Pretty and Modest

My daughter, who is 11, wants to go to the community dance which is put on for young kids her age. This would be all right with me, if she didn’t want to dress like Britney Spears and wear a skimpy little halter top which is too tight and shows her developing figure and her belly button. She says all the girls are wearing them. I worry about her safety. What should I do?

Right now our society is pushing sexuality to a younger and younger age, long before kids are able to deal with the emotional repercussions of sexual behavior. Young girls don’t understand sexuality, in particular male sexuality. If your daughter’s idols dress like this, if most of her friends do, and if she gets admiring looks for this kind of dress, she will feel popular – and have no idea of the actual effect on the opposite sex!

Male sexual response is very different from female sexual response. Men respond with sexual arousal to visual stimuli, and if a woman dresses in a way that emphasizes her body contours, many men will be “turned on.” Women, on the other hand, respond more to touch and to emotional intimacy. In my experience neither gender understands these differences.

I learned this the hard way. I vividly remember one summer in my youth when I was working at a camp, and the camp cook, who was both married and unattractive, pursued me constantly in a lecherous manner. After I made it clear I was not interested, he sat me down and gave me a lecture about all the little things I did (clothing, the way I sat, etc.) which made him sexually aroused. I had no idea at all, and I found it absolutely disgusting that he could look at me in this way.

I think your daughter needs to be educated, preferably by her father or another man she trusts, about how men respond to skimpily dressed women and girls. After explaining the difference between male and female sexuality, he can ask her if she wants her male teachers, the janitor, the geeks, and the tough guys all imagining having sexual relations with her! If not, she needs to dress modestly. It is quite possible to be pretty and modest at the same time. Yes, she’ll be going against the crowd, but it’s about time some young women did this, and perhaps others will follow her lead.

We become all upset about men who abduct and sexually assault young girls. Yet we allow our daughters to dress in sexually alluring ways, and to put on makeup which simulates sexual arousal (darkened eyes, red and swollen lips). Now, I’m not suggesting we go back to the dark ages and forbid girls to wear shorts or swimsuits. But there’s a difference between a swimsuit at the beach, or shorts which don’t show the buttocks, and dressing sexily. I think parents (and schools) need to set clear limits about girls’ dress, at the same time as explaining why to the girls, who really don’t understand male sexuality unless it is spelled out to them.

Whose Problem?
Jenny Matthews
(Prevention Coordinator at the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre in Victoria)

The June 2001 column by Alison Miller, “Pretty and Modest,” generated a number of letters and calls of support and concern. The following article by Jenny Matthews addresses the concerns raised. Alison Miller has chosen to use her column this month to respond to Jenny Matthews’ article and to clarify her ideas. The issues raised by these writers are complex and multi-faceted, and they are important to parents. We hope these articles wil provide our readers with some food for thought.

In June a parent wrote to Dr. Alison Miller to ask about how to handle the situation of their 11 year old daughter wanting to wear a halter top to a dance. The parent was worried that it made their daughter vulnerable to inappropriate sexual attention or worse, sexual assault.

Dr. Miller’s response did exactly the opposite of what she intended. Her answer to this valid concern was that young girls can control male sexual responses by what they wear. This is a dangerous myth that puts young girls more at risk of sexual violence.

What girls are wearing is important to discuss. We live in a world where girls are not safe, where girls must consider their safety every day. We live in a world that believes this dangerous myth that girls are “asking for it” by what they wear. We live in a world that in cruel contradiction tells young girls that their only value is as a sexual object.

Telling girls to cover up and act “modest” only reinforces the problem. This message teaches girls shame about their bodies and their sexuality. It teaches young girls to be “nice,” to always put others’ needs before their own, and never offend anyone by asserting their rights. Telling girls to be “pretty and modest” teaches girls to be powerless.

The message for males is that they have no control over their sexual responses. If a girl wears something a man finds arousing, if she is harassed or assaulted, she “deserved it” because she could have avoided it by wearing nonsexual clothing (whatever these may be). What we are teaching our boys is that they are incapable of kindness and respect when they are sexually aroused. We are teaching boys that they are victims of their own sexuality. We are teaching boys that their sexuality is synonymous with being abusive.

Girls and boys feel sexual desire. Girls and boys are attracted to others based on visual appearance, among other things. Both girls and boys can choose to act on a sexual feeling or not. Youth can learn skills to be respectful. Especially when it is modelled by adults.

So what can parents do? First, acknowledge that this problem won’t go away if we cover our daughters in “pretty and modest” clothes. Women in burquas are being raped every day. Old women in bright lipstick, girls in track pants, young women in jeans and sweatshirts are being raped, assaulted and harassed every day. The problem is not what women and girls are wearing.

Talk to your daughter about the clothes she likes. Ask questions and listen. How does she feel when she wears different outfits? How do others respond to her? What do her role models wear? What does she do if she feels uncomfortable with how someone looks at her or treats her? What does she wear when she feels good about herself and doesn’t care what others think?

Teach her ways to assert herself. Model healthy sexuality that is based on mutual respect. Teach her to be proud of who she is and not what she looks like. Value her for who she is as a person. Tell her what you like about her, not just how she looks.

Talk to your son about his sexual feelings. How does he handle them? How does he communicate that he likes someone? How does he handle his feelings of rejection? How does he handle his anger? Model ways men treat women as equals and with respect.

Talk to your child’s school. How do they deal with sexual harassment? What programs do they have to teach youth assertiveness? How does the school empower youth to be respectful to each other?

There is no simple solution to protecting children against the predatory gaze of men who have been given license to sexualise youth. There is no simple answer to determining “appropriate” dress for youth in a culture that aggressively markets to the insecurities of adolescents.

The answer lies not in covering up the issue of who is responsible for sexual arousal but in uncovering whose problem it really is : an eleven year old girl in a halter top or a grown man who finds this a sexual turn-on. Or is it a society that tolerates sexualised violence towards girls and woman and then blames them for it?

No one asks to be assaulted.
No one deserves assault.
We all have a right to sexuality without violence.

Britney Spears and the Back Street Boys
August 2001

Dear Readers :

Jenny Matthews makes some very important points in her article “Whose Problem Is It?” which was a response to my June article, “Pretty and Modest.” She says, and I couldn’t agree more, that if a man gives a woman or girl inappropriate sexual attention, or sexually assaults her, it is not the woman’s fault, no matter what the woman is wearing. Ms. Matthews refers to “the predatory gaze of men who have been given license to sexualize youth.” Now, I don’t know whether this is a result of nature or nurture, but many men look at women sexually, and many will also look at girls that way if they wear clothing that hints at what’s underneath rather than either hiding it or just showing it, as with nudists. A recent article in the Times-Colonist by Paul MacRae, “Welcome to Guys Anonymous,” gets explicit about this very point. He says “We at Guys Anonymous try to treat gals as equals (because they are) … but there is another side of us … a guy will rarely miss an opportunity to look at a gal, clothed or unclothed, he finds attractive. Indeed, he’ll spend thousands of dollars … with the specific aim, at least in part, of increasing the opportunities for even closer observation. This moral failing is built into our guy genetic makeup … Society frowns on and even persecutes guys who get caught in that oldest of male pursuits : watching the girls go by, preferably wearing as little as possible, wherever and whenever possible. As long as this denial of basic guydom exists, there’ll be chapters of Guys Anonymous.”

I don’t know whether the source of this visual sexual obsession on the part of the male is biological or cultural, but it’s a fact in our society. I suspect that it’s biological to some extent. A recent study found that heterosexual women were more sexually aroused by pictures of nude females than by pictures of nude men. Sure, we women like a good looking man with a nice physique but we aren’t obsessed with body parts the way men are. I remember seeing sculptures of penises in the lobby of a gay men’s hotel in Mexico – a woman would not be interested in these, but a gay man would, because even though he’s gay, he’s also male.

Ms. Matthews says that “the message for males (of my June article) is that they have no control over their sexual responses.” I believe males can and must learn control over their sexual behavior – but over their biological responses? It isn’t psychologically healthy to not feel your anger or fear while confronted with a threat. Providing constant sexual stimulation is like yelling at someone all the time and expecting them not to become angry or afraid. A male colleague told me that in junior high school he couldn’t concentrate at all in class because of all the sexual stimulation from the girls. Thirteen-year-old boys are often obsessed with sex, and providing them with extra visual stimulation makes it difficult for them. I agree that we shouldn’t be teaching boys that they are “incapable of kindness and respect when they are sexually aroused” or that they are “victims of their own sexuality.” But why should a boy have to be sexually aroused all the time?

I have treated two teenage boys who sexually molested little girls they were babysitting. One of these boys told me he just didn’t know what to do when the little girl ran around without her panties on, and he got an erection. The other boy had himself been molested at the age of five, and this had destroyed boundaries he would normally have. Now, most men would not look at a five-year-old sexually, but many would at a developing eleven-year-old. The point of my June article was that girls aren’t really aware of the visual nature of men’s sexual responses when they follow the peer group in their dress, so parents need to educate them. I stand by what I said. No, women and girls are not responsible for men’s behavior – but they need to know how men’s bodies work and be respectful of it.

At present our understanding of sexuality is undergoing a huge revision, and we have many conflicting value systems, now that effective birth control has removed the pregnancy risk from sexual activity. My own belief is that sex is designed to be not a recreational sport, but a private activity best expressed in a 1:1 personal relationship with someone you know and trust. I have had many clients who have tried “casual sex,” and none who found it satisfying. Communes in the 60s failed because of sexual jealousy. And the kids who engage in sex with their boyfriends and girlfriends, in relationships that last only a few weeks, tend to be on an emotional roller coaster.

Yet our society plunges headlong in a rush towards making sex a spectator sport. Television has discovered that sex sells things, so we are continually bombarded with sexual stimulation. I think this is particularly hard on boys, and then when they act on their arousal and pressure girls for sex, it becomes hard on girls. Our culture increasingly tolerates and even encourages sexual activity in the early teens, long before kids are ready to handle the emotional side of being sexually active. Research shows that most of the girls don’t actually enjoy the sex – they just think they have to do it to please their boyfriends or to follow the peer group. If sex is private and personal, then sexual feelings shouldn’t be constantly stimulated, as they are in our society, by media, dress codes, and teen activities. Yes, if they are sexually aroused, boys (or girls) have to learn to control their behavior. But modest clothing assists kids in focusing on things other than sex, and this is healthy.

Matthews states that “Telling girls to cover up and act ‘modest’ … teaches girls shame about their bodies and their sexuality. It teaches young girls to be ‘nice,” to always put others’ needs before their own, and never offend anyone by asserting their rights. Telling girls to be ‘pretty and modest’ teaches girls to be powerless.” I don’t know where Matthews gets this idea – perhaps from the era when everyone dressed modestly and the female with revealing clothing was in a minority. But nowadays a girl who chooses to follow the peer group and dress like Britney Spears isn’t asserting herself, she’s blindly following the crowd. A girl who engages in sex before she’s ready isn’t asserting herself, she’s pleasing her boyfriend. A girl who chooses to dress differently from the peer group, because of different views on sexuality than the dominant culture, is being assertive – and she’s less likely to get sexually assaulted because of her assertiveness. Child molesters pick unassertive kids.

We need to raise children, boys and girls, who will go against the crowd, refuse to be blindly pressured into dressing and behaving like everyone else, and will stand up for a healthier view of sexuality than our society currently provides. When one of my sons turned 16 a neighbour boy brought him a pornographic poster (of many semi-nude women) for a birthday gift. My son looked at it in disgust and said “What is this? Get that awful thing out of here!” I was proud of him.

With regard to rapists, let’s be realistic. No, of course it isn’t a girl’s fault if she’s raped, no matter what she’s wearing. But some men and boys don’t have the capacity or the will to control their impulses. Whether they’re brain-damaged, immature, on drugs, or predators, doesn’t matter – they are out there. We can’t pretend they’re not. A young girl should also have the right and the freedom to walk through the park at midnight. So why don’t we let her? Because the reality of our present over-sexualized society is that rape and violence happen in such settings. And we shouldn’t encourage our daughters to do anything, including dressing sexily, to make the men with low impulse control more likely to feel the impulses they can’t handle. I stand by my recommendations. Teach girls about male sexuality, and encourage children, male and female, to question society’s present sexual values.

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