Address This Code

This op-ed appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on May 25, 2015.

In 2013, Kimberly Hall, Director of Women’s Ministry at All Saints Presbyterian Church, wrote an open letter to teen girls who, in her view, were tempting her sons into “impure thoughts” through social media.

“If you are friends with a Hall boy on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, then you are friends with the whole family,” wrote Hall. “The reason we have these (sometimes awkward) family conversations around the table is that we care about our sons … You don’t want the world to see you primarily in this sexual way, do you? If you post a sexy selfie (we all know the kind), or an inappropriate YouTube video – even once – it’s curtains.

“I know that sounds so old-school, but we are hoping to raise men with a strong moral compass, and men of integrity don’t linger over pictures of scantily clad high-school girls … young men are fighting the daily uphill battle to keep their minds clear, and their thoughts praiseworthy.

“Girls, it’s not too late … run to your accounts and take down the closed-door bedroom selfies that make it too easy for friends to see you in only one dimension.

Hall’s missive went viral, and she was lauded as wise and courageous for her temerity in telling this generation of young women how impure they’ve revealed themselves to be; nothing but harlots out to tempt the moral convictions of proper, decent young men.

Rather than helping her sons develop a “strong, moral compass” to navigate relationships, to respect and regard female peers as more than objects of sexual desire, Hall places the onus for her sons’ thoughts and actions on the girls with whom they interact.

Despite Hall’s suggestion, this is not simply “old school” — it’s rape-culture. A mentality so pervasive it’s regularly excused as a norm, most recently demonstrated by a pair of controversies surrounding school dress codes, where uncovered shoulders, a hint of thigh, were deemed “too distracting” for male students who, evidently, cannot achieve academic excellence in the vicinity of female flesh.

In New Brunswick, 17-year-old Lauren Wiggins was given detention for her floor-length halter dress and subsequently suspended for protesting the school’s dress-code double-standard.

Days later, a Guelph-area principal was forced to apologize for advising female students to “dress cool, not skanky.”

Such attitudes not only demean the girls, but they insult their male peers by treating them as incapable of controlling their behaviour.

And by policing attire rather than working to modify improper reactions/interactions, a dangerous, blame-the-vicim mentality is perpetuated.

If we want girls to develop a strong sense of self-worth and self-respect, we must allow them to become comfortable with their bodies; to experiment with different styles, learn what they feel comfortable wearing, including how much – or little – skin they feel confident in baring.

Comprehensive sexual education, as is set to begin across Ontario this fall, can help girls develop this confidence and learn to be the sole keepers of their bodies while, along with their male counterparts, acquire the skills needed to foster healthy friendships and relationships, understand consent, and judge the appropriateness of behaviours — including what a woman’s dress does or does not invite.

Reforming rape-culture, retiring the fetishization of sexual or moral purity – real or perceived – and developing equal standards to which men and women are held may seem a daunting task, but in some instances, much progress can be made by making clear these two simple truths: There is more to a man than his sexual desire; more to a woman than a moment’s attire.