“Enough Is Enough”

The recent battle over a Canadian high school’s dress code pits a halter dress against a concept: that girls are responsible for the lustful thoughts of boys and men.

The dress code at Harrison Trimble High School in New Brunswick, where 17-year-old Lauren Wiggins is a student, specifies that “shirts” must cover the back and shoulders. By extrapolation, that means dresses (Wiggins’s fell to her ankles) must also employ fabric to cover the wearer’s shoulders and back. Frankly, it’s a reasonable request for health and safety reasons. If something fell on students’ shoulders (hot food in the cafeteria, chemicals in the lab, a bat or ball during physical education class), they would have at least a layer of protection against injury.

Health and safety, however, were not the reasons cited by Trimble High School’s principal, Shane Sturgeon, when he demanded that Wiggins cover her back and shoulders. Instead, he required a change in attire because the halter dress was “sexually distracting” to the male students at her high school.

He said nothing about the potential distraction to lesbian female students. Perhaps he believes they do not exist. Nor did he mention how male students are affected by the sight of bare male shoulder blades and spines. In a game of shirts versus skins, for example.

Shane Sturgeon is a man. He was once a teenage boy. If he makes a strong effort, he might recall that at that age, almost anything was “sexually distracting” to him. The movie he viewed the night before. The girl he would meet in math class, a girl whose body he had never seen but lustfully imagined. His school bus ride over a bumpy road. Anything can set a teenage boy (or a man, for that matter) off on a tangent, because nature cares nothing for individuals or their discomfort. Its focus is on perpetuation of the species.

Calling Wiggins’s dress “sexually distracting” is ridiculous. Sturgeon would be more accurate if he said life is sexually distracting.

This not strictly a North American problem. In the English city of Hull, not far from the North Sea, a male teacher at Bridlington School told a student her uniform skirt was “too short” – for unknown reasons he chose not to summon a female colleague to talk with the girl – and she promptly replied that he should not be looking at her legs. Instead of quoting the dress code, he felt “uncomfortable” and went to the principal with his concerns. (If an apropos comment forces him, “uncomfortable”, to run to authority, perhaps he ought to seek new employment. The rigors of school are not for him.) In response, the principal decided to ban uniform skirts altogether. Parents must now buy trousers for their daughters from the chosen school supplier, who applies a hefty markup over the local store’s price for the same item. Parents are understandably outraged (I expect the mothers recall when they were forbidden to wear “unfeminine” trousers to class) and call the school’s decision “sexist”. Their petition already has 1,100 signatures.

There’s a sinister force at work here, and it creeps close to the idea held in many countries and by fundamentalist religions: that men’s honor is found between the legs of women. What a way to eschew personal responsibility! It underpins the brutality of female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage, family-directed murders, all the horrors of societies whose culture demands the sacrifice of the safety and health of girls and women.

Similarly, in the eyes of Harrison Trimble High School’s principal, girls are made responsible for boys’ lustful thoughts and erectile virginity.

Look, Mr. Sturgeon. The only person responsible for one’s thoughts and reactions is . . . that person. Including you. If you find Wiggins’s dress distracting, that’s on you. You could bury yourself in your work, turn your thoughts to cauliflower, remind yourself that as an adult you are required to view your charges as students, not potential sex partners.

If you find Wiggins’s dress breaches the dress code rules, then it’s on you to say that. Full stop, end of sentence. You might talk about health and safety, as well.

But blaming her is just not on. Piling onto her slender shoulders the burdens of her classmates’ impure thoughts and the condition of their penises is outrageous. Consider that many of those classmates over-stimulated themselves – and reduced their empathy, thus dehumanizing themselves – by watching porn the night before. Those are pixels on a screen. Not human beings in the room. Yet you want to offload responsibility for students’ erections onto their female classmates?

Get real.

Lauren Wiggins wrote to her principal, saying in part, “If you are truly so concerned that a boy in this school will get distracted by my upper back and shoulders then he needs to be sent to be sent home and practice self control.”

Excellent idea. Followed by an in-depth look at personal responsibility and the risks of online porn to one’s brain development – since the frontal lobes of teenagers are still under construction.

There are excellent reasons to require the covering of students’ shoulders and backs, none of which are related to sexuality. Those reasons should be applied across the board. No more skins in boys’ games.

And no more blaming high school girls’ attire for their classmates’ thoughts and erections.

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