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.