The Hypocrisy of Feminist Outrage: Part 3
School dress codes are sexist, says the Atlantic. Why? Because preventing girls from wearing attire that is distracting for boys is an unfair burden on girls, who should be free to dress as they please and not worry about whether boys are distracted or not. Also, apparently, the fact that transgender and “gender non-conforming” students can’t cross dress is crass prejudice.
First of all, my face is sore from all the involuntary facepalms I endured reading this article.
Secondly, sometimes taking an argument to its extreme conclusion can be instructive in evaluating the argument’s overall cogency (i.e., reductio ad absurdum). Would these anti-dress-code activists find it acceptable for female students to attend school in their underwear? Or completely nude? If so, that’s absurd and most people would agree as much. If not, where do they draw the line and, more importantly, on what basis is that line drawn?
If the claim is that girls (and boys) are inherently not responsible for the effect that their choice in clothes has on those around them, then, by that reasoning, nudity should be tolerated in school, celebrated even. But it’s not, and most people know the obvious reason why.
Furthermore, we don’t see these anti-dress-code activists talking about a high school boys right to dress in a distracting fashion. That’s because American culture (rightfully) considers provocative dress and erotic expression from males as “sexual harassment” and “indecent exposure.”
School dress codes focus on girl’s attire because boy’s attire is already covered by federal law. Have you heard of Christian Adamek, a 15-year old from Sparkman High School, who was arrested for streaking during a football game? Or the scores of grade school boys who get expelled or face other severe disciplinary consequences for indecent exposure, e.g., sending explicit pictures to classmates (“sexting”)?
We might think that there is a clear distinction between a teenage boy exposing himself and a teenage girl wearing short shorts and showing cleavage. But what is that distinction really based on? What is it that makes the boy’s uncovering a terrible and damaging act requiring harsh rebuke and the girl’s uncovering just innocent sexual expression, and if anyone finds that uncovering “distracting,” well, too bad? Isn’t that a clear double standard?
The deeper point is that, from a completely secular perspective, there should be no difference. Skin is skin! Shame is not real. Humans are in their most healthy state when they are in their most natural state, and they are in their most natural state when they are in their most animal-like state, and animals are naked. So what if we all walked around in the nude?
But, fortunately most people are not that extreme. Most people still recognize shame in some form, which is why the Atlantic didn’t mention revisiting the “dress codes” that apply to boys, i.e., indecent exposure laws. Nothing wrong with those laws in the eyes of liberal activists. Is it because, implicitly, they recognize that some body parts, i.e., certain parts of the male body, should not be displayed publicly, that displaying those parts causes too much of a distraction and too much harm and therefore must be forcibly covered by threat of arrest and prosecution?
So, if it’s possible for certain parts of the male body to be taboo, why can’t the same apply to the female body in some capacity? If you concede the possibility, then the whole basis for criticizing these dress codes falls apart.
I think this liberal confusion comes from the fact that it’s hard to argue that the extreme case of nudity or walking around in one’s underwear is not overtly sexual and provoking. It doesn’t matter if that’s not how the nude person intended her nudity to be taken. At some point, the consequences of an action, especially predictable consequences, carry moral weight, and the consequences of what would be taken as an overt sexual display are not hard to predict. An analogous case would be for a person to wear a KKK outfit and go to, say, the Million Man March. That kind of provocation can be deemed “fighting words” and according to US law, such a person can be detained by police, even if the hapless guy dressed in the white hood had no connection to the KKK and was not trying to incite hate. And by the same token, were this person to be assaulted at the event, then the assaulters would face less severe consequences since there was clear provocation. What this means is that there are important limits to self-expression necessary to keep the peace and to maintain order by curtailing provocation. This is a well-established principle in US federal law since Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. The parallels with dress code are clear since dress is also a form of expression and can be equally if not more provocative than even speech.
The problem for liberal secularism, however, is that there are all kinds of dress that are overtly sexual in nature other than complete nudity. Again, the problem is, where does one draw the line and on what basis?