There was a time when asking someone to prom was a delightfully awkward rite of passage. It was an innocent request, made discreetly, and the potential for being refused was an unfortunate but accepted part of the process.
Things are very different now in the US. Boys ask girls to prom in a style that puts marriage proposals to shame. They create elaborate spectacles, often in school, to surprise their intended dates. In the age of smartphones, these are frequently filmed and posted on Facebook and Instagram.
Last year, one of my students staged a contest inspired by the legend of King Arthur. He set up a sword in a stone on the stage in the cafeteria and then challenged his friend to see who could pull it out. Of course, his friend pretended that the sword was stuck. The boy who arranged the stunt then pulled the sword out, revealing a message on the blade for all to see: "Prom". Just as Arthur won the kingdom by pulling the sword from the stone, this boy's prize was asking the girl of his choice to prom in front of the entire cafeteria. She said yes.
This year, a boy flew to Florida to surprise a girl who was on vacation there. Someone yelled that there was a shark in the water, sending the girl running downstairs to see. Instead of a shark, she found her fellow student holding a sign that asked her to prom. She said yes.
But could those girls really have said anything else? Typically, they don't refuse these prom proposals for fear of publicly humiliating the boy - or themselves. However, in two recent examples at my school, the girls did turn down their suitors.
In the first, a girl's ex-boyfriend arranged for the school chorus to sing her a song in the hallway while he stood there with a bouquet of roses. Since she had broken up with him, he knew this public proposal would put her in a tricky situation. She would either have to say yes even though she didn't want to, or say no and risk a public shaming.
She said no. The entire incident was recorded and posted on YouTube, and for several weeks afterwards people posted comments below the clip about how this girl was a "bitch".
Another male student asked a girl to prom in front of a full cafeteria. The girl was completely taken by surprise and declined his offer. A group of his friends began chanting "bitch", which soon spread throughout the crowd of bystanders.
A lose-lose situation for girls
Not only are such incidents traumatizing for the girl in question, they also deter others from saying no in future.
What are we telling our girls about consent by letting these proposals occur on school property and failing to properly deal with the fallout? That saying no means you're a "bitch" if it embarrasses the boy? That women should not have a choice?
In California, a law passed a few years ago requiring universities to adopt an affirmative consent policy - essentially telling students that they should wait for a partner to say yes to sexual activity rather than waiting for a no before stopping. Schools need to give the same message. We need to encourage our teenagers to consent or not consent in a clear and meaningful manner and for that to be respected. We can't do this while public proposals are allowed to continue. They water down the meaning of two very important words: "no" and "yes".
But not only do prom proposals teach our students negative lessons about consent, they also encourage stereotypical and outdated ideas about relationships. Notice how the three examples above all involve boys asking girls. Talking about this to my students, I have yet to hear of a girl asking a boy or a same-sex invitation.
These proposals perpetuate ideas about who can be a couple and who has the control to make decisions in a relationship. I'm worried about what message this is sending to our students.
Responsibility of schools
Schools should take appropriate action against students whose actions have a negative impact on their peers. If young people knew they would be held accountable for how their public proposals affected the school environment, they might think twice about how they carried them out.
But even more important is what schools do to prevent the attitudes that legitimize public proposals and public shaming. We need to involve our students in discussions around issues of consent, gender norms, relationships and power. We need students to challenge each other in open, honest debate, so that everyone can see how these incidents look from a different perspective. Many boys who carry out these proposals think it's what's expected of them and do not foresee the consequences.
Prom should be a time for celebration. Unfortunately, it is instead becoming a way of reinforcing damaging messages about gender and consent.
The writer is a high school teacher on the East Coast of the US.
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