"What was she wearing?": The victim blaming we learn at school

Featured image courtesy of Chloe S. via Unsplash.

Monday 8th March marked International Women’s Day: a chance to empower women and celebrate all the progress we have made. The day was first commemorated by the UN in 1977, and seeks to champion women’s social and political advancements. However, since Monday it has been made very clear that 2021 is still a scary time to be a woman. Meghan Markle, having admitted to feeling suicidal while she was pregnant, was branded a liar on national television; later, the awful news about Sarah Everard reminded us all about the dangers of simply wanting to walk home.

The internet has been flooded with messages from women, each sharing their own experiences and advice on how to keep safe. These have included holding keys between fingers, sticking to well-lit streets, and pressing an iPhone’s sleep button five times to call emergency services. This information is all incredibly, undeniably important. Equally, though, it demonstrates that the onus is still placed on women to protect themselves, rather than on men to act within the law.

The mentality that women are responsible for preventing their own assault is an insidious one, and it is fed by sexist attitudes in school. It is the first instance in a woman’s life where her appearance is policed, and a direct link is drawn between the way she dresses and the respect she deserves. When I was in school, girls were made to kneel on the floor of uniform shops in order to measure the length of our skirts - something that also occurred in classrooms. Not only is the act itself degrading and embarrassing, it is a ludicrous prerequisite for being educated. A school in Nottingham garnered widespread criticism for using this practice, while Cantonian High in Cardiff eventually relaxed their skirt policy.

Even on non-uniform days, girls were sent home for wearing tops that were too short or too ‘revealing’, even in the middle of summer. The way someone dresses has no bearing on their ability to learn. Nevertheless, we are still teaching young girls that their bodies are inherently sexual objects, and that it is their responsibility to manage their appearance in order to be deserving of an education.

Relating a woman’s clothing to her worth is particularly devastating because it leads to victim-blaming when assault and rape does occur. In 2018, a man was acquitted of raping a seventeen-year-old girl because the defense claimed her lace thong constituted consent. Tragically, the girl later took her own life. Similarly, a judge in Peru threw out a rape case last November because it was believed the victim’s red underwear suggested she was “willing to have sex”. Blaming women for the violence they encounter reiterates the idea that a woman’s clothing directly dictates how she deserves to be treated. Not only is this deeply insulting, it is profoundly untrue.

As well as peddling damaging ideas about the female body, my PSHE classes in school did not have enough focus on teaching men to respect minority genders. My only memory from those lessons is being told to ‘keep a finger in your drink to stop anyone date raping you’. While this is sound advice, the emphasis still fell on how women should avoid rape rather than on men not committing it. Many British students have probably seen Thames Valley Police’s ‘Tea and Consent’ video, but in depth conversations still need to be had around it in order to drive the message home. The ‘boys will be boys’ mentality still exists, and it is allowing men to act without consequence. Despite all women’s vigilance, the Guardian has reported that 97% of women aged eighteen to twenty four have experienced sexual harassment; until education around consent and respect is dramatically improved, that statistic is unlikely to fall.

The way that we’re educating children is critical to shaping how women are treated in society. Controlling how girls present themselves in school shames them simply for existing, and conditions everyone to associate a woman’s appearance with her worth. Being nice to women only because you’re attracted to them is not the same as respecting them, and a person’s clothing gives you absolutely no right to disrespect or harm them. Of course, head teachers who decide on school uniform policy are not trying to directly condone sexual harassment, and dressing smartly for work is a good habit to get into. However, specifically policing the length of teenage girls’ skirts objectifies them, and sends the message that their bodies are something to hide or be embarrassed about. Society allows men to commit assault and harassment without consequence, and it is a culture fed by what we are taught in schools. We are preparing women for a lifetime of carrying rape alarms and ripping out strands of hair in taxis, because we are fostering the idea that a woman’s safety is solely her own responsibility.