A number of folks in the "femosphere" (my new term for feminist blogosphere) have been discussing the latest salvo in the "Teenage Fashions are Turning Our Daughters into Whores and it's all Feminism's Fault" wars, this Washington Post piece from yesterday's paper: What's Wrong with This Outfit, Mom? Today, Amanda and Jill both offer excellent "fiskings" of the Patricia Dalton op-ed.
I wouldn't add my own thoughts, save for two particular paragraphs near the end of the article. Dalton writes in the first one:
The girls who dress the most outrageously are often those most starved for adult male attention, first and foremost from their fathers. This happens most commonly with girls whose fathers have disappeared from their lives, perhaps following a divorce, or because their workaholic schedules leave them little time for their children. Children who are raised with attention and affection tend to identify with and admire their parents. This identification is the basis for both discipline and the transmission of values. Without it, parents can't do their job.
I'm with her so far. Dalton is spot on that the absence of safe, loving adult male figures (fathers in particular) is linked to young women's need for attention. To be fair, it ignores the possibility that some teenage girls have their own agency, and are interested in sex with boys not because of absent fathers but because of their own libidos. I do not suggest that they are the majority of young women, but they are not an unheard-of subset of American adolescents. Still, Dalton is to be applauded for her suggestion that men's workaholic schedules play a part in the problem. Anyone who is advocating that fathers spend more quality time interacting with their sons and daughters and less time at work, on the Internet, or in front of the TV is going to get no argument from me!
But the second quoted paragraph is a disaster:
I often recommend that fathers be the parent to take the lead in setting limits on their daughters' dress, because opposite sex offspring typically cut that parent more slack. Fathers can say, "Honey, you can't wear that. I know teenage boys -- I was one!" A dad like this is looking out for his daughter and treating her as someone special.
Jill does a nice job tackling this:
No, he isn’t. He’s putting her in an even more vulnerable position — if something does happen with one of those teenage boys, she’ll internalize it as her fault for dressing in a particular way. When she goes out of the house and sees other girls dressing in more revealing clothes, she’ll become part of the group that looks at them and says, “You’re a slut.” Adolescence is hard enough on young women; when they’re already desperately trying to fit in and find their own identities, the worst thing one can do is encourage greater rifts between “good girls” and “bad girls,” and create even deeper insecurities in all of them.
And where is the dad who says, “Honey, I was a teenage boy once. I know that they’re capable of being reasonable human beings, and of treating women well. Don’t accept anything less than that” — and who tells his sons the same thing? Sexual equality and women’s physical safety simply cannot come from women alone. Shaming young girls about the way they dress isn’t the way to achieve anything.
Jill nails that,and I agree completely.
Thinking about what I would much rather have men say to their daughters, and thinking about what I say to teenage girls and boys, leads me into another youth group anecdote (you knew it would). Three years ago, we were in the midst of our "sex month" with the kids at youth group. (Four consecutive Wednesday nights of talking about sexuality, dating, and Christian ethics "All Saints style"). As we always do, we spent some time in single-sex groups. There were just two youth leaders at the time, and my female colleague took the girls off to one room, while I went to another with the boys.
It was May. The weather was warm. One girl in our group, widely regarded by both sexes as being among the "hottest" of her peers, had worn some very short shorts, flip flops, and a tiny top to youth group. As soon as I got the boys alone in the room, two of them started talking excitedly about what "Janae" (name changed, of course) had been wearing. One of the boys, using what seemed to be the pervasive lingo of 2003, said "Dang, when I look at those shorts all I think is how much I want to 'hit that'!" (The meaning of "hit that" ought to be clear even for those of you who don't hang out with the younger set these days.) The other boys all laughed and concurred,and then turned towards me with sheepish grins. Yes, their youth minister was with them -- but he was also a man, and they were operating under the homosocial assumption that even in church, it's okay to objectify women and girls as long as only other men are around.
A younger Hugo would have rebuked them sharply. I could so easily have given them the "Janae is your sister in Christ, boys!" lecture, and tried to shame them. An even less mature Hugo might have validated what they were saying by agreeing about Janae's attractiveness, if for no other reason than to affirm my masculine bona fides by showing them that I too was, after all, "just another guy" who enjoyed looking at pretty girls. (Obviously, for the record, I never have nor will I ever use sexually objectifying language about any of the kids in my youth group. But I have heard stories of other male youth leaders at other churches who have not felt the same need to restrict, sadly enough).
But since the subject was supposed to be sex anyway, I figured I'd use Janae's shorts as a teaching moment. So I asked the boys: "What's it like when a girl like Janae is showing a lot of skin? How does it make you feel?" The replies came fast and furious: "Dude, it's so awesome!" "I love it when you can see so much!" And, of course "I can't stop looking!" I let the boys share and laugh and get squirrely, and then I quieted them again. I asked: "When you say you can't stop looking, what does that mean? Do you really have no choice?"
Silence. One boy, "Aaron", blurted out "No way, dude. No choice. Girl that fine, can't control my mind." Other boys laugh and agree. I wait, and then follow up: "Do all of you feel like Aaron feels?" None of you think you can control where your eyes go and where your mind goes?"
More silence. "Roger" speaks up: "I guess it kind of is a choice. I mean, when you first see a pretty girl, you can't help but look. But you can choose whether or not you keep staring at her legs or her tits. You don't have to make the girl feel uncomfortable." Several other boys quickly agreed, and Aaron found himself on the defensive: "I don't know dude, I don't know how you can say you really like girls and not be totally distracted by something so fine." I smiled inwardly; Aaron, bless his heart, was trying to bully the other boys by threatening their masculinity if they didn't take his side.
To my delight, what followed was a serious discussion lasting fifteen minutes. (That may sound short, but getting eight to ten boys in mid-adolescence to have a serious discussion for even that long is, I assure you, a significant achievement!) With my prodding questions, the boys debated their own ability to control themselves. In the end, even Aaron grudgingly admitted that he too had a choice with where his eyes went. Roger, his foil, high-fived him at this and said "Hey, Aaron, welcome to All Saints!" (A reference to the church's staunch pro-feminism.)
What I said to the boys was something like this: "I don't think that there's anything wrong with noticing girls. I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with fantasizing about them! I do think there's something very wrong when your focus on their bodies makes it impossible for you to also see them as people, as friends, as human beings. When you find yourself noticing a girl's body, and staring at her skin, I don't want you to beat yourself up. But I don't want you to make her uncomfortable either."
"Next time you're looking at Janae's legs, Aaron", I said, "I want you to gently remind yourself that Janae is more than just her body. It's okay to think she's sexy. But remember she's not a pair of legs or breasts. She may be hot, but she's also a person, and whether you believe it or not, you are strong enough and good enough to never forget that she's a person. She gets frightened and tired and happy just like you do. She may want you to look at her body, but even more than that, she hopes that you'll also see her as a human being. And no matter how hot she is, you've got it in you to never, ever forget that." Aaron nodded solemnly, and I don't know if he really heard me or not.
But other boys did, and I had a couple of them come up to me thank me for what I said and to talk more about the topic. Boys almost never hear that they have choices about where they ultimately direct their thoughts and their eyes. The myth of male weakness and the myth of the raging adolescent male libido that can never be contained are powerful influences. I don't deny that young men can be very, very horny; I do deny that that horniness is so supremely overwhelming as to make it impossible for adolescent boys to see the essential humanity of even their scantily-clad female peers.
My goal is to reach young men "where they are" with a message about their sexuality that is realistic, loving, and both authentically pro-feminist and Christian. Ultimately, I don't want anyone, male or female, to feel ashamed of their desires. I don't expect them not to lust for each other. But what pro-feminism and Christianity both insist on, even for young men, is that sexual desire, no matter how powerful, cannot be used as an excuse to rob our brothers and sisters of their humanness. Whether Janae is in sweats or in short shorts, how the boys perceive her is ultimately their responsibility. Of course they'll be more easily aroused by her in short shorts! Yet even if she were to wear a burka, plenty of her male peers would find themselves stimulated by even a flash of ankle. The teenage libido is a powerful thing, after all. We do well, I think, when we don't fear all of that raging sexual energy. We do well to acknowledge it, even celebrate it, and then ask that it always be tempered with a recognition of the other's essential humanity. That's a far more effective strategy than either demeaning boys for lusting or asking girls to cover up in order to prevent the boys from doing so.
Yes, I do think adults should have input into how their teenagers dress. I think it's right and proper to ask kids to consider the consequences of their clothing choices, and to ask them to take some responsibility for the messages they send to others. But I also think that we must do the more difficult -- and yet ultimately far more rewarding -- job of challenging the most basic beliefs about boys, sexuality, and the damaging discourse of the raging, uncontrollable, male libido. When and if I have a daughter, I expect I will say to her what I have already said to many girls in my youth group and in my classes:
"Your body is not your enemy. Whatever you wear, in winter or summer, you have both rights and responsibilities. You have the responsibility to consider the time and the place you are wearing your outfit. You should be aware that clothing can create envy. But in the end, no matter what you wear, no one has the right to refuse to see you as a person because of your clothes or your skin. You don't ever have to choose between being desired and being taken seriously, and you don't have to believe the myth that men cannot control their eyes or their actions. Whether in a miniskirt or sweats, you are still a woman who deserves respect, because respect is not contingent on your body or your attire. Believe it, and be willing to demand it."