Friday, 3 June 2011

What to Wear? What to Wear?

***Warning: This post may upset survivors of sexual assault. First it mentions rape and myths about rape, but then it talks about issues around women's clothing and how people judge us on our clothing. These are two separate issues, but you might find the juxtaposition unsettling.***

You will no doubt be unsurprised to hear that I will not be marching in Edinburgh's SlutWalk on June 18th. This is not because I am okay with rape--I hate rape.

I hate rape. I loathe rape. All civilized people loathe rape. Civilization has always loathed rape, which is why there have always been laws against it. These laws have needed to be expanded and nuanced, and they have been.

There are a number of myths about rape. One is that a woman is most likely to be raped by a stranger. She is not. She is much more likely to be raped by someone she knows. In fact, she is most likely to be raped as a minor by someone in her own family circle, e.g. Mom's boyfriend. That's horrible news, but that is the truth. And the next most likely scenario is that a woman is raped by her own boyfriend or husband. That's what the statistics say. Then there's acquaintance rape.

Therefore, the most important way in which a woman can protect herself from way is to stay away from really lousy guys. She doesn't date them. She doesn't marry them. She doesn't let them in the house or her apartment. She doesn't find herself alone with them. She doesn't drink with them. She doesn't assume that because a guy is her age, a young guy, that he is a safe guy to be around.

What women wear is really kind of beside the point, when it comes to rape. Wearing fishnet stockings and a tiny skirt is probably NOT going to attract a rapist, most of the time. Women singled out for rape might be wearing something modest. I know of a young woman who was kidnapped wearing her Catholic high school uniform. She was raped and murdered.

[Now I'm going to talk about clothes. If you are uncomfortable reading about "responsible dress" for women, you don't have to read on. It's okay to feel that way. Go read something fun. Father Z, for example!]

Sexy outfits will get you attention, however, and it may not be of a positive kind. You may find yourself having to talk to the kind of guy you would rather not talk to and having to turn down the kind of invitation you'd rather not get and hearing yourself called names you'd rather not be called. The problem with dressing provocatively, IMHO, is that it provokes. That's why it's called dressing provocatively.

Now this will boggle your minds but since the beginning of recorded history men have been on the lookout for women who will have sex with them without too much fuss. And for six thousand years they have been trying to figure out which women amongst all the other women those were. And, conveniently enough, the intentionally not-fussy women of every era figured a way to signal their lack of fussiness although until recently they normally wanted to be paid for it.

Clothes are not just protective shelter from the elements. Clothes are code--they're almost as readable as a tattoo. And if you get "I'm a moron" tattooed on yourself in the belief the Chinese characters really say "Jade Princess", don't be surprised if Chinese people giggle when they see you. If you dress like a hooker or a groupie, don't be surprised if some guy tries to find out if you act like one, too. Tell him to scram, sure, and scream your lungs out if he doesn't get the message, but don't be surprised if some two-bit lothario tries his luck.

In all the screaming and yelling about a Toronto cop who advised women to avoid dressing like "sluts", what strikes me most is that women were seriously upset that he used that word. And, hey, it's not a nice word. Twenty years ago girls in my high school didn't use that word. It was considered too bad a word to use. The closest I remember anyone getting was "putana." Yep. Such-and-such was so shocked when she saw So-and-so making out with This-or-that outside St. Something's Choir School, she declared that only a putana would do that.

So although we didn't use that word, we sure knew the concept, and we believed the concept. In short, we thought being a slut (or a putana) was a bad thing to be. And we didn't think it was just a lady who enjoyed sex, because we assumed married ladies--so free from worry about being called names or thrown out like used tissue--enjoyed sex. No. We definitely thought it was a woman who used her sexuality in a harmful way that hurt herself and society in the long run.

As we were not women who used our sexuality in harmful ways that hurt ourselves and society in the long run, we were not much interested in looking like them either. And, back in 1986, what we thought they looked like was Madonna the Rock Star. Not all rock stars looked like Madonna, and if you look at other stars back then, you will see them in big oversized shirts and men's fedoras. Our style icon was Molly Ringwald.

I feel about a million years old admitting that.

Anyway, suffice it to say that standards have changed, and although women are not walking around Ontario with their entire chests exposed, a right for which a lady named Gwen Jacobs marched topless (as captured by dozens of men with video cameras), women today seem to think it okay to dress in blatantly sexually provocative costumes. And there are American girls who have found it necessary to begin campaigns demanding fashionable clothing that is modest.

I am against rape, and I am also against women and men using their sexuality in harmful ways that hurt themselves and society. Promiscuity is a serious problem, leading to widespread disease, rampant abortion, a devaluation of marriage, a devaluation of human life, a devaluation of romantic love, a devaluation of any kind of love, and heaven knows what else. And the current definition of slut is "a promiscuous woman", except among gay men who use it to insult each other, as I heard one day in a Toronto church. (Long story.) So I am not taking part in anything called a SlutWalk.

I wrote up my thoughts on SlutWalk for my paper, the Catholic Register, and unsurprisingly it was critiqued. Suggest women ought to take some responsibility for what we wear, and people will have kittens. It is very hard to get across the point that rape is besides the point: women simply should not dress in clothes that send out the "I'm easy" code if they want to avoid negative ATTENTION. Not rape. ATTENTION. And not just attention. JUDGEMENT. How do you explain that to a 'Womyn's Studies' student?

If some women are furious that there are people in the world who think badly of promiscuity and think a slut is a bad thing to be, that that's just too bad. Promiscuity is bad. A slut--a promiscuous woman--is a bad thing to be. It's an insane thing to be, given the prevalence of sexual diseases and the severe emotional damage promiscuity can do to you. It's a selfish thing to be, given the damage promiscuity does to society.

Meanwhile, in response to the "football shirt/private property" argument, I wouldn't wear my Hibernians shirt anywhere in the entire city of Glasgow, just to be safe. It wouldn't be my fault if some idiot hit me in a pub, and it wouldn't be my fault if some idiot hit me in the street. But either way it would be careless of me to simply ignore the realities of living in a country where clothes+football+sectarianism can equal a split lip.

Update: You know, the whole premise of Snog, Marry and Avoid is that people judge you by your appearance.

Update 2: This is a topic that is really hard to get right. There are two issues going on. The first is rape and how it can be prevented. The second is "What does it mean to be a responsible, flourishing woman helping society to flourish?"

Rape is so horrible that it makes survivors extremely upset if they feel that they are being blamed in any way for their attack. I would never, ever blame a rape survivor. I have worked with rape survivors. Rape survivors--and women assaulted by priests--have told me their stories, and I honour their feelings and feel honoured that they shared them with me. Nobody is to blame for being raped or sexually assaulted.

It has been suggested that I write about the first topic, and I think I will after I consult with a professional in the field of rape prevention.

The second topic is the one that I am really writing about: how does a woman responsibly present herself in public? Can we even talk about it? Men don't wear codpieces any more; why do women wear push-up bras and tiny shirts?

And the problem with this post is the same problem with SlutWalk--how it brings the two topics too closely together. Do 'sluts' deserve to be raped? Absolutely not. Does a T-shirt reading FCUK or what some people call "F*** me shoes" (stilettos) or a necklace reading "Yes I Do" really invite a man violently assault a woman? No!

But, at the same time--or not at the same time, for to mention them at the same time frightens and upsets many people--we have a duty to determine if what we--men and women--wear helps society flourish or is part of that society's decline. And this is not just sexy clothes, I'm talking about. It's sloppy clothes to church, it's burkhas in Hyde Park, it's men wearing baseball caps indoors, it's men dressed in orange sashes marching through Catholic neighbourhoods, it's a man wearing a Celtics shirt to attract the attention of a man in a Rangers shirt. Quite apart and separate from the horror of rape--which rarely has anything to do with clothes--what we wear matters.

Update 3: Thanks to the reader who suggested ways I could improve this post.


Elisabeth said...

Go Auntie Seraphic, go! As for your super-smart leading American University Womyn's Studies student commenter, sometimes unintentional satire is the very best kind.

Seraphic Spouse said...

Having gone to grad school in the States, I was amused at how often people referred to the college in general as "A Top 15 School." Like, oooo, never mind the egalitarian underpinnings of the American Revolution, we go to a 'Top 15 School'! Taking that theory to its logical conclusions, we should all have lain down in front of Harvard students to be walked on.

Christine Falk Dalessio said...

Well said... And i would add that men also need to not act to draw attention...though a man in fishnets wont evoke the same response, modesty for both sexes is about acting and dressing in a way that does not provoke others to react, sinfully especially. Thanks for your thoughts!

Seraphic said...

Yes, I agree with that. I think men should be careful not to inflame local feelings by wearing inappropriate clothing. Many men in Scotland wouldn't be caught dead wearing a football shirt, for fear of being caught up in football violence, particularly sectarian football violence. And in Italy and Spain men can't go into churches in a short-sleeved or no-sleeved shirt.

Anonymous said...

I think the what to wear/not to wear issue is a reflection of the greater problem of autonomy. The postmodern myth our world promotes now is that your 'right' to do/say/wear whatever you please is more important than any other real or imagined right.
And the lie has been bought that if there are consequences as a result of using that right, it is the fault of the other and not yours. Also, that even if there are bad consequences, at least your freedom to exercise that right has been upheld. Because it is autonomy that is the greatest good of all these days.
Only the law really upholds any restraint on autonomy because if it didn't, chaos would ensue.

Adam's rib

Elizabeth@IfSheCryOut said...

There is an unwritten issue here, and I think you touch on it in this sentence, "The problem with dressing provocatively, IMHO, is that it provokes."

The unspoken issue is: what does it provoke and how do we respond?

Those who would blame the victim at least partially, presume that it provokes not only an inquiry about availability, but action without inquiry. There can be NO moral justification for the claim that clothing provokes rape because rape isn't just an inquiry into availability, but also a taking without permission, choice, or mutual discussion and reaffirmation. Real sex has nothing to do with "taking" and everything to do with "giving".

I quite agree that no rapist does it for the clothes. On the other hand, I don't think we can dismiss the clothing issue. There are smart rapists out there and they do take into account which potential target will be most likely to press charges and be accepted by a jury. Those rapists take advantage of our victim blaming behavior to lessen the probability that they will be caught. We as a society can do a lot to reduce the pool of "attractive" targets by removing clothes as an excuse in the minds of police, prosecutors, and juries.

Third, for those who place a religious value on modesty, I think we'd be much better off presenting those values as a positive affirmation of sanctity and respect rather that trying to make arguments about vulnerability. As you aptly point out women in modest clothes get raped. I was one.

Many religious traditions mark what is most beautiful and sacred by setting it apart. Clothes are a way to do that with the sacredness of the body. However, I do think we need to be honest and say that we are positively expressing a religious value rather than relying on fear (you might be propositioned or raped). By pointing to fear we undercut the very argument at the heart of religiously based modesty - the sacredness of the body, self, and sex as our connection with the life giving power of God.

Finally, I do think there is a vulnerability issue connected with slutty clothes. However, I'm not sure the burden of this lies on the women who dress slutty.

The ones who dress slutty out of a joyful sense of their own sexually and personal empowerment are perfectly capable of telling an inquirer "No thank-you", even if that inquirer is very persistent. If they are raped, it is because their "no" wasn't heard, not because their clothes provoked inquiry. As stated at the beginnning, inquiry is not rape. Refusing to hear "no" in response to an inquiry is rape and has nothing to with inquiry. Genuine inquiries respect no for an answer.

On the other hand, there is a certain kind of woman who dresses slutty not out joy but out of insecurity.

We have a society that is sending very, very strong signals that to be loved, popular, accepted, you must be as sexy as you dare. The most insecure are those most likely to absorb this message and also the ones least likely to believe they have a right to say no to an inquiry.

Second, another reason for dressing slutty is "sexual grieving". Survivors of childhood and teen rape are sometimes prone to "sexual grieving", essentially the attempt to work out what went wrong by trying to do it over. (a very good discussion can be found in Resurrection After Rape - see website for pdf.)

A caring and productive response to both insecurity and sexual grieving requires one to address the real source of pain: the insecurity or the difficulty of making sense of a violation as profound as rape. Lectures on "provoking" only complicate matters because one is pitting a psychological need (security, making sense of) against fear.