7th June 2021
Dr Jessica Taylor
Today, ITV Loose Women ran a poll which caused significant debate and discussion:
Should schoolgirls as young as four years old wear ‘modesty shorts’ under their skirts and school dresses to ‘protect’ them?
Feelings were mixed, with the poll resulting in shifting outcomes of between 50-60% of respondents in agreement.
I voted ‘no’ in the poll, and want to outline my reasons for disagreeing with the idea that little girls (or teen girls) should be wearing shorts under their skirts or dresses to ‘protect them’.
My main reasons for this are as follows:
1. This makes little girls responsible for male violence, harassment and assault
2. This encourages the conservative view that girls should cover up if they don’t want to be harassed or assaulted
3. What happens if they don’t wear the modesty shorts?
4. Boys need to be held responsible for their behaviours, girls should not have to wear extra layers of clothing to protect them from misogyny and abuse
This makes little girls responsible for male violence, harassment and assault
The most pressing argument for me is the way that this idea will position girls as responsible for male violence. Research from NSPCC in 2016, Barnardo’s in 2014 and the Women Equalities Committee in 2016 have repeatedly demonstrated that little girls are regularly sexually harassed and assaulted at school by boys. This includes lifting up their skirts, pulling down their skirts and underwear, touching them inappropriately, pinging their bra straps, pushing them over, calling them sexist slurs, coercing them to send or receive nudes and harassing them about their bodies and relationships.
What this speaks to, is a much larger issue of misogyny and male violence which is perpetrated and accepted from a very early age (often, this begins in primary schools). Reports show that teachers often ignore the minimise boys’ behaviours and call it ‘banter’ or ‘boys being typical boys’.
Previously, this has led to schools banning school skirts and even banning girls from showing their collarbones – due to their bodies not just ‘distracting the boys from their education’ – but also distracting male teaching staff. I wrote about this in my book ‘Why Women are Blamed for Everything’, and I’ll repeat my message:
If male staff members have the entitlement and confidence to report that they are distracted by little girls bodies and clothing, sack them immediately. That is not a normal way to look at children. Ever.
Encouraging or asking infant girls to wear shorts under their skirts is just banning skirts by stealth. Rather than banning the skirts or dresses, schools simply suggest that girls should be wearing shorts under their clothing to protect them.
This has actually been happening for over a decade in UK schools. I remember talking to teen girls about it about 8-10 years ago, and they all had the same reason for wearing the shorts: to protect them from the boys.
The schools didn’t encourage it, but the girls had felt so endangered by boys assaults and harassment that they had not only started wearing shorts but had created a culture in which girls who didn’t wear shorts were shamed as sluts who wanted to have their skirts lifted. More on that later.
Ultimately, all of this means that the shorts are a symbol of victim blaming and female responsibility for male abuse and offending. Girls are never responsible for the assaults, abuse and harassment of boys and men – and yet, here we are, advising girls to cover up.
This encourages the conservative view that girls should cover up if they don’t want to be harassed or assaulted
The conservative view of women is that they should be modest, submissive, obedient and should only show themselves to their male partner. Anything else is ‘asking for it’.
It might seem like ‘common sense’ to ask the girls to wear shorts, but all it is really reinforcing is that to protect yourself as a girl, you should be covering your body and wearing multiple layers. This has the added effect of teaching very young girls and boys that girls who value themselves and want to protect themselves will wear the shorts, and the girls who don’t (or can’t) must be asking for it.
Be wary of any initiative which encourages girls to change their appearance, behaviour or lifestyle to ‘protect’ themselves from male violence (which you will notice, is never explicitly mentioned).
What happens if they don’t wear the modesty shorts?
So the next stage of this misogynistic idea, is what happens when a girl can’t or won’t wear the shorts? What happens if she is sexually assaulted by a boy?
Further, what happens when the sexual harassment and assaults continue despite the shorts?
Let’s work through these issues one by one. Will a girl who does not or cannot wear the shorts be seen as a slut? Asking for it? Wanting the attention? Not protecting herself enough? Taking risks? To blame for anything that boys do to her?
“You should have been wearing your shorts,” they might say. ‘They’ being the teachers, parents, police or maybe even a defence barrister in a trial.
And what happens when inevitably, the shorts solve precisely fuck all?
What happens when boys continue to sexually harass and assault girls at schools, even with their magical protective shorts on? What then? Overalls? Turtlenecks? Sleeping bags?
It’s as if people deliberately ignore the reality that the majority of all sexual assaults and rapes are committed against women and girls wearing their everyday clothes (jeans, jumpers, coats, pyjamas, sportswear). Clothing doesn’t cause sexual harassment, assaults and rapes of girls. It never has and it never will. Women are abused and assaulted even when fully covered. Babies are assaulted and abused.
The reason for male violence has absolutely nothing to do with clothing, clothing has only ever been an excuse, perpetuated by misogynists and bystanders. So if clothing isn’t the cause, and the shorts are not the solution, what happens when the abuse and harassment of girls continues?
Where will the blame shift next and why does it never shift to the perpetrators?
Boys need to be held responsible for their behaviours, girls should not have to wear extra layers of clothing to protect them from misogyny and abuse
The answer to the shorts debacle is to stop ignoring male violence towards girls in education settings, to stop allowing misogynistic ideals into our schools, colleges and universities and for everyone to grow a backbone and stand up for girls. They wouldn’t need to wear shorts if they weren’t going to school in an environment of sexualisation, objectification and hatred of girls.
This issue has been going on for over a decade (and broadly, much, much longer) and we have made zero progress. Every time feminists and women speak out about this, it’s met with ridicule and silence.
The misogyny and objectification of women has slowly seeped into every single part of women and girls lives, younger and younger, bit by bit, until now we are having national debates and polls about whether four year old girls should be wearing ‘modesty shorts’ to school.
In all of those years, no one has been able to do anything significant about male violence, or boys attitudes towards girls. Schools have not taken a strong position on misogyny and have instead watched as sexual assaults and rapes on school and university campuses have increased year on year.
These girls are the women of our future. They are our future thinkers, leaders, scientists, writers, inventors, sports stars, carers and mothers. Is this what we want to teach them? Is this really our message?
‘Cover up Dear, or you’ll get sexually assaulted by the boys at school.’
Written by Dr Jessica Taylor
7th June 2021
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