On a Thursday last spring, the Upper School boys at my Atlanta-area private school were dismissed from chapel, and the girls were asked to stay. As the boys cleared out of the chapel, we began to whisper amongst ourselves, wondering the reason. We knew it wasn’t good. Once the boys left the building, clearly out of earshot, we were told that because the stairs of the new STEM building were steep and allowed visibility underneath, the boys could see up our skirts while we walked to class. So, as a solution, we now had to wear shorts or tights underneath our skirts to prevent any incidental indecency.
The issue was not brought up again until recently. In January, the parents of Upper School students received an email that next school year, all seniors and freshman would be required to wear skorts, and by 2019, all Upper School girls would be required to wear the skorts.
Of course, the girls would not allow this change to occur without resistance. A student wrote a petition protesting the implementation of skorts that quickly circulated, gaining more than 1,000 signatures in less than 48 hours. Girls and boys both signed it, agreeing that girls should not be blamed for the actions of several boys. The amount of drive behind the issue was inspiring.
A few days later, an email was sent out, informing the student body that the rising seniors would not have to purchase the skorts; however, they would be required to wear shorts underneath their skirts. Incoming freshman would have to buy the skorts, and the skorts would continue to be phased-in to the dress code.
While this may seem like an easy solution to the problem, it is actually a Band-Aid for a much larger issue: consent. Now, I’m not saying the school administration is inherently misogynistic and wants to blame girls for every issue within the school. However, I believe that while administration had the students’ best interests at heart, they missed the mark on identifying the deeper issue.
Consent, put simply, is permission. Looking up someone’s skirt without their permission is violating their consent and could be considered sexual harassment. Unfortunately, our culture has failed to consistently speak about the concept of consent.
Consent doesn’t start with dress code. It starts in preschool, with reminding the students to respect each other’s “no.” It continues in lower school, with reinforcing boundaries and reminding students that it is completely okay to say “no,” which requires no further justification. It then reaches middle school and high school, taught in the context of a sex-ed course. The issue does not disappear after high school. As demonstrated with the recent attention that sexual assault on college campuses has received, some students learn about the importance of consent too late. Many colleges are encouraging open dialogue about consent in order to reduce sexual assault rates, but the conversation must start early and continue often in order to solve the problem.
Another issue with our skort policy is that it has consequences for the victims rather than the offenders. Forcing a change in behavior implies that the girls are at fault, which we all know is not the case. However, assigning blame will not fix the issue. Encouraging dialogue will.
At the end of the day, the question we must ask ourselves is: Do the skorts really fix anything? On the surface, they do. Wearing skorts will ensure that it is impossible to see a girl’s underwear as she walks up the stairs.
However, the issue of consent and respect still remain unchanged. Boys are often taught that girls will change their behavior to make them more comfortable, and that they are expected to have no control over their impulses. Girls are often taught that they should change their behavior to make the boys more comfortable, and that the boys are predators. And, the visibility under the stairs seems to resolve itself with no further conversation.
However, this is simply not the case. Open conversation about consent and respecting others’ bodies is the only way to resolve the issue, once and for all.
Lastly, as I have made clear, I absolutely do not believe that female students should be forced to wear skorts. However, it is their body and their choice, so I wholly believe that if they feel more comfortable wearing skorts, they should be able to do so. So, the solution I propose is simple: allow female students the choice to wear skorts or the regular skirts, and encourage open dialogue about consent. This is not an unresolvable problem.
Sarah is 16 years old and is a contributor to VOX through Atlanta Teen Voices.
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