On Harvey Weinstein and school dress codes

The sheer number of women who have come forward and accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein with various levels of sexual improprieties and assaults has been very disturbing. He allegedly used his position of influence to take advantage of women, many of whom are now our most treasured movie stars. The New York Times first reported the story, but I would be surprised if any news agency hadn’t written something about it by this point.

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After the women started coming forward and, in some cases, accepting money settlements in lieu of prosecution, there was a disturbing flourish of remarks and comments blaming the women. This commentary essentially said something like, “Women should dress more modestly, because men can’t control their sexual urges in the face of such sexually attractive women.”

There has often been a tendency to shoot the messenger in American society, but this is so clearly blaming the victim that I don’t even know where to begin. So let’s start in middle school and high school.

The dress codes in schools are so unbalanced in favor of boys not being able to control their sexual urges as to lead me to think we start training boys (and girls) very early that women’s bodies, used as sex objects, are to blame for sexual assault. Not only is this appalling but it deserves a closer look.

Writing in the Washington Post, Soraya Chemaly, the director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project and an activist whose work focuses on gender, says when we prop girls up on chairs so school administrators can measure, in front of everyone, their skirt length, for instance, we teach those girls, their friends, and both boys and girls, that a woman’s body is a sex object. Her legs aren’t used for walking but rather for sex.

Or, what about those neon sweaters or sweatpants schools make girls wear, the ones that say “Dress Code Violation” on them? Walking around the school wearing these is humiliating, and it forces the girl to laugh at herself as a simple defense mechanism, guarding against the people who are making fun of her. This further reinforces the idea that girls’ bodies aren’t functional but are simply objectified.

It would be nice if, at some point, we figure out that unlearning lessons that come from teachers in our schools isn’t easy. Schools need to keep this in mind and refocus those lessons not on modesty, whatever that means, for girls but on self-control for boys. Feelings of attraction are natural; not controlling the urge to assault women is not appropriate.

About the Author

Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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