A couple of months ago at a family dinner party, a high school sophomore from my son-in-law’s side of the family walked into the room, taking time out from her texting long enough to say ‘Hello’ to everyone. She was wearing her underwear. Really. There’s just nothing else to call it: thigh-high tight sheer skirt ending barely inches from her underpants, low-cut off-the-shoulder top exposing a large swath of the right side of her torso, including the tops of her breasts, fetchingly presented with her much-exposed bra. One relative close to my age asked guardedly if she wore the outfit to school. “I wear it all the time to school,” she answered matter-of-factly, with a hint of defiance. “I never follow the dress code.” Smart girl, good student, great high school. What’s with the “come hither” streetwalker chic?
A quick online peek shows that most high schools do in fact have dress codes, though they vary widely. Common rules include: the “fingertip method,” where a skirt or shorts cannot be shorter than a student’s fingertips, no gang or alcohol logos on t-shirts, no visible underwear, no exposed cleavage, to name a few. But it appears, at least around here where individual rights, even for minors, trump everything, including common sense, that most rules go unenforced if they exist at all.
I realize that nobody dresses like I did in the dark ages back in the 1960s, when I wore the same pair of Levis 501s, combat boots, and my dad’s old Pendleton shirts to high school. My parents thought I looked unkempt, and my mom occasionally almost tearfully asked, “Can’t you at least put on some eyebrows?” But nobody thought my dress was sexually alluring. So how did we go from unadorned to slut in the intervening decades, all the way to this decade of liberation where more girls than boys go to college, more graduate, and young women are largely economically equal to young men? It seems to have happened gradually. The Charlie perfume ads in the 1980s come to mind: a confident, conservatively dressed, unmade-up young woman striding off to work with her briefcase. This morphed into the 90s, where the “stoned on smack” look kicked in. Young female models were suddenly rail thin and sickly looking, with eyes smudged with black mascara and lined with pink eye shadow. Some of that look lingers today. Now, finally, we’ve evolved into the semi-nude, skimpy underwear look.
So one of the questions is still what relation, if any, does this “going out in your underwear” fashion trend have to the recent wall-to-wall media hysteria about sexual assault? (“Only one in 100 rapes is ever reported,” the signs shout – never mind that anyone charged with an alleged crime is, like everyone else in the country, afforded the presumption of innocence.) The usual answer is that dressing in your (often sheer) underwear has nothing to do with it. Legally it shouldn’t, of course, but the practical reality is…
The expanded definition of sexual assault itself, formerly known as rape, has been hyped ad nauseum in the media, taking up far more air and print time and space than the federal budget just passed and the coming tax scheme that will not only cut Medicaid (oh, well, they’re poor) but also cut Medicare, the universal healthcare plan that covers virtually every American aged sixty-five and older. I get that ratings matter and that sex sells, but…really?
Let’s get one thing out on the table from the get-go. Rape is a felonious violent crime, and whoever commits it should be tried to the full extent of the law, whatever his or her sex. And Harvey Weinstein certainly appears to be a scum bag in this regard, but he’s never actually been convicted of anything, a fact that too many journalists conveniently fail to mention in pursuit of ever-more-salacious news coverage. Large payouts to his accusers do not a conviction make, and every man, especially a powerful man like Weinstein, understands that a public accusation of sexual assault will, like a bobcat’s tail, follow him around for the rest of his life.
Think of the college student in Virginia who was splashed across the cover of “Rolling Stone,” usually the gold standard of accurate, exhaustively researched reporting. The accuser later admitted the charges were untrue, basically just made up from her imagination, tarnishing the reputation of a great publication as well as the reputation of her non-existent assailant. Especially with this accusation, in this climate, the court of public opinion can be a far greater threat than a court judgment. If the charges against Weinstein are proven to be true, in a sort of twisted logic, he has been lucky to be able to afford to make them go away, shielded from public exposure ─ at least so far.
Sexual assault has been thrown willy-nilly into the bottomless maw of the American judicial system and, unfortunately, its ever-mushier definition and wider applications have, sadly, hurt rather than helped its true victims. One of the lowest points in this fuzzy realm was possibly the inclusions of marital rape and “inappropriate touching” of just about any kind. Marital rape? Married spouses can’t even be made to testify against one another. “Inappropriate touching” is very much in the eye of the beholder. As one defense attorney and former prosecutor put it, “All it takes is an accusation, [and] anyone can accuse anyone of anything." In any event, the charge can rarely be factually proved or litigated. The zealots say that’s because the system is sexist and unfairly targets girls.
Sadly, these peripheral and widening definitions have, despite their supposed veracity in the current media hysteria, truly weakened the voices of those who have been actually raped and suffer its often devastating after-effects. It gives abused children, raped and attacked women, and other victims of sexual violence short shrift. Such fine distinctions are often shrugged off by sexual assault activists as mere technical distinctions as they picket judges and frat houses with charges of alleged assaults that may never be proven and ultimately deny an accused assailant his or her day in court. For this is a matter for the courts, not the streets (though one can certainly affect the other). So what’s the alternative? Pitchforks?
Back to the slutty clothing, another legal argument frequently expressed by wealthy, entitled parents, is that their daughters have the “constitutional right to self expression” enshrined in the First Amendment. This one really gets me. Adults and minor children are viewed differently in nearly every area of the law. The notion that a minor child can take his or her parents to court for enforcing a dress code is ridiculous ─ though I suspect it’s just a matter of time before a case like this is splashed across Page One and leads local newscasts. After all, anything that even smacks of sex sells big. Parents in fact have every right to protect their teenagers by setting and enforcing rules about how they dress. Parents smugly espousing their teenagers’ right to free expression under the First Amendment are abdicating their parental responsibility to protect their kids. It’s a sad copout for which their kids pay the bill.
Now…for the argument that will practically guarantee I’ll be inundated with even more hate mail than usual: where does a young woman’s personal responsibility fit into this complicated hot-button issue? (I say young women since the overwhelming number of publicly known cases involve a woman and a man.) The knee-jerk cry is “You’re blaming the victim! Nobody deserves to be raped!” That’s of course true, no one deserves to be raped, and rape should be treated as the felony it is.
But…but…but, as one example, if the woman and her alleged male assailant are both blackout drunk and neither can even remember what happened, is it really rape? Maybe, maybe not. Who doesn’t remember those college mornings-after where a hung-over friend has said, “Geez, I’ll never do that again!”
One of the last things my dad told me as I was heading off to college was “Don’t get drunk at co-ed parties.” So what happened to the eminently logical (and sober) approach of saying, “Take your hands off me and leave me alone, Asshole.” Are we unintentionally creating a culture of victimhood?
Back to Weinstein, if even a fraction of the voluminous news coverage about him proves to be true, his alleged actions against young women were an open secret around the Hollywood set. Knowing this, if you were an attractive young woman, would you really think it was a great idea to go alone up to his hotel suite? Just sayin’…
Much of the sexual assault furor revolves around college campuses, and the courts generally consider alcohol or drug impairment before returning a conviction guaranteed to ruin a young man’s life…forever. He will be a registered sex offender, which has NO statute of limitations, and be banned from living wherever he wishes or even getting a job in this era of automatic, detailed background checks. His name will appear on public lists just a click away to alarm neighbors with girls – regardless of the seriousness of his actual crime. He will be forced to live as an outlaw for the rest of his life. And in this time of poverty and homelessness, how exactly does this guarantee of unemployment benefit our society?
So what’s a parent to do? For starters, don’t let your daughters dress like sluts. Who’s the boss here, anyway? Though rape is a felonious crime and it shouldn’t matter how you dress, why put your head in the tiger’s mouth and tickle his tail? Put the fear of God in your sons and bluntly warn them of what sexual assault means today and what they stand to lose if accused of it, drunk or sober. It’s just the way it is, like the sun coming up. Tell them to just accept it, along with their own personal responsibility for their behavior. Tell all your kids, whatever their sex, to never get drunk at a party, even though you know it’s a tall order. But tell them to never do it anyway. Then tell them again. And again. Set the example and don’t get drunk or abuse drugs yourself; teenagers hate hypocrisy. Finally, when they truly appear to understand the gravity and consequences of it all, tell them about how our government is being dismantled, stone by stone, and what they should be doing about it in this country they will soon inherit. Then tell them again. And again. Everybody knows how hard it is to get a point across to a teenager.