“Trampy” Children: Slut-Shaming and the Subtle Support of Rape Culture

There’s an article that’s been making its rounds through my social networking circles lately. Composed by a male CNN opinion writer, it’s dubiously titled “Parents, don’t dress your girls like tramps.”

This has proven to be a rather polarizing piece, with some people ardently agreeing that parents who allow their young girls to wear provocative clothing are failing as parents, and others saying that it’s no one’s place to judge what a little girl is wearing. There are those who fall in the gray area as well, but I think the key issue with this article is largely being overlooked.

I am horrified by this article, and it’s not because I think little girls should be sexualized, or because I’m a lackluster parent who can’t be bothered to raise my daughter with “proper morals.” It’s because it’s not the clothing that’s the problem, it’s not the little girls who wear the clothing or their parents who buy it that’s the problem–the problem exists in the misogynistic social structures that encourage these styles to exist in the first place, and encourage the public reaction to be what it is. Neither these girls nor their parents should be shamed for this or any other style of dress. The style of dress is not what matters, the social implications that are placed on that style of dress, and therefore the assumptions made off of it, and the reasons for its existence are what should be examined.

This should not be a matter of young girls dressing “trampy,” it should be a matter of examining why young girls are encouraged to believe that fitting into the societal norm for a “sexy female” is important, particularly at such a young age. Children take their cues from adults, and when our society continually emphasizes the importance of a woman’s ability to gain attention–particularly male attention–little girls are going to absorb this ideal and attempt to mimic it. And when our society tells its adult women that we can best gain male attention through objectification of our bodies (which, in turn, must meet strict societal standards for “beauty”), little girls are going to think that in order to grow into a successful adult woman, this behavior must be emulated.

This also shouldn’t be about how people will view a child who dresses this way, it should be about why people will view them that way. Just as a child emulates an adult in an attempt to mature, adults will judge a child for those attempts. If a child is stepping into the “grown-up world,” adults suddenly feel justified in casting judgment upon them as if they were no longer innocent children. And for a female dressing “trampy,” this means that we slut-shame them mercilessly.

Style of dress is no indication of who you are as a person, regardless of your age, and the implicit suggestion that you’re projecting an image of yourself based on your clothing is inherently prejudiced. By calling any style “trampy,” regardless of what age of person it’s on, Granderson and those who support him are reinforcing the rape culture that says it’s okay to judge a female for what she wears. It’s an ugly, slippery slope from there to blaming a child for her rape because she was “dressed like a prostitute.” Is it horrific that people will use things like this to justify violent crimes? Of course. But it won’t stop until we, as a society, stop telling women of any age that they are inherently sexualizing themselves and painting themselves as victims simply by dressing a certain way. I am not arguing that a female (of any age) should be required to display herself sexually to be respected. What I’m arguing is that the problem is not the style of dress itself, but how the display of a female is being responded to.

Our society sexualizes the naked female form in a way that we do not do with the male. For example, consider how female breasts are viewed as sexual, whereas male breasts/nipples are not. Men can walk around shirtless in public, whereas a woman breastfeeding (not displaying her nipple, as it’s covered by a baby, and also engaging in the natural act for which human female breasts were designed) will face a great deal of anger and prejudice, including being ordered to cover herself, leave public space, etc. Just because it’s the way our society is doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be.

Shaming is never the answer to anything. It is the least healthy way you can approach a desire for change, and it should not be lauded, regardless of the “good” motivation one might think they have. Intent is not magical–it’s still shaming.

What needs to be criticized are the stereotypes that support the existence of these items of clothing. Why do they make padded bras for little girls? Is it because little girls have an inherent desire to “dress trampy,” or is it because society at large tells us over and over again that the women we should all want to be like are the airbrushed models of “perfection” we’re inundated with from every media outlet? It’s not these little girls who should be ashamed of themselves, it’s the people who perpetuate these impossible standards of beauty, and who market increasingly younger girls as role models for it. Shaming these little girls will solve nothing; we need to address the root cause, and teach these girls that their worth is not purely physical.

That is my problem with this article, and this mindset. People think shaming the child, shaming the parents, tsk-tsking self-righteously, and saying, “Well I’d never let my child do that!” is going to accomplish something? At best, it will either shame the parents into the same forbidding-without-thinking behavior of the shamers (which will then only encourage the kids to hide this sort of behavior–what, never knew that kid who kept a more risque change of clothes in their backpack?) or it will shame the child, doing nothing to educate her on her intrinsic, non-sexual value, but instead just making her feel like her body and ultimately her sexuality are dirty and shameful. Should 8-year-olds be worried about sexuality? No, but if we shame the very concept of it from an early age, we can’t magically flip off the shame switch when they’re old enough to engage in healthy sexual activity. Shame is never a good thing, period. Any “good” it brings about is tainted with so much long-term damage that people need to stop supporting it as an appropriate avenue for trying to enact change.

If people are so horrified by this, they need to attack the root cause–not just the sexualization of children, but the oversexualization of females. Because it’s not children being discussed, it’s little girls. Because girls are treated differently, they are told to approach clothing and sexuality differently, they are trained to believe in a different set of mores than boys, for no other reason that the misogynistic inequality that calls it socially acceptable to do so.

Also, it is never appropriate to point a finger at another parent and say, “Well I’d never let my child do that!” Who didn’t do at least one “bad” thing that our parents disagreed with (or would have, had they know we did it)? But more importantly, every parent has to make their own decisions on the morality they wish to raise their children with, and so long as they aren’t being actually abusive, it is not our place to intervene. If we allow others to dictate these sorts of parenting decisions, what’s to stop them from saying what movies we’re allowed to let our children watch, what food we should be feeding them, what religion we should be raising them in?

I hope that as I raise my daughter, I will be able to impress upon her the importance of self-esteem, and understanding that the sexist “values” of our society that encourage her to dress or act a certain way are not important, and should not shape who she is or what she looks like. But if she’s a good kid in every other aspect, understands the implications of her choices, but just happens to like pants with “juicy” written across her backside? Well, I’m sorry, but I’ve got bigger battles to fight.

Additionally, Granderson’s article is problematic not just in its judgmentalism, but also in its very phrasing. For example, his words themselves simply attack these little girls and their parents, rather than addressing the problem of oversexualization as a mature, respectful adult. His use of terms like “whore-friendly” and the way he accused parents of “dressing little girls like prostitutes” are the very definition of slut-shaming. And slut-shaming is very much an aspect of rape culture, the social structure that says it’s okay to compare an elementary-aged girl to a prostitute, and then stand by while people in power use those sorts of attitudes to call her rape invalid. Think I’m exaggerating? Well it’s used as an argument to invalidate the rape of adult females as well, so yes, slut-shaming feeds rape culture, and thus feeds rape. I do not believe in supporting any cultural structure that makes rape and rape apologism acceptable.

But, hey, Granderson mentions boys too, right? Well, not really. He spends his entire article attacking little girls, discussing the fashion of little girls, but when he wants to make a personal anecdote, he doesn’t have a little girl to reference. So he throws out this gem: “my son knows I would break both of his legs long before I would allow him to walk out of the house with his pants falling off his butt.” Surely Granderson could have found a better, more tactful and professional analogy to make than one that references horrific child abuse.

Stomach-turning phrasing aside, Granderson’s adamant opposition to the male fashion of low-slung pants is not the same as his opposition to girls’ “whore-friendly” styles. Is he concerned that people will think his son is a slut if he wears his pants low? No. Criticisms of boys’ clothing is never about it being “trampy,” it’s based in racism, classism, and homophobia. The popular myth that this style started in prison as an indicator that a prisoner was gay demonstrates this pretty well. Young men who wear their pants low are accused of looking like “thugs,” not “tramps.” Is that classist and abhorrent? Yes. But no one ever pointed at a man’s low-slung pants as saying that “assault was in the air,” and he deserved the beating he got for presenting himself as a thug.

This topic of the over-sexualization of little girls is an important one, and one that deserves examination. But it should not be done with shaming tactics against these girls, it should be an open-eyed investigation of the very real problem that exists in modern culture of oversexualizing females of any age. Style of dress should make no statements about your personality or sexual habits; it should simply say, “I think these clothes look good, so I’m wearing them.” Any assumptions made beyond that of female promiscuity are misogynistic at best, and laden with rape apologism at worst.

About bunnika

shout at the brick wall; if it doesn't hear you, shout louder
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One Response to “Trampy” Children: Slut-Shaming and the Subtle Support of Rape Culture

  1. pleasure_past says:

    omg.

    How have I not seen this post before? I got into so many fights about that fucking article. It was a major contributing factor to my falling out with *two* friends, in fact.

    I agree with you so hard. I’ll just leave it at that.

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