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Slut Shaming: Policing sexuality of girls in schools


Schools are fundamentally modernist institutions that prioritize the mind over the body and engage in disciplinary techniques to produce asexual subjects. While conducting a research project on how adolescent girls talk about their desires, there were conversations on how schools attempt to erase out sexuality through regimes of appearances and behavioural regulations. To forbid expressions of sexuality by pupils, there are rules about self-presentation and on interactions between boys and girls in mixed schools. The girls enrolled in private, English medium schools of Kolkata narrated the formal rules of school uniform like the mandatory length of skirts and socks, prohibition of any kind of jewellery and makeup including colouring of hair and compulsory tying up of long hair into two braids. According to school administration school uniform and rules on self-presentation maintain a suitable school atmosphere. However, the implicit message to girls by schools is that they should not sexualize their appearances and attract attention. A girl studying in an elite co-educational school expressed to me that she felt restrictions for girls were qualitatively different from boys. With boys it is the neatness of the uniform and not the restrictions on length that is mandated. What she implied was that restrictions on appearance were not related to modesty for boys.


Gender stereotypes are persistent in schools and perpetuate narrow sexist ideas of what it is to be a man and a woman. Schools play a very significant part in the circulation of meanings and messages about what a young person should be, “serving to generate and reinforce elements of this identity” (Frost, 2001, p.111).Surveillance technologies like CCTVs in classrooms, corridors and every school corner monitor and track pupils, ensuring that young people do not cause mischief or trouble, that includes being physically intimate with each other. Apart from the formal school rules and surveillance technologies, the sexuality of girls is policed informally through ‘slut shaming’ that has tremendous impact on a girl’s self-conception. It is through shaming, attaching labels and stigmatizing a girl for engaging in behaviour judged to be sexually provocative that schools construct a right and a wrong kind of girl. ‘Slut shaming’ or gendered/ sexualized bullying has regulatory power as it marks whether a girl is considered ‘good’ is consequently a welcomed subject in school, or is cast as the “constitutive outside” (Pomerantz 2007, p. 375). Schools contradictorily uphold the ideal subject as asexual but reduce its girl pupils to hyper-sexualized bodies and apply hetero-normative double standards to boys’ and girls’ sexuality.


At schools, girls are told to wear uniforms correctly and to ‘sit properly with legs closed’. They are told that not doing so sends wrong signals. How girls wear their school uniform is strictly policed by teachers, female and male peers. Girls transgressing the school uniform code by shortening the length of the skirts are viewed as polluting the moral climate of the school and are reprimanded by teachers describing the behaviour as licentious‘. The teachers often call out girls from the assembly line with short skirts and loose hair and asks them for whom they have bared their legs or why they are projecting themselves in an indecent manner. In mixed schools every protest to formal rules by girls is assumed to be done to impress the boys. Girls violating norms of propriety are lumped into categories like ‘loose’ in schools and most girls do not want to get the tag.

Majority of the girls internalize the rules of demeanour and behaviour as they want to be socially accepted. A girl, summoning enormous courage, narrated how during the selection procedure for the post of a captain she was declared unfit to become a captain by her class teacher as she was considered to not uphold the moral standards of being a captain. The teacher particularly told her “she was not a good girl” affecting her self-worth, esteem and mental health. Wearing short skirts and having many boyfriends (though her school was co-educational) turned her into a deviant, not conforming to the image of a ‘good’ girl. Girls are granted higher status in schools if along with high academic grades, in their appearance, clothing and behaviour they conform to traditional feminine dictates of modesty.

Reputation in schools also depends on whether the girl has a boyfriend or is exhibiting her erotic potential in a context where asexuality is the norm. Teachers disapprove of dating and use abusive words like “chelebaajikorche[i]” implying being lascivious. A girl described how she was slut-shamed for bringing a cell phone to school and the Principal checked all her private messages sent to her boyfriend. According to the Principal she had acted ‘inappropriately’ and was a risk to others and had to be contained. In schools, teachers spread the message that having a boyfriend is the last priority of the good girls and the first priority of the bad girls. Another girl caught thrice holding hands with her boyfriend was suspended from school and her father was told that she comes to school to “lure boys”.


The motto of schools is to educate the mind and discipline the body and disciplined bodies do not express desire. The bodies of the girls that showed desire, needed to be disciplined and labelling the girls as promiscuous produced the desired effect. The slut narrative fosters shame in women and affects her sense of control over her sexual life in the future. The so-called Madonna-whore split is surprisingly used in schools to monitor behaviour. The onus of maintaining the moral climate of the school rests on the girl’s shoulder, as if it is her ‘natural duty’ to keep boys’ desires in check (Pomerantz 2007). A girl who had received many proposals for dating from boys was blamed by her class teacher for enticing the boys and the reason given was that other girls did not receive proposals. Schools construct their girl pupils as distraction to boys. This sends a message to the boys that they are not accountable for their own actions. A girl who was very friendly with her male classmates was made to sit in a corner to prevent her from distracting them.

It is not only the school administration but girls also engage in bullying other girls for their sexuality. Many of the friends of the girl, declared unfit to contest for the post of school captain isolated the girl or brushed her aside while taking photographs among themselves as her presence in the photographs would risk their reputation. On the eve of an official school trip, she was told by the school captain not to carry short clothes and “be all over the boys”. Girls too hold in their heads traditional gendered ideas of sexuality and believe that those girls who step over the line deserve social reproach.

It is not clear how boys are made responsible for maintaining the moral atmosphere of the school as dress codes for boys are not about their sexuality but rather about neatness (as mentioned) and expressions of belongingness to schools. Boys dating in schools are constructed as being mischievous and are not conceived as ‘bad’ if they achieve good grades. A boy’s sexual interest in girls is normalized and his girlfriend is made responsible if any time his grades fall. Girls feel boys often pride themselves for having many girlfriends and acquiring the tag of “Casanova” is conceived as a status symbol. Girls having more than one boyfriend are looked upon as “easy targets” and are criticized by both girls and boys though boys desire to date them. One reason that evokes the slut label is how many boys the girl is hanging out with. One of the girls said, “You cannot test relationships or people. Then you become a promiscuous lady, with very down morals.” This gives credence to what Jackson (1999) claimed that a girl has nothing to gain and her reputation to lose if she is dating many boys.


Schools focus on the education of the mind; the body and its sexuality is rendered marginal (Paechter 2004). The body and sexuality of the adolescent girls have to be policed as in adolescence it is viewed that pupils get curious about their emerging sexualities, conceived as a distraction to academic learning. Hence bodies are rendered docile through formal rules and punishments. Apart from the formal rules, praise and prestige are reserved for those who focus exclusively on academic learning and keep out matters of sexuality from schools. Students who receive high grades are at the top of the school hierarchy with girls who take an interest in their body and sexuality being at the bottom of the hierarchy. Apart from formal rules, shaming in schools functions as a powerful social control device that ostracizes girls resisting gendered sexual scripts. Once the girl’s reputation is sullied, she receives increased sexual attention from other boys, which reinforces a girl’s slut status and makes her less desirable as a romantic partner. Girls out of fear of getting labelled voluntarily control their behaviour and conform to school rules. Slut shaming or the practice of making character judgements especially by teachers is a form of sexual harassment and is agonizing for the adolescent girls, damage their mental health and may lead to depression, alienation, suicidal thoughts to committing suicide. Schools should start conversations on sexual consent and respect rather than engage in slut shaming.

References

Frost,L.(2001).Young Women and the Body: A Feminist Sociology. New York: Palgrave.


Jackson, S. (1999). Heterosexuality in Question. London: Sage Publications.


Paechter, C. (2004)“ ‘Mens Sana in Corpore Sano’: Cartesian Dualism and the

Marginalisation of Sex Education,” Discourse, 25(3) :309–320.


Pomerantz, S. (2007). “Cleavage in a Tank Top: Bodily Prohibition and the Discourses of School Dress Codes,”The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 53 (4): 373-386.

Piyali Sur is currently a Professor in Sociology at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her research interest is in the area of Gender Studies, Childhood Studies, Sociology of Crime and Deviance. Presently she is researching on adolescent sexuality.

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