Dear Mrs. Hall,
Do you remember what it feels like to be a teenage girl?
Do you remember what it feels like to question every fiber of your identity?
Your body, the hand grenade. Your body, the playground.
Perhaps being a mother of teenage sons has scrubbed your memory clean of the plights of girlhood, of that terrifying transition from controlled chaos to the free-fall of adulthood, of that magical land where you are expected to shed your frivolous fears and anxieties like dead skin, like a knight’s rusted suit of armor. Perhaps you never experienced many catastrophes. Perhaps your adolescence was a snapshot of wholesome, homespun Americana, equal parts privilege and determined obliviousness.
But in your world, are girls the proverbial Eve, or are they simply human beings?
Your letter, tinged with the righteous disappointment of a brow-furrowed nun about to whack a naughty student with a ruler, focuses on accountability. Your boys are hopeless, helpless, unable to disassociate naked skin with carnality. Sexuality is stripped of its social, cultural, and psychological facets and only serves as a measure of “purity.” In your eyes, it is something that is reserved for that type of girl (loose, wild, whatever euphemism you choose), a stereotype I imagine you wholly endorse in order to alleviate the weight of personal responsibility from your boys. You argue that social media, namely Facebook and Instagram, are outlets for debauchery, an experiment in mixed-up moral compasses. Apparently, social media is the downfall of the typical teenage girl because it turns them into skin-exposing, attention-craving jezebels. You ask your faceless audience, “Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t quickly un-see it? You don’t want our boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you?”
Your question eerily echoes the rationality of the men who say, “She was asking for it.”
She shouldn’t have worn such revealing clothing. She was asking for it.
She shouldn’t have flirted with him. She was asking for it.
She shouldn’t have walked home alone at night. She was asking for it.
Do you not understand that this type of victim blaming only reinforces the idea that a woman’s sexuality is some devious, man-eating Pandora’s Box? By saying that your boys correlate such a “state of undress” to something sexual means that your boys cannot control themselves. Again, this ill-conceived theory that boys and men are passive observers cheapens your argument.
When your boys see you in a bathing suit, or any woman in a bathing suit, do they think of you in a sexual way? If not, how are they able to pick and choose what is deemed “sexual” if they don’t even have a solid grasp on the volition of their actions?
Did you know that 44 percent of sexual assault victims are under the age of eighteen? Did you know that only three out of every one hundred rapists will serve time? Do you really think that a return to good old-fashioned modesty would decrease these injustices? You seem to be nostalgic for a past that never existed. What about the labels assigned to women of color, the hyper-sexualization of young black women, the perceived submissiveness of Asian women, the “fiery” disposition of Latinas? These stereotypes are as choking and restrictive as a straight jacket, not a mirror of their purity.
One of my good friends works in a law office in a big city. She is a quiet, respectful, well-mannered young woman with enviable intellect and wit. She is a conservative dresser. However, she feels that her work environment recycles the sexism of the “Mad Men” era. Despite the fact that she’s rightfully earned a senior level position, she’s not fully respected. No matter what she does, no matter how polite or frequent her dismissals of the propositions from male coworkers, she is subject to sexual harassment. What would you tell her if she were your daughter? Would you tell her that this treatment was warranted due to the fact that on her off days, she actually favors body-conscious dresses? Would you tell her that the middle-aged men in her office are excused of any fault, that their transgressions are merely the facts of life, just the way men are programmed, that they can’t help themselves? Don’t you see the danger in this line of reasoning?
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Steubenville case. I have the gnawing, heart-twisting feeling that your sympathy for Jane Doe is underwhelming in comparison to the “ruined football future” of the boys.
Your “zero-tolerance policy” reminds me of the zero-tolerance policy implemented in many public schools, including the ones I attended. Critics of this policy argue that it is an exercise in overcompensation. An act that would normally qualify as a minor misdemeanor is elevated to unforgivable criminality. Why are your boys allowed the chance to make mistakes? Why are teenage girls held to such impossible standards and then rebuked and punished when they fail to live up to this warped blueprint for feminine perfection? When did teenage girls become a symbol for the downfall of modesty?
When I was a teenage girl, you would’ve branded me as a heathen, some kind of dark temptress that was out to corrupt your sons. My mother let me start dying my hair in the eighth grade. I started shaving my legs at thirteen. I sipped my first beer at fourteen (a can of classic Banquet Coors, split evenly between giddy friends). Although I had pledged allegiance to the holy order of boy band fanatics, I slowly began to appreciate hip-hop, and we all know that hip-hop is constantly under attack for misogyny and exploitative titillation. I read Cosmopolitan in the dim light of my best friend’s walk-in closet, the door shut, both of us worried that her older sister would discover that her magazines had gone missing, giggling at the sex tips. In your eyes, I would’ve been one of those girls, the ones who got what they probably deserved.
Behind the mask of drugstore makeup and learned pessimism, I was a scared little girl, confused and alienated, believing that the act of growing up would be my salvation, a mind and body insta-metamorphosis as easy as that ridiculous makeover in “She’s All That.”
But I wasn’t a bad kid, and neither were the few girls I befriended. We were just lost. Looking back, I’m thankful that I had a mother and father who did not patronize my naive attempts at “maturity” or make me feel defective by default. I experienced my share of punishments but it was never rooted in a “Scarlet Letter.”
Frankly, Mrs. Hall, I get the feeling that your “old-school” ideas are not a reaction to the issue of teenage sexuality, but a reflection of popular opinion, a regurgitation of ignorance at large. You may accuse me of hyper vigilant feminism, but I would rather be an overexcited feminist than an apologist.
I may be young, but my eyes are open.
For all those teenage Hester Prynnes out there, I’m on your side. You are not alone.
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