Is it ever okay to strip-search a student? The SCOTUS is hearing arguments on this, and if so, under what limitations. Justice Stephen Breyer – normally a good ally to liberals – managed to trivialize the issue in a dudely way, and both Historiann and Amanda Marcotte are taking him to task for it. Historiann writes:
Nina Totenberg’s report on All Things Considered last night on the “strip search” case heard yesterday at the Supreme Court is the only news report I can find that notes that lone woman Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was on her own at one point in the hearing:
At this point in the argument, a gender difference reared its head. Justice Breyer suggested that it’s no big deal when kids strip–after all, they do it for gym class all the time. Savana Redding didn’t reveal her body beyond her underclothes, said Breyer. Justice Ginsburg, the court’s only female justice, bristled. Her eyes flashing with anger, she noted that there’s no dispute that Savannah was required to shake out her bra and the crotch of her panties. Ginsburg seemed to all but shout, “boys may like to preen in the locker room but girls, particularly teenaged girls, do not.” …
The New York Times report, written by Adam Liptak, omits mentioning that Ginsburg was even in the room yesterday, and instead emphasizes this comment by “even the liberal” Justice Stephen Breyer:
Justice Breyer elaborated on what children put in their underwear. “In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day,” he said. “We changed for gym, O.K.? And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear.”
Ha-ha! Strip-searching middle-school girls is funny! (Unless you’re a middle-school girl, but if you are, you don’t vote so we don’t care about violating your Fourth Amendment rights.)
You bet it’s appalling when our supposed allies sell us out. That’s sure what Breyer appeared to be doing. There’s also a special level of prurience, and one hopes a special circle in hell, reserved for those who sexually humiliate a schoolgirl. (Redding was 13 at the time of the incident.) And let’s be clear: Strip searches are always a form of sexual humiliation.
Stepping back just a moment from the issue’s gendered dimensions, I assume we can all agree that strip searches in public schools are a violation of the kids’ rights – full stop. Nothing short of a life-and death situation justifies stripping a kid of her clothes, rights, and dignity. Metal detectors will pick up weapons. Unless there’s a clear and present danger of a kid secreting plastic explosives on his person, there’s just no fucking excuse (and then the principal had better call the cops anyway). Redding was falsely accused of carrying prescription ibuprofen; I’ve taken a lot of that stuff and it hasn’t exploded yet.
Historiann and Amanda are surely right that Justice Ginsburg is a lonely voice, and that we can’t trust a nearly all-male court to protect women’s interests. They’re right, too, that girls are generally vulnerable in ways that boys aren’t – not least, because teenage girls are sexualized in our culture to a much greater extent than boys. Girls are also more likely to be sexually harassed or molested, but truth be told, boys are also at very high risk.
In Ohio, schools have conducted strip searches for contraband as minor as cigarettes. In a case the ACLU just won against the Bucyrus School District, all but one of the students were boys. They weren’t treated any better than Redding, and they don’t seem to have regarded the experience as a boys-will-be-boys lark. Here’s how the ACLU describes the kids’ ordeal:
The case stemmed from an April 17, 2008 search at Bucyrus Middle School. Prior to the start of the school day, a group of students congregated in an alley across the street from the school. Some of the students in the alley were smoking cigarettes. The school principal came upon the students, some of whom ran onto the school grounds and mixed in with others. The principal pulled a group of students inside, including some who had been in the alley and some who had not.
Staff members brought each of the male students into an office, made them turn out their pockets, patted them down and made them to drop their pants so they could check for tobacco products. A staff member also ran his finger around the waistbands inside the boys’ underwear. Staff then took a female student into an office and forced her to lift her shirt up and patted her down. No cigarettes were found. The female student also reported being strip searched again at an after school event several months later.
You can’t tell me these boys were preening! You can’t convince me they were joking around in the locker room!
What’s at stake here is bodily integrity and autonomy. We feminists fight for these rights for girls. We need to insist on the same rights for boys. And we have to acknowledge the very real humiliation when a boy’s bodily integrity is violated. Amanda writes:
Feminists can immediately see what’s going on, as we’re more than a little attuned to the way that authoritarian pigs have more than a little bit of the sexually sadistic streak that means they look for every opportunity to humiliate teenage girls with nudity. …
One wonders if a boy had been required to pull his penis out of his underwear and shake it in front of the teacher if that would have seemed different than the practice of using public urinals to Breyer. I think it’s quite likely.
Sure. But it’s really, really not just girls who are being targeted in these searches. In the Bucyrus case, “authoritarian pigs” showed their “sexually sadistic streak,” but they didn’t limit the humiliation to boys. We don’t know why the girl was picked on a second time (but oh, my prurience meter is flashing). No matter what, her double ordeal doesn’t neutralize what happened to the boys. A trusted adult actually reached into their underwear. The boys were forced to drop their pants. None of this is hypothetical.
I’m guessing Breyer and the other justices were probably briefed on the Ohio cases; if so, that makes his comment more brutish, not less.
A patriarchal approach to power regards young boys as property, just as much as young girls. It disrespects them completely as autonomous persons. Think of the way the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints deal with “their” young people: they rape marry the girls and exile most of the boys. The FLDS church represents one model of how a pure patriarchy harms all but the ruling patriarchs. In a rump patriarchy like ours – better described as a kyriarchy, in my view – a few boys are groomed to become the next patriarchs, while the rest are brought up to be peons, not rulers. Humiliation is a central tactic in creating this distinction.
Schools are funny little universes unto themselves. Sometimes the leadership loses its moorings and claims absolute power for itself. When that happens, it’s not surprising that the petty dictators also anoint themselves petty patriarchs.
It’s not crying “what about the menz?” to note that kyriarchy can hurt boys just as seriously as girls, and sometimes in very similar ways. We wouldn’t excuse sexual assault just because the victim was a boy. Here, too, we need a feminist lens that’s broad and sharp enough to see that Breyer’s sexism hurts both boys and girls.