Warning: This post may be a trigger for those who have experienced abuse.
by CATHERINE MANNING= display_ad('x18', 'hidden-xs hidden-md mm_incontent', 'MM In Content'); ?>= display_ad('x20', 'visible-xs mm_mob_incontent', 'MM In Content (Mobile)'); ?>
As a kid, I owned several pairs of shorts. I loved wearing them. They were cool in summer and I could jump on my trampoline, ride my bike, and climb trees as freely as I wished.
I’m pretty sure my (rather conservative) mother who bought them for me didn’t think anyone would label me ‘trampy’ and, back then, the thought that I could be “trampy” never crossed my mind.
When I was ten, all that changed. I was invited alone by my friend’s father into his centerfold-clad shed. He turned to me and said, “You look sexy in those shorts” right before he molested me.
Was this his rationale? Did I look like a ten-year-old tramp? Could wearing short shorts give an impression that I was sexually precocious or available; could they mean that I should have expected advances? After all, my shorts were short. My long, tanned legs were exposed. And I did go in there with him.
I thought for so many years that my shorts and I were to blame. I also held my mother, the stores that sold shorts for girls and a sex-focused culture responsible for my abuse.
As an activist campaigning for the protection of children from exposure to pornographic material, I worked alongside many who shared this view that the fact of girls dressing like women was asking for trouble. Yet as I talked the talk, I began to dig deeper and understand what I was actually saying.
Talking about “trampy” kids’ clothing might sound like empowered activism. But, in the end, it’s really not much different from saying, “Look what she was wearing – how could one resist?” I had begun to blame the victim. I had begun to blame myself. “You look sexy in those shorts.”
The message we now hear so often is fairly clear: if you want to protect your child from predators, cover them up. But as all evidence suggests, abusers don’t target short shorts. They target vulnerability. It wasn’t my beloved, tree-climbing shorts that made me vulnerable.
What clothing a child wears has nothing to do with ‘selection’ by abusers. Abusers target children who look like children. I was preyed upon for reasons other than my shorts. The man in the shed used the same misguided rationale so many activists do. Those shorts. They are making you sexy.
What happened to me in the shed had nothing to do with my shorts.
Eventually, I began to identify less with my abuser and my shame and so much more with the message of ‘Slutwalk’. For years, I had been slut-shaming myself. And others.
It frustrates me that among those espousing an anti-sexualisation view, many are unwilling to engage in dialogue about the harm to girls and women of their very public shaming.
The 70,000+ people who supported a recent Facebook comment about ‘trampy’ girls, are missing the mark and shaming the wrong people. Even if we took the word ‘trampy’ out of the original post, the core message remains the same.
Frenzy such as that in this recent piece by RMIT Lecturer Dr Caroline Norma accuse those who don’t agree with the “sexualisation” agenda as ‘elite media and privileged individuals who think themselves superior to the average mother’. We’re called apologists and/or a front for the sex industry if we disagree that “trampy” clothing has any place at all in this conversation.
I wish Norma would use her scholarship and her passion to engage in open, respectful dialogue about what is really harming our girls. The length of a young girl’s hemline is not a marker or a cause of sexualisation.
What happened to me was not my fault. It was not my mother’s fault. It was not the fault of “sexy” shorts. It was his fault. It was all his fault.
This is not to say that there is not a rot at the foundation of our culture that can sometimes end in heartbreaking abuse. But it has nothing to do with short shorts.
I understand the concern of the 70,000 people who “liked” the idea that kids can be trampy. I might have been one of them, once. Not anymore.
It’s my hope that 70,000 people will grab their kids to join me and mine at Slutwalk on September 1. Maybe there, we can begin to overcome some of the shame. Maybe there, we can make the world a better place. Maybe we can do it in short shorts.
If this post brings up any issues for you, you can contact the NSW Rape Crisis Centre – they have 24/7 counselling available. Call 1800 424 017 or find their website here.
Catherine Manning is an activist, Facilitator/Presenter of self-esteem & media literacy workshops, convener of Pull the Pin (on beauty pageants for children), and mother of four children who love shorts. You can find her on Twitter here.