Pop Culture

How Britney Spears Revived Pop Culture's Obsession with the Catholic School Girl

Typing “schoolgirl” into Pornhub’s search engine currently yields more than 7,600 results. The top 200 videos have each garnered more than 1 million views, with the highest-viewed video having 21.1 million views. This is the reach of the schoolgirl sexual fantasy, which is far from limited to private moments in front of one’s computer screen. Each Halloween sees stores like Yandy, Halloween Express, and Party City monetize this sexual fixation by selling costumes that are variations on the traditional uniform—plaid skirts, knee socks, button-down shirts—albeit more revealing than what any school would likely allow students to wear.

And then there is what may be the pinnacle of the sexualized schoolgirl in pop culture: Britney Spears in the “Baby, One More Time” music video, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this week to much fanfare. In a midriff-flaunting button-down top, blonde pigtails and knee-highs, she sashayed into our culture’s sexual imagination, reviving the coquettish image of Catholic school uniforms.

The idea that the schoolgirl uniform is innately sexy is pervasive. It’s odd, then, that the Catholic Church—a religion that promotes abstinence and celibacy, puts profound value on one’s virginity and purity of mind, and has been dealing with the exposure of sexual abuse scandals spanning decades—mandates that girls attending their schools wear something not unlike what the women in those 7,600 video results on Pornhub wore.

The Catholic Church isn’t personally responsible for the widespread schoolgirl fantasy. Pinpointing this common fetish to a singular organization, religion, or person is difficult, as it’s more likely the convergence of several factors. Take, for example, an AskReddit thread proposing the question, “Why do guys like school girl uniforms so much?” The answers varied from superficial details, like a fondness for plaid skirts and knee socks, to deeper meditations on the youthful innocence the uniforms represent. One comment suggested this fetish may be a form of “sexual imprinting,” in which the memory of the first time one was sexually aroused is so powerful that any reminder of that arousal may trigger them sexually. Thus, schoolgirl uniforms may turn on a boy whose first crush wore a school uniform—a “nostalgia boner,” as one commenter put it.

Dr. Stephen Snyder, a New York City sex therapist and author of the new book Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship, explained that sexual imprinting is a phenomenon, but it’s typically provoked by traumatic experiences. “I wouldn't think simple horniness as a young adolescent would suffice to prompt a fetish like this,” Dr. Snyder continues. “But for some boys, real or fantasized rejection by schoolgirl peers might be a sufficient trauma.”

The allure of Spears’ original brand and the allure of the schoolgirl are one in the same in that they’re a marriage of opposites: naughty and wholesome, young and old enough, submissive and excited, and perhaps most of all: intentional and accidental.

Dr. David J. Ley, author of Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man's Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure, agreed that sexual imprinting is a possible explanation as to why some people are turned on by the schoolgirl imagery, but he added, “I guarantee you there are people fantasizing about Catholic school costumes who never had those childhood experiences.” Meaning the experience of sexual imprinting may account for some people’s attraction to a woman in a schoolgirl uniform, but not all.

Determining the exact motivation behind popular sexual fetishes tends to be complicated due to the variety of people who have these sexual fixations. Dr. Ley explains, “No one really knows why and how people end up with specific fetishes, sexual fantasies, or interests. People make up narratives to explain them, like ‘I got aroused as a kid when I got spanked, and now I’m into spanking because of that.’ But maybe they got aroused in that early experience because they were already disposed to, by biology and such. And what about all the people who didn’t get aroused in that same situation, why didn’t they develop a fetish?”

In terms of violence and sexuality, a frequent argument is that media influences behavior, but this argument feels especially empty in examining the schoolgirl fetish. When depicted in films like The Hate U Give, Lady Bird, The Princess Diaries, and An Education, the uniforms worn by schoolgirls are, simply put, harmless. So, too, are the depictions of schoolgirls on television shows like Gilmore Girls and The Facts of Life. However, even these wholesome depictions of schoolgirl uniforms often yield sexualized replications. Harry Potter’s Hermione was revamped into Yandy’s Spellbinding School Girl costume, featuring a midriff-baring top and a skirt shorter than anything Emma Watson had worn in the films.

Spears’ appearance in “Baby, One More Time” stands as one of the outliers in terms of how schoolgirls are normally depicted, yet it has also become the premier icon of schoolgirl sexuality. The schoolgirl outfit itself is so infamous that it’s on display at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. The music video was #1 on Total Request Live’s final countdown of its most beloved videos. Its greatest legacy is that it launched Spears’ brand—a mix of Southern charm, vivacious energy, and sheer, undeniable sensuality. The allure of Spears’ original brand and the allure of the schoolgirl are one in the same in that they’re a marriage of opposites: naughty and wholesome, young and old enough, submissive and excited, and perhaps most of all: intentional and accidental. The utter embodiment of the schoolgirl fantasy is the story of Spears seeing the wardrobe for the music video and, as Spears recalled, “The outfits looked kind of dorky, so I was like, 'Let's tie up our shirts and be cute.’" That’s the schoolgirl fantasy: the object of sexual desire knowing exactly what she’s doing, but also not knowing.

Schoolgirl uniforms may turn on a boy whose first crush wore a school uniform—a “nostalgia boner.”

Of course, 16-year-old Spears wasn’t the singular person who sparked the sexual obsession with schoolgirls. Rather, Spears exploited this underlying impulse—hitting the nail on the head of a common carnal desire, making it more mainstream, and propelling herself into stardom in the process. Similarly, neither the porn nor the costume industries are responsible for creating this fetish, though they have both monetized it. Brad Butler, COO of Halloween Express, explains that, as a retailer, the store’s sole objective is to supply what the public demands. “We don’t see it as our job to make judgments on the products we sell to consumers,” Butler says, “but rather make a determination as to whether or not consumers want those products.”

In the same vein, Dr. Ley explains the link between pornography and the schoolgirl fantasy: “I believe and argue that porn reflects society and existing sexuality, and does not create or instigate anything. Porn, like any media, is best understood as an expression of people’s needs and interests.”

Determining why schoolgirl uniforms are such a turn-on becomes a rabbit hole offering up many plausible explanations with no certain answers. However, what remains is that it is a common sexual fantasy that the anti-sex Catholic Church is irrevocably connected to.

For 12 years, I attended Catholic elementary and high schools, during which time I wore a school uniform. It was fairly traditionally—skirt, knee socks, button-down, plaid. At one point, my uniform even included a cute, little neck tie. I was very aware of the allure of my uniform, as were the girls who rolled their skits, unbuttoned too many buttons, and used safety pins to tighten their skirts. Imagine the deep confusion of wearing something you know is commonly fetishized and attempting to embrace your budding teenage sexuality—all while attending seminars emphasizing the importance of chastity and virginity and purity that almost always end with “I’m Worth Waiting For” stickers being handed to you.

I had, incorrectly, thought that girls at my high school were given the option between skirts or pants, with most girls simply opting for skirts. Joseph McFadden, the principal at my alma mater Archbishop Ryan High School, corrected me: “In the Archdiocese [of Philadelphia], female students are not allowed to wear pants as part of the uniform.” McFadden then noted that the gendered uniforms are more based on tradition than any apparent benefit.

Spears wasn’t the singular person who sparked the sexual obsession with schoolgirls. Rather, Spears exploited this underlying impulse—making it more mainstream and propelling herself into stardom in the process.

Though it may read this way, this is not a manifesto against school uniforms. I can detail the benefits of uniforms, but the issue with uniforms mandated by Catholic schools is how gendered they are, as that’s what attracts sexual fixation. Because when clothing is gendered, it is more likely to be seen in a sexual light. Butler had noted sexualized nurse costumes were among the most popular during Halloween, and even received an uptick of sales during Valentine’s Day. The suggestive imagery of this nurse uniform doesn’t resemble that of a professional nurse in 2018, as scrubs with no gendered variation are worn. Instead, nurse costumes more resemble nurse uniforms of the ‘40s, when nurses still adhered to gendered uniforms—women wearing dresses and men pants.

It’s not only Catholic schools that require students to wear gendered uniforms. Flynn O’Hara is a uniform supplier that services more than 1,500 clients, 70 percent of which are Catholic elementary and high schools. Sean Flynn, the family company’s CEO, says that about 80 percent of the school uniforms provided to girls are skirts and jumpers. Flynn noted that this breakdown—80 percent skirts or jumpers, 20 percent pants—is similar across all the schools they service, be it Catholic, private, or charter. While there may be no real difference in the uniform patterns of nonsectarian or non-denominational schools verses Catholic schools, it is Catholic schools that promote stanch views on sexuality, thus making their affiliation with fetishized clothing weirder than, say, a charter school’s.

What may propel schoolgirl sexual fantasy to such widespread indulgence is that it’s a unique marriage of two inciting fetishes: uniforms and religion. When asked about school uniforms, Dr. Snyder notes, “Uniforms of any kind tend to be sexy. I don't know why.” Uniforms generally represent the absence of individuality and the conception of work. So, it is strange that society deems uniforms sexy—be it fireman, maid, police officer—because what is attractive about being a cog in the machine? Meanwhile, religions have a history of being sexually repressive, yet religious imagery has long been sexualized. Many of Madonna’s music videos are examples, as are the sexy nun costumes worn on Halloween. Mia Khalifa infamously became the top performer on Pornhub after wearing a hijab in a video.

Because of so many factors, the schoolgirl sexual fantasy will likely always be a prominent fetish. The Catholic Church isn’t responsible for that, but there’s no way the Church isn’t aware of the sexual connotation attached to these uniforms. And yet, Catholic schools continue to instruct girls to wear uniforms that, with the hike of a skirt, tie of a shirt, and unbuttoning here and there, resemble eroticized clothing. But then this, too, is deeply rooted in the schoolgirl appeal: it’s intentional and accidental.