Three Fallacies in the “Dress Code Debates”

There have been a lot of news stories recently about students in middle schoolhigh school, and even college,protesting dress codes that they say are sexist and discriminate against women.

However, as I read the articles about these incidents I noticed three common fallacies, or errors in reasoning, when it comes to modesty and the need for dress codes.

Either/Or Fallacy

Also called “the fallacy of the false dilemma,” it occurs when only two solutions for a problem are presented while other solutions are neglected or excluded.

When it comes to the distraction caused by immodest dress, this fallacy occurs when one side only supports what they think is the common sense solution – tell the female students to stop dressing immodestly so that no one is distracted. The other side then fires back with their only solution, which I have to admit, is a catchy slogan,

“Don’t tell girls what to wear, teach the boys not to stare!”

These critics say that schools should be teaching young men to not objectify their female classmates regardless of what they are wearing. They say it is sexist to place the burden of keeping men from being distracted solely on women’s uncovered shoulders.

And they’re right.

Schools should be teaching all of their students to not objectify their classmates. “Custody of the eyes” is just as important as dressing modestly. But just because schools should be teaching “custody of the eyes” it does not follow that they should not teach the virtue of modesty as well.

Just as it’s possible to turn a person into an object by staring at them, it’s possible to turn oneself into an object by accentuating the body's sexual features through immodest dress. There's no reason that schools can't teach both respecting oneself through proper dress and respecting others by not leering at them.[1]

Continuum Fallacy

The continuum fallacy occurs when a person claims that because a dividing point along a continuum cannot be exactly located, it follows that there is no dividing point at all. This is also called the fallacy of the beard, or the erroneous idea that because there is no objective dividing point between having stubble and having a beard, it follows that there is no way to tell if anyone has a beard.

So how does this fallacy factor into the dress code debate?

It happens when dress code critics cite stories about overly conservative dress codes in order to make all dress codes look ridiculous. A favorite recent example is a school in Utah that used Photoshop to raise student’s necklines and cover their shoulders in yearbook photos that were fairly tame by our culture's standards.

The critics then say,

“How do we define ‘appropriate dress?’ Do skirts have to be one, two, or three fingers above the knee? How wide is the archetypal ‘finger?’ Is one centimeter of flesh under a collarbone immodest? Since we can’t draw a line we should simply not judge what people choose to wear.”

Certainly, there is no precise dividing line between dress that is immodest and dress that is modest. But just as the lack of a precise difference between stubble and beards does not hinder my ability to say someone has a beard, the lack of a precise difference between modest and immodest does not hinder my ability to identify immodest dress. To paraphrase the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.”

In all the critiques of dress codes I’ve read, I’ve yet to find an alternative solution that appeases the critics without allowing for what is obviously inappropriate dress within the academic environment (or any public place for that matter).

Is admonishing a boy for wearing a speedo or a girl for wearing a bikini top to school a case of “inappropriately sexualizing them” and “shaming their bodies?” Or is it just plain common sense that some displays of the body aren’t appropriate in public because the body has sexual elements?

Just because there may be cases where we disagree on what is or isn’t appropriate attire, it doesn’t follow that there aren’t clear inappropriate cases that justify having dress codes in the first place. Here are some easy examples:

  • If your pants are so short that your buttocks are sliding out of them, then you are dressing immodestly.
  • If your pants are hanging around your thighs, then they have ceased performing their essential function as pants and you are dressing immodestly.
  • If your clothes are so tight that they can be mistaken for body paint, then you are dressing immodestly.
  • If your shirt or top is cut in such a way that in the course of normal movement it appears that you are no longer wearing said shirt or top, then you are dressing immodestly.

 

Fallacy of Consequence

This fallacy occurs when someone says that because a law affects only a certain group of people, then the law must be unjust. Now, the law could be unjust if it only affects a certain group of people (such as laws prohibiting a certain race from voting), but that does not automatically prove the law is unjust.

For example, many critics say that because the vast majority of dress code violations occur among women, it follows that dress codes unfairly target women are therefore sexist and should be repealed.

But that conclusion simply doesn’t follow.

After all, the vast majority of people who commit sexual assault are men, but that fact alone doesn’t prove laws that prohibit sexual assault unfairly target men. It only proves that men are more likely to commit that kind of crime.

Likewise, just because in some schools women are more likely to violate the aspects of dress codes that deal with covering body parts (while boys may be more likely to violate that parts that deal with offensive clothing), it doesn’t prove that those aspects of the dress code are sexist. It would be sexist if the dress code said that boys could wear short-shorts and expose their midriffs and the girls could not.

In fact, the school in Utah I mentioned earlier that edited its student's yearbook photos has been criticized because it allowed boys to appear in the yearbook wearing unbuttoned clothes that exposed their chests.

Conclusions

The responsibility to teach the value and dignity of every person belongs to all men and women. Men and women should not objectify one another or use another person as a means to fulfill their sexual pleasure (even if the pleasure is purely mental). Men and women should also dress modestly so that they don’t unnecessarily arouse sexual feelings in other people.

This isn’t a condemnation of the body (either female or male), but recognition that the human form is beautiful and instills powerful feelings within other people --- feelings that students shouldn’t have to unnecessarily struggle with while trying to figure out what the quadratic equation is.

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[1] At this point some dress code critics fire back with an extremely warped post-modern view of the human person. Essentially, they say that a person can only be sexualized in the eyes of others and how we dress has nothing to do with our sexuality. But the human body is not a bland “neutral” object. It is a wonderful expression of the human person. 

One of the things it expresses is our sexuality, which is not just an attitude we “attach” to our daily choices, but a part of our very being. The human body is not “neutral” but has sexual elements that are acceptable to display in some contexts (such as the bedroom) and not acceptable in other contexts (such as the boardroom or the classroom).

Granted, some of what is and isn’t sexual may vary based on culture (e.g. in some African and Pacific Island tribes openly displaying breasts is not considered immodest). But just as the fact that etiquette varies between cultures does not justify being rude in any culture, the fact that standards of modesty vary between cultures does not justify dressing immodestly in any culture.

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After his conversion to the Catholic faith, Trent Horn pursued an undergraduate degree in history from Arizona State University. He then earned a graduate degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy from Holy Apostles College.

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