When we say Sex Education, you immediately think about health class, how boys’ and girls’ bodies work differently, and together, to produce offspring. But in reality, that’s just biology. Health class may provide information on how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and give you a healthy dose of respect for what those diseases can do to you. Depending on the school district, the class may provide information on preventing unwanted pregnancies.
But that is not the real sex education going on in schools. Well, if that isn’t it, what are we teaching our kids?
I suggest perusing through the student handbook. Stop at the dress code. Take a quick look at the boys’ dress requirements (it won’t take long as the list is pretty short.) Now turn over to the girls. Depending on the age category, you will find host of things different than what is required of male students. While the boys’ dress code is designed to simply be neat and positive, the goal for girls is modesty. Straps on tops must so wide, skirts must be no shorter than X inches above the knee, no tight pants or leggings, no strapless tops, must wear undergarments including bras, undergarments must not be visible through clothing. Now, I am not saying there isn’t the school policy out there that states boys must wear undergarments and they can’t be visible through clothing, but I randomly chose 20 handbooks from schools across the country and the only mention of undergarments for boys was that their pants must cover them, as in, no sagging your pants around your knees like you forgot to pull them up when you walked out of the bathroom. But the reason for that is 1. it is (reliably or not) associated with street gang attire 2. Easy to trip walking through crowded halls 3. makes navigating busy stairwells unsafe for both the student and the students around him 4. they don’t want the boys more worried about holding up their pants than carrying their books and 5. they want to bring the kids out of gang/rapper mentality and encourage them with ideas and habits to help them succeed – and the grown ups just don’t like it. I list the reasons out because those reasons, whether you agree with them or not, are quite telling.
Why does a girl’s skirt or shorts need to be almost to her knees? Why must she wear a bra? Why does she have to have straps or sleeves on her shirt? Why must those straps be at least an inch wide? Why can’t she wear leggings? None of these things are gang related. None of them affect her ability to walk down the school halls or carry her books, or navigate stairwells or deflect from a positive attitude for success. No, they teach something completely lacking from the boys’ page in the handbook. They teach modesty.
And the reason? They claim that if girls dress a certain way, then it distracts boys from their lessons.
Let us reflect upon that. What does this really teach? It teaches that girls and boys are not equal. That girls must dress and behave to accommodate boys and that instruction is carried with them through their lives. It is subtle, but it tells both boys and girls that women are responsible for the behavior of men. If a girl wears a sundress with spaghetti straps and a boy decides to stare at her rather than do his work, his lack of discipline is the girl’s fault, not his. We are teaching young boys that they are not responsible for their actions if they are distracted by a girl, if the boy thinks she looks attractive or sexy and he chooses to think about that rather than focus on his assignment. We are teaching boys to not have self control, and worse, that they can blame girls for their lack of self control.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe there should be a general rule of modesty for all students. Obviously we don’t want kids showing up naked or in their underwear to class. Not because it is sexy, but because it is a distraction to everyone. But tell me, why should a girl have to wear a bra? Bras are uncomfortable and actually bad for a woman’s body. They cause fibrocystic changes in breasts, loss of the musculature designed by the body to support them (which can result in back and posture problems) and prolonged use of ill-fitting bras can cause masses to develop in the breast tissue, which is believed to increase risk of breast cancer. Girls and young women can seldom find bras that fit them well because their bodies are rapidly changing. Low income families can seldom afford good bras, especially for girls who are still developing.
So, why do we make girls wear them to school? Oh, that’s right. Because boys are attracted to breasts and therefore, girls must bind them up. It doesn’t matter that they are uncomfortable and unhealthy, that is secondary to a girl’s responsibility to not distract the boys from their education.
Did it ever occur to anyone that if we stopped teaching boys that they should be distracted by female bodies during class, stopped making girls bear a greater responsibility for the the actions and self discipline of male students, perhaps the distraction problem would fix itself?
I understand boys go through changes as well, their hormones become difficult, etcetera. If a boy finds a girl attractive, she could be wearing a burlap bag down to her ankles and he could distract himself with what might be under the bag. He will still wonder if she likes him and think whatever thoughts he would if she were wearing a t-shirt and shorts. The same thing is happening to girls as they go through puberty. They look at boys, think they are cute. The difference is that girls are taught to accept all the burden. They are taught they need to look a certain way to attract a boy but then it is their fault if the boy is distracted by them. Confused yet?
This is the sex education we are teaching from as young as kindergarten where little girls are told they can’t wear a sun dress unless the straps are at least an inch wide on their shoulders or wear leggings or wear shorts or skirts unless they are a certain length. From this age forward, we begin reinforcing in both girls and boys the responsibility of women for men’s actions. Do you think that five year old boy cares if a girl in his class has thin straps on her sundress? No. He doesn’t until the school begins telling him that he should.
This is how we perpetuate rape culture in our society. This is why we cannot escape a fundamental barrier of misogyny. It has been ingrained by the school system, generation after generation, from the age of five, onward, that girls, and then women, are responsible for the actions of men. We begin placing culpability on women and teaching them that if they distract boys, it is their fault because boys can’t help themselves – teaching them this fundamental, misogynistic message before they even lose their first baby tooth.
But that is not the only message we send. We are also creating a system of patriarchy. We are telling our girls that the education of boys is more important. The girls must dress a certain way, even if it is uncomfortable and distracting, so as not to distract a boy. If her attire is questionable, she is removed from class. Her education is secondary to the distraction she didn’t cause until someone pointed out that there should be a distraction. So, she has to miss class until someone can bring her new attire or she is sent home. I have read so many instances where the student actually believed they were within the dress code policy, and often were.
The problem is that women are used to accepting this. They have been trained since five to accept it, therefore, it seems and feels normal. They have been taught it is indecent to not wear a bra, therefore this affects their judgment. But what would happen if we just stopped? If we just stopped creating this double standard? If we taught boys what is probably a much more beneficial lesson, that they have to learn to focus despite their attraction? In turn, that teaches them self discipline and responsibility for their actions. What if there was just a single dress code? That would better recognize transgender children and create a healthier acceptance of people as just people. What if we didn’t make dress codes based on the distraction of one sex? What if we don’t teach boys they should be distracted? If they see girls who don’t wear bras all the time, I promise it won’t be any big deal. It would be normal. I doubt any boy ever failed a test because Julie wore a dress with thin shoulder straps. If he did, then that is his fault for not learning to focus, and the school’s fault for not teaching him to ignore distractions.
If we ever want to move past our patriarchal society, this must change. We must start addressing these “what ifs.” We have to stop making a boy’s education more important than a girl’s. We have to stop teaching boys that they are not responsible for their actions or lack of self control. We must stop teaching girls they carry the burden for the actions of boys and men. We begin victim blaming them before they even know they are being victimized.
This is why so many women who have been assaulted do not come forward and why they blame themselves. This is why women who are violated feel ashamed. Because that is what they are taught before they even have their first visit from the tooth fairy. Girls are taught shame.
That is sex education in our schools.
We are One Woman, One World.
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