It’s not often you see Carlow in the news, so when I saw it trending on Twitter the other day, I raised an eyebrow and thought to myself, hmm, either they’re after getting electricity there, or someone’s after creating a terrible scandal. Then I thought about Saoirse Ronan, Carlow’s most famous export; maybe it’s something she’s done. Has she rowed back on her preference for Tayto crisps over the superior Walkers? (Somebody has to say it, and if Saoirse doesn’t, I will. Tayto are shite.)
As it turns out, the reason folks were carping about Carlow was actually far more interesting. And it had nothing to do with Hollywood, Mr. Tayto, or the ESB. No, it was quite the opposite; a small-town scandal – the type that gets everybody’s knickers in a twist. But let’s not talk about knickers, as to do so would be unseemly according to the good people of Carlow. The focus of all the attention has been a school whose staff allegedly warned its female students not to wear tight clothing to PE (Physical Education) as it might distract the male staff members. (Distract being a euphemism for sexually arouse). Anyway, relax, please, there are no pedophile teachers in this case. The journalists who broke the story were misinformed thanks to Facebook – not a reliable source – and one has since deleted tweets she made relating to the incident. But the damage was done.
The resulting outcry produced enough steam to power a small train. The hot takes included: “Those teachers are body-shaming young girls,” “Those male teachers are pedos if they’re aroused by the bodies of teenage girls,” “Those girls shouldn’t be wearing tight clothes anyway,” “Why are we sexualising children?”, “What about the women teachers and the boys?” “Boys don’t wear tight clothes”, “What about the lesbian teachers and the gay teachers?” “Is it any wonder girls feel discouraged from playing sport if their bodies are policed in this manner?” “We are promoting shame in young women and their perception of their bodies,” and “THOSE TEACHERS ARE PEDOS!!”
On and on it went; millions of opinions squeaking into the void like the tired axles of a locomotive. And most of them were expressed as dodgily as that metaphor I’ve just used. Some have expressed concern that the teachers’ side of the story was not told, but I’m more interested in the drama and how it was created – because it was created. A storm in a tea cup, that was all about making everyone feel good about themselves for loudly denouncing some (innocent) teachers in Carlow, who, as it turns out, probably didn’t even say the girls’ clothes were making them uncomfortable, as pedophiles.
Ever since all that business with the Catholic Church and Jimmy Savile & co., pedophilia has become the standard allegation for one group to smear another with. Extremists love calling people they disagree with “pedo scum.” It could be argued that the allegation has lost its meaning. But not only is pedophilia a very serious crime, it is also one of modern society’s few taboo subjects. Sexual attraction to children is taboo, and acting on this is a crime, which is precisely why it is such a powerfully insidious accusation to falsely throw at someone. The Carlow controversy has nothing to do with pedophilia and everything to do with moral panic and people jumping to conclusions based on social media reporting. Twitter is not a court, and our instinctive responses to taboo subjects are not judge, jury, and executioner.
One could definitely accuse the school of being clumsy with their messaging, but to be fair, they never imagined this would be all over the news. All they did was hold an assembly telling students to wear their uniform instead of leggings. When I was a teenage girl, I got rebuked for wearing a scarf that was not part of my uniform by my secondary school principal. If she had asked me why I was wearing the scarf, I might have told her that the school was so fucking cold I could hardly feel my fingers most days. But she didn’t ask because she didn’t care, just like the teachers in Carlow probably don’t care that, for a lot of girls, leggings are more comfortable than big, flappy tracksuit pants.
I wear leggings almost every day of my life; they are comfortable, elasticated, and they look “respectable” (enough for your Ma, like) if you cover the arse of them. The problem is that lots of people don’t cover their arse when they wear leggings, and, because leggings are very tight, everything you have can be seen. That doesn’t mean that people have to look, however. If you’ve got an arse like Kim Kardashian, you’re going to want to show it off – of course you are. Without going into too much detail – this is a family blog – my arse is actually concave, so it looks pathetic if I don’t cover it when I wear leggings, and that’s why I cover it. It has to with self-expression and personal choice, and whether a person likes tight clothes or loose clothes is none of anybody’s business.
The thing is, however, nobody really cares when boys and men wear tight clothes. There’s no moral panic at inches of flesh on display or semi-exposed appendages peeping out innocently from behind strategically designed pieces of fabric. What men wear is not policed as strictly as what women wear. Ironically, a woman in a revealing outfit – one in which you see more than her elbows and knees – is seen as a threat or a trap to men. Some people think that men are incapable of seeing someone they’re attracted to and having a normal, non-savage-caveman response. That’s an oversimplification that’s insulting to everyone.
The best way to avoid confusion, miscommunications, storms in teacups involving schools, moral panics involving social media, and, most importantly of all, stupid controversies over what teenage girls wear or don’t wear is to talk to your kids. If a child reaches double figures and doesn’t know the basics about sex, there’s something amiss somewhere. Most kids have to figure out for themselves that although we are an advanced intelligent society, we are still descended from apes, and we have primal urges which we have to be taught to manage or ignore in order to fit into “polite” society. Social media complicates things further – there are all breeds lurking there. I feel very sorry for teenagers growing up nowadays. I managed to escape all social media until I was eighteen, but these days it is a constant Orwellian presence in the lives of children who partake in it – often while not fully understanding its power. Teenage girls behave like legal, grown women because nobody has told them in terms they understand that they don’t have to – but you can bet the people selling tight leggings have told them they do. Who can blame girls for getting confused when their appearance suddenly causes Mammy and Múinteoir to get a dose of the vapours? Why are we shocked when it is revealed that naked pictures of underage girls have been circulated on the internet by leakers? That’s how girls think relationships work; a boy asks for a picture and they strip, snap, and send. And there’s no point blaming teenage boys – they aren’t taught properly either. Nobody says “Don’t watch pornography because you’re an eleven-year-old child, and it’s unwise for you to freak yourself out learning theory when you haven’t done the practical”.
Some people are happy enough to let teenagers do whatever they want sexually, as long as they’re “safe.” And that’s all very well, and nice and liberal if everybody respects each other, but adults need protecting too. In a society in which pedophilia is the ultimate taboo, even looking at someone under eighteen can be enough to get you “cancelled.” Of course, the problem is that a fourteen-year-old can easily pass for nineteen or twenty if she wears enough make-up and dresses strategically. You don’t need a brilliant imagination to realise that in that scenario, the girls actually are a trap – for themselves and others – because it’s impossible to know what age they are. I’m always reading about women my age who earnestly claim they were taken advantage of by “men” when they were teenagers – ie. They had consensual sex with somebody around their age when they were too young, and now they wonder why “all men are trash.” All men aren’t trash, your parents are cowards who didn’t sit you down and teach you how this stuff works, and it’s a minefield. A minefield that no teenager should be expected to negotiate without guidance. Calling people who are often barely over eighteen themselves “pedos” for having sex with supposedly advanced sixteen-year-olds does not help rectify the situation. It just reinforces the moral panic and ensures that nobody will ever be brave enough to tackle these anxieties our so-called liberal society has around teenagers and sex.
As the daughter of a teacher, it is no surprise to me that it was the parents who were responsible for creating this hullabaloo in the first place. Parents are idiots, and they will do anything to blame teachers and schools for trying to do what they as parents are neglecting. Perhaps instead of posting angry diatribes on Facebook, parents could actually try talking seriously to their children about this stuff. Whatever discomfort they may feel about talking to their son or daughter about sex is nothing compared to the horror of being falsely accused of pedophilia.