Friday, May 22, 2015

Dear school teachers, administrators, and officials (a post on dress codes)

Dear school teachers, administrators and officials:

We've got a problem.

As I'm sure you're aware, we have a problem in this country with sexual violence.  In the US, there are 293,066 people sexually assaulted every year.  One in six US women will experience an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.  In other words, a person is sexually assaulted in the US every 107 seconds.  Of those assaults, it is estimated that only 68% are ever reported.  This all boils down to the unfortunate fact that 98% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.* 

Now, I know you're good people.  I know you hear this and, like any good person, you say, "well that's just terrible!"  You shake your head and wonder what we can do about such an epidemic.  You think about the loved ones you know who have been sexually assaulted.  You worry about your daughters.  You probably believe, when confronted with this data, that something needs to be done.  Don't you?  It is undeniable that we've got a problem. 

We've got a sexual violence problem.  We've got a rape-on-campus problem.  We've got a rape-in-the-military problem.  We have a rape-in-our-homes problem.  We have a straight-up violence against women problem all across our nation.**** 

Although you may not realize it, you, as educators of young minds and bodies can play a role in beginning to turn this ship around.  However, from where I sit, it seems that you are pushing us ever further, ever faster, ever deeper into this place that sexualizes, shames, and devalues female bodies. 

Allow me to connect the dots. 

I'm talking about dress codes.  I'm talking about the ways we are educating our women and, more importantly, I'm talking about the ways we are educating our men. I'm talking about the fact that our girls and young women are being taught that their education is not as important as their male classmates.  That their female bodies are a distraction, that they are shameful, that they need to be covered, that they are disgraceful and problematic, purely because they are existing in the same physical space as boys.  Need I remind you that the most important lessons you are teaching are not the ones on the lesson plans?

Violence against women is perpetuated in part by the idea that women's bodies are not our own.  If 12-year-old boys are taught that girls should be made to cover up their bodies because they are a distraction, what happens from there?  If 14-year-olds are taught that boys don't have the self-control to focus on their academic work because a girl's shoulders are exposed, what will stop him from acting on an impulse in 5 or 10 years?  When our boys learn these lessons today, they will become our future judges, doctors, and policemen who continue to shame and silence women who have been sexually assaulted. If our boys have been taught that women are sexual beings whose shoulders, or legs, or clothing invite a sexual response, what will stop him from raping someone 5, or 10, or 20 years from now?

It seems to me that if our boys are taught and shown that girls are sexual objects who should cover up; that it's not his fault if he can't control his impulses; that his wants and needs are more important than her comfort, her sense of self, her education...then we are not teaching him anything but to objectify and devalue women.  What will stop him from blaming his sister, his friend, his wife when she is raped?  Are we not directly teaching him to ask her what she was wearing?  Where in this message are we teaching him to believe her, that it's not her fault?  We are not setting our men up to be in a position to stop the violence.  We are never giving them the opportunity to learn that women's bodies are not objects that he can control.

This is root and the cycle of rape culture. 

Perhaps you are saying, "but that's not the same.  You're jumping way too far ahead here.  You can't jump from dress codes in middle school to rape."  And perhaps you're right.  But where is that line and when is it crossed?  Where is it along that line from sexualization and objectification to sexual violence that is "too far?"  How is it that you plan on teaching that sexualization and objectification of girls' bodies is okay, but acting on it is not?  How do you plan on teaching that it's okay to control girls' bodies by making them cover up for the sake of boys, but it's not okay for men to physically or emotionally control women?   Modeling is one of the most powerful ways of teaching, and the ways you are modeling do not teach the second half of those messages.  If dress code enforcement is in your curriculum, where are you including this other essential information?

When young people graduate from your high schools and go to college, 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted**.  Approximately 35% of all rapes occur for women between the ages of 18 and 24***.  When I was in graduate school, at age 24, I was sexually assaulted.  After several months of attempting to deal with the ongoing harassment that occurred following the assault, I finally approached my advisor and program administrators about my concerns.  It was then that I was told not only that they could not help me, but also that I should have known better than to "go to the bar with [my] boobs hanging out."

I know what you're thinking: "I would never do something like that."  But is your message truly different? 

Five years later, I carry the impact of those words in my body.  The impact of those words says, "you deserved it."  The echoes of those words tell me that it was my fault, that my body and my choices made me a target.  That I asked for it.  The impact of this message is that this body that I live in -- this body essentially puts me on the waiting list for violence.  Five years later, I still feel the need to explain to you that I wasn't wearing a low-cut shirt.  Five years later, I can't wear shirts like the one I wore that night.  For me and 17.7 million other women,* this is an incredible weight we need to carry. 

You are responsible for educating our girls, and I urge you to consider what you are truly teaching.  Is the message that I received different from the one you are teaching our middle and high school girls?  If one of your girls came to you with a similar concern, would you respond differently?  Five years from now, will the girls you made change their clothes today still be carrying the message of shame and devaluation you gave them?  When you make girls change their clothes, you are preparing them for the message that any future violence is deserved.  Your message is not subtle: it is simply the precursor to the message I received.  Can we not do any better than to prepare our girls for future violence at the hands of men?  

Last semester, I taught an undergraduate course at a local college.  It was an evening course, and one night, an incident with a male union representative occurred that made me feel unsafe being in the building following my class.  Because of both his overtly and covertly threatening behavior, I as a woman felt unsafe being alone, and felt unsafe walking across campus to my car.  I requested increased security presence to be in the building, and I requested an escort to walk me to my car.  While this was approved by the chair of my department, it was declined by the head of security.  This resulted in several weeks of me advocating at various levels within the college, fighting for the right to feel safe walking to and from my car.  Because of this incident and the way it was handled, I made the decision not to return to teach another semester. 

Do you see the ways in which a female's body -- a female's right to safety was ignored here?  Can you see the ways in which I as a woman felt as though my bodily autonomy did not matter?  Your students are these future women who face lost educational and career opportunities, yes, but more importantly, your students are these future men.  Your students are the future directors of security denying a woman's experience and denying her right to simple preventative measures that could make her feel safe.  Your students are the future union representatives making women feel threatened (and laughing about it).  Do you want your male students to grow into the adults that perpetuate a culture that makes women feel unsafe?  Can you say that you feel okay about your young men growing up, unable to hear women's fear and thereby denying women the right to feel her bodily autonomy is protected?  Do you want your young women giving up job opportunities because she feels unsafe, unsupported, and disrespected?  I know I want more for your students.  I want more for their future.  Our young women deserve better.  Our young men deserve better. 

Maybe we can stop to consider that objectification and sexualization of female bodies is violence.  Making girls cover up their bodies, making them miss educational opportunities for the sake of boys...those behaviors are nothing more than precursors to violence.  These actions and beliefs are cogs in the wheel of oppression, and unfortunately, you are an essential piece of building the machine.

My dear school administrators and officials, the fact that we have a problem is undeniable.  The good news here is that you have a choice.  Do we continue to place the burden of shame on our girls?  Do we continue to place the onus of blame on their young, growing, developing bodies?  Or do we gift our young boys with knowledge and personal responsibility as we shape them into the young men we know they can be?

As we move forward together, the choice is yours.



* Statistics from the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) website:
**Statistics from Know Your IX website:
****And yes, men and boys get raped too, but for the purposes of this post, that's not my focus.  

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