Every time I see an article about how school dress codes infringe upon the rights of girls, I cringe. Not because of the implications of sexism they contain–of course dress codes are sexist–but because I keep wondering when we are going to accept that teenagers are, by biological definition, walking libidos; gangly, ticking sex bombs. Banning a bra strap or two is like throwing a couple of pillows on the detonator and hoping the whole thing doesn’t blow up in your face.
Attempting to dictate and control sexuality by shunning spaghetti straps or taming tanks is a little bit like Footloose, but for frocks.
Sexuality is undeniably powerful. And confusing. Yet instead of teaching kids and teens about sexuality, how to be safe and respectful and smart and consensual about it, we put measures like dress codes into place. We’re clinging to some bizarre notion that it’s the sight of a shoulder-blade or a thigh peeking out which makes teenagers want to have sex instead of their biology.
It didn’t work for the Victorians either.
Yet here we are again and still, perpetuating the notion that girls who wear mini-skirts are more sexually active, and thereby need to be tamed. (An aside: the teen movie Easy A did a good job taking this stereotype to its natural extreme, plus it paid excellent homage to John Hughes). And just as dangerously, dress codes work on the assumption that all teenage boys are in a near constant state of pre-rape, a state which needs to be handled with the care and managed at all times—lest it explode.
Assuming students will be distracted because of the way a girl dresses is selling both sexes short. In lieu of education, dress codes are a cheap way to use an adult mold to label, shame, scare, and in some cases excuse, teenagers. The addendum, that these codes are actually in place to protect adult males from being uncomfortable? I have faith the vast majority of adult males can manage their sexuality. If they can’t, perhaps they should be in a different line of work. One that doesn’t put them into contact with the general public.
It’s easy to assume that Jimmy over there, trying to find the circumference of a circle, may be distracted by the length of Annie’s shorts. But the truth is, if Jimmy is going to get aroused by Annie, it’s likely going to happen whether she’s got on a mini-skirt, a poodle skirt or a hoop skirt with five layers of crinoline underneath. What is more important than banning a length of shorts is teaching Jimmy that Annie is a person–and that assumptions about her own sexuality shouldn’t be made in regard to the length of her shorts. But it’s also important to teach Annie that she is more than the length of her shorts.
No one is deserving of harassment because of their clothing choices, but it is naive to assume that clothes are not sometimes chosen with the direct expectation of attracting attention. The truth, and one I almost never see mentioned, is that teenagers (boys and girls) often dress expressly for the purpose of provoking…their parents, their peers, the boy or girl they have a raging crush on, the bag checker at the supermarket and the gal who works in the gas station. How do I know? I did it myself.
Clothing choice is the teenage equivalent of a peacock spreading its wings to attract attention. How to respond to it needs to be addressed more than pretending it doesn’t exist. If you throw a sheet over a peacock’s wings it’s not going to stop looking for a mate.
Are certain clothes distracting? Most definitely. Are they distracting enough that a student won’t remember sine is opposite over hypotenuse? Maybe, though I’d argue cell phones and computers are more of a distraction in the classroom than a tight tee. But I would be missing the point, because this is not about distraction. Not all of it.
No dress code is going to make up for educating our children about sex and consent. All this twaddle about distraction is nothing more than a thin veneer of hypocrisy disguised as concern. The truth is far more complicated than banning a stray bra strap. And in order to understand it, we need to look at how we are raising…and failing…our children.
We throw the Lolita level sexuality at kids from grade school up. Bratz dolls and buffed up superheroes. Big busted video game women who stand on the sidelines. It’s souped up sexuality served up in a can. Lyrics about ho-s and bitches and the glorification of sexual violence. We make it so glossy and attractive that Don Draper would be proud. Yet when they want to emulate it, whether it is intentional or not, we get puritanical, draping them like so many Victorian table legs, in dress codes. Talk about putting the cart before the horse.
I understand the need to create a safe, distraction free environment. I’m not arguing against having base-line rules in place for propriety. Just as in the work place, kids need to learn there are basic levels of appropriate and inappropriate. But what kind of message are we sending to boys AND girls if we assume a girl in a sundress is going to drive a boy to the brink of hormonal frenzy? Why are we not instead teaching them that bodies are bodies, and yes, they are used for, among other things, sex, and that sex is not the automatic result of a mini-skirt and a tube top combo. Why are we not initiating conversations, at home and at school about consent and expectation? Why are we assuming the sight of Annie in a tank top is more distracting to Jimmy than Jimmy in his skinny jeans is to Annie?
Forcing preconceived notions of acceptable dress and sex onto kids that are hormonally charged is like dabbing at an arterial wound with a paper towel.
We can keep pretending that young adult sexuality can be hidden, cloaked under some heavy damask like so many piano legs. But just because you can’t see the piano legs or the peacock wings or the bit of thigh peeking out doesn’t mean they’ve gone away.