THE BLOG
10/02/2014 01:37 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

What's Wrong With Denigrating Girls and Women in Schools?

Earlier this month, two boys, separately, appeared in LA teacher Lynn McGonicle's classroom wearing a bright red T-shirt that caught her eye. The shirt featured a "giant photo of a buxom, topless young woman in heels, fishnets and thong. The woman's eyes were covered by a sign that read "hoes" and her body was plastered with the slogan "WE ENJOY THEM BUT WE NEVER LOVE THEM." I put a question mark at the end of the headline because apparently this is still a question.

Writing in the LA Times, Sandy Banks described how McGonicle took this opportunity not only to talk to the boys about why their t-shirts violated the school's dress codes but to engage kids in a larger conversation about sexism. She also contacted the local store that sold the teachers and suggested that students and teachers boycott it.

Another teacher on the same campus, Monique Ulivi, noted, "Whenever we talk about the dress code, it's always geared toward girls and what they shouldn't be wearing."  Like other dress codes, this one bars short dresses, thin shoulder straps, and is generally geared to make sure girls' skin is carefully regulated.  "Yet," as Banks put it, "One of those boys from McGonigle's class had walked around campus all day with the image of a near-naked woman splayed across his chest."

Words like "tasteless" and "offensive," used to describe the t-shirts misrepresent what is going on. They minimize the reality of what images like these represent, particularly in a learning environment. This isn't empty fun. A t-shirt like this one actively, publicly, and usually with impunity, denigrates girls and women while they are in school. It trades on stereotypes and their highly effective threats, something no one talks about in terms of academic competition. It's also a challenge to the authority and higher status of women teachers and administrators. This isn't "silly," but sexist. It's not just "dumb," but discriminatory.

But, "free" speech!! This isn't "free" speech. This is very expensive speech. Expression like this silences an entire class of people by objectifying them (reducing autonomy), amplifies destructive stereotypes (reducing truth) and is designed to humiliate and subjugate (reducing human dignity). It isn't free at all for the people targeted by it. Speech like this acts to silence girls and women and does nothing to support the idea of a healthy democracy, and everything to perpetuate a social structure of male domination.

Imagine variations of this t-shirt depicting biases and hate that we do recognize, broadly speaking, as unacceptable. Why should female students have to go to attend classes facing images and sentiments like these? T-shirts like these tap into and seek to perpetuate historic gender-based discrimination. They strongly suggest a cultural longing for a time when girls and women knew their place. The fact that these images are ubiquitous doesn't change that fact.

Neither does the, "but girls don't mind" it's not "all girls," just "bad ones." Yeah, right. In the case of this t-shirt, female students responding with "They're talking about 'hoes', the girls who put themselves out there [for sex] and don't have any self-respect," are poster children for Just World Theory. It's scary to think about the fact that maybe the world isn't just. That maybe you, as female, are taught to spend your life carefully calibrating everything about yourself to an idea of a "good girl" that, in the end, may not make a difference is unsettling to say the least. All girls learn to adapt, to stay quiet and "not blow things out of proportion," to internalize their objectification, to pay the costs of trying to avoid violence and to live with the everyday sexism of demeaning t-shirts, posters, videos, games, music, and misogynistic institutions that do little or nothing to address this problem. Don't think it doesn't make them angry.

The negative consequences of denigrating humor and imagery are clear, even if they are not well understood. Sexist media and humor results in greater acceptance of rape myths and gendered violence, trivializes them, and leads to an increased inclination to blame victims. For good measure, it also results in a lack of desire to either punish rapists and abusers or assign responsibility to them for their actions. That affects, and ultimately imperils, all of us. As a class of human beings.

Whether some people, including girls and women themselves, think these images aren't a real problem is an entirely separate issue tied to an unethical failure to educate kids.

In truth, this t-shirt is barely a mote.

Last year at Swarthmore College, a pledge posted a photograph on Instagram of his offer to join a fraternity. The picture was of a fraternity booklet cover featuring a mosaic of hundreds of naked or nearly naked women. The website Total Frat Move lamented that it wasn't delivered with a note saying, "Enjoy the tits." The fraternity has used this format for several years. Last year, however, a group of students led by senior Marian Firke protested by creating an alternative version of the composite image. Swarthmore's dean of students agreed with protesters and took steps to address their concerns.  The speed with which the administration has responded may have something to do with the fact that the college is one of more than 75 schools involved in very public complaints for their handling (or mishandling) of sexual assault cases and Title IX violations.

In case there is any confusion about how objectification and the suppression of women's speech works, consider these comments about Firke on the website Total Frat Move in response to the protest. After some throwaway "feminist cunt" ramblings, commenters described her as a "Stupid girl who stick[s] [her] opinions where they do not belong." Mild enough. But, one commenter went on to say that "somebody needs to send their pledges over to fuck the bitch out of" her. Another, that she "deserved to be face raped so hard that she will be incapable of spewing any more of this bullshit." The interweaving of gendered violence, objectification and desire for her to shut up are inseparable. There is nothing diffuse about this effect.

At roughly the same time, young men at Georgia Tech received an email signed "In luring rapebait" that instructed them to, among other things, grab women "on the hips with your 2 hands and then let them grind against your dick." In October of the previous year a woman filed a lawsuit against Wesleyan University citing a fraternity known on campus as the "rape factory." At USC, two years ago, some boys released a Gullet Report (named for a "gullet," defined as "a target's mouth and throat. Most often pertains to a target's throat capacity and it's [sic] ability to gobble cock. If a target is known to have a good gullet, it can deep-throat dick extremely well. Good Gullet Girls (GGG) are always scooped up well before last call."). For good measure they added some overtly racist material as well. A University of Vermont fraternity surveyed members in 2011 with this question: "If you could rape someone, who would it be?" At Miami University of Ohio someone thought it was a good idea hang a poster titled "Top Ten Ways to Get Away with Rape," which closed with, "If your [sic] afraid the girl might identify you slit her throat." Five years ago, Yale's Zeta Psi fraternity took photos of members holding up signs reading, "We love Yale sluts." Another fraternity had fun running around campus singing, "No means yes! Yes means anal!" The school's recommended punishment for sexual assault violations at the time was a written reprimand. In 2012, Yale reached an agreement with the Department of Education, which launched a Title IX investigation in the wake of the song and similar incidents. Yale continues to struggle with understanding the nature of rape.  Not done yet...Amherst, 2012: students printed and wore a t-shirt showing a woman, "clad only in a bra and a thong. She's got bruises on her side. There's an apple jammed in her mouth. And she's stretched out, tied up, suspended from a spit, and roasting over a fire." Lighten up, will you.

While the Swarthmore administration's responsiveness is laudable, the truth is that given the scope of the problem at hand, entire swaths of our population need "special training sessions," and before they even make it to college. What do we do about them?

Young men are going to school way too comfortable expressing themselves in exploitative, sexist ways that denigrate their female peers and are corrosive to the academic environment. Young women, equally immersed in culture, are taught very early to have low expectations and to compete for male attention. Sexism, gender-based double standards, and male entitlement are so normalized that girls think sexual assault and violence are just a "part of life" that they have to live with. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is seriously fucked up.

As one 13-year old girl put it to researchers who recently released their findings on this topic, ""They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it's okay, I mean... I never think it's a big thing because they do it to everyone."

Researchers concluded that "girls don't support other girls when they report sexual violence. The young women expressed fear that they would be labeled as a "whore" or "slut," or accused of exaggeration or lying by both authority figures and their peers, decreasing their likelihood of reporting sexual abuse."

And the boys? Objectification and entitlement are the opposite of empathy. While we talk about its effects on girls, the way it erodes their confidence, their self-awareness, their sense of security, we rarely actually discuss what the effects of sexually objectifying women are on boys and their psychological or sexual development. It encourages them to think of girls and women as body parts for pleasure and use -- literally, as "things" that don't have autonomy or self-determination and whose permission is irrelevant.

"Not real" people, fungible and violable, lack agency and should be quiet. Children as young as six already come to see women as body parts, but men as whole people. Have you seen the viral video of the incredibly cute little boy arguing with two sisters about the weather? In a fit of frustration he finally spits out, "You're pretty. You're not real. I'm real."  It's just a hop, skip and a jump to the boy in college last year, slightly smirking, who asked me, "What's the difference between my sharing a picture of my girlfriend, and a picture of my toaster." The ideas behind these t-shirts and jokes, permeate our law, technology and social interactions.

Why would a teenager, any teenager, understand any of this since we barely make theslightest effort, institutionally, to teach them? There are tools, like Common Sense Media's Gender and Digital Life Toolkit. Did your kids school use it once and put it on a shelf like mine did?

McGonicle, she isn't interested in putting things on shelves. She called the manufacturer of the t-shirt, who listened to her. The company's founder Ernest Edwards said they'd stopped selling it. "...I know where the teacher was coming from. She felt like we were dogging women. That's why we pulled the shirt. I don't want anybody to think the brand is about that."

Teachable moments fill our days. If boys really want to wear clothes like this, or share photos like the ones used at Swarthmore, they should do so off campus. Norm changing is never easy or fast and those with the most privilege to lose always protest the loudest. That is not, as so many keep pointing out, the same as being oppressed.

Free speech is important to everyone. These confrontations aren't about suppressing it, but about challenging what is acceptable. This king of sexism and the entitlements it reflect are discriminatory. Schools, elementary and middle schools, need to be training teachers, and teaching children, about gender and consent. But, that won't happen until parents are on board.

Portions of this article first appeared in Salon.com. An online version remains in the Salon archives. Reprinted with permission.