Monday, June 11, 2012

Dress Codes, Sexual Harassment, and Victim Blaming, Oh My!

(TW rape victim blaming)

Jessica Valenti has a great piece at the Nation about the sexism of student dress codes. She chronicles the new dress code of her former school, New York’s Stuyvesant High School. As she reports,
Another senior, Lucinda Ventimiglia, told the student newspaper, the Spectator, “I’ve been told that even though my skirts were technically acceptable, they were still too short for me to wear, and once it was suggested that I should follow a separate dress code, wherein my skirts should end at least four inches past my fingertips, and preferably at my knees.”
Ventimiglia also recalled being stopped by a school official who told her that her dress was too short [and] that she could “show off her curves” when she wasn’t in school. “She then went on to say that the dress code was only instituted for my protection, because there are a lot of bad men outside school, and if I was raped nobody would be able to take that away from me. Then, she said, ‘and you want a husband, don’t you?’ ”
Say whaaaat?

Oh good lord--let's take about all the things going on here:

1) body shaming--this specific student was told that although her outfit was "technically acceptable" her body dictated a differnet standard.
2) victim blaming--by suggesting that she can prevent rape by dressing differently, the implication is that if she is raped, it is her fault for dressing like that.
3) heterosexism--the presumption that she wants a husband some day.
4) general fucked-upery--if you're raped you're apparently worthless/undesirable...?

And then there's the other big problem with the dress codes in general--the idea that female bodies are inherently distracting and a problem; a temptation to be hid away from boys. As Valenti expanded on her Tumblr,
This “distraction” standard for a dress code sets up a model in which the default student we are concerned about - the student whose learning we want to ensure is protected - is male. It presumes that female students are a distraction to male students’ learning, and therefore it’s young women’s actions that must be policed.
This hits at something I was recently discussing. An acquaintance asserted, "If a woman decides not to wear a bra to work she is sexually harassing her coworkers, right?" Truthfully I had to keep my snark in check because WHAT? but I did and answered emphatically: NO that is not sexual harassment. Let me expand. If we work with the traditional definition of sexual harassment from Wikipedia, it is,
...intimidation, bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors. As defined by EEOC, "It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include "sexual harassment" or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. 
Then there's no way that simply existing in one's body can be sexual harassment. Just being you isn't sexual by definition. And where is the intimidation, bullying, or coercion in walking around braless? Where is the unwelcome advance? The harassment of it? Assuming this woman is not leering, invading other people's space, touching them, etc. how is it sexual harassment? I understand that the way one dresses could be inappropriate and unprofessional for certain contexts, but sexual harassment?

Through both the question this person asked and the dress code story--the key issue is that female bodies are looked at as inherently problematic; simply for being female bodies. They are forever seen as sexual objects, temptations, shame, and in need of protecting. Give me an example where men's bodies are viewed in this way--I legitimately can't think of one.

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