Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

The Prom Date Draft in The OC: Why We Should All Care

"The Traffic in Women" still happening every day in many ways in the U.S.

The L.A. Times recently reported on an NFL-style draft for prom dates that happened at the Corona del Mar high school in Newport Beach, a town that was launched into the national spotlight in 2003 with the television show, The. O.C.. Sadly, it appears as if the TV version of life in Orange County was kindler and gentler than the reality. Reportedly, over 60 male students participated in a draft to select prom dates, with some students stating that money exchanged hands to get higher draft numbers. Many students defended the practice saying it was designed to avoid conflict for dates; however, there are several significant problems that have not been noted yet in current media coverage of the story. As a former high school teacher and author of: Gender, bullying, and harassment: Strategies to end sexism and homophobia in schools, there are many facts about this case that I find troubling.

  1. First, It treats women as commodities: by holding a ‘draft’ for prom dates, that most students reportedly ‘respect’, it teaches young women that they are a commodity whose value and worth is determined and negotiated by men. Gayle Rubin made this point in her 1975 essay “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex” when she outlined the sex/gender system that structured women’s lives. She reminds us, "Women are given in marriages, taken in battle, exchanged for favors, sent as tribute, traded, bought and sold” and points out that, "As long as the relations specify that men exchange women, it is men who are the beneficiaries of the product of such exchanges -- social organization."
  2. Second, It objectifies and ranks women: The students claim that there was no ranking of the girls and any girl could be ‘drafted’, however when men are paying for higher draft numbers to ensure they gain the ‘right’ to “prompose” to a highly desirable girl, then a clear ranking system emerges. Those who are drafted earliest, like in the NFL draft, are seen to be as the most desirable. Her value only emerges as a result of the competition between men for her attentions, resulting from her perceived heterosexual desirability.This desirability is usually framed around a narrow ideal of femininity (long hair, light skin, skinny waist, into fashion, etc.) and teaches girls who don't fit that mold that they are somehow value-less. It teaches girls to derive their own value from how others perceive them rather than based on their own skills and accomplishments.
  3. It demonstrates the dangerous naiveté of unearned privilege: These young men are a part of the U.S. elite. They are overwhelming white, wealthy, I'm assuming able-bodied, and from highly educated and influential families. They are engaging in a ritual -- prom -- that celebrates heterosexual relationships. This level of privilege has taught them that, as white, straight, upper class men,  they only need to decide between each other, their "peers", how things are going to go, and then everyone else around them will get in line. This does not bode well for their future girlfriends, spouses, employees, and community members. I went to and worked in high schools that educate the children "one percenters". Many of these students are intellectually gifted and feel an obligation to use their resources and access to power and influence to better serve society. Sadly, the young men participating in this draft don’t indicate that they have developed this social consciousness. I try to remind my students of one of my favorite quotes from Spiderman, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Somewhere along the way, these students never got this lesson.
  4. It reflects a culture of masculine dominance and sexism. The fact that the students at the school ‘respect’ this process and all follow it illustrate that this community is so steeped in a culture of masculine dominance and sexism that they don’t see anything wrong with the ‘draft’. Jackson Katz’s film Tough Guise, does an excellent job pointing out how the media help construct unrealistic versions of masculinity. In my own research, I explain how anti-bullying programs are destined to fail unless they explicitly address the mixed messages we send our youth about gender roles.When we allow unchecked sexism to prevail, we teach young men that their desires are most important and that young women just need to be happy when they get picked. It strips women of their agency and grooms them to be Stepford wives at best, and victims of sexual harassment and assault at worst. One female student defended the practice saying that the girls can still say “no.” However, if a girl wants to have a male escort to the dance and she turns down the one guy who selected her in the draft, what options are left for her?
  5. Finally, the argument of 'male bonding' is flawed. One participant was quoted that it was in the spirit of ‘sportsmanship’ and ‘camaraderie’ that they created the draft, and it was a ‘fun thing to do with the guys’. These are similar to the ways some men have spoken about their involvement in hazing and gang activities. It may build a bond between the guys, but it reinforces a dominant attitude toward women. I get it. Prom is a big deal, but rather than having a draft to select your dates, gentlemen, try proving to your intended date that you are worthy of her attentions. My nephew spent a Saturday afternoon making chocolate-dipped strawberries and wrote “Prom?” on them before hand-delivering them to his intended date. Although it still follows the patriarchal norm of the man doing the asking and the woman the waiting, there is at least a demonstration of respect and appreciation for the young woman’s preferences here. Her choices haven’t been foreclosed by a system organized and governed by men.

Strawberries with
My nephew's "promposal"
I gotta hand it to the principal. She tried to be proactive and discourage the ‘draft’ by sending a letter out to the school community and encouraging parents to discuss this with their children. A school board member is also calling for ‘ethics training’ for the whole school. I applaud these adults who are trying to provide some guidance for these over-privileged students and better prepare them to be conscientious adults. However, a larger response is needed. This is still a quiet, local story, and I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more uproar in the media. What this says is that the rest of us expect such behaviors, and until we tell our youth that we find these acts as reprehensible as Sterling’s racist remarks, or the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls, then we will continue to perpetuate a sexist world where men make all the decisions and women cross their fingers and hope for the best.

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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