I was 13-years-old when my homeroom teacher gave me advice that I’ve never forgotten: “If you look the part, if you act the part, don’t be surprised if people treat you as if you are the part.”
At the time we were discussing the tainted reputation a female classmate of mine had with “the boys.” This girl’s crime was simple: she wore tiny skirts, and she was loud, brash, and flirtatious. Apparently, this was enough to paint her with the “S word”—Slut.
Regrettably, my reaction at the time was, yeah, I’m not going to behave like her. I don’t want to be thought of that way. Now I sit here and read about female dress codes invoked in order to “protect” them, and I think, behave like what exactly? If I could go back in time, I would relish the opportunity to put that teacher straight, to stand up for that girl and point out that the length of her skirt didn’t ask for anything.
Ironically, that misguided teacher, who I absolutely adored, would have been the first to defend any of us in an instance of sexual harassment or assault. She would have promptly offered a shoulder to cry on.
She would have encouraged us to stand up for ourselves and report the matter, and to make us realize that we had a responsibility to ensure that it didn’t happen to someone else. Yet she still believed that there were things you could do to “ask for it”, and there were things you could do to protect yourself from being “that type of girl.”
Years later, when we were at an age when many of us actually were sexually active, the message was similarly retrograde: don’t drink too much; don’t make yourself too available; don’t wear clothes that are too revealing, etc.
There were no discussions about consent, about the joys of a consensual, loving relationship, about what you should expect from the boy you were seeing. Instead, the discussion highlighted the dangers of sex, how many different diseases you could catch, how much less respected you’d be without your virginity—in short, don’t do it!
I received a first-rate education at an all-girls Catholic school on Sydney’s wealthy north shore. But I was also taught that if our uniforms were too short, we were guilty of sexually harassing those who may see too much.
I had wonderful male friends and a wonderful boyfriend who attended a local Catholic school for boys. Throughout my entire high school education, as far as I’m aware, while we were being taught not to wear overly revealing skirts that would give boys the wrong impression, they were not being taught that it was wrong to look up girls skirts, that taking advantage of a girl who had drunk too much was rape, or that it was immoral to try and talk a girl into doing something that she didn’t want to do.
While my own teenage relationship was respectful and loving, many of my female peers were not so lucky, and I shudder remembering the way these poor girls were treated. Not once was the discourse about what an arsehole a boy was for having his mates steal the phone of a girl while she was performing a sexual act on him in the cinema.
No one stopped the opportunistic guy at a dance targeting an inebriated girl. No one asked “what is he thinking?” about the guy who bragged after he manipulated a girl into going further with him than she wanted. The fault was always the females. She wanted the attention. She put herself in that position. She was asking for it. And, besides, it wouldn’t have happened to the “right sort” of girl.
If I could just be that 13-year-old in that classroom again, I would ask exactly what “part” my teacher was talking about—the part of a girl who wore a short skirt, or laughed and talked excitedly amongst her friends, or danced and flirted and had a good time? Do we want to vilify her? Or is that the girl deep down we all wish we could be without judgment?
Why, I’d ask, am I responsible for the male teacher who stares when I lift my arms or when my thigh is fleetingly exposed? Why am I, a 13-year-old girl, guilty of sexual harassment?
Until we stop sending these perverse messages to girls, we cannot expect the behavior of boys to change. The lessons we learn in our adolescence filter through with us all our life. And telling young girls that their actions in some way bring sexual harassment upon them does nothing but strengthen the very vicious cycle we are trying to defeat.
This is all one step away from victim-blaming in rape cases, and it means that as they go through life, women blame themselves and men get away with inappropriate and even criminal behavior.
Teach your boys to respect girls, and your girls to demand respect, because controlling the length of her skirt won’t get you anywhere.