Growing up, we listened to a lot of blues and rock and roll in our house, but there was always one particular song that my mother always told me that she hated. “Good morning little schoolgirl,” it goes, “can I go home with you? Tell your mama and your daddy, that I’m a little schoolboy too.” Regardless of the era in which it was made, it’s hard to view the song’s lyrics as anything other than flesh-crawlingly creepy, and not just because it was covered by the Grateful Dead and the thought of Jerry Garcia dressed incognito as a schoolboy truly is the stuff of nightmares.
I thought of “Good morning little schoolgirl”, somewhat appropriately, this very morning, when I saw that American Apparel had produced a “Back to School” range of miniskirts modelled in poses that would not look amiss on YouJizz. The classic school skirt-riding up to reveal bare buttocks is nothing if not ubiquitous in internet pornography, and “teen porn” is one of the most popular search terms there is. In light of this it’s difficult to conclude that this kind of imagery does not feed in to a sexualised culture involving ‘barely legal’ babes of indeterminate age, whose youthful resemblance to underage girls is capitalised upon by the porn industry. “Your first assignment is to dress accordingly”, the American Apparel lookbook informs us, sounding very much like the kinky headteacher from a Black Lace novel. I’m surprised they didn’t opt to add that any deviations from the dress code would be punished with a vigorous spanking, because you’ve been a very naughty girl, etc, etc.
American Apparel has, naturally, come under fire for its sexist advertising for some time now, and while, like many feminists I cheered its advocacy of the full bush, many of the ways in which the company chooses to depict women unnerves me, not least because the schoolgirl trope is something that I bought into myself. At university, I attended many a “school disco” night, where myself and my friends would dress up in knee-high socks and miniskirts, complete with drawn on freckles and pigtails, in full-knowledge of the sexual connotations. I feel embarrassed by it now, and should probably detag myself from the photographic evidence residing in the deepest depths of my Facebook, but at the time the act of dressing up like little girls seemed like just a bit of fun, a nostalgia trip back to our schooldays. But if I’m honest with myself, the nostalgia argument just doesn’t really wash. When I was at the age that I was attending school discos, I never snogged another girl in the knowledge that it would turn the guys on. I never snogged anyone, in fact, and my outfit mostly involved tie-dye.
Britney Spears notwithstanding, the fetishisation of a girl’s school uniform is a peculiarly British phenomenon (though Japan, where school uniforms are also the norm, also has much to answer for). I’ll never forget a French friend returning from a weekend visiting a British university with a stunned look on his face. “The girls…they all dress up as schoolgirls. For fun,” he said, as though he could barely believe his luck. But those who believe the “sexy schoolgirl” to be nothing more than a bit of fun should perhaps consider the knock-on effect this has on real-life schoolgirls, who use Twitter accounts like @EverydaySexism in their droves to report sexual harassment they receive from men on their way to and from school. I hate the idea that, in sexualising the school uniform, I may have contributed to this kind of culture, a culture I began to understand in my early teens. As thirteen year olds, my friends and I would go into internet chatrooms and talk to “boys”, boys who I’m convinced were pretty much all actually dirty old men. “What are you wearing?” they would ask. “Are you wearing your school uniform?”
This power we seemed to have over these strangers confused and titillated us. That these men should find our school uniforms arousing was accepted at face value, although I’m sure the school uniforms they imagined were a far cry from the reality (marigold yellow polo shirt, polyester sweatshirt, kickers). Nevertheless, we knew on some level that being a schoolgirl had currency. Not consciously, I should add, but we’d been warned enough about talking to strangers to know that our corruptible innocence was tempting to some. The friend of a girl at school had shagged a member of staff who had asked her to call him “teacher”. We’d all heard the term “jailbait”.
As with any form of sexism, things often become clearer when you question whether or not the boys are doing it too, and you only have to imagine an orderly line of adult males bent over in little short shorts, Just William caps and with drawn on freckles on their noses to expose the disturbing place from which the sexual fetishisation of schoolchildren originates. In light of a swathe of revelations and school abuse scandals, most recently that of Highgate Wood school in north London, it’s strange that the tradition of the adult school disco continues. It’s something that very much seems to belong in another place and time, a time that was home to this permissive, 1970s morality we are hearing so much about in the fallout from Operation Yewtree. A time of dolly birds and magician’s assistants, when the age of consent didn’t seem to bother anyone, and rock stars slept with fourteen year olds. But it certainly does not belong in 2014, in a country paralysed by a terror of paedophiles but in which adult women are encouraged to become complicit in the sexualisation of schoolchildren by channelling them through costume. If anything exposes our neurotic attitude to underage sex, then surely this is it. Isn’t it time we put the little schoolgirl to bed once and for all?