levitt would be pleased with his daughter being a gambling addict, and as a result that should push his “gray area” opinion the other way.

    Selective bias in examples, Levitt. Freakonomics indeed.

  6. Posted June 7, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I really dislike the logic of the “daughter test.”
    It blithely reduces women to unthinking people that need to be protected, but it also appeals to emotional reaction of safety and well-being that we want for our children. Which makes it hard to point out the inherent flaws in the argument – the quick reply will always be “why would you not want your daughters/children to be safe?” Because that’s a commonsense idea, breaking down this concept feels like a no-win situation because even if you get your point across about paternalism, someone will come along and tell you that you’re interpreting it wrong (at best) or endangering the children (at worst).

    Jordan A.
    My blog: The Cowation

    • Posted June 8, 2011 at 12:52 am | Permalink

      This is a great point- the analogy is highly problematic (but probably attractive to religious-right types) because it disarms the logical argument against paternalism. Of course we all want our daughters (and sons) to avoid what appears to be objectively pathological behavior. But that doesn’t excuse the paternalism that seems inherent in “the daughter test.” Good catch.

  7. Posted June 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    What’s the age range of the theoretical daughters? Since I wouldn’t want a prepubescent daughter to be sexually active, does that mean sexual activity should be outlawed for all Americans? If I wouldn’t want a five-year-old daughter to watch any given HBO series, does that mean those shows should be subject to government censorship?

  8. Posted June 7, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Wow, Steven Levitt…way to encapsulate the prevailing cultural attitude about young women in one handy-dandy soundbite. Because, you know, we need fathers to protect us and guide our choices so we don’t become damaged goods no man will want to marry. Thanks for summing that up.

    I completely agree with the comments about his egregious biases and lack of logical comparisons–that was pretty astonishing. And on that note, even if (enormous ‘if’) this so-called test had any legitimacy as an informal gauge of what the law should or should not allow, it wouldn’t make sense anyway because it’d be totally subjective from parent to parent. Heavens forbid a daughter vote for someone her father doesn’t approve of, or choose a job he finds objectionable (such as joining the military or becoming a police officer or a trauma surgeon or what have you). Come on, man, what century are you living in?

  9. Posted June 7, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t want my daughter to grow up believing that she gets to make decisions about other people’s lives and bodies because she thinks she knows better than they do.

  10. Posted June 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Paternalism aside, these arguments are nothing but absurd. For one thing, despite their illegality, people still become cocaine addicts and prostitutes. Maybe looking at the sources of what creates these scenarios might be a better idea, if they’re so concerned? Now, this is just a passing thought I’m gonna throw out here, but I almost wonder if this over-emphasis on the father’s ownership of their daughters’ virginity, with the purity balls and promise rings and lockets, could actually REINFORCE the idea to a child that her sexuality is something that can be owned, commodified, etc? I don’t know for sure.

    Secondly, who is the immediate influence in a young child’s life, their parents, or the law? Why should laws for everyone be defined by what some guy somewhere personally doesn’t want his daughter doing? Part of a parent’s job is to provide guidance; if you don’t want your kid (of any gender!) to grow up into a cokehead or prostitute, why not be a parent and teach them why you think these things are dangerous? Of course there will still come a day when the child is old enough to make their own life decisions anyhow, but wouldn’t it be nice if those were all informed decisions bourne out of loving guidance? Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not gonna happen that way either. But it still would be nice.

  11. Posted June 7, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    I agree that the reasoning is a creepy one but you can frame the questions however you want. Levitt chooses to frame his questions one way that belies a paternalistic worldview.

    Would I want my daughter facing criminal sanctions including prison time because she was addicted to a controlled substance? No. So I want my government to decriminalize controlled substances and adopt a more enlightened policy like that of Portugal which treats drug use as an illness, not a crime.

    Would I want my daughter forced to give birth to a child she didn’t want and may have taken no willing part in conceiving? Nope. So I want the government to enforce access to reproductive health services including abortion.

    • Posted June 8, 2011 at 12:34 am | Permalink

      That’s the problem. It’s not really “reasoning”, it’s just personal biases made manifest via “I’m dad and I say so” logic.

  12. Posted June 7, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    They aren’t thinking it through. “I don’t like the idea of my daughter getting an abortion, so make it illegal.” “Well, assuming she will anyway, which most women who are seeking abortions will, is it better to have one in a back alley and go to jail, or better to have one in a doctor’s office?”

    “I don’t like the idea of my daughter being a prostitute, so make it illegal.” “Well, would you rather she be arrested for it, have that blight on her record to prevent most jobs, and in the meantime live in fear abuse and potential STDs, or would you rather she be tested regularly, pay taxes, be considered an upstanding member of society and be able to talk to the police with confidence if someone hurt her?”

    The problem is he still thinks outlawing it makes it go away.

  13. Posted June 7, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    I think a similar logic could can work is when men are encouraged to think of their (future) daughters when they interact with women. The question, however, should be “is this how I want my daughter treated?” not “Is this the way I want my daughter to act?”

    So basically, think about the world you want you kids (daughters AND sons) to live in, not how you want them to behave

  14. Posted June 7, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    That logic makes absolutely no sense. If you don’t like the idea of your daughter being a prostitute, making it illegal doesn’t make the profession disappear, it just makes it way more stigmatized and often more dangerous. Making things illegal is not the same as making things disappear, asshole.

    And I agree with everyone else here re: that purity ball photo. Incredibly creepy.

  15. Posted June 8, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Guess we know where all that “treat your date like somebody’s sister” advice got us.

    And, second Greta’s “world for our kids.”

  16. Posted June 8, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Most people do not want their son to grow up to become a garbage pick up man, or risk his life in a war zone. Do we ban those professions too now?

  17. Posted June 9, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I think people are misreading what Levitt is saying. His post isn’t meant to be an iron-clad, logical and reasoned argument about a basis for public policy:

    I’ve never really understood why I personally come down on one side or the other with respect to a particular gray-area activity. Not that my opinion matters at all, but despite strong economic arguments in favor of drug legalization, the idea has always made me a little queasy.

    He’s an economist – rational choice; cost-benefit analysis etc. are his bread and butter. He’s exploring, and disclosing, the surprising (to him) finding that some of his policy preferences are based on irrational moral intuitions, not reasoned argument.

    As to why Levitt is concerned about his daughter’s welfare and not, for instance, his son, it might interest people to know that his son has been dead for some time (6 years IIRC).

  18. Posted June 10, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    They have a banner at university (in a human rights office) that says something along these lines about prostitution. “If prostitution is a jo like any other, would you encourage your daughter to become one?” I has bothered me since I first saw it. So because prostitution is not a “nice” job, does that mean that we should let women continue facing the dangers of the slave trade, gender violence, risking infections and sexually transmitted diseases?
    If we could legalize and regulate prostitution, we would stand a better chance at fighting the slave trade, ensuring that they work in proper sanitary conditions, that they’re not minors, that they’re protected against diseases and violence and, finally, to help them get into benefits programs or giving them work capacitation and helping them get jobs if they feel that prostitution is not for them.

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