I went to high school in a small town in the South which was dominated by a massive Baptist church. There was a Catholic church that was fairly moderate in size, and then a scattering of small churches of other denominations. The Baptist church was the center of the town’s social life. Their members owned all of the big businesses in town, including the movie theater. They dictated the books that could be stocked by the bookstores. There was no separation of church and education in that high school.
Two or three times a year the high school would bring in professional speakers, and we would have mandatory assemblies on dating. They all followed the same formula: boys will be boys, and girls have to look out for themselves. Only “good” girls were safe, but somehow it was clearly much easier to be “good” if your family was wealthy. The only real variation in the assemblies was the metaphors used for the not-good girls. Soiled toilet paper and wilted flowers stand out for me. I don’t remember raw meat or chewing gum, but wouldn’t be surprised if they were there. I have some recollection of girls as pickles, but I may have fallen asleep in an assembly and dreamt that one.
For the most part, resistance was limited to quiet comments that it was “too bad” and “unfair” but that it was “the way things were,” “had always been,” and “would always be.” Those of us who didn’t go to any of the churches were either complete outcasts (and anything they said was ignored) or we lived in a provisional bubble of good will (in which case we were heard with indulgent smiles, as naive idealists who would eventually “grow up.”) Isolation is a profound method of social control.
I don’t live in that town anymore, and the world is changing (in some places at more of a glacial pace than others) but when my daughter mentioned that her high school was having an assembly on dating, my knee-jerk reaction was to offer to get her out of it. She chose to go, and came back pleasantly impressed. Those of us who want social change spend a fair amount of time pointing out what is distressing, so I’m thrilled to pass on the points of the assembly that stayed in my daughter’s mind, all of which were positive, and none of which involved toilet paper, plucked flowers, or pickles!
– The advice on dating was non-gendered. The speakers acknowledged that society treated boys and girls differently, meaning that there are larger cultural trends in patterns of violence that young people are aware of, but did not treat this as anything inherent to individuals.
– They called for the presence of enthusiastic consent to sexual activity, as opposed to requiring a strong no. They also didn’t vilify sexual desires in teens.
– The presenters talked about more types of sexual assault than rape, including harassment and molestation. They told young people to trust their own comfort levels, and not feel obligated to dismiss something that distressed them as “not a big deal.”
– They didn’t direct abuse prevention advice at the victim, but at the perpetrator. My daughter’s favorite quotes were, “there’s a foolproof way to stop assault – don’t do it” and “if you think that you can’t stop yourself from assaulting, try the buddy system!”
– They mentioned Steubenville and said that there was something deeply wrong with a set of cultural values in which taking car keys away from someone who is drunk is treated as a heroic act, but stopping a sexual assault is considered a rude interference.
– They suggested strategies for stopping harassment (e.g. distract and block off the instigator), but emphasized that they should only be pursued when safe. They recommended calling for professional help (i.e. police and administrators), but stressed that in order for that to be effective, authority figures had to be trustworthy.
High school assemblies are places of indoctrination, and they tell us a lot about the surrounding social system. I’m thrilled to see that the doctrine seems to be changing in the right direction. Digging new channels is hard work, so to those who are doing it: well done! (standing ovation)
Featured image: toilet paper cardboard tubes by Mary Anne Enriquez
1904 book cover for “Private lectures to mothers and daughters on sexual purity” from Internet Book Archive
1901 book illustration “Woman’s Work” from Internet Book Archive
Roadside religion outside of Montgomery Alabama by chapstickaddict
Stop Blaming Victims by Wolfram Burner
applause – FAME by 42andpointless