A few nights ago, I went with a friend to a club in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. I tend to look at clothing as costume – what role am I playing today? – so I’d deliberately chosen an outfit to suit the evening. Short skirt, knee-high boots, leather jacket, acres of cleavage – basically light-years and numerous personae away from my default soccer/basketball mom uniform of jeans and scoop-neck T-shirt.
I suppose it wouldn’t be shocking for me to say, “The outfit made me nervous.” After all, I’m a suburban mom cruising rapidly toward 45. Many of my peers would consider that particular costume ‘daring’ and have an outbreak of nervous giggles.
And maybe that’s part of the problem…
As we got ready to leave, I did have a flash of concern, hearing the sum of decades of internalized voices – books, friends, movies, mother, grandmothers, magazines, news articles…
“It isn’t safe to go out like that.” “You’re asking to get raped.” “You aren’t THAT kind of girl.” “Cellulite.” “Sagging boobs.” “Cheap.” “Classless.” “Slutty.” “It isn’t safe.” “You’re asking to get raped.”
The astute reader will notice the repeat of two phrases.
That split second showed how deeply the message that women’s sexuality causes rape runs.
There isn’t much I can say about the dangers of victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and rape culture that hasn’t already been said more eloquently and with better references by others. But I think it’s worthwhile to point out the small moments in which this form of misogyny infiltrates our everyday lives.
When a woman has to worry about whether her outfit puts her in danger, something is wrong. Men – actually, I should say white hetero-cis-men – aren’t put at risk by clothes unless Medea has been involved in the tailoring (Greek myth; look it up, folks.)
When a girl is sent to the office for wearing a top that shows her shoulders but her male classmates are not, something is wrong.
When a woman’s competence in the workplace is measured by the length of her skirt, something is wrong.
Think about it – how often have you said (or heard and nodded) any of the following:
“I can’t believe her mother let her out of the house like that.”
“That top is too distracting for the classroom/workplace.”
“If she didn’t want the attention, maybe she shouldn’t have worn that skirt.”
Every time we judge a woman’s worth, virtue, competence, or right to basic safety by her clothing, we contribute to a tacit okay to assault and discrimination.
For the record, I wore the outfit, went out, and had a great evening. And I was exactly the same person, with the same rights to safety and respect, as I was the next day in my jeans and T-shirt.
In the original version of this post, I left off a critical classifier for male safety -- white. Men of color are not given the same privilege of safety and impunity with regard to clothing as their white cohort. Privilege and associated problems will be another post entirely, but I thought it was important to recognize that men of color are also judged and put at risk by societal attitudes toward attire.
It's also worth noting for this article that when I use the term "women" I refer to cis and trans women inclusively since we are all judged and targeted. Masculine privilege is a more complex thing, hence the use of specific identifiers to denote the group given sartorial immunity.