Both Britain and Japan are keen on the fetishisation of a girl’s school uniform. Photo: Ryo FUKAsawa on Flickr, via Creative Commons
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Why I regret dressing up as a sexy schoolgirl

Those who believe the “sexy schoolgirl” to be nothing more than a bit of fun should consider the knock-on effect this sexualisation has on real-life schoolgirls, who are routinely harassed on their way to and from school.

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? 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue