Prom: Slut-Shaming and Teen Sexuality

I am asking for trouble. I am begging for the internet world at large to hate on me. Am I this much of a masochist? Am I really going to go here?

Yeah, yeah I am. I’m a 25-year-old with no children, about to write a post about parenting teenagers.

The only excuse I can offer is that I was a teenager myself less than a decade ago. Please don’t kill me.

Recently I read this article regarding high school prom dress codes, and the accusation that they are “slut-shaming” female attendees through tight restrictions on acceptable female apparel in an attempt to avoid creating a “distraction.”

This is a deeply complex issue, and being not a parent I can’t even hope to cover every aspect of what’s happening here. But I will try to break it down into as many cogent pieces as possible.

First, let’s look at the motivation behind restrictive dress codes for female students. For anyone who has never read a school dress code, “distraction” is public school code for “boners.” The goal of these rules – which usually include provisions for length of skirts/shorts, exposure of bellies and cleavage, and general skin coverage –  is to prevent teenage girls from looking too sexually provocative and giving boys boners. That reasoning in itself is problematic because of its assumption that an exposed body is inherently sexual, a concern I have posted on at length already. Girls are being taught that to expose their body is to provoke sexual responses. If A, then B, no mitigating factors. Even the people militating against the dress-codes as “slut-shaming” are buying into this argument, because if an exposed body is not sexual, then there is no slut to shame, just a girl in shorts.

The exposure of the body is not necessarily sexual, but it certainly can be. Working from a position where girls are specifically wearing revealing clothing to look sexy, we can see a lot of reasons why they might be prevented from doing so:

1) Adults don’t believe teenage girls are capable of understanding and controlling their own sexual availability. If a girl looks like she wants sex, that might mean that she does. Obviously she’s too young to make informed sexual opinions, so if we make it LOOK like she’s not interested in being sexually provocative, then she will no longer BE interested. This argument is clearly fallacious. If you put a girl in a nun’s habit, it won’t actually change her sexual interests, it will just create a false front.

This particular issue is complicated by the fact that many teenage girls aren’t actually interested in being sexually provocative out of any sense of desire, but merely because that’s what girls are “supposed to” look like. Female teen sexuality is deeply damaged by the fact that many girls feel the need to exude sexual desirability, but without sexual desire of their own that goes with it. In this regard, I absolutely understand the impulse to control what she wears, so that she can be forgiven for not putting on a sexual facade she may not want in the first place. However, that’s something to have a conversation with a girl about, instead of simply legislating her wardrobe. If she feels uncomfortable among her peers because of sexual expectations, discuss them and work to change the expectations.

2) Adults don’t believe teenage boys are capable of controlling their own sexual impulses. We have a wealth of news stories about teen boys sexually assaulting girls, and the classic knee-jerk response is to try to make girls less sexually interesting to boys so that boys will stop doing awful things to them. The trouble with this is that we’re placing the onus on the girls – as usual – to control boys’ impulses, instead of teaching boys to control those impulses. Instead of teaching young people about consent, we’re trying to shut off their urges by concealing temptation. That’s simply not going to happen – and, worse, we’re punishing girls for supposedly creating these urges if they don’t properly conceal themselves.

3) Adults are uncomfortable viewing teenage girls as sexually desirable. A high school girl is, physically, pretty much an adult. She may grow another inch or two, she may gain half a cup size in college, but her body is a grown-up body. How I feel about her emotional or sexual maturity is a question for another insanely long post, but because of their physical maturity, adult authority figures become uncomfortable seeing sexually appealing teenage girls. They are unavailable due to the difference in social stratum, but stir desire nonetheless. That’s a little scary for a lot of people. (I’m not talking here about parents. I’m talking about teachers, administrators, chaperones.)

4) If a teenage girl dresses in a sexually provocative manner, adults believe that she is sexually active and that is “icky.” This one is more about the parents than the other authority figures. Many parents want to live under the illusion that their teenagers are not having sex. Most people start their sexual lives as teenagers, so this is very much an illusion. But it’s much easier to maintain the illusion that my (hypothetical) daughter is not having sex if she does not look sexy.

In the end, I’ll say that teen sex is incredibly problematic. I don’t think that sexually objectifying dress codes fix anything. If a girl shows up to prom in an outfit that causes concern among the adults, maybe ask her about it instead of sending her home. If the problem is that we’re worried whether teens are having safe, joyful, consensual sex lives, the issue is not her dress, it’s why she’s wearing it. If, as I suspect, the issue is not that we’re concerned about teenagers having healthy sex lives but are, rather, attempting to prevent teenagers from having sex lives at all, well then stop it. Just stop it. Restrictive dress-codes are about as effective at controlling teen sexuality as abstinence-only education: which is to say, not at all.

One last thing, and I promise it will be brief: a lot of folks have commented on the gender disparity between explanations of “appropriate” prom attire. I don’t know what kind of proms these people were going to, but all the ones I’ve seen the guys wear approximately one thing: a tux. It comes in colors, vest or no vest, bowtie or straight tie, but it’s all the damn same. It just is. The difference in rules isn’t sexist, it’s a fact of men’s formalwear. Whether or not the difference between men’s and women’s formalwear is inherently sexist is a question for not right now.

Preferred Pronouns – Asking a Hard Question

One of my pet projects in my silly little queer poly feminist sex-positive life is to deconstruct ideas of politeness, and thereby better understand why we treat people the way we do, and whether some attempts to be “polite” are actually undermining our abilities to be better people.

As always, I’m leading in with a big grand statement rather than just telling you what’s on my mind. As the title suggests, what is on my mind tonight is preferred pronouns. Knowing which pronoun to apply to a particular person is primarily a relevant concern for the queer community, but it should be an issue for consideration among all American English speakers. (I don’t know a damn thing about etiquette or linguistics in any other cultures or languages, so I won’t even try to speak to them [Haha, speak to them! See what I did there?])

It’s becoming an increasingly accepted practice among the queer community that when you meet a person who is not blatantly masculine or feminine – or, in many circles, when you meet anyone at all – you ask him/her/ze/them for his/her/zir/their preferred pronoun. If you somehow got on my blog and don’t know what I mean by that, here’s a for-instance.

I’ve just met someone at a party. It appears to me that this person is biologically male, but this person is wearing a dress and makeup. The individual is introduced to me as Robin. Robin’s gender is ambiguous to me, so I say to Robin, “Hello Robin, it’s very nice to meet you. What are your preferred pronouns?” Robin then tells me he, she, ze, they, or some variation. Sometimes a person will even tell me “I don’t care.” This discloses to me Robin’s chosen gender identity, thus preventing me from making incorrect assumptions and being offensive.

With me so far? Good.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

For a long time, I had trouble accepting this custom. When I was growing up, I would have people ask me (or ask my friends) “are you a boy or a girl?” as an insult. I was never particularly androgynous, even at my most pubescently awkward stages. Yes, I admit, I often wore men’s jeans, and by the end of 8th grade I had a short haircut. But my figure was never terribly angular, in the typically masculine way. So that means that “are you a boy or a girl?” really meant, “you’re a very ugly girl.” And I didn’t enjoy that.

Additionally, asking someone for their preferred pronoun made me uncomfortable because I was raised to understand that even if you aren’t trying to be mean, asking someone “are you a boy or a girl?” is rude. And the reason that it’s rude is because you’re telling this person that you can’t tell his/her/zir/their gender just by looking. And, here’s the payoff, not being able to judge a person’s gender by sight is a bad thing. Thus, you don’t ask.

Well, I’ve reached a point in my life where I understand that gender is not a binary, that people don’t have to fit into an either-or world, and that even if a person wants to live in a concrete male or female gender identity, it doesn’t have to present itself through typical masculine/feminine visuals. What that means is that to look at a person and not be able to judge gender right away is not a negative reflection on that person. When I see someone and I can’t tell if that person is a man, a woman, neither or both, it doesn’t mean that person is failing at his/her/zir/their gender by being visually ambiguous. And therefore, asking someone about preferred pronouns respects his/her/zir/their personal choice to select a gender identity, and expresses my willingness to accept that identity, no matter what it is.

The important difference, I think, is that I’ve developed the understanding that gender identity is a choice. And by that I am not trying to invoke nature/nurture arguments, but simply to say that it doesn’t matter what a person looks like, or what kind of genitalia that person has: whatever identity a person discloses to me, that’s the truth.

Edit: I was looking so hard for this image when I wrote this post last night, but wasn’t able to get my hands on it. This has been the best visual aid for gender identification that I’ve ever come across. No, I didn’t create it, and unfortunately I don’t know who did or I’d be happy to give appropriate credit.270873_168099213351707_1010752796_n

Nudity, Sexuality, Body-Positivity: Why my sexiness (or lack thereof) has no bearing on my body-positive viewpoint.

Obviously this is all sex appeal. Photo by Allan Crain.

There is an idea in our culture that a naked human body is somehow inherently sexual. This is a fact that we take for granted in our everyday lives, to the point that I would be surprised if at least a few people didn’t read that sentence and think “wait, it’s not?” When I marched in the 2012 Pride parade wearing denim shorts and a pair of pasties, myself and a few other girls in similar garb were berated on the grounds that this was not “family friendly.” The implication there being, of course, that we were sexually explicit and therefore inappropriate for children’s eyes. We weren’t performing any sexual behaviors – we weren’t making out with each other, caressing our own or anyone else’s bodies, or making lewd gestures or comments. We simply had a whole lot of exposed skin. And frankly, at Pride, I think that ought to be ok, especially since it happens in June which in my city is approximately a billion degrees.

When Congressman Barney Frank was interviewed by CNS News regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December of 2010, he was asked to address the issue of straight and homosexual men being required to shower together. His response was one of mock dismay, and he goes on to refer to it as a “silly issue,” asking “what is it you think goes on when you shower with homosexuals?”

The interviewer was offering the implication that if homosexual men were to share a shower with other men, heterosexual or otherwise, they would inevitably become aroused by the presence of naked male bodies. Because these men are attracted to men, being around them while nude will surely result in arousal. Congressmen Frank’s rebuttal is that showering is not a sex act, and heterosexual men are not going to be threatened by the presence of homosexuals in their showers. He says that homosexuals, “don’t get [them]selves dry-cleaned, [they] tend to take showers.” He defuses the sexual innuendo of the interviewer’s question by comparing showering to laundry, and I am on board with his comparison. In many ways, showering is a lot closer to laundry than it is to sex, but because it involves naked bodies a sexual association is inevitably placed upon it.

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Pictured: Debi Laszewski, professional bodybuilder, personal trainer, and model.

This assumption is so far reaching that we take it for granted, but it has troubling implications. If the purpose of the naked body is solely to fuck, then its sexual appeal becomes the most important measure of its worth. This is not only utterly wrong but often downright foolish. Here’s a not-very-funny story: I have a friend who is a college professor and body builder. He told me a story about a 19-year-old male student who walked into his office one day and saw a photo on his desktop of an award-winning female body builder, a friend of his. The student’s immediate reaction was “I wouldn’t fuck THAT!”

Needless to say, the student got an earful from his professor, but my simple response to this mindless outburst would be simply “so what?” This woman is taking mindful control of her body, and winning awards for it. It is hers to design and build to her specifications, and she prizes it enough to pit herself against other bodies in competition – and comes out on top! Yet somehow this young man seemed to think that his sexual desire – or lack thereof – for this woman was a legitimate basis on which to judge her body. He intentionally disparaged her body solely because he did not want to have sex with it. That’s more than mean, that’s insane.

This train of thinking about nudity, sexuality, and sexual desirability, makes the body-positivity movement immensely more difficult to propagate. I’ve heard people issue “reassurance” to women about their bodies by telling them, in essence, “there’s somebody out there who’s into that.” If the best thing you can tell a woman insecure about her naked body is that there’s someone in the world who’d want to fuck it, you’ve got an utterly warped sense of the human body. Telling women that they don’t have to conform to the Western white-hetero-middle-class ideals of beauty is a good start. Tell women that they don’t have to look like a Victoria’s Secret model. But don’t tell them that the reason they don’t have to look that way is because someone will still think they’re sexy. It’s probably true, and it’s good to feel sexy. But how fuckable a person’s body is doesn’t measure the value of that body.

People’s bodies are constantly judged with a sexual slant. Men disparage female body builders because nobody wants a woman who looks “like a man.” A sexy photograph of a tattooed woman on Facebook got the comment, “Interesting post but someday she’s gonna want to just git nekkid with someone…” These comments are not only disparaging a person’s body based on its sexual appeal, they’re judging people based on the bodies they’ve created ON PURPOSE. This is important to me.

I think the judgment of a modded body is different from the more common (but equally reprehensible) activities of fat-bashing and thin-bashing and judgment of any sort of natural bodily design. Those kinds of comments carry the implication that the person being judged is somehow unfortunate, that they should change their body to improve it, because obviously no one WANTS to be “like that,” whether the “that” in question is fat, thin, small breasted, large-assed, whatever. There’s a different flavor of ignorance there, that the person is somehow incomplete or needs improvement.

When someone flings sexually-based judgments at a modded body, it’s as if they’re saying the person has done something wrong. “Your body is for my enjoyment, so what on earth compelled you to do that to it?” seems to be the question. It’s almost accusatory.

I know that distinction was a bit of a transgression from my point, so I’ll bring it back around. In both cases, bodies are being viewed in terms of whether or not people want to have sex with them. And really, the only people I care about when it comes to their opinion on my fuckability, are my partners. My body image ought not to be based on my “attractiveness.” (I say ought not to because I’ll admit I get hung up on it too.) It should be based on what I’ve done with it, and whether my treatment of my body is what I desire, and whether said treatment is obtaining the desired results. For example, I’m incredibly pleased and satisfied with the tattoo on my back. I’m less pleased and satisfied with the current shape of my legs, because I don’t run as often as I want to. I’m not displeased with my legs because they aren’t sexy: I’m displeased because I’m working toward a goal and am not achieving it to my personal satisfaction.

My sister likes to argue with me over the term body-positivity, and say that really it ought to be body-neutrality. Bodies are not inherently positive OR negative, and we do not have the right to judge or shame the bodies of others. Thus, neutral. I’ll agree with that; however body-positivity for me isn’t necessarily the same as self-love, -image, or -esteem. Body positivity is about accepting other people’s body choices as their own, and encouraging their intentional bodies. I will confess a distaste for people with apathy toward their own bodies. But if you are owning and creating your body to your personal specifications, you are what body-positivity is about for me. I don’t care if you love yourself, or if you look in the mirror and feel pretty, or whatever. It’s about acknowledging your body as your instrument, and owning its shape and maintenance. It’s about self-consciousness, rather than self-esteem. And it’s completely incompatible with the sexual objectification of the naked body, which is all about becoming desirable to a non-existent and unreachable public opinion. The non-consensual sexualization of my body destroys my agency by framing it in terms I didn’t choose or create, based on a standard that is ill-defined and worse-understood. It cannot possibly coexist with my idea of body-positivity, and frankly I like my opinions better.