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.

Star Speaks Out, Part 1: A Non-Monogamist’s take on Sex-Positivity, Exhibitionism, and Rape Culture

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on January 23, 2013.

Alternately titled, let’s see how many current events buzz-words I can fit into one title.

Recently I’ve become very interested in the debates surrounding American rape culture, specifically its intersections with sex-positivity and feminism. I stipulate “American” rape culture, because the cultural norms and expectations that produce drunken frat-party violations are vastly different from those that produced the recent gang-rape reported in India, or others outside our Western frame of reference.

As a sex-positive non-monogamist, I often feel that in the mono-normative world where sex is a commodity, subject to supply and demand, my sexuality is devalued and I am one of “those women.” Those women are the bad girls, the promiscuous girls, the ones who (gasp!) like to have sex. We’ve all heard the phrase “no one will buy the cow when they can get the milk for free,” and when I refer to the commodification of sex, that’s the perfect accessible example. People, and women especially, are taught that sex is a good that we have to offer someone else, and that we have to preserve, and even amplify, the value of that good. We make our sexuality more valuable by decreasing the supply, to thereby increase demand. Because apparently my vagina is a widget.

(Please don’t confuse this symbolic commodification of women’s sexualities by mono-normative society as the same as the literal commodification of a woman’s sexuality in the cases of pornography, prostitution, or stripping. These are their own issues, involving another scale of consent, objectification, and economics. That’s not what I’m talking about here.)

The worldwide SlutWalk organization has coined the slogan “still not asking for it,” to encapsulate their philosophy that a woman’s personal behavior is never an invitation for sexual contact, and consent has to be offered, rather than assumed. I think the reason that these sorts of organizations even have to make those sorts of slogans, is because if a woman’s sexuality is a commodity, wherein its value is based on its availability, then a woman who is sex-positive, sexually active, or just confident enough to display her body, has a low to non-existent sexual value. Thus, sex with her can or should be “free.” Payment, in the forms of consent and mutual enjoyment, is unnecessary because her sexuality has no value. This sounds like the view of a sociopath when put forth that explicitly, but I’ve seen comments from average men (and worse, other women!) in internet forums that put forth this very idea in less direct terms. A woman at a SlutWalk stood topless with body-paint proclaiming “Still Not Asking For It,” and one woman’s comment on this Facebook photo was “I love and respect my body to the point where only one man deserves to look at my naked breasts.” The point she’s making is that she believes that her body and her sexuality will decrease in value the more people it is exposed to. That if she exposes her breasts to other men, that means that they will be worth less because the sight is something someone has to “deserve.”

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My wardrobe choice for the Pride parade in 2012. Photo by Allan Crain.

Let’s connect this to me, the sex-pos polyamorous exhibitionist. Yesterday, I intentionally wore a revealing, provocative outfit to work because I wanted to be looked at. I felt delightfully objectified as I saw my friends, coworkers, and customers staring at my body. One of the men I work with said it took him at least the first hour of the shift before he wasn’t staring at my ass constantly. I love and respect my body to the point where I want every damn person to look at it, and beyond that to the point that I believe that even if every person on this earth saw my naked body, that wouldn’t give a single one of them the right to touch it without my consent. I believe that the value of my body is not based on who I hide it from, it’s based on my value as a person, a human being with rights.

Another Facebook comment, also by a woman, on the aforementioned photo, said, “Keep that shit in the privacy of your own home, and maybe you wouldn’t be giving off slutty vibes to everyone. You don’t buy a fucking skin tight dress that pretty much shows your breasts and beaver just because you want to, you do it to get looks from others, and guess what BAD PEOPLE LOOK TOO.” (Internet-style typos corrected.) She’s telling us two important things. One is that she believes that “giving off slutty vibes” is inherently bad, and puts a woman in the position of being in the wrong even before she may be violated. She later says “You walk around like a slut you will get treated like one.” Which, to those of us who value sluts, and the freedom to be one as a life choice, sounds like a fine deal. Treated like a slut? Ok, great, that means you’ll respect my sexual decisions, which happen to be open and varied. That is, of course, not what she means. When she says I may be “treated like a slut,” she means treated like my sexuality has no value, and that I don’t deserve respect because I don’t demand it in the traditional method of hiding and fearing my own body. Her other point is a more subtle and insidious implication. When she says that dressing slutty is an invitation for people to look, and that this will include “bad people,” i.e. rapists, what’s she’s quietly implying is that the invitation to look is an invitation to touch, to molest. That simply being exposed and gazed at, and allowing herself to be seen by “bad people,” she deserves whatever she gets, because the responsibility for respect is not being placed upon the toucher, but the touched.

Eve Ensler‘s piece from the Vagina Monologues entitled “My Short Skirt,” comes so close to hitting the nail on the head for me. She says “My short skirt is not an invitation, a provocation, an indication, that I want it, or give it.” Yes, Ms. Ensler! True! She also says, “My short skirt, believe it or not, has nothing to do with you.” Well, maybe she misses the mark a bit. My short skirt has everything to do with you. Unless I wear my short skirt all alone in my living room, my short skirt is for you to look upon, for you to see me and consider my body, with desire, disgust, confusion, or whatever feeling moves you. It is not an invitation to touch or to approach, but it is present to your gaze and you may look, because that’s why we choose any clothing. Unless we’re wearing camouflage, when we pick our clothes we’re picking what we want people to see when they look at us.

As any active kinkster or swinger can tell you, consent is king in our minority communities. The sort of behavior shrugged at by the general public, things like street harassment, or unwanted touching by friends or peers, are absolute taboo within the context of a dungeon or a swinger party. I admit I’m reaching a bit out of my element regarding swing clubs/parties as I’ve never been to one, but as I understand the rules are very similar to that of a dungeon, where I do have quite a bit of experience. In these environments it is simply unacceptable to touch another person without their explicit consent, even if they are stark naked, sexually aroused, or otherwise wildly desirable. Because these communities know that our desires do not convey to us any rights.

This is already becoming very long, so I’ve decided to split the post into two. Tune in next time for the tie-in to feminism, and the issue of respect for sexual men as well as women.

My First Time

My first sexual experience is a difficult thing to pinpoint. I spent my teenage years with the same boyfriend, starting at 14 (March 2002, freshman year of high school), up through 18 (August 2006, sophomore year of college). I wasn’t exactly a late bloomer, but I certainly wasn’t ready to lose my virginity at fourteen. Fifteen, still no, but maybe I can try a handjob, and I guess you can finger me. Sixteen, no, but let’s learn oral sex. Let’s give me my first orgasm, my first mouthful of cum. Seventeen, almost, so close, then two weeks before my eighteenth birthday ok sure, let’s give this thing a try.

Those three years leading up to this moment, Alex (my high school boyfriend) and I had a totally sexually fulfilling relationship. We had a delightful track record of orgasms to offer one another, with our hands, our mouths. We were wild children who fooled around in the back of his van (Oh! What a crying shame when he traded that van for a PT Cruiser! Oh the humanity!), in dressing rooms of department stores, in parking garage stairwells and the back rooms of my church.

 

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This is me, around the time I’m talking about, curled up with Alex. His face is cut out, though I don’t know that he would know it if I failed to respect his privacy.

At this point in my life I was so wrapped up in stereotypical ideas of sex and virtue that, I shit you not, I gave my boyfriend my virginity as a birthday present. It was his 20th birthday, and about two weeks before I turned 18.

When we finally decided to “go all the way,” something changed. I can’t tell you if it was wearing a condom, or anxiety, or just one of the mysteries of the universe. But once his penis started spending time in my vagina, Alex lost the ability to maintain an erection. Over the final eight or nine months of our relationship, I could probably count on one hand the number of times we completed the act of copulation. Sometimes I think this was a big part of why we broke up.

Sometimes I also wonder if “losing his/my virginity,” in big official culturally acceptable terms, was just too much for him. Because up until that point, he could negotiate with his Catholic brain that he was maintaining our virtue, that we were going to wait until we were married. By teen logic, we were both still virgins until penile-vaginal penetration occurred. But once we transgressed that, maybe it took things too far for him.

Virginity is a big deal in our culture, but for me “losing it” was mostly about being afraid of being penetrated. Alex wasn’t exceedingly large, but anything bigger than two-fingers was a big step for me. I was right, it did hurt the first time, but that was brief and really not major for me. What was major was trying to figure out what it meant when my partner suddenly couldn’t maintain an erection anymore. Was there something wrong with me that wasn’t pleasing him? I had no idea, and neither of us had the ability to communicate freely and openly about our sexuality, because no one ever told us we were supposed to. Sex was a thing that you did or you didn’t do – it wasn’t a thing you discussed in a frank, objective manner. His guilt was immense, and I was confused.

Sex with Alex never got better. And that’s a shame. It’s not a great “how I lost my virginity” story, it’s just a true one.