It may be freezing cold outside, but as the store windows remind us, spring is on its way. Along with the Easter bunny and the return of baseball, the rapidly approaching season is sure to bring a new round of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching about young women's "immodest" attire. The viral response this month to Rosea Lake's "guide to proper skirt length" makes it clear that even in the January chill, the slut-shaming and prude-mocking of young women for how they dress remains a source of tremendous frustration and pain.
As compelling as Lake's image is, it doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. An exasperated columnist at XOJaneUK announced she had found herself "with ‘slut-shaming' fatigue," wondering if "the importance of us shaking off these women-hating slurs is being exploited for easy column inches." New and compelling images to depict old and seemingly intractable problems only help so much. Where are the workable solutions? What are the pearl-clutchers not getting about young women's clothing choices, and how can we help them "get it?"
I spoke this week with Australian writer-activists Nina Funnell and Clementine Ford, both long-time feminist campaigners for the rights of women and girls down under. While the northern hemisphere has been shivering, Australia has been enduring both record heat and the inevitable laments from social conservatives worrying about loose young women in short summer dresses. With the Antipodes in the grip of a sweltering slut-shaming season, it seemed the perfect time to ask Ford and Funnell about ideas for ending the perennial and cruel "modesty wars." Thanks to those conversations, I want to propose five key ways to rethink our attitudes towards the choices of teen girls, choices that we almost inevitably misunderstand and misrepresent.
Remind Adults That They Routinely Misunderstand Why Teens Dress the Way They Do.
As Funnell, who is working on a forthcoming book on this topic told me, "we need to remember that many teen girls deliberately aspire to dress in ways that are purposefully unknowable to adults." That seems simple enough. The problem is that rather than listen to young women themselves, too many adults fixate on one of the great worries of our era: that girls are the victims of premature sexualization. The anxiety about sexualization ends up becoming the only lens through which well-meaning adults see teen girls and their clothes. That's a huge mistake. "Instead of judging teen girls or policing their appearances," Funnell writes in an email, "we would do well to listen to teen girls and understand that they make sense of their own choices in ways which we may never have really considered."
Insist that Girls Aren't the Only Gatekeepers.
The peddlers of the modesty ideal insist on teaching girls that they are responsible for how adult men respond to their bodies. Usually basing their argument on junk science, misinterpretations of evolutionary psychology, and men's own claims about their uncontrolled libidos, worried adults calculate that it's easier to slut-shame an impressionable teen than to hold adult men to account. Adults often want to believe that short skirts are to blame for sexual assault, if only in the vain hope that more concealing clothing will be a perfect prophylaxis against rape. Young women are forced to take on an unreasonable responsibility for how adult men choose — yes, choose — to react to their bodies. Girls deserve to be reminded that their bodies are not so powerful that they can drive men to distraction, to rudeness, to violence.
Remind Girls They Have the Right to Want Sexual Attention From a Select Few.
When harassers are confronted on their behavior, they often offer the same classic defense: "she wouldn't dress that way if she didn't want attention." Of course young people want attention — often sexual attention. Very few (if any) want that attention indiscriminately from every post-pubescent male with a pulse. "We always behave as if it's a really selfish, dangerous and ultimately naïve way for girls to dress revealingly," Clementine Ford wrote in an email. "A young woman isn't allowed to dictate what attention she wants, because that's her making a judgment on the kind of men she deems good enough for her."
The virgin/slut dichotomy has long meant that a young woman is given two choices: have sex with no one, or give it up to everyone. One key way to fight slut-shaming is to reiterate that girls have the right to want to turn on whom they want to turn on – and still be treated with respect and care by those whom they don't. That's only an unreasonable expectation in a culture that expects very little from men.
Give Girls More Tools to Target their Sexuality.
"We need to allow teens to test out the sexual waters and 'try on' different identities by providing them with the space they need to do that," Funnell insists. That's not just happy talk. Funnell, a leading expert on sexting (she's working on a book that focuses heavily on the issue), is also working with software developers to create an app to allow for the safer sharing of erotic selfies. When it comes to sexting, what would make the experience far more empowering and fun for everyone, Funnell says, is if participants could have three assurances: that the recipient of a sext couldn't copy or forward the image; that a time limit could be embedded in the image; that an image or video could be remotely "recalled" if a relationship ends or the sender changes her mind. The technology is already there -– and the app she's developing, which is still in beta, will soon be available.
There's a lot more to contemporary teen sexuality than sexting, of course. The larger point is that most adults see the kind of technology teens have — smart phones, webcams, social media itself — as devices that facilitate sexualization and victimization. There's a truth in that concern, of course, but also a missed opportunity. Rather than lamenting the various ways in which teens are shamed and exploited by the new technology, Funnell suggests that we need to be proactive in working with young women to develop applications and devices that can enhance not just their safety, but their agency and their pleasure.
Create the Same Mistake-Friendly Culture for Girls that Boys Already Enjoy.
In our culture boys — who are represented as both more obtuse and more resilient — get encouragement to make mistakes; repeated failures are the seeds of masculine success. Girls, on the other hand, get reminded that one mistake will likely ruin their lives. "One of the biggest problems is that we imagine that for teen girls, sex is some kind of cataclysmic event that can never be recovered from," says Ford. We make the mistake of assuming that giving girls the freedom to fuck up is really just giving them the freedom to be exploited. As Ford puts it, that's "not exactly a flattering view of girls' emotional intelligence."
While it's heartening to see so much pushback in popular media against slut-shaming and victim-blaming, it's not enough to merely diagnose and describe the disheartening scope of the problem. We need cultural and technological solutions that put girls and boys on a level sexual playing field. As incomplete and imperfect as they are, these five suggestions constitute a start.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.