making sense of erykah badu's comments on slut shaming and school uniforms

After a New Zealand school told girls to lengthen skirts to ‘create a good work environment for male staff’, the forever frank singer-songwriter sparked debate on social media and asked her 1.7 million fans to join the discussion.

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Apr 13 2016, 4:10pm

Yesterday the first lady of neo-soul Erykah Badu sparked debate on Twitter with a series of comments on the length of schoolgirls' skirts in response to an article published by The Cut. Over the course of 11 tweets, Badu argued that society has a duty to protect young women, that girls should be aware of their sexuality and that it is 'natural' for heterosexual men to be attracted to young women. The star then began to retweet a slew of responses, some of which agreed with her views and others which didn't -- and the debate continues to rage on Twitter, with Badu last night tweeting an open call for her followers to join in the discussion. Despite the online frenzy that ensued, Badu has once again proven herself to be one of the most thoughtful celebrities on Twitter, using her platform to provoke open discussion and encourage her followers to think and form their own opinions. The result was a debate surrounding the consistent sexualization of women, slut-shaming and the biological differences between men and women that continue to influence society.

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The argument that women and girls should dress with the sexual instincts of men in mind is nothing new. The last year has seen an explosion in mainstream discussions of slut-shaming, with stars like Amber Rose, Kim Kardashian, and Gigi Hadid all speaking out on their own experiences of being attacked for their dress or behavior. More problematic is the trend of victim-shaming, which highlights female rape victims and underlines the way they could have avoided unwanted attention by covering up. Unfortunately, the archaic notion that women dressed provocatively are 'asking' to be leered at or preyed upon still lingers in society, and that this choice of dress is reflective of their sex life. Essentially, it is important to acknowledge that women dress for themselves, not the men surrounding them. Somewhat depressingly, these arguments also imply that all men are reduced to flustered wrecks at the sight of an inch of thigh, which obviously isn't always the case. As is always the case, these things depend on context -- it isn't the role of women to tailor their dress and their behavior to the male gaze.

As Badu underlines on several occasions, her arguments become stronger when kept in context -- these aren't just any women, they are young women in a controlled environment which comes with a uniform policy. Arguably, there's a time and a place to inch up your hemline, and the classroom isn't it. These are all fair arguments, and it's common knowledge that the majority of institutions rely on these kinds of policies to ensure order. The troubling element of the uniform policy isn't the hemline itself -- it's the justification given, namely that these rules would "create a good work environment for male staff' and "keep girls safe." Badu rightly argues that "healthy men are attracted to women of child bearing age," and that it is law that defines what is right and what is deviant in terms of sexuality. Still, these rules are designed specifically to ultimately benefit men, and insinuate that young women should censor and modify their behavior to "keep themselves safe." Designing school policies around the wants and needs of male staff is regressive, especially with regards to feminism. How are we supposed to teach and empower women if we consistently remind them we live in a man's world?

It is completely unacceptable to rely on the statement that it's 'natural' for men to sexualize women.

It is, however, important to acknowledge differences in the sexual behavior and attractions of men and women. A study published on sexscience.org presents an in-depth exploration of sexual patterns of men and women, and makes several revelations in the process. Key findings include that men are more prone to sexual deviancy, generally masturbate more than their female counterparts, and are more likely to cheat. The study also confirms that men do, on average, think about sex more often than women, although not to the degree that the media would have you believe. The most relevant finding is that men are often sexually aroused by atypical partners which, in this case, could be applied to the underage women in the schools they work at. Therefore it is fair to argue that girls in the school system are more at risk than young boys but, again, this is based on averages -- one exception is teacher Brianne Alice, whose case went viral after she pleaded guilty to sleeping with three underage students.

Despite scientific evidence to back up the argument that men are 'more sexual' than women, it is completely unacceptable to rely on the statement that it's 'natural' for men to sexualize women. Not only does it trivialize the matter, remove it from social context and place it firmly in a scientific context, it essentially awards men a free pass based on their biological sex. Badu is right in stating that young women should be aware of their sexuality, aware of their sexualization, and use this information to learn and grow accordingly. But the justification for these policies is completely regressive from a feminist standpoint, as it argues that women should not just keep in mind the heightened sex drive of men, but actively modify their own actions to accommodate it. The school's arguments also do a disservice to men, as they assume that all men are more easily distracted and lack self control. Sex and sexuality are, and always have been, complex. The examples quoted in this article have all been based on case studies, stereotypes -- in daily life, these things depend on context. We all have urges, but civilization wouldn't exist if we didn't occasionally repress them. So, if you want to enforce knee-length skirts in school, do so if you think it's genuinely beneficial for everybody involved. Do it for the right reasons -- not to tiptoe around the sexual urges of men.

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Text Jacob Hall
Still from Britney Spears video for "One More Time"