Teen girls don't need boys to 'protect their character'

According to The Crossing of Manitowoc County, the organisation that supplied the posters, 'Prom time seems to present ...

According to The Crossing of Manitowoc County, the organisation that supplied the posters, 'Prom time seems to present particular risks for teens'. Photo: Stocksy, posed by model

Wisconsin's Lincoln High School made headlines around the world last week when posters appeared informing its (presumably male) students that Prom was 'A night to protect her character.'

According to, The Crossing of Manitowoc County, the organisation that supplied the posters, 'Prom time seems to present particular risks for teens'.

They're right about that.

Prom poster distributed at Lincoln High School in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Prom poster distributed at Lincoln High School in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Photo: via Feministing

With recent high-profile high school and college campus rape cases in the US, it's not unreasonable to assume that some boys could do with a refresher-course on consent.

Advertisement

Although if this was the intent, perhaps the posters should have been less ambiguous, with something more like this: 'Don't Rape. Ever.'

Given that The Crossing is a pro-abstinence organisation, it's more likely that the posters were less about correcting attitudes of male sexual entitlement and more concerned with slut-shaming.

Female students objected to having their characters linked with their virginity and the posters were eventually taken down.

Whichever way you interpret these posters, one thing is clear: sex is portrayed as a male decision. Even the choice for a girl to have consensual sex is decided by the boy. It's up to him whether or not he will 'protect the character' of his female partner.

This is symptomatic of a broader attitude where sex is regarded as solely about male pleasure and male desires. The man decides and the woman provides.  

Women having sex for their own pleasure is rarely portrayed in popular culture, porn or even sex education. For many young women, acknowledging that they even have sexual desires, let alone seeing them as a priority, is a foreign concept.

Author and co-founder of Collective Shout Melinda Tankard Reist who regularly speaks to girls in schools, says that girls can talk about how their male partners enjoyed their sexual experience but they are completely estranged from their own bodies and sense of pleasure or enjoyment.

'I recall one female student saying, "I think my body looked okay, he seemed to enjoy it",' Tankard Reist says. 'She didn't seem to know how to articulate how she herself felt. The important thing was that he "got off" and that she thought she looked okay.'

This is about the neatest, most succinct expression of self-objectification I've ever heard. This young woman has internalised a kind of double objectification: that she is an object to be looked at and, not unlike a toy, an object for someone else' pleasure. She is so external to the whole episode that her experience is refracted through her partner.

Rather than exploring their own sexuality, many young women see themselves as little more than service providers. And sexual service is the admittance price for male company.

When I asked a year 12 girl at an elite Melbourne girls' school why she and most of her peers perform oral sex, even though she claimed they don't like it, she replied: 'You're still doing something for the guy but it's not actual sex or losing your virginity.'

If the girls didn't perform sexual acts, there was the fear that the boys wouldn't like them or talk to them.

This wouldn't be so alarming if it was a reciprocal arrangement. And it would be nice to dismiss this as kids being kids. But this isn't a simple matter of mutual sexual experimentation. It's about male power.

When I asked if the boys ever give the girls oral sex she answered, 'Oh no, that would be gross.'

Lucy Forwood, Coordinator for Health Promoting Schools at Women's Health West, is particularly concerned about the gender inequality of sex among teens.

'Among heterosexual young people, the girls are asked for oral sex by the boys; it is rare for girls to ask for oral sex from boys. It illustrates the power inequities between young men and women. Girls appear to want to please the boys by "giving them head",' Forwood said.

Exploring sexuality in your teens isn't always easy or straightforward. Relationships are complex. Doubly so when you're first becoming sexually active.

But if we continue to perpetuate the idea that sex is something women give and men take, then teens are indeed at risk. And not just on prom night.

Kasey Edwards is a writer and best-selling author.