There’s something repulsively Freudian about the way men worry about their daughters and sisters. Once puberty hits, things start to grow, peers start to leer, and male family members collaborate to ensure their precious lady-folk survive adolescence as white, unsullied flowers of sexual virtue. It’s weird.
On the other hand, my family didn’t have to worry excessively about my sisters. Between the three of them, puberty wasn’t exactly perfume, brooding and breasts. Instead, there were orthodontic braces, underbites, gangly limbs, perms, severe myopia, orthodontic plates, rainbow glasses and thick eyebrows. To seal the deal, Dad insisted they all keep their hair short, to the extent that one of my sisters was once ushered out of female toilets and into the men’s. Adolescence didn’t coincide with a sultry Lolita-esque sexual discovery for them. No, they had scoliosis instead.
Things have since changed. Candy, the eldest, now has the coveted size zero frame of models, and a face that, from some angles, resembles Chinese actress Zhang Yiyi. Tammy is all perfectly tanned skin, suggestively over-the-eye hair, and has a quiet-thinking thoughtfulness men find infuriatingly sexy. Michelle’s breasts are almost obscenely pert. Much to her discomfort, she also tends to attract men aged 18 to 80 with her combination of nerdy bookishness and high glamour.
“Dude, your sisters are hot,” friends now tell me. My immediate, primal reaction is one of alarm. “No they’re not!” I say with such force, I surprise even myself. “They’re hideous and repulsive, and you are not allowed to touch them, never. NEVER.” Then, because I lack the physical proportions to appear threatening, I fix them with a steely glare. I’ve since found most people have misinterepreted my fear-inducing gaze as an allergic reaction to dust.
Either way, male friends respond with a look of hurt. What began as a gentle-natured compliment about people who share my genetics, turns to a melancholy expression which reads like a question: “What, Ben? Don’t you think I’m good enough for them?” And the answer, of course, is a resounding no. When it comes to my sisters, no one is good enough for them, and no one ever will be. Sorry.
New boyfriends and potential dates are scrutinised endlessly, and I berate my sisters with a litany of questions once we’re in the privacy of each other’s company. Is he infested with diseases? Does he have any life ambitions? What’s that thing he wears around his neck? How often does he floss? Does he wear satin boxer shorts? If any of these questions aren’t coupled with adequate answers, my most common advice is to sever the relationship.
“Ben,” my boyfriend will later protest. “That’s really terrible advice.” Admittedly, I’m lucky to have avoided the same scrutiny from potential siblings-in-law, since my boyfriend is an only child. But if Scott had siblings, I’m almost certain that upon meeting me in 2001—when our relationship started—they would have scanned my skeletal frame, blossoming acne and toilet brush hair, and taken Scott aside. “We know you’re a homosexual,” they’d have said, “but there are plenty of better-looking young men than … him.” Then they’d have pointed at me, alone in the hallway, slouching and sniffing my fingers.
Sometimes, however, over-protectiveness is warranted. When one of my sisters couchsurfed in Japan recently, she was nearly attacked in her bed by a complete stranger. She emailed us to tell us what had happened, but also reassured us she was okay, and that the Japanese police had made her feel better. She added, “I’m just so lucky he didn’t do anything sexual and wasn’t armed with anything.”
Needless to say, that horrific email triggered off a frenzy of cross-oceanic phone calls from my entire family. By the end of it, we were probably as traumatised as she was. “You are not travelling anywhere alone anymore,” I told her. “You must now carry a Lucille Bluth-style rape horn, and you will arm yourself with a knife or mace.”
Tammy recently told me I’m still overly protective, but I’d like to think I’ve toned down the craziness lately. No one wants to be the 1950s kind of brother who wears large block letters on his jacket and says things like, “Hands off my sister, pal.” Come on, I’m not some crazy, overprotective freakshow. That’s not me. I’m not going to kill you if you touch my sisters or anything. I’ll just tear out your spleen, and gouge out your eyes with my bare hands, that’s all. Call it brotherly love.