This widespread cultural message could not be clearer: Men’s sexual urges are uncontrollable and therefore not their responsibility. It’s a fairly insulting view of male morality and sexuality, but it’s also one that allows the culture to put the blame for men’s bad (and criminal) behavior on women’s shoulders.
But making women responsible for men’s sexuality isn’t just about excusing rape and sexual harassment. It’s a cultural rule that enforces the idea that this is a man’s world—women just live in it.
When Stuyvesant says that women’s dress and bodies are distraction in a learning environment, for example, what they’re really saying is that they’re distracting to male students. The default student we are concerned about—the student whose learning we want to ensure is protected—is male. Never mind how “distracting” it is to be pulled from class, humiliated, and made to change outfits—publicly degrading young women is small price to pay to make sure that a boy doesn’t have to suffer through the momentary distraction of glancing at a girl’s legs. When this dentist in Iowa can fire his assistant for turning him on—even though she’s done absolutely nothing wrong—the message again is that it’s men’s ability to work that’s important.”
The hypocrisy of school dress codes, and the way educators view male versus female bodies, has always interested me. No one sees a teenage male leg or upper chest as threatening or even particularly interesting, but the same space on a female is at once provocative and dangerous. Classroom demands that girls conceal their bodies in a certain way reflect this traditional, patriarchal view. Our standards of “decency” and “professionalism,” where bodies are concerned, are rooted in the idea that women are the arbiters of a primal male sexuality.