5 Prom Traditions That Perpetuate Rape Culture
Rape culture — the widespread normalization of sexual violence and disregard for the importance of consent — is perpetuated in many areas of our society, including high schools. Because of this, there are several prom traditions that perpetuate rape culture, often without us realizing it. Between slut-shaming dress codes and overblown sexual expectations, there's a dark side to the revered tradition of prom that we don't always talk about.
Rape culture is "a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and support violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent," according to Transforming a Rape Culture by Emilie Buchwald. By the time they reach the end of high school, when prom typically takes place, most girls have already been the victims of rape culture in some form or another. Rape culture manifests when schools implement dress codes that shame women for having female bodies. It manifests when their peers try to pressure them into sexual situations. And, in many cases, it manifests on prom night.
Prom can be a fun and memorable night for many, but there are also a few ways it can perpetuate sexist and damaging beliefs. Here are some of those ways.
1. Dress Codes
Too often, there's a frenzy before prom night about what the girls will be wearing. On several occasions, girls have been kicked out of or turned away from prom for dressing too revealingly. The video above, recently shared on the website of a North Carolina high school, tells girls (but not boys) what they can't wear through a mock game show called "so you think you're prom 'propriate." These strict rules surrounding dress codes teach girls that they're objects. They imply that it's girls' responsibility to make sure their bodies don't provoke unwanted attention, rather than telling people not to pay them unwanted attention in the first place.
2. Sexual Expectations
According to one Kaiser Family Foundation study, one-third of boys and 23 percent of girls ages 15-17 feel pressure to have sex, and prom can exacerbate this. After-prom parties are often considered an opportunity for high schoolers to reach sexual milestones. This can lead students both to feel internal pressure and to put pressure on one another.
3. Sexual Policing
Pressure to have sex can perpetuate rape culture, but so can judging women if they do decide to have sex. Last year, a pregnancy center distributed a flier around a school calling prom "a night to protect her character" — i.e., a night to avoid having sex. This encourages the same idea as strict dress codes disproportionately geared toward women: that a woman's "character" depends on how sexual she behaves or appears.
4. The Gender Dynamics Of Promposals
Though "promposals" don't always go in one direction anymore, the expectation is still often that boys prompose to girls. There's nothing wrong with any individual boy asking someone to prom, but the larger expectation stems from some problematic ideas: that anything with romantic connotations should happen exclusively between a man and a woman, and that men should initiate it. This creates a gender imbalance where women's desires don't matter as much and men are supposed to be the "aggressors," and this same logic is often applied to sexual situations as well.
5. Fathers' Screening Of Prom Dates
It's often a custom for a girl's prom date to pick her up and stop inside so that he can meet her parents, which often means being scrutinized by her father. A recent Facebook photo in which a father poses with his daughter's date is overlaid with the words “Whatever you do to my daughter, I will do to you.” This was taken during a similar occasion, homecoming. The implication is, once again, that a girl is corrupted by engaging in sexual behavior. The overprotective father trope also implies that men are by nature out to take advantage of women, so women must be protected. This denies women agency over their own love lives and sex lives and paints them as weak and helpless.