This is how you teach rape culture to 12-year-olds

handmade sign reading: society teaches "don't get raped not don't rape"Ban the girls from wearing tight pants to stop them from “distracting” the boys.

That’s what Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma, CA, has done. From KTVU:

At Kenilworth Junior High in Petaluma, a school administrator pulled all the girls aside Thursday afternoon and told them they couldn’t wear pants that were “too tight” because it distracts the boys.

Instead of heading to their last class Thursday, all the female students reported to the multi-use room and when they found out what it was about there was quite an uproar.

“It takes away like half of my clothes because I have a lot of yoga pants and leggings, so everyone’s kind of like mad about it,” said Makenna Mattei, a student.

As a lover of leggings, I feel for Mattei, and for any student who now has to go and spend money that their family might not have  in order to adhere to the dress code. But I also want to make it clear that what this school is doing is inducting these kids into rape culture. By declaring that women are responsible for controlling men’s behaviour, the school is sending the message loud and clear: if men are “distracted” by you, or worse, it’s your fault for not dressing the way you’re “supposed” to.

That’s rape culture. To their credit, some of the parents see it that way, too.

Some parents were bothered by this because they said it sends the wrong messages to girls. “It is not our girls’ fault that these boys have quote ‘raging hormones’ they can’t control,” said Lisa Simond, a parent of a student.

Simond is exactly right. If you want to make a school a safe, productive learning environment for all your students, start by teaching them to respect each other’s bodies. Teach them to do that regardless of what their peers are wearing.

This bullshit dress code does just the opposite: it teaches boys that there are certain circumstances under which they don’t have to respect their classmates’ bodies and boundaries. And it teaches them that if god forbid they violate those boundaries, they won’t be held fully responsible: it’ll be her fault for wearing yoga pants, or a  belly shirt, or for drinking too much, or for walking alone, or for insert violation here. Finally, it teaches them that you just don’t expect that much of them. You don’t expect them to be able to control themselves, to treat their girl friends like human beings, to ignore “distractions” and focus on learning.

This is how you teach rape culture to 12-year-olds. And if you’re teaching it, don’t be surprised when, one day in the near or distant future, one of them commits an act of sexual violence. We sure as hell won’t be.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/annelondon/ Anne

    We are moving backwards. As an entire society. The freedom of living and having an identity is over. The freedom of being ourselves and caring for our lives and our sexuality is over. We are moving backwards to a time when the norm was to hide our bodies to avoid arousing sexual appeal. Whereas a few years ago we would look at muslim women and found bizarre the fact that they need to cover their entire bodies and sometimes even the face and much harder for us to understand, even the eyes; that is the direction we are moving towards. Instead of teaching respect, we are teaching that men cannot cope with the view of a female body. That the view of bare arms is enough to excite them.
    Congratulations contemporary world! I expected much more from you. I expected equality and respect. And all we got instead is this backwards look. Thank you very much for nothing.

  • http://feministing.com/members/wentrogue/ Stacey

    And in Minnetonka, a suburb of Minneapolis last fall:

    Sparking the latest debate over what’s appropriate attire in schools, David Adney (school principal) sent an e-mail to high school parents Monday asking them to talk to their daughters about wearing spandex-like yoga pants or other tight-fitting leggings with T-shirts that expose “more leg and backside” and can “be highly distracting for other students.”

    So these “other students” (read: boys) would presumably never be distracted by girls were it not for the yoga pants. Right.

  • http://feministing.com/members/therobd/ Rob Diaz

    Thank you feministing for bringing this to my attention. I work for the rape crisis center of sonoma county and do prevention education all over. I have done tons of work in the town of Petaluma and it looks like i will be reaching out to this school to do some more.

  • http://feministing.com/members/wendolyn/ Wendolyn Aragon

    My boyfriend is a paraprofessional at a middle school and they just went through this leggings argument and they handled it much better. Their stance was that skinny jeans were okay, but leggings and knit jeggings were not an appropriate part of the district’s approved uniform dress code, unless they are worn under a skirt, because they do not qualify as pants. And they sent a universal not home instead of rounding up the girls. The note home also made sure to mention extremely low sagging pants on boys. Same age group, same issue with raging tween hormones, and a totally different delivery that both offered a happy medium and proved to be far more effective by not shaming girls into thinking that they are doing something wrong.

  • http://feministing.com/members/annais/ Anna Schwanebeck

    Not only do dress codes begin teaching young women rape culture– indeed, being told we’re “bad” for the way we dress is often where slut-shaming starts for youth– But it also places a premium on male education rather than feminine. We are expected to control our impulses and not be attracted to the boys in our classes and the way they dress. This says one of two things: either our educators think girls dont have hormones, too, which is scientifically inacurate and doesnt belong in schools, or they accept this and dont believe that it is important. By underplaying our sexual desires, they do two things: make them unvauled and “bad” and make men’s more important. Dress codes in schools remove our ability to be sexual creatures while punishing us, but worse, they send the message that male education is more important than female, because girls’ distraction is overlooked.

  • http://feministing.com/members/msmarkonis/ Matt Markonis

    This kind of distortion takes ideology.

  • http://feministing.com/members/weenta/ Weenta

    I like what was previously said about a school dress code ruling that leggings need to be worn under a skirt. Leggings really aren’t pants, some people just like to pretend they are. I think there’s basis enough to ban them on that premise alone. They’re unprofessional, and in that sense, I’d think of it as the same type of dress code violation as coming to school wearing pajamas. In the context of a yoga class, that’s fine, you need to be comfortable to exercise, but not in the context of a school hallway. That’s what locker rooms are for, right?

    In reference to the “distracting the boys” comment, a school has a dress code in place precisely for the purpose of eliminating distracting attire, and yes, leggings are probably more distracting for boys than they are for girls, and yes, for sexual reasons. School is an environment where young people come to focus on their studies, and adolescent boys and girls at this particular stage in their lives already have enough trouble staying focused. Whether they are invested in ignoring and controlling their sexual responses or not, by nature of their age and development, they’re more prone to be distracted by them. Isn’t that one of the reasons that people chose to enroll their children in same sex schools? I agree wholeheartedly that males should be active about keeping their sexual response to visual stimulation to themselves, but let’s be real about what we’re talking about–“yoga-type” leggings can be skin tight and outline the curves of a woman’s body, and though they are technically covering everything up, it’d be hard to argue that they don’t put women’s bodies on display as much as say short shorts would. I think rape culture is about how boys and men understand their relation to girls and womens’ bodies, and what I think is important is the idea that just because a girl or a woman’s body is on display, that doesn’t mean that boys or men have the right to touch that body or comment on that body, that they respect that body in their interactions with it. That said, a boy can respect that body as much as he wants, but it doesn’t prevent the distraction itself. Now, can boys distracting girls in the same way with their attire? It’s difficult to think of a male equivalent in this instance, maybe baggy jeans that expose boxer briefs? Regardless, for me, it’s just a matter of acknowledging that women’s bodies are plain different than men’s and attract attention in a different way. This is why I don’t feel this ban, in an academic environment separate from your home or the mall or wherever else you’d like to wear those yoga pants, is inherently sexist or contributing to rape culture. If someone feels differently about this, I’d love to hear why and if I’m missing a step in my logic somewhere.

    That said, if you really want to be egalitarian about it, if a boy came to school wearing tight leggings, while I don’t exactly think young girls would think that dress was insanely attractive, I’d be willing to be he’d be in violation of dress code too.

    • catskitchensink

      “Regardless, for me, it’s just a matter of acknowledging that women’s
      bodies are plain different than men’s and attract attention in a
      different way.”

      This is a good example of how women perpetuate this bullshit notion as well. I suspect you are the mother of a boy since they usually have this sort of fucked up logic. They call themselves feminists, but they always blame the female when their “perfect little boy” acts like a misogynistic ass or rapes a girl. Then they cry “modesty” and lament that those slutty slut girls are allowed to dress like whores and tempt their precious golden boy. IMO mothers of boys are some of the worst perpetrators of sexism and slut shaming in the world today.

  • http://feministing.com/members/domingo/ Becca

    I wrote a letter to the assistant principal and principal. Their emails can be found online.

    Weenta: your logic seems awful to me. “Teenage boys have enough trouble focusing”….and teenage girls don’t? I’m tired of hearing I couldn’t understand. I was very sexually charged as a teenager, it was incredibly distracting (teenage boys aren’t the only ones masturbating in the bathroom, heads up) and you know what? I got through it.

    “That said, a boy can respect that body as much as he wants, but it doesn’t prevent the distraction itself. Now, can boys distracting girls in the same way with their attire? ”

    Well, since you’re intimating that boys have crazy sexual urges they couldn’t possibly handle, doesn’t the simple fact that the girls have vaginas mean they’ll be distracting? I don’t think this is a point in favor of ‘not wearing tight clothing.’

    And again, teenage girls: also like to bone.

    “Regardless, for me, it’s just a matter of acknowledging that women’s bodies are plain different than men’s and attract attention in a different way. ”

    Yeah, oftentimes because of sexist objectifiying [rape] culture.

    ” Isn’t that one of the reasons that people chose to enroll their children in same sex schools?”

    In my experience, pretty much every boy I know who went to an all-boys school did horribly in co-ed higher education at the beginning, not just academically because of the stimulation of female classmates, but also socially for several years afterwards. Especially guys who didn’t have sisters around growing up. It’s not a secret that most all-boys high school graduates have trouble with talking to women, not looking at women’s breasts whenever talking to women, approaching women, working with women in groups. It is not just an age thing: it is also a learned behavior thing. When do you teach boys to grow the fuck up? I’d say starting from the point in their lives when they start growing up.

    “I’d be willing to be he’d be in violation of dress code too.”

    Generous of you.

    I hate hate hate how heteronormative all this shit is. Gay men don’t get distracted? Lesbians don’t get distracted? Intersex and trans* students don’t exist at all or have sex drives?

  • http://feministing.com/members/annais/ Anna Schwanebeck

    Weenta, boys wear clothes I find very attractive. When does MY education, as a heterosexual woman, matter? My sexuality is just as important as men’s, yet mine is ignored. The dress codes on boys in schools is most commonly forbiding them to wear “Gang-related” attire like baggy jeans, bandanas, and chains. But this is a racism thing, implying that it is right to dress “white.” Although I find this extreamly troubling, it’s very important to realize that girls are being sexualized at a very young age, often by these dress codes. Boys have dress codes too, but they aren’t about sex. When we put up this double standard (yes, Becca, it IS also extreamly heteronormative) we also imply that women’s sexuality is dangerous and bad, that we can damage men with it. But their sexuality is fine, and dress codes fail to address women’s or other male’s attention to it. Boys DO have sexy clothing. And it does show off their muscles and butts. There’s no difference.

    The difference shows up in the way schools treat it. When you punish someone for the way they dress, you say that they are “bad” for this reason. Girls are punished for their BODIES. that’s a huge deal. And it does put into the minds of these young kids that girls that dress a certain way are bad. And that bad people must be punished. Rape culture really DOES start here, and I am happy Feministing has finally written about it.

    • catskitchensink

      I was shamed and sent home in high school once for wearing the same long tank dress as 50% of my other female classmates. It was a cute forest green cotton tank dress from Express that had thick shoulder straps and came down to my ankles. Girls in my class was wearing them because they were comfy, and their were literally 5 or 6 other girls in the class wearing the EXACT SAME DRESS as I was on the day I was called out and told to go home and change.

      The school admins didn’t like me because I was sort of goth/indy. When I said, “Hey, there are a number of other girls wearing this same dress, how is mine different?” The administrator’s answer was that he thought I was “trying to be sexy” and “distract male teachers”. I was wearing it because it was popular and cause I liked the way it looked, but it felt really shitty to be sexualized by an adult male admin and shamed for wearing a ankle length tank dress that covered 90% of my body.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tracyelpoured/ Tracy E. L. Poured
  • http://feministing.com/members/georgesands/ justice day

    The next thing they are going to say is stop being female it’s what gets you raped and distracts boys.
    If what you wore was what causes rape then why are so many women in the military raped? Why are little kids raped? Why do people rape senior citizens?

    http://www.theusmarinesrape.com/HideTheTruth.html

    Or what about girls who are developing? Are they supposed to wear potato sacks?
    We live in a society where women are blamed because men can’t control themselves.

  • http://feministing.com/members/socdoc/ Jeanne

    That’s the whole point–boys are not expected to have to control themselves. This is an issue of power relations, and the normative gender expectation is that boys must be masculine in a culturally accepted way, which fundamentally includes actions to try to control girls and women–and this is harmful to females of any age, and in a variety of ways (not just in terms of constraining female sexuality and creating a rape culture). Although I too am very concerned with actions that construct and reinforce a rape culture and gender inequality in general, I’ve found myself focusing on the problem in which adolescent girls are being taught (through the media and every other social institution, and in schools as well) that their sexuality is the primary aspect of a female self that has any value. That is a part of the message that is being sent when adults tell girls and boys that female sexuality is so powerful it’s dangerous, or that boys supposedly have no ability to control themselves sexually, and from such assumptions assume that “good” girls would obviously choose to not “flaunt” their sexuality if they only knew how dangerous (or bad) it really is (ugh!!!) Certainly a girl’s/a woman’s sexuality should be as important as any male’s, but perhaps some kind of education is necessary in order to help girls and boys to have an understanding that they have complex selves, that one’s sexuality is but one aspect of self, and that females have great value beyond being something more than just a pleasing sexual object for the visual consumption of males. No girl should ever buy into the notion that her sufficiency as a female individual (gender status) revolves around whether or not males deem them attractive enough to have sex with. That kind of psychic harm may very likely, and in a much more covert and ubiquitous manner, be as detrimental to women in general as the psychic (and too frequently physical) harm caused by living in a rape culture. I’m not saying girls shouldn’t explore and discover their own sexuality, nor am I saying boys should not be responsible when they act to diminish the value of girls/women by sexualizing even girls/females who in no way present themselves as mere sex objects. But girls also help to socially construct such gender norms when they act in accordance with them and some girls do present themselves as sexual objects–the gender system in society is produced by every member of society, females as well as males. I’m saying the answer is to empower girls to demand equality and respect and to question actions (even those of school administrators) that blame and disempower them–which is, to some extent, just what the female students did in the case presented. I do acknowledge that the student’s argument that the new policy would cost female students because they’d have to buy a new wardrobe perhaps misses the crux of the problem, but how the female students reacted still demonstrates females resisting attempts to control them by making their voices heard.