Horny dads at a prom: Too juicy to get the whole story

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Let’s talk about Clare, the homeschooled teenager in Richmond, Va., who was thrown out of a prom because of her dress. The facts are …

Well, actually, we don’t know many of the facts, whatever you may have read in “news” accounts. Nearly all of them are based purely on her blogging rant about the flap.

In one of the most shameful abuses of social media ever, story after story takes as gospel truth how the girl conformed to the dance dress code, yet was thrown out by horny dads and intolerant chaperones. Even The Telegraph in London had to get in on the act, from across the Atlantic.

The Telegraph’s may be the cheapest, most garish version:

A teenager in America says she was forced to leave her prom after fathers complained that their children would experience “impure thoughts” towards her.

The fathers, who were acting as chaperones at the dance, complained that she was dancing provocatively and her skirt was too short.

Clare Ettinger from Virginia, described how her dress was checked to see it met the dress code requirement of being longer than the fingertips when her arms were by her side.

However despite meeting the requirement a female chaperone told her to keep her dress “pulled down” down so it didn’t look too short.

She then gets told by a female chaperone that “some of the fathers had complained that her dancing was too provocative, and that she would cause the men at the prom to think impure thoughts,” the Telegraph says. Clare says she felt “violated,” that it was “sick and wrong,” and she wants ticket refunds for herself, her date and the friends who came with her.

The Telegraph then contacted the school authorities and the prom chaperones for their side. No, sorry, I mean they didn’t call anyone. They quoted no one but Clare — effectively lowering news to the level of gossip.


Not that most other media did better. In many cases, the very headlines were tainted.

“Virginia teen: I was booted from prom because male chaperones checked me out,” says one of the milder headlines in the New York Daily News.

“Teen Is Kicked Out Of A High School Prom Because The FATHERS Couldn’t Control Their Impure Thoughts!”, rages Perez Hilton.

“Teen Girl Ejected From Prom Because Horny Dads Can’t Stop Staring,” reports the aptly named Gawker.

“This Girl Was Kicked Out of Her Prom for Dancing Provocatively, Blames Creepy ‘Ogling’ Chaperone Dads,” says E! Online.

“‘Christian’ Homeschool Dads Get Girl Kicked Out Of Prom Because They Can’t Stop Lusting After Her,” sneers Crooks and Liars.

“Teen girl kicked out of prom because dads said her dress conjured ‘impure thoughts’,” echoes The Raw Story — which, despite its motto of “independent journalism,” pretty much pasted the story together from The Gawker, Crooks and Liars and Clare’s blog post.

None of those media attempted to get the other side. And who can blame them? After all, if you can’t trust a 17-year-old with a grudge to give an objective account …

Among the few outlets that did try to reach anyone else was NBC News. They asked Callie’s friends and family, who unsurprisingly backed her up. Prom organizers didn’t return NBC’s calls — yet another lesson for sources who try to freeze out the media. Still, NBC ran with less than the whole story.

Because it’s pretty clear what’s going on here: sensationalism, feeding frenzy, the usual suspects. Men blaming a female for their own lusts. Homeschoolers trying to keep a thumb on their kids. A religious group enforcing stupid, outmoded modesty codes. It’s a juicy story. And if we don’t run it, the competition will.

CNN’s Kelly Wallace was somewhat smarter. She opened her Thursday column with a brief recap of the dustup — all from Clare’s viewpoint, of course — then offered her own mild rant:

Really? That isn’t much of a stretch from “she asked for it” when we blame victims of sexual assault for what they were wearing. Are the thoughts and actions of young men and their fathers really her responsibility?

Then Wallace allowed her readers to give their opinions and experiences in choosing prom dresses. Their remarks were more balanced than hers.

For more of that, try clicking our friend and fellow blogger Rod Dreher of The American Conservative. On Tuesday, he appeared to take Clare’s side, decrying the bullying over a dress code.

I know that people who hate homeschooling think we’re all like this. We’re not, not by a long shot. But this kind of thought and behavior does exist within religious homeschooling circles, and when we see it, we should have no hesitation to criticize it.

However, Rod also reported that Clare’s screed appeared on the blog of her sister, a self-described survivor of “fundamentalist Christian homeschooling.” And he was back the next day with “Another Side to the Story.”

That time, he linked to the blog of Callie Hobbs, who says she’s a fellow student and was at the prom. Callie’s angry, 1,296-word column says that no men said anything about Clare’s appearance, only women, and that Clare was ejected for being disrespectful. And Callie slammed as “yellow journalism” all the articles that took Clare’s word for it.

“Another Side” got 38 reader comments, which sliced ‘n’ diced the matter as finely as a Cobb salad. Some readers believed one girl or the other. Some waved it off as “she said/she said.” Some complained of a double standard, that boys aren’t thrown out of proms for dressing provocatively. And some gave Rod a well-deserved hat tip for following the issue further than most.

For myself, I liked Comment #8 by one Andrew Alladin, though not for the same reasons he gives. He criticized Rod and other conservatives who want to distance themselves from fundamentalists:

“There are tens of millions of Christians in America and somewhere one or more of them is saying, thinking, planning thinking, and doing something stupid. Go get ‘em witch hunters! Happy hunting!”

I agree with the sentiment, but I would aim it instead at media who join the pack attack on anything that might make conservative Christians look bad — even if they have to shed journalistic integrity en route.

About Jim Davis
  • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

    From Twitter:

    https://twitter.com/onesarahjones/status/467321494599892992

    Thank you for pointing out the mistake.

    We have corrected it.

    • Jim Davis

      Thanks from me, too.

    • Jane Dunn

      You’ve missed one — in the para. about NBC.

  • PalaceGuard

    ” the dress code requirement of being longer than the fingertips when her arms were by her side”. ? How’s about, “If you can’t touch your toes without the full moon rising, it’s too short.”? Sorry. This really wasn’t media-related, and I don’t know how to delete it now it’s been posted, only edit. If you want to circular file it, go for it.

  • Jane Dunn

    Kelly Wallace did in fact get a statement from the prom organizers. Perhaps her on-line column was updated after you published your critique? In any event, you need to update/correct your own story.

    More importantly, the prom organizers did not deny ANY of Clare’s story. They merely say they were sorry that some people “were dissatisfied with their experience.” So, you’ve got no one with personal knowledge contradicting any of Clare’s story except the student Callie, whose only personal knowledge was that she says she saw Clare dancing provocatively, which is, at best, a matter of opinion. Callie apparently didn’t witness any of the interactions between Clare and the women or what Clare says she saw the dad chaperones doing. So journalistically, I don’t have a problem with reporting on a story told by one party that the other party doesn’t deny. If the story is true, it’s pretty outrageous.

    And, if you read the conservative Christian media, such as Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, and World Magazine, you have to acknowledge that the idea that women must take care in their clothing choices to not incite men to impure thoughts is not uncommon at all. And you also have to acknowledge that there is a lot of pushback on that idea even within those same outlets and some of the opposition, even from within conservative Christianity, argues that what some call the purity culture contributes to what is sometime card the rape culture, or as Kelly Wallace put it, the idea that a rape victim was asking for it. So, I think Kelly Wallace got it exactly right and NBC was right to go with the story when the organizers would not respond to their inquiries.

    As to the other media, I think you need to reconsider whether their reporting was sensational or whether it was the undisputed facts of Clare’s story that are sensational in their own right.

    • Kodos

      Isn’t it true that what we have here is Clare’s opinion of what happened, Callie’s opinion of what happened, and no one else who has come forward to offer their opinions either way?

      You wrote: “So, you’ve got no one with personal knowledge contradicting
      any of Clare’s story except the student Callie, whose only personal knowledge was that she says she saw Clare dancing provocatively, which is, at best, a matter of opinion.”

      But isn’t Clare’s story ALSO a matter of opinion? Why should Clare’s opinion be taken at face value but Callie’s opinion disqualify her?

      In other words, without corroborating evidence for Clare’s version OR Callie’s version, why are you privileging Clare’s version and not Callie’s version of the events?

      The bottom line here (no pun intended) is that reporters should have found additional eyewitnesses to the situation. If they couldn’t, then in my opinion they shouldn’t have run the story. Because that would mean publishing a gossip column, not a news story.

      • Jane Dunn

        No, you’ve confused the issues.

        – “It was raining when the wreck happened” = statement of fact (whether it’s true or not is a separate issue).

        – “It was raining HARD when the wreck happened” = statement of opinion about the intensity.

        So, while Clare included some opinion (“Mrs. D was rude” and “it was all about the patriarchy”) the rest of her report made statements of fact (i.e., “my dress came below my fingertips” and “Mrs. D said to me”).

        Callie also made statements of opinion (i.e., “she was dancing provocatively” and “Clare was rude and disrespectful”) and statements of fact (i.e., “Mrs D didn’t say” and “the dad’s didn’t say”).

        Only Clare, however, had personal knowledge of the statements of fact that she made. She was there and heard and saw the facts that she reported. Statements of fact made on personal knowledge are “direct evidence.” Callie, on the other hand did not personally witness anything (except the dancing) that was said or done to Clare or that Clare did. Her statements regarding the facts were all second-hand (“hearsay”). The only other witnesses to what happened, and what was said, to Clare (the women prom officials) have not refuted what Clare said.

        That means that, regarding the statements of fact, the only direct evidence we have is from Clare’s statements of fact. It doesn’t mean that Clare was necessarily telling the truth. Rather, my point is that Clare’s testimony about the facts is, at this point, uncontradicted by any other direct evidence.

        In court we wouldn’t call it “privileging” Clare’s testimony about the facts. We would call it “admitting” that evidence. Likewise, we wouldn’t NOT “privilege” Callie’s testimony. We would NOT “admit” it because it is hearsay.

        • Kodos

          While I agree with much of what you say, it seems to me that you’re mislabeling some of Callie’s testimony as “hearsay” when it has a good chance of being direct evidence.

          Callie: “But I was there, and the dads were not talking amongst themselves about the girls dancing and they were certainly not ogling.”

          Callie: “…not one man made mention about Clare’s attire or behavior, only women in authority.”

          Callie: “Emily Collins, a lady chaperoning, states that Clare’s
          dress only met dress code when it was pulled down, but as she walked, the dress rose. Clare was seen by multiple sources (students) to be dancing provacatively and as she moved her dress rose. When she was approached and asked to pull it down by female chaperones, Clare
          responded with extreme disrespect towards the authorities, at which point she was asked to leave.”

          I think that these statements could be clarified through cross-examination to find out whether they were hearsay or direct evidence, but from the way they are written they (mostly) appear to describe things that Callie saw and heard. Of course more eyewitnesses could be brought in to corroborate or challenge those statements. However, I wouldn’t say that “Clare’s testimony about the facts is, at this point, uncontradicted by any other direct evidence.”

          But that’s how a court of law works. In journalism it’s the job of the reporter to find out these things, and with this story the reporters aren’t doing it. They’re not dissecting the facts and trying to piece together the evidence like you’re trying to do, and that’s a big problem in the way this story is being covered.

          • Jane Dunn

            No, none of those statements are ever going to be anything other than second-hand hearsay. Hearsay doesn’t become direct evidence just because someone else with personal knowledge corroborates it.

            As to your examples ##1 and 2, being “there” isn’t the same as witnessing everything that happened. Unless Callie heard every word that every man said at the dance, or saw every expression on every man’s face at every moment, she does not have personal knowledge of all of their actions and/or words. Callie can only testify that, *when* she *could* see/hear what the men were or were not saying/doing, and *when she was paying attention* to what the men were or were not saying/doing, she did not see what Clare claims happened. Anything beyond that is what she gathered from other people, which makes it hearsay.

            As to your third example, that is classic hearsay: “Emily Collins states that… ” “Clare was seen by multiple sources …” “She was asked to leave.” Cross-examining Callie isn’t going to make it any better. The only way to solve Callie’s hearsay problem is to interview the dads and the women officials. But, that would then be direct evidence and Callie’s testimony would still be inadmissible and unnecessary.

            Just because there may be other direct evidence that has *not yet* been gathered does not mean I am wrong when I said that “Clare’s testimony about the facts is, *at this point,* uncontradicted by any other direct evidence.” (Emph. added).

            Of course the reporters who didn’t try to get responses from other witnesses should have tried and many times a one-sided eye-witness claim should not be reported. It’s another thing altogether, though, for the press to go with a sensational story with only one side of it when, as here: (1) it’s not all that unbelievable (or it’s within the realm of reasonable possibility) given discussions of the modesty and purity culture in conservative Christian media outlets. It’s not like Clare is alleging something as unlikely as, for example, she walked in on all the chaperones involved in an orgy in the gym’s lockerroom; (2) the alleged conduct is pretty appalling (see Dreher’s first post); and (3) the adult participants, even when they responded, didn’t dispute Clare’s allegations. CNN and NBC contacted the other side and CNN got a response that oddly didn’t dispute any of the allegations. I think that makes the story a worthy one. As to the tabloids and the advocacy blogs, I don’t expect as much from them.

          • Kodos

            Well, I’m not going to argue with a lawyer. :-)

            But this is a journalism site and so I will say this:

            I think that if I were one of the journalists involved, I’d be careful about pulling a story from a blog entitled “Fuck the Patriarchy”. In this case I’d certainly take extra trouble to check the accuracy of the accusations the young lady is making. And what I’m seeing so far is that this is not happening.

            Having said that, it would help if the organizers of the prom would be willing to talk about what happened. Or if some of the parents would come forward with their observations. Or some of the student who were there. But maybe they’re afraid of litigation.

            At least there’s Callie, an eyewitness that has come forward. Unfortunately, her statements aren’t convincing to you, however, as you count them as “hearsay”.

            But I’d point out that Clare also lacks exhaustive knowledge of what was going on — she was likewise unable to see “ALL (my emphasis) the dads on the balcony above the dance floor, ogling (a statement of opinion) and talking amongst themselves” (about what?), so the lascivious element of this story that seems to be sending everyone to their smelling salts is — in my opinion — “hearsay” at least by the standards you’re holding for Callie’s observations.

            What are the facts that are being alleged?

            1. Clare was asked to leave by a woman (“Mrs. D”) who said that:
            a) her dress was too short
            b) the men in the room felt that her dancing was too provocative and would cause “impure thoughts”.
            2. Clare’s dress was not too short, according to the posted rules of the prom.

            It shouldn’t be hard to find out who “Mrs. D_____” was and talk to her (if she’s willing to talk). According to Clare she was one of two women who organized the prom.

            And there were at least four other people who were privy to this conversation aside from Clare. We need to find out what they saw and heard.

            Aside from this conversation, others at the prom would have seen Clare, her dress, and her dancing. We need to get information from them. (Callie doesn’t count, I guess.)

            And Clare’s parents? What do they think?

            This means that a reporter will have a lot of legwork to do on this story. If they’re not doing it, and if they’re taking only Clare’s statements as the unvarnished Truth, it’s bad journalism.

            And that’s why your last three reasons why this is good journalism aren’t convincing:

            1) This story is “not all that unbelievable”. True, because this is a common occurrence. Every year about this time we have a rash of “I was kicked out of my prom” stories. But does this make these stories newsworthy? I guess it depends upon how you define “newsworthy”. And you have to admit that the timbre of the reporting on this story is not sympathetic to the “modesty and purity culture” among Evangelicals. But it’s not the journalist’s job to be sympathetic or unsympathetic. It’s the journalist’s job to dig for the facts and report them accurately.

            2) “The alleged conduct is pretty appalling”. True, on both sides. But journalists are taking only one side of this story. That’s not what classic American journalism is about.

            3) “The adult participants, even when they responded, didn’t dispute Clare’s allegations.” Nor did they confirm her allegations. That’s an important distinction. They basically said “no comment” to the allegations. A good journalist will follow up the story to find other eyewitnesses who are willing to comment.

            Since the newspapers aren’t courts of law, it would be best for reporters to dig up plenty of facts and let the readers decide what actually happened and — in this case — whether what happened was just or not.

            I’m not seeing that happening.

          • Jane Dunn

            I agree the title of Clare’s post raises some questions, but if I had been treated as she says she was I’d likely be really ticked off too. I don’t think intensity/passion about one’s claim is necessarily a discrediting factor, especially when the conduct one is alleging is so offensive.

            It’s not that I necessarily think Callie is wrong. It’s that she doesn’t seem to have actually witnessed any of the conduct in question (except the dancing). So, her statements aren’t really worth much. Hard to believe there weren’t any cell phone videos.

            You’re right that some of Clare’s statements are beyond her personal knowledge just as Callie’s are, but on the key facts as you’ve listed them, Clare’s statements are from personal knowledge:

            – she heard Mrs. D ask her to leave;
            – she heard Mrs. D tell her her dress was too short;
            – she heard Mrs. D tell her the men had said her dress would cause impure thoughts;
            – she posted a copy of the dress code; and
            – she posted a picture of the length of her dress in relation to her fingertips.

            She also testified she saw some of the men ogling her. This is a close call between fact and opinion, but usually witnesses can testify about what “affect” another person was exhibiting. I’m willing to put that in the opinion category since my point stands without it: on the key facts you’ve laid out, Clare’s statements are based on personal knowledge and Callie’s are not. (You don’t include the dancing issue in your list.)

            I completely agree reporters should try to get the full story and that journalism is not the same as litigation. But I think too many journalists don’t understand the nature of evidence, the difference between statements of fact and statements of opinion, and personal knowledge versus second-hand reports.

            I get frustrated reading reporting that is simply he said/she said without any attempt to ascertain the strengths or weaknesses of the conflicting statements. “Balanced” doesn’t require giving equal time to a flat-earther as to a scientist, nor to someone who only has second-hand knowledge as to an actual witness.

            On your critique of my three reasons a reporter could justifiably go ahead with this story with only one side (as long as s/he tried to get the other side):

            1. I think the story IS newsworthy because of how, if true, demeaning and bullying the prom officials were. If this sort of treatment is a common occurrence, people should know about it. It’s not just a “people acting stupidly (again)” story. The potential connection between the modesty/purity culture and rape (she was asking for it) culture is an issue for serious debate and analysis. Jim Davis actually mocked Kelly Wallace’s comment on this point as being a “mild rant” (and still hasn’t updated/corrected his post to reflect that she was the only one to get a response from the organizers and tell readers who don’t wade through these comments what the organizers said and didn’t say).

            2. Clare acknowledged she and her friends flipped off the chaperones/staff as they were leaving and that that was childish. Even so, the kids reacted to being bullied like kids being bullied. They mouthed off. That’s not in the same category as adults bullying kids or teaching a purity code that blames/shames girls for the inability of boys and men to control their thoughts and that may feed into a rape culture.

            3. True, the prom officials did not confirm Clare’s story, but their response (to CNN) was more than just a no comment. They DID comment, and when they did, they referred to people who were “dissatisfied.” IMO, that’s a lot more than just “no comment.”

            Thanks for the convo. Lawyers and journalists have a lot in common and a lot to learn from each other’s profession.

  • JackholeDiary

    Well dear interestingly enough the one parent running around trying to get on any media outlet possible while the student has refused any interviews said that she was tossed due to her dress that she then goes on at length to make up out right lies about and she also states that in fact the male parents were very concerned on how to handle the dress and were talking about her and her dress soooo can’t have it both ways oh and that parent also while slandering the girl also said she could not confirm that there were not pedophiles at the dance before launching into her attack on the student’s character I would say PRIORITIES…. if ya don’t know if there were no pedophiles maybe you should spend your energy trying to FIND THAT OUT BEFORE worrying about hitting every media outlet to tell how the girl who has done NO INTERVIEWS is a fame whore looking for attention… pathetic.


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