Recently there was a tiny article in the news about a middle school principal banning girls from wearing strapless dresses to the school dance because they “distract boys”. Parents at the school are protesting and I think they should, for several reasons. I also think this story says a lot about the ways we as a society go wrong in addressing adolescent sexuality.
First question of course is – what are the boys supposed to be focusing on at a school dance? I mean truly, what are they distracted from that is so important? Should they be finely honing their dance moves? Memorizing song lyrics? Part of what is maddening about this story, is that the principal seems to have missed the point of a school dance in the first place. We are supposed to be distracted by our fellow students, we are supposed to learn to dance and flirt and get flustered by mutual and not so mutual attractions. This is not about troublesome distractions, this is about pretending that adolescents are not going to actually be interested in each other’s bodies or sex.
The next piece of this that disturbs me is this: if boys are not supposed to be distracted in this way, how will they ever learn to handle the sexual distractions that are around them all the time? I believe that one of the important tasks we (all of us, boy and girls) are to learn in adolescence is how to handle our own sexual energy and desires, while respecting others boundaries and appropriate social settings. Even if adults could manage to create an environment in which teenage boys were not distracted by people they were attracted to, who would this serve? Certainly not their future partners. Not the boys themselves. We need to learn that our sexual energy and desire is not an overwhelming force over which we have no control. We have to learn to be distracted and still function. And we have to learn to not blame our distraction on the externals, other people, cute girls, etc, but to own that we have choices in the way we behave and to some extent in where we focus our mind and thoughts.
And then there is the piece that many parents at this school complained about, which is the implication that girls, by the way they dress, behave, look, should mediate the boys’ sexuality. This is a dangerous implication that has shown its ugly head in rape cases and sexual harassment cases for years. If only women can carry the burden of repressing our sexual natures, then we would be safe from the consequences, and perhaps the freedoms, of sexuality. This outdated sexist model has got to go. Now.
We are all responsible for our own sexual behaviors. It can be a challenge sometimes, no doubt. We are surrounded by a big juicy, sexy world with lots of distractions. Learning how to navigate in that world is valuable and we need to support kids, and adults, in how to do that with grace, respect, and also excitement and passion. Invite sexual distraction – without it the world would be a much less alive place.