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“Tell the class what prostitutes wear”: Growing up in a “classless” society

July 14, 2011

A Toronto cop got in big, world-wide trouble earlier this year.

He advised female university students that if they stopped dressing “like sluts,” they could avoid being raped. His suggestion prompted the first “Slut Walk” protest. Those marches have since been held around the world.

I was as disgusted by this Crime Prevention Officer’s off-the-cuff remarks as any normal person.

But my rancor goes deeper. In fact, the cop’s comments took me back several decades, to high school, to an incident that still stings.

    Natural Wonders

Niagara Falls in the 1970s was a tough place to grow up. My neighbourhood had more than its share of edginess. I heard the area described once as “Nothing but guns, hookers and drugs,” which sounds harsh but cannot be seriously disputed.

My high school had a few overachievers, but the vast majority of us were told to plan on working in restaurants and factories after graduation. Drugs were rampant. The odd gun was pulled at a dance. Knife fights were not uncommon.

I’d decided to transfer for Grade 11, to a school straight across the city. Its catchment area included the wealthiest of Niagara’s privileged teens.

What I was thinking?

That attending a “better” school, with fewer drugs and higher academic standards, would give me a chance at a decent life, push me in the right direction and give me a reason to keep up my grades.

After all, this was a publicly funded Ontario school. Officially, each school was equal, and each student had equal access to universally well-qualified instructors and sufficient resources. Differences were simple happenstance.

    Who Let You In?

I didn’t expect a hero’s welcome at the school. But I was unprepared for the outright hostility I endured, from the principal, teachers and students.

Perhaps it was fear that being poor may be contagious. Or that I represented the leading edge of inner-city invaders bent on importing drugs, bad manners and poor nutrition to their sheltered enclave.

Whatever the reason, they did really shitty things to me at that place, trying to convince me to “go back where I belong,” back across many sets of railroad tracks, fast-food restaurants and tacky museums.

What the school did not count on was my tenacity, and they sure as hell did not count on my innate sense of justice. Although I was outnumbered and outclassed, I was determined to make it through at least one school year.

    Some Are More Equal Than Others

The teacher who gave me the worst time was the Social Studies teacher. The same woman who made us read texts about how Canada is a leader in social equality, made snide comments directed at me, and at the low class I represented.

Clothed in earnest new-teacher pastels, she relished working in jibes about poor people. Her weapon of choice: newspaper articles.

Her clippings generated class discussions that inevitably turned on how shiftless, dishonest and unworthy poor people are. The last of these came in mid-June, with just a couple of weeks left in the school year.

In a not-unprecedented decision, a judge had found a rapist not guilty, based on the clothing choice of his victim. She was, allegedly, dressed like a slut. Allowing herself to be mistaken for a prostitute, she had “asked for it,” in the judge’s learned and immediately controversial opinion.

What did this decision mean for Canadian society? Can women wear whatever they want, or should they strive not to look like prostitutes, especially if they live in an area where prostitutes work?

“Well, what do prostitutes dress like?” one boy asked. “How would I know if I saw one when I was downtown?”

Downtown. Some of these students had never been downtown. The ones who had, had gone there solely to buy dope, then scurry back to their wood-panelled rec rooms.

A block or so of the downtown core was given over to hookers. A few worked out of motels and houses in the same discrete area. Everyone knew this. Everyone knew where to go for hookers and drugs.

    Hey Kid, You Wanna Make Some Money?

That didn’t stop men in big cars from approaching me and my friends, offering money for sex. The first time it happened to me, I was 11 and on my way to school.

There’s something soul-destroying about men looking lustily at a child the same way they’d look at a hunk of meat in a butcher’s window. It was a daily routine, dodging these suit-and-tie jerks and their twenty-dollar bills.

We knew where these guys came from, just like they knew where the pros worked. They just wanted discounts from novices. Besides, that’s what lower-class women are for. It’s the natural order of things in our “classless society.”

    You Must Be An Expert

“Well, Elizabeth lives downtown,” the teacher declared. “Tell the class what prostitutes wear, Elizabeth.”

Smug, smirking eyes turned on me.

I averred that I lived miles from where the hookers are. It’s not my neighbourhood. How should I know what prostitutes wear? Ask someone else.

The teacher would have none of it.

“But your school is in that neighbourhood,” she insisted, eyes wide with ersatz incredulity. “You must see them every day. You must know what they wear. They’re right in your end of the city.”

This went on and on, her playing up to the giggling leaders of tomorrow. “Tell the class what prostitutes wear, Elizabeth.”

Privileged chortles were caught short by my sudden, strong retort: “If you want to know what prostitutes look like,” I blurted out, “You should ask your husband.”

Taking in my stunned classmates, I added, “And the fathers of some of the kids in this class. They’re the ones who go looking for hookers, so they must know how they dress.”

The teacher gasped, but stood red-faced and silent as I gathered my books and marched up the aisle. Shock? Anger? Shame?

“You bitch,” one girl jeered at me. I could hear other kids, whispering earnestly, “Did you hear what she said?”

I waited two days for the familiar call to the principal’s office, but it never came. No need to make it official; I would not be back in the fall.


Related posts:
Tourists Say the Darndest Things
What’s the Difference? Socialist/Socialite


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Aastha Lalit permalink
    November 1, 2013 9:00 pm

    That was a very good response to the teacher! But its so disheartening to see, that in such a modern and open minded society,in a developed western country a Social Science teacher would do something like this…

  2. Diana James permalink
    March 8, 2012 9:20 pm


  3. July 25, 2011 1:09 pm

    Love it! You’re my kind of people.

    • July 25, 2011 2:14 pm

      Thanks. I hope you enjoy the blog! I love your idea of a photo a day. The experience shows, judging by your shots. I hope to see the Okanagan again soon. Cheers, have a great summer!

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