mindbabie5-deactivated20120604 asked: A woman on FB who poses in provocative clothing at car events posted a photo of a younger woman (not sure what age, 17-19?) posing in front of a mirror dressed in similarly revealing clothing and harshly criticized her. When someone else pointed out that she basically does the same thing, I chimed and pointed out that she is a grown woman, capable of making her own choices.I can't help but wonder what age is appropriate? And can we impose an 'appropriate age' without demonizing female sexuality?
I remember when I was younger, whenever a question about human sexuality came up in conversation, my father would tell me, “son, you’ll learn when you’re older.” I feel like we don’t treat young girls with the same straight-forward candor. There seems to be a gender-specific morality wrapped up with sexual questions regarding young women. I think that will help us answer your inquiry.
The question of how we deal with children and young adults when it comes to expressing sexuality is a complicated issue. Sexuality is obviously tied to the act of sex, which invokes the imprimatur of responsibility. We want to protect “kids” from sexuality because we generally assume that children (even teenagers) don’t have the maturity to comprehend the responsibility that sex entails. We also don’t want them behaving in an “adult-like” way, thus giving off the impression that they are mature enough to appreciate the contours and consequences of human sexuality when in reality, they may not be.
Yet if we’re going to take a firm stance against “fashion policing,” we need to have a concrete answer for this sort of thing. When does the duty not to police a girl’s fashion choices appear? 18? 17? 16? etc.?
Whatever cutoff we choose is going to be arbitrary. But in the interest of establishing a workable methodology, I think advocating a certain degree of modesty for children under the age of 18 is ok as long as it does not take the form of gender-centric shaming. We need to make sure that we’re not telling young girls “this makes you worth less in the eyes of others if you behave this way, regardless of how old you are.” We don’t want our children carrying harmful gender-based morality with them into their adult life, which as it stands, is exactly what happens more often than not.
The most important thing, to me, is reaching a point where the standard of modesty we apply to our children (and adults too) burdens both sexes equally at the end of the day. Kids internalize this stuff. So if you have a 17-year old who is criticized on facebook for “looking like a slut,” her 17-year old friends, both male and female, will see those criticisms and internalize them to some degree. She will too. That’s not exactly great for her self-esteem. Also, those criticisms, to the extent that they are made in a public fashion, will have the effect of detracting from the kid’s self-worth. A harsh criticism equates to saying “you are a bad person for doing this, and will be less respected if you behave this way.” Telling someone that they “can’t” or “shouldn’t” do X is much different than telling them that “doing X invokes Y, which carries with it a lot of responsibility that you may not be ready to manage.” In some sense, it may be fair to assume that a young woman (<18) may not be mature enough to manage her sexuality responsibly. But even that is loaded language that we need to be careful how we quantify, because that can easily lead us right back to the place we’re trying to get away from; namely, defining a woman or girl’s self-worth by how they dress.
When managing this sort of thing, it’s worth remembering that this issue tends to fall on women heavier than on men. If a 17-year old boy posted a picture on facebook of himself shirtless to show off what he thinks are muscles, I suspect that, at worst, he might be told that his behavior was silly, but that would be the end of it. But if a woman does something similar, the offense is much graver: she is acting slutty. There is a moral judgment that’s being attached to her conduct that is distinctly absent from the closest male analog. When we impose modesty on young adults, we have to be careful not to justify it by relying on a moral judgment that will fall more harshly on young women than it does on young men.
So with that in mind, I think it’s ok to hold young adults to a certain standard of modesty, but it has to be done in a way that doesn’t cause our children to internalize harmful gender-specific morality. It seems to me that there’s got to be a way of addressing the issue without invoking the ghost of Victorian-era gender expectations. I think we do that by upholding standards of modesty for young people that aren’t justified by per se moral disapproval, but rather by telling them something equivalent to “you’ll learn when you’re older.” There’s a distinct difference between saying “This is not proper for a young person” and “this is not proper for a young woman.” The former is a burden on age. The latter is a burden on both age and gender. We should avoid the latter, I think, to the furthest extent that is reasonable.
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- reluctanthurricane said: Also, who are we to criticise people for choices that don’t harm others, even if they are minors? Unless we’ve been tasked with raising the kid, I think the obvious answer is ‘no one’.
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