I almost posted this picture without any words. But you know how I like to have to have an opinion on things.
This picture argues that based on her hemline alone a woman can be judged on her moral character and her sexual nature. Of course, this kind of thinking is not new. And while the idea that a rape victim is “asking for it” based on her clothing choice is considered unacceptable by many in the U.S. today, if a woman dresses provocatively and then complains about the attention she receives, most people are less than sympathetic. Because she was asking for it, right?
On the one hand, many women acknowledge that dressing provocatively will almost always result in male attention (if the men are straight). But men are going to notice a woman no matter what she wears. Whether it's an ankle or wrist underneath a burka or super cleavage, the female body draws attention. The question is, what is that quality of attention? Is it respectful and admiring of a woman's beauty? Does it change depending on how much of her body she is willing to expose? Do we make assumptions about where she loses her rights to be treated with respect based on her level of dress or undress? Because that is not right. Every woman is deserving of protection and respect for her beauty no matter how she is dressed. And men will always look.
Personally, I don't think it is problematic that men look at women. It think it is the kind of attention they give a woman and all the assumptions they carry with them about her based on her appearance, occupation, or whatever that is troubling. Women do it to women too. How many times have you been called a slut by another woman because you pole dance? Here is the thing: Overt displays of sexuality by a woman do not give you more of a right to judge, touch, shame or violate that woman’s boundaries in any way. But they also don’t mean that you have to act like they are not happening. There is a way of turning your gaze towards a sexually provocative woman that is neither demeaning nor dismissive. There is a way of appreciating a woman’s beauty that acknowledges your own feelings without disrespecting her.
There are women who dress and behave in provocative manner because they are sexually disempowered. There are women who dress conservatively because they are sexually disempowered. There are also women who dress provocatively and conservatively because they are sexually empowered and clear in their values, desires and boundaries. It would be nice if we could acknowledge and honor these choices. It would also be nice if women felt truly free to make these choices from an authentic place. I cringe at superficial displays of sexual empowerment as much as I cringe at attacks on pole dancing that make it out to be the latest development in raunch culture. But even if a woman is choosing to put it all out there because she is deeply insecure, needs attention and feels worthless isn’t carefully choosing to ignore her behavior versus shaming her for it the kind and right thing to do?
Another issue that comes into play with the male gaze is that women, because of a their fear of being threatened physically or judged or otherwise bothered, are not receptive at all to male attention and respond to it by becoming angry. At times this is justified. If someone is belittling you, of course you are going to be pissed. At the same time, I think women are so conditioned to respond negatively to any male attention that they reflexively shut a man down, even when he is simply admiring her beauty. The opposite side of that coin is that they feel they have to say yes or accept any advances because they don’t know how to set boundaries.
I used to get really angry when men would whistle at me or try to pick me up or say "Dddaaaaaammmnnn" when I walked by them. If I was wearing something revealing I would inevitably feel shame too. I was sure that I had “asked for it” and that this meant I was a very bad girl. (Turns out I am, and that’s a good thing, but that’s another blog.)
Today, I smile back at whoever is paying me the compliment (because, yes, I think it's a compliment when a man notices my beauty in a playful way) and say thank you. I have had men hang out of car windows and yell at me about my beautiful ass, I have had them wave politely from trucks, I have had them smile at me across cafes, I have had them stare unabashedly at me in bars and I have had them stop me in the streets to tell me I’m beautiful and ask me if I have boyfriend. I always respond with kindness. If they try to pick me up I politely tell them I am not available. Most men back off. Most men are grateful that I did not verbally emasculate them for paying me a compliment and taking the initiative to try and introduce themselves.
I don't find most male attention demeaning or threatening. Even more importantly, because I engage men, I know when it IS truly threatening (versus judgmental, or just playful, or a little rude) and that makes me feel safer in the world. Maybe I sound completely naïve. But let me tell you, my approach towards men today works far, far better then the shut down, fear-based responses I used to take with them.
And yet, while I think women need to be more open to positive male attention, and recognize that most men do not want to hurt them, it’s my belief that the ultimate responsibility for safety lays not in a woman and her choice in dress and behavior, but in the man who is giving the attention. The idea that it is EVER a woman's fault for any kind of boundary violation - including unwanted, unkind attention - is the same mentality that puts rape squarely on the victim's shoulders. "She was asking for it." Bullshit. As men, it is your job to learn to control your instincts, learn to respect women in all their states of dress and undress and take responsibility for your reactions to your own arousal, disgust, pleasure or whatever else comes up when you see the female form. And until that happens, not a whole lot is going to change in the world.