Shoulders, Stomachs, Thighs, Oh My!


art by caeli harman

Trigger Warning: This opinion article discusses issues of sexual harassment and assault




exhibiting unusual or excessive concern with or indulgence in sexual activity. 

“The video game character was exhibited in hypersexual clothing.”




when the word “hypersexual” is attributed to a behavior or product that is not intrinsically sexual. 

“Hank hyper-sexualized Jessie’s shoulder.”


Logically, one could think biased and restricting dress codes that justify what many women can and cannot wear place too much emphasis on the “sexual nature” of women’s clothing.


Although most dress codes do not purposefully list the showing of a woman’s bra straps, stomach, shoulders, or thighs, many use the word “distracting” as the basis in justifying certain dress code violations. This could be stretched to include clothing that is “sexually distracting.”


However, within SASD, the dress code is far from this reality. Reformed in 2019, our dress code specifies that someone cannot be dress coded for revealing their bra straps, and it purposefully fails to mention off-the-shoulder tops, skirts and shorts above the knee, and leggings. Thus, compared to many schools within the U.S. and the Dane County, Stoughton is ahead of its time. 


While this may seem trivial, the psychological and cultural implications of dress coding a woman based on whether her stomach is on display in that crop-top today are monumental. Dress coding like this begins to teach young girls to objectify their own bodies while enlightening everyone else in their vicinity to hyper-sexualize a woman’s body into objects of sexual “temptation.”

art by caeli harman

Thus, a narrative is set in motion that suggests when specific clothing items are worn or particular parts of the body are shown, a woman has intentionally revealed herself in this way to be sexually desirable.


With this can come all sorts of cultural conclusions leading to body or slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and even the “asking for it” narrative.


But our dress code has been mended and these things do not happen within the walls of our school. 




Then why is a group of students whispering behind their hands at a girl walking down the hall in a crop-top, wondering why she had to show her stomach today? Did she want to grab so much attention? And why does a student think as they’re sitting behind a girl with a tank-top, her bra strap unknowingly sliding down her shoulder that, “She must have had a bad home life if she’s that sexually open?”


If a girl wears leggings, “She must have worn them so that people will stare at her butt.” If she wears an off-the shoulder top, “I guess she wanted her shoulders to look alluring.” How about shorts, skirts and dresses above the knee? “She looks like she’s actually inviting someone to have sex with her.”


Furthermore, look back at the sentence used to identify hyper-sexualization in a sentence. 


“Hank hyper-sexualized Jessie’s shoulder.” 


Now change it to:


 “Hank hyper-sexualized Jessie’s shoulder because her bra strap was showing.”


Strange—the shortened version seems more like a fact, something irrefutable. But when a justification is added based on the clothing a woman is wearing, the blame is shifted.


By itself, the shoulder is just that: a joint one uses for a range of motion. However, because Jessie’s bra strap is showing in this scenario, it almost seems understandable that she would be sexualized. Now, the objectification of a woman’s body through their choice of clothes is defensible, the woman blamable.


And for this reason, the dress code is not the problem.


Our perception and justification of the hyper-sexualization surrounding women’s clothing is.

And as a community of a supposed modern and innovative generation, this needs to change.


As women, we need to stop being so overly-critical of each other’s choice in clothing. This comes from a place of fear—that we would be objectified for wearing the clothes “those girls” wear.


It’s time to stop projecting this fear and blaming “those girls” for the bodies that they were born into and have lived in for their entire lives. It is not supposed to be up to them to play goalie, defending their honor.

art by caeli harman

In sexual assault and sexual harassment lawsuits, clothing can be brought up as a line of defense in favor of the assailant. If the judge permits the victim’s manner of dress as relevant to the case, defense attorneys can use this to convince the jury that the sexual advances were consensual or warranted.

“Thus, a narrative is set in motion that suggests when specific clothing items are worn or particular parts of the body are shown, a woman has intentionally revealed herself in this way to be sexually desirable.”  ”

From studies conducted about these “consent defense” cases, juries can be made to believe that the women invited sexual activity because of the clothing that she was wearing. The more “promiscuous” the clothing, the more the jury is likely to side with the defense.


As a result, prosecutors are less likely to pick up cases that would lead to a consent defense case, as they are usually extremely hard to win in the victim’s favor.


As a common rule of thumb: A woman’s manner of dress, regardless of what she is wearing at the time, does not equivalate, in any way, to consent. Consent is when someone voluntarily agrees to do something, and it is an act of reason and deliberation. This agreement is verbal, and can change at any moment, if and when this agreement is broken.


A woman can not reasonably agree to sexual advancement if she is impaired in any way, be that due to influence of alcohol, drugs, injury, disability, or anything else that would legally prevent consent. Whether she is your prom date in heels or your close friend in a skater skirt, clothing does not give the permission needed for consent.


And for those that whisper comments behind cupped hands that tear down confidence and feed shame— although it may seem courteous when privacy is given to whatever “complaint” is shared between friends, the space created inside this bubble of gossip is almost as poisonous as the toxicity dripping from their tongues.


Not only is the fear of objectification soaking into the skin of every girl in the vicinity, but with one simple sentence, our toleration and acceptance of hyper-sexualization grows.


Do not support this. When venomous speech seeks to nourish this problem, cut through it by complimenting the targeted girl saying. “Oh, I don’t know, she looks really comfortable in those leggings” or, “I think that top really suits her.” By counteracting speech that is made to tear down, we can build towers, bridges, and whole communities with just a simple remark.


And for those that need to hear it: women do not wear clothing solely for the viewer’s enjoyment. It has been said before, but still the sexualization is perpetuated. Leggings are just leggings, a dress is just a dress; clothing is worn for comfort, fashion, and for a way women can feel good about the body they were born into.


A stomach is just a stomach, thighs are just thighs, shoulders bare or covered are just shoulders— they function and feel like any other body. Revealing them is not a summons for critical remarks or unwanted advances. 


So stop making it sexual. 


It isn’t. 


Helpful resources: 

Is Clothing Probative Attitude or Intent? Implications for Rape and Sexual Harassment Cases: 

Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson: 

Decision Making in Sexual Assualt Cases: Replication Research on Sexual Violence Case Attrition in the U.S.: 

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