Posted on 04 August 2011.
Read part 2 of “Sluttier than Thou”
“Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
— Constable Michael Sanguinetti (Toronto Police Officer), 24 January 2011
I don’t count myself a feminist, but I felt a strange flurry of indignation, bewilderment, and despair some might accord to a feminist sensibility as I processed my response to certain reasons and logic used to justify (1) the “practicality” of the above quotation as if it does not imply the prevalence of a problematic patriarchal vocabulary and (2) condemnations of the slut walks as if their participants use the term “slut” merely for shock value.
To some, that makes me a silly feminist. To me, that simply makes me someone who’s fighting for a free world where sluts, prudes, and everyone in between and beyond, can live in harmony.
I have never been sexually assaulted, although I’ve loved, known, and met women who have survived such incidents. I am writing this because I wish people would handle this topic not only with critical reflection but with educated compassion.
Along came a
slut scantily clad woman.
Language matters. Culture matters.
There is a problem with the fact that the Canadian police officer used the term “slut” to describe revealing clothing instead of calling a spade a spade. You’re probably thinking that’s nitpicking compared to the larger issue of “he shouldn’t be blaming the victim in the first place.” I agree.
But the fact that he used a derogatory identifier and equated it with a fashion sense that was never even universally associated with promiscuous women implies that those who do not cover themselves enough are typically or should be judged negatively.
I’m not denying that “sluts” have dressed to provoke sexualization. Those assuming that defenders of slut walks are unaware of this end up emphasising a point that no one even contests. And in pressing that point, the ethical and political implications of language fly over their heads.
Did you know majority of expatriate Filipinos – to be accurate, undocumented female migrants – are unskilled laborers? They typically end up as domestic workers, too.
The banality of that link led Greek linguists to define Filipina as “domestic worker” in a dictionary. (Note: It was not the Oxford Dictionary.)
Not only Filipinos, but anyone with half a brain, thought that was sloppy, appalling research for an educational tool and non-fiction reference. It’s not true that all Filipinas are domestic workers and all domestic workers are Filipinas. If you dig deeper, you can’t help but think that it ends up implying that all Filipinas are unskilled laborers — unskilled. While there is dignity to hard, manual labor, the association can become offensive because it makes invisible the chance that there might be skilled, professional migrant Filipinas.
Ethically, there is a problem when you use inaccurate language, which is the problem of “dress like sluts” and “Filipineza. Noun. […] 2. A domestic worker.”
Politically, there is an issue of power, because you have to ask, “Who defines Filipina?” and “Who passes judgment on scantily clad women as the promiscuous type who looks like she will enjoy, not scorn, sexual advances that are not explicity solicited?”
On another note, disregarding the culture (read: context) in which the statement was made leads one to create double standards.
Suddenly, it’s practical to believe that women who pair tight semi-sheer tank tops that follow even the shape of their nipples with pekpek shorts are inviting to be sexually victimized. But that’s because it happened in Canada.
Transplant that statement, “[W]omen should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized,” to Taliban Afghanistan circa 1990s. A police officer would probably be referring to a girl whose burqa is one inch too short to cover her ankles. In relatively more moderate Muslim cultures, a police officer would probably be referring to a girl dawning the glory of her sensuously wavy locks instead of wrapping it in a scarf.
Then, play a little with the statement to produce, “Women should avoid looking like sluts in order not to be victimized,” and transplant that to Cameroon.
Cameroon is where mothers, grandmothers, or older sisters subject their pubescent (grand)daughters or younger sisters to breast ironing to stunt the growth of their breasts because of this prevailing belief that buxom women invite rape.
How slutty is slutty?
I invite people from all walks of life to answer that question.
Personally, I notice that plunging necklines don’t look “slutty” on me because I’m flat chested. (And I wonder if anyone from the Freethinkers think Tin dresses like a slut.)
I also wonder whether Muslim women who get raped for not wearing the veil as prescribed by their communities made the men in their neighborhoods uncontrollably horny or whether they raped them to prove the point that “‘sluts’ invite rape” – in other words, to regulate and enforce cultural norms on gendered prudence through sexual violence (i.e., “to put ‘sluts’ in their place”).
“Dress like a slut” assumes that always and in all cases, the purpose of dressing in such a way that many people in your culture might perceive as incomplete is to effect sexual desire, or, worse, to communicate sexual availability – like a bulging red baboon butt.
I wear sleeveless and shorts when it’s 30 degrees outside so men can ogle me? I’d like to trim my burqa not because I want to avoid tripping over it but because I want to distract men with my pasty ankles?
If I dress like this…
…it’s only possible that I’m dressing for myself.
But if I dress like this…
…I must be dressing up for men (and men alone).
That infintely insults me.
Women, when they dress up fabulously or to feel good about themselves, regardless of the level of “sluttiness” that ensemble entails, cannot possibly conceive of doing it for themselves. Again, this is where people miss the point by pressing the fact that “[there are] women [who] sometimes do it to get noticed or to be desired.” Nobody contests that.
To harp on that possibility to the exclusion of a woman’s autonomy is classic patriarchal logic. Worst of all, to harp on that possibility to the exclusion of non-sexual or gender-unrelated desires to bare flesh screams “maniac” and “perv.”
Why can’t skin and curves be sensual instead of sexual? Why can’t skin and curves be seen through non-sexual and non-gendered lenses? I would like to think that we are more than just our sexual and gender identities.
The Myth of the Rapist-magnet
The most horrific reasoning, by far, is how victimized women in skimpy outfits share the blame with their sexual predators for the sexual assault. I thought that reasoning died ages ago considering “we’re in a post-feminist era.” (read: sarcasm)
Research has shown that more reliable predictors of sexual harassment and rape victimization are the following: FIRST, indicators of vulnerability such as age (i.e., children and the elderly), a timid disposition, and a timid appearance (e.g., hair length) and SECOND, position of authority (e.g., subordination).
Interestingly, “slut dressing” might be an indicator of being in control and of dominance. I’m inclined to believe that because it takes guts and, perhaps, a sense of individuality to defy social norms, even those that govern something as seemingly inconsequential as clothing.
But since we’ve agreed that it’s possible (though not always the case) for a woman to be sexually assaulted because of appearance (not necessarily as an enactment of sexual desire), do we jump the gun by prescribing to women to dress “prudently” – whatever that means – to control the “risk” of attracting sexual predators?
Sexual Risk-Aversion Clothing
“Dress up if you know what’s good for you.” It’s a practical solution, perhaps, but it flies in the face of research. This is not fair. You can prescribe to a woman what to wear and claim it has neither deliberate nor inadvertent patriarchal pretensions despite it being a poor predictor of rape and sexual harassment?
By that logic, a rational person should consistently tell a woman to do the following to avoid sexual victimization altogether: “Cut you hair.” “Don’t act timid.” “Don’t be a secretary.” “Don’t be a student.” “Don’t be young.” “Don’t grow too old. Once you reach 50, it’s best that you die.” These pieces of advice respond better to reliable predictors of rape.
In a twisted sense of analogy, dressing up prudently is compared to the following scenarios: (1) Being robbed after you “leave your front door unlocked.” “You turned yourself into an easier target because of your actions – and you have to take the rap for that.” (2) Shutting up and not exercising your freedom of speech for fear of libel or, if you will be offending people who might physically injure you, for fear of death.
I hope we all agree in principle that be it rape, theft, or death, nobody deserves these things on the mere basis of –insert rape predictor of choice–, leaving the front door unlocked, and speaking out.
But being compelled (by someone or by circumstance) to bolt the front door is ethically unproblematic because the advice does not trample on a fundamental human right and the advice does not discriminate selectively on the rights of homeowners regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, or income bracket. Old or young; LGBT, QIA, hetero-male or hetero-female; rich or poor, you all have to lock your front doors.
On the other hand, advising someone to dress up prudently, not promiscuously, to avoid sexual assault only makes sense to women? If a man dressed up “promiscuously” would he court sexual assault? It’s a questionable double standard because it implies that circumstances are created in such a way that men are allowed more flexibility in expressing themselves compared to women. This human condition should compel people to be calling for equality in expressive flexibilities and access to a safe environment instead.
Withholding the freedom of speech, however, is a trickier situation. I would encourage people to speak out in spite of the risks if they lived in a totalitarian regime, since a sovereign ruler is only as strong as its constituents. A ruler without constituents is not a ruler, and that is the fundamental idea of resistance: to imply that nobody wants to be subject of this despot’s exercise of power.
In some cases, perhaps, it might be better to shut up than die, although I would rather people constantly reevaluate the weight of their criticisms, convictions, intellect, and hope against the weight of bare biological life. Is it better to die on your feet than to live on your knees?
But if you really want sensible advice on how not to be physically compromised or violated, here are my pieces of advice for you: (1) Don’t accept drinks from strangers. (2) If you plan to get drunk or stoned, make sure you have a responsible and trustworthy friend who is willing to stay sober and take care of you until you get home and get tucked under your bed. (3) Learn self-defense.
Old or young; LGBT, QIA, hetero-male or hetero-female; rich or poor – anyone would do well to avoid accepting drinks from strangers, have a responsible, trustworthy, and sober friend, and learn self-defense.
But in an effort to save that argument for “dressing prudently” I hear this:
“It’s just clothing. It’s just costume. Identities can be changed. It’s superficial.”
Honestly, fashion is a tricky subject, because it brings along with it issues of consumerism and capitalism. Controlling for those issues, however, reveals how shortsighted the quoted rebuttal is.
I will admit that outward physical appearances invite discrimination.
Being black. Being Asian. Being Middle Eastern. Being Latino.
Those things, you cannot change. These are not costumes, but these are identities.
Being transgendered. Being butch.
Costume, you can change. But these are identities.
Walk, walk, fashion baby, work it, move that bitch crazy.
A “biologically destined male” dressing up as female invites a full menu of physical assault and psychological bullying. And this has been the reasoning of companies when they refuse to hire or promote anyone LGBT. The management puts up a pretense of concern, which, to them, legitimizes restricting the employment opportunities of gender nonconformists.
Miss Sass Rogando Sasot had a scathing rebuttal for this human resource practice. Limiting the opportunities of LGBT effectively holds them responsible for the discrimination they are facing. But the problem is discrimination, not their identities. You should be fixing the problem, not their identities, because there is nothing wrong with who they are.
MAYBE… it’s equally practical to advise trannies to dress like men from nine to five, Monday to Friday whenever they go to the office.
Frank also had a brilliant rebuttal to this: The HR department is already doing to the individual the act (discrimination) that they’ve been warning her/him about.
Yes, I’m also a silly LGBT ally.
You know what’s silly? Not feminism. It’s silly to think that there is even truth to “you won’t get raped in some places… if you do or don’t dress like a ‘slut.’”
Date rape. A girl likes a guy, but she’s not ready to put out yet. Nevertheless, she’s interested in him and she’d like him to think that she’s beautiful and attractive on top of interesting and smart. Wearing a little black dress with stiletto heels does not mean she is ready to be taken home.
I’ve even heard of this classist claim that you wouldn’t get sexually assaulted if you’re skimpily dressed in a high-end bar, but you would get sexually assaulted in a ghetto.
But the truth is, you can be sexually assaulted anywhere no matter what you’re wearing, regardless of whom you’re with. (Hell, even your husband can rape you.) It’s not your fault you ended up in the same place as that asshole. It’s not your fault that asshole touched you even if you told him to stop. It’s not your fault you attracted that asshole because you’re beautiful and sexy and that you enjoy being beautiful and sexy so that makes you even sexier.
No. It’s not your fault he’s an asshole.
It’s his fault he’s an asshole.
Stay tuned for “Sluttier than Thou” (part 2) where I begin to address the politics of language and protest movements on the issue of slut walks. Coming on Friday.