Feminism | Posted by Amy A on 08/16/2013

Dress Codes: Stepping Stones To Rape Culture

At some point in their school careers, almost every girl I know has encountered some trouble with a dress code: her skirt was too short, her pants were too tight, or her straps were too thin. Though dress codes run the gamut from a few loose guidelines to a strict uniform, there are always instances of students breaking those codes. But here’s the problem with dress codes: almost every girl I know has been called out at least once for their attire, but I don’t know any boys who have. It’s the girls who see the prom dress of their dreams, but worry that they will not be able to wear it because of the length. It’s the girls who suffer through humidity and heat at the end of the school year, but aren’t allowed to cool off in a tank top.  Though I think that most dress codes are well intentioned – meant to avoid clothing posing a “distraction” to the learning environment – those intentions are completely misguided and downright dangerous.

It may sound extreme, but I feel that the policing of attire in high school perpetuates rape culture. The rules of dress codes are primarily targeted at girls, and dress code supporters argue that clothing poses a distraction to students – a claim that is primarily targeted at boys. Girls are the distractors and boys are the distracted, which puts the onus of responsibility on the girls to keep from distracting the boys. To me, this sounds an awful lot like victim blaming when it comes to rape – women are just so attractive to men that men can’t resist them. It then becomes the woman’s job to do everything in her power not to be attractive or easily available to men – don’t walk alone at night, don’t drink too much when you go out, and definitely don’t wear provocative clothing. There’s too much focus on prevention and not enough on the cure. Instead of spending most of our efforts preventing rape, our efforts as a society should be teaching people not to rape. And high schools – even middle schools – are a great place to start that teaching.

After all, schools are primarily places of learning, and one of the most important lessons is social behavior. If boys are taught that girls are not objects for them to enjoy, that what a girl is wearing should have absolutely no impact on what a boy is learning, it would help teach them later that women are not objects for them to use or abuse sexually.

The best way to preserve the learning environment of a school is to use it to teach all kinds of things – not just math and history, but also the behaviors and attitudes that create constructive members of society who will make positive contributions to our culture. That’s what our schools should be focusing their energies on – not the tightness of a girl’s pants or the length of her skirt.

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  • Ben @ at 11:51 am, August 16th, 2013

    Are you serious? You must not be a parent. In Tucson, AZ the district dress code arguably targets mostly boys, and I suspect this is pretty normal for urban districts. And I’m not sure how you can make a claim that a dress code requiring shorts or skirts to meet certain length requirements in some way draws more attention to or sexualizes the bodies of girls more than it does boys. Have you ever actually read a policy statement sent to parents at the beginning of each year? I suggest you do some research before expressing outrage.

  • Gina @ at 1:55 pm, August 16th, 2013

    This is why school uniform is a great thing!

  • Rachel @ at 3:22 pm, August 16th, 2013

    I agree with you completely. The parent statement sent to my house every year is mostly made up of way girls must cover their bodies. I suspect Ben’s school is unique in that its dress code targets mostly boys, but here it is not the case. God forbid boys learn self-control and the ability to focus on their schoolwork rather than the thin straps of a tank-top on a hot day.

  • Talia bat Pessi @ at 6:01 pm, August 16th, 2013

    I went to a girls’ school, so I have no idea how dress codes treat boys in general, but there were more “don’ts” than “dos” on the list the school sent out every year.

  • Vol-E @ at 5:45 pm, August 18th, 2013

    Ben makes a good point, but it’s intersectional. Boys whose attire gets the most focus are (c’mon, three guesses) African-American. Not only the Problem of the Ages i.e. “sagging,” but even colors or anything that someone with an overactive imagination might construe as “gang-related.” Jewelry also gets the treatment for girls. Interesting how it’s almost always items that are more popular with people of color than with Anglo-Saxons. I sincerely wish that the “distraction” rule would be limited only to things that make noise or smell funny. If students were allowed to wear pretty much what they pleased to school, everyone would have become inured to distractions by Thanksgiving break. Really!

  • Bridget @ at 11:05 pm, August 19th, 2013

    So extremely true! I read an article like this earlier on in the year. Nice to know I’m not the only one who sees this.

  • Alyza @ at 9:19 pm, August 22nd, 2013

    I agree that the discourse around dress codes need to change, both to acknowledge that male wardrobe choices can be distracting to females, and also to stop putting focus on the whole “dress codes to prevent sexuality thing.”

    In my opinion, all the focus should be on dress codes for ALL students that are fair and professional. Dress codes need to happen, and a lot of the x-ed out things on that poster just aren’t appropriate for school- which is a government run learning institution where you should present a profession, put-together appearance that shows respect to the institution, the faculty, your fellow students who should also respect you the same way, and yourself in that you respect yourself enough to be clean and presentable and at school to focus on your studies.

  • J @ at 9:48 pm, August 22nd, 2013

    I feel like as being a guy in school, the dress code is rarely enforced for a couple of reasons. The first is that guys don’t have much to show off. Other than our muscles, that’s about it (I’m not going to go around school in a speedo showing off my buldge). The second is that there’s nothing much that would be considered “iffy” for guys. With girls, skirt length can be considered iffy. On the flip side, not many guys wear short shorts or skirts.

    To be honest, I’d love to rock a tank top or a sleeveless during the summer and spring, but my raging biceps would be too much of a distraction.

  • Rose @ at 10:45 pm, August 22nd, 2013

    Thinking someone is attractive is not rape culture. Im sorry but this is just taking it too far.. Girls should dress how they want I totally agree… but im sorry, Im a straight women. I know that I do not want to see some girls ass hanging out of her pants. Not because its rape culture. because I don’t want to see it. Okay. ok.

  • Griffin @ at 5:21 pm, August 23rd, 2013

    I think there’s a fundamental problem with a lot this “rape culture” paradigm that gets thrown around by many feminists.

    Objectification happens on both sides. People, to some extent, sort of *want* to be objectified. As a male I wear clothes to get female attention. I cut my hair certain ways because I like it and I know girls freak out over it. However under no circumstance do I look at a woman and think to myself “Im going to manipulate her into have nonconsensual sex with me”, nor do I think (most) women have the thought when looking at me.

    bell hooks said it best when she accused the rape culture conversation of ignoring the VIOLENCE culture conversation.

    I do know for a fact that when I went to a private school in which we had uniforms, I was always drooling over the girls in their unisex t-shirts and pleated skirts, specifically because I *didn’t* know what was underneath.

    I also know for a fact that when I moved to public school and the dress code was rather free, I drooled over girls in their low rise skinny jeans and tight fitting babydoll t-shirts with low neck lines, specifically because it showed off their physique.


    Now I’m 21 and this is still more or less the case. By my wanting to has not translated into rape. Hell I haven’t even been with that many women. Rape culture is a symptom of a culture of violence, a culture which justifies violence as a means to an end, including sexual frustration. Dress codes have nothing to do with it.

  • Noa @ at 5:23 pm, September 16th, 2013

    Someone further up mentioned that girls have more to “show off” than guys- yeah, because our bodies have been objectified to the point where showing them in almost any way is automatically sexual and a sign of “sluttiness”

  • Julia @ at 3:29 pm, April 29th, 2014

    At my school, the dress code asks for everyone to dress appropriately. It does ask girls to cover their bodies, but it asks the same thing of boys.
    We go to a school, not a strip club. No one’s undergarments are allowed to be showing, and no one is allowed to have giant holes ripped through their jeans that can get caught on things. No one, boys or girls, is allowed to wear shirts with inappropriate messages or that bare all of their chest. Flip flops aren’t allowed because they break too easily.
    I’ve seen just as many boys get in trouble for their clothes as girls.
    It’s not a matter of sex- it’s a matter of decency. I don’t want to see everything you’ve got. I don’t care if you’re a boy or a girl. Please use some sense when you’re getting dressed. Modesty isn’t a bad thing. It will almost never do you any harm, unless you’re applying for a job as a stripper.

    Nothing in the dress code is about trying to prevent boys from being tempted. It’s about keeping kids safe and decent.

  • Time for School Uniforms in Ontario #Onpoli « Qualitypunk Blog @ at 4:24 pm, June 3rd, 2014

    […] Painter responded with this point on Twitter and with a link to this view of dress codes. Both make great points, hence the rather plagiaristic edit. I still believe a level playing field […]

  • The New ACS Dress Code | larasabra @ at 5:50 pm, August 16th, 2014

    […] is a crystal clear example of victim blaming — this is exactly how dress code is, as Amy A on http://thefbomb.org/2013/08/dress-codes-stepping-stones-to-rape-culture/ describes it, “the stepping stones of rape culture”. The truth of the matter is, my dress does […]

  • The English Hub | What Dress Codes Are Really Doing to Our Society. @ at 4:03 pm, March 5th, 2015

    […] not matter how much she covers up because she will still be faulted for inappropriate behavior. “Dress Codes: Stepping Stones to Rape Culture”, Amy says, “There’s too much focus on prevention and not enough on the cure.” Society […]

  • Melissa @ at 12:01 am, May 14th, 2015

    Is there any factual evidence that rape is more prevalent at schools with a dress code than at the schools without one?

  • Killian @ at 10:23 am, May 18th, 2015

    Have you ever considered that maybe we just do not want to see that crap. Most dress codes do go too far but at the same time, male or female, some students also go too far. At the school I attended males were not only required to follow dress code but also more regularly punished for breaking it than women were. The women were usually only punished for having outrageous hair colors or styles. School is supposed to prepare you for life and work. Normal jobs do not allow you to wear revealing clothing either, because it looks unprofessional. Sometimes dress codes go to far sure, but we will all have to follow those same rules with one employer or another. It isn’t always about sex. An offender might pass up hundreds of people just to target you, and I really doubt what you choose to wear that day is going to change their mind about anything. So please, dress codes exist in a hell of a lot more than just schools, and yes sometimes you suffer in uncomfortable wear, but anyone who says that dress codes are made for the sole purpose of making women less of a distraction in a given environment is full of shit and has obviously never held a real job before.

  • Kaitlyn @ at 4:12 pm, May 31st, 2015

    I really, really hope you don’t mind, but I’ve copied this article and me and my friends are going to hang it up around our middle school (7th grade currently) <3

  • michel @ at 4:53 am, February 11th, 2017

    What do dress codes say about girls bodies http://bit.ly/2kyI0y8

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